Mi casa es su casa

The best way to stay and travel in Cuba is by casas particulares, which basically is home-stay.  Each Cuban is allowed to rent out up to two rooms, and they pay to the government for this right. The price is generally 20-25 CUC = 120-150 NOK, which includes beds and (most often private) bathroom for 1-3 persons. They also usually offer breakfast, dinner, drinks, laundry, at a reasonable fee, as well as information about the town and booking of tours. We’ve stayed in 6 different casas, each one teaching us more about Cuban culture and their way of life. We’ve had breakfast every day in the casas, and often dinner as well, particularly when we were not in Havana. There are some hotels in Cuba as well, but they are pretty hefty priced and rumor has it that the service and food is impersonal and not better than in the casas.

In this post we’ll give a brief overview of the various places we visited in Cuba and the casas we stayed in.

Havana
Our first casa was Casa Alex Habana, which we found on Hostelbookers.com (very good site to find casas!). It is run by Ari (short for Ariocha-something) who acts like everyone’s mother, and a very concerned one at that. She serves the best breakfast in Cuba where one portion is enough for at least two people! Ari has a lovely home in Habana Centro just outside Habana Vieja, which turned out to be a good place to stay when sightseeing – everything was nearby and we didn’t have to use much other transportation than our feet.

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Ari took care of our whole trip using her vast connections around the island and setting us up with her friends everywhere. It had (almost) all the comforts of charter tourism without all the charter tourists. We met some other of Ari’s customers along the way and they all had the same positive impression of her as we did.

We also stayed with Raoul in Havana, when Ari had other reservations at her house. He is retired, living with his brother, and makes a living renting out the casa. He lives just down the street from Ari, so we got to stay in the area we already knew. He was also very sweet and talkative and took very good care of us.

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We found that 4-5 days is enough in Havana. We did most of the sights and activities that didn’t cost a fortune or smell tourist trap, and were ready to move on from the hustlers and heat.

Viñales
We then went to Viñales, where we stayed with the family of “La Niña” (a nickname that means “The girl”), in Casa Julio Rivera y Miky (the name of her husband and daughter). Viñales is a beautiful valley were they produce a lot of cigars. It’s said to be the favorite place of Fidel Castro, and we also liked it quite much. There we also met Isabell, a German girl with Colombian mother who lives in Australia. She was traveling by herself around Cuba and Central America, and was on the same “tour of Ari” as we were, only the opposite way.

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We stayed two nights and spent a day driving around the valley (private “taxi”) looking at some caves, stone paintings, cigar farm, the view of the valley and a lot of hungry stray dogs. There really isn’t too much to do in Viñales, but we recommend spending a full day in the valley.

Cienfuegos
After Viñales we headed to Cienfuegos for one night, before going to Trinidad. In Cienfuegos we stayed in Casa Ana Maria. Cienfuegos is a very nice little town with beautiful Cuban buildings and a nice Malecon, but we found that one night was enough for us there as we hadn’t heard too much about Cienfuegos, and didn’t really enjoy the casa so much.

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Trinidad
In Trinidad we stayed at Casa Bombino, run by father and son Bombino – Félix and Alex. 25 year old Alex speaks really good English, making us able to learn a lot about Cuban life (we do try to speak as much Spanish as possible, but there really are limits to the depths of conversations we are able to have in Spanish!). We stayed 8 nights with the Bombinos in Trinidad, and Alex really made it such a nice and easy stay. He booked bikes or taxis when we wanted to go to the beach, fixed our return transport to Havana, served breakfast and dinners that were great, and introduced us to Ana Beatrice – his doll of a 14 month daughter. He was actually expecting his second daughter any day as well!

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Trinidad is a really nice little town with cobbled streets and houses painted in various pastel colors (no neighboring house had the same color). There is also a very nice beach nearby, Playa Ancon, were we spend a lot of prime tanning-time and gazing at the spectacular sunset. In the center of town there is a Casa de la Musica where bands play music each night on the steps outside, and where we could practice some of the salsa moves we had learned earlier in the day.

As we stayed a total of 8 days in Trinidad we also met a lot of other travelers with whom we shared and received lot of good travel tips: Laure and Remy from France was a brother and sister traveling Cuba for two weeks; Sarah and Nadine from UK also lived with the Bambino’s and was at the end of their 3,5 month travel, starting in Brazil – they had done a lot of the same things we are considering; and Jules and Kat from Australia, who were in the middle of their 10 week travels in Latin America.

Back to Havana
Upon returning to Havana, Ari put us in another amigo’s house – Casa Orchidea. Same area, just on the San Rafael Avenue (dubbed Harassment Street by the English girls we met in Trinidad! Guess it’s quite different traveling as a couple compared to two girls). The apartment looks like a bachelor pad ala 70’s James Bond, and there are 5 piranhas living there! They are huge and look super vicious! We fed them some leftover chicken and one of them jumped halfway out of the aquarium to get it – scary!

So all in all, if you’re going to Cuba – stay at a casa! And to be on Aris circuit of friends was really nice for us, we highly recommend it!

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Cuba – it’s very okay

Cuba, a country of music, bad drivers and extremely tight clothes – where the cars have more pictures of Jesus and Mother Mary than seatbelts, and where rum is cheaper than Coca Cola. Yes, they actually have Coca Cola here now, one of many signs that Cuba is slowly opening up more and more. In just the last year there have been a lot of change in the country and it seems to only accelerate forward under the lead of Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother.

We must admit that we didn’t know much about Cuba when we first came here. “Of course there will be Internet so we can research our trip and ATMs so we can get money!” – famous last words by Tuva.

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There is a communication monopoly in Cuba, which means all telephony and Internet is provided by one company. The little Internet that exist on this island is very slow and costs a small fortune each time you want to use it in either a internet café, or in one of the more posh hotels (we know of two in Havana with WiFi). And the speed goes up and down like a roller coaster, which means Skype and FaceTime is a no-go.

Luckily some of our cards work with the few ATMs that are here, though not our BankNorwegian VISA credit cards. It’s much worse for Americans (US), since all banks and cards affiliated with US banks are banned from Cuba, meaning you have to bring lots of Euros to the country or withdraw money at ridiculous charges.

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Something that we learned very soon after we arrived is that Cubans are very proud of their history and heritage of independence wars and revolution(s). Every town has a square, plaza or park dedicated to Jose Marti, the liberator of Cuba in 1898, when Cuba got their independence from Spain. There are also equally many statues of him around as there are government buildings, and there are a lot of government buildings in Cuba.

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As for the revolution there are pictures, t-shirts, hats, artifacts and even haircuts with the face of Che Guivara everywere you turn (yes, a guy had Che shaved in to the back of his head!). Che is of course one of the main heroes from the revolution 54 years ago, together with Fidel Castro (Él Presidente) and the somewhat lesser known (at least outside Cuba) Camillo Cienfuego, who has a street named after himself in every town. So of the three revolution heroes, one got the tourist souvenirs, one got the presidency, and one got a lot of streets.

Another thing you notice pretty fast with Cuba is their warmth as a people, at least the ones we met in the various casas we lived in. They rent out their homes as Casa Particulares (a room or two in their own home) to tourists; make breakfast, dinner and drinks to you; and give you advice on what to do, who to not talk to and how to not get robbed or scammed at the street. We were lucky and booked our first night with Ari in Havana, which basically took care of everything from there, as she has many friends across the country who have casas and could help us around. Everyone was very welcoming and wanted us to have as good time as possible in their casa, and we got to know very warm and happy people who did their best to earn the necessary money for living, as it’s no secret that the regular wages for workers in Cuba is not very high – a doctor makes about $40 a month = 230 NOK, and pensions are around $11 = 60 NOK. In comparison we are spending two monthly salaries each day on sleeping and food, and we’re staying pretty cheap.

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The people on the streets also seem very “friendly”, wanting to help us with everything from taxi, to cigars, restaurants, salsa festivals and more. We were told the first night by Ari to “not talk to anybody on the street, just ignore them and walk on, and they’ll soon lose interest”. It seemed a bit harsh at first, but as for Havana (Vieja), you just have to do this to avoid being scammed by the many street hustlers. It seems every Cuban knows the words: “Hey my frien’!”, “Taxi?” or “Tazi?”, “Restaruan’?”, “Cigar my frien’?!”, “Special pri’ for you, my frien’!”, “Happy holiday amigo, where are you from’?”. Even some kids lighted up when they saw us, ran towards us and presented their open palms saying “Dollas?”. You get a bit cynical after walking in Havana Vieja for a couple of days, but luckily we put down our guard some in Viñales and Trinidad, which are much smaller towns and where the people seemed more genuinely friendly and trustworthy.

To avoid being hustled into some random restaurant and overpaying to cover the hustler’s commission we were tipped by Ari to go to “Los Nardos”, supposedly one of the best restaurants in Cuba. When we asked her if the food was any good she answered “It is very okay”, which didn’t seem very promising. After standing in line for 40 minutes and freezing our asses off at the table right under an air-conditioner on full speed, we found that “Very okay” was being very generous to the famed restaurant, with a kitchen similar to the cafeteria at my high school. We later checked out TripAdvisor and found three restaurants among the top 5 in Havana, that we tried. All of them were decent and pretty inexpensive, but at the same time confirmed the rumors we had head ahead that Cuba is not a country for gastronomy. We also found the food in the various casas to be “very okay” and be on par with many of the restaurants we tried. All in all the food in Cuba is “very okay”, but after a couple of weeks you get a bit tired of the same rice and black beans that are served with each meal. Not to mention that the only spices they seem to use here are salt, pepper and some garlic, though only sparingly.

The next thing you notice is the extremely tight clothes. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, small, big, or very big, you’re supposed to show your body. The (a bit older) ladies also seem to like tops with bling-text that says something like “Boy Toy” or “Sexy Mama” or worse.. And the miniskirts are a chapter for themselves. They are short and are worn by all women, no matter age, occupation or (as earlier mentioned) body shape. You’re a tour-guide  – wear a miniskirt. Police? – miniskirt. Nurse? – better wear a bit shorter skirt and throw on some fishnet stockings. Schoolgirl? – miniskirt (or in reality shorts with a flap that make them look like skirts, or shorts underneath). We’re not saying whether it’s good or bad, we’re just reporting how it is.

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Cuba is also well known for their old American cars from the pre-embargo era. These cars are everywhere and most of them have a “Taxi” sign on them. They have been maintained for decades, and although their old, gas-guzzling engines have been replaced with new diesel engines and most have new HiFi installed, they still have that old look and feel, not to mention their total lack of airbags, seatbelts and other safety measures. A part from the old American cars there are also some almost as old and just as dangerous Ladas, tiny Fiats and also some newer imported cars from China, Japan and Europe. (almost) Everybody drive like pigs in Cuba and their horn is used all the time to say “Hey! I am coming behind you fast, so get out of the way!”. We reluctantly had some trips with the old American cars, and even a trip with a Lada that barely didn’t fall apart. Luckily we survived to tell the story :)

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Finally, it’s the music and dancing. It seems every restaurant has a band playing (and everyone is playing Chan Chan), no matter how small, and every town has a Casa de la Musica, where the locals show off their crazy slick dance moves to amazed tourists. The rhythms are contagious and you can’t help but shake your money maker a bit, though not enough to get embarrassed. This is of course accompanied by their national rum based drinks such as Mojito, Daiquiri or Cuba Libre, and the smell of cigars being smoked everywhere (mostly by tourists).

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All in all we have had a great time in Cuba, although we have to say that the food and lack of Internet are some factors that limit our time here. We have learned a lot in the few weeks we’ve been here, both of the people and their culture, and we’ve even made some Cuban friends.

Hasta luego Cuba, we might meet again..

Tacos, hippies and Mayan ruins

We never made a summary post of Tulum before we left for Cuba, so here it comes! We’ll try to make it short and sweet.

We had some great (9) days in Tulum, kicking off our travel with some sun, good food and a wee bit culture. We stayed both at the playa (beach) and in the pueblo (town centre), and both had its up sides and down sides. The playa was very relaxing and Tulum really has a nice beach. The downside is that it is twice (or more) as expensive as in the pueblo. It is said that the beach stretch from Cancun to Tulum has the most expensive places in all of Mexico.

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We stayed at ParaYso Hotel, which was the cheapest hotel we could find on the beach. It was okay, but the amenities were not very good and they were renovating the hotel when we stayed there. Recommended if you don’t need VIP treatment – the beach was awesome and there were restaurants nearby for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the pueblo we stayed at Hotel El Punto, which was cheaper, had more amenities like free bikes, air condition, refrigerator and breakfast, but had a hotel staff that were constantly hard to find.

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Either way if you stay at the beach or in town you get delicious food everywhere. We had our share of tacos, totopos and guacamole, and then some. Some of the best meals we had were at Hartwood at the beach (only have ca. 10 items on the menu and is a bit expensive, but oh so delicious) and El Asadero in town. Both had Argentinian-inspired steaks and very good atmosphere. Other than that we ate a lot of cheap tacos, which you can get for ca. 10 MXN = 5 NOK each, at small local restaurants across town. They didn’t have much salad and side dishes, but were quite filling and cheap.

A Mexican breakfast favorite of Tuva was Chilaquiles, which is totopos (tortilla chips), tomato sauce and cheese. We had totopos and guacamole at almost every meal, often times fresh from the oven. Looking at the typical body shape of the Mexicans we saw there, it seems they also enjoy their fair share of totopos and tortillas.

Another thing we found a lot of in Tulum was hippies. And by hippies we mean mostly young(ish) people with dreads or otherwise dirty/greasy long hair, and raggy clothes they most likely have sewn or customized themselves. They seemed to be everywhere and it may well be that we just mistook them for regular backpackers. Some seemed to be living on the street and some tried to sell bracelets and such to get some extra cash.

Lastly Tulum is famous for their Maya ruins, which is one of the most complete in Mexico and third most visited here. They are visited every day by several busloads of tourists from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, something we soon found out the first day we tried to visit the ruins. There were swarming with big, middle-aged Americans with their video cameras constantly recording and young couples on their honeymoons. We figured out that if you want to beat the crowd (and heat) you need to go immediately when they open in the morning (8.00, 9.30 is too late) or in the afternoon (16-17). We chose the latter and even though it’s said that you can spend half a day there we were quite satisfied with the ruins after an hour. We are probably not that big ruin-fans.

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Tulum ruins in sunset 4

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Other fun things that happened in Tulum was that Mathias got sunburned on his chest the second day, which lasted for five days, and we both got more mosquito bites than we could count..

Tomorrow we will be flying back to Cancun from Havana, but we will only be staying there for some hours before taking the night bus to Belize City. We will spend the time stuffing our faces with tacos, totopos and guacamole.

Ciao!

Feliz Navidad!

We are alive and well in Cuba, but we are seriously lacking internet, hence the few updates.

We have had some great days in Viñales, Cienfuegos and especially Trinidad, and are now in Havana until December 25th. We had some photo sessions on the beach in Trinidad and have uploaded some sneak peeks on Flickr.

Feliz Navidad from Tuva and Mathias!

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Turtle bay and the lagoon (Nativo tours part 2)

After going to the Dos Ojos Cenote, we went to Akumal to see the sea turtles and go to a lagoon to snorkel.

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In Turtle Bay there were a lot of sea turtles eating the sea grass that grows on the bottom. We were not allowed to touch them, but we could swim quite close. David also told us that there often is a 1.5 m barracuda in the bay that you can swim up to, unfortunately (Tuva: NOT) it wasn’t there when we visited.

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We had some delicious fish tacos in Akumal, along with more guacamole and totopos! We have eaten a lot of totopos in Mexico (triangular fried tortillas) – it comes free with almost every meal! There is even a breakfast dish that contains mostly totopos, Chilaquiles, which is really good (it resembles what we call nachos in Norway).

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The lagoon was situated on a private property previously owned by the Grateful Dead, and rumor has it that the guy who bought the house had to scrape resin off the walls for 3 days. The lagoon had two layers of water, fresh water from a stream and sea water. This brackish water is blurry when mixed, thus the blurry pictures (of course not the photographers fault).

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Of marine life the most interesting we saw was a school of regal tang (as in Dory, Marlin’s crazy companion in Finding Nemo) in the lagoon. Other “marine life” consisted of a huge party (not only by numbers) of Mexicans bathing and shouting and having fun.

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Dos Ojos Cenote (Nativo Tours part 1)

We went on a snorkeling day trip with David Barlow of Nativo Tours this past Sunday to see a cenote, sea turtles and fishes. This post is about the cenote, and the next post will be about the rest (part 2). On the trip we also met Rebecca, a british girl living in New York, who did the trip for the second time (!).

First stop was Dos Ojos Cenote. A cenote is an underground cave filled with water, stalagmites and stalagtites (pointy limestone). The water was cold, and there was only natural light coming in from the openings of the cave. We went in with our snorkeling gear on, and David had an underwater flashlight to show us the way. Underneath us we could see the flashlights from the scuba divers swimming deep beneath the stalagmites – it looked scary to be down there!

It was a little bit difficult to take pictures in the cenote due to the darkness, but it was an excellent opportunity to try out the new underwater housing for my Canon Powershot S95 and it worked like a charm! (at least with a little natural light from the openings)

It is sad to say, but the whiteness of our skin in these pictures is not just the light and camera flash – we are still really norwegian-winter white and obviously not yet tanned backpackers..

The cenote was very pretty (at least what we saw) and awe-inspiring, considering the thousands of years it has taken to make the rock formations. We also saw some-hundred bats in the batcave. (unfortunately not The Batcave) All in all the trip was well worth the time and money (2150 MXN) spent and we can recommend David and Nativo Tours, as he focuses on private tours with few people at the same time.

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Entering the cenote

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The batcave

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One of the many pictures not doing justice to the spectacular sights, but because of the low light, most ictures came out blurry and/or black

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The cenote ghost (because he is white as a…)

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Ms. Milky White

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Mathias freediving like a boss

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Mathias again freediving like a boss

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A mermaid or Tuva.. not sure

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Testing out the new camera

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Rebecca and the guide David

 

Learning Spanish in Tulum

We decided that we wanted to learn a little Spanish before we left for Cuba (Thursday!), and have enrolled at Chac Mool. Chac Mool is a language school here in Tulum pueblo, where we’ve been staying at the hostel El Punto since Sunday.

The school is on the other side of town, and we ride our free hostel bikes about 20 minutes through town to get there.

Our maestra de gramática is Alexandra and our maestra de conversación is Tania. They are very good teachers and always in a good mood.

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Alexandra and Tuva

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Tania and Mathias

We’ve learned how to greet people, what to say in restaurants, stores, taxi, the bus station and some general vocabulary that is necessary for travelling. We’ve already used what we learned to buy bus ticket to Cancun at the ADO bus station here in Tulum! It went very well, although after really practicing spelling our names, we didn’t need it because he just pushed his keyboard in to us.. Well, if you ever need to spell Tuva’s name in Spanish – here is the way to say it: Teh ou uveh ah.

Tomorrow is our last day of language school for now, we’ll continue in Guatemala in January!

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We’ve ordered our first tacos using only Spanish (there wasn’t even a menu), and we actually got food!

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Mathias is blending in with the Mexicans

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Dos Mexicanos