All those to whom I promised details of my adventures, hang tight! I do intend to write up my experiences in story format, complete with pretty pictures.
But in the meanwhile, for those planning a trip to Cuba and somehow stumbled upon this blog (which is unlikely since I have search engines blocked), here are my notes on transportation, cities and more.
Viazul and Interrurban Transportation
The website was just revamped at the time I’m writing this (April 2011), but last I checked, the Viazul schedule was accurate.
Various reports from past travellers recommend to avoid booking online as reservation tend to get lost. Communication within Viazul is fairly low tech so don’t take any reservations for granted. Also, double check your ticket and your reservation- mistakes during booking are fairly common, especially if there are language barriers between you and the Viazul employee selling the ticket.
Some cities will let you buy tickets for routes departing from other cities (I was able to book a Havana-Vinales trip in Varadero), others will not. Some cities offer round trip tickets (sometimes even with discounts! I saw a sign in Havana offering a 5% discount on certain round trips, including Vinales. I wish I had known before I bought my one way ticket to Vinales), others do not. Some cities ask you to pay at the moment of reservation, others tell you to wait until you show up for your bus.
When you make your reservation, your name is placed on a list. To avoid confusion and mishaps, reserving a day before your trip is ideal, but at the time and in the cities I travelled, showing up 30 minutes to an hour before departure was fine. Getting on the bus at one of the terminal cities was no problem, however, the cities don’t seem to communicate their reservations so space was a little tight for those getting on the bus at stops between the terminal cities.
Astro busses and trucks seem to run pretty frequently, but I wasn’t daring enough to give them a go. From what I’ve been told, transportation services designed for Cubans are pretty packed and it’s not really polite (or fair) to force Cubans to compete for a spot with foreigners when us foreigners can take the Viazul.
If you’re staying at a hotel, be sure to ask at the front desk about tours and bus services to other cities. I discovered, too late, that there were very reasonably priced bus trips available from the hotel doorstop to a number of cities in the region. Local tourism bureaus (every town seems to have at least one) can also hook you up with some good deals so check them out too.
As a woman travelling alone
I had no problems getting around by myself and didn’t feel threatened at all. I was warned that Cuban men can be lewd and that I should deal with them by ignoring them or giving them cold stares. My personal experience couldn’t be more different. I was frequently stopped on the street by young men curious as to what a yellow-haired white girl with a few sunburns was doing walking around with a big backpack, but I found that almost all of them were extremely respectful and polite. Older men also often shouted out greetings, and were happy when I responded with a wave, a smile and a “holá” in return.
I had a bad booking experience in Vinales where I had booked through Hostelbookers (I went with a Casa that had excellent reviews thinking that it was a good bet) and paid a deposit. When I got to Vinales, I couldn’t find the place. A passerby sent me to the sister of the Casa owner I had booked with. My Spanish is pretty limited, so what followed was a lot of confusion. The sister offered to call my Casa’s owner, and the woman on the end of the line told me her internet reservations got mixed up and that she was full.
Whether or not I was scammed into staying at the sister’s Casa, I don’t know. It seemed like a pretty elaborate scam to me, but my guide book did mention that it was common for Casa Particulares owners to trick people into staying in their homes. What I do know, though, is that one should never book a Casa Particular through a website that requires a deposit.
In April, in a town like Vinales where there are more Casa Particulares than there are normal homes, you don’t really need to book ahead if you don’t have a preference. You will be swarmed by dozens of desperate Casa owners the second you step off the bus. I can’t speak for other towns.
I asked my Casa owner what the best way to reserve was and she answered that she preferred phone reservations. If you like to reserve via internet, others I met in Vinales mentioned they booked through BBinnVinales (which also handles reservations for Casas in other Cuban regions, not only Vinales), didn’t have to pay a deposit and had their reservations honoured.
Review of Villa Cary in Vinales
Overlooking the circumstances that led me to stay at Villa Cary, I have to say that I really liked the Casa. The house is very clean and cosy. The bedroom has three beds: two singles and one almost-double. You get your own bathroom and the shower has good pressure and steady temperature with warm water (unlike my expensive hotel in Varadero!). Senora Cary is an amazing cook and, while she doesn’t speak English, she is very used to foreigners and had no trouble guessing what I was saying, most of the time. She also spoke slowly and was patient with my stumbling Spanish. Her entire family was warm and welcoming and quickly made me feel at home. Her older son is a professional massage therapist who offers massages for fairly cheap (I didn’t have enough money for one, but he was very popular with other tourists) and her younger son speaks good English and was around in the evenings to translate and facilitate conversations.
If you stay at Villa Cary, tell them Jennifer from Canada says hi!
Doing business with Cubans
I was told that customer service is left to be desired in Cuba, but that wasn’t my experience at all. I found that Cubans would go out of their way to earn a good tip (and weren’t shy about asking for one either) and I received excellent service almost all the time.
One thing I discovered the hard way is that you need to be very upfront about what you want. Otherwise, you will be provided with far more than what you want and you will be charged for it.
Also, don’t be shy in asking about the cost of things. Cubans usually won’t tell you how much something costs until its too late. Don’t accept anything without asking for the price first. What may look like a gesture of kindness, or what may seem to be included in another price usually comes at a cost.
Always count your change or the money you exchange at the Cadeca as well. I learned very quickly to pay exact cash as much as possible.
Varadero lives up to its reputation: a pretty amusement park for beach loving tourists. If you’re not into long days at the beach, then there’s not a whole lot to see. A few creative restaurants and cheap (yet fairly good quality) souvenirs can entertain you for a couple of hours.
There’s a hop on-hop off double decker tour bus that goes around Varadero and connects downtown Varadero with the resorts lining the peninsula. It’s 5$CUC for the day and you can get on and off the bus as often as you wish. I had a lot of fun riding the bus for hours.
Off the Autopista, around Calle 50, there’s a cute yet run down amusement park with small rides. When I explored it, it was used exclusively by Cubans. I found it rather charming and it remained a highlight of my trip.
Vinales is a tiny village, bursting at the seams with tourists. The tourists in Vinales, however, are not the kind of tourists who go to Varadero. Those I met in Vinales mixed well with the locals and were extremely respectful of the town.
Getting off the bus in Vinales feels kind of like stepping into a grade-school humanities textbook. The village is cosy but rustic, dogs and farm animals wander freely and ox-pulled carts pass through town all the time. There’s a lot to do in the region. I went horseback riding for a few hous, stopping at a lake to swim, at a cigar factory for a demonstation and some mojitos and at a cave for exploring. The local tourist bureau has a selection of more elaborate tours for those who’re staying a little longer and have more money to spend. At night, there’s always music and dancing at the town plaza.
Note that the Viazul station is a bit outside the downtown area of Havana. I didn’t realize this until I noticed that it took me two hours to reach the University area on foot. Actually, I realized it when I walked to the bus station on my map from the University area and discovered that the bus station on my map wasn’t the Viazul station. The Viazul station was a good 45 minute walk from the station on my map. In fact, the Viazul station was so far out of the way that wasn’t even on my map. Next time I’ll bring more money and take a taxi.
Havana is a lovely city and I wish I had more than 6 hours to explore it. My guide book recommends planning 4 days to see Havana.
Due to my determination to explore the city solely on foot, the only tourist areas I reached were Av. de los Presidentes and Plaza de la Revolution. For the rest, I wandered through the residential outskirts of town. The residential outskirts of town, however, are really worth strolling through. The locals did find it strange to see me there, but they were politely curious and welcoming.
Due to my time constraints and some bus breakdowns, I had to go to Matanzas with a tour group and didn’t get to explore the city as freely as I’d like. Still, the parts I did see: Cueva de Bellamar, the pharmaceutical museum (I’m a pharmacist by trade, so I found this particularly exciting), town square and a local bar/coffee shop; were all worth the visit.
Matanzas seems like a small, residential town, but don’t let it fool you. There are lots of museums, restaurants and beautiful buildings to look at. It’s definitely worth a stop if you’re passing through the area.
And that was the quick overview of my trip. Fuller stories and photos to follow!