Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating – Lonely Planet Cuba.
This quote. Nail on the head. Cuba is such a multifaceted destination, with its unique culture, colourful sights, vibrant streets and warm people. But admittedly: as a spoiled Western tourist, there can be a few minor hiccups in your smooth holiday experience :) Who ever said good things come easy? Yet, as with most things, an open mindset and a little preparation go a long way! Based on personal experience, and tips I got from other Cuba survivors/lovers, here are my 10 Cuba Commandments:
1/ No time like the present
It’s becoming a bit of a cliché about traveling to Cuba, but now really is the time to go there. Although you can already feel the effect of the big bad Western Wolf sneaking into the Cuban streets (hello, tourist facilities on every corner), there are still plenty of authentic Cuban elements to enjoy. A stay among a Cuban family, a drive in a classic 50ies car, salsa tunes resonating through the streets, leisurely walks amidst decaying colonial wonders and discovering revolutionary relics all around.
2/ Su casa es tu casa
For anyone looking for the true Cuban feeling, staying at a casa particular is really the way to go! You can go the planned route (control freaks, represent) and book through mycasaparticular.com or go rogue and just wing it. In high season this could be a bit tricky (yes yes, control freak…) but there are plenty of options. A great way of going about it is asking the owner of one casa you stayed at (and liked!) to recommend/call the next one (especially if your Spanish is pretty much non-existent, like mine is). Chances are they’ll recommend you another great spot with a similar spirit.
3/ Come prepared
Beside the summer holiday basics, there are a few Cuba-specific things you might want to stuff into that backpack: Pens and notebooks for the kids you meet on the streets (felt a bit weird about this myself, but turns out it was a real winner!), plenty of sunscreen (because no, you cannot just buy it there and yes, you will have to take a bus out to a resort somewhere to get a ridiculously expensive bottle of the precious good), for my fellow bookworms: enough reading material (because the only one’s you’ll find there are about the revolution) and of course the good old lonely planet. Oh and paper tissues. Trust me on this one.
After all your essentials are packed, make sure you leave some room for the 2 bottles of rum and 20 cigars you are allowed to bring back ;)
4/ Suspicion will protect you
With the growing flux of tourists, the Cuban hustlers are on the rise as well. Especially in Havana, we felt this very strongly. I’m sad to say that after a few days I was suspicious of anyone trying to start a chat with us on the street. They all seemed to have a friend/brother/cousin who can get you the best mojitos/cigars/party. And want to gain a little money in the process…
5/ Suspicion will limit you
On the other hand, the jineteros we met were always pretty friendly about it. I’ve never really felt threatened and honestly think Cuba is not a country where you should fear getting aggressed or anything like that. Poverty is just an everyday reality on its streets, and if some friendly smooth talker can gain a few bucks (because it really never is much more than that) by bringing you to a local salsa party or a great place to have a mojito, what’s the harm, really?
Imagine the experiences you would be missing out on by just blocking every local person trying to have a chat with you. Let’s share the wealth and the Cuban vibes, shall we? I know, I’m terribly naive… Which is probably why we got hustled as much as we did, but what the hell, we had a great time in the process :)
6/ Push yourself
So you never really rode a horse (check) and you’re pretty scared of getting on the back of one (double check). That shouldn’t stop you from trying out the best way to explore the beautiful hills of Pinar del Rio (since you would be crazy to try to cover that much ground on foot, and even crazier to drive a bike in that heat…) And who cares your back makes you feel like a granny for the next few days? #worthit
7/ Take a breath
While you should push yourself to get on that horse, there’s no shame in spending a little down time at the beach or on a Plaza Vieja terrace while listening to some salsa either, is there? Especially when you had a few too many mojitos the night before, and walking up and down the cobblestones of yet another (granted beautiful) colonial city under the Caribbean sun just seems like more than you can bear. Take a breath. Have a coconut drink.
8/ Walk the untrodden path
We went the classic route for a 2 week stay (Havana – Vinales – Trinidad – Varaderos) and even though you’d definitely want to see those highlights (except for the last one which was a bit of an all-inclusive-mass-tourism bust for us), you’re not the only one… It’s funny to realize that the person you met on a terrace/pool/bus in Havana is sitting next to you at a restaurant/bar/beach in Trinidad, on several occasion. Chances are you are all doing the same itinerary. Which can be pretty great when you meet some awesome peeps along the way (you know who you are <3), but does make you feel like somewhat of a herd animal after a while.
So even though this is a bit of a hypocritical recommendation (since we didn’t really do that ourselves), I’d say: take the time to go explore some of the less traveled areas. I have this feeling there might be a lot more authentic Cuba to be found there.
9/ Make it about the journey
So yes, a 5-hour bus trip might not be your favorite way of spending your Cuban days. Nor is the 2 hour wait before you can even set foot on that bus (what, you expected it to leave when planned? You should know better by now). But here’s where that cliché about it “being about the journey, not the destination” should be your new personal credo. Because you will be driving through some amazingly beautiful sights on your long-ass bus drive. And the bus station waiting room is a weirdly perfect place to people watch or exchange experiences with fellow travelers.
10/ Discover YOUR highlights
Be it through recommendations or by accidentally stumbling upon them: you are sure to discover some unforgettable experiences and wonderful spots in Cuba. A sample of our favorites? Sipping a de-li-cious Mojito at El Dandy and tasting the wonderful food in the vintage ambiance of La Lamparilla. A ride across the city in an old 50ies convertible. Discovering the beautiful Vinales greenery on horseback and rewarding ourselves with tapas at the 3J Bar afterwards. Wandering the “photographic tour” of Trinidad (thank you, Lonely Planet!), having drinks on Plaza Major’s rickety stairs and shaking our booty at Disco Ayala (also known as “The cave”) in Trinidad.
Hasta Luego :)