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When you decide to book tickets for Cuba, no matter the 12 hours of flight, only to meet this island with the mirror glazed water and the countless coco palms, don’t even dare to forget even for a minute, that you’re about to visit a socialist second-world country.
While researching about our vacation plan, I asked around friends and acquaintances who had visited already, I read countless blog posts, however I wasn’t, in the least, prepared for what I was going to actually face there. Cuba in one sentence is the island of contradictions. Everything is white or black, bad or good, new or old and nothing in between, there’s no gray. There, you will find only the opposite ends.
Because we wanted to experience the real deal, we decided to avoid the places that were exclusively for tourists like Varadero and Cavo Coco, where there was no access for the locals. What we actually wanted was to be mixed among the natives and to live as they do, to meet them, to exchange stories and to dance with them in the island’s rhythm.
We were planning to stay for 21 days so our budget was planned accordingly, but we could have never guessed that a significant part of it would be lost in acts of mischief. By the end of our first week there, if we were offered a ticket back, we would have accepted it without second thoughts and we wouldn’t even consider to go abroad again for the next 2 years. The only question puzzling our minds was:
Why do people come to Cuba for vacations?
My own personal adventure started in Hose Martin’s airport, when right before the passport check I was taken aside and questioned in a relatively rude manner, before I was allowed to enter the country. They asked almost about everything, how much money and what credit cards I carry, why do I visit the country and where will I stay after my 5day booking, if I’m traveling alone and if I’m married, what is my profession, my husband’s profession and what is an advertising company, what kind of electronics I carry and what is a GoPro, how many suitcases I got, and many more that I probably forgot since I was really tired and puzzled (why did they pick me among everyone?). Admittedly after 18 hours of traveling my arrival wasn’t as friendly as I was expecting.
Outside the airport, a taxi driver booked by our host was waiting for us, while holding the typical label with our names on. Right after we exchanged our money in the airport’s currency exchange office, he took us directly to our room, the first base for our 21day exploration of the island and its culture. For the ride we payed 30 CUC (30$) which is quite expensive considering that 80% of the population survives with less than 20$/month.
Despite being tired, our spirit was quite high. We were still thinking of endless dream-like beaches, adventures, peace and relaxation, smiling people dancing salsa by the seaside, drinking rum and sharing stories about life and the revolution in a summer socialist country. We were expecting colors on their buildings and countless rides with their colorful antique cars, also delicious food, cool mojitos and a remarkable hospitality like the one we meet in Greece, full of smiles and hugs.What did we found from the above? Read below to find out.
First Destination: Havana
Our first 4 days were already booked in Havana according to plan and later we would move towards the blue seas. We aimed to return to the capital city in the end of our journey, but later on we decided never to set foot there again, and to leave from the coastline where we were residing directly towards the airport and back to our beloved Europe.
The city was destroyed by socialism and the hurricane. Debris everywhere, exhaust fumes from the old cars, buses and trucks, a bad smell coming from the open sewers and the garbage that was exposed to the sun. You could also notice a lot of DIY taverns, buildings that it’s impossible for people to live in and potholes on the ground creating small lakes with muddy water in places the road had collapsed. There was rust everywhere, a lot of rust, on the monuments, on the tables or chairs and on almost all the sinks and showers.
Only the old city of Habana and the area around the Capitol, resembled a bit of the colorful Cuba we’ve seen in pictures, since the area is full of expensive hotels.
Jineretas infront of the Capitolio
La Habana Vieja - El Capitolio
Havana will be unforgettable to me for so many reasons. For its noise and mischief, for the majority of Cubans who were shamelessly harassing us or ripping us off, trying to sell us cigars or transportation, girls, tour in the city, lunch at their “cousin’s” tavern, drinks in college parties, accommodation, entrance tickets for Clubs, Maria (marijuana) or whatever you might think of.
In Havana we felt like banknotes walking down the street. Through a 7klm distance on Malecon, we were stopped by more than 30 people to answer where we were from, so they will figure out our finances and get the most profit they can off us.
- “Hello my friend, where are you from, are you Italian?”
- “Taxi my friend?”
- “Cigars half price for the (daily) Salsa Festival”
In the beginning it was charming, but after the first two hours, and the constant stops we were quite frustrated, because everyone requested something from us, except for a fisherman who actually helped us light up a cigarette despite the strong wind, and asked nothing in return! Unbelievable!
Phelippe was trying to sell us cocktails at his balcony - bar and food at his cousin kantine
Fidel and his friend were trying to sell us cigars, “maria” and their services
We won’t forget the countless kilometers up and down the magical Malecon, the busiest, most popular beach road in Habana, where despite the noise and the hustling we spent most of our time, taking big breaks. It was amazing that mid December the temperature was 25C and we were gazing at the Caribbean sea while hugged.
The famous Malecon
By the end of this route a few acquaintances were calling us “los Griegos” with whom we were having fun, because even until the last moment they were trying to sell us tours or cigars. Favorite places in Havana were: Castropol, a cafe, open since really early in the morning, serving several types of breakfast (5-6CUC) and Hotel Nacional, the 5star “national hotel” that stands proud and impressive despite its age, halfway on Malecon street, within a 5minute walk from the US Embassy. Cons: high rates: 5CUC per hour for internet access, 7CUC for a Pina Colada. Pros: peaceful and quiet since it’s only a workplace for Cubans.
Hotel Nacionale based in the heart of Malecon
Despite the capital city shock, we met two wonderful people, Xavier and his mother Mercedes, who opened their home for us with love, cooked us delicious traditional Cuban breakfast (toast, eggs, fruit, fresh juice and coffee), and supported us morally when we could no longer stand being hustled and “taxi my friend?”s.
Xavier and his mom Mercedes helped us a lot in that journey
TIP: When visiting Cuba, it’s really important to book a room in a “casa particular” at least for the first few days. The owners will help you and will inform you for whatever necessary. If you don’t speak Spanish you can choose a host who speaks English so you will be able to communicate.
Our first room in Havana had internet inside the house
Second destination: Alamar, Havana
We didn’t book a room for the trip’s duration from the beginning, because we wanted to decide on site where we would stay and for how long, based on the advice of the locals.
Also we didn’t want to move too far from Havana because of the taxi fare. A 250klm trip like Habana - Trinidad costs 150-200CUC one way, and there was no chance to use public transport because we were carrying 3 suitcases. We weren’t sure if that was allowed, how welcome we would be onboard or if we would get robbed. So with limited choices and not much knowledge of the areas around, we booked a room in Alamar, one the poorest suburbs, only 10klm approximately from the city center and 5klm away from the magical Santa Maria beach.
Alamar is a 15year’s old area of Havana, born on a promise from the Cuban government that it would become a resort, so many Cubans invested there. Due to the fact that government promises are empty like farts (now known to Cubans as well), all the people who couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else were forced to migrate there. Inevitably they created a ghetto in the area and transformed it to one of the places with the worse reputation in Havana (unjustifiably in our opinion). Every time we mentioned our visit in Alamar, people from other areas were turned sour and wondered what we were thinking…
The dilapidated residences of Alamar
If Habana seemed neglected, old and dirty to us, imagine the shock we felt when we for the first time we saw the appartment block in which the house we booked for the next seven days of our stay was. Fortunately, the house was a diamond in the rough, decorated very tastefully, fully renovated with a 50’tv full of movies and series, a huge mattress, washing machine, kitchen and a lovely view of the sea in front. Last but in no way least was Ernesto, the owner, the sweetest man in Cuba who treated us like a real friend.
Our magical room in Alamar
While staying in Havana we were wrongfully insecure, we didn’t know that the Cubans are really scared of the police, and they disappear if you mention it. So after the second day we spend in Alamar, we felt safer than ever. During our walks in town, in between the destroyed socialist buildings we were called “capitalistas” by the locals, it was obvious that our appearance was “different” and the people were rudely staring at us on the street.
Because of the prior natural disaster, the lack of goods was enormous. There was no chance to find potatoes or eggs mostly because the hurricane took the free range chickens along, as well as many crops, fruit and vegetables. Rochirio the driver told us about it, while he was driving us to and from the beach. He noticed that we were desperate since the super market could only sell us cheese and jamon, so he gifted us 10 eggs, to have some Cuban breakfast ourselves. In that neglected, poor area we found what we were looking for, the hospitable warm Cuban heart.
In Alamar, we met the most exceptional and kind people of our journey. Among them our host Ernesto, who we will always remember for his kindness, his smile and his ability to resolve issues, his honesty, intelligence and his unique view of the world.
Waving goodbye to Ernesto and his beautiful home, we moved towards the sea side where we would finally meet other tourists, like us. We regretted that we didn’t book all our vacation in Varadero, so we agreed to spend the rest of our days in a place in which there’s a policeman for each local, in Guanabo.
Third destination: Guanabo
After 10 days spent on this weird island, bathed-in and burned-out from socialism, the weather was warmer, and we relocated to our last destination, Guanabo, one of the most touristic villages in Habana.
The amazing beach of Santa Maria
Fishermen in a good day
The old cinema of Guanabo
A few kilometers from Santa Maria beach, we found ourselves in trouble again, since the room we booked through AirBnB was way different than the photos published on the website. Without a second thought we canceled our booking and after a tragic night in a public hotel, we found a place that could slightly reach our standards.
At that place we discovered what noise is like, something we had forgotten about while living in the Netherlands. The day started at 8 in the morning at the latest, with loud music, yelling and screaming by the locals, noise from the buses passing by really fast on the unpaved road in front of our house, carts and horses with bells, tractors, dogs barking, roosters fighting, and pavement sweeping from the neighbors. Thankfully we carried ear plugs and we managed to balance our sleep schedule on the third day.
We didn’t regret staying in Guanabo, because it was a few kilometers away from Santa Maria, the magnificent beach, which could be reached by cart for 3-5CUC or by taxi for 6-10CUC, an amount dependable on the driver’s decency and our mood for bargaining.
Leaving the village, we’ve been told (although you can notice it yourself too), that the village was known for its sex-tourism (just like the rest of Cuba) since you could pick among hundreds of girls, ages 18- 25 who were almost everywhere, take them to dinner or for a drink, and they would offer their services for a very small amount of money, like 20-30CUC. Dozens of middle aged men (55-65) Italians and Canadians usually with gray hair were filling up the “Italian” taverns, offering a “luxurious dinner” to the girls, prepaid internet cards, Heineken or wine, things that were really expensive for them or the local suitors to provide.
Chicken with rice and vegetables, in the best Italian of Guanabo
Handmade Pasta from Daniello with shrimps and lobster
In the village there was nothing but the beach, a few restaurants and the local entertainment, so we usually spent our time on the beach or at the 2 Italian restaurants we trusted for our nutrition, these were Don Peppo Don Peppo and San Franchisco.
Every morning we were enjoying a warm Americano or Cappuccino, fried eggs or an omelet, toast with ham and cheese, fresh juice, banana chips and bread with butter and jam for less than 10CUC per person. In the afternoons we were either eating there, or at the “original Italian” San Francisco, where Daniello the owner, was making his own fresh pasta and tiramisu. He was introduced and suggested by Pasquale from Milan, whom we met there for three days. This was the first and almost the last time I spoke in English to someone, during all the 21 days I spent on the island.
This was the first and the pre-last time I spoke English to a man, the 21 days I was on the island.
We spent 15 days in Guanabo and we switched 4 rooms. As the last one we picked a big and new house on top of a hill. Our host was speaking English very well and there were plantain trees in the garden, and a lovely view of the sea but most importantly, peace and quiet.
Our last host who spoke English perfectly
There we spent our final days on the island and then we left directly for the airport without any stops.
This was our small adventure graded 4 out of 10, considering our budget, the time spent traveling and the quality of our vacation. We were expecting warmer hospitality, better food, less scamming, less lies and hustling. The sea was marvelous and the rum was cheap, but in no way worth the traveling time, back and forth.
It’s worth to visit the touristic places of the island which tend to have European prices. If you can spend enough then you can book your accommodation in the small islands or Varadero. But if you want to experience the real deal be prepared for a lot of hustling.
If you’re thinking of traveling to Cuba and you need more information, continue reading the article: what you need to know if you want to travel to Cuba.
We want to warmly thank Athena Coroneou for the translation