For me, Cuba is one of those countries that are endlessly fascinating. History that is still occurring on a daily basis; the resilience and friendliness of Cubans, the natural beauty of the island and of course, the all-pervasive music and dance.
Having been to Cuba twice now for a total of 6 weeks, here are some (hem, hard-earned) tips for your trip.
• Havana Hop On Hop Off Bus – these buses do 2 different routes; a city circle that takes about 3 hours, and a direct service to Playa del Este, the fantastic beaches to the east of Havana city. I recommend doing both routes, on different days of course – for CUC$5 an all-day ticket, this will be your only cheap transport in Havana.
• Breathable clothing – Cuba is HOT and HUMID. The locals might be wearing boots, jeans and long sleeves but I can guarantee you won’t be.
• Avoid travel in June, July and August. See above. These months are the hottest in Cuba and you will sweat buckets just walking out of your casa particular. Your clothes will remain wet all day and the copious amounts of water you need to survive will make you sweat like a sprinkler. If you can choose other months to visit, I recommend waiting.
• Viazul bus transport. As a tourist in Cuba, this is how you get around if you take public transport. Its not public though, as Cubans get their transport subsidised and must cram into guaguas (wa-wa’s) to get anywhere. As a tourist, you get your own tourist-only bus.
• Street pizza. For under CUP10 (about 30c) you can have delicious pizza – cheese and tomato, cheese, sometimes cheese and ham or Hawaiian. It will be nuclear hot, and the only seasonings available are salt and maybe tomato sauce (ketchup). Fold it in half to eat and lean over to stop the cheese burning your legs when it falls
• Casa particulares. Avoid all-inclusive resorts and hotels and stay with locals in their spare rooms. Not only will you be helping local families survive, but its a chance to see how locals live, and to practice your Spanish as well! Casa particulares can be identified by the blue anchor symbol attached to the front door. Once you have your first casa particular, you will be handed on family to family as you make your way around the island.
• Salsa school. OK, so I need a disclaimer here: the amazing dance teachers at SalsAmiga All Star are now my friends. I hadn’t danced before I took these classes and I was really surprised how much I enjoyed it. Unlike other lessons I saw in Cuba, these classes were not a group of tourists following the fast choreography of an uninterested teacher – but a build and practice of all the different elements of the dance which meant I could see my improvement each day.
• Avoid wearing slogan shirts. Chatting to locals is part of a great trip. However in Havana, you are an example of the outside world and so A LOT OF PEOPLE (read:guys) would loooove to chat to you. Pretty much anything can be used as a conversation starter, like, “taxi, lady?”, however heaven help you if you have on a t-shirt or hat with writing on it. In fact pictures are dangerous too. Random people in the street will read your t-shirt, and use it as part of their conversation, for example, a t-shirt with a picture of the Cuban flag would go something like this (translated so you get the idea) “Cuba lady, I love Cuba too. Where are you from lady? Do you love Cuba? How long are you here? What are you doing tonight?” Fortunately this really only happens in central Havana, but I took to washing my one plain t-shirt every night so I could walk in relative peace.
• Havana Malecon. Each evening Cubans flock to the malecon running between Vedado and Havana, and sit on the wall to watch the sun descend. Such a romantic thing to do in one of the world’s most romantic and nostalgic cities.
I am already planning my return…