Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Cuba self drive. January/February 2016. Part 12. A few travel tips.

I can thoroughly recommend Cuba as a holiday destination, it's currently being heavily promoted by travel writers and holiday companies recommending you go now before it changes.
I totally concur, however if you are just going to go and stay in a hotel and not get out and about it's a long way to travel from the UK and to be honest you might just as go somewhere else.
The attraction of Cuba at the moment is that the majority of the island is stuck in a time warp.
Communism clearly doesn't work in many ways. Yes, education is free, literacy is virtually 100%, healthcare is excellent and nearly everyone has a job. The bad news is that pay levels are incredibly low and even if you have money there are shortages on so many things. Walk in to a supermarket and the shelves are very,very limited in choice and often things are out of stock as well.
It's hardly surprising that the range of food on offer at Casas and restaurants is a bit limited, however, that doesn't mean that the food is bad. Far from it, we ate well.
Freshly prepared grilled prawns
or Lobster

Lobster dinner    Cuba
The cost for shellfish $12-15, fried chicken or pork  $8-12 but that includes a starter ( soup perhaps) and a desert ( often fruit)
Breakfast everywhere we went was excellent and very substantial. I think everyone we stayed with charged $5 per person but once eaten you didn't need lunch! 
BreakfastFruit , bread,jam, cakes, omelette, fruit juice, coffee etc.
Only once was I tempted to snack, an irresistible opportunity for a Pizza at $2.50.
<untitled> 2016-02-11The Casa's all varied in their appearances.
Hostal Aurora     Cuba
From city centre to beach
Casa El Varadero     Cuba
From simple to quite grand, like the courtyard dining area at this one.
Casa Particular
But one thing they all had in common was they were spotlessly clean.
Typical Casa Particular
And with a charm of their own.
Typical Casa Particular

Of course you can opt for a package holiday deal but the experience is far less enriching.

To get around you have to consider various options.
We went with the hire car option and it is far from cheap.
My Chinese Geely 1.5L cost approximately £45 a day with petrol on top. 94 octane petrol cost roughly the same as the UK in February, $1.20 a litre. Other fuels used on older non hire car vehicles cost substantially less but you can't buy them for modern cars.
I was told the buses are very cheap in deed, a few C.U.C's will take you a long distance but you need to book as they are usually full, sometimes they also run pretty late.
Trains are a no go as they are totally unreliable.
For the most flexibility, a hire car is ideal but not totally necessary as an alternative is to use a taxi which are also easy to arrange and probably cheaper too.
Driving as already described is a joy really. Very little traffic out of town, bicycles,pedestrian,horse drawn, and motors in towns but the pace is slow due to the variety of obstacles you need to pass. 
Local transport
Sometimes the vehicles are huge although this local "bus" was the single exception rather than the norm.

Public transport in the extreme
Sugar cane transporters were often a lorry and trailer combination but passing them wasn't a problem on the open road.
Yes, keep an eye out for potholes and another major hazard you occasionally come across are railway crossings which are unmanned and without barriers. There are always markers as you approach along with a big white cross, sometimes though they are not too big and not very white. You need to pay attention !
Unmanned crossing
Not everyone will have the time to spare that I did. I would recommend that you are not over ambitious in your attempts to see too much of the island but for those who feel they have to you can get internal flights from one end to the other then work your way back to your departure airport. Certainly a time saver and there are quite a lot of domestic airports. Just make sure you have enough allowance to carry your luggage, it might be less than on an international flight.

Money is another consideration. Cuba is very much a cash society. Credit cards are not accepted widely as yet, you also pay charges which on small amounts make it a poor option.
We took a large wad of UK pounds changing them as we went along at either banks or cadeca, money exchanges. The rate varied while we were there but the Cuban Convertible Peso( CUC), the tourist one is directly linked to the U.S. dollar . The local peso works out at 25 to the CUC but you usually only get 23 or 24 if you exchange a CUC at a bank and to be honest you don't need them. Most shops and bars want to get their hands on CUC's in preference.
ATM's are limited to some of the bigger towns. We used one just the once. They are of course convenient if you don't have to queue but  you pay 3% on withdrawal plus a UK bank fee might apply too.  Using a bank can be a lengthy business. You need to wait outside before the man on the door lets you in, maybe wait for your turn at the counter, then go through the necessary bureaucracy. At one bank the individual £ notes had their unique numbers noted, all 40 of them! Took ages.
In today's modern world everyone needs access to mobile phones and the internet.
We couldn't use our phone as it wouldn't dial out but it would receive text messages. WiFi is available in most bigger towns, usually around the town square. It's not free, we paid $3 for our one hour scratch cards purchased at the providers office near the square. You don't need to use the hour in one go either 

So, food, transport, accommodation, money,WiFi. What else is there to consider?
Cerveza Fuerte
Excellent beer at $1-2 per can
Delicious rum cocktails at $2-2.50 or bring home a bottle. A litre of 47% Havana Club white rum cost me around £4. At home it's £19 for a litre of Bacardi and that's not as strong either.

The birdwatching is as I have demonstrated, excellent but for the petrol heads or just for the nostalgia, there are other things to look at.
Santiago de Cuba         Cuba
Some real beauties.
Santiago de Cuba         Cuba
This one was getting a thorough clean at the local car wash.
Beautifully maintained
Lovingly looked after
Beautifully maintained
Even I had to admire it, and cars don't hold much attraction to me either.
Beautifully maintained

No, Cuba is unique. The people are lovely and I always felt totally safe even when carrying some extremely expensive photo equipment.
If anyone needs help in their planning don't hesitate to ask. I have to admit that if we had our time again we would have planned it differently, probably made the tour in reverse. In addition, now that we have seen a huge part of the island the necessity to tour isn't quite as great. For me, next time it will involve flying to Havana for a look around then heading back to Playa Larga, probably by taxi.
Yes, I could manage that in a couple of weeks.... and so could you.
Hope you are inspired.

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