Cuba Trip Report

Jan 2nd, 2017, 03:55 PM
  #1  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Jan 2006
Posts: 207
Cuba Trip Report

Rather than go through a detailed day-by-day, I will write about my impressions and experiences.

Type of Trip: As an American, I chose the People to People option. No one asked anything on the way back, though I have Global Entry and do everything at the kiosk. I wanted to go now, since who knows what will happen to Cuba travel after January 20.

Flight: JetBlue from New York - $240 - which is great value. Would have been even less on a weekday.

HAV Airport - Sucks. Out of the 70-80 airports I've been to, this one is the worst. Immigration on arrival was fine, and I got a "bienvenidos" from the immigration lady, but then you must wait in line for security - and why they have security on arrival I'll never understand - complete with metal detectors, x-ray machines and hand held wands. On the way back, there was a 45 minute line to check-in, followed by a 45 minute line for immigration and then another line for security. People kept cutting the lines, yelling at each other and throwing their bags in front of others. And for good measure, the bathrooms have no toilet seats, toilet paper or soap. Everyone seemed worn out by the time we boarded. This is one place where you really do need to get there 3 hours early and bring a lot of patience.

Taxivinales - It was recommended by someone on here. They picked me up at the airport on arrival just as arranged and having paid them online, there was no need to change money at the airport. They also took me from Havana to Vinales for $70 with a friendly driver named Israel. They were supposed to drive me back from Havana to the airport, but didn't show up. Though they confirmed, they had not yet received my email with the cross street and said their policy is not to send a taxi without a cross street, though the address would have been perfectly easy to find without it.

Accommodations: Two Casa Particulares in Centro Habana and one in Vinales. I would recommend them all, though perhaps not for solo women since all are on very dark streets. Booked them easily through airbnb:
"Case Near of the Sea" - about $40 per night - in an old colonial house about 5 blocks from the Malecon. The room is basic, but the family is extremely helpful.
"Descubre Vinales en el Departamento de Artista" - $25 per night. The family was extremely welcoming and the home cooked breakfasts and dinner were great. A bit of a walk from the town but a great opportunity to see how a rural family lives.
"Elizabet Apartmet" - $37 per night - this one I had the whole apartment and it was quite nice and modern. The family lives nearby and will come quickly for any issues and will come in the AM to cook breakfast for $3 to $5 depending on what you want to eat.

Number of tourists: Some of us in the US have the impression that Cuba is an off the beaten track destination, though it is actually quite popular with everyone else, more so than many other places in Latin America. Vinales, in particular, was bursting with Germans, French, Dutch and more Germans.

Money - I got Euros from Citibank before leaving, but the exchange rate was pretty bad. I probably could have found a better rate elsewhere but didn't have time to shop around. I took about 1200 euros for a one week visit and came back with at least 500. If you can get Euros for a good rate, it may be worthwhile, but otherwise with the cost of buying Euros and the selling them back, it's better to just bring US dollars and change small amounts at a time.

Scams - Everything I read said to beware of scams, hassles and getting the wrong change. In reality. I had one guy try to give me the wrong change when buying a WIFI card, but otherwise no issues at all. There are annoying people around the Parque Central trying to sell cigars and taxi rides, but I've experienced much worse elsewhere.

People - Service in many places is not terribly friendly, and a couple of museum employees seemed annoyed to be asked a question, but anyone anyone I asked for directions - which were a lot of people - most of the taxi drivers and of course the casa owners were all extremely kind and helpful.

Smoking - Cubans smoke a lot, including in some restaurants though as far as I know that is banned.

Pollution - Everyone says its bad, but never experienced it.

Connectivity - There are plenty of parks and squares where wifi is theoretically available, but actually being able to connect to it is another question. The big hotels are usually a better bet. Once connected, it works pretty well. I was able to make calls and text with my US iPhone at times in Havana, but not in Vinales.

Food - Everyone complains about the food, but much of it was quite good, at the Casas, at private restaurants and even at state run places. I had a few good ropa viejas, some good chicken dishes, great fruit and juices, a delicious flan (which I normally find very unexciting) and some homemade potato chips. Two places I'd recommend are Castas y Tal and Bellomar, both in Habana Centro. And there is a decent pizza place about a block from the Hotel Ingleterra, though the pizza comes with a bit of second-hand smoke. At any restaurant, be prepared for them to be out of chicken or beef or both.

Favorite Experiences: The Malecon during stormy weather. It rained for two days straight, but the site of the waves crashing onto the shore is spectacular, as is the sunset over the harbor.

Plaza Vieja: It is pretty during the day, and then full of music at night.

The Museo de la Revolucion, the Cuban art part of the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Che museum in one of the forts are all somewhat interesting. Most of the many other museums I saw in Havana were not worth even the minimal admission fees or the few minutes it took to see them.

Walking on my own in Vinales: I hired a guide for $20 who took me on a very rushed tour to a cigar maker, a coffee farm and a cave. Walking on my own along the Aquaticos trail was much more pleasant, with pretty scenery and a chance to try some fresh off the vine bananas.

The Gran Teatro de Habana: Saw a decent dance performance for $30, about a quarter of what similar seats would cost in New York. The theater is surprisingly clean and modern, completely unlike anything else nearby, and it is interesting to see how the Cuban elite interact and dress.

Frustrating Experiences: Started one day by going to the Camera Obscura for a view of the city. Though it opens at 9 and the door was open, I was told it was closed and no one knew if or when it might open. Went next door to the Fototeca which had, by my count, about 14 photos in all. At least there is no entrance fee. Decided to take to tour bus at 12:10 only the 12:10 bus didn't show up and the next was only at 12:40. Got out in Vedado and then had a long walk in the rain to find the Tarabish Russian restaurant recommended in LP, only there was no restaurant at that address or anywhere near it. Maybe it was once there, but it ain't now. Took a cab to one of the forts where I was told that I could enter for $6 but the power was out and wouldn't be able to see anything. That night, I took a cycle taxi to the boxing gym in the old city where LP says there are boxing matches every Friday at 7. There aren't; The next day, took a cab to the Centro Cultural el Gran Palenque, where LP says there are Afro-drumming music performances every Saturday from 3-6. There aren't.

Conclusion: If I could do it again, I'd probably choose Trinidad over Vinales, and may go back one day. To me, Cuba is more a place to experience than to actually see the sights. I'm glad I went and glad I got to go at this point in history.
trebex is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2017, 06:21 AM
  #2  
 
Join Date: Feb 2006
Posts: 52,444
Hi trebex,

thanks for posting your experiences. They really aren't very different from ours, and I agree that you need to be flexible and adaptable to get the most out of a visit there.

Plans A, B & C are always required!
annhig is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2017, 11:59 AM
  #3  
 
Join Date: Jul 2005
Posts: 815
Nice to see more info about Cuba (yours too, annhig).
We're going in February - tho not on our own which will make life easier.
NGail is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2017, 12:42 PM
  #4  
 
Join Date: May 2005
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We just returned as well - will be posting a report shortly...Had an extraordinary trip, but also had issues with Taxi Viñales - they are just not prepared for the tourist boom!
crosscheck is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2017, 06:42 PM
  #5  
 
Join Date: Feb 2006
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corsscheck - I'm not surprised about your having taxi issues and I agree that the infrastructure is not able to cope with the tourist boom. One of the problems we encountered was finding out what was available and then booking it - for example in Trinidad there were something like 6 different tourist offices each doing something slightly different and often not over-lapping or co-ordinating with each other, thus requiring the tourist to traipse from one to another to try to organise what they want.

Time, patience and a sense of humour are definitely required.

BTW, Trebex, [and anyone else reading this] though the toilets land side at HAV airport were as described by you, the airside ones were fine when we used them. of course this may be subject to change on a daily, even an hourly basis. Otherwise I would say that you were spot on, save that you did not mention that weird forms that you need to fill in to exit the airport on arrival, which require, amongst other things, the passport numbers of the other people with whom you are travelling - difficult if you are in a large group! What was most mystifying was that nowhere was this requirement mentioned and getting hold of one of the forms was completely ad hoc. We only found out about them by seeing other people filling them in.

But I suppose that that is a good introduction to Cuba!
annhig is offline  
Jan 4th, 2017, 04:44 PM
  #6  
 
Join Date: Dec 2013
Posts: 393
For Annhig...could you go into more detail on this form upon arrival..have been reading forums for a few months now in advance of our trip...absolutely first I have head of this.

Crosscheck...interested in the issues with TaxiVinales. We have some bookings with them and reading in a few places about their overbooking and inability to honor resesrvations....again more info will help.

Thanks to everyone coming back and reporting in.
Lois2 is offline  
Jan 4th, 2017, 11:15 PM
  #7  
 
Join Date: May 2005
Posts: 2,870
Hi Lois,

Taxi Viñales (government run) was completely overextended during Xmas week, but I bet the situation will improve when the tourist crunch eases up a bit, especially if you don't need a larger vehicle. When will you be there?

Our issues: We booked four minivan transfers for our family of four, but unfortunately only Ride #1 (Varadero airport-Havana) worked out (we flew in and out of Varadero because I bought our AA tickets before HAV was offered). TV emailed me right before we left with an inconvenient time change for Ride #2 (Havana-Viñales), so we arranged our own ride through our tour guide (turned out to be a classic car with awful suspension and no seatbelts - that's another story).

A few days later when I called to confirm Ride #3 (our longest from Viñales-Jibacoa) a phone rep confessed that they no longer had a vehicle and he intended to stay up all night to find us something, but it probably would be a classic car without seat belts. He was overjoyed when we found our own taxis for Rides #3 and #4 through our hotels and jokingly offered me a job as a dispatcher. More about this in my trip report, which I hope to post tomorrow.

The forms that Annhig mentioned were health questionnaires (Do you have a fever, etc.) and must have changed since she was there because they now require families traveling together to share a form, not unrelated groups. There are enough forms to keep you busy for most of the 38-minute flight!
crosscheck is offline  
Jan 5th, 2017, 05:03 AM
  #8  
 
Join Date: Feb 2006
Posts: 52,444
For Annhig...could you go into more detail on this form upon arrival..have been reading forums for a few months now in advance of our trip...absolutely first I have head of this.>>

Lois - I too had never heard of this form [it's not the same as the tourist card or visa that you need to present at Passport control - you need that even to get on the plane!] but once we were through the airport security that follows immediately after passports [take your glasses off and look straight at the camera as they take your photo] there were random semi-official people handing out forms, some standing up and others at a desk. At first I ignored them, thinking that it didn't apply to us, but then I saw people who had got off our plane getting them and filling them in, and when I asked, she said we all had to fill them in, so while DH was trying to find out where our luggage was coming through [another story!] I filled in a couple of forms for us.

When finally our cases emerged, we followed the herd to the exit and handed our form to yet another official who showed zero interest.

Whether it's actually necessary and what would happen if you tried to exit without it, I have no idea.

BTW, do make sure that your tourist card is signed on entry by the passport official. A woman on our flight out turned up with one that had slipped through and there was a big kerfuffle about it. She did eventually get on the plane, but you don't want that at the end of the holiday.

<>

No, Crosscheck, they were nothing to do with health, and we didn't get them until after we had landed. They wanted very similar info to that on the tourist card - full names, dob, inside leg measurement, [that's a joke!] passport nos for you and the rest of your party, where you were staying [I just put the name of the first casa we were staying in] etc. Nothing about health at all.

<>

I think we had that car too going from HAV to Vinales. Our casa owner arranged it for us to get to Vinales as her next door neighbour reported that the buses to Vinales were all full. [who knows if they were or not?]

On the way we stopped off at the compulsory tobacco farm but it was actually quite an interesting tour and it made a rest from the the bumping we were getting from the car's suspension, which struggled with the terrible Havana - Vinales road, which was truly one of the worst we came across. The driver tried to sell us a deal for him to be our driver for the rest of the trip but we decided against that, when his attitude became a might less friendly!

Still he knew the way to our casa in Vinales - sadly.

What taxi rides are you wanting to book? if you look at my TR you'll see that when we got to Vinales we were told that the Viatur bus was full, so we would need to take a taxi on to Cienfuegos, but while we were wondering round on the main street, we found the Transtur bus office and "amazingly" they had plenty of room on their bus so we booked that one. It was very nice too with decent A/C and a functioning loo.

we ended up using Transtur buses a couple of times, but it was hard work finding out about them - you had to ask at the tourist office and hope that you'd hit on the right one!
annhig is offline  

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