If you enjoy travel and cycling, biking Cuba on your own should be on your bucket list. I’ll go into all the “why”s later, but trust me, there’s hardly a better place anywhere in the world.
However, before you get your bicycle out on the open road, there are a few things to get through first. Here’s what I did, starting with the evening of April 1st.
Picked up my luggage at the airport.
Oh, sure. Sounds so self-explanatory. In Cuba, however, it isn’t always.
The beginning was easy enough. Went through immigration (staffed exclusively with female officers dressed in miniskirts and fish-net stockings) without a problem. Then on to pick up my bags. Found one carousel crowded with many many people that wasn’t even spinning or spitting out luggage. An hour or so went by. A plane from Madrid landed and another one from Paris. More people arrived, the carousel stood still.
Found out that there was another area of the airport with another carousel. Rushed to the other side of the airport and located it. Waited and waited. One of my bags arrived, but not my bike. I started to worry. Someone told me there was another area of the airport that held on to oversized luggage. I rushed to find it.
I found the oversized luggage area, but not my bag. I stopped a nice looking young man dressed like a luggage handler and stretched out my arms in front of him, like I was about to give him a very big hug.
“Grande!” I said. “Negro!” I didn’t know how to say “bag” in Spanish and hoped he understood that I was referring to luggage.
He nodded and disappeared into the back somewhere. Soon he emerged with my bike bag! Step one: completed. Total time: around 2 hrs.
Exchanged Canadian Dollars to CUC
In case you haven’t heard, Cuba has two currencies. CUC (most commonly pronounced as “cook” or spelled out – in Spanish – as C U C. But it goes by many names, so you may want to consult a thesaurus of Cuban slang if you come across a reference to a currency you don’t recognize) and CUP (most commonly referred to as peso or moneta nacional). (BUT, CUC may also be called peso by some. Go figure.)
1 CUC is equivalent to about 25 CUP. Both look very similar and are easy to confuse, but here’s a trick I learned that will save you about 2500% in your funds: the CUC has images of statues, while CUP banknotes portray images of real people (yes, the 20 in the above picture has an image of a statue. It’s a statue of Camilo Cienfuegos). This means: statue is more valuable than a likeness of a real human being. At least when it comes to Cuban money.
Also, the CUP design is more classic and monochrome, while the CUC is more colorful and modern.
CUC is the only currency that is available for exchange at an airport and at most banks. CUC should be the only currency that you, as a foreigner, should have access to. However… In smaller towns most people don’t use CUC. They use CUP. So you’ll get CUP as change. It will be very confusing. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with both currencies (most city stores now list their prices in both, but some don’t. When in doubt as to what something costs, ask.).
1 CUC is more or less the same as 1 US Dollar. 1 CUP is more or less the same as 4 US cents. However, Cubans don’t really want your US Dollars. There is still a 10% surcharge on any exchanges involving US Dollars. There is a good reason for this. Because of the US imposed embargo, Cuba has no access to US banking system or any international banking system which uses US Dollars. For this reason, US travelers are advised to exchange their money to Canadian Dollars before traveling to Cuba.
Also, remember to bring all the cash you’ll need while in Cuba. You will not be able to use your credit cards (due to US sanctions against Cuba), nor take out any money from the ATMs. So budget carefully. Once you’re out of cash, you’ll be truly out.
If this sounds extremely confusing, I’m sorry. Things may change soon. There is talk of US lifting or at least easing some of the sanctions and in return Cuba has promised to lift the 10% surcharge on the use of US Dollars. Also, there’s talk of combining the two Cuban currencies (CUC and CUP) and having just one currency. This may happen soon, and all mathematically challenged travelers will be able to spend their money more freely. Until then, study up.
Anyways, time spent exchanging money at the airport: approximately 1 hr, due to long lines and a broken money counting machine.
Found a place to sleep.
By the time we were ready to leave the airport, it was nearly midnight. Maybe 11 pm. Anyways, compare that to the original estimated arrival time of 6:30 pm.
Finding a taxi at the airport wasn’t a problem. There was an abundance of taxis and activity, even at this late hour. Apparently, Cubans never really sleep. Many “cafeterias” are open 24 hrs and Cubans of all ages will stay up all night drinking and eating and playing music really loud, regardless of the day of the week. So grabbing something to eat after midnight was also not an issue.
One initial disappointment were the modern yellow taxis. The old cars, so ubiquitous in Cuba, are nearly non-existent at the airport taxi fleet.
We found a larger cab (not quite a van, but one with abundant trunk space) and the three of us (Nedene, Jo and I) split the cost. It was 25 CUC for a cab ride from the airport to the close to central location where we were going, in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar.
Most of the nights in Cuba we spent in casas particulares, or Cuba’s version of Airbnb. These are rooms that can be rented in people’s homes. Most of the time the family will still be there and all you’ll get is your own room (often also a private bathroom), but occasionally this will be an entire empty apartment at your disposal.
Hotels, for the most part, are not readily available. There aren’t that many of them and most are either in big cities (meaning Havana or Santiago de Cuba) or along the beaches. Not a viable option for cycling. Also, the Cuban hotel infrastructure hasn’t quite caught up to the growing demand, so hotels book up quickly.
With Nedene’s help (she not only got all five of us together, she also navigated all the Cuban idiosyncrasies like a pro. Nedene speaks excellent Cuban Spanish, understands Cuban ways, and I couldn’t have asked for a more capable traveling companion) we booked, ahead of time, via email, rooms in Miramar at casas particulares. When we arrived, however, it turned out we couldn’t stay there after all. Was it because they thought there would be only two of us, but there were three? Or was it because we arrived so late and our rooms were rented to other people? No sé. My initial reaction to this “no room at the inn” was: “oh oh. Now what?” I wasn’t yet used to the Cuban ways…
Cuban ways are, of course, “don’t lose your shit. We can make anything work.” Niurka, the woman who ran one of the casas, greeted us warmly, with kisses, squeezed into the cab with us and took us to another casa down the street. The place was dark and no one was answering the knocks at the door (keep in mind, this is around midnight), so she got back in the cab with us and we kept going to yet another casa. This one worked out!
This time we had an entire apartment to ourselves. Two large bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and a living room. The entire place cost 70 CUC per night. That’s because it’s Havana and Havana ain’t cheap.
I got my own bedroom, while Nedene and Jo shared the other one. The place was spotless (they all are), we got towels and soap and toilet paper in the bathroom. Hot water too. AC in the bedrooms (although the windows had no glass. As with most things, you get used to it).
We spent a very comfortable first night here. The owners of this place were great and there is a funny story about my carry-on bag that I forgot in the taxi cab, but I’ll save the hilarity that ensued for another time.