In Cuba, we were able to rent a car -- a 2010 Renault (not a 48 Chevy!) to drive around the country and visit villages, colonial cities, and historical landmarks. We were glad that we had booked in advance, since we heard that all rentals were sold out until the end of January. This gave us ultimate flexiblity, as we were able to plan our days on the fly. We visited many interesting places, including this fort from the 1500s!
The original AirB&B lives in Cuba! But, when you think of a B&B, please don’t visualize a charming Vermont inn with four-poster beds and thick down comforters. Instead, the “casa particular” is a spare room (with private bath) in someone’s home. Renting a room for one night can bring in as much income as the typical salary for an entire month! We did not have any reservations for the “casas”, but some are now listed on AirB&B and accept reservations by email. Since there are no credit cards in Cuba, we heard that landlords sometimes give away a reserved room if someone else shows up with cash in hand.
The landlady network is robust! In Cienfuegos when the first casa was full, the gracious landlady called around to her network of friends to find us a room. When these were all “occupado”, she jumped in our car and drove around with us, asking the locals whose room might be free. After ten minutes of driving through a scenic part of the city, we landed at Casa de Nancy, where Nancy welcomed us with open arms. (This was one of our more basic accommodations.)
The typical room costs 25 CUC ($30). Breakfast is an additional five CUC per person. We think that the breakfast revenue is taxed differently, since no official receipts were needed for this transaction. For the room, we had to register in a logbook, complete with our passport number and Cuban visa.
The rooms and bathrooms ranged from very basic to quite spacious. Some mattresses were from 1940. Others were a bit more plush. We definitely had to bring our own pillow, soap and toiletries. At the end of our stay, we gave our hostess a bag of toiletries and health supplies (q-tips, lotion, shampoo, floss, etc.) that we had purchased at Walgreens in SF. All the hostesses appreciated this, as it is impossible to purchase niceties in Cuba.
Many casa particulars are listed on a “Cuba Junky” app, which we purchased for our phone for $2.99 on iTunes. It’s managed by a Dutch entrepreneur and lists many casas alphabetically by city, even though it’s impossible to bookmark ones that look good and/or correlate their locations on an integrated map. We had to manually put marks on the map in the guidebook or else just look around as we drove. Very quickly we learned that a mobile travel app is somewhat useless without Internet access.
We also stayed in four different hotels, booked in advance with a credit card through the Cuba Travel Network website. Our favorite in Havana was the Hotel Raquel, a 1910 lovely, with original details and a glorious atrium. We appreciated the Jewish heritage of this hotel. Our room was even named “David”! Each room had a mezuzah on the door frame and there was a working menorah in the lobby to recognize Hanukkah.
We enjoyed many delicious meals at Paladars, which are private homes turned into restaurants. This is a fairly new phenomenon, as in the past all restaurants were run by the state. Ropa Vieja – shredded meat (lamb or beef) that has simmered for hours became one of our favorite dishes. Grilled shrimp and lobster tail was also yummy, as were the black beans and rice. The restaurant economy is in CUC and is targeted at tourists. A typical Cuban cannot afford any of these prices – instead, locals seem to rely on very basic pizza from corner stalls and fruit from local vendors. They purchase their staples (when available) from government run shops, which often are not well stocked. Also, some locales indicate that they charge for meals in “mondea nacional”, the local peso, which is worth far less that the CUC (convertible peso).
Sometimes the "pickin's" were pretty sparse in the stores.
Standing in line is a way of life for most Cubans. People have to wait to buy groceries, pharmaceuticals, and ice cream!
In fact, there are lines all over Cuba. Lines of bicycle taxis:
And school kids!
On the Autopista (National Highway), we were often the only car as locals cannot afford either cars or gasoline. Once in a while, we encountered other vehicles:
In many towns, the horse cart is still the preferred means of transportation.
And in the lush tobacco growing regions, horses and oxen perform the major farm duties.
It was definitely a "blast from the past". The horse transportation reminded Ed of rural Brazil in 1970. With our car, the driving was easy although road signs were sparse. As Cuba opens up to the world, this will probably be changing rapidly.