Vacationing in Cuba next February
September 7, 2018 5:18 PM   Subscribe

Me, my lovely wife and our 10 year old son are thinking of going to Cuba next February. We're not having much luck with the usual trip advisors, booking or airbnb sites. Is there another online resource for hotels (or houses) around Cuba? Also, where specifically should we plan to go to?

We're thinking of going for 3 weeks, spending roughly 1 week in Havana and 2 weeks on the beach, hopefully in laid back, interesting towns or locations.
We don't like resorts, big hotels or any sort of package deal. We prefer to get around on our own. We've done this the past years in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico with great success. We like: paradisiacal and quiet beaches, interesting cities and towns, local foods, music, etc.
We're Chilean, so the language is not an issue.
Is this doable? What about food, transportation, etc?
posted by signal to Travel & Transportation around Cuba (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Casa particulare is what you might want to search for to avoid the larger hotels. Standards can vary widely. Internet is still not broadly available to Cubans though.

Transport will be a challenge.

Havana is a real gem and worth spending time in. Trinidad has a quaint colonial center and a lot of good salsa clubs. The Viñales area is interesting enough for a couple of days.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:45 PM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sorry, more details on transportation (hit send too soon) - the intercity transport the locals use is cramped and irregular - often literally converted freight hauling vehicles. There is a national tour bus company though. Taxis are available in tourist areas although they can be less reliable than in most countries, so hiring them for intercity travel is a little more risky.

Food in tourist areas is plentiful but a little bland. Plenty of restaurants.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:49 PM on September 7, 2018

We visited a year ago with 3 kids (11, 8 & 7), We got all our reservations through AirBnb.

Including a really rustic place in the countryside where we stayed at farm for two nights. That was basic, kids loved goats, horses, etc. Other two very at the very opposite end and very modern.
posted by zeikka at 6:40 PM on September 7, 2018

You should not go expecting the same level of service, upkeep or quality of a Brazilian or Mexican resort. I adored my time in Cuba, but I was not there aiming for resort conditions - I went to study and to meet government officials for a school research project. People were among the best I've ever met.

There are resorts and nicer areas, but the country has been impoverished by the multi-generational trade embargo. Rooms were musty (we stayed at the Nacional in Havana), the food was not always fresh (they import 70-80% of their food), beaches were dirty. I hear Vinales is a decent resort area. Generally crime is very low in Havana, but to mention transport, there was definitely a two-tier pricing for taxis
- for tourists and for locals - exacerbated by the dual currency.

That said - I went in 2014, things might have shifted - AirBNB was just starting to show up as an option. I just know that when I returned and talked to others who had also visited, they would complain mightily about how poor the experience was. Followup questions would generally reveal that they were looking for a "Cabo" or "Virgin Islands" experience. I don't think that's currently possible.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 7:28 PM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I booked an apartment through AirBnb in January 2016, though wound up sharing it with my host's mother, per Cuban law. (It is a good law -- a really good law -- but I think we both realized the fact of the law, uh, around the same time. After I booked.) I would recommend a casa particulare instead for a whole host of reasons. Wikitravel is often really good for recommending places too.

I also found I got really kind of bored in Havana after a few days, though I was traveling alone, so didn't have anyone to linger over coffee with, etc. Havana is one of the very few places I regret going alone! But since I don't drink much, and could only go to museums and walk and wander so much, I did regret booking an entire week there. I recommend planning to spend a few hours for a day or two just taking care of things like changing your money and getting internet cards. (Protip: if you can spare the coin, it's so much more worth it to go to one of the very big hotels and get an etecsa card or three for their inflated price. It's a few CUC more, and you don't have to stand in a queue for three hours.) Internet is slowly trickling in, but you can get wifi all along the Malecon and in a bunch of other places -- look for clusters of people on phones/iPads/laptops/etc.

For other places to stay -- I really wanted to go to Trinidad, and I recall that it's easy and relatively inexpensive to get to via the inter-city bus. You can also take a bus out to the beaches near Havana itself, and they're stunning, and surrounded by these amazing Soviet-era buildings that acted as kind of collective summer homes for vacationers. I loved them.

Everyone else is right that it's not remotely a luxurious experience, but it's fine. It sounds like something you'd be perfectly happy with, to be honest! Just be patient about standing in a lot of lines :) I'm jealous that you're getting out to the countryside -- I think you'll love it, and it sounds like you know you won't get a resort experience.

Oh! Something no one else has mentioned that your wife especially will have to deal with -- the catcalling and whistles are relentless. I mostly stopped noticing them, because they're so constant. It did get exhausting at times, especially since it felt like I could never just sit somewhere public and read a book and relax without twenty-five people coming up to hit on me/guess my nationality/tell me about their salsa school. A friend of mine who traveled with her boyfriend said she had the same experience with the catcalling; possibly the presence of small children will tamp it down, but I don't hold out much hope.

(Also, YMMV since you are more fluent in Spanish than I am, but I found it took a few days to tune my ear to the Cuban Spanish accent. Not impossible, and everyone understood me basically well, but it was a weird couple of days!)
posted by kalimac at 7:59 PM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


It's...okay. It's not great, but it's fine. Nothing fancy, mostly just bland and same-y. My hostess cooked for me one night and it was one of the best meals I've ever had, but I think the restaurant industry is still getting there. Street food is pretty good; I think I preferred it to restaurant food most days. Make sure you get some pesos especially if you plan to eat at street food/more local places, it just makes it a lot easier. I found the fancy grocery stores baffling, but to be fair, I feel that way about most American grocery stores. (The markets for Cubans largely sold very raw goods that would need to be cooked and processed.) I ate fine, but I spent a lot of time wishing I'd thought to bring a box of Clif bars or something when I just couldn't face getting up and going out for a meal.
posted by kalimac at 8:05 PM on September 7, 2018

You can definitely find great food, but it won't be at the most obvious places or the tourist traps that most Cubans will steer you to, for a commission.

And I second that you really need to get your hands on local pesos to open up the real economy. Make it an early priority to get a few thousand local pesos (by trading with a local, since there is no official way for a tourist to get it) and a lot of things become possible, such as shopping in the local stores and eating the local food.
posted by rokusan at 9:05 PM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

My advice is a little old (I was in Cuba in 2003 and then again in 2013) but hopefully still useful.

Nthing Casas Particulares. I just booked my first place in advance and then when I was there, I think I had a Rough Guide with me, and just phoned the ones they suggested in my next town (or, in fact, I think my hosts might have phoned for me, each phoning the next, as my Spanish was just so-so). I did stay in a few hotels, and booked those in the state travel agency offices as I went.

Transport - I travelled all over Cuba on my own by bus (Santiago - Baracoa - Santiago - Varadero - Havana). There are (were?) two separate long distance bus lines, one for locals and one for tourists. Don't be tempted to try and use the locals' line in hope of a more authentic experience: There are always way more passengers wanting to get on it than there are seats and while it feels kinda icky to be the foreigner with the special money queuing up for the fancier, nearly empty tourist bus, it's really not fair to the locals for you to take up seats on the bus that's their only option when you have an alternative.

Contrary to kalimac, I adored Havana and could happily spend day after day there, just wandering. First time, when I booked it myself, I stayed in Hotel Telegrafo and really liked it (mostly just because it felt posh-for-Cuba - it had aircon that worked and was pretty recently renovated at the time).

By total coincidence, the second time I went was with a tour company and we were booked into the Hotel Plaza right across the square, which looked more characterful from the outside, but the rooms were much shabbier and the aircon was poor.

Beaches: I went to Varadero and was bored out my nut within a day - though I was travelling on my own. It really made me think about what makes a beach resort enjoyable - it's basically a long, thin spit, with a road the length of it, and hotels right down one side that back onto the beach - and absolutely nothing else to do. Nothing interesting to go see/visit, the hotels were all inclusives so there were very few restaurants, or much of anything else. I cut my visit short and went on to Havana.

Here's a previous post of mine on things to see and do - if you've a 10-year-old, definitely go and see if the steam-train graveyard is still there in Havana, it was totally unlabelled, unsignposted and unremarked upon, which made it all the more amazing. I think I walked past it on the way from Chinatown back to the Hotel Plaza, in case that helps you locate it.

The little one might also get a kick out of the Camera Obscura in Havana. If you like ice cream, Heladeria Coppelia is a Havana institution in a big 70s building - I couldn't face the phenomenal queues but if you want a taste of queuing like a Cuban, with the Cubans, it might be worth a shot.
posted by penguin pie at 3:02 AM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh! And just building on my boring beach remarks - travelling around Cuba is amazing, the countryside, the general ambience, the Che murals that are everywhere, the sight of people going around their everyday lives in small towns and villages - I'd suggest it would be much more enjoyable to cut down your beach time and instead plan to travel a little inland, as much for the journeys as for the destinations. (I did go to Trinidad, and think it was nice, but I had food poisoning at the time, so it was a bit of a blur...)
posted by penguin pie at 3:05 AM on September 8, 2018

Yup, you want Casa Particulares, which are anything from a very basic room to a full suite or floor in someone's house. Last I looked many (at least in the Havana area) were listed on AirBnB, ranging from fancy to not. If nothing's showing up on AirBnB, any travel guidebook will list them for you and you can call to book. Much better value than hotels I think. Most offer a delicious homemade breakfast for an extra $5/day which is always worth it. That and a granola bar will carry you through to dinner, which is good because everyone above is right about the mediocrity of food in Havana.

Stay near, but not in, Havana Vieja -- I usually go for Havana Central. Plan to walk everywhere in Havana -- taxis are everywhere, but expensive and stressful to haggle, and the bus and shared taxi system is hard to figure out.

Varadero is a beautiful beach but yeah, gets boring quickly. I liked the beaches in the outskirts of Havana actually.
posted by EmilyFlew at 8:44 AM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

You'll want a host families, my wife is Mexican-American and speaks native Spanish but we were getting hassled nonstop and charged tons of money for simple things like taxis.

It was an interesting trip but it is not what I'd call a vacation. Both of us though are an easy mark for "American" from 100 meters away though, so take that as you will. For some reason Cubans are able to immediately tell the difference between an American and Canadian/European even before you open your mouth. It could have also been that we went on a wave of naive Americans when direct flights between the US and Cuba first started too.

With Cuba you'll need to plan ahead as much as possible. We're the kind of people that do things on a whim and will book and Airbnb and wing it. You really shouldn't do that with Cuba since the country doesn't offer things like that.

Staying in an Airbnb was our first mistake, we should have stayed with a family despite how odd that seems to us versus having privacy. That way we're paying out money to one set of people who will be our look-outs and arrange things for us (meals, cars, etc..). Hailing a random cab is a negotiation that will cost you a lot of CUC.

We did enjoy going outside the city and horseback riding in a tobacco field in Viñales, though. The whole experience was setup to have stops along the way for you to buy a Mojito/Pack of Cigars, Honey/Coffee, and then to pay extra to tour a cave.
posted by wcfields at 1:24 PM on September 9, 2018

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