The Bueller crew continues our Cuba adventures as we drive around the southeastern end of the island to the cities of Santiago and Baracoa. Check the video below!
BOOM. Episode 2 of the Bueller crew's adventures in Cuba just went live.
We've been shaking and moving so much the last few weeks that it's been tough to find the time to sit down and edit all the footage of our adventures. The last few days I've been working on a series of short videos that chronicle our adventures in Cuba. Check our Episode 1 below!
Planning travel to Cuba? I thought I’d share a few crucial tips that we picked up before and during our adventure to this culturally rich island. Here's what I'll cover:
- Currency (CUC vs Pesos Nationales)
- Lodging (casa particulares)
- Cigars and rum
- Giving back
As a visitor to Cuba, one of the first things you will have to tackle is converting your money to the local peso and knowing how far your money will go. Unlike most countries, Cuba has two separate currencies and it’s important to know how much they are worth relative to each other and how much you should keep handy. Credit cards are sometimes to rarely accepted so “cash is king” here in Cuba.
The primary currency that visitors use in Cuba are called Convertible Pesos which are more commonly referred to as CUC (pronounced kuuk). At the time of this writing they are worth just barely more than a US dollar with 1 CUC being worth 0.97 USD. NOTE: if you have US dollars to exchange then we heard that there might be an additional 10% charge to convert your money so the effective exchange rate is actually 1 CUC to 0.87 USD). CUC is accepted almost everywhere throughout Cuba and in many places this is the only currency they accept. A personal note from the above pictured 5 CUC bill is that we should follow their lead and hold all important meetings in hammocks.
The other currency that price conscious tourists should be aware of is Pesos Nationales. This is the older, local currency which has an exchange rate of 25 Pesos Nationales for one CUC. Nationales are typically accepted at small local shops, farmers markets, and other local vendors. It’s not uncommon to pay 3 pesos for a coffee, 10 for a small pizza, and 18 for a beer. All that would total up to roughly 1.3 CUC which is not too shabby for a full meal with with drinks.
Ask anyone who has visited Cuba what their largest cost was and you will almost certainly get the same response: Transportation. Most goods and services are relatively cheap here but if you want the freedom to explore the island in your own vehicle, you’re going to have to pay. The island is over 700 miles long which makes it over 40 miles wider than Texas. We personally ended up renting a car but in retrospect we would have done it differently. Here are your options sorted by increasing cost:
If you have more time than money on your hands, you speak a little Spanish, and you want to get to know the local culture then this is really the best way to see the country. Hitchhiking is not only accepted in Cuba, it is highly encouraged. As an example of the efficiency of socialism, we heard rumor that government vehicles were actually required to pick up hitchhikers if they had empty seats. With three of us in our rental car, we would often pick up one or two hitchhikers along our route and they were always very courteous and were often especially helpful if we were lost. Note that if you’re the hitchhiker rather than the driver then be ready to offer a small tip of 1CUC (or ~25 Pesos Nationales) even though many may decline the offer.
For getting between major cities, there are a number of both local and tour buses that are quite reasonably priced. Although we didn’t personally use the bus system, we met a number of other travelers who used them regularly. Costs vary but we heard from one couple that they paid around 15 CUC for a 7 hour bus ride from Holguin to Baracoa and others mentioned a bus from Holguin to Havana taking 16 hours costing around 65 CUC. Pro tip: bring a jacket as they apparently keep the AC up so high that you might find a new travel companion for warmth if you don’t have one already.
If you want a little more freedom to explore then another way to get around is to hire a taxi. These range from horse drawn carriages (~20 pesos a mile) to restored American classic cars (~40 pesos a mile). You can hire them either for a single ride or even for the whole day. Getting a driver for the whole day ran around 40 CUC according to some fellow travelers we met along the way.
If you have more money than time then a rental car can help you check out not only the major cities but also the unexplored mountains and smaller towns. We rented a car in Guadalavaca which was 90 CUC a day (~100 US). Prices are likely higher there because it is primarily a tourist town and we heard later that we could have rented in Holguin for close to 65 CUC/day. Gas is about 1.30 CUC/liter which is roughly $4.00 a gallon. Note that it’s expected that you pay someone in each town 2 CUC/night to watch the car for you aka a “watchyman”. We never felt that we were at risk but we felt it was a small price to pay for the peace of mind. All in all a rental car was by far our largest expense and in retrospect I'd recommend sticking to busses, taxis, and hired cars.
Lodging (aka Casa Particulares)
Although typical backpacking hostels don’t exist in Cuba, it was very easy to find affordable rooms in every city we visited. The primary form of lodging for travelers in Cuba besides a typical hotel is what is called a “casa particular”. These are individuals or families that have one or many spare bedrooms that they rent out to visitors. Since your host is a local Cuban, travelers are provided with a unique opportunity to engage with natives and gain a better understanding of their country. The owners of the casa particulares were more like family than business owners and gave us numerous recommendations on how to properly explore and experience their city.
Blue Anchor vs Red Anchor
When searching for a casa particular in Cuba, you’ll quickly notice that they are everywhere in the larger cities. It's important to note, however, that not all of them are open to foreigners. Because of the wealth gap between locals and tourists, the republic has designated specific casa particulares where foreigners are allowed to stay and separate locations for locals. Any building or door that has a blue upside-down anchor symbol indicates that they provide accommodations for tourists while a red upside-down anchor indicates that they’re only for locals. Once you arrive in a particular city (har har) you can often stop at the first inviting blue anchor'ed building and ask if they have available rooms. If they are full then they will often either call a nearby casa or walk you there personally.
The cost for every casa particular we stayed in during our 10 days was 30 CUC per night. Although this may sound expensive to some traveling on backpacker budgets, it’s important to note that this was being split three ways as all of our rooms had one queen and one twin bed. We also never reserved our spots ahead of time and were often doing short stays of only one, two or three nights at an address. We were told by both owners and by travelers that you could get prices down to 15 or 20 CUC if you booked ahead, booked more days, or even just had fewer people. We had less bargaining power as were looking exclusively for spots that had two beds in a room so we could fit all three of us.
Every casa particular that we encountered contained not only welcoming hosts but also tasty coffee and food for any meal of the day as long as you provided them with enough heads up. This does cost extra (most were 3 CUC) which is certainly more expensive than street food but you can’t beat the convenience and quality of a homemade meal with some Cuban coffee to start the day. Dinner where we stayed was 7 CUC and these were always incredible meals that often included the local fish, cheese, milk or other specialty of the town or region. I highly recommend eating at least one meal in your casa as we were never disappointed.
Misc Tips about Casa Particulares
- Bring your passport – The casa particulares in Cuba are strictly regulated by the government and they are required to copy down your passport number into a log book when you check in. Note that photos or copies of passports are not sufficient as they must see the original. We initially left ours on the boat but had to run back and pick them up.
- Casa particulares website – Internet is very hard to come by in all of Cuba but if you book ahead or happen to track down an internet café on the island then there is a site called casaparticular.org which has most of the casa particulares in Cuba listed with prices and reviews.
Cost of Goods and Services
Cigars and Rum
To the outside world, Cuba is most famous for the quality of their cigars, followed closely by their passion for rum. Most visitors will waste little time tracking down both of these tasty treats when in the country. For cigars, the sale of these prized smokables are heavily regulated both by price and by location. This means that you can only buy guaranteed Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo and Juliet or other major cigars from approved shops. I use the word "guaranteed" because once inside the country you will find that every street vendor, tour guide and old woman has a "friend who works in the factory" and that they can get you them for cheap.
Cheap here meant about 25 CUC for a box of 24 large Cohibas which was mighty tempting given that the real Cohibas 6 CUC per cigar in the approved stores. Although the street cigars are still technically "Cuban" cigars, they likely use lower quality tobacco and they are almost certainly machine made instead of being hand selected and rolled like those sold from approved shops.
How far will your Pesos and CUC get you? Here are a few prices we noted down for those who are working on a budget.
- 1 PN for 2 scoops of ice cream
- 10 PN for Ham & cheese sandwich
- 8 PN for Chorizo & cheese sandwich
- 20 PN for 3 pork sliders
- 10-15 CUC for a nice meal at a sit-down restaurant
- 3 CUC for breakfast at a casa particular
- 7 CUC for dinner at a casa particular
- 1 PN for coffee at a local stand
- 18 PN for Mayabee (beer was same price at bars and markets..)
- 22 PN for bucanero
- 1 CUC for Cristal
- 3 CUC for any mixed drinks such as Cuba libres or Mojitos
- 5 CUC for a bottle of Havana Club Blanco
- 8 CUC for a bottle of Havana Club 7 ano
- 57 CUC - Guided 2 day hike to the highest point on the island, Pico Turquino, with meals included
- 4.50 CUC per hour for internet
It’s no secret that the US embargo on Cuba has had a significant effect on the country. If you or others are looking for a way to give back to the friendly locals that they meet during your visit, there are a number of goods that you either have lying around the house or are easily acquired that you could bring along. We were either directly asked for these items or we had other sailors/travelers who had these requested by locals:
- Spare clothes – Clothes are very expensive for locals in Cuba. For example, shirts ran at least 10 CUC in every city we visited while the average monthly salary for most citizens was around 15 CUC per month and thus it’s not surprising that we were asked numerous times for the clothes off our backs. We met a group of Canadians who visit Cuba every year and they packed every inch of extra luggage space with old clothes from themselves, friends, and family members to give to locals when they arrived.
- USB keys, DVDs/CDs, and other remote storage – Cable television and movies are prohibitively expensive for many Cubans and thus we met a number of locals who asked if we had any spare USB keys that they could use for grabbing the latest shows and movies. In the more remote towns, the infrastructure for television doesn’t exist and so one person brings a hard drive loaded with content and all the families come and download them and bring them home.
- Shampoo – Basic goods such as shampoo are also very expensive here. A simple gesture of kindness is to bring more shampoo than you need to your casa particular and leave it when you check out.
- Old technology – What may seem outdated to us will often still be quite useful here. Bring any old cellphones, cameras, or computers that still function and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you find them a home.
- Old toys – From talking to other visitors and the owners of our casa particulares it sounds like these are relatively expensive compared to the states. If you have any old toys then they would gladly take them and find them a good home.
After tracking down a rental car from the neighboring tourist town of Guadalavaca for a fairly outrageous 90 CUC per day (aka 100 USD), Travis, Logan and I were ready to put boat life on hold and begin exploring the interior of this lush island. We checked Bueller’s cleat knots holding her safely to our marina in Puerto de Vita, packed our bags, and set off in our 2008 Peugeot as they apparently don’t stock as 1950 Chevys as I had hoped.
Our first stop on the route was the city of Holguin which is a short hour drive southwest. The first thing you notice when driving through the mountainous landscape was that palm trees here seem to have given up their typical seaside homes and have instead taken residence on even the highest mountains. “Go home palm trees, you’re drunk” was quoted often by our wayward travelers.
We chose Holguin as our first destination as it is the capital of the province and it has both a great music scene and nightlife. After asking a number of locals where to find our lodging (a lack of google maps left us with an incomplete paper map to guide our way) we eventually found a casa particular for the evening and set out to explore the town. As it turned out, there was a huge outdoor festival and thus there were hundreds of people out and about on a main thoroughfare. Over a mile long, the street was filled with multitudes of small pop-up restaurants and food stands serving everything from churros (fried bread with fruit filling) to traditional Cuban fare with rice, beans, and perfectly spiced chicken or pork. If there was any question about the freshness of the meat, about every block or so there was a huge pig being slowly hand turned over a fiery spit.
Up until now, Cuba appeared to be very expensive place to travel. As our stomachs began to grumble and we did the currency conversion in our heads we realized that food and drink here was verrry affordable. With 24 pesos being the equivalent of a dollar, we could buy beers for 20 pesos, a personal pizza for 10, hot dogs for 7, or a sit down meal for 60 to 100 depending on the fare. We would be eating and drinking well for the next ten days, that much was clear.
Rather than following us step-by-step like some creepy guy on the street, I’m going to jump to a few quick highlights of our time in Holguin and the nearby town of Bayamo:
- Encounter with a hitchhiker and la Policia – Hitchhiking is not only allowed in Cuba, it is largely expected as you’ll get all sorts of dirty looks if you drive by a group of people when you obviously have empty seats. In an effort to connect with locals (and often to get help with directions), we picked up a number of hitchhikers throughout our trip. After picking up our first hitchhiker just outside of Holguin, however, we had a bit of a snafu with the local police. At one of the many traffic inspection stations we were waved over by the policia and asked for our documents. He quickly asked the lady hitchhiker to get out of our car and they proceeded to have a loud argument in Spanish. We picked up only pieces of it but we definitely heard (roughly translated) “…you kill one cow, okay, two cows okay, three cows okay, but four cows is not okay”. He then told us to leave but not before a bicyclist rode up and wrongly accused us of trying to run him off the road. Luckily he ignored the man and told us to leave. Now we initially took the encounter to mean that we were not allowed to pick up hitchhikers as tourists but after describing what happened to a few other locals as we deduced that she was likely a “lady of the night” as they say and thus the cop was telling her in this quite hilarious way that she was no longer allowed to hitchhike with male tourists.
- Climbed the stairs that overlooked the city – On our second day in the city, Logan, Trav and I did some exploring of the neighborhood and found ourselves at the base of a huge set of stairs that led to a historic fort that overlooks the town . I would be lying if I said we didn’t immediately starting singing eye of the tiger and began racing to the top.
- D.A.N.C.E. – After making a few friends at a bar near one of the main squares in Holguin, we set out to find a place where we could make fools of ourselves on a dance floor. We went to a number of places around the city including one that had a great live band playing bachata. It was here that we realized how much Buena Vista Social Club gets played throughout the country. Check out some of their music if you haven’t already: LINK
- Frisbee in the square – After making our way to the nearby town of Bayamo, Logan and I set out with our LED Frisbee to make some friends. After passing a lively game of volleyball being played with a net stretched across the road, we found the main square of this small town that had a huge open marble plaza. The color changing Frisbee blew the minds of some of local kids and we hung out with them and a few of the locals until late.
By Jackie Leavitt
(Check out her original post and more of her writing at http://jackie-leavitt.com/?p=240)
Logan swaggered from the crashing waves toward our small group standing on the beach edge of one of the Seven Brother islands off the Monte Cristi coast in the Dominican Republic. He clutched in one hand a long, yellow spear with three pointy prongs at the top, one of which with a bright blue-and-purple Caribbean lobster perfectly skewered from chest to tail. He held it aloft as he came closer, his victory prize from battling and vanquishing the ocean.
After the sun sank behind the horizon, we piled into our inflatable dinghy and motored slowly back to our 38-foot Beneteau sailboat, Bueller. The sky was still glowing gold and rose with inky purple clouds when we got to the back swimming ladder. As Travis boarded the boat, he twisted the sea creature in opposite directions until it separated in half. I mentally gasped in horror. As a born and (mostly) raised New Englander, I can tell you with certainty: That is not how you handle your lobster. Everyone (or so I thought) knows you boil that baby whole before dismemberment.
“That’s where all the meat is, because these lobsters don’t have claws,” Lars casually explains to my questioning. I hold back from informing him how incorrect he is — an extra half of the meat is in the front side. But the deed is done, and the head was already sinking down to the ocean bottom.
Unfortunately, we never even got to eat that poor lobster tail that night, and it withered away in our lukewarm fridge until we had to toss it back into the water, completing the cycle of ocean life and death. Instead, a couple days later, we bought two lobsters from a local fisherman for 250 pesos a pound: the first about half the size as the other. And when the boys on board began discussing cooking techniques, soon I convinced them to let me steam both lobsters whole in a pot with the promise to show them how to truly dismember the prickly beasts to get every last bit of meat, from tail to spiny legs to head.
You see, any true New Englander would scoff at the concept that the meat is only in the tail. That’s just where the easy stuff is. The more shell cracking, juice splattering and joint splintering, the greater the reward in both flesh and pride. Most coastal folk, especially from Maine or Cape Cod, would agree that it would be sacrilege to only eat a tail and claws. There have been several occasions where, after I finished my tail, claws, head and larger lobster leg knuckles — thinking to myself that it was a job well-done — my dad would survey my plate pooling in greenish juice and ask skeptically, “You’re done?”, before swiftly stealing my dish away to pick at the ribs and remaining leg knuckles. He might only get whispers of flavor and tissue, but it was the moral that mattered.
So here I am in Monte Cristi, with the two lobsters turned brownish-red from steaming, with my only towel tied around my neck, pliers and my Leatherman to my side like surgeon tools, and massive, black fishing gloves on my hands to protect them from the creatures’ spiny thorns that prick into my palms and fingers. Lars, Logan and Travis look on as I systematically and methodically move through the steps, taught to me by my dad, likely learned from his dad and his dad before him.
Hold the steamed lobster with both hands. Twist until it separates into tail and body. Set aside the head on a plate to catch the seeping salt water and green gut sludge (that some people eat — I don’t). Twist off the tail’s round fins, creating a hole at the shell’s smaller end. Push the meat with your thumb until it pops out of the shell in one gigantic and glorious piece. Devein. Move on to the body. Break off the legs at the body joints. Separate the knuckle joints on each leg. Use the pliers to crush each leg section to get the thin string of meat beneath. Use pliers to crack apart the head. Pluck the hunk of meat near the antennas …and so forth.
After an hour, I piled on a plate all the pillaged lobster meat, separating the white tails from the rest of the wispy red meat to prove my long, drawn-out point: Another tail’s worth of lobster resulted from the satisfying crunching of less-valued body parts. I pulled off my towel bib and washed my hands with lemon water to remove the lingering seafood smell. The job was done.
But I still felt a drop of dissatisfaction as I looked at the pile of shells, including a few of the tiniest knuckles left uncracked. I know deep down that my dad would have done better. But we all need to aspire to something greater, don’t we?
We're about to go on a little time hop, video recapping the first leg of Bueller's journey in the Bahamas. Rob Andrews here, I just finished editing the amazing footage we got through the first 2 weeks of Bueller's journey. To say I miss being on the boat with captains Lars and Travis and my sail-mates Peter and Rishee is an understatement. It was one of the most incredible journeys of my life, and I am dying to join back up again later this year if it works out. For now check out this video which attempts to portray what life on Bueller is like. Sailing in all kinds of conditions, beautiful scenery, fresh fish, failed backflips (that was me!) and more. I could have made this video twice as long easily, lots of great stuff didn't make the cut. Lars, Travis...you guys are living the dream. Thank you for letting me be a temporary part of it.
…aaand we’re back! The last three weeks we’ve had a bit of culture shock as the Bueller crew departed Georgetown, Exumas and sailed straight south to the forbidden land of Cuba. With Obama’s announcement in December last year that we made significant improvements in relations between the US and Cuba (LINK), we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit this beautiful country before making our way further east towards the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands. We’re a little behind on posts as there was little to no internet there so let the storytelling begin.
Sailing to Cuba from Georgetown, Exumas
Although we ended up spending two more weeks in Georgetown than we planned because of our heat exchanger fiasco, we made good use of this time and by knocking out other boat projects while also gathering recommendations from fellow sailors on future destinations such as Cuba. With Cuba being only 150 miles south of Georgetown, there were a number of cruisers who had not only been here recently but who sail down every year. They had plenty of useful nuggets to share that we’ll pass along so expect a future blog post with these as well as a few tips of our own added to the mix.
The closest Cuban Port of Entry to us in Georgetown was Puerto de Vita which is a very small town just 60 miles south of Hog Cay in the Ragged Islands, Bahamas. Even though it was crazy calm and we had to motor much of the way, it felt crazy good to be using the boat for its true purpose rather than just a floating motorhome. Our three day trip down to Hog was fairly uneventful minus a very shallow cut where we had to wait for a daylight high tide as the charts showed the max depth as 4.5ft which means that we should juuust be able to squeeze through with the tide. While waiting for the moon to approve our passage, we did a little spearfishing and snagged a lobster, two conch, and a large crab. The conchs and lobster made for a tasty meal but we felt bad about the crab and our matey Logan gifted him back to the sea as seen below
After a brief stop in Buena Vista Cay to create a very important treasure map, we sailed hard for Cuba and the morning of Thursday Feb 25th we finally spotted hazy green mountains just on our horizon. We had arrived!
Checking in at Puerto de Vita
Unlike cruising in the Bahamas, many other countries such as Cuba, the DR, and others are more restrictive and require you to check in and check out with the local customs authorities at each port. They typically don’t charge you extra money for each port you visit within their country but it does cost you extra time, paperwork, and allows for less flexibility (aka no “hey what’s that? let’s go there!”). Thus a combination of this extra hassle and the fact that the prevailing winds here were blowing strong out of the East made us decide to leave our trusty steed Bueller at a marina and explore the island (gasp!) by land.
After giving three separate welcome parties of officials a lovely tour of our vessel (complete with snacks and refreshments), we were finally given permission to set foot on Cuban soil and begin our adventure. In order to make sure we made it to the DR in time to pick up our incoming crew, we decided that we had two weeks to explore before we needed to start moseying. While we initially wanted to check out Havana on this visit, a quick glance at a map made us realize how enormous Cuba really is and we decided to pass on this 400+ mile trek each way. Armed with the advice of some sailors, a few locals, and some meager internets, we instead decided to focus our travels on the smaller cities of Holguin, Bayamo, Santiago, and Baracoa on the southeast end of the island over 10 days.
While figuring out our transportation situation we ended up hiring a local taxi driver named Omar who drove us to the neighboring town called Santa Lucia so we could get some of the local currencies (yes they have two) and swing by the Saturday farmers market to get some fresh produce to munch on while we schemed our next step.
Check out the photos of the action below and look for another post soon with more of our antics:
As we pulled into Georgetown, a few sailors made mention to Georgetown as Hotel California, or a tar pit anchorage. Sailors come for a week or two and then just can't bring themselves to leave the beautiful Elizabeth Harbor and the sailing community that makes thier home there. In February and March, the Elizabeth Bay hosts around 350 cruisers (check out the panorama below, or Lars' s paramotoring video to get a sense what that looks like). Most come for the sailing regatta and related activities at the end of February, although many spend almost the entire winter there enjoying the sailing community
When we first arrived in Georgetown, we picked up this guy:
Part cook extraordinaire, part comedian, part yoga enthusiast, part dancer,Mr. Logan Herr (ahhhhhh....crowd goes wild, his intro song of Dance Yourself Clean starts as he enters the stadium). He brought with him a 50lb duffle bag of parts, US food items, and numerous miscellaneous items we needed on the boat; unfortunately, that damn heat exchanger that was supposed to arrive at his house before he left never made it. So our one week stay, turned into two weeks waiting for the heat exchanger, then three weeks waiting for a few storms to pass and a decent weather window to head down to Cuba.
We made good use of our time in Georgetown, both socially as well as knocking off boat projects. The boat project list included: installation of new saloon table legs on our kitchen table to make it easier to convert to an extra bed, removal of the teak stain in the cockpit teak in preparation for re-staining, restitching of our bimini, cleaning/fixing the forward head, replacement of our bent anchor shaft, replacement of a hatch hinge, fixing a broken light switch, and finally replacement of the heat exchanger, followed by a descalar flush and refilling with coolant. There are probably more items I'm forgetting, something new is always breaking on boats :).
Socially, we met a lot of great people in Georgetown: sailors, wayward travelers, and local Bahamians. We ventured out to Georgetown nightlife, singing karaoke, dancing our socks off (I haven't wore socks since I've been on the boat so not sure if this expression still works), and stumbling into a junkanoo, which is essentially a mini Bahamian Carnival, hosted at a local bar. A few of the children took it upon themselves to teach us how to dance after seeing our attempt at joining in the junkanoo. We can't say it helped but they sure had a good laugh trying to teach us. We also joined some fellow sailors in a Triple B: bonfire, beach, and beers. We also participated in some of the cruiser activities including some info sessions on Cuba and batteries. Despite all these activities, we still squeezed in some solid beach time and typical goofing around.
After three weeks in Georgetown, we where itching on getting down to the ragged islands and to Cuba. When a good weather window hit, we finally pulled our anchor out of the tar, and sailed (motored actually as there was now little wind) on out of Georgetown.
The current crew aboard Bueller (aka Travis, Logan, and myself) have been enjoying our time here in Georgetown, Exumas but it's time to make moves to new waters. We've been here for almost three weeks and we've met a number of amazing locals, fellow sailors (shout outs to Gypsy Spirit, Uno, Von Dutch and Island Hopper!) but the sea is calling our names. We'll be pushing off later today for the Ragged Islands with our sights set on Puerta de Vita, Cuba.
Before we pushed off I first wanted to share a video I've been working on that highlights the our sail from Nassau down to Georgetown. Enjoy!