The second trip; originally posted on my 'blog (with photos!)

Intro and Getting Permission
December 2003 - January 2004

Arlo’s Guide to Traveling in Cuba

In December of 1999 I made my first trip down to Cuba. The University of Alaska, Southeast offered a month-long experiential learning class on the Language and Culture of Cuba. I went as a student and discovered that our media-inspired American fears about communist Cuba were completely unfounded. Just last month I completed my second UAS class in Cuba – going this time as a co-instructor. My second visit only confirmed what I already knew – Cuba is an amazing country; easily the most friendly and safest place I’ve ever been!

In the next few postings, I plan to use my weblog as travel guide of sorts for Cuba. If you have the opportunity to go, I hope that it will be useful. If you’re looking for a place to spend some vacation time, perhaps it will help you decide where. And maybe, just maybe, I can dispel some of our American propaganda against Cuba along the way...

Part the First: Getting Permission

Back in the 1950s, Fidel Castro looked to our government for help in overthrowing the Batista dictatorship. The United States was only too happy to lend a hand, but they took it as a slap in the face when, after taking control of Cuba, Castro opted to create a totalitarian communist government. Remember, this is in the late 50s / early 60s and communism wasn’t exactly popular. Things got worse when Russia moved in with their support.

Ever since those difficult political times, the U.S. has adhered to a strong economic embargo against Cuba. While seeing vintage American cars from the 40s and 50s on the streets of Havana is an amazing side effect to such tactics, it unfortunately means that traveling to Cuba for the average American has become rather more difficult.

The embargo doesn’t actually deny Americans access to Cuba – it just makes it so we can’t pay any money to any Cubans or any Cuban businesses. That makes it difficult to pay for a hotel, food, or for that matter, a plane ticket to get there.

Since the embargo (or El Bloqueo, as they call it in Cuba) is a trade embargo against Cuba, we have to petition The U.S. Department of the Treasury for permission to circumvent the regulations. Luckily, there are many reasons for which they’ll grant permission – humanitarian reasons, journalistic reasons, medical reasons, athletic reasons… and, of course, educational ones, too. Be prepared to wait awhile for them to make their decision, though. Apparently there’s a lot of red tape to get through. And hey, if after waiting a couple months, you get an unsatisfactory answer, don’t give up. It’s quite easy to get into Cuba illegally, too!

Many Americans are discovering Cuba right now simply by catching a flight from Mexico or Canada. Obviously those two countries don’t honor our embargo against our communist neighbors to the south and their airlines companies are more than happy to ferry you over for a reasonable price.

Just try not to get caught. I’ve heard a rumor that President Bush has started putting U.S. personnel in foreign airports just to stem the tide of vacationing Americans. If they get you, you can expect to pay fines up to $10,000 and/or face some prison time.

But seriously, it’s not as risky as all that makes it sound. Cuba will welcome you with open arms – they want your tourist dollars – and they know better than to do something obvious like stamp your passport. In fact, even if you ask them to stamp your passport they’ll look at you funny because the vast majority of Americans passing through their immigration counters are visiting Cuba illegally! I had to explain to them that I really did want a stamp because my own government had granted me permission to be there.

You shouldn’t have any problems returning to Mexico or Canada, either. Just make sure not to bring home any obvious giveaways when you cross back into the States. A box of Cohiba cigars or a bottle of Cuban rum will probably raise a few eyebrows on your way through the U.S. customs!

Getting to Cuba

Part the Second : Getting to Cuba

Because it’s so difficult for an American company to do business with Cuba, it can be quite an ordeal to find a flight from the U.S. If you’ve got all your Treasury ducks in a row, though, it is possible.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of run-of-the-mill, passenger flights out of Miami. From what I’ve been able to gather, most of them are filled with Cuban-Americans visiting their families. They can only get a visa for 21 days total in a year, though, and flights around Christmas are usually full. If you’re thinking about going to Cuba when it’s all chilly and cold up north – what better time? – then you better plan ahead and buy your tickets in September.

Gulfstream Air, Tico Travel, and Marazul Charters are some likely candidates to get you started. We used Tico Travel on our first trip and while they got us there and back, we had some hitches that made the trip more worrisome that it needed to be (although they made right with everything in the end.) Gulfstream is a company owned by Continental Airlines and we used them on our second trip. If things go well, expect to pay roughly $350 round trip from Miami to Havana. If plans blow up in you face, you can still get there for $9014!

Let me explain.

Due to internal problems, our Spanish class at UAS was cancelled and then reinstated. Because we were in limbo, we couldn’t buy our tickets until mid-November. With only a month left before our scheduled departure, there weren’t any passenger flights left. Instead of being able to simply pay $350 each for our tickets, we had to look into more creative options.

We called all the normal places, or at least the ones we could find on the Internet. Gulfstream was still willing to take us if we wanted to charter our own 19-seat turboprop, but at $8200 we decided to keep looking. In researching our dilemma, I felt reassured that there were so many ways one could get to the forbidden Caribbean island! For example:

1) You can charter a boat out of Key West… if you can find a captain who is licensed by the U.S. government to take you.
2) You can buy passage on a speedy ferry from Miami to Freeport, and then Freeport to Nassau. From Nassau you can fly to Cuba.
3) You can fly from Miami to Jamaica and then take a relatively inexpensive day-trip cruise to Santiago, Cuba.
4) Or you can charter your own plane from a number of companies out of Miami.

Unfortunately, while all these options are possibilities, not all of them are practical. For the dates we needed it, I couldn’t find any boats out of Key West, and all the flight/boat options were almost as expensive as chartering our own plane… or at least would have been after paying extra for the necessary visas.

Eventually I found an online flight broker in Miami at 1.866.FLY.ISLANDS (also called Air Charters Bahamas.) The guy on the other end of the phone line quoted me a price of $7200 for all 12 of us and, after exhausting ourselves trying to find anything better, we snatched it up. We shouldn’t have.

With three weeks to go, we FedEx’d the company 12 individual credit card transaction agreements. He confirmed their arrival and assured us that everything was okay. I began to concern myself with getting tourist visas (because, unlike Gulfstream, he couldn’t arrange that for us) and assumed that we would work out tickets and flight instructions a few days later. 1.866.FLY.ISLANDS continued to reassure me through e-mail that our flight would be ready when we got to Miami… right up until three days before we left Alaska.

That’s right, the guy at 1.866.FLY.ISLANDS neglected to ask the owner of the aircraft if he had permission to fly into Cuba. He didn’t. In a desperate bid to hang onto his commission, he told us that he might be able to find us another charter out of Nassau, but it would likely be double the cost. With three days left, I told him to take a flying leap and then, because I was responsible for arranging flights for 12 people, I panicked.

Well, no, not actually. I called in some help. Rick, the university’s Spanish instructor, had been the one dealing with Gulfstream earlier in the process when we discarded them based on their higher prices. Without time on our side, we decided to bite the bullet and pay the $9014 charter fee. The good news was that they were able to arrange a plane for us in under 72 hours and that the sky-high price would at least include our tourist visas. The bad news was that they would only accept payment from one source. Luckily, at the last minute, our university came to the rescue.

In the end, we learned that there are some nice benefits to chartering your own aircraft. For instance, there are no seat assignments! On the smaller planes, every seat is a window seat… and an aisle seat! Also, if you show up to the airport early and clear security in a reasonable amount of time, you don’t have to wait in the lobby afterwards – the plane is ready to leave when you are!

We also learned to avoid 1.866.FLY.ISLANDS.

Okay, assuming that you get your flight (or cruise ship, or submarine, or whatever) arranged, there are still a few other things you should know about getting into Cuba.

1) Even if you’re traveling under an educational permit like we did, you’ll still need a tourist visa issued by Cuba. (There is such a thing as a student visa, but you’ll only get one if you’re studying with a Cuba institution.) My Lonely Planet guide tells me that it’s possible to wait until you get to the Jose Martí International Airport to pay for your visa, but they also caution against it. What if you’re turned down after going all the way to Cuba? Then again, I know that hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans are going to Cuba illegally via Mexico and Canada. There must be a system in place for them to get their Cuban visas upon arrival – it’s not like they can purchase them ahead of time in the States!

2) Unless you’re really inconspicuous, you’ll probably have to go through Cuban immigration and customs upon arrival. Really, it’s not a big deal. I speak a little Spanish, so it was possible for me to answer the immigration official’s questions as he looked over my passport. I met many non-Spanish speaking tourists while in Cuba, though, so they must be familiar with those types as well.

After getting your visa stamped (and your passport, if you ask for it), you'll proceed through customs. Customs consists of a walk-through metal detector for you and a conveyer-belt metal detector for your carry-on luggage. Honestly, the attendants don’t seem overly concerned if you beep or not. Both times I did and was brusquely waved through. Don’t ask me to explain the rules… we’re not in America any more!

Once in the airport, you can look for any bags you may have checked. I know there’s a luggage carousel there, I’ve seen it, but the airlines don’t appear to use it. Twice now, we’ve found our bags in a pile in the middle of the lobby. It might pay to check over the contents of your bag before leaving. I’m not sure you could do anything if something was stolen, but I suppose it’s worth a try. Better idea: Don’t check any valuable items on the flight in the first place.

Also, I should note that out of two groups of a dozen people each, I was the only one selected (both times!) for questioning before I was allowed to leave the airport. The first time was because I spoke up for the group (in Spanish) and a government official latched onto me. The second time was because my bag was flagged.

Each time I was detained for about 20 minutes and answered many, many questions about our planned stay in Cuba. My understanding is that they were most concerned that we were there preach the virtues of the American culture to their citizens or something. At any rate, if you speak to them honestly and answer their questions patiently, everything should be fine (unless you are planning to instigate something – in that case I guess you should probably lie and then casually whistle so they don't think you're up to anything.) Also, they’ll probably want to know where you’re staying and what cities you plan to visit. Heck, we hadn’t decided on anything, but they bought it when I told them we had reservations at the Hotel Colina.

A couple tips: When an official leads you away for questioning, ask your friends to wait for you outside. And play dumb when they find fingernail clippers in your bag.

That’s it. Once you make it past the front doors, you’ll find yourself in a swarming crowd of gesturing people, 90% of whom seem to be asking you if you want a taxi. Find one who’s willing to take you into the heart of Havana for under $15 and you’re on your way!

Money in Cuba

Part the Third: Money in Cuba

If you’re anything like me, then your first couple days in Cuba will likely be spent roaming the streets of Havana, admiring the architecture, dodging illicit cigar sellers, and shooting roll after roll of film. After that you’ll spend the next two weeks scratching your head, trying to figure out how the Cuban monetary system works.

Let’s back up a bit.

The first and biggest problem you’ll have (as an American traveler) starts before you even leave the States. You see, that senseless embargo is going to raise its ugly head and bite you in the ass again.

Remember that no American companies are allowed to support Cuba in any monetary way. While in Cuba you won’t be able to access your bank account with an ATM card. Nor will you be able to use any credit card that is issued by an American bank. You can’t use traveler’s checks, either. Western Union won’t even be able to transfer money to you in Cuba! (However; I understand that it is possible to send money via Western Union to a Cuban citizen with an existing Western Union account.)

How can an American refill their wallet while in Cuba? For all intents and purposes, they can’t.

What’s an ATM-accustomed traveler to do? Bring all the money they’ll need for the entire trip, in cash, with them! For me, that meant walking the streets of Havana with about $1,200 in twenties on me. Sounds crazy, but it’s really not that bad.

Cuba is easily the safest and friendliest country I’ve ever been to. As far as I know, in two trips with a total of 25 people (and over $25,000 at risk!), we’ve never lost a single dollar to thievery. Oh, we’ve been scammed a bit and a person or two has lost some money, but if you use common sense and don’t walk around with bills hanging out of every pocket you should feel very safe indeed.

The more important consideration is making sure you bring enough money in the first place. How much is enough? That depends on how you like to travel. On our trips to Cuba, we’ve definitely been on the budget travel track. We shoot for a goal of $20 total per day. Budgeting like that can be tough, certainly. That $20 per day includes meals, housing, transportation… and not much else. Bring more if you want to travel in style or go on tours (caving, horseback riding, beach excursions, shows, etc.) or if you want to return home with souvenirs (cigars, rum, artwork, etc.) Play your cards right, though, and $20 will make you very comfortable and extremely well fed. Budget travel in Cuba does not mean uncomfortable travel!

Both times I traveled through Cuba, I took $1,200 of cold, hard cash. Loaded with twenties (hundreds – even fifties – are quite hard to break) I stashed the money in many different locations just in case something happened. In my wallet, in a pair of dirty socks, in the zippered pouch of my backpack, hidden in a moleskin bag buried in my shaving kit, etc. Wherever you decide to put it, make sure you do two things: 1) Remove it from your bag before checking your luggage on a flight, and 2) write down all the places where your money is stashed. We’ve never had a problem with searched bags, but nowadays you have to assume they’re all searched by the airlines and it’s easy to imaging a security guard pocketing $500 without a moral struggle. Also, with money hidden in every nook and cranny, it’s easy to forget where you’ve hidden it all! What you might temporarily think has been stolen may actually have simply been overlooked – you don’t need that kind of stress. I don’t like them, but anther option many people swear by are hidden money belts and neck pouches. To each their own.

(By the way, if you’re planning on reaching Cuba via Canada, you might look into setting up a credit card or Visa check card account along the way. Possibly less hassle would be to look into buying some Thomas Cook traveler’s checks. I hear they’re quite useful in Cuba. In any event, it would probably be good to have a backup plan, just in case your available funds plummet during your trip. Remember, there isn’t even an American embassy in Cuba to bail you out. Be careful.)

Let’s move on.

The Cuban economy. It’s confusing enough that it takes a concerted effort to get to the bottom of things.

There are five valid currencies in Cuba. Five. There’s the U.S. dollar, the Euro, Convertible Pesos, National Pesos, and coin change. Technically, the coin change belongs to both of the two types of pesos, but it’s confusing enough to warrant an explanation.

Let’s start with the foreign stuff. That’s easier to deal with. The U.S. dollar has been officially declared a usable currency by the Cuban government. Four years ago, that wasn’t the case, though that didn’t stop anyone from using them. Prices all over Cuba are tied to the U.S. dollar and it’s very easy to get by using nothing else. Pay careful attention to written prices, though. Only dollar signs with two strikes through the “S” denote U.S. dollar prices. If the “S” has only one strike, it’s a price in National Pesos.

I’m not from Europe so I can’t comment on the effectiveness or exchange rate of the Euro in Cuba. Many people told me that you could use it, though, and that makes since considering the amount of Europeans I saw down there. As an anecdotally supporting argument, many kids on the street tried to sell back Euro coins to me – right up until they learned that I’m from the U.S. and have no use for them back home.

Right. Let’s get to the confusing stuff.

Convertible pesos are bills and coins issued by the Cuban government that exactly match the value of the U.S. dollar. The shinier, newer, and heavier Convertible change is everywhere, but Convertible bills are fairly rare on the street. Why? Because Cuban citizens are paid in National Pesos. (I suppose there are plenty of Convertible Peso bills circulating around the more expensive hotels and resorts, but we didn’t often frequent such places.) Convertible Peso change comes in 50 cents, 25 cents, 10 cents and 5 cents, just like in the U.S. Convertible Peso change is very useful in Cuba, but strangely U.S. coin change is worthless, even though its value is tied to the U.S. dollar.

National Pesos bills are far more common, though National Peso coin change is rare. At the casas de cambio and on the streets, the exchange rate for National Pesos to U.S. dollars should be around 26:1. (Incidentally, Cuba was the only place I’ve seen where the casas de cambio have signs in the window saying: Compra: 26.00, Venta: 0.00! They’ll take your dollars, but you can’t sell back your pesos!) Let’s round it down to 25:1 so that a National Peso easily calculates to about 4 cents. National Peso change is, therefore, just a fraction of 4 cents. I suppose that’s reason enough why you don’t often get much of that lightweight, tinny change… there’s just not much to buy with it! (Except, sometimes, ice cream cones. It’s worth hanging onto the occasional half-peso piece for that alone!)

So, if the U.S. dollar is so useful in Cuba, why should we, as tourists, care about Cuban currency at all? Well, once you learn the system, there are some great deals to be had if you have some National Pesos in your pocket. For instance, think about that ice cream cone. At a half-peso, that amounts to roughly 2 cents. If you only have a dollar in your pocket, I guess you could buy 50… Even if you had the smallest Convertible coin change, a 5 cent piece, you’re still overpaying by 2.5 times.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal when we’re talking about street vendors selling ice cream cones, but when you get to a restaurant it can be a big deal (especially when you’re trying to stick to just $20 a day.) Tourist restaurants always charge American prices: $3 for a sandwich, $1.50 for a soda, $7 for fish, and so on. But if you go just a little bit outside the tourists areas in town, you’ll quickly discover many first-rate Cuban restaurants that use National Peso prices. Anyone can find a meal in Cuba for $5… but a seasoned group of 5 tourists can find places that will serve them all for just 50 pesos (about $2.00 U.S.!)

(You may have to persevere to get that low a price. Often times, Cuban restaurants will want you to pay the same prices in U.S. dollars. 10 pesos for a meal. Oh, you’re a foreigner? You pay 10 dollars. The only advantage – if you can consider it one – is that they’ll doubtless escort you right past the line of Cubans waiting outside. Personally, I don’t prefer that kind of preferential treatment.)

With all these ways in which a person can pay for something, so, too, are there many ways to deceitfully separate a tourist from their money. Here are some things to watch out for:

1) Know the exchange rate between U.S. dollars and the National Peso. Don’t exchange money with someone on the street unless you know that you’re getting the right amount. Check with a bank or with a casa de cambio to be sure, but if nothing else, make sure to ask a few different, unrelated people on the street before changing money.

2) Convertible Pesos have the word “Convertible” printed on the bill. Don’t believe anyone who tries to sell you a Convertible Peso that says otherwise. Chances are, they’re trying to get you to buy a National Peso at 1/26th its value.

3) Know the difference between Convertible change and National change. Someone might try to mix in some National coins when they should be giving you Convertible coins. If nothing else, recognize that National coins feel very light in your hand, and they’re usually less shiny. Convertible coins are always silver.

4) Pay attention to those printed dollars signs! Cuban businesses are pretty good about using the “single-strike dollar sign” for National Peso prices and the “double-strike dollar sign” to denote U.S. dollar prices. But if you whip out a U.S. dollar when you’re not paying attention, I’ll bet they’ll call your bluff and take it!

There are other scams to watch out for, but for the most part they’re the same annoyances to watch out for in any foreign country. For instance, cab drivers will know that you’re a tourist and try to set their prices higher accordingly. The best way to combat something like this is to ask a lot of questions – find out how much typical things cost before you’re put in a position where you have to buy them. And make sure you’re asking someone that isn’t actually trying to sell you something – if you suspect one driver gave you an inflated price to get to Old Havana, it doesn’t make much sense to ask another cab driver how much it costs!

Remember, too, that Cuba is a lot like other Latin American countries in that they expect you to haggle a bit over the price. Unless you’re in store with posted prices, you can usually get them to come down from their first offer quite a bit. This is especially important when buying things at the market, catching a cab ride, and arranging for housing…

Wow. Great segue.

Finding a Place to Stay

Part the Fourth: Part the First: Finding a Place to Stay

Even something as simple as finding a decent place to stay in Cuba can be challenging. Not because decent places are in short supply, but rather because the system isn’t quite what most tourists are expecting.

Of course, the most common option is to go in search of a hotel, right? Well, you’re in luck. In most towns that tourists are likely to visit, the government will have plenty of hotels set up for you. (Remember, every business in communist Cuba is owned by the government – if you hold out for a private hotel, you'll end up sleeping on a park bench.) Cuban hotels, in my experience, come in three varieties: “normal,” resort, and Cuban-only.

Unless you’re already Cuban (and if you are, why are you reading this travel guide?) it’s a difficult sell to convince them that you should be able to stay in a Cuban-only hotel, so let’s just discard that option. Resorts are expensive, at least in relation to other costs in Cuba. If you want to spend $40-$50 per night, per person, be my guest. Might as well rent a car while you’re at it, too. But if you’re traveling on a budget, the normal hotels are probably your only option.

Sorry, but I can’t help you there. The only “normal” Cuban hotel I’ve stayed in is the Hotel Colina in Havana, and then only because it was picked out of our guidebook when we were planning our trip. Hotel Colina, while cheaper by far than the resorts, will still destroy a $20-per-day budget in one crushing blow. After they found an extra cot, we were able to pack four people to a room… and the stay still cost us about $22 each!

For your money, though, it’s not that bad. The Hotel Colina has a bar/restaurant where your respectable breakfast is included. Hot water is fairly reliable and the bathrooms have towels, toilet paper, and usually a toilet seat. The elevator was out the last time we were there, though, so ask for a room on one of the lower floors – hey, while you’re at it, you might ask for one that doesn’t face the front street. It can be quite noisy at night.

So, if one can’t afford a month in hotels, what’s a budget traveler to do? Stay with the locals.

When Señor Castro opened Cuba up to tourism he enabled families to purchase a permit that allows them to house foreigners. These houses are called Casas Particulares (Private Houses) and they are designated by a white sticker with a stylized blue house affixed somewhere near the door. The costs associated with staying in these houses are negotiable, but you shouldn’t have trouble finding them as low as $7.50/night in some towns.

It’s quite interesting how these Casas operate. The government requires the owners to put up $125 each month for their permits. When even a doctor’s wage is only around $30 per month, that’s a high price tag. They’re able to charge whatever they’re able (how that’s not capitalism, I don’t know), but the catch is that any profits they earn above and beyond $125 must be put back into the house. Because of this, Casas Particulares are often far better in appearance, not to mention comfort, than the typical Cuban home.

Casas Particulares all across the country seem to have the same trappings, too. It must be a government mandate, or at least a guideline, that all accommodations have a decent bed, a lock on the door, a touch-sensitive lamp, hot water in the shower (but never the sink!), and air conditioning. Also, I got the distinct impression that the vast majority of the rooms that they rent out are not solely for tourists – when the have no paying company, the rooms are in use by the family. Sometimes they’ll vacate the house to make room for you, sometimes you’ll see them camped out on the couch. It’s sad to think that you’re displacing someone from their own home, but I guess in hindsight, they’re more than willing to put up with the occasional inconvenience to better their own surroundings.

So just how does one go about finding a decent Casa Particular? It’s easy.

Walk around. Ask some questions. Of course, it’ll be considerably easier if you speak Spanish, but even if you don’t, you’re likely to run into people all the time that want to help you find something. Cigars are a top seller, apparently, but finding you a casa is right up there with a taxi, a good restaurant, or a prostitute (in that order.) Sure, you can use your guidebook, too, but in our experience there were so few Casas Particulares listed that they were always booked by the time we got there. Also, since the market seems very volatile (because of the need to make $125 each and every month, and to dodge heavy governmental penalties for bending the rules), a casa that’s there for one visit many be gone the next.

Trust me; it’ll be easy enough to find a place. Once you find out that they have beds available the real fun begins. It’s hagglin’ time! How much is the room going to cost? How many people can they house (if you’re traveling in a group?) Are dinners/breakfasts required? How much would the room cost without them? I also recommend holding out for a friendly family, as that can make a huge difference in your stay. Before you rush into your new room and explode your backpack, consider the vibe you got meeting them at the door. Feel welcome already? You’ll probably leave wondering how you ever got by without a few Cubans in your extended family.

Once you’re ready to depart, it’ll actually be easier to find a Casa Particular in the next town. Why? Because it’s very likely that the place you’re vacating is a part of network of friends and informal business partners all across Cuba. If you let them, they’ll call ahead and arrange everything for you – if their friends’ don’t have space, it’s a sure thing that their friend’s friends will!

A few caveats about going the network route. First, it’s so hard for Cuban families to keep earning $125 each month that they value reciprocal business greatly. If you agree to stay with one of their friends, be aware that backing out will hurt some feelings. Also, Casa Particulares owners will respect their chain to a fault. There will be times when every casa in a small town’s network is full and rather than direct you to a casa outside their chain, they’ll tell you that there are no vacancies anywhere in town. It’s understandable, in a way, because they can get ousted from a valuable network for sending you to the competition, but it’s frustrating for the tourist that’s needs a place to drop their pack.

I should also mention that it’s sometimes hard to work around the restrictions that the State has placed upon the Casas Particulares. In the four years separating my two visits, I noticed a big difference in the enforcement of the rules and regulations. Even though some families are willing to bend the rules further than others, in almost every case, there were more restrictions on the latter trip. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal for a couple traveling, but as a group it’s always more frustrating when they only let two of us stay together in a house, would not let others from our own group come over for dinner, or even (in Baracoa) when they forced every visitor to present their passport and sign in. It’s unfortunate that the government is making it so hard for the Casa Particular system to thrive – they don’t get money from it like they do the hotels – because it’s simply one of the best aspects of travel in Cuba!

One more thing: The home cooked meals you’ll get in the Casas Particulares are the best meals in Cuba. We’ll get to that in a future commentary.

In general, Cubans are exceedingly friendly towards tourists and because of that you can always find an accommodation even if there are no hotels or Casas Particulares available. For instance:

At times it can be enlightening to leave the beaten path and find something well away from the tourist centers of Cuba. Here’s a tip, though: Believe people when they tell you that there won’t be a place to stay! On our first trip, I was a part of a group of five students that decided to check out the north coast of Cuba. We arrived in Sagua la Grande and discovered that indeed there were no lodgings for tourists. The one hotel was full and there wasn’t a single, official Casa Particular in the whole city – at least not one we could find. That doesn’t mean that by sitting in the park with our bags, offers didn’t come in. As twilight descended, we gave up on all the overpriced rooms with which people were trying to swindle us and decided to go with a friendly guy who told us we could stay with his family for $5 each. We found ourselves in the 3rd floor of a Soviet-style apartment building, and with chickens under the sink and a pig on the balcony, the poverty level was very much evident. Still, aside from having a shattered porcelain toilet, 2 beds for 5 people, and a nighttime mosquito attack the likes of which the world has never known, our host family was quite friendly and we enjoyed our stay.

After an exceedingly long bus ride of 18+ hours, our entire group arrived in Baracoa at 1am – 7 hours after we had told our casa to expect us. Unfortunately by that late hour, they had given our reservations to someone else. Even though they took us all over town, in the middle of the night, they were not able to find room for a single person – nothing in the hotels, nothing in the resort, and, obviously, nothing in their casa chain. Just when we were resigning ourselves to sleeping in the park, someone had the bright idea to ask the resort if we could just crash in their lobby. I had my doubts, but not only did they let us camp out on the lobby couches and poolside lounge chairs, they let us do it for free! As if that show of generosity wasn’t enough, our driver even offered to let us sleep on his bus as a last resort!)

When leaving Viñales we decided to take advantage of a casa chain. Trusting our host to see us through, we made the mistake of not asking the price of our reservations in Playa Girón. By the time we got there, our group faced a small town with limited accommodations and rooms in our name for $23.50 each. No worries – those on a budget (or just feeling adventurous) decided to spend the second night around a campfire on the beach.

On the eve of the new millennium, our group decided to spend New Year’s Eve on a beach in Racho Luna, near Cienfuegos. Not knowing what the night might be like, we wanted to have a place to return to if the weather turned bad. There were two choices in the area, each at opposite ends of the beach. On the one hand we had the Faro Luna Resort – a hoppin’ place full of Europeans and Canadians. Even if we could have afforded a room, they had all been reserved months in advance. Maybe half a kilometer away there was a Cuban-only hotel, practically empty. When a few of us went up to ask if we could rent a room “just in case,” one that we probably wouldn’t even need, their answer was a flat “no.” A little prying here and needling there and we discovered what the problem really was – they were not allowed to accept money from tourists. Fine, then. What can we do for a room? Oh, you need some cleaning supplies? Sure, we can get those for you. The next day we showed up with mops, detergent, brooms, and all sorts of cleaning stuff that totaled up to far more than the peso-room was worth. They were more than happy to let us stay in exchange for a few items that were hard (for them) to come by. (And it certainly didn’t hurt to open up the conversation with big puppy-dog eyes and a “but we’re students…!”)

In Santiago de Cuba we somehow stumbled onto a Casa Particular of a different sort. While the door had the characteristic white-and-blue sticker, the rooms turned out to be our own apartments. Our Russian apartment building rose 25 stories into the sky about 10 blocks from Plaza Céspedes. The halls were desolate and the elevator only let you off on every fourth floor, but it was nice to have such high balconies to watch the sunrise and sunset. Plus, with your own set of keys, you never had to feel guilty about coming in late at night, waking up your hosts.

When we arrived in Trinidad during the highest part of the tourist high season (between Christmas and New Year’s), we were lucky to find any rooms at all. Since four of us had arrived earlier in the day, we were able to snatch up two rooms at a hostel, but by the time the rest of the group arrived, vacant casas were impossible to find. Nothing at all turned up after wandering for a half hour, having people phone their contacts, even inspecting an out-of-the-way place via sidecar… Eventually, standing in the street with backpacks and dejected expressions did the trick. In no time someone came up and offered to take them to an “illegal house.” Okay, don’t freak out. Illegal houses are simply houses where the families are willing to put you up… even though they don’t have Fidel’s permission to do so. The penalties are quite steep – for them, not for tourists – so they’ll be very careful not to draw attention to the fact, but if you’re willing to be discreet, the situation can be mutually agreeable.

Many times on our trips, people in our group have accepted invitations to stay with people that they met in Cuba. While these are also not official Casa Particular situations, they’re not breaking any rules. The government is concerned about money and if they don’t charge you anything for your stay, they’re not breaking any rules.

Cuba’s tourist-handling situation is remarkably different than the other Latin American countries I’ve traveled through. I suspect that’s due in large part to their communist economy and its inability to support entrepreneurial private business. Whatever the case, they’ve come up with a great system that is inexpensive and, more importantly, makes you feel right at home.

Housing Recommendations

Part the Fourth: Part the Second: Housing Recommendations

La Havana (Vedado)
Hotel Colina

I mentioned the relative lack of bad associated with the Hotel Colina in my last post and should start this one off by recommending it wholly. The Hotel Colina is a little pricey and not at all what one would consider a 4-star hotel, but it gets the job done. We’ve also used the Hotel Colina as a get-out-of-airport free card – remember that you might have to tell an official where you’re planning to stay. (I don’t know what they’d do if you told them you didn’t know, but do you really want to risk that?)

The Hotel Colina is also located in a good spot, worthy of being the starting point for your tour of Cuba. Situated at the top of a hill in the Vedado district, the hotel is right next to the University of Havana – one of those good neighborhoods. If you happen to point your walking shoes downhill, you’ll find yourself on the scenic Malecón. From there you can see the Moorish fort that houses Havana’s harbor lighthouse. Within walking distance, the lighthouse is a great landmark for all things Old Havana – The Prado, Calle Obispo, the Museos de Bellas Artes and la Revoluccion.

Rooms at the Hotel Colina are not terribly cheap – expect to pay about $40 a night for two people. Also, the service can be hit-or-miss. While the women at the desk will get to you eventaully, their communist work ethic might butt up against your desire to offload your pack in a hurry.

Havana (Centro)
Casa de Teresa
Consulado NO. 303
Between Neptuno and Virtudes
Apt. 303, 3rd floor
Cell: 264-6856

Taking advantage of the Casa Particular chain, our group of twelve moved out of the Hotel Colina after only one night and found five casas in Centro Havana. I stayed with “Teresa,” a nice woman running her small but very comfortable apartment as a Casa Particular.

Teresa lives alone with her 8-year-old son, Ishmael, and is doing quite well. The first room to be rented out to tourists has two beds, a mini-fridge, a fan, air conditioning and a semi-shared bathroom (you can lock the other room out.) The second room is the same except for having a queen-size bed and no ‘fridge. Being on the third floor, busy street noise was practically non-existent. Other impressive amenities include satellite TV, a cell phone to call if you have problems, and an actual bathtub! Surprisingly, Teresa also promises to have a computer with Internet-access in her house by next year…

While Teresa never offered us any options for dinner or breakfast, she always offered coffee at every opportunity and wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to socialize. Her Spanish is a little hard to comprehend (for me), but she doesn’t seem to mind repeating herself.

We were able to rent each room for $25 a night ($12.50 each) and with prices of Casas Particulares being higher in Havana, we thought that was quite fair.

Casa del Moro, del Morito, et al
Calle Rafael Trejo No. 14B (El Morito)
Tel: 79-33-29 (Gina), 79-63-03 (Tony)

Both times we stayed in Viñales, at least part of our group stayed with Julian Cruz (or El Moro as everyone in town knows him – nicknames are huge in Cuba!) or with his extended family. 3-4 homes on the corner of an out-of-the-way street form a nice little package for group travelers. Unfortunately, while we were able to save a bit more money on the first trip by putting 3 or 4 people in a room, the Casas Particulares of Viñales have since formed a cooperative of sorts and now adhere to new regulations that only two tourists are allowed per house. Still, with rooms at $15 per night, it’s a steal.

All the houses in El Moro’s little chain have essentially the same to offer: two beds, a private bathroom with hot water, AC, and fantastic dinners ($7) and breakfasts ($3). Also, while you probably won’t be able to eat with the families (another regulation?), you will certainly get enough interaction throughout the rest of the day. Make the effort to get to know them and you’ll feel right at home.

The meals in Viñales, and at El Moro’s families’ houses in particular, are the best part about the housing in Viñales. $7 will get you a table of food spread out on about 15 different plates. Smoked chicken, pork, and fish are the most common options, but you can certainly ask for some illegal lobster – o pollo de seis patas – if you like. Whatever you choose, I guarentee that you’ll love it and that you will not be able to come close to finishing it.

El Moro’s “casa chain” is also impressive. When you’re ready to move on to another town, he’ll likely be able to line something up for you wherever you’re going. In fact, in some ways, we found him almost too pushy and some people in the group felt that he was almost trying to take advantage of us. While I’d recommend staying with El Moro (or better yet, with his son El Morito), it’s always a good idea to consider all offers in Viñales (taxi rides, beach tours, horseback riding) wisely. Shop around – If El Moro wants to charge you more for a ride than it would cost to go with a taxi, by all means, go with the taxi!

Casa de Chicha

While I have never stayed at Chicha’s house in Viñales, I feel that I must vouch for her since it had such a profound effect on some people in our group. Chicha is a wonderfully nice, grandmotherly type that will take you in as if you were her own. While you’ll find that she’s a stickler for the rules (after her neighbors lost their right to house tourists), that still doesn’t get in the way of making you feel more welcome than anyplace else in Cuba – and that’s saying something! Since I’m not 100% clear on how to find her house, it’s probably best you simply ask around. Viñales is small, you’ll find it.

Playa Girón
Casa de Mayito
Matanzas C.P. 44510
Tel: 045-94138 or 045-94266

If you’re looking for a very nice place while exploring the Bay of Pigs area, I’d suggest looking into the casa owned by Mario García Rodríguez (Mayito) and Mercerdes Sierra Rodríguez. These married schoolteachers own a very nice house in Playa Girón.

Because of a few communication mistakes, we were wrangled into paying a price that was possibly higher than what could normally be had in Playa Girón. When we stepped off the bus, all the people that had our reservations were waiting for us and I believe we were not able to haggle because of political reasons (no one in their group was willing to speak up with a better deal because they didn’t want to offend anyone else in their local chain.) At any rate, we had to pay $47 per room (two people to a room) which is quite expensive. The only saving grace was that breakfast and dinner were included.

And what a dinner! Perhaps it was because I was recognized as the “leader” of our group, or perhaps it was because I was the most outspoken against the inclusion of expensive meals when we found out how much the rooms cost, but Mayito’s menu was easily the most extensive of any place (restaurants included!) I encountered in Cuba. Spending only two nights there, we had to decide among chicken, pork, fish, shrimp, lobster, frog legs, turtle, or crocodile! Needless to say, the exotic food was quite good.

To top off our stay, we also had a top-notch room, bathroom, and back porch. Nicely decorated, very comfortable beds, and a wonderful bathroom with real hot water (as in the not-electrically-heated-as-it-passes-through-the-shower-head type.) On our way out of town, Mayito was even kind enough to wake us up early for a 6am bus ride, then packing us a breakfast and escorting us all the way to the bus stop.

$23.50 a night is one of the more expensive stays I had in two months of travel through Cuba, but when you consider than a $7 dinner and $3 breakfast were included, it’s really only $1 more than our costs in Havana. I wish I had recognized it as the deal it was while we were there.

Casa de Aña, Casa de José
Probably on the corner of Francisco J Zerquera and Frank País

Both times in Trinidad I stayed at a casa known only (to me) as Aña’s house. While the family atmosphere may be lacking, we got all the rest of the expected amenities as well as a beautiful, open-air courtyard to lounge around in. (There’s two hyper German shepherds living in the back corner of the courtyard, too, but the first time we were there, there were only chickens – who knows what you might find on your trip!) Dinners and breakfasts were there for the buying, as was the offer of laundry service costing “whatever you think is fair.”

Finding la casa de Aña is easy enough, even if I don’t have an address to give you. Start off on the steps of the Casa de Musica and begin your walk downhill (Calle Rosario.) Walk down past the Casa de Cultura, past the big, touristy cigar shop, but stop once you get to the gas station. Aña’s house is one door shy of being perfectly kitty-corner from the gas station. Simply ring the bell on the second door in from the corner.

Also, on the first trip, half our group stayed with José who lives just across the street. While he didn’t have rooms available this trip, he was very helpful in trying to find us a place to stay in Trinidad. After years of saving for new construction, José’s rental rooms are now on the second floor – they’re very nice, but they do tend to cost a bit more than other rooms in Trinidad.

If you’re passing through Trinidad, these are my first two recommendations. If you end up staying there, send them a “hello!” from our Alaskan groups and let me know what they say!

Unnamed Hostel
Probably on Gustavo Izquierdo between Simón Bolívar and Francisco J. Zerquera

Arriving in Trinidad in the middle of the tourist high season put a crimp on our housing plans, but one pleasant surprise we wouldn’t have otherwise found was a new hostel of sorts. While the “house” is actually a business organizing cultural exchange programs with other countries, the owners have set aside two rooms for their guests. If there are no scheduled exchanges, they can rent these rooms out to you.

While not the fanciest of places, there’s a lot of good to be said for it. The business is always open (with a sliding lock) to the street so you can get in without bothering anyone no matter how late it is. There’s a TV room where plenty of nice, interesting people hang out. The shared bathroom has only cold water, but there’s a kitchen off it that you can use to cook your own meals. Also, the rooms, having no windows and being situated in the center of the building, are super dark and super quiet at night – a welcome relief from the evil roosters that start crowing at 3am.

All that for $6 each – one of the cheapest places we stayed in all of Cuba. If you can do without in-house meals (and Trinidad is the one place where you can do that easily), I’d suggest going out of your way to find this hostel. And you’ll probably have to go out of your way, too, because for some reason I’m coming up blank on Trinidad address! From memory, here’s my best guess:

  • Start in the Plaza Mayor, near the Cathedral,
  • Walk downhill on the street to the right of the Plaza Mayor (Simón Bolívar, I think),
  • Take a left on the second (or third? Or fourth?) street,
  • The hostel is probably unmarked, about half way down the block, on the downhill side.
    Confusing, I know, but worth the effort. If all else fails, ask around.

Casa de Machado
186 Calixto Garcia

Machado is the nickname of the grandfatherly-type host of a casa a few blocks removed from the malecón in Baracoa. Putting up with all the rules and regulations at Machado’s house can be a chore (he became very anxious when visitors stopped by), but the accommodations make it worthwhile.

Machado has two rooms for rent, one with two beds – or maybe it was a folding bed that was brought in just for us… Anyway, each room has its own bathroom with reliable hot water (and one of ‘em has a bidet, too!) You’ll get AC and fans, locks on the door, the works. What’s nice about staying at this house is the family atmosphere.

One New Year’s Eve the only reason we didn’t stay for a huge feast of roast pig was that we already had plans with our own group. Still, three of us we were only allowed out of the house after sharing a plate of some very tasty, traditional pig and yucca. Not that you’ll have to be there for a holiday to get good food – every meal we had at Casa Machado was delicious.

I should point out that when we first arrived at the house, Machado quoted us a price of $40 per room – with meals included. Almost getting stuck in the same trap we fell into in Playa Girón, I quickly mentioned that the person leading us to his house had said would be less expensive. Machado was quite willing to negotiate and I think we arrived at a deal that was fair for both parties. $20 per room ($10 each), $6 for dinners and $2.50 for breakfasts, and we’ll commit to breakfast every day and dinners for only half our nights in Baracoa. (While on vacation I hate to be bound to preplanned options, because I never know what might happen) It was very nice that, even though we verbally contracted for breakfast every day, Machado knocked off $2.50 from our final bill after I darted out (overslept!) one morning without food.

Casa Colonial de Lucy
Calle Céspedes #29
Tel: 53-21-4-3548 (yeah, I can’t figure the phone numbers out, either)

Lucy Navarro Rodriguez is a sweet lady running her own big casa in the middle of Baracoa. This is another one of those houses that I didn’t get to stay in, but I’m going to vouch for it anyway just because the members of our group that stayed there raved so much about it. I can’t give you price quotes, but I do know that my friends moved to Lucy’s house only after being stuck with a $20 per person, per night situation elsewhere. They also negotiated the option NOT to have dinner there – and yet managed to eat in every night. I guess that means the food’s good, too.

Lucy house is well furnished with groovy high ceilings. She has at least one room with a stocked refrigerator and two big beds. There’s a small balcony from which you can watch the world go by and I heard rumors about being able to hang out on the roof with a great view of Baracoa. If I were to go back to Baracoa, I could see myself staying a Lucy’s.

Santiago de Cuba
Edificio Turquino
Av. Victoriano Garzón, a few blocks east of the Plaza de Marte

One of the more interesting places we stayed on our second trip was in an imposing Soviet-style apartment building in the middle of Santiago. Set among 3 or 4 other massive, cement structures, the Edificio Turquino is about 20 stories tall and sits right across the street from the Coppelia La Arboleda (ice cream grove.)

Our rooms were situated on the 9th and 13th floors which, of course, came with great views of the city. During out stay, each room had problems with the water (sometimes there wasn’t any at all), but otherwise they had everything else you’d need – air conditioning, a kitchen, a TV, fans, etc. The best thing about finding a casa particular that doubles as your own apartment is that you aren’t necessarily bound by the two-to-a-room regs. And while the threat of running out of water might make you look for something else, let me assure that at least the landlord was always readily available and willing to help. $10 a head. Worth it.

Finding out how to rent the rooms can be more difficult. Sure, you could walk right into the Edificio Turquino and start looking for blue stickers, but unfortunately I don’t think anyone lives in those apartments when they’re not rented out (though, I could certainly be wrong on that point.) If you’re set on renting one of these apartments, might I suggest taking a ride on the elevator? I’m sure the full-time employee (who’s only job is to push the button of your floor) would know who to ask. Also, we found our contact, Carlos, through Lucy. But to go that route, you’ll probably have to visit Baracoa first. If that works for you, understand that Carlos was a bit pushy in wanting to be our guide to Santiago. That said, it was nice that he took the anxiety out of apartment hunting by meeting us at the bus stop.


I’m sure there are many other places in Cuba that are quite worthy of your patronage. There are certainly other great ones from my first trip that, unfortunately, I can’t remember enough information about to give you (or me) a decent chance of finding them.

Have you been to Cuba? Was there a place you particularly enjoyed and would recommend? If so, please feel free to comment on this entry and share it with the world… or at least with my three faithful readers.

Eating in Cuba

Part the Fifth: Eating in Cuba

The first thing I should mention about eating food in Cuba is that you’re probably going to get sick. Is that a bad way to start this topic? Well, too bad. It’s true.

It’s not that the food in Cuba is unhealthy; somehow not up to the specs of food in the U.S. Rather, it’s that whenever you cross country boundaries, you’re likely to run into food with different bacterial contents. Those bacteria are not necessarily bad for you, they’re just different from what your stomach is used to. After a couple days of… shall we say, gastronomical distress, you’ll adjust and be good as new.

Actually, you might be able to dodge that bullet completely with a little pre-trip planning. After getting delusionally sick once in Ecuador, I began to look for solutions that would accomplish my newly realized goal of diarrhea-less travel. One of the suggestions that has worked remarkably well for me ever since was to start taking in acidophilus bacteria before leaving my own country. Since I almost always travel in winter (to remind myself that some places outside Alaska enjoy sunlight during December and January) I have made a routine of switching my diet right after Thanksgiving. A simple switch to acidophilus milk in my breakfast cereal and one container of active-culture yogurt every day does the trick! (If you’re lactose intolerant, I hear that acidophilus pills will do the same thing.)

Okay, great. Let’s focus less on stomachs and more on what goes into them.

The food in Cuba is wonderful, if not terribly unique. What I mean is that a phrase like “Cuban food” will probably not spark specific images like “Mexican food” will – at least it doesn’t for me. What is traditional Cuban food? Chicken, Pork, Fish. Yucca, potatoes, and malanga. Fried bananas. Black beans and rice. Lots of fruit. Tiny, super-strong coffees.

Nothing really stands out, does it? I guess what makes Cuban food unique isn’t so much the foods themselves, it’s more in how they’re prepared and how you get them. For one thing, it’s often quite hard to find a street vendor in Cuba. I’m not sure, but I have a hunch that you can owe that to communism. Think about it: In other Latin American countries, all you need is a cart and some food and you can usually set up shop on just about any street corner. But in Cuba, you’re not allowed to own the cart, let alone become an entrepreneur. Without the government’s say-so, you can’t quit your day job and start selling food.

So, it may not be so easy for the average tourist to find food in Cuba, but you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that it’s worth the trouble. Each place is different, though, and the food will vary in price, quantity, and, of course, sabor.

In relation to the total amount of time I’ve spent in Cuba, I haven’t passed very much of it in Havana. In the six or so days I’ve been there looking for places to eat, though, I have gathered a few tips worth sharing. First, is the Restaurante Hanoi in Old Havana. While just a couple blocks from the touristy Captiolio, the prices are quite inexpensive. Order one of their “value meals” (my words, not theirs) for about $2.50 to $3.50 a plate. If that’s not enough to fill you up, there are a couple dozen side orders under a dollar that you can add. Even with a drink, your whole meal should easily come to less than $5. Tipping the band might put you over, though.

As for other places to eat in Havana, I don’t have much to offer. I’ve had decent (included) breakfasts in the Hotel Colina, ate a couple times at a small restaurant just down the street (it’s across from the Hotel Colina, about two blocks towards the cinema on the left – I want to say the name has something to do with small monkeys, but that may just be my memory playing tricks on me!), and spent more money than I should have on snacks and sandwiches on the waterfront near the cathedral. If you can find out-of-the way places where Cubans eat, you’re more likely to find better deals.

In the mornings, bakeries will have fresh-baked rolls for about 4 cents each, and establishments like the Angel de Tejadillo that cater to Cubans will have offerings like con gris (pork and rice plates) for less than a dollar.

There are a couple restaurants, cafes, and at least one bakery in Viñales, but I think you’ll be better off eating at a Casa Particular. And really, unless you’re planning to stay about 3km out of town at the only hotel, that’s probably what you’ll be doing. Fish, Chicken, or Pork are the main dishes, but don’t be surprised if you’re offered lobster, too. Side dishes are plentiful – Viñales is prime farmland and I guarantee your table will be filled with more potatoes, yucca, fruit, beans and rice, fried bananas, and salad than you can eat. All that and a family atmosphere for $7 ($8 con cerveza) and Viñales easily adds up to the best dining experience in Cuba!

As dinnertime approaches in Trinidad, the hustlers emerge from the crooked streets’ alleys and begin their quest to nourish the tourists. Compared to the other places where people tip-toe around the rules and regulations and haggle in hushed tones to avoid being overheard, Trinidad hustlers practically conduct open warfare for your dollars.

As annoying as it is to be accosted and offered food at every corner, this kind of rampant competition gives you the opportunity to find a great deal. Chicken dinners can be had for as little as $3, vegetarian plates for less. Lobster is commonly offered for $8 or $9, but can be quickly haggled down to $5. Make sure to establish what the costs are going to be on the street before being led anywhere – 90% of the time the person offering to take you in for dinner is going to usher you to someone else’s house for a commission.

Some of these in-home restaurants even have guest books. Read up on these to find out if the food is any good or reasonably priced. If you find yourself down the block from the abandoned, yellow church on the hill and a girl offers you a little yellow book for review, look for a comment by a couple Alaskans dated December 2003! (We left a comment in the book on our first night in Trinidad and another member of our group happened to read it the very next day!)

Trinidad also has a fair number of peddlers selling cookies and other sweets in the street. When they peg you for a tourist you can either pay their $1 per cookie asking price, or you can whip out a couple pesos and wrack up about a 75% savings. Also, Trinidad was the first place we found what we dubbed “Street Pizzas,” personal pizzas that will only run you about 25 cents. Not a bad deal for lunch (if you go for that salty cheese.)

By the time we got to Baracoa, we were starting to get the hang of eating in Cuba. New Year’s meant weeklong parties in the street and cheap pork sandwiches with, if you’re persistent in the hunt, tomato slices and lettuce. Peso ice cream stands could be sought out and street pizza venders weren’t too hard to find. We were even lucky enough to arrive during a market where, for the first time, we could buy fruit, vegetables, and rice all in the same place.

It’s rather strange how Cuba doesn’t have consolidated markets like Mexico, Ecuador, and other places I’ve been. After a day or two, when the Baracoa market (which was situated along the Malecón) had been closed down, we asked a few people where we could buy some bananas. I was stunned to see locals put on a pensive look, shake their heads, and tell us that it was pretty much impossible. In Baracoa, at least, they simply don’t sell fruit outside of a weekly (monthly?) market.

There must be a way for the locals to barter for it, though, because like many other places in Cuba, the best food was always found in the Casas Particulares. A breakfast negotiated at $2.50, at least at our place, would consist of coffee, fresh juice, mandarins, bananas, bread, and eggs. Dinner would have the typical offerings of beans and rice, salad, and your choice of meat. Baracoanos prepare a nice fish-in-coconut sauce that you should try at least once.

Before you leave Baracoa, seek out the elusive cucurucho. A cucurucho is a candy-like, coconut-fruit-nut paste, triangular thing ornately wrapped up in dried palm fronds. It’s almost like eating a natural, uncooked cookie dough. Mmmmm. We found them offered for sale from the shady park on the east end of the Malecón. If you can’t find them there, ask around. I hear it’s a Baracoa specialty, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Santiago de Cuba
I only spent two days in Santiago, so I didn’t have many chances to eat out. What I can tell you is that, if you seek them out, you can find some good deals on street food. On one side of the Plaza Céspedes I ate some of the ubiquitous pork sandwiches while on the other found a stand selling small cardboard boxes full of rice, veggies, and mystery meat – which wasn’t too bad for 50 cents (even if you do have to borrow a fork and eat it there on the sidewalk.)

There’s a big hotel on the corner of Plaza Céspedes, too, if you’re feeling touristy. Sandwiches run about $3, and an authentic Coca-Cola will add another $1.50 to your bill. The café on the bottom floor also serves pizzas and other lunchabes, while the hotel’s rooftop restaurant caters to the upper class traveler. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one so I can’t comment on the $10 breakfast buffet – but I can tell you that the view of the city and bay was quite nice from up there!

For dinner (on one of the two evenings I was in Santiago,) I found myself on a little Mediterranean-looking island in the middle of the bay called Cayo Granma. Four of us had a pleasant meal on the roof of someone’s house where we could admire the sunset while listening to a couple guitar-players providing us with our own, low-key dinner music. If you make it out to the strangely named island, you’re sure to be hit up by dinner-hustlers, Trinidad-style, before you even get to the ferry. Choose your hustler carefully, as they’ll probably attach themselves to you for the remainder of the day. Also, if you wait until you get to the island before acknowledging them, I’m sure you’ll get a better price.

In any of the cities listed above, there’s always the chance that you’ll get lucky and stumble across a fiesta. In that case, you can forget what I said above about a lack of street food! In Viñales and Baracoa there were literally thousands of pork sandwiches being sold for Carnaval and New Years. People wandered the streets selling cakes and there were lemonade-like set up for sugar-cane soda, coffee, and even shots of rum! Get really lucky you’ll find the beer-wagon that will refill any container you present to them with 16-cents-per-bottle beer – I’ll leave it to you to decide if drinking watered down, 16-cent beer is good luck or bad.

Other culinary opportunities might present themselves… such as going to a baseball game! A respectable stadium like Havana’s might also be considered a fiesta and there’s no shortage of food. Hawkers will stop by often selling everything from tiny paper funnels filled with peso coffee to $2 beers. They have the ever-present 25-cent pork sandwiches, too, and oily butter cookies. Sadly, no hot dogs.

Wherever you go in Cuba, you’re bound to find good food. Don’t be deterred by the fact that it doesn’t have the name recognition of Thai or Mexican food. Eating in Cuba was one of the things I looked forward to every day of my time there.

(Going to Cuba? For extra credit, count the number of times Cubans delight in telling you their name for black beans and rice: Moros y Cristianos!)

Points of Interest

Part the Sixth: Part the First: Specific Recommendations

Okay, if you’ve been reading along until now, you have a good idea how Cuba is going to function. The big question is: What should you plan to do once you get there? Let me help you decide.

More than likely, you’ll end up flying into Havana to start off your trip. How much time you spend in Cuba’s largest city depends mostly on how much you like big cities. Rest assured that no matter how long you plan to be there, there will be too many things for you to see.

Museo de la Revoluccion and Bellas Artes
A few years ago it finally dawned on me that I don’t actually like museums. Go ahead, call me uncultured, but after countless visits where I pour over the details of the first half of a museum and feel guilty about skimming hurriedly past the second, I just gave it all up. Cuba’s Museum of the Revolution, though, almost changed my mind.

The Museum of the Revolution is situated in a beautiful palace in Old Havana and its goal is to chronicle the great achievements of the Cuban Revolution over the last 45 years. What interested me most was the spin of the propaganda contained within. Our U.S. version of many events is very different from the way Cuba views them. History is written by the winners, they say, and I find it refreshing to see both sides before it’s written at all.

For the military buffs, there’s a covered display behind the museum that has some assorted military hardware and the boat that brought Fidel and his initial revolutionaries over from Mexico. There’s a tank out front, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you’re one of those that enjoys a full day (or two) of museum crawling, the two buildings containing the “Museum of Beautiful Arts” is right next door.

Waterfront, Castillo de Real Fuerza, Catedral, El Faro
Walking down the Malecón in Cuba is a scenic experience all its own. Getting to the end of it (east) is the start of the tourist trap areas. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you. There’s plenty worth seeing.

First, across the bay is a picturesque lighthouse situated on an old Moorish fort that used to protect Havana’s harbor. Stop by on any sunny day and you’ll likely see dozens of Cubans swimming, fishing, snorkeling, and spearing fish in the waves off the rocks. Stop by on a stormy day and you can watch in amazement as the waves crash over the short wall that keeps the ocean from flooding Havana’s streets.

Within site of the lighthouse, you should be able to see a tall statue in a nearby, Old Havana park. While the statue is photo-worthy in its own right, I suggest getting a little closer and meeting the people that live inside. Yeah, inside. There’s a husband and wife that have been living in the tiny bowels of this statue for 23 years. My impression is that he’s the self-appointed caretaker. Careful – he’ll invite you inside and talk your ears off about how horrible Cuban’s government is while his wife laughs and calls him crazy.

Continue east along the bay and you’ll come across the touristiest (holy crap, that word’s actually in Word’s dictionary!) spot in Old Havana. You know you’ve arrived when you see rows of buses next to a few expensive waterfront cafes. Across the street is another Moorish castle (with blue trim) which I’ve never been in, but have enjoyed by sitting moat-side on the grass.

Another block inland will bring you to the Cathedral. In front of the church is a cobblestone plaza with outdoor cafés and streets leading tourists to their fanciest hotels and costliest stores. Also nearby is one of only two artisans markets I saw in all of Cuba – stop by if you’re dying to buy a painting or a typical knickknack or doodad with the word “Cuba” stamped on it.

The old capital building is now a museum only about 6 or 7 blocks up the Prado from the waterfront. Modeled a lot like our own capital building here in the U.S., I think it’s at least worth a look. Go inside and buy yourself an unguided tour or sit on the steps and watch the world go by. Also, one of my favorite souvenirs from Cuba happens to be a grainy black-and-white photograph of our group taken and developed by a photographer hanging out by the capital steps.

Watching a baseball game in Havana is easy to find information about, cheap, and loads of fun! Ask just any male Cuban on the street when the next game is and grab yourself a cab to the stadium (it’s out of the way, though, so you might ask the driver to meet you back there when the game’s over.)

As a foreigner, you’ll be expected to pay a dollar to get in (instead of the 3-peso price that the locals enjoy.) We splurged for the good seats and had to pay a whopping $3 each. Not bad at all for an evening of excitement beneath the big lights.

While the game is played just like it is in the States, complete with angry players shouting at the umpires and dugout clearing scuffles between teams, the food leaves a bit to be desired. You might want to bring along a snack. Make sure you stay for the whole game, too. We were lucky enough to witness a great comeback by the visiting team; were seen cheering twice on live, national TV; and bought a baseball signed by the entire home team, the Industriales!

In my two trips to Cuba, I only stepped outside the bounds of a budget traveler once… and it was well worth the expense. On my last night in Havana I still had a couple hundred dollars cash left over… a fact of which I’m quite proud, considering I had to enter the country with all the money I was going to spend in a month.

At any rate, a friend and I decided that we wanted to check out the world famous Tropicana cabaret show. We asked around and heard all sorts of conflicting stories on the price – everything from $35 to $85 per seat. I’ve found the best thing to do in these situations is to just go and see for yourself. So we negotiated an expensive taxi ride ($6 from old Havana) and made our way to the show.

Here’s the scoop. As of January 2004, the seating is $65, $75, or $85 per seat, depending on how close to the stage you want to sit. Included is a complimentary cigar (for the men) or a long-stemmed rose (for the women), a snack plate, a can of cola, a glass of champagne, and a quarter bottle of 7-year rum. Oh, and a truly awesome show.

I don’t know quite how we managed it, but we seemed to get some sort of preferential treatment when we went to the show (by flashing an Alaska Driver’s License? It’s the only thing we could come up with). We decided to pay for the $75 seats, but were seated at very front table, right up against the stage. We also never received any tickets – instead we had our own chaperon to escort us past a mob of people. The fee for taking pictures with out cameras was also inexplicably waived.

(This was all quite amazing to us considering how much we stood out in the place! We didn’t realize it was such a black tie affair – we entered the restaurant and saw elegant couples dressed to the nines as tuxedoed staff served drinks, played a grand piano, and wandered table-to-table serenading the upscale clientele with a violin. We sheepishly sidled up to the bar in our denim jeans and zip-off pants, ordered strong $4 drinks, and eventually gave up trying to fit in.)

The typical outdoor show was rained out that night and we were forced to wait an extra couple hours while they moved everything into a small, indoor substitute. After a very full day (our last in Cuba), we were practically falling asleep in our chair when the show finally started at around midnight. That changed when the performers started singing and dancing.

The Tropicana is a small show, but it’s right up there in caliber to what’s going on in Las Vegas. Amazing singers, a full orchestra, dancers that make the very talented Cuban dancers you see elsewhere look like, well, me. For the next two hours, we stared in amazement as colorful, scantily-clad men and women cavorted so close to us that we could hear their exhalations, see the sweat on the bodies, and feel our table shake with their footsteps.

The highlight of the show, totally worth the $75 price tag all by itself, was a pair of gymnastic performers. For about 5 minutes, a guy with the body (and costume!) of a Greek god, flipped, twirled, threw and caught a woman who posed in varies, complicated ways above his head. And he did this while standing on a small board… which was itself balanced on a rolling cylinder. I don’t believe I’ve ever been to any event that caused an entire audience to gasp in unison so often.

If you can afford it, the Tropicana is well worth the money, and a perfect end to a perfect trip, too.

Bodaguito del Medio
Don’t forget to stop by one of the many Hemmingway haunts in Havana, the Bodaguito de Medio. Sign your name among the thousands already on the wall and have a full meal, or just a beer. Just don’t sign your name on one of the windows’ trim – I was sad to learn that they painted over my signature from 1999 when they changed the decor.

Just about everything worth doing in Viñales is outdoors. As soon as you get a view of the picturesque valley, you’ll understand.

Mogote Climbing
Mogotes are the largish limestone mounds scattered throughout the valley – they’re imposing and impossible to miss. If you get the urge, go ahead and hike across some of the farmland to see if you can find a route up one of them. The limestone walls appear sharp and painful, but they’re riddled with incredibly easy hand and footholds and the vine-like vegetation and small trees growing on the cliff’s side make going up (and coming down) quite easy.

If I could recommend one climb, it would be between the two mogotes just outside of the south end of town. Walk along the road for about a half-hour, following the mogote ridge on the right. When you see the slight “valley” that dips between the last two peaks, hike across the field to find an easy path up into the cleft. If you happen to see a farmer working the fields, try striking up a conversation: His name is Rene and he’s a nice enough guy.

Keep an eye out on the way up the mogote for small caves. Most holes on this climb are barley large enough to climb into, but who knows – you may get lucky and find a larger complex.

Cuevas de Santo Tomas
Speaking of caves, there’s a tour through the Cuevas de Santo Tomas that is worth paying the $8 entrance fee. It’s a fair bit out of town, though, so you’ll have to throw in cab fare, too. If you’re by yourself, ask around in the plaza to see if any other tourists happen to be headed to the same place.

What does $8 get you? A nice hard hat, headlamp, and a guide to take you through only the view first part of an absolutely huge cave structure. (If “Abel” happens to be your guide, make sure to ask him to play a little “cave music” for you.) It only takes an hour or two, but in my opinion it was so much better than heading out of town in the other direction and experiencing the tourist traps that are the Cueva del Indio and the Cueva de Viñales. Of course, with Santo Tomas, you’re out of luck if you want to ride in a skiff or dance all night under stalactites.

The best cave I went into, though, was one that wasn’t open for tourism at all. Ask a few discrete questions in town (perhaps at El Moro’s place?) to see if someone can find you a guide willing to bend the rules a little bit and take you off the beaten path. For us, that path took us 3km deep into one of the mogotes – and that awesome experience only cost $5 each!

Hotel Jazmines
If you’re not the thriftiest traveler, you might already be planning to stay at the Jazmines and will be rewarded with a great view. If you plan to stay in Viñales proper, you might want to catch a ride up to the hotel just for a glance of Viñales from above.

The hotel has a scenic viewpoint where they have a couple blurry telescopes with which you can check out the farmland and mogotes beneath you. There’s also everything else you’d expect a big hotel to have – a restaurant, gift shops, pool, etc. (Tip: If you decide to stay for lunch, save a few bucks by eating at the bar.)

I hear that the best time to sneak a peek is in the early morning, before all the mist has burned off in the valley. That could very well be, but I was there in the early afternoon.

Also, if you choose to walk back down to Viñales, you’ll likely pass a small, family farm on the left, just down the hill from of the hotel. If anyone waves to you from the field and invites you into their little tobacco field, I recommend it. If you’ve got the time, you can meet the whole extended family over homegrown coffee and then buy some homegrown, home-dried, and home-rolled cigars. You might even learn something about growing tobacco and coffee, too.

Playa Jutías
For those craving the beach, it’s possible to grab a ride to Playa Jutías. A couple hours’ ride north of Viñales is a cay that juts out into the Caribbean waters. There’s a hotel of sorts inside this national park that can serve you a basic lunch (and drinks), but not much else. Also, on the two days that my group visited this particular beach (in December), it was quite windy and a little bit cloudy. That could be a seasonal thing, or just bad luck on our part.

The beach isn’t very wide and the snorkeling is way off shore. But the water is quite warm and the beach-combing is a shell-hunter’s paradise – huge shells almost as big as my head were littered all along the beach where the waves couldn’t reach.

Mural de la Prehistoria
Don’t bother seeing what must be the gaudiest, tackiest, giant, pastel mural of a couple dinosaurs in all of Cuba. The pictures in your guidebook will suit you just fine.

Pinar del Rio
Pinar del Rio is close enough to Viñales that you might consider a day trip. It’s not the most tourist-oriented city in Cuba, being an agricultural hub for the area, but it does have some things worth seeing, I suppose. One of them would probably be the Fransisco Donatien cigar factory. Pay for a tour and you can see how Cuba’s famous cigars are rolled by factory workers so bored that the company hires someone just to read newspapers out loud! Or, just snap a photo or two from beyond the big windows out front, like we did.

Santa Clara
I didn’t spend as much time in Santa Clara as the rest of my group because five of us decided to strike out on our own for a trip up to the north coast. In the day or two that we spent in Santa Clara, though, I did see a couple things worth checking out.

The Che memorial is quite impressive. If you want to know a bit more about the silhouetted face that you see on so many billboards, hotels, walls, postcards, calendars, and bumper stickers in Cuba, this memorial is worth the trip. There’s a huge, bronze stature of Che situated on the top of an imposing, cement museum. Supposedly, Che’s remains were brought back from Bolivia and interred within it.

Santa Clara was a key city in Castro’s revolution. There are a number of memorials to the war there, including a neat mini-museum built in the remains of the “bullet-proof” train that Castro’s men successfully assaulted back in the 50s. Also, if you look real close (binoculars, or a long camera lens can help), you might still see bullet holes in the façade of the tallest building along the central plaza.

Sagua la Grande and Isabela de Sagua
When everyone tells you that there’s nothing to see in Isabela de Sagua and that there’s no chance of finding tourist housing in Sagua la Grande, believe them.

I can’t speak with any authority on Varadero, because I’ve never been there. I have learned enough about it to realize that I probably never will. Varadero is a hotel high-rise sort of place built out on a sandy peninsula on Cuba’s Caribbean coast. The prices are high and with the exception of those working in the tourist industry; Cubans are not allowed past the front gates.

It sounds to me like Varadero is the Cancun of Cuba – catering to foreigners; it’s nothing like the rest of the country. I’ve been told that package deals come quite cheap for Canadians and Europeans looking to spend a week or two on the white-sand beaches with free cocktails always within arm’s reach.

In Havana, while a friend and I waited for the Tropicana show to begin, we found ourselves talking to four Canadians who had come to the big city just for the show. After we got over the shock of their $190US cab ride, they explained that most Canadians simply pay for an all-inclusive package to Varadero. If you don’t expect to leave the bounds of your hotel, a $1200 (Canadian) deal is all you need to spend for two weeks in Cuba.

That is, if you can call Varadero “Cuba.”

Points of Interest

Part the Sixth: Part the Second: Specific Recommendations II

I’ve been to Trinidad on two separate occasions and they couldn’t have been more different. In 2000, I was there shortly after New Year’s, within the first two weeks of the new millennium. When I returned at the end of 2003, much had changed for the worse.

What was noticeable right away was the increased “hassle factor.” Granted, the second time around, I was there in the height of the high season – right between Christmas and New Year’s. The streets were packed with tourists, housing was scarce, and you couldn’t walk a single block without someone trying to sell you something.

At first I wondered if I was mis-remembering how things were in Trinidad three years before. After a day or two, I knew it couldn’t have been as bad as it is now. Perhaps the government loosens its regulations for the high season and the officials look the other way when people start selling cookies in the streets, get together for an artisans market, or brazenly offer tourists “illegal” lobster in the streets. I sure as hell hope so. With the hassle factor as high as it was, I’d have a hard time recommending Trinidad again.

And considering how wonderful Trinidad can be, that’s a horrible thought.

El Centro y La Casa de la Música
If you decide to go to Trinidad, the first thing you’ll notice about the colonial town is that it’s built on a hilltop. Near the top of the hill lies a section of town called El Centro, and it is most definitely the tourist area. Restored and newly painted buildings, La Casa de la Música, museums, and plenty of places to eat – it’s all within just a few blocks of the main plaza.

Look up and you’ll immediately notice that Trinidad’s distinctive architecture is ruled by a photogenic clock tower. There’s a war museum inside and the entrance fee is only $1. By all means, pay the buck, because the cost of admission covers a climb up the rickety stairs to the top of the tower for a wonderful view of the town, Playa Ancón and the ocean to the south, and the surrounding foothills in every other direction. Bring your camera just before sunset for dramatic, “golden hour,” pictures. (For even better sunset pictures and an amazing view of the town and countryside, take a short hike to the radio tower on the hill above town.)

In 2000, a group of us set off to hike in the foothills west of town. After walking downhill for an hour or so we found ourselves passing through banana fields and over train tracks. In time, we arrived at a sprawling, ranch-style resort (for Cubans only, I imagine) which was situated near the uncultivated tree-line at the base of the hillside. We found ourselves with an unwelcome guide, but at least he led us along a stream-side trail that opened, eventually, into a wonderful swimming hole in the middle of the jungle setting. There, beneath a huge waterfall, was a cavity deep enough to high-dive into. More impressively, behind the waterfall was a large cave into which we could swim. The water was chilly, but after a long hike, totally worth diving into. Unfortunately part of my group tried to retrace the route four years later and were stopped at the entrance to a new national park. It appears that you now have to pay to see the waterfall.

There are always other options. If you like hiking and waterfalls, then the Topes de Collantes are near enough to Trinidad. They’re high up in the foothills, so you’ll have to find yourself a ride to get there, but once you do there are a couple very impressive waterfalls secreted away in the jungle. If your hike is after a rain, expect to come back with muddy shoes. Also, bring your camera – you just might see the world’s smallest bird, the zunzuncito.

Sand and Surf
Playa Ancón isn’t too far away from Trinidad, either, and can make for a nice day at the beach. The water is warm and the waves are flat, but snorkeling is said to be better at other beaches in the area. There’s a huge resort where taxis from Trinidad ($2, one way) will drop you off and you can either sit by the bar and pool or walk yourself down the beach a ways and grab a lounge chair. You know what? Now that I think about it, there really isn’t anything outstanding about this beach. It’s just a good place to lie back, soak up some rays, and perhaps read a good book or people watch.

Finally, there’s a nice bit of cultural night life to be visited in Trinidad. The center of the tourist-directed entertainment is at La Casa de la Música, just to the right of the cathedral. There’s a bar (and restaurant above, at the top of the steps) where you can sit outside, have a drink, and listen to the bands that play. If you’re feeling a little more active, you can even grab someone for a dance. The courtyard fills up fast, though, so if you’d rather sit at a table than on the cobblestone stairs, you better get there before dark.

Playa Larga and Playa Girón
If you’re not familiar with the area, you may not realize that Playa Larga and Playa Girón are actually two different towns on the Bay of Pigs. Playa Larga is situated at the end of the bay, while Playa Girón is at the mouth. Don’t believe any Cubans that try to tell you that they’re the same place or you’ll end up about 30km from your destination. The towns themselves are small and have little to offer. It’s the sights around them that are worth visiting.

Both towns have decent, full-service resort hotels if you want to go that route. Common day trips from Playa Larga include a crocodile farm and the Gran Parque Natural Montemar for bird watching aficionados. I’ve been to neither, but have heard lukewarm things about both.

Playa Girón, farther down the road, has a nice beach and a small museum dedicated to the Cubans’ victory over the American-backed, imperialist forces that tired to overthrow Castro in the 60s. It’s worth the 30 minutes or so it takes to see it all, I guess.

La Cueva de Los Peces y Bahía de Cochinos
The best place to visit in my opinion, though, is smack dab between the middle of these two towns. Off a deserted, two-lane blacktop, in the middle of a swampy, scrubby land, lies La Cueva de Los Peces. The Cave of the Fish is essentially a crack that split open in the ground about 200 meters from the shore of the Bay of Pigs. This crack, filled now with brackish water, is maybe 20 meters long by 7 meters wide… but is over 70 meters deep.

Swimming up from the black depths are colorful tropical fish. Bring along a mask and you can jump right into the water with them. There are overhanging trees for diving and suspended boulders under which you can swim. The top layer of water is fresh and a bit colder, but if you dive about 10 feet down you’ll feel warmer as the salt layer envelopes your body.

To get there, you don’t necessarily need to spend money on a cab -- you can easily hitchhike to the spot. And when you’re all tuckered out, the only way you’re going to get back to town -- unless you arranged for a cab to pick you up -- is to wait for a passing vehicle. (You never know what you might be riding home in. A passing tourist driving a rental car? A dilapidated bus? A cattle truck?) Entry to the tiny park costs only one dollar and there’s a restaurant inside the miniature park if you get hungry. Bring a book if you want to stay awhile – there are a couple hammocks strung up right next to the natural pool.

When you’re done with La Cueva de Los Peces, don’t just go back to town – step across the road and jump into the Caribbean blue waters of the Bay of Pigs. Snorkel gear is practically mandatory as the water is crystal clear and the whole area is covered with a variety of coral, amazing shells, and colorful fish.

This spot, with the twin pleasures of swimming in a natural pool and in the warm waters of the Bahía de Cochinos, is probably my favorite place in all of Cuba – and seriously one of my favorite places in all the world.

Baracoa is on the extreme east end of the island and if you are arriving/departing out of Havana, it might seem as though the effort of getting there is too great. It’s not. Despite the torture of an 18-hour bus ride from Trinidad, even though we arrived at 1am and had to sleep poolside at a resort because everything else was completely full, Baracoa was easily worth the effort. If you get there, plan to stay awhile.

La Farola
The first thing worth mentioning isn’t even Baracoa itself; it’s the road that gets you there. Crossing through the Sierra Maestra, La Farola, as the road is called, is a tourist attraction all its own. Try to arrange a bus ride during the day as the view is rather lacking when driving in complete darkness.

Once you get to Baracoa, you’ll notice that the town is built right up against the ocean. White waves come out of the green ocean and pound the wall protecting the Malecón. If you’re not careful on windy days, you could walk right into the spray.

Scenic Viewpoints
There’s a hotel, El Castillo, on the top of a hill in the town that has wonderful views of the ocean, the streets of Baracoa, and El Yunque, an anvil-shaped mountain to the west. To the east is a long stretch of beach and the village of Boca de Miel. Literal forests of palm trees line the hills, drawing comparisons of this part of Cuba to the South Pacific.

Mopeds and Waterfalls
El Castillo also rents mopeds by the hour (up to a maximum of $18 a day – that’s only $9 each if you’re traveling with a partner!) While high on the obnoxious tourist scale, I still have to recommend it after experiencing a very fun, exploratory day.

With or without mopeds, you might want to enter the park around El Yunque. While it doesn’t look too hard to climb the mountain, we didn’t have enough time to try it. At the end of the day, we managed to get our moped up the rocky, dirt road and into the park. We found a person willing to let us park our ride under a tree in their yard and proceeded to hike past many attractive swimming holes to locate a beautiful waterfall. Bring your swimming suit and Tevas, though, because you’re going to have to cross waist-high water to get there. The park fee can be steep -- $8 per person – so make sure your wallet agrees with you before you get to the gates.

Boca de Miel
The little village of Boca de Miel is also, most definitely, worth a visit. Boca de Miel is a small fishing village situated where the Río Miel meets the ocean and has a few attractions all its own. When you get there, be sure to stand still by the mud flats in front of the bridge where you can see hundreds of tiny crabs coming out of their holes and waving their little pinchers at you – a nice enough, if a weird little welcoming committee.

Besides meetings some genuinely friendly people in Boca de Miel, you can hire a guide to show you the way to the “water cave.” Hustlers will likely try to get you to pay for the privilege of swimming in a room of two of the open-air cave, but friendly locals can take you there for free. The cave itself is neat enough, but the hike there is all about sightseeing. You’ll get to walk hundreds of meters along El Balcón, a cave-like shelf carved out of a cliff face some 15-20 meters up. The view over the palm trees all the way to the ocean is incredible! Once down again on flat ground, you walk along an elevated path of limestone rocks – apparently build hundreds of years ago by the Spaniards. And if you keep your eyes open, you might even see some of the (now rare) Polymitas the most colorful, pastel-colored snails you’ve ever seen – living among the foliage.

And if you do get a guide, your excursion is likely to be topped off with a welcome offering of coconut milk served in the shell… with a fresh lime squeezed right in. An amazingly tasty combination.

There’s a whole ‘nother “water cave” that’s a fair hike farther through the trees, but besides getting to see some shrimp living in the water, it’s not worth the effort of getting there (and besides, it’s illegal for a guide to take you.)

Baracoa had many other things worth doing that I didn’t find the time for in the five or six days we stayed there. It seems like a sleepy little town with lots to do outdoors – I could have easily stayed there a full month. But hey, if you’re not up for rest and relaxation on your vacations, Baracoa can still be a good place for the dance-all-night type -- just plan your vacation around New Year’s. The fiesta atmosphere was in full effect as, for almost an entire week, there was a full-on street party every night.

I’ve met a couple people who have been to Santiago and didn’t like it at all. I spent just two days in the bustling city, but came away with the impression of many things to do and see. If a busy, crowded city drives you nuts, you might want to skip Santiago, but you should realize that, at the very least, you’ll at least be missing some awesome music!

Music, Music, and More Music
Each night I was there, I paid $3 at La Casa de la Trova to listen to live music. Downstairs has a small room, open to the street and a courtyard in back where musicians can set up. These shows typically start around 8pm or so and with an entrance fee of only $1, you’ll have money left over for drinks. Around 9:30pm, they’ll open the doors for the show upstairs. Line up a little early to pay your $3 so you can get in early for the best seats.

Judging solely from the two nights I was there, the late show is usually more impressive one. Big bands reminiscent of The Buena Vista Social Club, amplified music, and talented dancers on a small dance floor will be your entertainment for the evening and waitresses will wander the tables, brining you whatever you want to drink. Both times there was an intermission around 11:30pm, and if you’re up for a change of pace, it might be worth leaving then… get to La Casa de Tradiciones before it closes down for the night. La Casa de Tradiciones is a small, trendy place packed wall-to-wall with people socializing and dancing to a live band (or dance music played closer to closing.) There are plenty of chairs spaced around the perimeter walls (for people like me, who don’t dance) and a bar in the middle where you can get something to drink. In the back is a courtyard where we happened upon an amazing cellist accompanied by his sister, a very talented singer. Tradiciones is the trendier place by far, catering to the young Cuban crowd more so than the tourist-inundated Trova.

Okay, that’s the nightlife, but what’s to do during the day?

Plaza Céspedes
Plaza Céspedes is the center of town, but for the most part you’ll probably want to stay away. It’s not that there isn’t anything to see around there, it’s just that the hustlers are out in force. It’s quite impossible to sit in the plaza for more than five minutes without being asked for something. Normally this kind of behavior doesn’t bother me too much – it goes with being a tourist – but it’s especially taxing in the heart of Santiago.

Come to think of it, though, there may be a good reason or two to work your way to the center of town. There’s a hotel on one corner of the Plaza Céspedes that has a nice restaurant on the roof. From there you can gain a fantastic view of the surrounding city and bay and, unlike the view from El Balcón de Velázquez (mentioned in our guidebook), there’s no security guard to demand a one dollar tax for whipping out your camera.

Missed Opportunities
I’m sure there are many more things to do in a city the size of Santiago, but we just didn’t have much time before our scheduled flight back to Havana. Some regrets: We tried to catch a baseball game in a fancy-looking stadium, but walked in just as the last pitch was thrown. I also eyed the Copellia ice-cream park next to our apartment building each night when it opened, but it was always so crowded that we never took the effort to wait in line. Also, because it was the weekend, we were forced to skip a bunch of noteworthy museums that were closed. Así es la vida… at least now I have something to go back for.


There you have it – my rundown of things to do in Cuba. Obviously there are literally thousands of other, worthy attractions, but I can only tell you what I’ve done myself. The long and the short of it is that you will not run out of things to do on the island and if you manage to get bored, you have only yourself to blame!

Peripherally-related-to-Cuba 'blog entry

And now for something completely different.

I’ve been fed up with myself lately. See, I’ve got an annoying, mile-long perfectionist streak and sometimes it prevents me from doing the things I want. How? Let’s use updating my blog as an example.

If you’ve been reading along, you probably now know far more about Cuba than you ever cared to. When I returned from my last trip a couple months ago, I was all gung-ho about sharing my experiences – I think the initial veracity with which I attacked my keyboard vouches for that. Eventually, though, as the trip fell further and farther (what’s up with those words, anyway?) behind me, I lost the valuable initiative that kept me cranking out ordered ASCII characters.

Ever since I crossed that nebulous line where my writing libido had decreased, it’s been a struggle to finish the Cuba Guide. Not only that, but I think I lost my theme – I always intended my entries to be a guide about what to expect in Cuba with a healthy dose of “Arlo in Cuba Anecdotes.” Somewhere along the way (the intro?), I lost site of that and simply wrote about what one can do there.

Okay, whatever. The Big Problem is that I’ve got a lot of other things on my mind that are worth typing about, but just like the whole post On Writing I did awhile back, I feel like I’ve got to finish the Cuba stuff first or I’ll never get back to it. It’s this weird “completeist attitude” that gets me.

More and more, I’m discovering that I’m a starter, not a finisher. At the beginning of a project, I jump right in, attack it with piss and vinegar (well, with vinegar, anyway) and usually, thoroughly enjoy doing whatever it is I’m doing. But when it comes to FINISHING a project, I never seem to carry through. Examples? Just look at my wedding page still sitting where it was a year ago. How about my photo-mosaic project? On the back burner, baby. Boomstick? Well, I finally got the “final-final” version of that done, at least (the “final” version was done months ago!), but I still can’t expunge it from my hard drive until I’ve finished the Director’s Cut Credits.

I hate this conflict between my slacker-completeist side and my hardcore perfectionist side. I have a feeling that it’s this difficulty in finishing that makes me enjoy the Video Club I’ve been a part of so much. I’m able to help people start on their project, attack it head on, and then let a finisher-personality type walk the video through the last mile of production. A win-win situation, right? Okay, maybe in an ideal club. With a year behind us and only 4 out of 11 projects finished, there might be a few others in the group that have the same problem finishing…

(Which isn’t to say the club is a failure! On the contrary, despite the stress of piled up work, I’m totally devoted to what we’re doing. More on that, and a follow-up to my first blog post, later.)

My train of thought has derailed itself again. Okay, just pretend I’m still talking about the Cuba Guide.

I want to write about other stuff, but I’m conflicted because I also want to close out the Cuba Guide with some miscellaneous observations about the culture – one last post, but probably another long one. If I move on, I’ll be totally screwing up the order of my blog. How tacky it would be to have 7 or 8 Cuba entries in a row only to have the conclusion separated from the rest by entries about the Panhandle Picture Show, Deep Space Nine, and video editing? The horror!

I think I have a solution that will work for everyone involved (i.e., me).

Greymatter will let me create an entry for the last Cuba entry and then immediately CLOSE it so that it will not appear on my site. Eventually, when I get around to writing about Cuba again, I can post my final comments and OPEN the entry. Even though it probably won’t appear on my index page, it will archive itself in the proper order and, more importantly, will allow the perfectionist in me to sleep at night. For those that could care less, I promise to let you know when it’s posted by linking to it from the front page.

Well, now. That should free me to up to concentrate on posting far more often in May than in months past. Think I can pull off an entry every day this month? Stay tuned.