I spent a month last winter traveling the 800-mile length of Cuba with my young friend Megan—a global backpack traveler up for an adventure. We meandered our way from the picturesque tobacco-growing region of Viñales in the north to the very southern tip and tropical delight of a town, Baracoa. Both host UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We stayed in people’s homes for 2 -5 nights each stop. These guest houses are called Casa Particulars and they are proliferating rapidly.
It was very useful that both of us spoke Spanish as Russian is the 2nd language in Cuba—not English. Go figure! We traveled by collective mini-vans or taxis that charged very reasonable fees which were divided by how many passengers got in the taxi or van along the way. The Casa owners usually arranged our rides though a few times I wandered to the bus or train station and hunted for drivers going to our next destination. I know those old American classic cars are regaled by tourists but I discovered in order to not die from exhaust and other automotive toxins, to only travel in Ladas (unromantic-yet-practical Russian rattle traps of a newer era) with air-conditioning and windows that roll up all the way. Your respiratory system will appreciate this first-hand travel tip. I ended up with a serious bout of bronchitis caused by car fumes.
I booked the Casas several months in advance either through other travelers’ recommendations or Trip Advisor which has a plethora of photos and reviews. It took a bit of Googling to find the contact emails (not listed on TripAdvisor) but I have included them in this article. I found the proprietors did not respond to the reservations request form on Trip Advisor but they did get back in touch promptly from inquires via their email. I usually typed my inquiry in Spanish and did a check through translator sites on the web to make sure I was being exact. I could also paste their reply into the translator and get the accurate response.
Most Casas only have two rooms and pay a hefty lodging tax. Cuban Currency (called a CUC and pronounced “kook”) is the way to pay and none required a deposit. Rooms cost an average of $20 – $25 CUC per night for two people. 1 CUC is equivalent to 1 US dollar. Breakfasts were $4 CUC and dinner $12 CUC. These prices are from December 2015 and may have increased due to the influx of American tourists. Meals were homemade, hearty, healthy and quite delicious. We found the Casa owners extremely helpful and exceptional conversationalists with captivating (and revealing) stories about their life in Cuba. Every Casa was clean and well-run.
We spent eight nights in Havana dividing our time between two Casas. The first was in historic Havana Vieja where we stayed with Mildred at Casa Colonial Zaiden right on the port. Our top floor room had air-conditioning, two beds, and a patio. Contact Mildred at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We then moved to the newer, hipper part of town in Vedado and stayed at Private Rooms Mylena y Otto. Our room was very comfortable with a patio for breakfast. Contact Otto at email@example.com.
In the picturesque tobacco growing region of Viñales north of Havana, we stayed three nights at Casa Particular Ridel & Claribel. Ridel arranged horseback rides, sunrise hikes, and other expeditions for us. The dinners were outstanding! Contact Ridel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Megan and I then took a collective taxi (arranged by Ridel) to Playa Larga where the snorkeling was excellent and there were several National Parks to explore. We stayed with Yeny and Carlos at Casa de Yeny. Once again the meals were spectacular and Yeny made the one true mojito we had in Cuba. Real cane juice and fresh lime juice along with rum and fistfuls of muddled mint. The other mojitos served along the way on our journey were a travesty! Made with sugary lime soda pop. Bleck! We ate fresh fish every night perfectly grilled by Carlos who donned an official chef’s coat while Yeni sported a waitress costume. During the day they wore shorts and sundresses. Then, voila, at the dinner hour they morphed into the staff at a 5-star restaurant which just happened to be in their backyard. Contact Carlos at email@example.com
On to the colonial town of Trinidad for several nights where we stayed at Casa Colonial el Patio with Manuel. The dramatic towering tree gardens were the high point at this Casa. The food was not especially interesting. Contact Manuel at firstname.lastname@example.org
Then there were two nights in the pastel pirate town of Camaguey. We stayed at CasAlta. The sunsets from the rooftop were outstanding.
It was a long 7-hour drive to Santiago de Cuba—the 2nd largest city in Cuba . We could have skipped this highly polluted town which also had a serious cholera outbreak that nobody informed us about even as we were hugging everyone we met in the streets. Cubans were thrilled to meet Americans traveling solo in their country so we ended up cheek-kissing everyone like visiting goodwill Ambassadors. Santiago is the capital of Santeria so we thought the bowls of water, bottles of bleach, and towels in front of every doorstep were some sort of voodoo cleansing ritual but noooo—it was for hygiene because of the cholera epidemic. We stayed with Beatriz at Casa Nivia Melendez. Contact Beatriz at email@example.com
It was worth the 800-mile journey to spend five nights in Baracoa which has only been accessible by boat until 60 years ago when they built a windy road over the mountains that drops down into Baracoa perched on a wide Caribbean bay—the first place in Cuba that Columbus landed in 1492. Baracoa is tropical, lush, not touristy yet there are several dramatic national parks including Alejandro de Humboldt National Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with great hikes, rivers to swim in, and cacao farms to visit. We stayed in a lovely, airy room at Casa Rueben y Yindra. The dinners were so delicious we only dined at the Casa and became addicted to Yindra’s shrimp, fish or chicken in leche de coco (coconut milk). Contact Rueben at firstname.lastname@example.org
Our month of voyaging the span of Cuba was over so we flew back to Havana from Baracoa. The plane was 9 hours late and almost couldn’t land due to the dirt runway with no lights. But we did make it back to Havana with hours to spare for our departure flight to Cancun and on to San Francisco.
I have so many quirky, intimate stories to tell about my time in Cuba so look forward to these in my future newsletters but I do recommend you get to Cuba soon before the American deluge.
I collected an excellent reading list on all things Cuban. Here are some great books—gotta reads—if you are going or are curious.
Post photo by Lisa Alpine of Yeny serving the one and only true mojito in Cuba.