Cuban Delights

Everything you know about Cuba, forget it.

If you have read any of my other blogs, you will understand that I have a motto, that if anything can go wrong, it will and the start of my journey into Cuba was no exception. As mentioned in my last blog, I arrived very early back into Nassau and after I waited until McDonalds had opened for breakfast, I headed to the airport to wait 10 hours until my flight into Cuba on Cubana Air. I knew before this time, that the airline had already delayed my flight until 7pm however I had a feeling I should just jump back online and re-check my booking. It’s a good thing I did, as my flight had actually been moved and the new date was for 2 days later!

I’m not going to lie and my stress levels went through the roof. I asked a lady for help and she said she would be right back. 2 hours later and she hadn’t returned so I found another person who gave me a Bahamas number for Cubana Air rep, who I called and explained my situation. He was able to get me on a new flight with American Airlines through Miami into Havana which had me settled, but of course, the problems didn’t finish there. I arrived in Miami thinking everything would be fine but when I went to board the plane, I was informed that the tourist card I had originally acquired while in London was only good flying from any other country from America and besides all my arguing that I was only re-routed through America because my original flight was cancelled, the lady didn’t care and said I had to purchase a new visa (apparently a special one) that you need if coming from America and I wouldn’t be boarding the flight without it. The cost was an additional $100usd.

Ok, so I’m now in Cuba and finally rejoicing that I made it but still the problems continued. I had to wait an hour and a half for my bag to show up at baggage collection and then without realising that Citibank is an American bank, my card wouldn’t work and I had no access to any of my money so all l had on me was $12usd which I changed for an amazing $10.45cuc. Just to be clear Cuba has 2 currencies 1 is cuc which is the same as usd and the other is peso which is about 1usd to 24peso. I met a girl at the airport who I shared a taxi with into the city and she was awesome enough to trust me to Paypal her my half when I could and let me keep my 10.45 so I could eat.

I checked into my hostel and Enzo, the owner, was just as awesome and understanding and even lent me 20cuc until I could get money which would come in the form of some life saving from the parents to my Australian account. If you are wondering why didn’t I just Internet transfer the money back to my other account, well Cuba is very behind with internet and is not very good at the best of times and besides, Citibank’s website was blocked from within Cuba.

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I just had to get a photo of Cuba street in Cuba

I spent the first and second day of my time in Havana walking around the old town and checking out all the sites and taking what I would consider ‘me being artistic’ photos with Julia and Charlie who I had met around the hostel. On the third day, I decided to head onto a town called Cienfuegos which is south of Havana. I traveled to this town via local trucks that are converted into bus style vehicles and after a hour waiting on the side of the road and a bit of hitchhiking for the remainder 65kms.

I found accommodation in a little place on the Main Street for $15cuc a night in basic private room and when I say basic, it didn’t even have a toilet seat. I spent the next day walking around town and the plan was to head out a waterfall called El Nicho however like nearly every country I have traveled too, the taxi drivers want more money than it is worth so that idea came to a quick stop, where instead I took a day to relax and just walk around the city with a friend I met in Havana who happened to be here at the same time. A cheap place to eat in Cienfuegos is Restaurante Las Mamparas. It is on the main street and head to the back of the menu for the cheap set menus.

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Cienfuegos sunset

I left Cienfuegos via a collective taxi, a collective taxi is when they put everyone they can find into a car a drive you to your destination, which cost me 20cuc for a door to door service (the bus cost 18cuc and is not door to door). The plan was to kill a night back in Havana before I headed onto Vinales which all worked out fine except that I arrived nice and early back in Havana so I could have easily headed onto Vinales that day.

Collective taxi was again the choice for the following morning to get to Vinales and this time costing me $3 more than the bus for $15cuc and also part reason it decided to rain on the way to the trucks. Vinales in the providence of Pinar del rio is the main tobacco growing region in Cuba. They do not roll the cigars here but only grow the leaves. I didn’t have accommodation booked in Vinales, so the plan was to walk around to find a casa. The cheapest I could find was $25cuc but with a little negotiating, I managed to get a room for $20cuc a night which was great except for some minor flooding in the bathroom. I spent the first day walking around the city, which there isn’t much to see. The next day, I met up with Esther who I met on Couchsurfing and we spent the day visiting anything in walking distance or at least what we thought. Our first stop was a tobacco plantation where we were told there was a mural painting on a wall but the tourist information lady actually meant it was not there and further so we started the walk which was going to be 5kms each way however at the plantation we asked a danish tour guide where it was and on our walk, she stopped the bus and gave us a lift to the painting and to the best, as described by everyone in the region, Pina Coladas in all of Cuba.

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The pre-historic mural painting

On the way back, we were offered a horse cart back to town for $5cuc but unfortunately Esther misheard and gave the man $10cuc  and it came by chance that I came across Monica, another friend from Havana, int he centre of town. She joined us and we walked down some back roads towards a cigar factory and we were offered a horse riding tour of about 4 hours for $10cuc (in town, most places will ask $20cuc. I have added a picture below with a pointer on a map where you can find this tour). We accepted to do the tour the next day and the cigar factory was not that exciting as it turned out, it was a leaf preparing place before they were sent to Havana to be rolled.

My final day in Vinales and the 3 of us went on the horse riding tour where we visited a tobacco plantation and was shown every process from growing the tobacco to how cigars were rolled (the place even gave us a free cigar each and offered us a mojito for $3cuc which I happily accepted), a Cuban coffee plantation and a walk in a cave where they charged us $2cuc each to guide us through and tell us that a rock looked like different animals. During the ride, Monica’s horse showed to me why it should be number 1 and as it raced to pass my horse, it lashed out and kicked my horse with my leg in the way. I was lucky to walk away with minor damage because she was riding one big horse.

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Tobacco plantation half picked

The final 2 days I spent back in Havana given that 1 of the days was a bus travel day before my flight into Cancun, Mexico and the rest of Central America.

Tips:

  • First and foremost, you will read most places on the internet saying that the local pesos can not be used by tourists. That is a lie as you can pay for everything in local money and the only things that really accept only cuc from tourists is accommodation, taxis and any special tours.
  • In Havana, anything you do in the old town will be considerably more expensive than the outer suburbs.
  • Internet access. When you find a wifi zone, there will be a booth where you can buy access cards for 1 hour up to 5 hours or as I did, there will be men around with there own modem box in a backpack who will sign you in to those wifi for 1 hour for $1cuc. I found it generally works better in the evening/night.

You do not need to pre-book most accommodation. There is a lot of choices throughout every city and generally you can just turn up to find a place. Depending what time you turn up, booking the first place in Havana wouldn’t hurt but one guy I met, turned up to find his hostel was actually closed.

Below l have placed the map location of the $10 horse riding tour location and the cheap place to eat in Vinales. The red markers are the locations and the green one is the main square of town. Both map screenshots are off maps.me app for accurate positioning.

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The red marker is where you will find the cheap horse riding. Jorge luis (l believe was the mans name).

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Once again, red marker is the restaurant (the bar across the street you can buy $1 beers and is also a wifi zone)

Bahamian love

The Bahamas. A country of overs 700 islands and cays, which they will constantly remind you about and a currency that is 1 for 1 with the US dollar and quite expensive as everything has to be imported in from the USA.

I flew in Nassau, which is the capital of the Bahamas, without anything booked other than my first couple of nights’ accommodation, a flight out and a plan to visit the swimming pigs. I flew in with Bahamas air and even though the flight is only 45-minutes, if you have a bottom that is bigger than a small child, there is a good chance you will not fit in the seats properly.

Once l had landed, there were only taxis from the airport (which l have later found out that there is a bus, but they are not allowed on airport property) and had to bargain to get a $20 ride into town as my accommodation or more-so tent in the front yard of an Airbnb hosts property, would not be ready until 3pm…. I arrived at 9am.

I proceeded to head to the ferry terminal as l was told the cheapest way around to other islands, to which l found a ferry that worked a very tight schedule to me but would work for $70 each way in an overnight journey which would save me some money each way on accommodation. I headed back into town and found a bar to sit and relax until 3pm and with $3.23 local beers, it made the afternoon fly by all that little bit quicker. I headed onto my Airbnb or should l say tent after another taxi ride which l paid $15 for but was later advised it should have been $10 and worked out my plan for the remainder day of my stay.

There is a bus system in Nassau which is not properly signed anywhere you go and you just have to ask around for where they pick up in downtown, however each bus is $1.25 for any trip and no matter what, every bus goes to downtown during its route. I spent my second day walking around downtown checking out the city but as l was being strict on my budget, l couldn’t enter any museums. I did spend some money however on a conch salad, which is a fresh made salad with conch (a sea creature kind of like a mussel), and a highly praised local dish which also acts as an aphrodisiac for me.

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Sunset from the overnight ferry to Exuma

Day 3 and l was off on my ferry to Great Exuma island with is one of the southern major islands with its main city being Georgetown. My ferry was a basic main cabin shared with locals as it was actually a freight ship and the beds l was told about, well they came in the form of 3 seats next to each other which it was possible to lie down on. The ride took 12 hours which was 2 hours faster than expected even though we were hitting 3 to 4 meter swell and the boat was moving all over with a lot of people falling sick. My Airbnb hosts, Mel and Freddie, on Exuma had kindly offered to pick me up, so l had to wait around for the next 2.5 hours for my ride but was worth it as Freddie proceeded to show me all the main parts of Georgetown so l couldn’t get lost.

I spent my first day walking around Georgetown, checking out the sites to see, the crystal clear blue water that is actually real and not just a photoshop trick in the magazines and sampling some local cooking at the local fish fry. What is a fish fry? It is a series of little shacks set up on the water where the locals consider the real food of the Bahamas is cooked and served. Each island has their own fish fry district and is usually cheaper than any restaurants.

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View from my Airbnb in Exuma

Day 2 of Exuma was the main reason l decided to head into the Bahamas in the first place. I had booked a tour with Exuma water tours to take me to the famous swimming pigs. The tour started with a sightseeing section of expensive private islands like the one owned by  and Tim Mcgraw/Faith Hill’s private island. Our first stop was off at a cave we had to swim to get in to which was close to a sunken drug plane, followed by the pigs. This is a sight to see, the story is that they were shipwrecked on the island and they survived by learning to swim which now they are now protected by the government. We then moved onto swimming with a sandbar, nurse sharks, lunch and a visit to the endanged rock iguanas of the Bahamas. The tour cost me $200USD but the day was worth every cent.

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Pig Beach

The following day, l headed back to Nassau in the afternoon, again by overnight ferry that was a smoother ride than the first one and onto the airport for my flight to Cuba.

Tips:

  • The bus from the airport is 12b. You might have to wait 30-minutes but the bus will come despite what all the people like taxi drivers say at the airport. To catch the bus, walk to the far left of the terminals and walk down the road to the roundabout out front, wait on the side of the road and hail the bus when it comes. To return to the airport, the bus leaves from McDonalds in downtown. Its across from the Hilton hotel. A taxi will cost about $25 for the same journey.
  • Each bus ride will cost $1.25 no matter how far you go and every bus route will go via downtown in its route.
  • There is another version of the Fish fry in Nassau at the ferry boat terminal which is not as nice as it looks like a back street but the food is still fresh and the people are all friendly
  • Mail boats. These exist as the cheapest option in The Bahamas to travel around, however they run on a very loose schedule and to book a ticket, you can speak to a captain or the company of the mail boat. The offices are not open on Saturday or Sunday.
  • Buy sunscreen or anything you can from America/home country before entering the Bahamas. As mentioned, it is expensive and sunscreen cost me $15 for a bottle.
  • The ferry company l travelled with was Bahamas Ferries and while they told me the journey will take 14 hours, both way was only 12 hours so be prepared for an early morning arrival. There is basic food and drink available for purchase on the ferry.
  • Tiki Bikini is a bar you will want to visit if you would like to have a drink. For $10, you can get 4 beers and 4 shots.
  • Bus 11 or 1 will take you from downtown to the ferry terminal.
  • You must try the Soda Goombay. It’s a pineapple soda and very delicious.

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