Aruba and Cuba: Turning Thirty Three

Wednesday 17 June to Tuesday 14 July 2015

travellingross rating = 9/10

I worked a 16/12 day rotation this time around to provide team coverage at site. Short and rushed, but productive. In need of some me-time, I planned 5 nights in Aruba to relax and do nothing, then head to Cuba with Melissa for my birthday. Both of us wanted to visit Cuba and it seems everyone else wants to go as well since the USA was scheduled to open their Embassy in July after closing it in the early 1960’s following the communist revolution. The thought is that with the Americans recommencing diplomatic relations, Cuba will become Americanised with all the marketing and commercialisation that comes with that. So our breaks aligned for these few days and we jumped on the Cuban bandwagon.

But before that was Aruba. I stayed here for 1 night on my first trip to Suriname in October 2014. Back then, I judged the place fairly harsh for just a 24 hour jet-lagged layover. I found it very crowded with high rise resorts crammed along the best sections of beach and traffic jams in the heart of town. I decided to give Aruba a second chance, mainly because it is one flight from Suriname and very easy. The flight from Suriname was delayed and I arrived 3 hours late. Fortunately my airport pick up was waiting for me – a big black guy named Bully! Bully was standing with my name on a sign and another guy was waiting with him. This other guy saw my name on the sign and asked if I was Latvian. His Mum’s last name is same as mine, which originates in Latvia. Not many make that connection.

I took the recommendation of a colleague to stay at a small beach house complex that was perfect for what I needed. Self contained, private, away from the high rises but close enough to walk to the better parts of the beach. Aruba is very windy, however my open front room was well protected and I could sit on the deck all afternoon without being blown away. A couple of times I went downtown. Called a taxi and cost $20 usd. Getting back, I hailed a taxi and he volunteered a price of $12 usd. Two things either happened: call out fee, or agree to price before getting in which I normally do but get lazy with.

So Aruba was much better second time around. And I discovered things I would like to explore for a third time if that comes my way. In fact, I spent 8 hours here on way back from Cuba waiting for a connecting flight. Was nice to know where to go for that time and feel comfortable…almost not like a tourist for the first time in months and months!

I met Melissa at the Aruba airport and we took two flights on Copa Airlines via Panama City to Havana, Cuba. It was hard to plan in advance for this component of the break. There’s not much internet based tourism sites and the ones that exist are run by the Government and not 100% reliable. We booked 3 nights at one hotel to start, with intent to rent a car and head west along the coast. As it turned out, renting a car is something that must be planned a month or so in advance! So we ended up doing a couple of day trips – one to Vinales in the west to see some fascinating limestone formations called magotes. And another to the Havana beach in the east which was scenic but some sections with litter floating in the water and not many facilities.

So, we got to know Havana very well. Did a lot of walking of the historic centre, a long trek through the cemetery and then to Revolution Square. Hot days. The city does not have much greenery and is the definition of a concrete jungle with many old buildings crumbling like you would imagine the streets of some Syrian city. The day after my birthday was meant to be when we rented a car, but given the lack of car availability, we went in search of a new hotel and that was a mission and a half. Nothing was available. And you can’t just jump on because they do not support Cuban travel. Nor does tripadvisor. Bloody communist history ruining it for the modern day traveller.

Skype is blocked here, so rather than birthday chats I exchanged whatsapp audio messages over breakfast and then Melissa and I headed into town to tour the Revolution Museum and then wander the Malecon oceanfront drive. Back to the hotel for a swim, duty free vintage French (Reims) Champagne (thanks Melissa!), and get ready for our ‘Havana Nights’ tour. It was just a small group tour that included dinner (basic food), visit to the fort for 9pm cannon firing (I am fascinated by forts so this was cool to do), and a very flamboyant salsa singing/dance show at the Nacionale Hotel (2 hours was a bit much but interesting to watch). We then went in search of a nightclub and the taxi driver took us to a local place where I downed a double rum and coke, and that was enough for me. Back to the hotel for a night cap whisky (I’m not a rum fan) and reminisce about 33 great years of life. When my sisters turned 33, I told them it was the same age that Jesus was crucified. No one told me this when I turned 33. So I told it to myself as I passed out at 2am.

Cuban Observations

  • No billboards or street advertising
  • Not a shortage of taxis, constantly calling out at u if you want a cab. Seemingly new yellow cabs for tourists and the old 50s cars targeted at locals who share rides. Agree price before getting in as no meters.
  • Not that isolated like I expected. Western music and drinks and food everywhere.
  • No ATM’s. People lining up at banks to withdraw or change money. USD has a 12% commission whereas other currencies 5%. Need to convert to local tourist currency (CUC) which is 1 for 1 to USD but they take this commission. So it’s a forced money making thing for them. Bring Euros or Canadian dollars to exchange.
  • Customer Service is rude and abrupt.
  • An operator is required to connect your calls in hotels.
  • Hotels advertise as 5 star when they might get 3.5 or 4 in Australia or USA.
  • Internet is expensive, censored (including phone apps), and limited availability usually in hotel lobbies. One place was $7 usd an hour.
  • A Cuban Tourist Card is needed (like a visa) and can be purchased at airport counter before departing for USD $20.
  • Work emails (or any other Gmail accounts) don’t connect. But hotmail does.
  • Most people we met were taking 2+ weeks for Cuba. Factoring in time for things to go wrong, and the slow pace of getting things done.
  • USA credit/debit cards are not accepted.
  • No phone service on Telstra.

Websites and Tips to Make this Trip

Stayed at:

  • Aruba – Beachhouse Aruba for USD $185/night for fully contained ocean view; but garden view without kitchenette is USD $85/night. Plus tax. Only 8 units and secluded.
  • Havana –
    • Quinta Avenida Hotel for Euro 87.40/night twin room. Nice hotel with lovely pool, but far out from the main town for a tourist.
    • Melia Cohiba for USD $208/night for deluxe room. I signed up for their rewards program when booking to get a 20% discount. Expensive but after searching the city for a hotel, this was well worth it.