Welltravbrit's Cuba Trip Report - Finally!

Dec 6th, 2016, 08:20 AM
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Welltravbrit's Cuba Trip Report - Finally!

As usual I've been meaning to write my trip report for months! But finally I'm sitting myself down to put something together about our Cuban trip from May to early June - better late than never is always my mantra on Fodors. I want to thank Annhig for her Cuban report as well as Wilmington Woman and others who wrote about their experiences in Cuba here on Fodors. I'm piecing this together from notes I wrote while we were in Cuba, and some of what I put up on my blog, so apologies if this is rather disjointed. If I stop to try to perfect it I know I'll just give up!

I should note we flew via Mexico City, where we stopped for a week on the way home, suffice it to say we loved CDMX, amazing food, art, museums, people, parks, history and architecture. This was a quick trip which we arranged independently and at the last minute and with only 11 days in Cuba there was a lot we didn't see. We could have spent much more time in each of the cities we visited but we really ourselves and we were happy to have a decent amount of time in Havana. We visited Havana (5), a cigar plantation in Pinar del Rio (1), Vinales (1), Cienfuegos (2) and Trinidad (2). It is quite different now as you can now you can get scheduled flights from the US.

I'm a Brit but I'm subject to US regulations as a US resident, and my husband is a US citizen. As of when we went in May it remained technically illegal for Americans to spend money in, or to go to Cuban for pure tourism. This was according to Treasury Department restriction related to the embargo . As I understand it to visit you had to conform to one of a long list of approved travel categories including People to People Tours which are educational, visiting family, support of the Cuban People, Sports, religion etc. Ok, the significant change  that has come about this year is that although the Treasury Dept rules have not been rescinded Americans can travel independently and the Treasury Department no longer seems to be policing whether you conform to these categories.

The issue to understand is that the Cubans have no restriction on Americans visiting -there's just a $25 visa you can pick up at the airport and you tick whichever box you like to describe your trip - I think I picked “Support for the Cuban People”. When we returned to the US the immigration officer asked where we'd been on the trip and we said Mexico and Cuba. He had no interest in the trip and only asked if we'd brought any Cuban cigars back with us. My husband is honest to a fault and said yes. The agent asked whether we had bought them in Mexico City or in Cuba and when we said Cuba he smiled and said , “Great you get to keep them!” Apparently if you travel to Cuba you are entitled to bring a certain number of cigars back with you but if you purchase them in a third country you are in violation of the embargo which is still in operation. I think this illustrates just how crazy the situation is, and hopefully the remaining restrictions of the embargo will be lifted soon. Given the situation I don't see any concerns about visiting currently, the only question is whether you're happy to arrange things yourself or if you'd prefer a tour?

There are some great People to People Tours available to Cuba on contemporary art, architecture etc. but the prices are incredibly high. They were shockingly expensive in the case of a number of US agents that I looked at -$4,500 per person for five days not including air fare, really... to Cuba? At that price I'd rather go on safari! I guess lots of people paid because for Americans up until the last year it was one of the few ways to go to Cuba legally. These days you also have the option of going on a tour arranged by a local agent and we did contact Pototo Tourist Services who several people had recommended. They seemed very flexible and you could use them for transfers, accommodation booking or a full tour. In the end we opted to arrange things ourselves but they seemed like a good resource. Obviously Europeans and Canadians have had no such restrictions and have been traveling to Cuban, either independently or on package holidays for years. Not to mention many Americans who have flown in through Mexico. Cuba may indeed be new to the wider American market but they've had lots of tourists for years.

For more details of our itinerary, logistics, pictures and links you can see a planning post on on my blog.


We used Air BnB to book our accomodation and to be honest either apartments or Casa Particular (B&Bs) seem to be the best way to go in Cuba for us. You'll get local advice and your money goes more directly to local businesses. Many of the hotels were fully booked by foreign travel agents and tour groups and many of them had luke warm reviews. Hotels in Cuba are all to some degree or other a joint venture with the government. Perhaps because Cuba is the hot new destination for US travelers the hotels seemed incredibly overpriced for the amenities and services offered. It reminded me of Burma when the upswing in tourists put a strain on the existing hotel market. I'm sure in a year or two there will be some great boutique options but we booked at the last minute and there wasn't much available that looked appealing, despite the fact that May is technically the low season. If you're booking things yourself, book early or be flexible.

We didn't have data or cell reception while in Cuba so you're going to want to bring a lot of information with you, or have access to good local advice when you get here. This matters, we met some Americans in Mexico City who hadn't enjoyed Havana. They ended up eating at lousy govt run restaurants and had difficulty navigating the city. We were amazed, we were happy to walk everywhere and got great advice from the place we stayed - they booked us into great privately run restaurants. So either do your research before you come or ensure you're staying in a place where the people know what foreigners like. We've travelled a lot and the minor hassles in Cuba, street hustles called Jinteros etc. didn't bother us, in many ways it reminded me of India. Everyone is on the hustle for the tourist dollar because government wages are low, so they have to make a dollar here and there. It's just the local reality but I can imagine that if you're sensitive, or unaccustomed to this kind of thing it could be rather taxing.

Trip Notes
From the start I am delighted with Havana and why not, it pulses with life- everyone is out on the streets because it is too hot to sit in their flats. There's lots of music and the city is a delight to look at from the physical situation on the bay to the cars and architecture. Tourists are defeated at the first by the heat, so there's a laid-back vibe set by the music you hear everywhere . The airport it is chaotic but we are waved through customs despite not having the required blue form.

I'm relieved to see the guesthouse has sent the driver as promised and he's there with our name on a sign.

The lines at the airport change window are incredibly long and we wait almost a hour. There's loads of info online but basically you'll need cash and we brought Euros as you get a better exchange rate -there's a special 10% tax for dollars. The whole experience is like traveling in Africa or Russia in the 1980s, no technology and lot and lots of bureaucracy. You need patience to navigate Cuba. You used to be able to go upstairs and use the exchange at departures but it wasn't available. What I don't understand is why are Europeans in the line? I think they can use the ATM, but because of the embargo they don't work for US cards - I'm hot and I'm wishing I'd thought to bring my UK bankcard. Finally we have bundles of Cuban CUC - bear in mind there are two currencies but this is the one that's relevant for almost all tourist purchases.

We are driven into town in an old Chevy. The car is a classic and it is just as you remember – like being driven around on an old sofa which bounces up and down, gliding through the city.

My first impression – the roads are good. We pause factories and schools, train yards, flats and the houses. There are signs including one a giant one with Fidel saying "Socialism or Death". Clearly Bernie needed to up the stakes!

Our flat at the Café Bohemia is suitably lovely, charming, stylish and modern but the most significant feature is the air conditioner in the bedroom – we will be spending a lot of time here. Indeed the spot right below the wall mounted unit may be my favorite place in Havana! Forget the Malecon, the Museum of the Revolution, or all the Plaza Vieja - this is cool so right now it seems the best place to be!

The location is great, we are right off the fabulous Plaza Vieja and I'm delighted. I love this part of the city which is closed off to cars. There's a lot of rebuilding and restoration work going on. The whole place exudes a dilapidated charm and in the morning when I sit out for breakfast on the plaza I see children going to school. After we arrive and have sorted ourselves out it's early evening and we walk to the Capitolo, (modeled on the US capital) cutting through Christo Sq and then up along the water front which obscured by old warehouses. Havana is a great city for walking around though you should be ready for plenty of people trying to sell you stuff or befriend you on the street. Our destination is the micro brewery Cervezeria. I don't drink beer but we passed this place on the drive in from the airport and the seats along the pier looking out at the water looked great.  The place is large and it attracts a crowd of locals and foreigners. It's casual and enjoyable and we both like the simple shrimp enchiladas while we have with rice and salad. Along with a couple of drinks (I loved the mojitos and daiquiris in Cuba) it's about $25, bear in mind this is only a few dollar less than the monthy government wage.
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Dec 6th, 2016, 09:15 AM
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As mentioned we ate well in Havana and it pays to know about the latest private restaurants or "paladares" that are opening in the city. I'm not generally keen on TripAdvisor for restaurants but when we looked I thought it was pretty good for Havana. Bear in mind you'll need cash for all these places as you can't use your American credit cards in Cuba! Incidentally, the fact that we could pay on a credit card before we left was one of the great advantages of using AirBnB.

Much of this is taken from my blog post but if you want to see photos click here


One thing that's important to to understand is that Cuba is a society with a dual economy and a dual currency which I alluded to earlier. This also means you're going to encounter two different types of restaurants, the private restaurants opened up over the past few years and the older government run establishments . It will be easy to see the difference based on decor and service!

In terms of the dual currency the CUP is the standard Cuban currency. This is the currency within the state system. If you're a state employee ( and most employed Cubans are) you'll be getting your salary in CUP and you probably aren't making much more than $30 USD per month. Yes, doctors, lawyers, economists and university professors $30 per MONTH. Hard to believe but true. This currency can be spent at government run establishments, markets, cafes and restaurants and most importantly this is the currency Cubans use to buy their monthly ration of subsidized food stuffs. Over the last few years the Cuban government has opened up the economy to allow for small private enterprises which include, but are not limited to, privately run restaurants called "paladares" and bed and breakfasts known as "casa particulares". These industries (and everything in the non-government sector) runs on the CUC or the "convertible peso" which converts at around one CUC for one USD. This is the currency you'll be using for everything as a tourist.
This move has allowed locals to benefit from tourism - though the scale of the differences between the currencies has upset a fragile economic equilibrium and all Cubans want to get their hands on CUC to buy the goods they need and want. Hence we met a cardiologist who has quit medicine to run a bed and breakfast. By renting two rooms for one night, with breakfast, he can make three months of his previous salary. But it's a vicious circle, teachers at his children's school are not showing up daily as they've taking additional employment in the private sector, and he is having to hire tutors to make up the difference.

This incredible disparity is also what drives the street hustlers, scammers and indeed the informal sex trade in Cuba. If people try to hustle you don't try not to take it too personally it's essentially a structural problem paying itself out through tourism.

OK - that's all on the economics lecture lets get to describing these restaurants I'm sure there are new places opening every month but these are ones we can recommend. Because of the financial disparity I should note that you're going to find mainly foreigners at these establishments.

DONA EUTIMIA - Recommended by the lovely people at Estancia Bohemia (where we stayed) this is a comfortable, small restaurant  where you can try  traditional Cuban cuisine with dishes like Ropa Vieja (below). Photographed above, it's a cozy rather small place and you'll need to make a reservation as it's incredibly popular. The staff are friendly and they insisted we try some local rum as a digestive on the house. 

Our meal with drink ran around $35. Down at the end of a touristy small street near the main cathedral square you'll have to pass a gauntlet of hawkers on the way to this incredibly popular and cozy place. On the same street Esto No Es Un Cafe was also recommended and we were delighted by their sign which announced, "we do not support the muggers on the corner".

LA GUARIDA - If I could only recommend one restaurant in Havana this would be it. La Guarida (above) is one of the most atmospheric places I've ever eaten. The international food was excellent and the service was professional. Located in the Centro neighborhood of Havana this is a fascinating place. When you arrive in you think perhaps you've made a mistake but the bouncer at the door tells you to head up the  elegant marble staircase. The building is magical, it's a perfect blend of elegant, dilapidated charm, and if it looks like a film set that because it was the backdrop for "Fresa y Chocolate". Just when you think it's nothing but a crumbling ruin you find yourself in the restaurant which is situated in a series of elegant historic dining rooms. After dinner we made our way up the surprising glass encased staircase up to their roof deck. It reminded me bars of Bangkok or New York with beautiful staff and sophisticated lighting. The whole place was stunning so make sure you make it up there after dinner. The meal with drink was $78 – our most expensive meal in Cuba.

CAFE LAURENT - Located in a rooftop flat in Verdado Cafe Laurent is well worth searching out. We had a charming,  seafood meal on the outdoor terrace with the unusual experience of taking a lift up there in what is  a residential apartment building. The  modern food was superb and  the views lovely, I'd highly recommend this restaurant. Our meal with drinks was around $60.

EL COCINERO- This restaurant in Verdado was recommended  for its proximity to Fabrica del Arte a stunning converted warehouse that is  a fascinating music and arts venue. I highly recommend visiting it for the fun, club like atmosphere but note it's only open on Thursday through Sunday evenings. El Cocinero is right next-door and it's a sophisticated place, we ate outside on their beautiful terrace pictured above. The food was good, but overall I thought there was a little more style than substance. I wasn't wowed by the grilled octopus appetizer  and thought my lobster was overcooked, but my husband liked his main course very much.

I liked the style, including a hip rooftop bar which was filled with a happening local crowd. Rather like the bar at La Guarida this is a space that wouldn't be out of place in Miami or New York.
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Dec 6th, 2016, 09:22 AM
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Over on TripAdvisor there are strenuous debates on the question of bringing "gifts" to Cuba and it's an interesting well informed discussion. The summary - which seems mainly aimed at Canadians going to all-inclusive resorts- is that gifts are no substitute for tips and that its best to make donations to known charities rather than to individuals. I couldn't agree more, they suggest those who don't know Cuba well shouldn't bother bringing stuff. Partly the point is that visitors need to understand that Cubans have better access to medical care or literacy than many others in the region and that there is less abject poverty in Cuba than in other parts of the Caribbean.

I appreciate the caveats on Tripadvisor but often when we travel we try to link up with a local charity and we either bring items with us or we make a financial donation locally and we were going to do the same on this trip. Most recently we brought some supplies to a wonderful animal hospital in Egypt, and having done thing multiple times before I felt we could find connection in Cuba. I understand that to a degree any "charity" in this context is self serving as it gives us a greater opportunity to learn about a place and it often means we get to visit clinics, schools or other programs which are quite fascinating. But travel is about more than a beach and making a meaningful cultural connection with people is always a goal.

I emailed the owner of the Cafe Bohemian and she suggested contacting Pavel at BARRIO HABANA (you can find them on Facebook) who work with children and the elderly through a series of ongoing events including art workshops and environmental projects. They work on all sorts of programs to strengthen community and the quality of life in Havana Vieja and it was great to see such a young, well educated couple (a lawyer and an economist)dedicated to working on social issues. Pavel could not have been nicer via email and we managed to tackle his wish list. He asked for various art supplies and Lego. Luckily a friend had a large quantity of Lego sitting in her basement!

Meeting Pavel and his wife was a great experience and this shaped our impressions of Havana and Cuba in general. One the first day we visited a program they were running to bring children to sing at a government run center for the elderly and we saw their small flat. Later in our stay they took us out in their ancient car to Fursterlandia an amazing and fascinating neighborhood covered in mosaics designed by a local artist Jose Furster and then to the Arts Univesity as we had been talking about modernist architecture in Havana. Their incredible hospitality and generosity was reflective of the warmth of the Cuban people and we were so grateful for all the conversation they shared with us which was an amazing gift and helped us understand the complexities of the situation in Cuba.
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Dec 6th, 2016, 10:15 AM
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We spent days in Havana walking everywhere, dropping into small galleries or cafes, heading to the seafront or Malecon, admiring the architecture and squares while dodging the hustlers. It's a great walking city though it was very hot at the end of May.

We visited the Cuban collection at the Belle Artes Museum, we climbed the bell towers at several churches including the cathedral, we went to the top of the Art Deco Bacardi tower after paying the guard something, we walked and walked and walked. When we'd walked enough we took one of the beautiful old cars back to the flat. Between Vedado and Havana Vieja the price depends on what you'll pay. They may ask for as much as $15 or $20, we paid anything between $5-10 and the price was in direct relationship to how close you were to a hotel like the Nacional, how tricked out the car was and whether you were prepared to walk away. We were using them as taxis but lots of people take them purely for a city tour which is obviously more expensive.

The city is divided into various neighborhoods but the ones with the most significant to tourists are Havana Viejo, Havana Centro and Vedado. Each neighborhood has it's own character; Havana Viejo is, as the name indicates, the oldest part of the city and it's filled with historic squares and Spanish colonial architecture, we loved staying here. Centro is a slightly newer area but the streets still look old and are filled with characterful and often decaying buildings. Vedado is a little further out and this is the newest part of the city filled with houses and building in a more modern style, many dating between 1930 and 1959.

We spent an entire day in Verdado exploring the Modernist architecture, the whole place has a frozen in time feeling and you can see how things changed after the revolution. We made our own walking tour of the neighborhood using a book we brought with us "The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925-1965". We were fascinated by the apartment buildings, cinemas, hotels, a synagogue and more that we saw and it was mesmerizing to compare what was in front of us with the pictures in the book which shows what they were like when they were first built. Havana is just such a great city. If you're prepared to roam around on your own, it's very rewarding place and a book like this gives you a framework for wandering around although it isn't actually a walking tour guide. Architecturally Havana is a fascinating city with so many different styles and influence, colonial, modernist art deco etc. We'd tried to set up a tour with an architect which fell through but we enjoyed exploring on our own nevertheless.

Here's a description from our notes which may give you a flavor for the experience on another day,  walking along the Malecon all the way to the Hotel Nacional in Verdado.

"Lonely Planet waxes lyrically about the seafront but I'm not sure that they were walking along it in this heat! The heat is coming up from the concrete and the breeze from the bay makes little difference though the view is glorious. We stop for a frozen limonata- these endless breaks for refreshment will be one of my central memories of Cuba. There is no possibility of moving any faster and there's no distraction from my phone because it doesn't work here. Havana forces you to slow down and there's less "noise" because there are no advertisements anywhere, it's hard to imagine the difference this makes. The only advertisements I see are essentially for the revolution. I'm hot and grumpy by the time I trudge up the hill but the Hotel Nacional is charming and situated overlooking the ocean. This is a grand hotel but it seems to be populated almost entirely by tour groups. The view from the outside bar looking down over the bay is breathtaking and I'm enjoying my pina colada. I'm delighted to have Wi-Fi for the first time in days. Though I had to go to a small office to set it up and I've paid seven dollars per hour. It is not highly effective. However I am elated to even have the opportunity to fail to send email!
Despite the glorious public space the fact that there is a swimming pool and a lovely view I'm glad we're not staying here. I normally love luxury but this time I'm happier in the lively center of Havana Vieja. However if you are in a group or have a tour planned with your own car and driver I think the Nacional could make sense as a place to retreat to each day. If you want to walk to restaurants, bars or to hear music on your own I highly recommend somewhere more central.

From the Hotel Nacional we decide to take a taxi back into town the walk both ways might have kill me! We pass the first few flashy taxis, all two tone vintage American convertibles from the 1950's and approach a man with an old convertible Ford. Itt looked like a Model T and was painted bright pink. The whole thing shakes as it moves and like a lot of the cars in Havana the engine has been replaces with a diesel model and the whole thing, bodywork and all seems to be held together with fillers or putty.
The driver offered to take a picture which hadn't even occurred to us and I'm happy he took it because it's one of the nicest from our trip to Cuba.

Lots more pictures of the architecture in Havana and more details on what we saw and did over the five days on the blog
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Dec 6th, 2016, 10:51 AM
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Ok if I keep going like this you (if anyone is reading) will probably die of boredom and I'll run out of steam without getting out of Havana! So time to start abbreviating things.

When I started booking the trip I got lots of advice here on Fodors but much of our trip was shaped by availability and happenstance as much as anything else. It seems the older I get the less attention or interest I have in planning. I'd seen a charming property in the tobacco country and it was available for only one night so we booked much of the rest of the trip around that. The chap I was dealing with on AirB&B offered to help me arrange transfers and on the morning we left Havana I was amused to meet his cousin, who looked about twelve. Apparently he wasn't twelve - but he was the driver and he asked if he could bring along his other cousin who spoke better English - in fact he turned out to be a student finishing his doctorate in economics.

The car was a small tin can and we set off after a struggle to fit our bags in the boot. At first the whole thing seem crazy but we had a great time with these two young lads and they gave us another perspective on Cuba. We learnt a lot about the economic and educational system from the two of them.

Several things did of course go wrong as they always do in these circumstance, including the car leaking oil, followed by several stops at gas stations and a detour to visit the owner's house. The bad news was that the car was tiny, but the good news was the air continuing worked and there wasn't enough room for any more "cousins" to come along on the trip! Cuba is the kind of place that gets better the more you relax and enjoy it. If you're uptight, anxious or worry about what's happening next this may not be the best place to go on an independent trip

Technically it's illegal to transport foreigners if you're not a licensed taxi and they were pulled over and issued with a small fine by the police. While we were a little worried they seemed to take this in their stride and the financial upside makes it all well very worthwhile!

I won't bore you with the details but suffice it to say we visited Finca Vigia, Hemingway's home in Cuba which is not far from the outskirts of Havana on our way down to the tobacco farm in Pinar del Rio. It's a charming house museum and we enjoyed the literary pilgrimage. Lots of details, photos and info on Hemingway in Cuba on the blog


One the drive down we also stopped at Cojimar, known to be the site for the Old Man and the Sea, a well know botanical garden and took a swim in a pool beneath a waterfall which was lovely.
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Dec 6th, 2016, 11:12 AM
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A few years ago the government opened up select tobacco plantations to tourists and we stayed in one of the few where you can overnight . Essentially it's a farm stay, or agritourismo as the Italians call it. The small blue and white cabin had lovely views over the small stream to the tobacco fields across the way. It was built right next to a large open wooden structure where they host larger groups for day trips and where we sat and had sundowners before dinner.

However we had the farm entirely to ourselves. This is a simple place but it's a great for a one night stay. The cabin has a private bathroom, a double bed downstairs and two twins upstairs. You arrive in the afternoon have something to eat and tour the farm whenever it suits, we took our tour the next morning after breakfast. Unfortunately the owner was in Havana for one of the important tobacco fairs but they took good care of us in his absense. We knew nothing about the government organized Ruta Tobacco until we got there but it's a great way to see something of the countryside and to learn about the tobacco economy.

It was fascinating to learn about the number of days it takes tobacco to grow and how the government regulated and controls both the agricultural production of tobacco and the manufacture and sale of cigars. This is a government controlled industry. Individual producers may be known and ranked by magazines like Cigar Aficionado who covered Hector Luis Prieto and this farm in a 2011 issue but it is the government that regulates, grades and controls the end product. The farms themselves are one of the few private industries in Cuba, returned to the farm owners in the 1990s. However, the tobacco is sold to the government and cigar production is centralized. So while Hector Luis may be recognized for the quality of the tobacco he produces you will not find artisanal cigars manufactured under his name.

I know nothing about cigars, and I don't smoke, so perhaps it made no sense to have gone out of our way to stay at this farm. However, I really enjoyed the opportunity to see something of rural Cuba. The setting is delightful and the open barn like structure reminded me of the bombas you see on safari in southern Africa. The farm included a menagerie of peacocks, goats, horses and sheep which went back and forth over the small wooden bridge below and I was charmed to sit out in the evening and watch them all.

In the waning light we walked over the bridge into the tobacco fields, passing a small shrine to the great Cuban hero, journalist and poet, Jose Marti. Written on the simple stand were the words "Las revoluciones son esteriles cuando no se firman con la pluma en las escuelas y con el arado en el surcor" which I believe translates to, "Revolutions are sterile when not signed with pen in schools and with the plow in the furrow". For all of the limits tragedies and inefficiencies of the Cuban system I admire the efforts of the Cuban people to move towards equality in a world where our economic disparities are increasing daily. And, having visited Cuba I wonder what will be lost there when the pivot to capitalism completes?

I'm not a smoker but what is ideal about visiting the plantation is that a one night stay is enough time to give you an idea of how things work. It was magical to have the place to ourselves and it made for a personalize and individual experience - which I'd highly recommend. It's certainly more than the average Casa Particular but for the experience it was a good value to us.

If you want to see pictures of the cabin or details on how to book see the blog

The next day we set off for the nearby town of Vinales which several friends had recommended. It is a stunningly lovely place with red earth and huge karst formations that look like you're somewhere in Asia rather than Cuba.
I'd say this place qualifies as what my friend Sandra called a, "banana pancake town". You know the kind of place? Somewhere you'll find avocado toast, granola, banana pancakes or whatever the latest food craze is that will make backpackers, or other tourists, feel comfortable and at home. Vinales may be a small Cuban town but it's one that knows how to speak to a foreigner sensibility and their currently making a good living doing it. There are lots of cash particular and you'll certainly find somewhere to stay.

However, I was glad that we'd opted to stay out of town at a delightful case particular )I'd found on Airbnb. Details on the blog page linked above I'd highly recommend this place and the delightful owner Aracely - it's ideal to stay here if you have access to a car and you'll find it close to the Vinales Valley National Park Information Office where they have details on the geology and all the local hiking trails. The quality of the accommodation was far superior to the local homeland the other casa particular we saw.

Our room was set apart slightly from the main house and stylishly furnished with a delightful terrace and a charming stone shower. Frankly it was hard to tear ourselves away from the incredible view of the karst formations that dominate the Vinales valley.

The landscape is breathtaking, there are lots of hiking trails as well as opportunities to ride the trails on horseback. Unfortunately it was painfully hot in late May and we managed only a short saunter down to the valley floor where we saw tobacco fields and a drying barn as well as the karst formations before turning back up the hill to the lovely El Balcon where we enjoyed the view. I'm sure at certain times of the day this place is packed with tour groups but we were there fairly early in the morning at it was empty.

Given the weather, the one night stay worked for us but at another time of year I would have liked at least three nights in Vinales to take advantage of the wonderful walking in the valley. There are other things to do and we did take a boat through an underground cave system but it was quite touristy and not really my thing - though others seemed to be enjoying it and it may be fun for kids. Overall that part of the experience reminded me of the sort of roadside attraction you might find in Hawaii.
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Dec 6th, 2016, 11:28 AM
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Cienfuegos was the least touristy of the places we went in Cuba and we really enjoyed it. I'm sure it's busier in the high season but it is a town that isn't entirely dependent on tourism and so there are lots of other things going on.

There was so much to learn in Cuba both about the contemporary social and political situation there but also about the colonial history of the island and it was in Cienfuegos and Trinidad that we began to get a sense for the colonization of Cuba, the sugar industry and slavery on the island.

Cienfuegos is another interesting place architecturally and we loved just roaming around as we had done in Havana. I picked the places to stay one availability but also because I was looking for English speaking hosts so we could learn as much as possible from the case particular owners and in Cienfuegos we rented a room from a retired Ophthalmologist (Dr Hernan) who provided another perspective on the Cuban situation.

The architecture in Cienfuegos draws from the French tradition and many of the founding members of the town came from New Orleans. The "Urban and Historic Center of Cienfuegos" was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005 for both the quality of its neoclassical architecture and because, according to UNESCO, "Cienfuegos is the first, and an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble representing the new ideas of modernity, hygiene and order in urban planning as developed in Latin America from the 19th century. Sounds good doesn't it!

We saw some great music here as we did in so many places in Cuba and we loved the stunning theatre which reminded us of the Opera house in the middle of the Amazon in Manaus Brazil. Lots of pictures of all the buildings on the blog.

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Dec 6th, 2016, 12:45 PM
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well, I'm here, WTB, and enjoying your report and photos very much.

Though we did slightly different things essentially I think we had the same sort of experience - lots of interaction with Cubans and a great time! Of course it's difficult to tell but the impression I had was that the people we spoke to were being reasonably honest about their lives, the hardships that they endure, and how they get round the system. We too met a number of professionals who were either supplementing their wages by being partially involved with the tourist industry, or who had gone over to tourism completely. One taxi driver we met said that as a barman he could earn in a few days what he would have been able to earn in month as a civil engineer if he had finished his degree. They were well aware of the impact that this brain drain was having on the country but as individuals felt compelled to make this choice for the sake of their families.

A few points I noticed:


I think that this is because europeans don't know that you can use ATMS, [it's not mentioned in the guide books] and in any event they need money to pay their taxi-drivers. Also I didn't see any ATMS at the airport, though I have to say I wasn't looking very hard. It was only when we got to Cienfuegos, [and realised that we might need a bit more money than we'd taken with us] that we decided to use an ATM and fortunately discovered that they worked fine with the cards that we had.

You also imply that tourists will be using CUCs exclusively during their trip - in fact there is no restriction on tourists using CUPs. All you need to do is to change a few CUCs into CUPs at the CADECA, and then you can use them for buying Peso pizzas, ice cream, fruit and other goods aimed at the locals. The only place you can't buy things is at the shop where cubans buy their rations, which are very cheap - and of course with the sorts of wages they have they need to be. I only mention this because on another thread someone said that tourists can't use CUPs which isn't correct.

glad you liked Cienfuegos - in a way we liked it more than Trinidad and certainly there were a lot of things to do round there; in that way it was better than Trinidad I think, though the nightlife was better there.

looking forward to more!
annhig is offline  
Dec 6th, 2016, 12:52 PM
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Thanks for posting, but one of the problems with holding of so long to post are that things have changed fast so "factual" information is well out of date already (regarding visas and cigars/rum, and several more points). Also, AirBnB charges much more than the casa owners receive, so better to use a site like CubaJunky to book directly.
SambaChula is offline  
Dec 6th, 2016, 05:46 PM
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I'm enjoying your trip report. I hoped that Cuba would completely open up but I'm still waiting. I'll have to live vicariously through others. You're not the only one who writes their trip reports a little late. It always takes me a while to get mine done. I'm looking forward to the rest of your trip report.
travelenthusiast is offline  
Dec 6th, 2016, 06:44 PM
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Annhig -Thanks for your reply. I'm always interested to hear your impressions and pleased that you liked the photos too. Cuba is one of the most visually arresting places I've visited - no wonder images of Havana etc are always so popular on Instagram,.

I have to say you were lucky to have the option to get money out at an ATM when you needed more. We hadn't budgeted for all the good meals and so we were cutting things pretty close by the time we got to the last few days and I would have loved the opportunity to get a little more cash.

You are of course entirely right that tourists can use CUPs and indeed we did exchange a small number of CUCs for CUPs too. We used them in a govt run shop to buy some local honey and at a small cafeteria to buy some drinks. I'd caution people against exchanging too much however as it may be hard to spend enough of them to merit the exchange, unless you're living on "Peso pizzas, ice cream, fruit and other goods aimed at the locals" !

While we were there we heard that there's a lot of talk about phasing out CUP but I don't know how accurate any of this speculation was and the economic impacts could be considerable.

There's just so much to say about Cuba that isn't included in my report as I found it was already rather too long. I felt we heard a wide range of perspectives contemporary life which reflected the complexity of the social and political situation in Cuba. There was clearly a great deal of frustration about wages, economic stagnation and the limited access to goods and services. We ran into those who were uniformly against the government and others who had great pride in the education they'd received, still others spoke of recent changes including declines in both education and healthcare service. Most of the Cubans we spoke with at any length were middle class, well educated and well informed politically. They had a far more sophisticated understanding of US politics than we had of their domestic political situation. A number of them had substantial concerns about what an American style "opening up" would look like and expressed pride in aspects of the Cuban way of doing things.

Your description of what you heard does sounds very familiar and jives with what we encountered.

At Fabrica del Arte (the warehouse art space i I mentioned above) we saw a neon piece that said something like "yesterday i was a graphic designer but today I'm a waitress". People do what they have to do, but a number of those we met said of course they'd prefer to be practicing in the professions they are trained in - like the computer programmer who gave us an architectural tour of Trinidad who was waiting for him Canadian immigration papers to come through.

Your enthusiasm for Cienfuegos was helpful in our deciding to go there and I agree we found it to be an interesting place and far less touristic than Trinidad which is a lovely town but even in the low season was periodically inundated by bus loads of people coming on day trips from the all inclusive resorts.

SambaChula -Thanks for your reply, you are correct that you can now bring Cuban products sold elsewhere in the world into the US.

I'm sure the Casa app at Cuban Junky works for lots of people and it is a good recommendation. I checked out the site before we left. However, the advantage of Airbnb was that you can see reviews of each property right there on the site and you could book online in real time which was a great convenience for us - and I think is something which would appeal to many travelers, particularly if you're putting a trip together at the last minute. Yes, many casa owners charge more on this platform. We had the option to book directly at Casa Bohemia in Havana but opted to pay extra with Airbnb so that we had the convenience of using a card over carrying more cash to Cuban or in that case, making a bank transfer to the Dominican Republic. In Cienfuegos and Trinidad we dealt directly with the case owners by email and settled the bill in cash. While it was efficient to use my concern about Airbnb is that it favors those who have contacts abroad.

I could be wrong but I believe the visa situation remains the same sham it was when we went - though it seems the costs for a visa are $50 when you take the direct US flights. I was interested however to read recently that American Airlines is already cutting back on the flights they scheduled. I don't know the situation but it may just been they overestimated demand or perhaps many Americans won't be comfortable traveling independently to Cuba until the travel rules are further clarified or relaxed.

We weren't worried and I see no problem, but then my next trip is to the Sudan and I went to Syria in March of 2011 so I'm not in any way risk adverse . I 'm an anthropologist by training and as travelers our trips generally focus on cultural exchange, history, art, and architecture. I don't believe we'll ever be asked to defend the purpose of our visit to Cuba and I'll take my chances. If required to do so I would be happy to outline our program.

Essentially I'm just saying that American citizens and residents should know they can organize their own trips and travel independently to Cuba if they wish to. Cuba is an extraordinary destination and we loved the short time we spent there. I'm certainly no expert on the region, but it's a great place to travel and I look forward to seeing lots more of the country in the future.
welltraveledbrit is offline  
Dec 6th, 2016, 06:51 PM
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travelenthusiast - Thanks for your comment and I'm glad you're enjoying the trip report, I spent far too much time on it today. I appreciate that I'm not the only one that takes time to finish their reports . I'm sure whenever you visit Cuba you will enjoy it. I wasn't overly enthused when we planned the trip but we were fascinated by the country.
welltraveledbrit is offline  
Dec 7th, 2016, 01:15 AM
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Agree with all you say, WTB, and with your background you were probably more able to understand the nuances than we were!

I understand your using airBnB in the circumstances as it makes it possible for americans to pay for accommodation before they leave, which is important when you are going to be limited to the cash you take into the country.

we ended up with about 100CUC when we couldn't find anything to buy at the airport so we changed them into € at the Cadeca in the departure lounge; we'd spent all the CUP. We didn't use them that much either but it was a way or interacting differently with the locals. The Aussies we met there used them all the time for food and drinks etc and were living very cheaply!

It is interesting that fewer americans may be going than had been expected; I agree that the problem may be that they are put off by the logistics of travelling independently and the continuing need to comply [at least on paper] with the US regs about what you can and can't do. It's probably a good thing though - we felt that the infrastructure was struggling to cope with the existing level of tourists so loads more were really going to put a strain on it.

It will be interesting what effect the new US Gov has upon the situation there, both for tourists and even more importantly, for the people of Cuba.
annhig is offline  
Dec 7th, 2016, 07:44 AM
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There is so much correct/incorrect/old/updated info out there on various forums right now, I'd just like to clarify a few points, since many of the same questions keep coming up:
“on Americans visiting -there's just a $25 visa you can pick up at the airport and you tick whichever box you like to describe your trip”
“we flew via Mexico City”

The point not addressed is that the visa/tourist card for those leaving directly from the US is PINK and is being sold at between U$50 and U$100, depending on the seller and the circumstances.
If leaving from anywhere else, the visa/tourist card is GREEN and sells for about U$20-25.
The visa/tourist card is a Cuban requirement.

The "tick box" for your reason of the OFAC 12 for travel to Cuba is a US requirement carried out and kept on file by the airlines.


“Apparently if you travel to Cuba you are entitled to bring a certain number of cigars back with you”

The old limits have been lifted recently, so the old "certain number" is no longer valid.

“We used Air BnB to book our accomodation and to be honest either apartments or Casa Particular (B&Bs) seem to be the best way to go in Cuba for us. You'll get local advice and your money goes more directly to local businesses.”
“I'm sure the Casa app at Cuban Junky works for lots of people and it is a good recommendation. I checked out the site before we left. However, the advantage of Airbnb was that you can see reviews of each property right there on the site and you could book online in real time which was a great convenience for us - and I think is something which would appeal to many travelers, particularly if you're putting a trip together at the last minute. Yes, many casa owners charge more on this platform”

It is not the casa owners charging more. It is AirBnB. If you want to support casa owners ("casas" include rooms in an individual's house, rooms with separate entrance in the same building as the owner's residence, and separate apartments), private enterprise in Cuba, to the max, use another site. If the issue is carrying all that much more money in cash, understand that the nightly rate is usually only about U$25, paid directly into the hands of the casa owners, which just does not add up to that much. Plus, Cuba seemed very secure, and many casa have safes. Yes, I took a lot of extra cash….and ended up spending most of it.; Cuba was very expensive IMO. And yes, there are reviews and photos of the casas on the CubaJunky site.

One other point is that Stonegate offers to US citizens a credit card that works for ATMs in Cuba and for any point of sale places that accept credit cards. (There are few of those "point of sale"s though.) Give yourself enough time to apply.

“it may just been they overestimated demand or perhaps many Americans won't be comfortable traveling independently to Cuba until the travel rules are further clarified or relaxed.”

It’s great that you’re publicizing the opportunity.
The airlines certainly did not help themselves with the manner in which they handled initial flights, with customer service staff (still) not having any information to inform potential or booked travelers.
There is a lot of speculation and uncertainty right now on various forums about what might happen if the rules are changes in January or soon thereafter and people already have reservations for flights and hotels.
I think that demand won’t be high, not only until travel rules are further relaxed, but also that US citizens have access to the same type of travel packages for resorts, with direct travel there, that are available to Canadians for example.
Thanks again for the very interesting and readable trip report.
SambaChula is offline  
Dec 7th, 2016, 08:46 AM
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I understand the political landscape and the "special relationship between the US and Cuba but I have to say I just don't get the level of concern and minutiae that discussions of going to Cuba seem to generate, both here and elsewhere.

It's just not that hard to go there, even for Americans. You have options, they change.


On a lighter note perhaps an impressionistic approach is the way to share our Cuban experience. I wrote this at the end of our trip, feel free to add your own!


The taxis are older than your husband - most are classic American car built before 1960...

You haven't checked email in a week, your ATM card doesn't work and you're having a great time.

Complete strangers call you "Mi amor" and a woman in line at the Cambio kissed you goodbye after a brief conversation.

The bicycle taxi driver can hold forth on the US elections, all the latest TV series while riffing on Fidel, Che, Mickey Mouse and Hilter without offending anyone ! 

Your old phone with the broken camera is great gift.

You're carrying a ton of cash but you feel totally safe.

You're having sophisticated discussions about public policy, social cohesion and political change daily.

There's an apparent  shortage of toilet seats in public loos and all the paper has to go in the nearby bin.

You can't find advertisements for anything other than the Revolution.

You can get fabulous food in a sophisticated surroundings but it costs about three months wages for the average government worker.

You go to a museum and the staff are intent on selling you trinkets or soliciting tips.

You hear fabulous music everywhere, on the street, in cafes and restaurants.

Your BnB is rum by two doctors and it generates way more than their salaries.

You think perhaps you could become a good dancer!

You're drinking copious quantities of daiquiris and pina coladas even though you thought you didn't like rum.

You presume the government got a job lot on green and blue paint because every second house is painted the same color! 

Your guide is likely a lawyer, economist or university professor in their other life.

Everyday you're surprised by the beauty, resilience and the warmth of this country.
welltraveledbrit is offline  
Dec 7th, 2016, 12:01 PM
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great list, WTB!
annhig is offline  
Dec 7th, 2016, 01:13 PM
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Love those impressions, wtb!

"I have to say I just don't get the level of concern and minutiae that discussions of going to Cuba seem to generate, both here and elsewhere.
It's just not that hard to go there, even for Americans. You have options, they change."

The majority of us Americans are totally out of the loop on anything Cuban. Hence the attention to "minutiae". Many folks have to ask the basic questions, as for any new place; most are not travelers to places that even require a visa, let alone the back-of-beyond(s) you seem to consider normal. The "concern" is perhaps with our own government showing up on our doorsteps as we heard happened before(shades of McCarthy-ism IMO,which you Brits did not suffer, and decades of Cuba-as-the-bogeyman). Hence the importance of attention to detail. Call it tourist card or call it visa. Green tourist card vs. pink tourist card. Where do you get it? What is the process? Cost? (Our airline's customer service doesn't even know.) How long is it good for? How to get insurance? Where? Process? How many bottles of rum to spend our cash on? Don't want to lose the money in that cash we are nervous about traveling with (no recourse to credit cards or ATMs) and get the booze/cigars confiscated at the border re-entry. Are we going to get dragged into an isolated airport room on return, passports confiscated, to be interrogated for hours? All unknowns, particularly for the cruise-to-the-Caribbean or Europe-on-a-tour crowd. Get it now?
SambaChula is offline  
Dec 7th, 2016, 01:15 PM
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Oh, and I've answered those questions on various forums about 6 times just this week, so that's why I'd rather post beforehand.
Sorry if you think your thread got hijacked.
SambaChula is offline  
Dec 7th, 2016, 02:30 PM
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Samba Chula - Fair enough , I can appreciate the distinction you are making without relating to it. You're right I'm just not that kind of traveller and by nature I'm fairly relaxed. No worries about hijacking the thread, there's room for discussion and differences in perspective. I'm glad you like the impressions list.

As a foreigner who has been dragged into one of those back rooms at immigration and told to sit next to the guy who was handcuffed to the chair I do indeed understand the mighty power of the US government. I just don't operate from fear - which is probably how I ended up in Iran and Syria. But having lived in the United States for 25 years I'm well aware it's part of the modus operandi here.

I think we probably agree that Cuba is a great destination for curious, independent travelers and it's probably best for people who've can navigate the multiple small hassles. I can see it could be taxing in the extreme for many of the people you've mentioned. I think a cruise visit ultimately may be a superior option for some or a tour (organized through a local agency) that structures your trip and/or a driver and guide.

Annhig - glad you like the list which is probably far too long!

I agree, we thought the same thing. We were there in the low season but I can't imagine how crowded places like Trinidad gets at Christmas.
welltraveledbrit is offline  
Dec 7th, 2016, 07:04 PM
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As of a few weeks ago, the restriction to bring Cuban cigars back from "3rd party" countries (i.e. other than Cuba) to the US has been lifted. Now, your husband could bring them back even if he had brought them from Mexico.

The limitations are, the first 100 cigars are duty free, and after that you pat 4% duty upon entry into the US. So you can take any amount in, as long as you are not reselling them, from any country in the world.
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