This is our third and final blog about Cuba. The first is about Old Havana . The second is about our time touring around the Cuban Countryside . This blog is about some of the more notable things we experienced.
We stayed in local homes called Casa Particular where the family rents out a few rooms. The families are so friendly that our lack of Spanish was not a significant impediment. Rooms are very basic, however in our instance included air conditioning, a bathroom with shower, and hot and cold water. Each home-stay is different, in some we ate our (included) breakfast on their roof top terrace, and in others at the family dining table. We met travelers from Finland, Norway, Germany, Scotland and Canada, along with our own group from Australia, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. There was a full range of ages. We felt very secure even though our front door stepped out onto back alleys that some would consider risky. We liked this approach to seeing Cuba, however do not do this if you a finicky about things like water pressure and hot water in the shower, or fancy bed linens, or need to retreat of a big sanitized hotel at the end of a busy day.
Money, shopping, line-ups and ration cards
Shopping in Cuba is interesting. For us as tourists, the normal souvenir and crafts shops are everywhere and good stuff is quite inexpensive especially if hand-crafted in Cuba. Prices are in convertible pesos (CUC’s) pegged to the US dollar. We could not use local pesos at any time. For locals, each family gets a ration card that allows them to cheaply buy limited quantities of specific items such as oil, wheat, pork, soap and such using local pesos. There is only 1 brand of each item, all lined up neatly on shelves. The buyer transacts through a kiosk at the front – no wandering the isles. One morning we saw at least 100 people milling in front of one of these stores. The rumour was that a shipment of toilet paper had arrived. Everyone was chatting and wandering around, and yet we were assured there was a line-up. How it works is when you join the crowd you ask who is ‘last in line’ and you watch them – when they get served you are next. And when the next person joins the crowd, they ask who is last in line, and you speak up. The allows the line-up to be more like a street party – very clever and very un-Canadian. The rations are good for about 15 days. To cover off the rest of the month, most Cubans have a side gig going on that lets them sell some goods for CUC’s.
Cathy and my first surprise about eating out is that the ham & cheese sandwich is the standard Cuba lunch. Not very exotic, however cheap and a lot of interesting variations. Our second pleasant surprise was that dinners were focused on protein – beans, chicken, pork, beef and seafood – and lots of rice. After a few tries of over-cooked meat, we shifted to seafood. Mohitos are the go-to cocktail. The bar tenders tend to make them rum-heavy however they are quite willing to bring the bottle to the table and let you pour your own to your taste. We tried all 5 domestic beers and they are a good choice and very inexpensive even in the restaurants.
About our trip.
Cathy and I spent 9 days touring Cuba. 4 days were in Old Havana and 5 days in nearby towns and the countryside. Our tour company was G Adventures and we liked how they assembled our tour Cuba Libre. There was 9 of us on a small bus, the pace was relaxing as we visited local cultural and nature sites, ate local and stayed in home-stays and hostels. As one Cuban told me ‘don’t try to understand us’ however this tour gets you closer to understanding.
We flew Interjet, a Mexican discount airline. To fly from Toronto to Havana we connected through Cancun. Our return connected through Mexico City. What was totally unexpected is that there was lots of leg room even for me at 6’2″. Kudos to Interjet. And it was a lot cheaper than Air Canada.