Cuba Libre: Travel observations and tips

Cuba is one of the most distinct places in the world. I can say this with complete certainty having traveled to nearly 50 countries on this globe and never encountered anything like it. During the brief two weeks I was there, I was able to enjoy the hospitality of a most vibrant people, as well as experience life with little to no American influence.

As I conclude my Cuba Libre series, there are just a few more observations and travel tips to share with you….

Food and Accommodations
If you really want to learn about the Cuban culture and interact with the locals, eat at a paladar instead of a restaurant. Most paladares are hard to find, so just ask the locals where to go and they’ll point you in the right direction. Along the same lines, stay at the casas particulares instead of the larger hotels. I learned a great deal about family life just by observing the interactions between members of my host families.

In both cases (paladares and casas particulares), the hosts are eager to please you, their customer, and they’re equally interested in understanding where you come from and what life is like off their Cuban rock. Most of these families will never see the world outside of their island, so share what you can – or better yet, leave a gift behind for them as a symbol of your appreciation.

%Gallery-50602%
Solo and Female Travelers
Solo travelers should be aware that, though Cuba is one of the safest countries to travel in, it can be a lonely existence while you’re on the road. I was used to meeting people in hostels, but Cuban casas have a two guest room policy, meaning you have just one other person or couple staying in the same house as you. If you guys don’t hit it off, you’re really on your own. If you hit the music venues at night, though, you are bound to meet other travelers with the same predicament.

Also, female travelers will certainly get their fair share of attention by the men (in the form of whistling, shouting, or aggressive talking). If you don’t like the attention, ignore it. If that doesn’t work, just say “no” and they will get it.

Safety
Personally, I always felt very safe traveling in Cuba. When you’re walking around in a city (like Havana or Santiago) at night, you should walk on the street rather than the sidewalk, as the streets are better lit. I always felt safe walking around at night – even along darker streets in Havana. However, don’t be bold and stupid. Use common sense.

Propaganda
You will likely develop a tolerance or maybe even a fascination (as I did) for the onslaught of political billboards and slogans that are plastered on city walls or strewn along the countryside. The most common slogans portray images of Cuba’s colonial independence leaders José Martí and Antonio Maceo, the Revolutionary leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos, or the five Cuban prisoners (often depicted in a star or with the word “Volverán” – “They will return”).

“Viva Cuba Libre” and the other popular slogan “Viva la Revolución” (which mean “Long Live Free Cuba/the Revolution” seem to me like desperate reminders for the Cuban people that Fidel’s victorious revolution that ended 50 years ago still lives on today. However, based on conversations with locals, I sense most Cubans wish it to be a distant memory and want to embrace change soon, before their already dire social, political, and economic situation worsens.

Transportation
Plan ahead for long distance trips across the island. During peak travel seasons (May-July; November-January) buses fill up quickly and flights to hotspots like Baracoa, Santiago, and Trinidad are booked weeks – if not months – in advance. You can reserve a seat on long distance buses. Bring a sweater or blanket with you, as these buses are air-conditioned and can get quite cold – especially at night when there’s no sun.

Communication
Don’t expect to use the phone or the internet while you’re in Cuba. Both are expensive. Your host should be able to make calls for you within Cuba, but international calls can only be made at ETECSA offices in major cities and are ridiculously overpriced. Using the internet for an hour costs $10, and you cannot connect to it using your own laptop. It’s best to just avoid communication with the outside world altogether. Heck, that’s the Cuban reality, so you might as well experience it like a local.

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE or skip straight to the good stuff —

  • How Cuba survives with two currencies
  • Cuba: How to get in, where to stay, where to eat
  • My first impressions of Cuba
  • How to prepare for Cuba
  • My days in Havana, Part One
  • Being sick in Cuba
  • My days in Havana, Part Two
  • The vibrant nightlife in Trinidad
  • Salsa dancing in Santiago de Cuba
  • The eco-tourism potential of Baracoa
  • Malaysia Airlines First in Asia to Offer In-Flight Mobile Phone Service

    Malaysia Airlines has received and installed an in-flight mobile phone system designed by AeroMobile on one of its Boeing 777s. Passengers will be able to safely use their cell phones and PDAs during the cruise portion of the flight without interfering with the aircraft’s navigational controls and communication.

    The system has been tested extensively over the past few weeks. Cabin crews will be given the green light to “advise” especially chatty passengers to be mindful of others during long haul or overnight flights. The service will be available on regional and international flights to Australia, Africa and the Middle East.

    Passengers who choose to use the service will be billed by their own cell phone providers. Roaming, international and out-of-network charges will be applied. Currently, AeroMobile is working with Malaysian cell phone service providers to ensure that users won’t hit any snags if the try to make in-flight calls while in international airspace.

    [Via My Sinchew]

    The Payphone Project

    China PayphoneI once took a very spectacular photo of a friend of mine at a payphone in Barcelona and as gorgeous as she is, it was the payphone that surprisingly stood out. Thinking back on that particular shot I could see how one could develop a habit of photographing phone booths across the world. It was so foreign, so exotic and so un-American and I captured it all by accident. But that’s just Barcelona and surely there are more striking, alluring, photo-worthy booths around the globe in places like Sri Lanka, Oman and maybe even Estonia.

    Well thanks to Jim Benning over at WorldHum, I’ve recently learned of the Payphone Project. He notes that the site began as a way to promote “random contacts among complete strangers” by publishing the numbers of payphones around the United States and encouraging people to call them. Today the website has grown into something bigger and is the virtual home or gallery of payphone photos from Peru, Senegal and Antarctica!

    I’d say it’s a wonderfully unique project, but you decide for yourself and tell us what you think. Waste of travel planning time or mini world travel masterpieces?