Tag Archives: Tourism

Havana: Travel in Cuba on a Budget (Part 2)

18 Dec

Happy Wednesday folks, some of you may have already noticed that The Dancing Irishman is now back on Irish soil for the first time in two and a half years. I arrived in Ireland in secret (and incognito) last Friday and surprised my old salsa crew and later my family.

I have a whole post about that little adventure coming up but this week I’m going to continue with my travel post on what to do in Havana, Cuba and how to do it without breaking the bank. You can find the first part of this post right here.

Little annoyances
Just like any city with a thriving tourist industry, in Havana you will encounter MANY people who are out to take advantage of tourists.

These folks will appear in many forms but by far the biggest annoyances are the people who approach you randomly on the street. These guys are masters and have refined what they do to an art.

The three most common “openers” you will hear are:
Do you have a light?
Do you have the time? (even if you’re not wearing a watch)
Happy Holiday

The only function of these lines is to catch you off guard and get you into a conversation. I particularly disliked the last one, “Happy Holiday” (I was bombarded with this multiple times every day for 3 weeks so I had time to build up a grudge against it!). The phrase is only used in the U.S. where’s it basically means Merry Christmas. I explained this to one guy who approached me with this opener and he was astounded when he found out this was not a common phrase in English (especially since it’s so commonly used in Havana). It’s just a direct translation of “feliz vacaciones” which literally means “happy vacation”.

Anyway, once these guys have you in conversation they’ll start asking you where you’re from and then they’ll tell you that they have family there and they may even know the name of some lesser city (these guys are pros afterall). I must have met 50 cubans, by pure chance, who had family in Ireland. Amazing!

Eventually the offers will start. You’ll get invited to go and get a drink as they show you the local sites and tell you about the country. Your new friend may order multiple drinks while telling you how difficult life is for Cubans. The bill will come and your jaw will drop but you still have to pay it. He will get his cut from the bar later and you’ve been had.

Ashamedly folks, I’m speaking from experience. I’m overly trusting and friendly with people and always like to give them the benefit of the doubt and it bit me in the ass in Cuba. Be warned!

Your best bet, when approached with these lines is to give a quick one word answer and keep moving. Honestly it’s very difficult for me to be that blunt but you’ll have to do it in Cuba. Some people might say that you’re rude or that you don’t like talking to Cuban people but you’ll have to deal with that. Just tell them that you’re running late or  something and keep moving.

Mojitos, one of Cuba's signature drinks getting ready to receive their rum.

Mojitos, one of Cuba’s signature drinks getting ready to receive their rum.

Cigarros? Chicas?
You will also constantly encounter people on the street trying to “recommend” you something be it cigars, restaurants  or women. If you look remotely like a foreigner you are a target for this and you will be approached. A common scam is for someone to tell you that today is the last day of a particular sale on cigars at the “cooperative” (what luck to meet this guy on the last day of the sale). They’ll be really friendly and even offer to take you. My advice is to not buy anything off the streets from random people who approach you, especially cigars.

Why? Well one thing is that they can often sell you fake cigars. The most famous brands of cigars in Cuba are Cohiba and Monte Cristo which can cost a pretty penny. In the local tiendas (stores) you can pick up a cheap, run of the mill Cuban cigar for a grand total of 1MN. Yes that’s 5¢(US). The only difference, to the untrained eye, between these and the more expensive cigars is their little paper wrapper which is very easily changed. If you must waste money on cigars please bare in mind that if you’re passing through the US after Cuba, there is a chance that they’ll be confiscated (especially if you’re a US citizen).

As a man traveling in Cuba, you will also be bombarded with propositions for sex… constantly. Before I got there I wasn’t aware of Cuba’s (unfortunate) reputation as a “sex-tourism” hot-spot and I was astounded by how many times I was either directly approached by girls or by men asking me if I was interested in “chicas”. The fact that I was travelling alone and walked around alone for the majority of my stay there only made matters worse. Actually, the most pleasant walks I had were those I took with some of the female dance instructors from my school. Everyone left us alone because they thought I was already taken.

You will also notice a lot of girls that will “accompany” male travelers, kind of like a temporary girlfriend with the expectation of getting something in return. I also found it very interesting that it wasn’t just foreign men taking out Cuban girls. You will also a huge amount of older foreign women “accompanied” by strapping young Cuban men. People do what they have to do to get by in Cuba.

Anyway, when you are approached (and you will be approached, be you man or woman), just excuse yourself with a “No thank you” (best not to let them know you speak Spanish if you do) and keep moving. I should also mention that I was told that going to “matinee” salsa evenings (starting at around 5pm until 9) was a good way to dance with regular Cubans and to avoid the Jineteros (“escorts”) as the prices are lower so regular Cubans can afford it.

A note on safety
Before I went to Cuba I had lived for two years in Cali, Colombia and this has made me rather “cautious” when navigating cities. However, Havana surprised me by being incredibly safe to walk around not only during the day but at night too.

That’s not to say that it’s the kind of place you want to walk around without a care in the world. Be smart and always ask someone (in a hotel or your casa) if a certain part of town is ok to walk around. Also don’t walk around non-tourist areas flashing your wealth with fancy jewelry or expensive cameras. Havana is safe but if the opportunity arises anything is possible. Be smart and be safe.

Food
Just like any tourist town, in Havana you can find places that cater specifically to tourists (with nicely elevated tourist prices) and you can find places where the locals eat.

However, let me get something clear, you can find some excellent restaurants that provide delicious Cuban food for lunch at prices from 3 to 4 CUC (without drinks). This will usually include a soup and then a main dish of rice, beans, meat and vegetables. You may even find a place that includes a small dessert in the price. Many restaurant in Habana Vieja will even offer main courses for dinner from 4 to 5 CUC. I highly recommend trying out 2 restaurants located in the same building across from the “Capitolio” building in the old town called “Los Nardos” and “Asturianitos”. Great food and very reasonable prices (although not strictly low budget). If you visit the “Vedado” neighbourhood in Havana, try out a restaurant called “La Roca” for lunch.

However, as I have been one myself, I realize there are some super low-budget travelers out there that will want some super low-budget options for food and Havana is full of them. Street food is everywhere and while it won’t blow your mind gastronomically it definitely won’t blow your budget.

You will regularly see small windows with lines of people selling snacks, the three most popular being burgers, sandwiches and fried rice. You should be able to get any one of these for around 10MN (about 50¢ US) (and it’s really important that you have a supply of MN in your wallet to pay for such expenses. While they may accept CUC, they may not give you a great exchange rate). I have tried all of these foods and they’re quick, relatively tasty and in my experience safe; in 3 weeks in Cuba I didn’t once suffer any stomach upsets which is unusual when traveling in developing countries.

A Media Noche sandwich, filled with ham and cheese and some salsa, is a common sight on the streets of Havana

A Media Noche sandwich, filled with ham and cheese and some salsa, is a common sight on the streets of Havana

I really recommend only buying street food from places that already have the prices displayed out front, this way, if someone tries to cheat you on the price you can just point to the price they have displayed. I remember one morning after exercising in my casa I wanted something quick and I saw a guy making and selling omelette sandwiches from window. I asked him how much and he told me, without a twitch, “2 CUC” ($2 US). I knew something was up straight awayn (the eyes of one of his workmates nearly popped out of his head when he heard it)  so I called him on it. He repeated that the price was 2 CUC and I said no thank you. I moved to the side and was able to hear the next customer, a little old lady ask the same thing I had. The guy looked ashamedly at me and then back to the old lady and told in a very low voice “5 pesos” (5MN or 25¢  US).

So remember, a price display is a pocket saver.

If you want to go even more low-budget (and healthier in my opinion) you can visit some of the produce markets that you will find scattered randomly around the city (although I recommend visiting the market at the corner of 17 and K in Vedado, if just to do some people watching and see real Cubans going about their shopping). At the markets you won’t find a huge selection of fruit and veg (plantains, bananas, mango, guava, limes, avocado, tomato, scallions, onions, squash, cabbage, bell peppers, chili peppers, garlic and some herbs and spices) but they are very cheap. You can also usually find eggs (but I’ve been told their availability varies). If you have cooking facilities at your casa you can do what I did and make omelettes and eat them with some fruit at lunch time for a very healthy and very cheap meal.

Just so you get a little idea of the prices I paid:
30 Eggs cost 33MN
1 banana cost 1MN
1 large Mango cost 6MN

Another possible lunch option is to find the restaurants that the locals eat their lunch in. In these places (virtually always in someones house and without signs outside) you can get a meal which will consist of meat, beans, rice and some vegetables for just 24MN or 1CUC. It’s a great price to pay for such a substantial meal.

A typical Cuban lunch; pork. moneditas de platano, avocado and beans on the side (I asked them to hold the rice that day)

A typical Cuban lunch; pork. moneditas de platano, avocado and beans on the side (I asked them to hold the rice that day)

And if you ever do feel like splurging, you can’t really go wrong with the Buffet Breakfasts in either the Hotel Nacional (13CUC) or the Hotel Parque Central (15CUC). Fill up on some spectacular food for breakfast and you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

A note on the black stuff: Cuban Coffee
As I am now a coffee drinker (honestly, never saw that one coming) I did my best to find cheap sources of the black stuff while in Cuba. 

Now, you can go into the many hotels or tourist cafes and buy yourself a cup of “Americano” starting at $1.50 US a cup or you can do what the locals do. You will regularly see windows on the street lined with tiny little cups next to a thermos. At these windows you can get a shot of seriously strong Cuban coffee for 1MN. You can also usually chat with whoever is selling it nice a freely if there isn’t a line forming behind you. Be warned however that this thermos coffee is usually very sweet so if you take your coffee unsweetened like me you’ll have to ask if they have coffee “sin azucar”. Most places don’t but you can find it, just look for windows that have a small sugar pot next to the coffee thermos, this means that you can sweeten the coffee yourself.

How to have and instant group of friends
My time in Havana was really made so much better by the group of people I hung out with, namely the dance teachers from the school I attended. They were a great bunch of people to hang out and dance with but not only that, they also gave me a huge amount of “Local” advice on Havana too. This was invaluable because once you are in Havana you will find it very difficult to get information on things to do and when you do get information it will be heavily motivated by the financial gain of whoever is giving it to you.

The people at the salsa school were able to give me advice on where to eat, what to visit, where to go dance, how to get transport, how to find anything I needed around the city and how to do it all on the cheap.

It was also through knowing the the people at the dance school that I got to do certain things that regular tourists would never get the chance to do like attending a Cuban wedding party, joining a Santeria religious ceremony and going to load of dance parties and venues where there were very few other foreigners to be seen.

Thanks to my friends at the dance school I got to attend a Cuban wedding party. And yes, I do scrub up pretty well.

Thanks to my friends at the dance school I got to attend a Cuban wedding party. And yes, I do scrub up pretty well.

When you arrive in Havana, make sure you start taking classes in a dance school ASAP so that you can get to know the teachers and start hanging out with them in the evenings. You can find my recommendations for dance schools in Havana here.

Internet in Havana
Here’s the good news, if you ever wanted to take a vacation and completely disconnect from social media, Cuba is a great place to do it.

The bad news is that once you’re in Cuba, staying in contact with the outside world by internet is not cheap.

You can connect to the internet in some of the larger hotels like the Hotel Nacional but it will cost you about 5CUC an hour although you can also purchase a weeks pass that allows you to use their Wifi but that only helps if you’re staying in that hotel and let’s be honest, if you’re going to stay in that hotel, you will not be reading this “Budget” guide.

A few little recommendations for Havana
I want to finish this (overly long) post off with a few things to do around the city, to fill that time when you’re not dancing. Honestly, there are a huge amount of sites and things to do in Havana but here are just a few of the things that I particularly enjoyed.

  • Walk along the Malecon (the promenade) from Habana Vieja to La Rampa in El Vedado. Do it around sunset to get some great pictures (and to avoid the heat of the day). You can then people watch as the locals hang out chatting and drinking on the wall.

    A great sunset caught walking along the famous Malecon in Havana

    A great sunset caught walking along the famous Malecon in Havana

  • Visit the Plaza Vieja and people watch from the shaded comfort of El Escorial cafe.
  • Enjoy the thickest Hot Chocolate ever and breath the heavily chocolate scented air of the Museo del Chocolate.

    The thickest hot chocolate ever in Museo de Chocolate

    The thickest hot chocolate ever in Museo de Chocolate

  • On Sundays from 12pm check out the Rumba show at the Callejon de Hamel. It’s a total toursit trap and you will be bothered by numerous people asking for money and donations but once the show starts they quiten down. It’s a cool look at Cuban dance and culture but keep your wits about you and watch out for pickpockets.
  • See the most beautiful stained-glass windows ever in la Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus.
  • Dance in Club 1830, it’s open-air, right on the waterfront and one of the coolest places I’ve ever danced and watched people dancing. I think it only costs 3CUC to get in on Thrusday nights.
  • Visit El Barrio Chino (China Town) if you feel like a break from Cuban food. Tien Tan (天壇) is particularly good and boasts a native Chinese chef.
  • Escape the city and hit the beautiful white sand beaches of Playa del Este (20 minutes). You can grab a return ticket by bus for only 5CUC. The buses leave from infront of Hotel Inglaterra in Habana Vieja every 30 minutes. Just check the weather forecast and make sure you don’t go on a day like I did.

I hope you all enjoyed the post, if you have any more questions, feel free to drop me an email and ask.

Right, that’s it for me today folks. I’m off to enjoy some down time here at home in Ireland, after two and a half years away, I think I’ve earned it.

Keep dancing folks.

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Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”I’d really appreciate it 😉

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How to travel the world cheap and have more fun than ever! (My first weeks in the US)

2 Oct

I’ve stayed in 5-star hotels and I’ve slept on bare stone floors. I’ve walked solo, visiting monuments around the streets of some of the biggest and most famous cities in the world and I’ve gone to tiny little bars with groups of locals who I’d just met hours before.

I’ve traveled in a lot of different ways and I’ve seen different places from many different perspectives accordingly.

While I like my “me time” (a lot), one thing that I have undeniably learned over the years is that travel (at least for me) is much more enjoyable when done together with others. I’m not sure exactly what it is, maybe it’s the fact that traveling and sharing experiences with someone else makes those experiences more real, more memorable, more lasting…better!

Whenever I travel alone (which is a lot) I always feel that I’d be having more fun if I were with someone else. A little over a month ago, for my first few days in Cuba I actually felt lonely as I wandered the streets of Havana. It was still amazing seeing the city but I wanted to talk about it with someone, tell them how I feel, hear how they feel, share cup of coffee in the quaint little cafes or grab a meal together in the lively local restaurants. Luckily I only felt “lonely” for my first few days. Once I made some local friends I was able to do just what I had wanted and learn things that no guidebook could ever have told me.

I’ve been here in the U.S. for about a week and a half now and I’m writing this article on the bus taking me from Orlando to Savannah, Georgia. I’ve just spent 4 days in a little town outside Orlando that I had never heard of before, staying with someone who 4 days ago I had never met and who now I consider to be a close friend. It’s been one of the best vacations of my life and probably one of the cheapest.

I’m a couchsurfer
When I say that to people, the vast majority has absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. Neither did I the first time I learned about it but Couchsurfing transformed the way I travel and allowed me to both save a huge amount of money doing so and experience things that otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do.

I’ll keep the explication concise but the basic premise is that couchsurfing allows you to host travelers from all over the world who need a place to stay or it allows you to look for a host in the area where you want to visit. And it’s absolutely free. This allows you to meet new people, from different cultures and countries and share experiences with them as you (or they) travel. You can learn about all the hidden local gems that you’ll never find with a guidebook, spend time with locals and learn how they really live (so you’re not just getting to know a place through all the people that work in the tourist industry) and you get to enrich your travels by making some incredible friends along the way. For an example, check out this post from my friends Rebecca and Solomon who I  met through couchsurfing when they stayed with me.

My awesome host, Sherri made my time in Orlando unforgettable

My awesome host, Sherri made my time in Orlando unforgettable

It works like this:

  • You fill out a profile on Couchsurfing.org with some personal details and details about where you live.
  • You can mark your profile to indicate if you want to host or not or if you’re available to meet up for a coffee or to show people around your area.
  • You may then receive requests form surfers in your area or…
  • If you’re traveling you can look for and send couch requests to potential hosts in the area where you’re going.

It’s that simple.

So you stay with complete strangers? Are you insane?
Yes and Yes! The website allows hosts and surfers to leave a “review” of their respective experiences on each other’s page. This allows people to check out a potential host or surfer before hand. If someone has received a bad review you can simply opt out of surfing with them.

This system allows the Couchsurfing community (and it is most definitely a community with over 6 milllion active members worldwide and growing) to “police” itself, so to speak. I have been couchsurfing since 2009 and I have never had a bad experience and I only very rarely here of other couchsurfers having bad experiences. The system works.

My most recent Couchsurfing experience
My last 4 days in Orlando were a perfect example of just how good couchsurfing can be. I was hosted by Sherri, just outside Orlando, Florida who initially declined my request because she had an exceptionally busy weekend coming up and didn’t think she could manage a house guest too. However, five minutes after receiving her first message I received another from Sherri telling me that she hadn’t realized I was Irish and that she had to host me (I knew being Irish would pay off some day).

This is how my four days went:

  • Friday afternoon I arrive in Orlando and grab the bus to Sherri’s office
  • We go to her home, I meet her family and housemates, I shower up and we all go out for dinner at a popular local German restaurant and meet more of her friends
  • After dinner we walk around town chatting and I learn all about the area and get to know Sherri’s friends (who are all amazing)
  • The next day we get up early and go to college football game. We go tailgating and I see my first ever game of American Football with the rules explained to me by Sherri and her (insane) friends

    My first ever game of American Football. Go UCF!

    My first ever game of American Football. Go UCF!

  • That evening we scrub up and Sherri brings me along to a pre-party for her son’s “Home Coming” dance. I meet more locals and become the center of attention by being the only Irishman (only foreigner) present
  • Later we go to City Walk at Universal Studios, checking out the bars. I was as giddy as schoolgirl thanks to one of my most visual stimulating experiences in years
  • Sunday morning and afternoon, I get to help Sherri run some errands around town (driving around the neighborhood and picking up kids to drop them off at skate-parks etc.)
  • That afternoon I joined Sherri at “Gliding Stars”, a group of volunteers who take children with autism and other related conditions, ice-skating at the local ice-rink. I’m an awful skater but I had so much fun skating with my kid for the afternoon (and I only fell on my ass once)

    If not for Couchsurfing I wouldn't have had to chance to spend this awesome afternoon with these great kids

    If not for Couchsurfing I wouldn’t have had to chance to spend this awesome afternoon with these great kids

  • That evening I help Sherri and her friends prepare a sushi dinner to celebrate her housemate’s birthday. We had a blast and I created a new sushi roll “The Crazy Irishman”

    And here's the Crazy Irishman (I'm talking about the sushi roll folks)

    And here’s the Crazy Irishman (I’m talking about the sushi roll folks)

  • On Monday Sherri and I have lunch by one of the many beautiful lakes in the area and then do a boat tour where I learn all about the history of the incredible houses in the area and just how likely I am to get eaten by a “gator” if I fall in the water (I advise against swimming)
  • That night we have amazing slow-cooked “pulled pork” sandwiches followed by ice cream from the most famous Ice cream parlor in the city and then we go for a walk in beautiful downtown Orlando

Result…

BEST WEEKEND EVER!
Despite the fact that I had never met Sherri before she immediately made me feel like I was one of her friends and I can’t thank her enough for that. She allowed me to experience a real piece of American culture that I had never experienced before and that I otherwise would never have been able to.

That’s what Couchsurfing is all about. It’s about getting away from the “done to death” tourist traps (although there’s nothing wrong with those, by the way) and experiencing how life actually is in the place your visiting, doing what the locals do for fun and having much more fulfilling experiences.

Instant Community
Another benefit of Couchsurfing is that areas with a large number of couchsurfers (like big cities) tend to have “Couchsurfing Groups” or communities, which are groups of hosts and surfers that get together for social activities.

This can be a great way for people who have just moved to an area and who don’t know many people. You can check the scheduled activities of the couchsurfing groups in your new city, go along to one and meet a lot of like-minded locals really easily. This was really important for me when I first moved to Cali. I knew no one when I first arrived over two years ago but as soon as I started hanging out with the other couchsurfers I had an instant group of friends. It was also a huge plus that the group was very active in dancing (for anyone going to Cali, Thursday night in the club Tin Tin Deo is generally a great night to meet the couchsurfers). Say hi for me.

Where to next?
I’m really looking forward to experiencing some real “southern hospitality” over the next few days here in Savannah and later in Charleston, once I arrive there.

I’ll be couchsurfing all the way, saving money and having a hell of a lot more fun than I would if I was staying in hotels or hostels. If you’re in either of those areas and you’d like to meet up or if you have advice on salsa dancing or anything else to do, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”. I’d really appreciate it 😉

Fiona Uyema

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