We cannot deny it, our trip to Cuba was definitely not our best trip. Of course there were amazing things about Cuba, but we always promise our readers to write exactly the way we experienced a country, and not to glamorize and sensationalize it like a tourist brochure.
Check the forecast before you go. 28 of the 30 days we were there (to escape our cold Canadian winter), the weather in Cuba was cold, windy and rainy.
I mean so windy, it would blow your hat clean off, and so cold that the locals were wearing parkas on the beach!
Of course we only brought light summer clothes so we spent most of our time indoors, and when we did go out, we had 5 layers of summer clothes on and we were still shivering. It was abnormally cold in this part of the Caribbean. Not Cuba’s fault. Just a natural meteorological phenomenon.
This is not the optimal way to be dressed at a gorgeous tropical beach.
Then there was the frustration and disorganization with transportation. We usually rent a car wherever we go, but car rentals are extraordinarily expensive in Cuba, as are taxis to other cities. Trains are old, uncomfortable and have no toilets. When we suggested to our new Cuban friends, Yakelin and Tonet, that we might take the train, they burst out laughing, and shook their fingers, “No, No, No”.
So the modern Viazul bus seemed the only option. This is how it works. We would have to take a 30 minute taxi ($40CAD) to the bus station (from Habana Vieja) as it is required to book in person at least a day in advance. After lining up and getting a ticket, we would have to take a taxi ($40CAD) back to our accommodation, and of course, the next day a taxi back to the bus station ($40CAD), where crowds fill the terminal, and people push to get on and off the bus. Since the bus ticket was $30 each to travel about 200 km, the total cost with taxis to and from the bus depot was $180.
In short, unless you stay close to the bus station, which is a long way from Habana Vieja (old town), you will pay more to take a bus to another town than what you would pay a private taxi ($200 before negotiating) to drive you the 200km.
We did have an issue with the cocky and arrogant bus drivers though. It was odd because most people in Cuba are kind and helpful. These bus drivers treated passengers like they were idiots, took over the front four seats of the bus talking loudly, eating and drinking, then throwing back their seats to within 6 inches of the face of the person sitting behind them, swinging their feet up and having a sleep.
One bus driver was so disrespectful to one passenger, whose bag accidently bumped a reclining relief driver, that T was completely disgusted. When the older lady bumped the driver, she quickly apologized, while he just glared at her meanly and pushed her bag out of the way with a snarl.
It was enough to turn us off from taking the bus at all.
Now if you are a backpacker, you could take a chance and just go to the bus depot on the day you want to leave, and hope to get a Collectivo Taxi. These vehicles, sometimes vans, sometimes taxis, will take a group of people for a negotiated fare per person. That is if you can find fellow travellers going to the same place – it would be your responsibility. We looked for Collectivo Taxis at the bus depot but didn’t see anything marked Collectivo. Turns out they are not marked – any taxi can become a Collectivo if you can find people to share going to the same place. Sound complicated? It is, unless you like to wing it and are totally flexible.
We took a few Collectivo taxis that our host arranged in the town of Vinales. They were crowded, with 15 of us packed into this van.
There were no bathroom stops on the Collectivo Vans unless someone absolutely insisted, and it took hours longer when the Collectivo Van drove around picking people up in a dozen different locations around the town, and also when the Collectivo van ran out of gas. A 2 hour trip by the Collectivo Van taxi took 5 hours, but was much cheaper than a private taxi.
The rule of thumb for the cost of a Private Taxi is $1 Cuban CUC (same as US dollar) per kilometre, and distances are vast. Cuba is 1250 km long.
Hitchhiking in Cuba is common and safe, but if you are dragging luggage, hmm – it is not recommended.
Of course there are some local flights, but only to major cities, and they are not cheap. One other revelation – flights and buses and trains go back to Havana much more often than they go to any town or city. Don’t expect daily flights, buses or trains anywhere either.
The very worst problem we had however, was when our debit and credit cards did not work. We went to bank after bank, auto teller after auto teller, to no avail.
After tons of research before we left for Cuba, and reading that Visa and American Express were unlikely to work in Cuba, but that Mastercard would work, and Debit Cards usually work, we thought we had it cased. We had brought over $2000 cash plus credit and debit cards.
Nowhere had we read about how expensive Cuban transportation can be, and when that $2000 cash was running low, panic set in. Cuba is a cash society. Many credit cards do not work to get cash at banks. Many Debit Cards do not work. We phoned our credit card companies and banks before we left. They assured us their credit and debit cards would work in Cuba. Not. Do not believe them; they just don’t know.
At the bank, we would be saying, “But why doesn’t the card work?”
They would just look blandly back, and say, ” Lo siento, no acceptable.”
And T would look like this.
Of course you could buy an all-inclusive package and go to Veradero with it’s endless row of tourist hotels, but you would not be experiencing the real Cuba, if that is as important to you as it is to us.
Though Internet is barely existent, we managed to send an email home warning loved ones that we may soon be in desperate need of a bank wire transfer or good old Western Union. They laughed. They thought we were joking. Not so funny at the other end when you start contemplating what kind of a job you could get in Cuba.
The Internet process, as with most things in Cuba, is quite complex. First you have to find a “guy” (unidentifyable) in the park (all towns and cities in Cuba have central parks nearby) selling the 1-hour access cards illegally or go and find an Etesca Telecommunications office in the city or town you are in at that time. Then you go to the park where dozens of others are trying to get on a weak signal. 50% of the time you can get on.
You Win Some; You Lose Some
With it’s fantastic turquoise water, the beaches are a major enticement to go to Cuba, but when the weather is nasty, one cannot enjoy them. This is exactly like me in Cuba, waiting for the weather to change… day after day…. week after week…
There are, however, many amazing things about Cuba, and it’s not that we don’t recommend this fascinating country, but finally, after 4 weeks of exasperation, each day hoping at least the weather would get better, we gave up, paid to have our flights changed, and came home early, feeling a little let down.
It seemed we did nothing but worry about money, fret about the weather, and become frustrated with transportation most of this trip, but despite the cold weather, we moved around Cuba and got a feel for this unique country, and weather aside, we did find some wonderful places.
You win some, you lose some, and of the 30 or 40 countries we have visited, this was the only one that was frustrating despite doing our homework. So overall, we actually have been lucky in our travels.
Our next posts, Dear Reader, will be less whining and will feature the real authentic Cuba.