(compiled by Mary Hansel from the Lonely Planet web site 11/7/01)
11/10/01 - I just talked to someone in the City of Matanzas on Thursday
morning and he told me they have had no running water or electricity since
the Hurricane. He also mentioned that the damage is not that bad as far
as he can see except for stuff blown around. Trinidad is still in
good condition and no real harm is done there
Tourism a Lifeline for Cuba's Economy
26 January '01
Advice from Recent Travellers
We were in Cuba in March and brought some clothes. People were very happy when I gave them t-shirts, etc. But you are right about the casa owners, we noticed they are remarkably better off than the modal Cuban. Better give your things to someone who does not have a dollar-income.
For example, we did the Sierra-Maestra hike and, sleeping in a refugio on the mountain, there were some Cubans working there, and I gave some things to them. You'll be able to discern who is better off and who is not.
When you visit the toilet in most places in Cuba you are asked to tip those at the door offering slips of toilet paper so it is very handy to have a pile of coins. Receipts for customs are only needed for very large paintings and for boxes of 25 cigars and over.
Toilet Paper!! Take a little of your own when you are walking around
town and expect to use a restaurant or public toilet (seriously). This
is one thing that the Cubans are short of.
Advance warning about the unusual A/C which kicks in going down the
runway on some Cubana airplanes would save some anxiety. It looks like
smoke and almost gave me a heart attack. Other passangers who had never
seen this were equally alarmed and the woman next to me started crying
and praying. Yikes.
Pens are in such short supply that it is worth taking a box of biros. You will get better value trading with them than with dollars. They are simply something money can't buy in many places÷Power cuts are very common; candles aren't so it's well worth bringing a pack.
In Santiago de Cuba, we took a coach for a usual price of 5 pesos per
5 persons (we explicitly agreed the price). However, when we arrived, driver
claimed he meant "5 pesos in USD" and that would be 5 USD. We could, however,
give him 5 pesos and go, but the situation was really unpleasant, especially
when people started gathering around us to see what's happening. Some guy
told us that "tourist often get confused since Cubans sometimes say "a
peso" when they mean "a dollar". Not a very helpful explanation, though.
In the end, we gave him three dollars, but I deeply regret we did (if I
was alone I wouldn't encourage him to cheat the next group of tourist the
same way÷). So, whenever asking for a price, you should explicitly ask
whether a peso means a Cuban peso, not a US dollar.
÷ use a peso phone instead of a dollar phone. It will cost 1 peso per
minute instead of 1 dollar per minute.
Paladar Food: Castro's tax policy and the mentioning of certain paladar's
in guidebooks has driven some prices up to a level which is not acceptable
($10!) since the quality is still home cooking. Don't pay more than $4
for a meal even in Havana unless it's lobster.
the ultimate souvenir savings tip There are people wanting to sell you
a three peso coin with a classic figure of Che Guevara on it. Unless you
want to be generous to the seller, don't buy these coins for a dollar a
piece, because at any cadeca (money exchange), you can get seven similar
shiny coins for one buck. Instead of a valuable relic, the coin is legal
The cheapest way to send postcards to friends all over the world is
to buy postcards with prepaid postage. The right price of these postcards
is the same as the price of stamps - 0,50 USD, that means you will spend
half than if buying postcards for 0,50 plus stamps for 0,50. But the mentioned
price does not apply everywhere. At some shops (and at all in Varadero)
they try to overcharge and sell you those postcards for 1 USD. In that
case the best solution is go to other shop, in Havana or Santiago you will
find it most certainly.
Despite all the warnings I received, I bought a lot of cigars on the
black market. If you know your brand and if you are an experienced cigar
smoker, you will find it hard to believe that you virtually can buy every
single brand of Cuban cigars in every format on the black market - to presume
there could be an industry of fakers faking them all is even harder to
believe. I bought at least 10 different types of cigars and except for
one case of Cohiba Esplendidos they all were very well the originals -
or at least close to them. The biggest problem about these cigars was storage,
some were in poor condition - too dry. After becoming a good customer to
the dealers, I got every carton for as less as 20 Dollars. So, whatever
the secret behind the black cigar market is, buying a nice carton of 25
Havana Cigars for 20 Dollars isn't that risky if you compare it to the
official prices of 100 - 380 Dollars per carton. At least you will get
a genuine Havana Cigar - even if it is not Cohiba tobacco. But I never
found paper or whatever inside.
I found that at all the Internet cafes Hotmail access was prohibitively
slow, from what I heard being due the embargo. Other web e-mail providers,
were at normal speed. I would recommend readers open a free account with
another provider before departing for Cuba.
For Americans it is very important to stress that they have to be extra
careful not to have their passport or money stolen. There is no direct
express mail or courier from the USA to Cuba so replacement documents would
have to be sent from Canada or Mexico. Someone might have to go there to
mail them!! There is no embassy so no new passport. I think Cubans will
still let you fly out but you may have to pay $50 extra fine for a lost
Visa. Stolen air tickets could be a problem without an ID. All replacement
traveler's checks must be sent by courier from Mexico, Canada etc. but
they said it is only 48 hours or so. VISA doesn't have a bank connection
to Cuba. I don't think Cook has one either. But you need ID to get them.
So I had 3 money belts: one outside, one under clothes, and one on my leg.
I also had 4 copies of all documents, air tickets etc. spread around.
Take lots and lots of $1 bills and even lots of US Coins. You must pay
for almost eveything you buy in dollars, and unless the seller has small
bills (not likely), you will get virtually worthless pesos in change, making
costs even higher than they already are.
Going down from the Gran Piedra to the intersection, we gave a lift
to a middle-aged woman and her 7-year old niece who had been walking for
more than 5 hours. Since taxi drivers in Cuba don't give a lift to anyone,
unless the're asked to by the passengers, travellers should always try
to give a ride to anyone in need.
Bring earplugs!! Cuba is definetely a very noisy country where people
often get up early and there is always a neighbour putting on a radio very
loud at 8 in the morning...
In almost every city the streets are called by their old names by the
Cubans and not by the new ones carrying "revolutionary" names - even on
the cards for the tourists.
In Santiago the best way of getting around is by hopping on one of the
trucks (camiones or camionetas) as there are not many buses working any
more. Just ask around which camion goes in your direction, people will
always help you and show you where to get off. (Okay, this is only advisable
if you speak Spanish) They are very full and you might get squashed a little,
and watch your things carefully all the time. You can get to the Morro
Castle this way if you don't mind having to walk up the hill, and even
to El Cobre for one Cuban peso: it takes longer but is a fun experience
as you are probably the only tourist on the truck.
The following are my suggestions for living on a budget in Cuba.
One should stress that signposting on the roads in Cuba is almost non-existent.
If there is a signpost, its color is probably bleached out by the sun.
We suggest one get a good, preferably Cuban, road map (we got one from
the rental company guy) and a basic knowledge of Spanish (left / right
/ ahead)... Also, tank stations are very unevenly spread. On the Autopista
between Havana and Pinar there only is one!
I found the rental car to be the best way yet to get around. I paid
$35 US per day plus $200 deposit for 7 days. The car was the cheapest available
a Subaru two door that I swear was called something like 'vulva'. It took
regular Cuban gas (.50 / litre) but the guy at the pump by law had to make
me buy special gas (1.20 per litre) at a servi-station. It took a little
tip to get the cheaper stuff.
Regarding the Viazul bus company, they now have a website (www.viazul.cu)
that provides information on routes and times. Note that it is best to
reserve a seat by phone at least one day in advance. In Havana, you must
phone the central bus station or the Viazul station depending on where
you will board (they are only 4 km apart). Since only about 5 seats per
bus are reserved for boarding at the central bus station and buying tickets
there is a long arduous task (all dollar paying customers are asked to
wait in one room where there is only one clerk who sells tickets when she
feels like it), it is better to use the Viazul station at 26 and Zoologico.
There are many more seats available, buying tickets is an easy task, and
the Viazul station has a comfortable waiting room.
Scams & Warnings
Beware of Official Theft at the airport of Santiago de Cuba. In Santiago
de Cuba Airport we were at the Control Point, before entering the gate
and of course after the check-in. There were two men, in blue uniforms,
operated the x-ray "box." The first one stopped my bag and started asking
me questions about a mini-disc recorder and a microphone I was carrying,
the other one "grabbed" the opportunity and took 300 US Dollars from my
money-belt that was still inside the x-ray "box". When my girlfriend and
I realized this, later that night after landing in Havana, it was quite
surprising. Who is going to protect us from our "protectors"?
When staying at a casa particular ask for "un recibo" a receipt. At
my first casa, I paid the lady in the afternoon and then later that night
she asked for her money again! She insisted that I had not paid her and
I had no proof to the contrary. I thought the register that I signed was
proof but it's not. I told her I would give her (another) $15 in the morning
and I left very unhappily.
The jineteros and hustlers were unbelievably annoying! Regardless of
how many times your book warned about this phenomena, I was still unprepared
for SO MANY strangers approaching me and trying to sell something.
I particularly disliked those strangers that approached me as their old
Me and my 2 fellow travelers were kind of upset that there is no such
thing as a mosquito warning. I'll explain. We went to the Bay of Pigs and
it was really cheap ($30 for 3 persons: sleep, meal (fresh fish!) 3 beers
and a bottle of water). But then, as if they received a secret sign, the
mosquitoes invaded! I have never seen so much of them at once, and they
were all over us. They stung right through our clothing and no repellent
was adequate in order to get rid of the insects. The campesino man came
with a big, smoking bazooka-like tube and smoked all life out of our hut.
The next day, one friend had 42 total bites on both hands, the other more
than 80 only on his both legs, knee-down. Anyway, when you go to a tropical
country it is normal to expect some mosquito and you prepare for that.
But this was a living nightmare!! We thought it would be more than fair
to mention this to travelers heading that way.
I went to a baseball game in Havana. I paid $1 at the gate, but wasn't
given a stub and didn't even think about it until the usher wanted $1 as
well. He wouldn't buy the story that I had paid at the gate so I had to
go all the way back and dray the money collector to where I wanted to sit.
Interestingly enough, the usher STILL wanted his $1 so we sat elsewhere.
Advice: get your stub when you pay! Everyone's out for another buck.
Gems, Highlights and Attractions
The second piece of information is the location of ATM cash dispensers
in the city. I saw three machines and these were located on the mezzanine
floor of the Hotel Golden Tulip Parque Central, outside a bank in the Plaza
de San Francisco de Asis and at another bank in O'Reilly St. The machines
will give currency in convertible pesos, which are accepted like dollars
and have the same value.
In Habana Vieja there is a statue of General Máximo Gomez (just
down the street towards the water off the Malecón) that is worth
a visit because a man and wife actually live inside the statue. If they
are home they will show you their living quarters inside the statue and
even turn on the water outside for your pictures.
I have seen live bands nearly everyday comparable to Buena Vista Social
Club and better, and bought heaps of music. Just to dance with the Cuban
men and women is an experience never to be forgotten at clubs such as Casa
de la Musica, Cafe Cantarnte, Casa de Coutura. It's a mix of salsa, reggae,
son, cha cha, mambo and just basically movin' to the groovin'.
I also went to the Jazz Club a few times - Latin jazz is unbelievable.
La Zorren y El Cuerbo (The Fox and the Crow), is a great place to hang
out, not get hit on or hustled and everyone goes there just for the music.
I got to meet all the musicians and see the most incredible musicians play-
young guys on the drums in bare feet, saxophones, trumpets, keyboard players,
elderly guys and young guys all together. We were lucky to see Chucho Valedes
perform who is a world-renowned jazz musician. I even got to dance son
with a few 60 and 70 year olds. They still have the moves!
Under the entertainment in Havana heading: for people who are interested
in hearing good live music, the best way to find out who was playing where
was to listen to the radio, on 93.3 FM between 4-6 p.m. I still found it
necessary to check on the day by phoning up venues, and even then arrived
to find groups had cancelled.
I recently traveled to Cuba and spent a pleasant stay in San Diego de
Los Baños (lots of hot springs there). Opposite the hotel Saratoga,
built in 1924, is a kiosk selling guarapa, the local sugar cane juice,
run by Henry Gil. As well as speaking very good English and a trained chemist
to boot, Henry was very informative on the local economy. His kiosk was
a 50/50 joint venture with the state and he had built the stripping and
pressing machines himself. The kiosk was interesting and the sugar cane
was proclaimed to have Viagra like qualities. It was the only item I bought
in Cuba which was less than $1.
The stretch of road between Trinidad and Cienfuegos that hugs the coast
was very beautiful, but that morning, also downright dangerous. As it happens
two or three times a year, thousands of crabs had left the Carribean sea
that night to go and breed inland, thereby crossing the road. The surface
of the road was therefore packed with large, black and pink crabs. Some
of them were flattened by passing cars, while others were still trying
to reach the other side of the road. For cars this wonderful phenomenon
had two consequences: first,the road was very slippery because of all these
freshly slaughtered beasties and second: their razorsharp claws can perforate
a car's tire easily. Which they did. Our car had THREE flat tires that
morning, two hours before our flight was due to leave a mere 200 kms further
north. Our driver stopped at a small hamlet outside Trinidad and quickly
we were surrounded by the villagers. As communism isn't so good in stimulating
initiative, our driver and the entire male population did nothing but stare
at the three airless tires in dismay. Finally, because time was running
out, our driver managed somehow to repair the tires with metal screws,
a bicycle pump and lots of improvisation. The rest of the trip our driver
completed at warp-speed. We thanked the man profoundly with a big tip.
If we can offer you one tip of advice: don't count on an easy journey to
a distant airport when in Cuba...
A Cuban friend of a friend took me to the best spot for dancing in Havana
in the plaza de Revolucion under the ballet school and theatre is the Cafe
Cantante and for a couple of pesos you can dance withe the Cubans from
4-7pm toolocal talent which changes everday. A word of caution is line
up early as there were 40 old lades at the door by 4pm and its worth it
to get in early for a seat. The crowd ranges from 16 to 65 and is very
enthusiastic. I don't think there wre any other tourists there that afternoon.
Yarns, Fables & Anecdotes
On 28 December 1958, Che Guevara and his barbudos (bearded rebels) arrived
in Santa Clara, which was the last city to fall during the revolution.
Almost 42 years later, I also arrived in Santa Clara, though the similarity
ends there. I'm sure Che and his band of merry men did not arrive in a
bright green Citroen taxi crammed full with four Cubans and an Aussie whilst
listening to Cuban music on a Sony car stereo. Besides, I'd had a shave