Cuba (South and West) Itinerary: Thoughts and Tips
We spent three weeks in Cuba with following routes:
Fly from Amsterdam..
Havana (two nights)
Jardines de La Reina (sharks diving!! stayed for six nights)
Santa Clara (stayed one night)
Playa Ancon and Trinidad (two nights)
Playa Giron (scuba-diving, stayed for two nights)
Las Terrazzas (three nights)
Havana (two nights)
Fly back to Amsterdam.
Cuba Tourist Visa
You can get tourist visa card from Cuban Embassy or Consulate, and travel agents at your country except if you are residing in United States. Some airlines also provide the visa card. We got the tourist visa card from a Dutch travel agent who organize our car rental and some hotels in Cuba.
Cuban immigration did not stamp anything in my passport but they did so in my tourist card (they took the card when I left the country). The card should be kept until you leave the country. Please note that you have to show this tourist visa card to hotels front office and Casa Particular owner.
Cuba has two currencies: Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC or locals called it chavito or convertible) and Cuban Peso (CUP). As a tourist, you have to pay in CUC. This two currencies system is quite confusing and affecting where you can shop and eat. In touristy area, the menu or items are in CUC but in smaller shops where usually the Cubans shop, the prices are in CUP. If you were in non-touristy area, then I advise to pay attention on the currencies of the prices.
Other than that, beware of getting changes in CUP instead of CUC after paying for something in CUC. But most Cubans are honest. I paid in CUC in Santa Clara’s Post Office, but they usually received payment in CUP and they did not have any CUC, they asked me to wait to get CUC changes for me.
Oh well, I almost get scammed because of this two currencies system. Someone tried to scam me with peso coins by saying they were old Cuban coins from Batista’s ruling and he would like to give them to me with the exchange of CUC coins. I noticed they were actually CUP coins, so I refused them.
Based on today’s rate: 1 Euro is around 1.3 CUC and 1 CUC = 24 CUP
Transportation & Cuba Roads
We traveled around Cuba by a car rental from Rex Car Rental. We took the car in Santa Clara and returned it in Havana. Second driver had to pay extra and we should use credit card to pay the guarantee fee until we returned the car (the guarantee fee would not be charged in credit card unless you had some issues such as traffic fines, scratch in car’s body or other incident).
I found driving around Cuba was the exciting. We used GPS – google map from our tablet to reach everywhere and it worked very well that we did not get lost during our trip. Additionally there were no traffic jams in Cuba (joy oh joy) due to limited number of motor vehicles. The only modern and newer cars are tourist rental cars with red car plate number (sadly). We shared the roads with cows and horses (exciting!). We met plenty of Cuban hitchhikers (sad and awful to see them). Hitchhiking is very common in Cuba due to lack public transportation. For some foreign tourists, these sights could be quite intimidating. Sincerely I felt uncomfortable to invite random hitchhikers, so my selection would be old female or a mother with toddler or young kids.
Driving in Cuba also has some risks. There were no car repair shops so far I notice and sometimes you could experience flat tires – some roads in Cuba are not in perfect conditions (holes and pits here and there), so knowing some basic on fixing car tires would be handy and make sure that an extra tire and the tools are available in your rental car when you get the car keys.
Restaurants & Hotels versus Paladares & Casas Particulares
Most restaurants and hotels in Cuba are state-owned. Only just recently the Cuban government allowed their citizens to start business in tourism industry.
The restaurant owned by an individual Cuban called Paladar, it is usually located at home with home-made menu. Some Cubans who were lucky to have more money then offer variety in the menu and even hire a cook and waiters or rent a place. The food served in Paladar usually more delicious and tasty than state-owned restaurants.
Casa particular is a guest house run by a Cuban family in their house. Usually the family has one or three bedrooms with shared or private bathroom. With around 25-40 CUC, you can stay in casa particular with the warmth of family atmosphere and good home made breakfast or dinner.
To check review of Paladar or Casa Particular, please visit website Cuba Junky on Paladares and Cuba Junky on Casa. Additionally, I book casa from Cubaccommodation. The reply was very quick and you don’t have to pay in advance.
Few Small Tips….
Firstly, if you are a tea drinker (like me) and you need to have a cup of tea once a while, I advise to bring tea from your home country. I found it is so hard to get tea in Cuba. Once I had a cup of tea, the taste was old and (sorry) yucky. Gladly, I brought a package of Indonesian tea with me and share the tea together with some Cubans during our stay.
Secondly, bring small souvenirs that relates to your home country, could be key rings, fridge magnet or book separator. I thought it was a nice gesture to give to friendly Cubans whom we met or additional gift to tip money for the hotel room maids. My consideration was the Cubans have difficulties to travel aboard due to government restriction (and poverty) and perhaps by sharing the souvenir from Indonesia and the Netherlands would introduce the countries to them as well.
Thirdly, this one is special for avid scuba-divers. If you wish to dive in Cuba, I suggest bringing your own gear (mask, fins, BCD and regulator). Cuba suffered from long period of heavy embargo and this impact to their diving gear rentals that mostly look old and worn-out. In Jardines de la Reina is bit different situation though. Since the diving is organized by Italian company with a special mandate by the state, it has better equipment. We met Canadian couple who have been to Cuba many times for diving. They even bring tank o-rings from Canada as back up. It appears that it happened a lot that the dive center in Cuba has difficulties in getting o-rings for their scuba tanks that they just let the tank with worn out o-rings.
Will I ever return to Cuba..
Yes I would love to! I hope the time will come to visit Cuba again. I would not mind to visit Jardines de la Reina and Havana once more. And most likely the next visit will cover the area such as Santa Lucia for its famous bull shark diving, Camaguey, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa. Haah, sounds like I plan the next trip already 🙂