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back to: Cuba Trip, 2001

Cuba Notes
(compiled by Mary Hansel from the Lonely Planet web site  11/7/01)

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Overview
Full country name: Republic of Cuba
Area: 110,860 sq km
Population: 11 million 
Capital city: Havana (pop 2,200,000)
People: 60% Spanish descent, 22% mulatto, 11% African descent, 1% Chinese
Language: Spanish
Religion: 47% Catholic, 4% Protestant, 2% Santería (many Catholics also practice Santería)
Government: Communist republic
Head of State: Fidel Castro
GDP: US$20 billion
GDP per head: US$2000 
Annual growth: 2.5%
Major industries: Sugar, minerals, tobacco, agricultural, medicine & tourism
Major trading partners: Western Europe, Latin America, Russia, China, Iran & North Korea
 

Hurricane News
11/9/01 - I talked to my father in Havana on Thursday and they had already electricity, gas and water. The situation is the city is improving fast, however in the provinces of Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Villaclara the situation is really bad, thousands of houses are gone and the agriculture (sugar cane and citrus) is basically in ruins, also the electrical, micowave and telephone lines are down, some places may not get them back until next year.

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
10 May '01
Cuba, which shunned developing a tourism industry until the late 1980s, is on target to play host to a record two million visitors this year. The collapse of the Castro government's former benefactor, the Soviet Union, plunged the Caribbean island into an economic decline of 35 percent between 1989 and 1993, but tourism has jumped to the rescue. Tourism grew at an amazing 19 percent annually during the 1990s and is credited with being the driving force behind the communist-governed island's annual growth rate of more than four percent since 1995. While Canadians and Germans rank one-two in terms of visitor numbers, the US, which has a long-standing embargo on its citizens visiting Cuba is the country's third largest source of visitors. Around 180,000 US citizens visited Cuba last year.

26 January '01
Cuba is one of the 20 countries worldwide which prohibits unrestricted internet access to its people under the pretext of protecting them from subversive ideas or of maintaining the country's unity. Of Cuba's 11 million inhabitants, only 40,000 have official Internet access. A government commission, established in 1996, authorizes and regulates the connection which is always restricted in some way. The government justifies these low numbers by arguing that computers are a luxury item and that telephone lines are of poor quality and limited in number. Despite these restrictions, Cubans, especially students, have managed to reach the Web, usually by cunning or stealth.
 

Advice from Recent Travellers
It seems that Cubans working in the dollar economy were doing really well and that if tourists had things to give away at the end of their trip, like clothes, etc., a good place to give them is to the local schools for them to distribute (rather than to people who are already doing well on the strength of working with tourists). A teacher earns £15 a month, the same as the cab fare to the airport.
Richard Geary & Elaine Hewson, UK (Feb 01)

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.
John E. Philip, (June 00)

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.
Sue Phares, USA (Jun 01) 

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.
J. Demsar, Slovenia (Aug 01)

÷ use a peso phone instead of a dollar phone. It will cost 1 peso per minute instead of 1 dollar per minute.
M. Simmeren, Netherlands (Sep 01)

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.
A. Virkkunen, (Jul 01)

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 tender.
P. Talja, Finland (Jul 01)

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.
Petr Necas, Czech Republic (Feb 01)

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.
Some tips, if you're not experienced in cigars: before you buy some, choose a certain brand and format in an official shop. Study the original carton. Where did they put the name brandings in the cedar wood? How does it look on the inside? How many stamps has it got? Take a cigar, smell it, feel it, watch the main leaf (the outer one): How does it look? What is its colour? How smoothly is it rolled? Remember as many details as you can and then compare them from your memory to the cigars they offer you. 
S. Karkowsky, Germany (Feb 01)

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.
Lee Hammond, Canada (Dec 00)

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.
Robert Wilkinson, USA (Sept 00)

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.
Sarah Leah Whitson, (May 00)

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.
Aristea Parissi, Greece (October 99)

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...
Corinna, (May 99)

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. 
Corinna, (May 99)

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.
Corinna, (May 99)

The following are my suggestions for living on a budget in Cuba.
1. Always, always bargain for the Casa Particulars. I traveled almost all of Cuba and only in Guanabo (I didn't go to Varadero) was I not able to get a casa for $10 a night for 1 or 2 people and that included Centro Habana. Often these places were of the highest quality.
2. Don't buy breakfast at the Casa. It seems to always cost about $3 which is loads for some bread, eggs and fruit juice. Almost everywhere in Cuba you can buy bread for about 5 US cents and a roll and a pot of honey or jam costs about a dollar and will last for ages. Fruit juice on the street costs about 2 pesos.
3. Eat peso dinners. The meals provided at the casas are lovely and enormous but they do get expensive every night. Especially in Havana there is loads of excellent street food. We ate street food everywhere in Cuba, as long as it looked hot and safe, and we had no serious stomach problems. Even in places where good street food is rare you can always have a casa meal one night and a less substantial peso meal the next to keep costs down.
4. If you have time, try catching camions and hitching with the amarillo man. It costs pesos and it is loads of fun. It is a really nice way to meet Cubans.
5. Give any Cuban museums that aren't personally recommended to you by another tourist a miss. An awful lot of Cuban museums are awful and take about 10 minutes to look around if you take your time and translate all the Spanish on the boards. A waste of dollars.
6. When going out in Havana ask the Cubans for good cheap places to go and you can have great night for $1 or $2 (including sharing a bottle of rum) by avoiding the tourist places.
7. Figure out the buses in Havana if you are going to be there a while. There are not as bad as you might imagine and so cheap they cost nothing. As an added bonus I met some of the nicest Cubans on the buses as they realize you are not a regular tourist and sometimes it makes a refreshing change to talk to Cubans who want nothing more from you than conversation.
8.Without a car it can be really difficult to get off the main routes to the towns and see the countryside without paying for expensive taxis. It is well worth the effort and it may be worth hitching and/or chatting up some tourists with a car as alternative ways of getting there.
Finally, go to the Karachi Club in Vedado between 4 and 8pm on a Saturday. It costs $1 for foreigners and it is mainly full of Cubans. The DJ, a great guy called Pepe, plays funk, soul, jazz and generally great music for if you are bored of the normal Cuban choice of tourist salsa or the Cuban favorite- Eurotechno. After 8pm the club reopens for tourists at 5 times the price. Hope someone finds it useful.
Gillian Sare, (Oct 00)

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!
Saso Skalic, Slovenia (Jan 01)

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.
Chantall, (May 99)

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.
Brigette Walenius, Canada (Feb 01)

Scams & Warnings
Travelers to Cuba should double check all bills and change received. Hardly a transaction occurred where we did not have to point out an overcharge or shortchange.
J. Kim, USA (Sep 01)

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"?
N. Aktypis, Greece (Aug 01)

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.
R. Loy, (Jul 01)

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 time amigo÷
D. Shaked, (Jul 01)

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.
Pascal Vugts, Netherlands (Oct 00)

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.
Dan, (March 99)

Gems, Highlights and Attractions
We visited the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt in Gunatanamo Province in February and hired a motorboat with a guide for a trip in the Bay through the mangroves. The trip takes 3 hours for 10 USD and it's beautiful. And it was a nice surprise that the boats had electric motors, so the trip is environment--and manatee-friendly.
Katalin Szilagyi, Hungary (June 01)

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.
Gordon McCulloch, UK (May 01)

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.
Alan Breslauer, USA (Feb 01)

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'. 
Danielle Labbad, Australia (Jan 01)

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!
Rumba is the base for salsa and all the other dance moves. Rumba started as a slave dance and then progressed quickly when American jazz came on board looking for the next direction in music and dance. A combination of big band swing and jazz saw salsa evolve into rumba and it is quite hard for 'gringos'. Traditional folkloric dances are very symbolic and based around courting rituals and offerings to the Cuban Gods.
Danielle Labbad, Australia (Jan 01) 

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.
Helen Hayward, U.K. (Oct 00)

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.
Fred Mendelsohn, (Sept 00)

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...
Katrien & Roel, Belgium (March 00)

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.
Chantall, (May 99)

Yarns, Fables & Anecdotes
Santiago De Cuba is Cuba's second largest city (about 450,000 people) and is located at the opposite end of the island from Havana. This was my favourite city in Cuba because it had such a fantastic vibe about it and there was plenty to see and do. The original Barcardi Rum factory (now the Fabricia de Ron) was located in Santiago de Cuba before the company left for Puerto Rico after the revolution out of fear of being. Today the factory produces Havana Club rum and a few other brands - mainly for export. I am sitting in "La Barrita" which is the tourist bar in the "Fabricia de Ron" and to be honest, I'm a little disappointed. I had such romantic notions about the original Bacardi factory. I was expecting a stately old Spanish colonial mansion surrounded by swaying palm trees and a sugar cane plantation which you could look out over whilst sitting on the terrace listening to live Cuban music while beautiful young Cuban chicas served you straight shots of well aged rum in crystal glasses. My grand illusions were well and truly shattered by the reality of three decrepit looking buildings in one of the dirtier parts of town overlooking rail tracks. Perhaps the original Bundy rum factory can live up to my expectations...
David Ellis, Australia (Mar 01)

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 that morning.
After hearing news that Santa Clara had fallen to the revolutionaries under the command of Che, the dictator Batista fled the country and thus the revolution was a success. As such, Santa Clara has become known as the city of Che. The locals have pictures of Che hanging on the walls of their homes next to pictures of Jesus.
The most impressive site in Santa Clara is the Che Guevara monument. Beneath a large effigy of the great man himself decked out in full army kit with a rifle in his hand is the tomb where his remains, and those of 18 other revolutionaries, are after being excavated from a mass grave in Bolivia in 1997. Castro lit the eternal flame that lies within the tranquil jungle setting in the bunker that is Che's final resting place. Visiting it is a very spiritual experience. I'm glad I made the pilgrimage. I also visited the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado which is a small museum in some old rail carriages. It marks the spot where Che and 18 rebels captured 408 heavily armed Batista troops. The bulldozer that Che used to cut the rail tracks is also on display. There are some good photos and paintings of Che on the walls as well as guns from the revolution. As I was leaving the museum, I was hit on by a transvestite- flattering but no thank you. He/she felt it necessary to explain to me that he/she was a transvestite. I thought it was obvious by the three-day growth. I'm still walking away when a boy on a bike dinkying a girl asks me where I'm from. I tell him that I'm Australian and he yells back to me that he's from Cuba. Classic.
David Ellis, Australia (Mar 01)