Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty – Pinar del Rio

After 25 years of living, working in adventure tourism and criss-crossing Cuba more times than we can count, at WoWCuba we should obviously be intimately familiar with alot of service providers, facilities, activities and areas available to visiting explorers by now. But the largest Island in the greater Antilles has 15 provinces and 1 special municipality, so there are always opportunities to dig deeper on our quest to keep up with new initiatives in farming and ecotourism trends. As a Cuban-Canadian couple we really enjoy and are often inspired by visiting farms, diving, hiking, nature, unique entrepreneurs and indulging in good food. We aren’t suckers for nightlife and avoid discos/hotel-type animation. We love to hit the road in September when the weather cools down just a bit and summer vacationers have disappeared. Following is my wish list so far for what I’d love to squeeze in on our next visit(s) to Pinar del Rio province. Not all places are new to us, but some are.

Dive Maria la Gorda, Blue Hole in Cabo San Antonio
Hike Guanhacabibes “Del Bosque al Mar” or “Cueva las Perlas”, Baby turtle release (mid-Sept) at Playa La Barca
Visit Cueva del Palmarito
Visit Viñales zipline
Visit Mirador/Lookout (22.625503, -83.743849)
Visit “Finca Coco Solo” Farm, “Finca L’Armonia” Farm, Patio MogoteArt, Finca C&J and El Rincón del Café
Visit Palacio de Guasch
Eat El Cuajani
Eat La Berenjena eco restaurant
Eat Agroecological Sunset Restaurant
Eat Jardin del Arte Sano
Drink Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso lookout
Drink Casa del Mojito
Stay Cabo San Antonio
Stay rural Viñales *Mogote Art, Brisas de San Vicente, Finca Media Luna or maybe Las Españolas (affiliate links)
Stay Castillo en las Nubes
Stay|Eat Puerto Esperanza Villa Wendy (affiliate link)

On that list, I have to admit that Mogote Art (available to book on AirBnB, but many  places listed on that platform are available for less $ locally) and Castillo en las Nubes are on the higher end of our personal accommodation budget. That said, we do occasionally spring for an overnight somewhere special and rarely regret it; sometimes we still discover something pretty spectacular along the way that’s not on any tourist radar. We’ll see where the wind blows us this fall. One thing’s for sure; the time we invest into Discovering Cuba’s Inner Beauty is well-spent. And if you’re one of our lucky guests, then you get the full benefits of our fabulous finds, first-hand experiences and adventures with streamlined planning and targeted recommendations.

 

 

Advertisements

B&B Evolution in Cuba

There’s a saying about Cubans “o no llegan o se pasan” reflecting their tendency to either fall completely short or go way overboard, challenged with finding the exact Goldilocks measure of “just right” in many aspects of their daily lives and behaviour. The decor of the very lovely b&b we recently used, situated in a privileged location in Cienfuegos, is a perfect illustration. We made a last minute decision to travel and, as it was low season, we decided to try our luck and see what we could find on arrival. If you ask me, it would have been absolutely perfect if the owner just took away a few of the things that for me seem to clutter and detract from the natural beauty of her home. She charged us $40 CUC/night (excluding breakfast) and in our experience the room was just average by Cuban standards. Typically rooms in that area go for $25 CUC/night. It did have a split air conditioner, hot water and blow dryer, but other than that it was nothing extraordinary. Many b&b’s in Cuba offer those conveniences these days for similar or lower rates in low season. She claims that she recently discovered that one of the new powerhouse hotel booking engines operating in Cuba is selling the very same room for $103 USD per night. She expressed indignation at those rates, incredulous that the re-seller would earn more than she does as an operator, but I told her that’s the cost of dealing with the new US hotel marketing machines and the multiple layers they use to sell services in Cuba.

#1 mistake alot of Cuban B&B owners make when decorating their guestrooms: satin.
This went out in the 70’s, but noone has told Cuban casa particular owners that yet, and they continue to buy yards and yards of the tacky material and have local seamstresses whip up custom-made combinations of bedspreads & matching pillowcases to adorn their rooms. I wish designers in Cuba would start a campaign to get rid of them. I’d honestly rather simple white cotton sheets if that’s all to be found. It’s not, of course, but they don’t have HGTV in Cuba, so maybe it’s just that these operators need some exposure to good & modern design trends. En masse.
bed
#2 mistake: too much clutter. Stick to the basics and invest in quality, not quantity. Drown those creepy gnomes and trash the ceramic dwarfs and toadstools unless your name is Snow White and you’re catering to preschoolers. I really don’t want to see a one-eyed pot-bellied thing leering up at me from a fake waterfall with a knowing grin when I pull back the curtains to gaze at the ocean outside my room.

 


#3 mistake: investing in fancy before the basics. Fix the roof tiles and paint that last flower pot out front even if they belong to a part of the building that’s not under your ownership. The facade is the face of your business. If you have an air conditioner that may spit out the occasional drop of water (or worse), then don’t install it right over the bed. We ended up getting blasted by Tropical Depression Alberto and would have greatly appreciated a simple $5-$10 doorsweep rather than all the fancy plaster ceiling ornaments in our room. We awoke in the middle of the night to a room that had flooded from water coming in under the door, a/c dripping on our heads, and leaky roof that had soaked my leather purse from its resting spot on a ledge leaning against the wall. The casa owner was very friendly, and volunteered all kinds of information we didn’t ask for, including the fact that she has Spanish residence, and the coveted 5-year US visa. But after a sleepless night when I suggested that she consider picking up some simple weather stripping or a rubber door sweep on her next trip to Miami , rather than assimilate the constructive criticism, she dismissed it.

Don’t get me wrong. The place is lovely and the owner goes out of her way to make you feel welcome. There are just times I wish I could just come out and be blunt with some of the operators we come across and tell them that less is more, to identify and look after the basics first and then know where to stop to find that perfect balance. Without offending their sensibilities.

 

The Old Havana Hotel Crisis

Since 1993 WoWCuba has been exploring Cuba’s backroads, private gastronomical delights, and hidden beaches. Now that even some of the favorite non-resort areas (such as Old Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos & Viñales) are becoming difficult in terms of securing accommodations at preferred properties, it’s time to share some of my favorite alternatives. This post will focus on what’s happening right now in terms of the private restoration efforts in Old Havana.

Cuba’s high-end hotel room availability can’t meet the current demand for high-end lodging. The private sector is beginning to emerge as the next best alternative until the high end hotel chains can catch up for the masses. One of the most desirable neighborhoods at the moment is known as the Loma del Angel (for the 1604 church there, the Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio). Facing the church is a small square called the “Plazuela del Santo Angel” where a scene of a legendary Cuban romance “Cecilia Valdes” by Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde took place. Check out the statue here. Some of the neighbors will tell you the gentrifying of the neighborhood began with the arrival of Cuban fashion designer Jaqueline Fumero. When the changing of local laws 3 years ago allowing buying/selling of property in Cuba amongst Cuban residents, she converted the corner building facing the church, which sits on elevated ground at the top of the street, into a lovely boutique/café. They have a pleasant outdoor seating area in the Plazuela and my husband and I have shared and enjoyed their $6 complete breakfast (plus crepes on the side, just for weekend decadence). The classic apartment building with the winding wide marble staircase in front is where you’ll find the Hostal del Angel, featuring an even higher view of the neighborhood from their terrific front balcony. The same family has opened up their doors to visitors to Cuba in another couple of properties (one of which you can see from the balcony), restoring the exterior and renovating the interior of a former rundown architectural gem into comfortable tourist rooms plus a rooftop bar/terrace from which to enjoy the surroundings and view of museums, colonial architecture and El Morro fortress across the bay.

Complimentary businesses have sprung up ranging from art galleries, dance studios, an alley of barbers (for anyone looking for a haircut/shave/or maybe even just some local gossip while on holiday), juice bars (some the same juices you can buy in national money from the back side of the apartments situated behind the Cohiba hotel by the way, but of course it costs more to drink lovely fresh local fruit juices in their beautiful Old Havana location). Sit in the shaded indoor restaurant or catch a breeze in the sun, if you prefer, on the upper deck. We like some of the small/creative Cuban restaurants like Chef Ivan Justo (or Aguacate 9 as it’s also known), housed on the second floor of a 1776 colonial home with sight lines to Museum of the Revolution, just steps from the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana). Donde Lis, or Al Carbon are also worth a visit. Casa Pedro Maria has made the most of their space in their prime location behind Al Carbon (because who doesn’t like the smell of barbecue), with their inner courtyard/dining area, a common living room area, and 3 tasteful rooms with private bath separated by curtains from the sleeping areas. With no one living above them, in all likelihood getting permission from the City Historian’s office to add a second floor would be a wise investment. Over 8 years (they were ahead of the curve) the folks at Casa Vitrales have gradually unified their 3-story treasure into a really funky space which spans two pedestrian colonial streets and of course the view’s hard to beat from their 3rd floor rooftop lounge/breakfast bar. Just down the street it’s nice to see that the City Historian’s master plan in this neighborhood also includes beautifully restored and pleasant gathering spaces for the elderly.

Keep heading south from here, about as far as Teniente Rey Street (which we also really like, by the way), to Aguacate and you’ll be treated with views to Plaza Vieja on one end and sightlines to the Capitolio on the other, and picturesque streetscapes in between. If you’re keen on investigating further, you’ll discover that almost every corner building has been purchased by someone or other (from Argentina, China, Italy, France, and of course Cuban Americans with family here, or in some cases Cubans who also have residence abroad) intending to convert it into a small-scale inn with the possibility of other commercial operations on the ground floor. Nice to have all those balconies and exterior ventilation/illumination for guest rooms. Bit by bit the real estate is being picked up (and no longer at a song, by the way). As families relocate (I imagine into more modern and coveted non-shared spaces), the fractured spaces of even the most rundown Old Havana properties, the divided interior courtyards, ceilings (barbacoas) where they never should have been, are now receiving considerable facelifts. Some of these properties face complete reconstruction on the inside (making some of us wonder how long it’s going to take their owners to make their investment back, in fact), but bit by bit some of the jewels are being returned to their former glory. We like the apartment-style accommodations surrounding the tranquil interior courtyard of the Cafe Bohemia building. Bohemia apartmentIf you had a lot of money to burn and someone to invest it with in Cuba, you could buy 3 bedrooms/1 bathroom for 285,000 EUR right in Plaza Vieja. But that’s still pretty much right in the thick of things and the loud Cuban music at La Vitrola might wear on you if you sit next to it for too long.

If you want to get off the beaten path, you can do that by heading further south to the Jesus Maria neighborhood by the Santa Clara Convent. That neighborhood’s still not overdeveloped, although it probably won’t take much longer for things to start rolling. There’s a new port overhaul going on now that the main industrial shipping port’s been moved out of the city to Mariel. The Cerveceria (beer gardens on the bay) and the largest indoor handcraft fair in Havana are just a few blocks away, and new cruise ship / Havana Bay ferry terminal / train station restoration projects are underway. A new floating promenade has just been inaugurated on San Pedro, extending out into the bay.

There were times when you’d probably think twice about wandering around many parts of Old Havana at night by yourself. That’s certainly changing now, although if you don’t know your neighborhoods/plan on drinking/being out really late you’re probably still better not to leave your room with lots of flashy jewelry or be flashing cash around. While violent crime here is minimum, quick thefts or minor scams are not necessarily uncommon. We were stopped driving to work the other day at a routine checkpoint and the officer wanted to know if my husband had a machete in the car. Seriously. He thought his steering wheel locking device lodged beside the driver’s seat was a big mother knife. Or at least that was the first question we got when we got pulled over. If we didn’t have a knife in the car (which presumably would be assumed for self defense?) he could have been given ticket for leaving the car running (since I was sitting in it enjoying the a/c) because when a driver in Cuba exits the car I guess he’s supposed to turn it off and take out the key. Yes, seriously. Not the first time we’ve been told that when being pulled over for doing nothing wrong either. But I’m straying from my topic…

The payment system for many of the 100% Cuban operated b&b’s is still awkward for the most part, with many establishments not having a way to accept credit card payments, others who have little or no internet presence or email access (or an unreliable Nauta account – the local communications company has been struggling with their email servers for several days now), and I think it’s a fairly safe bet to say that most just really prefer to work in cash leaving them freer to engage in tax evasion. Many of the newer establishments have travel operators (with foreign accounts) looking to secure rooms for their guests as backers, so prepayment and guaranteed reservations in their inns won’t be an issue. But small scale inns featuring more than half a dozen rooms that are actually operating at this point are still few & far between. Many of the newest spots with increased capacity (more than the traditional 2-room rentals that used to be permitted under local laws) that will serve the short-term accommodation crisis have yet to open their doors. I’ve also only seen a handful of private establishments that even publish an online availability calendar/fixed rates yet, which makes the work of checking space and confirming accommodations considerably more laborious. I’ve even encountered a “bumping” already with a prepaid private homestay this season, where the owner inadvertently double-booked the same apartment for two different clients on the same date. Thankfully they were able to protect the clients in a higher-priced property very close by. But even prepaid bookings can sometimes go slightly astray.

There are other areas of Havana, of course, besides Old Havana. There are even some surprisingly luxurious spots that have cropped up in decrepit Central Havana, not too far from the action in Old Havana or just a short bike taxi ride to neighboring Vedado. You can find penthouses or mansions in Vedado, beautifully-doted mansions in Miramar, oasis homes on the ocean in Guanabo, and of course a lot of the lower-end $25/night room family-run establishments in the Capital are still open to visitors. But in that price range you should usually be prepared for satin bedspreads, horse or tiger rug wall art, and in some cases very rustic shower facilities as for that price not all the owners can afford to invest in modern comforts or just aren’t aware of all those home renovation/design shows y’all love to watch on tv so much in the developed world. There aren’t too many $25/night undiscovered Architectural Digest candidates out there in Havana these days I’m afraid. We checked in at one place whose online pictures looked considerably more inviting than the reality. The owners (unwittingly?) revealed that the private Cuban accommodation booking site who they list with helped them a lot with removing crowded furniture from their common space and making their space look optimal when he came to take their pictures for his website. Except they then proceeded put everything back where it was when he left, as it was pret-ty rus-tic and cramped, and while certainly a good base for exploring location-wise, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend too much time in that room or its ensuite bathroom. I’m no princess but at this stage in the game I would absolutely be happy to pay more for a superior room and comfort while on a well-deserved holiday.

Booking as far in advance as possible with a reliable operator who will prepay and guarantee your lodging is key right now and will continue to be so for some time. On Sunday I was speaking with some professional drivers who were accompanying clients and they told me that there were actually tourists sleeping in the park in Viñales. With one of the highest concentration of private home accommodations in Cuba, that’s a sure sign that the hotel situation in key areas in Cuba can now be accurately compared to that of Bethlehem upon the birth of Christ.

“I want to come to Cuba before it changes” (credit: the Gringos, 2015)

If I had a dime for every US client email that I’ve received since December 2014 from an American looking to visit Cuba before it changes… It’s starting to grate on me because for those citizens of the rest of the world who’ve been traveling to Cuba for the last 20+ years), of course you know that a lot of things have been gradually changing for some time now. But not due to increased US presence or because of restored diplomatic relations. For the old timers who are familiar with Cuba from its pre-revolutionary days, you’ll know that it’s already come a long way, baby. If Cuba has held fast to its revolutionary principles despite more than 55 years of an economic blockade from its closest neighbor and great economic challenges endured because of that failed policy, well it’s not terribly likely that it’s all of a sudden going to do an about-face now. Cuba might be a third world country but its citizens are educated; Cuba’s revolutionary government eradicated illiteracy in the country in 1961 and most Cubans are no dummies. They got rid of a corrupt government that was in the pockets of the United States business community (and mafia), and nationalized the oil companies and the United Fruit Company, none of which were contributing to (or even concerned about) the well-being of Cuban citizens, their health or education, but rather lining their pockets and extracting profits from Cuba. Goodbye Esso & Shell, hello Cupet. Following are some images someone recently shared with me, de-classified from pre-revolutionary public works files.

I was lamenting the other day to a long-time Canadian client-turned-friend of mine as my workdays get increasingly longer as I try to keep up to the new flow of US clients anxious to come to Cuba, demanding a five star foreign-managed hotel experience from where they expect the country’s history, culture and beauty can be contemplated and appreciated. Besides having no real clue about what they really want to do once here (which makes my job even more laborious), space at the five star hotels in Havana and certain other highly-demanded areas is about as scarce as cheap cars in Cuba these days (for those of you who aren’t in the know, the price of cars has gone completely through the roof here). Her response was priceless and a much-needed infusion of humor into my work day:

“I’ve been musing over this email of yours, and thinking what a great assistant I could be to you if only I could speak Spanish. If I lived in Havana I would want to run small group tours for intelligent tourists (this would be identified by their interest in my tour, of course). It would be a historical tour of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Taking them to buildings and places where all the monkey business went on. I could say “Yes, here is the former police station #3, where they would extract the eyeballs of those who challenged Batista’s dictatorship”, and take them inside to tour the cell block. I might lock up a couple of the Americans for 15 minutes or so as a punishment for the blockade. Or show them the house that some filthy stinking rich dirt bag of a person associated with US business interests lived in with his three mistresses. All the best and most interesting scandals that occurred before the Revolution. Followed by lunch at El Aljibe and a few Bucaneros, of course.”

Over the past 2+ decades, we’ve been privileged to host some of the most intrepid visitors from the US who have traveled to Cuba through a third country, despite their country’s travel ban. The risk of getting “caught” or assessed a fine by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control for traveling to Cuba on an unlicensed basis is now at an all-time low. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the possibility still exists since the US government so far has not changed its stance on Cuba travel, although it would appear that they may be poised to do so sometime in the next year. For anyone looking for no-risk travel to Cuba, however, the only options are still to undertake travel in one of their 12 general (paperless) categories, or through one of the US companies offering pricey people to people trips. All these options require you to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact that you will be undertaking licensed Cuba travel if you board a direct flight from the US to Cuba. Some US citizens are knowingly (or unknowingly) falsifying that information, but I’m not certain that’s really such a good plan as you never know when Uncle Sam will catch up to you. Some of the agencies holding people to people licenses offer some interesting trips, but all have content designed to be compliant with their license. Although the categorization of exactly what qualifies as people to people contact nowadays is fairly loosely interpreted. Throw in a dance class, talk to some people in the street, visit a church and tweaking how the itinerary is worded to satisfy US government regulations seem to be key. The kind of independent, unstructured travel that most US travelers would probably prefer to take, combining independent visits of colonial cities, maybe a beach or two and perhaps some excursions (just for fun) into the mountains is still not possible under OFAC regulations. That doesn’t stop the more adventurous US traveler from undertaking travel on their own terms though. They simply travel through a third country, avoid signing any affadavits implicating themselves, and skip declaring their Cuba travel on their return. If it were all up to Obama, I figure he’d say kill the embargo now. If some extremist like Marco Rubio ever gets into power though, you just never know what kind of twists & turns the diplomatic road will take.

If you are a US citizen booking travel to Cuba through a third country you will want to be sure that the airline you fly with doesn’t require you to sign any affidavit regarding licensed Cuba travel. Flying with Aeromexico, for example, you might think you would be off the hook. Read a little more closely, however, and you will see that CitiBank (US-owned) has a stake in the airline. So they still ask for a signed affidavit before boarding. Cubana de Aviacion, Copa, Bahamas Air, Cayman Airways, and most Canadian airlines are frequent choices for non-licensed US travelers to Cuba. Some can be difficult to book from the US and may require payment outside of the US. Others may require you to book your air segments separately (not offering a thru fare from the US, but rather two or more separate tickets). And you can’t check your luggage from the US straight through to Cuba when flying through a third country. So you need to gauge for additional connection time. The US recently announced the possibility of adding scheduled flight services to Cuba as early as December, but that may have been a little premature as a few things still need to happen in Congress before travel to and trade with Cuba is normalized.

If you’re a US traveler considering visiting Cuba for the first time, here are some of the most frequent questions that I field:
1) Are you going to go the licensed or unlicensed route? That’s the first decision you’ll need to make as if you’re only considering licensed travel, then the list of travel service providers who can assist you will automatically be greatly reduced, and the price tag for your travel will automatically be higher. WoWCuba and many other Canadian agencies have forged partnerships with US agencies who have coverage for people to people licenses, and are happy to pass on referrals to those agencies and collaborate with them to deliver your travel services on the ground in Cuba.
2) If you’re going the unlicensed route, congratulations. You’re getting closer to how to see Cuba “before it changes” (eye roll) on your own terms. First you’ll need to decide where it makes the most sense to fly from to get to Cuba. Various Canadian cities offer flights to Cuba, with Toronto being the major hub for most year round flights, and other cities offering direct charter flights to various Cuban airports concentrated mainly in the winter months. Cubana Airlines offers daily morning flights from Mexico City to Havana, and mid-afternoon flights between Cancun and Havana. East coast travelers often travel via Nassau, the Cayman Islands, Panama, or Santo Domingo to Cuba. If you require assistance with reserving flights or checking schedules WoWCuba can help. Once your flights to Cuba are secured, then proceed to reserve your connecting flights from the US to/from the Cuba gateway. If traveling in the winter months, do keep in mind that snowstorms can interfere with departures, and planning for an overnight enroute to Cuba can be a good precautionary measure. And do be careful about avoiding connection times that are too tight, especially when dealing with air travel in the Caribbean with air carriers that may not have a good record of on time departures.
3) Trip Cancellation and Medical Insurance is currently only available from US insurance providers for travelers who are undertaking licensed Cuba travel. Medical insurance can be purchased locally upon arrival in Cuba (before going through the immigration counters) from Asistur.
4) Once you get to Cuba, where are you going to stay, how are you going to get around, and what kind of activities do you want to engage in? For the first-time traveler, the options can sometimes be confusing. We have a Trip Planning Resources page that we highly recommend as a starting point. Check out the helpful links there to guide books, maps, distance charts, apps for restaurants, entertainment and accommodation recommendations and much more. Talk to friends that have traveled there, spend a little time reading, peruse the internet. And then get back to us with your general ideas when you’re ready to have us put a quotation together for your travel elements.

Please DON’T tell us you want to experience Cuba’s beauty, culture, and history and expect us to magically produce your ideal itinerary. Those parameters are simply too general for us to draw any intelligent conclusions about what you really want to do and where you want to go in Cuba, the largest Island in the Antilles, 1200 kms long. The experienced traveler will find beauty/culture/history around every corner in Cuba providing their eyes are open, but your enlightenment can often be greatly enhanced when interpretation is provided by a knowledgeable local, especially true if you don’t speak Spanish. Unless you are family or a personal friend of someone working with us, then we don’t know you/your tastes/budget, and can’t possibly guess if “adventurous” for you means just stepping foot outside of your all inclusive hotel to board a bus with 40 other tourists and taking one of those (questionably ethical) swim with the dolphin tours. Or if you’d be happy stuck on a back road somewhere tooling around with a local mechanic (who’s questionably sober) after your motorcycle breaks down following a day of zipline/cave exploration. It’s all relative and we need our clients to be as specific as possible about their needs and expectations if we’re truly to be of any help in offering them direction on which services we can assist in pre-arranging on their behalf.

Do you like biking, yoga, ziplines, rock climbing, cave exploration, diving, cave diving, diving with sharks, snorkeling, hiking, birdwatching, fishing, sailing, photography?
Are you more interested in cities, colonial architecture, mountains, beaches, waterfalls, agriculture, restaurant diversity, shopping (note to shopaholics: Cuba’s probably the not for you!), relaxation, spa experiences, museums, cooking classes?
Would you be comfortable driving a rental car? Or would you rather have your own driver, take taxis, or a bus service?
These are some of the questions you should be considering if seeking assistance from a travel professional in arranging your ideal Cuban vacation.

TIPS:
Group tours are often the best way for first-timers to get oriented in Cuba. Something with a pre-designed multi-day itinerary, support team, transportation, and local guide to interpret history/culture and answer the myriad of questions you’re sure to pose. But be selective about what kind of trip you sign up for. If you’re not a fan of traditional bus tours, then maybe a bicycle tour with van support might be more up your alley. Cycling is one of the best ways to see Cuba up close & slowly, taking in all the sights, smells and sounds of the country at your own pace. For weaker riders, we even have electric-assist bikes to take some of the work out of hills. Our bicycle tours are multi-center holidays, allowing you to get a flavor for different areas of Cuba. You’ll combine an active holiday with some of the best restaurants available in the country, and free time to explore or just chill in the afternoon. There’s a support van too, for any non-cycling companions or those interested in less of a physical challenge on holiday.

Accommodations: If traveling independently, book as far ahead as possible if you’re looking for hotel space in Old Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos or Trinidad. These destinations are highly demanded and hotel rooms are limited.
Looking to get off the beaten path or see more of true Cuban culture, in all of its glory? Take a deep breath and get ready. First rule of thumb: avoid all-inclusive properties/tourist enclaves that the government created for the sole purpose of collecting foreign currency to support its economy and social programs, while at the same time protecting real Cuban culture from the nasty stuff that comes with increased tourism. Places such as Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco/Guillermo, Guardalavaca, Cayo Santa Maria, or Varadero. Head east instead or into smaller villages and spread the wealth around. Santiago de Cuba receives less than 1/10 of the visitors to Havana, and offers a number of nature tourism options. We also like Soroa/La Moka, Camaguey, Sancti Spiritus, Baracoa, Gibara, and Maria la Gorda/Cabo San Antonio, although that’s hardly an exhaustive list.

Transportation:
ANTIQUE CARS are the vehicle of choice for nostalgic Americans visiting Cuba. And entrepreneurial Cubans know it. With the ongoing economic reforms, several years ago there was a boom in purchase of some of the old relics to be transformed into convertible roadsters for city tours. You’ll see the colorful cars parked in Havana near Central Park awaiting fares (these are usually 1-hour cruises). They’re also a popular mode of transport between Varadero and Havana for the all inclusive crowd looking to head to the Capital for the day. The Matanzas antique car owners have mostly converted their cars to diesel-powered engines and have added air conditioning for the comfort of passengers. In Havana there are many collective taxi routes which are one of the cheapest/fastest (if not the safest) ways of getting from point A to point B within the city.
CAR RENTAL may not be the right choice for your first trip to Cuba, but for repeaters it’s often the preferred mode of travel when looking for a multi-center holiday. Signage is lacking in Cuba, and it’s sometimes even hard to find one of the detailed road guides/maps at local shops. It’s definitely an adventure though. First-timers might want to avoid picking up hitchhikers until they have a better grasp on local culture/customs. I imagine that as tourism increases, so too might scams directed at tourists. So far not a huge problem, but not unheard of for petty theft to be directed at unsuspecting visitors. Always avoid driving at night as loose livestock can be a hazard on roads.
CHAUFFEURED CAR RENTAL Several of the local rental companies also offer chauffeured car rental service, which is more costly than a self-drive holiday, but takes some of the pressure off since you know you’re in good hands with a local. Only one of the four Cuban car rental companies (REX) can guarantee English-speaking drivers, so keep that in mind if your Spanish (or sign language) skills are lacking.
TAXIS Taxi transfers between destinations are how some people prefer to travel, then exploring locally by bike taxi/coco taxi/horse & carriage or on foot. We can book state taxis in advance, or you can always book/pay locally. From the airport, they’re often the best way to arrive to your hotel and we recommend local (rather than advance) payment on that route.
BUSES There are a couple of collective bus services connecting the various provinces. One is Viazul, the national bus company. They offer the most extensive list of routes and you can usually reserve locally just a day in advance with no space issues. Viazul accepts bicycles for carriage at a 10% surcharge. There’s also the Connecting Cuba bus service for the most popular routes for visitors to Cuba, which has the advantage of offering hotel pickups/drop-offs across Cuba (except in Old Havana where access is sometimes difficult for interior properties, so you need to make your way to the nearest designated street-access property). WoWCuba reserves this service as part of client travel packages, or you can purchase locally at Cubanacan tour desks if preferred. Connecting Cuba uses comfortable Transtur tourist buses for their service.
TRAIN service is not recommended for visitors to Cuba as it’s unreliable, uncomfortable and involves too much time to be practical compared to alternative options.
DOMESTIC FLIGHTS can also be arranged in advance by WoWCuba as part of client travel packages. Flight schedules especially to some of the keys in Cuba can sometimes be irregular and are only confirmed the day prior to departure. To avoid disappointment, WoWCuba never recommends planning for same-day international/domestic flight services in Cuba.

Excursions: If not traveling as part of a group, we would caution you to avoid overplanning your day-to-day activities. This is a novice mistake. You can easily purchase optional excursions locally from any hotel tour desk without having to be locked into a fixed itinerary which may be affected on arrival by delays/weather/illness. Take care of your basic accommodation and transportation needs in advance. But unless you’re looking for something super-specialized not offered by the national excursion operators (like a ½ day cooking class) or need to ensure a certain schedule/activity (such as a dive course, where the course material needs to be in place in your language for arrival), in our experience booking these services locally with the hotel tour desks is the best way to go. In Havana, San Cristobal (the City Historian’s Office travel agency) offers a number of very interesting guided city tours, many of which can be purchased on an exclusive basis, so you’ll have the guide all to yourselves.

Dining: Except for restaurants within foreign-managed hotels, we don’t have any foreign (American or otherwise) restaurant franchises in Cuba. And it’s not likely to happen either, for those of you who still refuse to understand that Cuba’s principles are not negotiable and fear its impending Americanization. Michael Moore films have made it to public Cuban tv, and Cuba’s admirable public health system is based on prevention. We know all about Super Size Me and the unhealthy model of US fast food franchises. Experiencing local cuisine and trying out different paladars (privately-owned restaurants) is one of the activities that will enrich your Cuba travel. Cuba’s emerging restaurant scene is vibrant, and if you carefully select the venues to visit, it’s indeed possible to create an extraordinary gastronomical experience. One of the best apps for restaurants in Cuba is http://www.alamesacuba.com, and it should be downloaded in advance of arrival. Only a very few select establishments (such as La Guarida or San Cristobal) in Havana will actually require advance reservations if you hope to get in the door, but most places accept and can easily accommodate walk-ins. In Varadero we love Salsa Suarez; in Trinidad don’t miss Paladar San Jose; in Viñales El Olivo is one of the best spots to dine. Sweet Cuban coffee, pulled pork sandwiches, tostones (fried green plantains), sugarcane juice, some of the best avocados and mangoes in the world, organic fruit juices and smoothies, and flan or bread/rice pudding (arroz con leche) should all be on your list of things to try while here. We wholly recommend diving into the local restaurant scene and trying out a diverse selection of paladars while in Cuba.

And perhaps my last tips are the most important of all. Cuba is home to various protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and to the largest wetlands in the Antilles (in the Bay of Pigs area). There are major programs in place for the protection of its coastlines, coral reefs, forests, and endangered species. We sincerely hope that Cuba continues on its sustainable path as tourism numbers increase. We ask that you respect Cuba’s flora, fauna and local customs to the maximum of your ability while you are exploring its nooks & crannies. Leave the shells where they are. Don’t touch the coral. Be respectful of locals and their customs. Observe and learn rather than imposing your own values or opinions. Be generous with your gratuities, but only distribute them when a service has been provided. Learn how to say “por favor” and “gracias”. Tread softly and we can at least hope that Cuba’s natural beauty and unique culture will be conserved. As an island nation with a very insular culture, I believe it’s reasonable not to lose that hope. As the gringos lament change in Cuba, meanwhile Cubans are celebrating the potential economic benefits that increased US tourism will hopefully bring to Cuba. We’re all for that.