Rick Steves' Travel Blog

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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A highlight of any trip to Cuba is a horse ride in Viñales, which includes breathtaking scenery, visits to a tobacco farm and a coffee plantation, and lots of fun in the saddle.

Valley

The ride was fun, but by the end of the day, I felt like General Duzore Balls.

Tobacco barn

Photo: The Travelphile

When we dropped by a tobacco farm, a local farmer gave us a fragrant education in the fine art of growing the world’s best tobacco in order to make the ultimate cigars.

Tobacco farmer

I keep saying, “No, we’re not going to make a TV show here.” But I have to admit, watching the farmer artfully roll a perfect cigar from raw leaves, all I could think was, “I’d love to share this amazing spectacle with our public television viewers.”

Tourists

Photo: The Travelphile

Our horse ride tour included tourists from Germany, Canada, and Venezuela (that’s where this couple was from). While for Americans, Cuba has long been mysterious and “the forbidden island,” for Europeans, Canadians, and Latin Americans, it’s a leading Caribbean destination.

 

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Waking up in the fresh and distant-feeling Viñales Valley, we climbed to our rooftop, where our hosts served up a fine breakfast as the roosters crowed and the sun rose.

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When visiting Cuba, it seems rich world tourists all do the same three things: tour the capital city of Havana; visit the charming colonial town of Trinidad; and commune with nature in the beautiful valley of Viñales. Trinidad and Viñales are each about a three-hour drive from Havana — one to the west and the other one east.

Inside bus

While we could have more efficiently hired a taxi to drive us to Viñales, we wanted to experience the local bus. The bus ride was comfortable, but getting a ticket and dealing with the bus station would have been frustrating without the help of our local guide.

Viñales

A ritual for tourists in Viñales is to taxi to a hotel on the ridge and “watch the sun go down.” But rather than watching the sun disappear, we actually watched the valley to the east as the light got all warm and beautiful. Knowing we’d be riding through this valley — so famed for its tobacco — the next day on horseback as we sipped our Cuba Libres was a nice way to cap the day.

Hotel owners

Viñales is quite touristy. It has two main business streets and countless little eateries and places renting out rooms. With the arrival of each bus from Havana, locals who rent rooms gather to meet tourists with reservations…or to snare those without to fill empty rooms.

BnB

Our B&B in Viñales was a thriving little business for our industrious host family. The rooms were comfy, and the roosters were alarm clocks.

Frog in bowl

Photo: The Travelphile

In Viñales, it seemed the locals were already expert at running their small businesses. Our B&B hosts served memorable breakfasts and dinners on their rooftop. During one dinner, before Trish could dig into her soup, a little frog leaped into her bowl.

Shopping street

The tourist industry is pretty humble in Cuba. One street in Viñales is closed to traffic and filled with tiny stalls and tables filled with handmade souvenirs. For $1 to $4 each, you could have your pick of Cuban baseballs, maracas, finely carved Christmas ornaments, inlaid boxes, and kitschy Revolution stuff and Che Guevara knickknacks.

Andy Steves getting a haircut

My son Andy loves to get a haircut in distant lands. Here, he grabbed a seat in the outdoor barber shop and said “Cuba style, please.” (Andy left us a bit early to fly directly to Europe for this semester’s study abroad tour season. His company, Weekend Student Adventures, offers great three-day weekends for American students in Europe.)

Viñales

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From time to time we share a random video clip to fuel your travel dreams. Join us today as we visit Berlin and reflect on the 18th century reign of Frederick the Great. Under the Prussian Emperor, Berlin became both a military metropolis and a land of high culture.

Watch my complete TV episode about Berlin online for free on our website.

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For far less than what you’d pay for a fancy hotel room in the center of town, you can rent a fine home. We went top-end — paying around $150 per night for the four of us in three rooms with breakfast via Airbnb. Here’s a little tour of the place we called home in Havana.

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The sudden spike in tourism in an economy with nowhere near enough infrastructure — plus the embargo that makes it complicated to make payments from the USA or by credit card — means that booking a room ahead is frustrating. Hotels can be booked up long in advance, with the demand resulting in prices that are jacked way up. The good travelers I met relied entirely on rooms in private homes, or casas particulares. The Cuban government now allows normal citizens to rent rooms to foreigners, including Americans. Airbnb and Cuban equivalents make this pretty easy. But making reliable reservations and payments in advance can be a challenge unless you’re working with an agency that is not Cuban (like Airbnb — which, in Cuba, is only available to Americans — or Canada-based Point2Cuba).

Miramar neighborhood

We stayed in a fine home in the elegant Miramar neighborhood, a 15-minute taxi ride from the old center. The entire rooftop was an inviting patio with fine views of the neighborhood.

Breakfast room

Photo: The Travelphile

The inside of our casa particular was an entire floor with three bedrooms. A maid served us breakfast each morning. Just like cars are vintage 1950s, living rooms seemed to have changed little in half a century.

Rick Steves, family, and owners

As anywhere, a big part of the joy of staying at B&Bs (along with saving money and having a more comfortable and spacious home on the road rather than a tight little hotel room) is the opportunity to get to know the family that also lives there. We stayed in four different B&Bs in two weeks, and each family was a delight.

BnB at night

In our Havana B&B, we had no keys as there was a 24/7 doorman. I don’t know quite how this fits into the socialist ethic, but I must admit that having our friendly doorman greet us at all hours when we came and went was comforting.

 

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Cuban food? Imagine if the USSR were in the tropics. It’s tasty — if you like pork. Pork is king. Beef, chicken, rice, and beans are also available. Even though the island is surrounded by the Caribbean, seafood is nothing to seek out. Rum drinks are cheap and plentiful, but don’t expect much in the way of fruits and vegetables. A trip to the supermarket shows long shelves in the meat department empty except for a handful of uniform sausages at one end.

Restaurant menus that list far more than what’s actually available reflect a supply challenge caused by a command economy resisting the laws of supply and demand. Many Cubans suffer from hypertension and diabetes, which local doctors attribute to too much fat — and, locals (who generally seem comfortable complaining about the system, if not about Fidel) add, “the stress of dealing with a frustrating bureaucracy.” Tourists carefully avoid local water. Bottled water is cheap and everywhere.

Restaurant

While the government is slowly opening up opportunities for private and creative restaurants catering to people with enough money to be foodies, they have a long way to go. Privately run paladares promise to raise Cuban cuisine above government-run canteens. But with the ongoing embargo, ingredients are limited, and even the finest chef would be hard-pressed to dazzle any eater. Dining in fine restaurants left me feeling well-fed…but not pampered.

Nice restaurant

I found the fancy tourist restaurants served food no better than places that were more basic (but still tourist-friendly). The worst two meals of the trip were our two most expensive and most touristy.

Sandwich

Photo: The Travelphile

While in Cuba, a very simple, yet appetizing lunch was a success. Toasted ham and cheese on good bread…gracias.

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The ongoing American embargo has a crippling impact on the Cuban economy. As is the case with most embargos, rather than bring about the overthrow of the government we don’t like, it just bolsters that government’s case that the USA is evil and that defiance is a matter of national sovereignty — deserving whatever tactics are available. (And like most embargoes, it’s more damaging to the daily lives of people than to the government.)

For now, because of our embargo, US credit cards don’t work. So — for the time being — for the American traveler, it’s cash only. (Europeans and Canadians are free to use local ATMs — just not Yankees.) Estimate the cash you’ll need, and then bring more — as there are plenty of temptations, surprise expenses, and locals who know what Americans can really afford. This was my major stress point for this vacation, as I underestimated how much cash I’d need and had to scramble to cover expenses to the end. To keep a little extra hard cash, I ended up paying my guide after getting home via Western Union. (Guides are in the tourist economy and charge far more than the local standards. I paid $100 a day — still a great value.)

money change chart

Changing money is easy, as government-sanctioned exchange offices are plentiful and rates are strictly regulated. US dollars are nicked for about a 10 percent surcharge, so you’ll save a little money if you bring in Canadian dollars or euros. But I had no problem with the 10 percent loss, as I figured it would help the local economy — as if I were paying a little extra in Cuban taxes. (In fact, Americans who feel personally responsible for the deprivation aggravated by the US embargo can take solace in paying extra expenses — like being nicked at the bank or otherwise overcharged or scammed — which happens a lot.)

Cuban pesos

Locals use national currency (Cuban pesos, CUP), and things are extremely cheap by rich world standards. But American tourists are not generally permitted to get or use CUP, so anything a typical tourist might want is sold in Cuban convertible pesos (a.k.a. CUC, pronounced “cuke,” worth about $1) — and when paying in CUC, things get pricey quick. While there are much cheaper alternatives, rich world tourists who insist on rich world standards generally pay rich world prices: 200 CUC for a hotel room, 10 CUC for a taxi ride, 20 CUC for a dinner. At a bus stop, a truck with a canopy over long, wooden benches unloads people paying nickels for the ride next to a comfortable (if well-worn) modern bus loading up those paying dollars for the same ride. A local worker earns about $30 a month (plus the basics the government provides to all citizens, such as health care, education, and subsidized utilities, housing, and some food). But knowing that an American can earn as much in an hour as they do in a month makes it appealing for the Cuban on the street to charge foreigners heavily inflated prices.

Peso bills

Photo: The Travelphile

Cuban paper money celebrates heroes and great events of their Revolution.

Cuban menu

This little streetside eatery caters to locals and has a menu in the local pesos — 24 to a dollar. A tourist would generally not eat here.

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Any rich tourist in Havana seems to spend an evening at the Tropicana, where — for about $100 (a small fortune in local terms) — you’ll enjoy the wildest cabaret show in the Caribbean. With a live orchestra, old-fashioned crooners, acrobats, contortionists, and a razzle-dazzle troupe of outlandishly clad dancers with peacock tails, whirling tassels, and towering hats of fruit and feathers — and a bottle of good rum and local cola at each table — it’s a fun evening.

Tropicana show Tropicana dancers Tropicana dancers

 

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When traveling in Central America, I like to have the help of guides from Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE), which offers what I call “Reality Tours.” These tours connect travelers with locals in government and non-governmental organizations to sort out confusing issues of the day by hearing both narratives of difficult issues. I’ve been on four CGEE tours — and hired CGEE guides for private tours on two other trips — and it always enriches the experience hugely. On this trip, we had visits set up by CGEE’s Havana partner, the Martin Luther King Center, and we enjoyed the services of guide Reinier Menéndez. Reinier took us to Afro-Cuban Santeria priests, to communal organic farms, and to a local medical clinic to talk to — and learn directly from — the locals.

Rick Steves and Reinier Menendez

Simply traveling through a country like Cuba for a week comes with a constant barrage of thought-provoking experiences. The American capitalist notices lots of people just sitting around staring at traffic (but perhaps it’s no greater than the percentage of Americans just sitting around staring at daytime TV). While religion is entirely legal in Cuba, locals in this secular state are thankful that the Church doesn’t have the political clout it enjoys in other Latin American societies. To the average Cuban, the Church means the Roman Catholic Church. They view the Church as being a barrier standing in the way of gay rights and the pro-choice movement. And they think of it as an institution historically friendly to the oppressive government, providing that notorious-in-communist-ideology “opiate of the masses” encouragement not to feel the pain of structural poverty.

Group on farm

As a confirmed believer in capitalism (if not the “savage capitalism” that Pope Francis warned against during his recent visit to Cuba), I am struck by the Cuban “work ethic.”  Pay is low…and so is productivity. As locals like to say, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” Any foreman knows that if a tree needs trimming on the farm, an incentive of 200 pesos will get no reaction. But a promise that workers can go home early when the job is done works powerfully, as people just want to get back to their families and enjoy a nap. We were told that, for Cubans, the priorities are: #1 party; #2 rest; and then, only if you have energy, #3 work. But things are changing. Older Cubans I met seemed to strive for social goals over personal goals, while younger ones are gaining an appetite for Western materialism and consumption. Everyone sees the siren of capitalism fast approaching — and threatening the laid-back Cuban soul.

Cuban doctor

Meeting with a community doctor, we learned of the passion to have good health care available to all and the trend toward teaching wellness and prevention to the general populace. Chatting with this doctor, who happily took home a paycheck of $50 a month, we learned that Cuba is proud of its ability to export doctors and help other poor countries. Today there are 50,000 Cuban doctors working outside of Cuba.

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