More than a million Canadians go to Cuba every year, mostly for “playa y sol,” beach and sun, which they soak up at all-inclusive resorts. These places are fun, economical, and convenient, but they offer barely a glimpse of the richness of the real Cuba, real Cubans, and real Cuban life. Above: There are things you can only see from a bike in Cuba, like this farmer transporting young pigs in a horse-drawn cart.
It’s not hard, though, to have a more authentic Cuban experience and also get the satisfaction of helping a lot of people by staying in casa particulares (also known as hostales). These are bed-and-breakfast-type places run by families. They are strictly regulated to conform with the hospitality standards and expectations of the savvy tourist. Each room has a private bath and air conditioning, and the hosts will serve breakfast for about 5 CUCs, and, in many cases, supper if you ask for it, for 10-15 CUCs.
CUCs are worth one US dollar. The CUC was created to encourage tourism. Cuba also has currency known as pesos or CUPs. The locals use these, and the resturants, stores, hostales and other places that accept CUPs are often far cheaper than places that use CUCs. A personal-sized pizza, for instance, might cost 10 CUPs from a stand or small bar, or 3 CUCs from a tourist restaurant down the block – a ten-fold difference. It’s smart to carry both kinds of currency.
Casa particulares are a real bargain, costing 25-30 CUC nightly. You can find them online.There’s a useful app called Cuba Junky that lists and rates many of them. Most do booking by email. Some casa owners speak English fluently. Many don’t. It’s good to learn some basic Spanish from a phrasebook if you plan to stay in casas.
There are lots of casas in the cities we visit in central Cuba. We fly from Ottawa to Santa Clara and then visit Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Remedios and other places. The quality of the casas varies. After four years of visiting casas, we’ve culled the ones that disappointed and cultivated outstanding, delightful places to stay and developed warm relationships with their owners.
In Santa Clara, we stayed, on our first visit, in a casa highly recommended by Lonely Planet that we didn’t like. We found the hosts at Hotal Florida Centro cold and unhelpful. Later, through Cuba Junky, we met Carlos and Belkeis. She works at the university. He used to work in a hospital. Now, his full-time work is looking after tourists like us, and we’ve developed a real friendship. When we picked up the wrong orange suitcase full of donated medical supplies (see below) at the airport, Carlos, who appears in the photo taken at the Ernesto Che Gueveara CaridoCentro, helped us find a cab and sort it out. He has sorted out a lot of things for us in the past few years and helped us learn Spanish.
My wife and I are cycle tourists, as are several of our friends. The casas have been welcoming and provide safe places for our bikes. Cycling in Cuba is a great adventure. Many roads are unforgettable for touring. You don’t often get to see an oxcart or a real cowboy when you’re out for a ride in Canada. We’ve had some close calls on busy roads, though, which we’ll try to avoid in future. Biggest problem is the heat. If you’re not prepared for high humidity and 30°C, cycling can be rough. Take frequent breaks for hydration and carry lots of water and electrolytes. Heat exhaustion is no fun, and we’ve both experienced it.
If you’re not up to bike travel, it’s easy to get between cities by cab or Viazul bus. Viazul is Cuba’s tourist bus line. You should book rides online. Otherwise, you have to go to a bus terminal, and this can be confusing. Cab fare between cities is modest. For 60 CUCs, we sent three people, a bike and a bunch of suitcases 70 kilometers from Trinidad to Sancti Spiritus, after reserving space from the CubaTur travel agency. Bus fare for the same run is just 6 US dollars. (A recent change in currency policy means CUCs cannot be used in airports or on Viazul or other transportation services, just US dollars. (Lots of rules in Cuba are hard to explain!)
As in most Latin American countries, you need to be careful about food and water sources. Vegetables need to be washed in safe water, and even then, it’s easy to experience queasiness or worse. It’s best to travel with a supply of remedies, including Imodium and Pepto Bismol. Our doctor prescribed a well-known oral vaccine that’s available over-the-counter called Dukoral for people travelling to areas with a high risk of cholera or travellers’ diarrhea. Though some claim the company overstates its effectiveness, it appeared to work for us, and we intend to try it again.
Donating medical supplies with Not Just Tourists
A highlight on our trips was discovering the satisfaction of bringing surplus medical supplies to donate to local hospitals and health care providers. A voluntary group called Not Just Tourists has chapters across Canada . They’ll set you up with suitcases of surplus medical supplies. We have taken suitcases to several hospitals, met their directors, taken tours, and been thanked with the deepest gratitude. Cuba has good doctors. But due to their low incomes and the U.S. economic embargo imposed on the country, Cubans are often unable to get treatment for health problems that Canadians consider routine.
Your local doctors and hospitals also can find surplus medicines and medical devices you can take to Cuba. If you do this once, we expect you’ll do it again.
The airlines are helpful when you plan a Cuban trip. On our recent trip, Air Transat waived baggage fees on all the donated medical supplies and other donations we brought, including a bicycle. Contact the airline in advance to arrange this.
Finally, there is so much to enjoy once you’re seeing the real Cuba from the street level. Most towns have a Casa de la Trova, which features traditional music, or a Casa de Cultura, featuring art, music, literature and other cultural activities. Art and music and stimulating experiences are everywhere if you avoid the all-inclusive resorts and big hotels. But bring everything you expect to need. It’s hard to find common tourist accessories such as sun screen, headache remedies, toothpaste, bug spray, batteries etc.
And think of bringing small quantities of travel products that you can give to the Cubans you meet and the servers you want to tip. Those gifts and a few Spanish phrases will win you a really warm bienvenido from the Cubans you meet.
All photos Ish Theilheimer