I went to Cuba sometime last year, but I never got a chance to write about it because I couldn’t quite figure out what to think about Cuba.
I didn’t love Cuba but I didn’t hate it either. The country seemed to operate 2 separate worlds: the one occupied by tourists, and one by Cubans themselves. There’s a very distinct separation between the two. I mean, for goodness sake they even have 2 currencies! CUP for locals, and CUC for tourists. There were buses that only tourists are allowed to take. Vice versa – there were local, much cheaper buses, that only locals are allowed to be on.
I’m one of those people who have never liked the idea of dual pricing and Cuba takes dual pricing to a whole new uncomfortable level.
I got chatting with a pedicab driver who confessed that he earns more money with his pedicab than at his old job as an engineer. This story kept repeating itself. Doctors and engineers make next to nothing while tour guides and cab drivers make a ton of money. Even though it’s admittedly a little odd, there’s nothing wrong with it in itself. It just means that tourists are a huge source of income. No wonder I had never felt more like a walking ATM than when I was in Cuba.
Looking back at my time in Cuba, some memories shine brighter than others. Here are a few of them. Not all are pleasant, but they are all definitely memorable.
Noticing the contrasts between new and old Havana
Havana illustrates the 2 worlds that coexist in Cuba. You have the recently restored and gorgeous Plaza Vieja – with sidewalk cafes, art galleries, and fancy hotels. Paint so fresh it’s blinding. And there’s the rest of Havana: peeling paints, cracked sidewalks, soot-covered walls, and no streetlights. The difference is staggering.
Restored old American cars roam the streets between the 2 worlds, spewing clouds of stinky exhausts. The first time I saw one of these I got excited, “This is SO Cuba!”, I thought. Later I realised that these old cars are everywhere. New cars are prohibitively expensive that they have to just keep fixing these old clunkers over and over again.
Doing an (imposed) digital detox
In Cuba Internet was heavily restricted. For visitors and locals alike, going online means buying one of these scratch cards and use it to connect to one of the public wifis. Some of these wifi points are near parks or inside hotels. Havana has many, while smaller cities like Viñales only had one. You can easily spot these wifi points by the congregation of people looking at their phones and laptops. You can buy these cards from Nauta stores, or easier (but slightly more expensive) from the touts hanging around the wifi points. They’ll find you.
I thought I would for sure hate this lack of Internet freedom but I actually kind of liked it. It became part of my daily routine: in the morning I’d walk towards the closest wifi point while grabbing breakfast on the way (usually a cheap bread and cheese from a local stand) and again after dinner.
Since I have to make the effort to be online, I needed to focus on getting things done during this time: book future accommodation, check in with Jack, check my emails, research next destination, etc. Those were some of my most productive online hours. 2-3 hours a day of being online was – surprisingly – enough.
My time in Cuba became a little bit like a digital detox. In the evening, instead of retreating to my own online world, I talked more to fellow travelers and my hosts. While walking around during the day I caught more details of my surroundings than I would’ve otherwise. It was kind of liberating. There’s no way I’m disciplined enough to voluntarily put myself through this.
Pro tip: My favorite wifi spot in Havana is inside Hotel Inglaterra right by Parque Central. It has AC and plush seatings.
Getting hit on by a cowboy in Viñales
I tried to go hiking in Viñales, but recent rain made the dirt road extremely muddy and covered in knee-deep ruts. I couldn’t get far. So in the end I hailed an older man on a horse and asked if he’d be willing to take me on a horseback ride. He nodded and told me to wait.
A few minutes later, he came back accompanied by another man and 2 extra horses. I knew what was about to happen next – he was going to hand me off to go with this other, younger man. My heart sank.
My heart sank because I knew this younger man. Not him personally. But his type. Throughout South and Central America I’ve met his kind and they’re all the same: early twenties, neatly groomed, gelled hair… they walk with a swagger because they think they’re God’s gift to womenkind. They are like mosquitoes: mostly benign, but so annoying to be around.
I was hoping I’d misjudged him. But nope…
Soon after we started riding the flirty platitudes started coming, “La china bonita” he’d call me. He wanted to be my special friend and keep me warm at night, blah, blah… – most of it was lost in translation since my Spanish wasn’t that great. But I got the gist. It was more cheesy than creepy. I eye-rolled so many times I got dizzy. My mentioning of a husband didn’t deter him either. “But he’s not here”, he laughed.
But you know what did stop him in the end? He hit his horse one too many times and I blew up (seeing an animal being abused is one of my few triggers). I yelled at him to stop beating the poor horse or I’d do some unspeakable violence to his manhood. It was all in English and the impact was lessened because my horse chose that time to stray off the path going after some bushes (seriously, horse?). But whatever, he got the gist. He sulked and refused to talk to me for the rest of the ride.
I finally got to enjoy beautiful Vinales in peace. It was great.
Walking the cobblestoned streets of colorful Trinidad
I liked Trinidad a lot. It was very colorful, mellow, and reminded me of other colonial cities that I’ve been to and liked. It was a perfect city to unwind with a nice central plaza and a healthy mingling between tourists and locals. There was a music event going on the weekend I was there and the whole city – kids and grandparents included – turned up for an evening of salsa and reggaeton. It was great.
There’s a discotheque in a cave – complete with stalactites and stalagmites – slightly outside town where young Cubans go to party. I really, really wanted to go but none of my hostel mates were up for it and I didn’t want to go by myself. But that just goes to show how cool Trinidad is. A disco! In a cave!
Having the worst meal of the year in Sancti Spíritus
The location of the restaurant was awesome; on the second floor overlooking the pedestrianized street in Sancti Spiritus. I ordered a beer and something under fish. I didn’t recognize the name of the dish but I thought, “Let’s try something new today”.
Well, the dish appearance was offputting right off the bat. No that is not photoshopped – the sauce is that green. I took a bite and I thought, “Well, what an interesting taste”. Thinking that it was just a bad first impression I took another bite.
This time I gagged. Wrong. So wrong. The color and taste reminded me of Listerine, cloyingly sweet and minty I wanted to wipe the inside of my mouth and throat with a napkin. I chose to down my beer instead, paid, and left.
Having the best meal of the year in a Havana paladar
Cuba is full of contrasts. Stick to locals-only eatery and you can get a meal for less than 50 cents. It might not be more than a heapful of pasta with sauce and cheese, but you can definitely stretch your budget on meals here in Cuba.
But to see Cuban’s full achievement in culinary department, you have to go one of paladares. You’ll be in for a surprise.
What is a paladar? There are 2 types of restaurants in Cuba: state-run or private (paladares). The latter is family run restaurants that often serve creative and fresh homemade Cuban food. The growing number of paladares in the country (especially in Havana) meant that if you’re a foodie – you don’t have to go far to find fresh and delicious Cuban food.
I had one of the most amazing garlic shrimps from Paladar Doña Eutimia in Havana, but what stole the show for me was the black bean that came with it: it’s slightly smoky and with an earthy aroma I just wanted to bottle up and take home with. The paladares cater towards tourists and their prices reflect their clientele. My dish cost $8 – expensive for Cuban standards but for the quality and the amount, it’s a steal compared to San Francisco.
There was that time when the Hershey Train hit a cow
The train stopped abruptly. I mean, we were going at most 5 miles an hour and it hadn’t been the smoothest ride to begin with, but this stop was definitely, abnormally abrupt. A ripple of excited whispers started spreading from the front of the train and I caught the word “vaca” a few times. Some people jumped off the train and rushed to the front. “What’s going on?” – I wondered. My travel companion said, “I think we hit a cow!”
The poor beast wasn’t dead. He was merely stunned. They tried to drag the stunned cow off the track but to no avail. So we waited, and waited. We waited some more. Finally the cow slowly got up and walked into the bushes on the side of the railways track, as if he hadn’t just been hit by a freaking train.
Pro tip: Don’t take the Hershey train when you’re under time constraint. Our supposedly 3 hour trip ended up taking 8 hours! (Not all of it is the cow’s fault). The scenery is beautiful though and one of the few ways to escape the established tourist routes.
Gawking at Havana’s Fusterlandia
On my last day in Havana, I arranged for my taxi to stop by Fusterlandia on my way to the airport. I was so glad I did because Fusterlandia was awesome!
Jose Fuster is recognized as one of Cuba’s most iconic artists. You can easily see why when you go visit his home in Fusterlandia neighborhood. His arts are scattered throughout the neighborhood in the forms of benches, murals, bus stops, and even street signs.
They act as preludes to the main show: the artist’s home itself. It’s whimsical, a fantasy land, and hard to describe in words. You just have to see it for yourself. If you like the quirky and the weird, definitely Fusterlandia this to your list.
Oh Cuba, I just can’t make up my mind about you. It is definitely one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been to.
For itinerary idea, check out this 2 week Cuba itinerary.
Have you been to Cuba? Tell me what you think about it in the comment section.