World Travel

Cuba Picture Travelogue

We've traveled twice to Cuba:

In 2009: Havana, Holguin, Gibara, Villa Don Lino, Playa Esmeralda (Guardalavaca), Piñales, Cayo Setia, Villa Maguana, Baracoa, Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, Pilon, Niquero, Bayamo

In 2001: Havana ¤ Santa Clara ¤ Cayo Santa Maria ¤ Remedios ¤ Sancti Spiritus ¤ Trinidad ¤ Cienfuegos ¤ Viņales ¤ Piņar del Rio ¤ Guanabo/Playa Santa Maria

(If you'd rather just see my favourite pictures of CUBA, click here)

Cuba was both a delightful and sobering experience. I'd heard and read a lot about Cuba, more than about any of the other countries we traveled to. I was wowed by the beauty of the old Havana buildings and cars somehow hoped they would never be restored because they would lose so much of their patinated charm. The main attraction of Cuba are it's people and where and how they live their lives. We didn't find as many superb natural sights in Cuba compared to the rest of our travels to Central America. I was delighted to see street musicians at every corner in Havana - granted, to entertain tourists - but still retaining their original Cuban flavour.

Santeria Ceremony on kitsch tourist fridge magnet
Santeria Ceremony on kitsch tourist fridge magnet

It's entertaining to see all the revolutionary propaganda in the streets and museums. We actually got to see the suite Fidel and Che used during the revolution in Hotel Habana Libre and saw Fidel himself giving a speech on a road in broad daylight in Havana, both by chance.

Driving the Cuban countryside and even in Havana is pleasant- the main roads are usually in quite good condition and there isn't much traffic. Road conditions deteriorate along the northern coast east from Holguin and isn't much better for a long stretch of the southern coast west of Santiago de Cuba. However, a normal economy car will do, you don't need a 4WD-vehicle. Maps and asking for directions out of Havana are necessary because signs are mostly missing.

Apart from the hustlers in the tourist areas who didn't look the part at first sight, we did meet several mostly older Cubans who were genuinely very friendly.

I had hoped to find more and better Salsa dancing, although the few really good dancers were definitely show stoppers.

After eating and drinking safe initially for a few days, we soon let loose without any adverse effects.

We'd gotten so accustomed to the scarcity of goods in Cuban shops that we felt like being teleported to Luxury Heaven when we arrived at Panama Airport after leaving Cuba.

I've heard lots of raves about Cuba being the ultimate travel experience, but I found nearby countries just as interesting. Each country has it's unique highlights, and Cuba certainly has plenty of them. Highly recommended! This trip was from 22. March to 6. April 2001.

Map of Cuba with our travel route (you can click on the map)

Map of Cuba with our travel route (you can click on the map)

My Highlights of Cuba

  • Critical interrogation by immigration officials in Havana airport when entering and leaving Cuba
  • Spectacular dawn view over Havana out of our 12th story Hotel St. John's room on our first morning there
  • Just walking along the Malecon is superb
  • Walking through old, fascinating, dirty, crumbling Habana Vieja (old Havana)
  • Staying with our landlady Ulija in Habana Vieja
  • Two rides in historic old American Cars in Havana
  • Havana Taxi drivers covering meter with towel when driving "unofficially"
  • Dancing Salsa in upscale Hotel Florida
  • Delicious cocktails, especially Mojitos, on the front porch and rooftop bar of Hotel Inglaterra
  • Mojito at sunset at Hotel Nacional Terrace overlooking Malecon in Havana
  • Our red Peugeot Rental Car with black "T"-Number plate (Tourist)
  • Drive to Cayo Santa Maria with sea on both sides of road, similar to Key West, Florida, and finding the way there
  • Wonderful 'Las Brujas' Beach near end of Cayo Santa Maria
  • Playa Santa Maria beach near Havana and watching the locals there
  • Pompous Che and other revolution monuments in Santa Clara
  • Overblown Plaza de la Revolution monuments in Havana
  • Spectacular Santa Clara theatre show
  • Bicycle-Rickshaw rides in Havana
  • Viņales and Piņar del Rio trips
  • Millions of Crabs crossing the road on the way from Trinidad to Cienfuegos
  • Historic and colourful Trinidad houses
  • Nice 'Playa Ancon' Beach along the Caribbean Sea near Trinidad
  • Hassle getting flat-tire fixed locally in Trinidad
  • Wonderful live Son music played in Casa de la Trova in Trinidad
  • The beautiful old Casa Particulars in Santa Clara, Trinidad and Havana we got to stay in
  • Visiting Fidel and Che's suite which they lived in during the revolution in Hotel Havana Libre in Havana with it's spectacular view
  • Unexpectedly seeing Fidel Castro giving speech on Havana street
  • Discovering that traveling with Annewien is so much fun
  • Railroad tracks crossing six-lane national Highway from Havana to Santa Clara without barriers or warning
  • Discovering practically the same Plaza Mayor layout in all small Cuban towns
  • Cuban women with neatly combed hair and brightly coloured plastic hair clips
  • Chubby Cuban women dressed in extremely tight brightly coloured striped garb
  • Havana streets being surprisingly clean (locals are fined for uncleanliness)
  • Taking local boat to Jesus statue across river in Havana
  • Watching show at Salon Rojo in Havana similar to Tropicana's and discovering too late that the drinks were free
  • Being duped by taxi driver in Havana (deliberate Salon Rosado, Salon Rojo confusion)
  • Us entering all luxury hotels as if we lived there and getting to the roof to savour the view

The diary

22/23.3. Zurich to Havana over Paris and Madrid
24.3 Havana Vieja, Malecon
25.3 Havana Vieja, Ingraterra, Capitolio
26.3 Havana sights, El Moro Fort
27.3 Havana: Vedado Plaza de la Revolution
28.3 Havana: University, Napoleon Museo, Hotel Havana Libre
29.3 Santa Clara
30.3 From Santa Clara to Remedios and Cayo Santa Maria
31.3 Trinidad, Playa Ancon
1.4 Exploring Trinidad
2.4 Cienfuegos on the way back to Havana
3.4 Havana: Museo de la Revolution
4/5.4 Piņar del Rio, Viņales; Playa Santa Maria
6.4 Havana to Guatemala City

Tips

  • When renting a car, it's a good idea to check if the spare tire is ok and pumped up, and you know how to replace it, since flat tires are a frequent reality. Take off the hubcaps and store them in the trunk; some Cubans "collect" them and replacement fees are inflated
  • Finding the correct highway out of Havana to Santa Clara is difficult, we took a local hitchhiker along to guide us
  • Staying at the Casa Particulares (rooms for tourists in private homes) can be a nicer experience than hotels. If you're lucky enough to find a colonial one, so much the better. (Update: lots of hotel development and renovation has taken place by now and - unless you target a gem of a Casa Particular - you might find that it is possible get a better and/or more convinient deal at a hotel. Many Casa Particulares are overrated and overpriced and not worth the hassle). Paladares are ok for meals
  • Salon Rojo (in Hotel Capri) in Havana requires you to take a copy of your passport for entry; free drinks
  • The view over Havana from Fidel's Suite on the 22nd floor of Hotel Havana Libre is the best I saw; if you're lucky, a maid might let you in
  • You'll probably hear a lot of Son, Cha-Cha, Rumba, Salsa etc, but great Salsa dancing is infrequent. Comparatively few Cubans dance show-stopping Salsa
  • The view from the lighthouse in Havana's Moro Fort is nice
  • Taxis using their meters are usually cheaper than if you work out a fixed-price deal
  • The sound quality of CD's sold by live bands varies widely, so not too much can be expected; if you have a portable CD-player, listen in
  • We were friendly but kept a healthy mistrust of locals: some are genuinely friendly, others can cloak their interests behind friendliness for longer than you'd normally keep your defences up
  • The "Real" (Royal) Cigar Factory behind the Capitolio charges an inflated entry fee: a factory visit is included in a tour to Viņales anyway
  • The souvenir shop just inside the Capitolio has ok internet access. Tell the Capitolio ticket lady that you only need to go to the shop
  • A Mojito is compulsory (Hotel Inglaterra or Hotel Nacional have good ones)
  • GPS-devices are not allowed inside Cuba (and they won't help anyway due to lack of maps). Roadmaps are iffy, so try to get a few different ones so you can make a calculated decision as to which one is accurate. Ask for directions, and be prepared to be asked by that person to be taken along.
  • Do get some MN (Monida Nacional, local money) if you are going outside of Havana. Even in Havana, you can use them, for example the ferry to Moro Fort take 1 Peso (the ticket collector hopes for a CUC but a MN is the correct fare). Also local buses will take you all over for just a few local Centavos!
  • Along the northern coast there are fruit sellers. Pay one or two Pesos MN for a kilo or two of mandarins, bananas and otehr local produce. No CUCs here.
  • If you plan to make any local calls, get the phone card payable in MN (much cheaper than the identical card in CUCs). You may be guided to a different counter, but you will get one. The phone service works and so does the information service: speedy and accurate. Learn to use the phone. Also keep some MN coins on you in case the phone doesn't accept the phone card (Hanava National Airport).
  • Haggle with the airport taxi drivers. The official fare is 25 CUC to Havana Vieja (2009) but many will take you for 20 CUC and possibly less.
Start reading the trip report