Independent traveling like it used to be…
Unless your guidebook has been published a few months prior to your departure to Cuba, it will already be outdated in terms of practical advice, overtaken by the continually evolving touristic landscape of the island, including prices. The easing of government regulation in 2011 has led to an abundance of casa particulares and the availability of bus and taxi transportation throughout the country.
Once you have your first casa, you can ask the owner to help arrange a taxi “collectivo” to your next destination. A casa can also be booked for you and the taxi will drive you directly there. The type of car and accommodation can vary greatly and is part of the joy of surprises. At the time of writing, Viazul buses and this form of collective transportation are what independent tourists use the most but things evolve continually and differently throughout the country. It is best to enquire at each place of stay on the existing options from other travellers, casa owners and the local office of sate-run tourist agencies (Cubatur, Gaviota, Cubanacan…). The cheapest but longest way to travel solo is still by Viazul coaches which need to be booked in advance via internet. They were always full when I tried to get a seat a day before travelling either by internet or directly at the terminal. So I decided to just go there about 30 minutes before departure in the hope of cancelations or no show-ups (this worked for me but then it was not high-season yet).
Regarding the casa particulares, for roughly the same price of CUC25-30, you can get all types of houses and degrees of comfort. Breakfasts cost CUC5 and are generally quite filling. The key to remember is that you are sharing people’s homes and this provides a unique experience each time. Do not bother calling the casas figuring in your guidebook while in Cuba as these will already have been reserved in advance but you can ask them for recommendations. Enquiring among fellow travellers for their tips is also a great way to learn about the latest good value for money. Or just simply walk around and ask for availability at any house featuring the official blue logo.
Sola in Cuba
Travelling in Cuba reminded me nostalgically of my backpacking days throughout South East Asia a few decades ago : cash only tourism with few credit cards, long lines for telecom and money changing services, an abundance of guesthouses, general safety, emerging private businesses and initiatives to meet the growing tourist market…and most importantly no internet.
Well this is not quite true as demonstrated by the number of young tourists with eyes glued to their mobile phones, following directions to the monument they want to visit or to find recommended accommodation. How is this possible when there is no internet in the casas and very limited access elsewhere? The most recent answer is the ETECSA internet card that can be used at the wifi “hotspots” recently set up in main towns around the country. The Target de Navigation card offers an hour of internet access and can be purchased at ETECSA offices (Cuban telecommunication company). To locate a hotspot, look out for groups of people, Cubans and foreigners alike, sitting down on benches and pavements talking or writing away on their mobiles – often in a square or a park. Some guidebooks printed after October 2016 have started indicating hotspots on their maps but this will most probably soon be out of date.
As for mobiles, you can use your own (why not take an old Nokia) – you’ll have to pay an activating fee and then upload credits with a card or directly at an ETECSA office. This is useful to make calls or text in-country such as to check on availability and book a casa or a taxi; you will only get a reply if you use a Cuban phone, probably by text. If you want phone or internet access, it is recommended to line up early at the ETECSA office of your first port of call and get enough credit for the duration of your stay unless you want to line up again elsewhere. Otherwise, many travellers choose to go with the flow and enjoy staying totally disconnected. “It’s so wonderful not being at all connected during three whole weeks” exclaims a Danish tourist I meet – a comment I heard many times from travellers.
As I was trying out my luck at the Viazul terminal in Varadero for the last leg of my trip back to Havana, I felt that wonderful sensation of freedom from my backpacking days – a feeling I have had throughout my journey sola in Cuba.
My friend Catherine (December 2016)