Adventure, Food, Culture & Thoughts – Cuba

So I’ve just recently landed from a 10 day adventure in Cuba, and boy was it an adventure. For a start we didn’t think we were going to go due to hurricane Matthew, but luckily it blew over just in time and missed where we were going (my thoughts go out to all that were affected by it, a truly awful natural disaster, especially for the people of Tahiti). 

So I dashed to London last minute, grabbed our visas, booked our last remaining hotel, and off we went.

Now when I go on holiday there are a few things I look for; interesting or different food, a different culture or way of life, cool / mad / adventure type stuff to do, and a small slice of chill and unwind. I can’t think of anything worse than a week on a beach doing nothing, sure a day or two is lovely, but after that I want adventure, excitement, just something different, I wanna explore and expand my mind, do things I’ve never done before and actually see the country I am visiting, experience the culture. I love a good book on the beach, some swimming, snorkelling, long walks, but just sitting on the beach tanning combined with all-inclusive eating, just isn’t me.

Side note: It’s funny that most people see rest as just sitting on a beach for a week, but surely rest is:

1. Not doing exercise if you do a lot normally, thus giving your body a physical rest

2. Letting your mind be a bit more free by switching off and being on holiday

Mentally, I think, the best way to switch off the world is just switch off the world and do something else, and in fact doing nothing could be the enemy? If you were to go away with all of life’s woes and problems, and just sit on a beach, does it not give you a chance to sit there and just think about all that crap? And the chances are you might get a little bored and switch on your phone to the hotel wifi, taking all of life away with you. What, instead, if you were to do cool stuff, explore, take long walks with history and the landscape involved, do an activity, stuff that channels the mind on one single task and doesn’t involve wifi being on your phone at all?

Activities and cool stuff takes the mind off life, and that’s what a holiday is, mental rest (and physical, but for most, personally, I think it’s more mental most need, definitely is for me), so maybe switch off the phone, ignore the sun lounger a little bit more, and take yourself off on an adventure for a few days.

Anyway. Side note over, back to Cuba.

Reading the guide book (Lonely Planet’s Guide to Cuba) after we agreed on Cuba as our adventure destination (backwards I know), we didn’t hold out much hope with the food in Cuba, reports were that it was extremely average, and the book was proven right, the food was nothing to be desired and I’m glad I’m home food wise. All the best food in Cuba is with international influence, this is a typical Cuban meal.  

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Meat or fish, rice and beans, veg if you’re lucky, maybe some fried plantain, rinse and repeat.

After reading the book we decided that with 10 days we could comfortably do 3 locations, giving us good time to do things at each stop, and not feel like we were travelling all the time. We flew into Havana, then went on to Vinales, then to Varadero.

We flew via Air Europa, a budget long haul airline. Get what you pay for, very average food (Emirates is my favourite to date for the price), and no in-flight entertainment, if you have a few more squids to spend I would go direct with virgin, which I think when we looked was £650.00 pp instead of £500.00 pp with a stopover. We hit a stopover in Madrid airport for 1.5 and 2.5 hours on the way home making our jaunt there and back around 15 hours on planes, not including cars at either end. Not fun, but necessary to explore some areas of the world.

So, Havana.

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Wow, what a place. Turning up at night, in the dark, via taxi, it’s all quite overwhelming to a degree. But having travelled places like Thailand, Indonesia and similar countries that are very different culturally I knew everything was cool as long as you take your time and don’t look like a virgin on his first trip away from home carrying his pack lunch.

Its turns out Cuban people are just about the friendliest people on earth. There is hardly any crime, everyone helps one another, there is never any trouble with tourists, so we quickly felt at ease. We got a taxi to our casa particular (homestays where people have turned their homes into mini hotels – basically a B&B, but often with 1-4 bedrooms per casa). This worked out at £40 per night in Havana, and was in the western side of the city, which meant it was a 45-60 minute walk into the old town (where a lot of the attractions are), so if you go, get closer to the action to save a bit of the walking. But we chose this casa as it looked clean (many don’t) and had good reviews on homestay.com (we found it hard to find a well-priced, clean looking casa and it was low season, but apparently Air BnB is worth a look, which we forgot to look on).  

The guide book said that Cuba was a bit backward, strange in many ways, but enchanting, and we were not disappointed. Our initial frustration was the sheer cost of everything, especially in Havana. But this is my fault for not researching first the average cost of everything, I just assumed it would be 1/2-3/4 of the UK price like many similar developing countries, but oh no, Cuba loves to fleece a tourist (thanks to the Cuban Government). In Cuba you have one price for the Nationals (Cuban people) and one price for tourists. This was quite ridiculous in some cases, and cause the government is now trying to heavily capitalise on the hunger of tourists in Cuba you can expect to go through your spending money quickly, which we did. The solution, don’t hang around too long in Havana as everywhere else is cheaper and easier to sniff out a bargain, because the whole city is at it its harder to find the bargains in Havana cause tourism is highest here with city tours, culture and the like.

Examples of average costs (1$ was equal to US $, but with bad exchange rates it ended up around $1.2 to £1, not great):

Water – Average price for 1.5 Litres is $2

Meal – Average price for a ½ decent main is $8-12

Beer – Average price for 330ml can was $3

Cocktail – Average price for cuba libre was $3-4

Taxi – Average price for 10 minute ride was $10 per person

Collectivo – Average price was $20-40 for 2-4 hour ride, not bad compared to other costs above

So you can see how this can quickly add up with your expectations. This doesn’t include that EVERYONE is trying to sell you something. Everywhere you go there is the opportunity for a local to sell you something, a cigar, a taxi tour, a painting, rum, the list goes on.

Now saying this not one Cuban local did this in an obtrusive way, unlike some other areas of the world where people don’t leave you alone everyone in Cuba is kind, approachable, friendly and understands straight away when you simple say “no, but thank you”. So if we were offered a ‘cheap cigar’ or a ‘taxi tour’ we simply said no and all was good, no further trouble or bartering. If were looking for something we would stop and chat to the person, and if they couldn’t help they usually had a mate that could. You can easily visit countries and not do anything by being resistant to people approaching you selling something. Just because someone is selling something it doesn’t mean they are evil and we just say no, some of the best things we did on our holiday were as a result of being approached by someone just trying to improve the Cuban experience for the tourist, but by being opportunistic, so we just embraced this and made a decision as to whether it was right for us or not, if so, barter for your best price, if not say no and kindly move on with your search.

This included; a cycle city tour of Cuba of all the stuff not quite on the tourist map with a full historical run down ($15 per hour for 2 people with guide peddling you around on one of those cycle buggy things), some incredible art that is going to go up in my kitchen diner ($130, I know, it’s a lot, but its huge and incredible, and as I said, Cuba isn’t cheap, plus it will look beautiful when its up at home), various taxi and peddelo rides around cuba, snacks from street vendors, and probably some other stuff I’ve forgotten.

The whole country operates on cash, so take plenty and get it changed at a bank (again you will get your pants taken down, but as long as you expect it, you appreciate it’s the Cuban way, which you slowly let your guard down about and just laugh). Most major places have ATM’s (only 1), but they only give you $150 a day, so plan ahead.

In Havana over 2 days we explored the city, visited all the museums, ate, drank, watched incredible local music, walked a ton, talked to lots of locals about Cuba and their way of life and history, and just tried to embrace what was a polar opposite culture to ours. Cuban’s are seriously friendly people, so once you find one that speaks decent English stop for a good chat, just don’t be offended if they end up trying to get $1 out of you in some way, it’s just ‘the Cuban way’, they see us as rich and that $1 to us is nothing, but a lot to them, just say no and all is good with a Cuban.

Vinales.

We then headed south west in a collectivo (they find several people going to the same location to share a taxi or bus to one location to make it cheaper) to Vinales costing $20 per person after visiting the bus station to grab a $12 ticket. We thought the extra $8 was worth the time saved, being in an air con taxi and being picked up and dropped off from both destinations door to door, a worthy upgrade from $12.

Side note: at some point in your Cuban adventure if you go you have to take a ride in a classic American / Cuban car, it’s a real experience and just has to be done. We took a few Taxi rides in these EPIC cars…

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Vinales was the BEST part of our holiday by far, we flipping loved Vinalse and should have stayed longer. We screwed up here, but more on that shortly.

Vinales is AWESOME, lush, green, inviting, smooth, laid back countryside, my kinda deal, its instant relaxation and beauty. Get me out of the city and I’m a happy man. We’re glad we did Havana, but 2 days was enough, we were glad to be rural and on a real adventure now.

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We stayed at an awesome casa particular again (this time costing $30 per night with $5 pp for breakfast if you wished which we did through ease and it was ½ decent, plus it supported the owners business who were lovely), even had a paddling pool on the roof with a view of the mountains, was quality.

In Vinales we were able to find better food, eating at the same restaurant for all 3 lunches (didn’t want to jinx it after finding great food for a great price with a good atmosphere, 3J’s Tapas bar, plus the others didn’t look ½ as good/nice), also eating at the same place for the last dinner as it was the most buzzing place at night for a cigar, music and rum, and another place for the other 2 nights recommended by everyone we talked, El Olivo, but skipped on the last night also due to me getting the bum squits from my meal.

So, to the action. In Vinales you HAVE to take a local horse ride, this was our best trip of the holiday and the cheapest (not including me buying cigars, honey and coffee made by the farmers before the government had got their claws into the production and ruined it. In Cuba a farmer has to give 90% of his tobacco yield to the government, he can then keep the remaining 10%, of which he makes into cigars and sells them fresh to the locals, which are LOADS better than the Cuban cigars that we buy that are harsh and dry, these were sweet, dense, moist and delicate in taste, which we smoked with the other people on the tour with sweet honey, the way the locals smoke the cigars).  

The horse ride was for 4 hours for $20 per person, riding very well trained horses through the mountains of Vinales, visiting the coffee and cigar farmer, getting a lesson in their way of life, how they farm and what they sell, then visiting a natural spring for a beer and the most incredible view, just check this out, was my favourite spot of the whole holiday, could have stayed there all day… 

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That afternoon we then chilled in our roof top paddling pool with a cocktail made by our casa owner. The day before we had done a cave tour, getting taken by a local to the cave where you can walk through lasting around 1.5 hours, after which we visited this giant painted wall. It was then dinner and cocktails at El Olivo, which grows its own vegetables, so I was really glad to find somewhere that did a big fresh salad as veg in Cuba isn’t on their top list of things to eat, especially in Havana (despite the fish giving me bum squits).

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The day after we then hired bikes after a lazy morning and cycled all the other sights. Another cave which you go in a boat through it, of course seeing more amazing scenery, stopping for many selfies, and visiting a hotel which has a pool overlooking the whole of Vinales valley, La jaminez (or similar) which you can pay $7 pp to stay in for the day. We were too late in the day to do this, so if you do go to Vinales, get up earlier than we did and spend the afternoon in this pool chilling (it’s too expensive and not worth it to stay a night, and in the middle of know where to get other places if you wish, around 4-5km outside Vinales town, so stay in Vinales and cycle here, as seen in my first photo of Vinales).

So if you go to Vinales, if you go to Cuba, which I highly recommend you do (don’t go Nov-Jan, high season, apparently its mental, the whole town is full and busy and I get the feeling it will feel touristy rather than relaxed and untouched), do what we did in Vinales; cave tour with a dude in a classic Cuban car, next day do the horse ride, day after hire bikes and do the rest of the sights spending the rest of the afternoon in La Jaminez pool.

I would then either stay here and use this as a base for other longer trips that tourist companies do, or go further west to the coast and get stuck into some beach life with amazing snorkelling and diving. We made the mistake of travelling east of Havana by 2.5 hours to a place called Varadero, which is the luxury part of Cuba, where all the all-inclusive hotels are. Our theory was we would get some downtime, relax, have some good food, 3 days of posh chilling after our backpacking adventure.

We booked a 5 start hotel for £487.00, which was a stretch for the budget, we only wanted to pay around £300 ish, but all the hotels for that price LOOKED shabby. When we got there we were pretty disappointed. We had left this beautiful, rural, relaxing, enchanting place called Vinales and arrived in posh Cuba but 25 years too late. This place was probably the mutts nuts 25 years ago, but not now, this was no way a 5 star resort, more like 3 star. Some of the a la carte restaurants were decent with what I would describe as 4 star dining and food, but still not 5 star, and the buffet had its good and bad days, but was largely 3 star, with the 24/7 café being atrocious at a generous 2 star.

The big problem we found, aside from the fact the hotel needed a serious face lift, was the staff just didn’t really care, the ‘cuban way of doing things’ doesn’t suite a 5 star resort. Cocktails were made awfully with no care in the world, things were cancelled if you were not bang on time for some reason (yoga for lizzi was cancelled cause she was 10 minutes late, yet the guy teaching it just sat there anyway doing nothing where yoga was taking place) and the attention to detail just wasn’t there. We complained as there was no way this was a 5 star resort, thus we got upgraded to a superior room which was a lot better as it had recently been renovated (the last room was 25 years old, smelt, had mould, was dirty, just wasn’t nice), so that alleviated the pain a touch, we still wrote them a scathing review as it simply shouldn’t be a 5 star resort costing that much per night, it should have been half that. Shame, and yes we are complaining now we are home to Melia (who own the resort, Spanish company) as it was miss-sold and a rip off. 

Anyway, we embraced the beach, a good book, some tanning, walked a lot, and just took the time to relax, talk a lot, chill, and enjoy the nice weather, sea and beach.

If I was to advise you on what to do, do as I said above, don’t shoot for luxury in Cuba, it doesn’t exist, embrace the nice local, natural, rural feel (which we fell in love with in Vinales) and go further south west to the coast there ignoring Varadero.

So if you want an adventure, please do consider Cuba, its expensive (well, only how we did it, it can be done A LOT cheaper if you avoid some of Havana and make wise choices and avoid Varadero), it was us that didn’t do the research properly in terms of cost (the government is the problem, especially in Havana). Do the trip that we did, you won’t regret it, and you will also embrace more of Cuban and save loads of money. If you ignore Varadero and do better in Havana I reckon you could explore, eat, stay, drink and have fun with day trips for $110-150 a day:

Casa - $30

Food for 2 - $40-50

Trips - $40

Drinks - $15

Random $15 

So fly in, do 2 full days in Havana (or Habana as the Cuban’s say), then hit Vinales for 2-3 full days (you will have an afternoon if you leave Havana early doors), then hit the south west coast for a few days, then back to Havana to fly out. 9-10 day holiday, you will love it. It really is an adventure and if better planned affordable for a long haul adventure.

Don’t go for the food, of course you can get some decent stuff, but it’s not Cuban fare, its all the Spanish fare like Tapas. The art is amazing, the people are amazing, the cigars straight from the farm are amazing, the cocktails are awesome in the right bar, the trips you can do are quality, the cars are insane, the scenery is incredible, and you will love it. If we could wind back time we wouldn’t have gone to Varadero, we would have kept it Cuban, but we live and learn.

If you have any questions shoot back on social and I’ll try help, I’m no Cuban expert, but I’ve had a great trip and know a thing or two about an incredible country.

Another holiday, another great adventure. 

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