Arriving at the airport in Havana we have been approached by a guy who introduced himself as Roberto the taxi driver who will bring us to our destination with a super old and fancy chevrolet! We went up to the first floor to exchange a bit of money, just enough for the taxi and some food and then went with Roberto. Our first expression when leaving the airport area was… Wow we really are on a Carribbean island…palms everywhere and this humid air.
Once arrived in Centro Havana we were surprised to see so many poor people and really old houses which almost fell apart. This capitalistic country was not the first I had seen but still it gave me a weird feeling in my stomach. This feeling continued during the day. People didn’t seem happy, barely anyone smiled. I missed this picture I had in my mind of Cubans.. being full of energy and creating a vibrating city and dancing all the time. Maybe my expectations were wrong. The harbor and old Havana are lovely…this was definitely the more touristic area which you could tell by the gift shops and not normal high prices. Again I realized that I do not care much about cities…everywhere they are kind of the same…and I get bored easily. After one day in Havana, I already wanted to leave to discover the beaches and nature of this country which hasn’t been touched by too much tourism and therefore has been preserved.
Important to realize if you visit this country for the first time:
1. Supermarkets as we know them from Europe or the US are impossible to find. Do not even try. Finding a place where they sell water is really hard to find… Keep your eyes wide open because they re hidden in small shops which cannot be identified as such easily.
2. Food is a sad topic here… It is definitely not the reason why you should visit Cuba. Keep your expectations low. The food is tasteless! As if there was no salt, pepper or any other spices available.
3. The cocktails, on the other hand, are great! Too bad you cannot only live on strong alcohol only.
5. Learn Spanish before you come to Cuba!! A very little percentage of the Cubans speak English! It would make life so much easier if there was one language which you could use universally…but yeah not in this country! Communicating with your hosts in the casa particulares is extremely important but often impossible.
6. To safe money stay in casa particulares. Those are rooms/apartments rent out by locals. You either live in a room in the house with your hosts and can have dinner there for some extra cash…or you end up having your own tiny apartment. Where can you find casa particulares?? Either by walking through the city and passing by many casas where you basically knock on the door and ask if they have a room or you just book in advance via airbnb (recommending this as you can read reviews).
7. Be on time (months before) if you want to travel via a well-organized bus company with airco: Viazul. If you are too late you have got some alternatives: taxi (expensive, can be booked in advance), collectivos (taxis which fill up the car with people and start riding –> for a great anecdote see below), rent a car (expensive, stress, headache, aggression, most flexibility –> same here wait for the story I will tell you!
Collectivo (Vinales to Trinidad)
My experiences with collectivos are horrible. First, you are being told that you will get an airco taxi for 35CUC., after a few hours it changes to 40. Then it will be a 6 seat collectivo for 35 CUC p/p. Then you will be picked up in Vinales by a collectivo totally packed in an American car with: in total 9 seats (incl driver). Then it rains and it seems that the windows do not close in this car, as they are broken. And if I am talking about rain I mean real rain! Like the August in Cuba rain. Then you arrive close to Havanna in the middle of nowhere. Where no one speaks English. but you will be dropped out. And all your backpacks too. After asking desperately for other backpackers for translating, you understand that this is a stop where all people will be split in different cars depending on their destination. It continues raining… you stand there with your backpacks. You get soaked. You are put into a big car with almost 20 people. Then you are told to get off with your backpack again. Because it is not sure if this is really the car to Trinidad or Cienfuegos. So you get off. Then they tell you it is. You get in. Then they bring people for Cienfuegos to that car. And you get confused. Then it is already 4 hours later and you haven’t moved for a meter. People are becoming pissed. there are seats without a pad/cushion… where people refuse sitting for 5 hours (totally understandable). Then there are Italian ladies. You fight with the Cuban driver who refuses to drive before every single seat is filled. And makes everyone wait for hours. Then there are Spanish who fights once we are complete because the driver only wants to take one of the couples. The couple does not want to split (of course). Then you start hearing many swearwords. The whole bus shouting at the driver and the driver back. After hours of waiting, and the bus full of people backpacks (no one wanted to put them on the roof) and a lot of rainwater…we are ready to leave with an extra chair put into the car for the Spanish lady’s husband.
Three hours on the road and the windshield wiper stops working. Then the windows do not close. We get all wet and cold. By chance, the wipers start working after half an hour again… puuh lucky us we can continue the trip.
Promised was a trip which should have taken 5-6 hours. Which should be in a car for 6 guests and very modern oldtimer.
We got a trip of 12 hours, wet, sick, in a bus squeezed in with around 20 people with broken windows.
DO NOT DO COLLECTIVOS!!! JUST DON ‘T
Rent a car in Cuba
My short answer would be: JUST DON´ T
But I think you deserve the whole story. After having experienced this horrible trip from Vinales to Trinidad by collectivo, we thought that we would deserve so much better. We decided to rent a car and be more flexible. We pre-reserved and paid the car from Europe. In Trinidad, we went to the rent a car place. And we were ready to leave the city. And guess what. The guy who was in charge of the renting wasn’t there. We had to wait… Finally, he came. Explained to us that we could bring the car to Havana to that one location (one out of hundred). We agreed. He said he would call them and let them know. Then we had to wait. Because the car was not even tanked. Someone went somewhere to put gas into the car. Once he came… we could leave. The roads in Cuba are terrible. It felt more like a racing game where you have to avoid the damages to the road. For the rest having a car was great. We could stop where ever we wanted and go where ever we wanted to. Last day we arrived in Havana, the next day we would fly back to Europe. So we drove to the Hotel where we were supposed to bring back the car at 16:30. The guy in the Hotel told us that we could not do that because there was no space they could put the car. I asked why the guy in Trinidad told us that we could? No answer. I asked what else I should do? He said drive one block further there is another hotel where you can leave it to the guy. We went there… the guy from the rental office told us first okay go outside find the guy from my company who stands outside where the parking area is, let him check the car and leave the keys. Then he held on for a minute. He decided that we were not able to do that anymore. He said no, you go to the museum there is an office as well bring it there. I asked why? And that this was already the second office. We did not answer. He got angry. I got angry. I said that this was not fair and that I cannot go from one office to the next one until someone decides to accept the car. He said that this was not his problem. All I wanted is call the police. But I was sure that the police would not help us at all. Why did I think that? Because all Cubans I met so far did not do shit in order to help us. All they did is trying to get as much money as possible. We did not feel welcome in that country. Anyway, we went to the museum, and guess what. We got refused for the third time. He told us that his computer did not work, that the system was down because it was already after 17:00. We got angry. I freaked out. I asked if I was supposed to take the car on the plane and back to Europe? I felt so desperate, I was so close to crying. Why would no one in this country help us?? At least this guy told us that it was our right to keep the car for another day and that we did not have to pay anything extra. And that tomorrow we could bring the car to the airport and leave it there. I get angry while writing this actually… so I am stopping here. My message is simple!! Believe the bad reviews on different websites about all those different car rentals!!! They are basically all shitty!
Wanna read more about our trip and especially tipp…see other posts.