June 2015

When we found out that US embargo on Cuba will be lifted, we hurried to visit it before it changed too much.

Cuba is an amazing mix of Caribbean vibe, 1950s Cars, French architecture, and socialism, not found anywhere else on the planet.

During the trip we haven't had an Internet access for a single time, which was part of the experience. This is definitely going to change. Having a Lonely Planet book was very handy.

The country has 2 currencies: peso nacional and peso convertible. The latter is pegged to US dollar and what you get when exchanging the money in the bank. Forget about card payments and ATMs. Bring cash, and it better be Euro or GBP or CAD, because at the time of writing there was a 10% surcharge for exchanging USD. All tourist services are priced in the convertible, as well as some goods are can only we bought for them, like baby diapers and long-shelf milk (yuck). I recommend to get the local peso, e.g. by exchanging on the market, then can also visit restaurants and cafes for the locals, which can be 10 times cheaper.

Apart for a few cocktail scams in Havana, the country feels pretty safe - do not say to anyone on the street that you have just arrived or you will be invited for expensive ~$5 cocktails, paying for the host as well. The regular cocktail price for tourists is $2-$3, and you can make yours for even cheaper - rum is readily available in most shops, even if they don't sell much else.

Do not book any hotels (maybe only for the first night). Much better option is Casa Particular - Cuban home stays, allowed some years ago by Raul's reforms. They cost $15-$30 per night and you get to see how local people live and the accommodation will be better than in most hotels. They are easy to find, because they bear an official logo, or you can just ask on the street. They will be also happy to cook a dinner or breakfast for you for an additional charge.

We took a southern circuit to Santiago de Cuba, by train/buses and taxis. Inter-city taxis can sometimes cost the same as bus, with the opportunity of riding old, but good looking 1950s American cars.

Food in Cuba is generally not very good, probably due to a long isolation. Mostly you get meat with rice and beans. The exception is Baracoa in the South-East, where you get coconut-octopus-curry or pork-in-chocolate-sause, etc. Highly recommended!

Bay of Pigs is incredible for diving - no PADI licenses, but cheap and good service. You will see wrecks of American ships from the 1961 failed invasion lying on the edge of 300m deep underwater cliffs and lots of Caribbean marine life.

I don't recommend renting a car because you won't get a 1950s one for a self-drive. It is better to move by public transport and occasionally rent taxis to go anywhere you want with a style. There are lots of lots of these old cars to enjoy!

People are very communicative and helpful, but basic understanding of Spanish is necessary. Some older people may even speak Russian, but almost no one speaks English (with the exception of touts in Havana). While being relatively poor, people remain happy, and socialist system ensures that everyone receives education and medical services. You won't see anyone homeless.

Cuba is home to many things in popular culture: enjoy Mojito, Piña Colada, cigars, Salsa, and the revolutionary spirit of Che!

View from our hotel roof El Capitolio is strikingly similar to the ones in the USA The roofs of Havana Museo de la Revolucion Old Havana Our first bar in Havana Cubans are not rich, but they like to be fancy How can a bar exist without Che? Another bar's Che and Fidel presence Mocking a Cuban A local grocery shop Rum with bananas Havana has beatiful architecture, but it is deteriorating Cuba has either 1950s American cars or 1970s Soviet cars Plaza Vieja Touristy posers Another poser woman, every day at the same spot Street dancers Nice selection of books at a flee market The first fort built by Spanish in Havana El Cristo, also in Havana I wonder if these are now removed from Museo de la Revolucion? This formally was Batista's Palace Che with Camilo Broken American planes The cars used during the revolution A self made tank The same scene is totally possible somewhere in Russia (note the car as well) Salsa on the street Seems that Cubans have heard of Facebook, but most cannot use it Skyline of Havana Banco Metropolitano, where you have to wait a lot to get your pesos convertibles - tourist currency Don Quijote in Havana Plaza Vieja is nicely restaurated A very nice beer pub in Plaza Vieja Locally brewed German-style beer Because of absence of Internet, Lonely Planet was our only source of information Local brewery tanks Live salsa Ferry terminal Summer storm is coming Orhodox church survived the revolution Local cafe People like to hang on the street Cafe interior Most buildings in old city are in bad shape Many buildings in Old Havana are not very safe Ferry to Casa Blanca on the other side of the bay Bay ferry La Casa Blanca train station Hershey train schedule for today The Cristo Che had a nice casa with a view of Havana during his years as a minister Soldier's duty must be boring Cuban socialist sky Entrance to the bay was nicely protected during Spanish rule The tunnel under the bay Malecon by Lada taxi Con el señor John Lennon - at some point Fidel  became a fan of John Schools look a bit devastated Not all American cars are in the best shape Riding the famous Coco Taxi Compulsory touristy open-top ride along Malecón, Havana Hershey's train is very very slow Can't spend even a few hours in Cuba without rum :-) Cockpit of Hershey's train is full of 1920's tech You can never forget the Revolución in Cuba Matanzas is not very pretty and wet Typical Cuban office Los Bomberos de Matanzas June is a rainy season in the Caribbean Rainy season sometimes gets very rainy Enjoying beers with the locals, the guy is salsa teacher in Varadero and his sister has a birthday Random street in Varadero Approaching the famous Varadero beach Less touristy part of Varadero The white sands of Varadero, only good for a few hours before it gets boring Cuban hippies at the beach Tasting Monte Cristo cigar with mojito Cuban way of life 1850 vs 1950 tech El Camión - a completely non-luxury public transport Riding to Bahía de Cochinos - Bay of Pigs Notice the modern CD player at bottom right? Rural roads of Cuba No comments :-) Australia - here was the base of Fidel while defeating Americans in the Bay of Pigs Australia means something of the South Snorkeling! None of Cuban diving agencies are members of PADI A pet in a Casa Particular in Playa Giron Streets of Playa Giron Abandoned beach bar Enjoying the local beach coctail - Coco Loco, 50/50 rum with fresh coconut milk Our diving bus Museon of invasion of Bay of Pigs Socialism won in 1961 Drying of the rice is probably efficient on hot asphalt, and traffic is not a problem at all in Cuba See whom Fidel respects El Camion on the road Trinidad has a nice 19th century feeling Many Americanos Latinos like to socialize from behind the bars of their homes Street musicians of Trinidad Casa de la Trova Who needs Coca Cola if you can have Piña Colada? Touristy restaurants (paladores) Cubans play a lot of music Poems about Estonia by Luis from Trinidad :-) Without the possibility to travel, Luis looks at the world map and writes poems about places One of the coolest Ches we have seen Trinidal has a nice hilly backdrop African roots are everywhere in the Carribbean Shiny Moskvich Going to the country side Cuban socialistic country side Squeezing sugar cane juice Kvass in Cuba? No, just milk Preparing Cuban coffee - very delicious! Nice escape from the heat! Price list in an average general store An average socialistic general store Zil trucks are popular in Cuba Mural in a local school Cuban class room A cozy room Even empty bars enjoy live music in the evening Our Casa Particular in Camagüey Today's is Che's birthday, June 14th! Camagüey Comandante is everywhere Religion is not completely banned, but churches are empty unlike other countries in Latin America I remember these from my socialist childhood Many nice buildings are abandoned, also on Camagüey Camagüey railway station This is a Paris-style boulevard according to Lonely Planet Everyone wants to differentiate A totally working gym Cubans can ignore trademarks :-) Cade de Velasquez in Santiago de Cuba - the oldest one in the country from 1600s Santiago de Cuba is hilly Southernmost part of Cuba A woman who studied in Minsk in 1980 still misses USSR much Cuban and Estonian international relations are going well Dead pigeons Santiago - don't ask me why USSR is still a friend Santiago de Cuba is not very spectacular A typical touristy palador with awful food, but nice view The original Bacardi logo - the dead bat was found in the rum factory in 1838 People bording a camion - public truck transport Ford Victoria from 1959 - ours for 3 days! With modern, but not working stereo system, engine from 1980s Mercedes from Venezuela Guantanamo prison is there in the fog Oils needs to be added from time to time Road to Baracoa Curvas peligrosas - dangerous curves of the only road to Baracoa built only in 1960s Refelling, and this car is not gentle on fuel Roofs of Baracoa and El Yinque flat mountain This was the cheapest of the casas on our trip Columbus first anchored in Cuba here, in Baracoa Cristobal Colon aka Columbus Cruz de Para - the cross brought to Baracoa by Columbus himself in 1492 The first rebel of Americas against the Europeans Baracoan school Bananas (while not native to Americas) are growing on the streets The image of Columbus arriving. Remember the movie Apocalypse Now? Cave museum of Taíno people of Cuba, now extinct Taíno grave Baracoa