¡Hasta la Victoria. Juntos!
We danced by water ‘neath the Cuban sky. Drank some great mojito’s by a string of blue lights…. He was with me…
I would definitely not label Cuba as being poor. It’s rather a decaying country, faded glory, “a prince in a poor man’s coat” as Lonely Planet writer Brendan Sainsbury perfectly described it. Between the moulder lies a hidden treasure; Cuba is unique, an experience, a clandestine gem waiting to be discovered and exploited any time soon.
When people asked me if I would recommend the destination, my first thought was “no”. But then again, I couldn’t exactly justify why. In fact, I’m actually very glad to have seen it and I’m more than glad to have seen it now (before it’s too late – or is it already?). It had been on my list for so long. So when the boyfriend stated that we should go somewhere together where I hadn’t been before, it was one of the three countries I instantly hinted and his choice was quickly made (the others being Colombia and Mozambique – I guess – I’m not so sure about the latter actually, there’s too much left on my list anyway). It was just before Obama announced to resume relations with Cuba (which of course – once he did – I took as a sign).
What made the trip just perfect, was the company. I was really enjoying my little solo-escapes and I was more than happy to continue traveling on my own. Define a happy single: me – five months ago. But when this major love falls into your lap, what else is a girl to do than to introduce him to her other crucial love? Travel that is (if you didn’t know already).
We had been “dating” for a few months (and practically living together after a week) and many people around us seemed to perceive this trip as our big relationship test. Wether it was a test or not – it sure didn’t feel like one – we did have a complete different background when it came to traveling.
I was the backpacker, going wherever my mood would take me. He… well, not so much. So we started by compromising, as couples do. The compromise being booking three nights up front in Havana.
We booked this fancy ****hotel in the city center, walking distance from the old town (my favourite part) and started the trip with a taxi-ride from the airport (oh, and converting currency at the airport too!). Though I do enjoy luxury like every other girl, all things I had never done on previous trips (except on city breaks – that are short – and include cheap flights). I didn’t mind. I actually enjoyed this easy way of traveling.
Another shocking fact: since he doesn’t own a backpack (why would he?), I decided to travel with a suitcase as well. When I quit my last job, the amazing team of Samsonite Benelux had given me a limited edition Cosmolite suitcase as going-away present. No better occasion to run in those wheels than in Cuba. While backpacking, I often looked down on those people. Pretending to travel around with their suitcases. They weren’t real travelers. How could they be? With their fancy suitcases and sh*t… What a revelation! Those things are pretty handy in fact. Apart from when we were in Trinidad, with its hilly cobblestones. But than again, we had a guy picking us up from the bus station who carried my ultra lightweight case. Even when arriving a new town and searching for accommodation, you just slide those four wheels around. Piece of cake.
I could go on and on about the differences between the two of us and how it actually didn’t change anything of our trip. But that’s not why you are reading this. You want the tips & tricks, don’t you?
So, my most important tips for Cuba (finally) (more don’ts than do’s apparently):
- Don’t bother staying at a hotel. For a lot less money, you can have the same comfort at one of the many casas particulares. (**** in Cuba will cost you as much as **** in Europe, but include peeling paintwork and showers with the power of a peeing dog. Plus, the food is better at the casas too). Once you find a casa particular to your standards, let the Cuban social network do the rest. They all know someone with a casa in any other Cuban town to recommend.
- Don’t hire a car. Roads are crappy and the speeding limit is set at a mere 80km/h. Not to mention the many stories of people running into fake cops or being held in the country after an incident. Buses are fine (go for Viazul – bear in mind that they more often leave too early than too late), but any unofficial taxi will drive you for the same price as a bus ticket (although you might have to share the ride, they will find your co-travelers for you), even to the remote places that are only reserved to package-deal tourists. In two weeks we spent less than 200 CUC per head on buses and taxi’s, which would have been double if we had hired a car.
- Last but not least: If you do decide to go for one of the many all-inclusive resorts (which we did for 48h of which we escaped the scene for at least a full day), book your hotel with a travel agent instead of at the reception. Long story. Just trust me. Even if you enter the hotel and go straight to one of the agents that have a pitch somewhere on the territory (in our case, one floor down from the lobby), it will save you at least 50% on your stay. And if you really want to blend in with the all-in crowd, don’t forget to bring your huge mug to store your drinks. I still don’t get it. How lazy can you be? Or maybe, how fast can you drink? I still prefer running to the bar once in a while for a cold, refreshing beverage to filling one of those giant mugs that everyone (yes, everyone) seems to have (and it’s not that you can buy them at the local souvenir shop, oh no, they must have all brought them from home?!), but I did feel like an outsider drinking from my plastic cup. The fuchsia all-area wristband did make up for that feeling. Luckily.
Specific tips on where to stay and where to eat will be online soon. For now, let’s wrap up with the fact that he passed the test with distinction – compliments of the jury even – and I can’t wait for our next adventure together. Hey, I even let him scrape Cuba of my scratch map!