I’m about to embark on a trip of a lifetime. I’m heading to Cuba baby! Woohoo! It’s opportune, as without realising it, we’re hitting Cuba when it seems to be flavour of the month. With Obama recently visiting and The Rolling Stones presenting their free concert, “everyone” is aware of Cuba as a destination. It’s been quite handy timing, as the Cuba following grows, information flows. Even fashion magazines have offered up stories of places to go and things to see to add to our list.
If you’re also wanting to check out Cuba, before major change happens, as rapid change is likely with the softening of the US and Cuban relationship, then here’s a few tips we picked up organising our trip.
We’re not the extreme intrepid traveler types but we are into getting an authentic experience so we have booked rooms in Casa Particulars in Havana and Trinidad. Casa’s are basically home stays in private residences and vary in what is offered. Some you can buy a breakfast each day, others turn into restaurants by night and some advise they don’t offer meals. So it pays to do your online research and talk to people who’ve recently been. But I have to say, when we’ve done this everyone has a different take and feedback varies quite dramatically. So we’ve decided to wing it and discover it all in our own way, watching the locals and going with the flow.
We booked our home stays via casaparticular.com This website covers pretty much all of Cuba’s main centres and you’ll find decent descriptions of the places, including good location maps. I did an extra google search on the Casa I booked and found great feedback. Casa’s seem great value with rooms costing not more than Euro $25 – $35 on average per night and you’ll be staying and living as a local. There are government run hotels, but that’s not quite the experience we’re after in the main however we will be trying one hotel in Cienfuegos but I’ll tell you about that after the experience.
We’ve decided to load our suit cases with practical gifts for the locals as Cuba is still heavily embargoed and some items are really hard to get. It’s a reminder that this is a poor country still under communist rule and the locals are used to making do. We think, since we are practically guests in someone’s home, it is nice to take a “thank you” for letting us stay.
The great thing about being a tourist in Cuba is that they value the tourist business and more importantly the tourist dollar. It is said if you have a minor altercation with a local the constabulary will likely back the tourist as the concern of losing the tourist dollar is not worth the risk.
With regards to currency we’ve opted for Euros to change at the airport. This seems to be the best cross rate for the NZD as I write this and again when changing to the Cuban CUC. The USD is not a currency rated in Cuba for obvious historical reasons. Other currencies like the Canadian dollar and Pound are well received. Great if you have them already but watch the cross rates to the NZD if buying before you go. When I checked the Euro was still the best value.
Sticking to the money, ATM’s are apparently random and you can’t count on them. Also banks will do currency conversions but be prepared to queue the Cuban way which really sounds very little like a queue – more like a random huddle where the person who is currently last is the guy to find. Then if you just watch this one person when they get to the front you know you’re next. Apparently you can leave the queue and the person who is there directly after you will let you back into your spot. How civilised! I am hoping not to find myself confronted with having to queue but just in case will try to get the spanish down on how to ask “who is last?”.
To obtain further information we talked to Locally Sourced Cuba and their sister company Havana Tour Company who are New Zealand based with connections to locals and even have their own Casa Particular. What a find! To be able to ask a load of questions and get some reassurance. Auckland based Dan Stretton was our guy.
While we’re spending the bulk of our time in Havana we’ve planned a round trip by road to Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Each city offers something different. While the train is apparently a great way to travel we were able to book our transport, an air conditioned van, with a driver and tour guide for our visits and no doubt we’ll learn so much more about each place travelling with our local guide. So we recommend talking to Dan to help you plan the trip you want. His company can assist with almost everything from accommodation to night walking tours. They’ll even custom make a tour so you get the experience that suits.
So that’s some of what we’ve found out before we fly. I hope you join me as I share this journey with you and recount my Cuban experience. Now what to pack for mid 30’s temperatures! Hot!