Whenever you hear about Cuba or Havana the first thing that comes into your head is the Cuban Mafia, Cuban Salsa or the Havana Rum correct? Whatever the media shows us gets into our head so much that we build a perception about the place, good or bad. When I boarded my flight from Miami to Havana I had no expectations about the city or the country and arrived here with an open mind. And I must say that as soon as I started my conversation with my casa particular host, everything I had in mind about Cuba changed big time.
With free education, free medical, super subsidised living costs like food, shelter and utilities Cubans don’t really poverty in any form. The need for more and the want for a “better” living makes them go seek for it. On the other hand the freebies also have made a lot of them lazy and not do much. They eat and drink and make merry most of the time. The hard working ones get their butts of and make a few dollars more to provide well for their families.
I stayed in a home stay as that was the visa category I travelled into Cuba i.e., support for Cuban people. Meaning I had to stay with locals and do local stuff. I did manage to explore around the neighbourhood to get a feel of how it is. I stopped by a local tea stall to eat a toasted ham n cheese sandwich. Most people mind their own business, with the odd one greeting or smiling at you. They are not very friendly but not too cold either. After exploring the surrounds I took the local bus to go to Old Havana and wow what a transformation that was. Old Havana is full of character, full of life and a obvious lot of colorful vintage American cars. These cars turn the city into something of its own. I walked around most of old Havana and explored most of its important icons, spent time by the wharf where I saw massive waves hit the rocks at great speeds, tried a traditional Cuban meal, went into stores n markets and eventually took the back home.
Two most important things to note here were the WIFI and the Language. Wifi is not available everywhere and you can find certain spots where a zillion people are on their phones and that’s where u can access it. It’s not free and you have to find a wifi card to access the internet. I got mine from a guy selling on the streets and managed to negotiate 5CUC for three 1hr cards. The other obvious point is the language. Spanish is the language widely spoken but at most shops, restaurants and other places alike, they do manage a little bit of English. Google translate is your best buddy and along with some basic Spanish, it’s not hard to manage your way around.
On one of the days, I found a travel buddy in my accomodation who was from Japan. I was totally surprised how she had been managing to get around without knowing a word of Spanish and her English was at its elemental basics. She mentioned to me that one of the nights she “guessed” which bus to take to return to the homestay and hoped it was the right one. I mean it’s people like these that inspire you to take the extra step and push yourself when in doubt about anything. We both hung out the entire day exploring new Havana together and later ended off the day with a good Cuban dinner and a local bus ride back home 🙂
One thing to note as a tourist/traveller here is to say no to the locals who tend to tag along with you starting with a good conversation. By no means they are scary or threatening of any sort and all they want is a few CUCs as a gratitude. I met a bunch of them like this and after having my time with them, I politely said no to whatever they asked. And also made sure I was never in an isolated place as such. Overall it was a great experience in Cuba. From using broken Spanish to communicate to make my way around, to having long conversations, to taking the local bus & local ferry, to meeting other travellers, getting travel tips for Latin America, to striking a deal with a cabbie to take me to the airport on the classic vintage Chevy, it was a week that surely taught me a lot.
Top tips for Cuba
1. Canadian dollars are of the highest value. Bring CAD to exchange to CUC, you get the best price. Airport is fine to exchange.
2. Tourists have to use CUC (Cuban convertibles) at most places while CUP (Cuban Pesos) is for the locals. Most places accept both but preferred to be paid in CUC.
3. Resist the temptation from being lured by locals in Havana. They sweet talk you into taking to a store or bar or restaurant which you might end up paying for.
4. Carry smaller denominations as possible.
5. Cubans are lazy. Two blocks of walking might seem a lot to them and everything is very far in their heads, so if they say it’s very far it’s probably not as far as you think.
6. Wifi is available for purchase from telecom centres in blocks of an hour. Usually about 1CUC per hour.
7. Bus transport is super cheap ranging from 0.5 to 5 Cuban Pesos to most places across Havana & surrounds.
8. It is quite safe all around but you still have to watch out for some crazy people.
Some of photos here below: