Cuba’s heart beats to the rhythm of Salsa

Cuba and music.  The two go together like rum and coke.  We knew we would love the music and dancing vibe… but we didn’t realise quite how much.

I have danced for about 15 years, never specifically salsa, but thanks to my last dance partner Rob I can get by with a good lead.  Dean had decided that if ever there was a time to learn, then Cuba would be it.  So off we went with great expectations and sometimes these can be a bad thing.  However in Cuba you can expect the world with the dancing and music scene, and you most certainly will not be disappointed.

The local professionals in Santa Clara. Oh and check out the dude in red!

The local professionals in Santa Clara. Oh and check out the dude in red!

Our first introduction came during a late afternoon stroll around Santa Clara . We stumbled across a band playing in the main plaza.  The word stumble is probably a bit inaccurate really…… the band were creating quite a spectacle, which the salsa loving locals fully embraced and the square broke out into dance (Imagine a Cuban flash mob).  Later that night the party shifted to the bandstand where a huge ensemble provided the entertainment. I spent all evening watching feet, working out how to make my steps look as good as those of the locals’.

We quickly learned this was just the beginning. Every city had its focal points, but sometimes the better music was just the impromptu affairs. In Trinidad there was a lovely little square where four men sat playing with a guitar, a set of drums and random other percussion. In Holguin the weekly Saturday street party literally got us dancing in the streets.

The beautiful musical city of Trinidad

The beautiful musical city of Trinidad

For me, the real musical highlight was Trinidad – a city that prides itself on the music scene.  On a very hot and humid day we turned a corner to hear graceful tunes playing from Casa De Trova – a famed music hall.  We looked at each other, and didn’t even have to say, ‘shall we go in’ – the decision was made.  We spent a couple of mornings just listening to the band, and I even made friends with the band front man.  Twice my age, he had more than twice as many salsa steps as me and I took great pleasure in following him around the stage.  I think we got almost more claps than the professional teachers who were there…. Although I’m sure the claps were aimed in a, ‘oh she’s having a go’ way.

Arguably my favourite night in Cuba came when we went to the Casa Musica in Trinidad – if you only do one thing in Trinidad, then this should be it.  At the top of a staired-terrace, the setting was perfect.  Bands play day and night, and we set up camp on the front row.  There were some simply AMAZING dancers there.  During the evening we were joined by a Swiss lady who was learning to Salsa in town.  She was very good by all accounts, and urged me to approach someone for a dance.  I picked my song (and my strapping 6 foot Cuban) and not-so-confidently walked up and asked him to dance.  In the ballroom world it is not the done thing.  In the Cuban world anything goes!  A couple of dances later and I felt proud of myself!  Dancing under the moonlight at the Casa Muscia in Trinidad was something I will never forget.

In Baracoa we were treated to the dancing front man.  With what looked like a tight-permed mullet, this all singing, all dancing Casanova could certainly move!  He asked me for a Bachata, and made a beeline for me every time we were there.  They played in a couple of different bars, each of them just as good.  I’ve never danced at the same time as someone singing before, but I recommend it!

Not to be outdone Dean decided this was his chance to shine too, and shine he did.  In Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba we took some salsa lessons.  123, 567 – he mastered it!  Our challenge now is to keep it up.  When no one was looking we would have a twirl, or when walking past a bar we would pick out the beat.

Plenty of places to learn a few new moves

Plenty of places to learn a few new moves

Our biggest bit of advice for Cuba is to keep your ears open and go with the music flow.  More or less every lunch or drink stop was guided by where the music was playing.  We might only have caught the end of a set but in some cases it was so good we had to have a second Pina Colada to wait for them to start again!  Generally speaking after a session the basket came round, and if you wanted you could buy CDs.  We bought a couple from our favourite bands, however everywhere else we put a few coins in the pot.  I saw some people refuse, but for us it was a very small price to pay for the incredible entertainment and enjoyment it provided.

As for keeping up with the Cubans, I don’t think I ever looked quite as good, but I certainly gave it a good shot!  No one will ever judge you or stop from trying in Cuba – so even if you only know some wedding dancing moves, get up there, have a go and join the fiesta!

– Natalie

Would you like ham with your cheese sandwich?

When you think of Cuba you think of old cars, cigars, beaches, rum…. I could go on.  The one thing it isn’t famous for is its culinary experiences.  Since 1962 Cubans have been entitled to a Libreta de Abastecimiento (“Supplies booklet”).  This acts as a modern day ration book and the Government sets out what people pay for produce and how much they are allowed.  Prior to 1991, even children’s toys were rationed in this way.  Thankfully for the children of Cuba this is no longer the case.

As a traveller in Cuba, you don’t have to stick to such allocations; however those looking for a McDonald’s destination should go elsewhere. As much as I love McDonalds (everyone has a guilty secret) I would be dead against them setting up in Cuba.  The only amendment to that is there is one branch (just one) in Cuba.  It is situated within the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay and serves as an outlet for the US forces based there.  For those not in the military, the whole area is firmly out of bounds – more about that another time.

Fresh fruit, yum!

Fresh fruit, yum!

So food.  What can you expect?  Breakfast tends to include the mandatory bread (white fluffy only) and eggs.  Sometimes juice is available and if you are really lucky, fruit.  Pineapple, guava or papaya were the fruits of the day whilst we were there, but on rare occasions we also found banana and pineapple.  Lunches, its fair to say, are a simple affair.  One day you can have ham and cheese sandwiches, maybe the next just cheese sandwiches.  If you are lucky you might find some espagetti napolitana (spaghetti in tomato sauce) or even a ham and cheese pizza.  Then you go back to ham and cheese sandwiches.  Quite often a restaurant may have a large menu but in reality all they really have are these four combinations. Get the picture?  You have to hope you like ham, or cheese or both!

Banana chips, a staple of most meals

Banana chips, a staple of most meals

In the evening one of the best places to eat is at your Casa Particular – home stays.  They are easy to arrange and the casa ladies are only too happy to cook you a home cooked meal (in exchange for about US$7).  Normally you will be treated to a feast of soup, fried plantain (my personal favourite) bean rice, and then a wide array of fish, or some basic grilled (often a little tough) meat.  If you were really lucky you could be offered ‘flan’ (a kind of crème caramel) for pudding.  Restaurants often offered a good choice of fish and shell fish.  If it swims (or crawls) in the sea then as a diver I’m on my soapbox and not an eater, but Dean, by all accounts, had some lovely lobster along the way.  Food doesn’t vary that much across the country, although in Baracoa (one of the eastern most cities) things are mixed up a bit and you get a wonderful coconut sauce with meat and fish.

The meals in the home stays are normally very tasty and huge

The meals in the home stays are normally very tasty and huge

On one of our favourite evenings Dean and I wondered out and ate al fresco with the locals.  It was a Saturday night in Holguin and the street fiesta was in full swing (a weekly affair).  There were more pigs on spit roasts than I could count on my hands and feet together, and everyone was in a joyous mood.  We queued up, picked out fancy-laced restaurant and set about ordering.  Pig, chicken, banana chips and bean rice – all with change from a couple of dollars.  Granted the chicken looked a little (there was blood!) undercooked for me, so I dutifully donated it to my husband who is (thankfully) still alive to tell the tale!  The meal was beautiful though and a wonderful experience.

Street food pop up restaurants Cuban style

Street food pop up restaurants Cuban style

Above all eating in Cuba is never going to make you fat!  The food is wholesome, healthy and fills a gap.  You will struggle to find the array of snacks we are used to in the western world (remember we are not talking about in the resorts here – I don’t know what they have but I suspect it’s an artificial home away from home) but there is something really lovely about that.  Who needs Walkers crisps or branded Coca Cola?  When in Rome do as the Romans.  Choices are limited, but embrace them and remember not to overdose on the ham and cheese sarnies…

– Natalie

5 Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Cuba

Cuba is a dream destination for many people. Stuck in a strange mix of the 1950’s and 2000’s the country is sure to enthral you. However being isolated from the rest of the world for so long has presented the country with many challenges and a better understanding of what to expect with help you fully appreciate how unique Cuba is.

1. Currency

Cuba has two currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists. However it is not as simple as that. For certain commodities locals have to use the tourist currency and depending on how local you go tourists may need the local currency. The local money is called the ‘Moneda Nacional’ or abbreviated as the MN. The tourist currency is called the ‘Cuban Convertible Peso’ generally referred to as the CUC (pronounced say-oo-say). Generally speaking the exchange rate is 25 MN to one CUC. It is only when you start comparing between the two do you realise that there is no real conformity when it comes to price comparisons. There is talk that as Cuba opens up more and closer ties with the west are established one currency is likely to disappear and the locals fear it will be the MN.

Posters in the windows of banks help you to get the right currency

Posters in the windows of banks help you to get the right currency

2. Accommodation

Hotel accommodation is government controlled in most instances, expensive for the services provided and overall pretty basic. A far better option is to stay in a ‘Casa Particular’ or private homestay. Rooms are normally very clean if a bit small, far cheaper than the hotels (at around 35 CUC plus or minus) and for a few pesos extra will provide a decent breakfast or a huge home cooked three course dinner. We know where we would rather see the money going.

Relaxing in our Casa

3. Food

Cuba has had to learn to be relatively self sufficient which means outside of Havana choice can be quite limited. Breakfast is normally eggs a mixture of fruits (normally a combination of pineapple, papaya and guava) juice and coffee. Lunch across the entire country consists of ham and cheese sandwiches or pasta with Tomato sauce. Even when a menu looks like it has a wide variety expect the waiter to cringe and sadly inform you they only have the above lunch options! Dinner is normally pork or chicken and occasionally beef served with beans and rice. If you are a fish lover rejoice! The biggest choice you have is with fish. Shell fish is also incredibly cheap with a whole lobster costing only around $10-12 USD!

When it comes to drinking bottled water can be expensive and in some towns scarce (such as Baracoa), but beer is cheap and rum is almost cheaper than water. They make their own soft drinks in Cuba so your Cuba Libre, or rum and Coke, will be rum and the local cola. Fresh juices can also be quite hard to stumble across, quite surprising considering the tropical location. But if everyone is Downing a Havana Club there is no need for much else.

4. Transportation

Transportation across Cuba can be tricky. While the distances are not great road conditions can be pretty poor, even some of the new roads. Car hire is expensive and parking in larger towns can be problematic and intercity buses run on a very limited timetable, often once daily or once every two days. Train travel is even less reliable, in fact the only train we saw in two weeks was stationary in Santiago and didn’t look like it was going anywhere in a hurry. In many instances if there is enough of you hiring a taxi to drive you from one city to another may actually work out to be the most time and cost effective option.

5. The People

The people are the highlight of Cuba and their heart beats to the rhythm of Salsa! They are super friendly and incredibly giving, something that people around the world who have very little always seem to be. We never felt threatened, bothered or harassed during our time there and people generally just wanted to know where you were from and what you were doing in Cuba. You can almost guarantee a great evening out in a local music hall, a friendly chat in a city park or square, even the souvenir hawkers and taxi drivers will normally only ask onece and when given a friendly refusal will smile and wish you a pleasant day! Where else but in Cuba!

Armed with this little bit of knowledge and some pre trip preparation Cuba will dazzle you. It is hard not to get caught up in its unique blend of Spanish, Caribbean and Africa culture. Over the next few weeks we will be expanding on these topics, but in the meant time, ‘ Viva Cuba Libre!’

–  Dean

Cuba: The Land the Internet Forgot

The one thing everyone who travels to Cuba mentions is that it feels like stepping back in time. While that is certainly the case with the old cars and the colonial style architecture, the biggest difference to modern life is the lack of Internet and wifi.And that is not a bad thing.

The world has become so connected that you can tour almost anywhere without even leaving the comfort of your own home. Google, Facebook and travel blogs have made the world and information regarding it, so much more accessible. Museums have virtual online tours and the first thing many travellers now ask their accommodation for is the wifi password.

Travelling through Cuba is like a collision between the 1950's and the 2000's

Travelling through Cuba is like a collision between the 1950’s and the 2000’s

While Cuba has Internet, to get online generally requires lining up in front of the government  run telecommunications company (which can take hours) to use their terminals or slow dial up in some of the hotels.  The expensive Spanish hotel chains normally have wifi (if a little slow) and the town of Baracoa actually has wifi is some public spaces (but it is hard to access, you need an access card and we are told it is incredibly slow). However overall access is very limited, government controlled and not cheap at around six US dollars an hour. Instead of wasting time and frustrating ourselves we embarked on a two week Internet blackout and have to say we quite enjoyed it.

The various forms of social media are one of the lifebloods of any travel blog and going ‘cold turkey’ took a day or two to adjust. However once we broke free of the shackles of constantly needing to be online, travelling around Cuba reminded us of what travel once was in the rest of the world. Hotel receptions, restaurants and bars were filled with something quite often missing in modern times… Conversation.

Locals and tourists lining up to get online

Locals and tourists lining up to get online

Travellers swapping stories about what they had achieved or engaged in conversation with locals about where they were from. A totally different experience to entering a hotel and seeing zombie like travellers illuminated in a ghostly light emanating from their phone or tablet. Couples (including ourselves) sat in restaurants discussing the day’s events or tomorrows plans rather than staring blankly at their phones.

Hotel / hostel bars and common areas used to be a great place to meet other travellers, swap hints, tips and travel war stories but travel has changed significantly over the past decade and we seem to have lost a little of that. This is not us standing on our soap box, we are just as guilty as anyone else (Dean more so than Natalie). It also meant people spent more time exploring or engaging with the locals rather than trying to connect or skyping loved ones back home.

Travelling without Internet access was a liberating experience, especially for bloggers! There was no rush to write or post anything and no deadlines to meet, something we found quite stressful at times last year. Instead we wandered, explored, sat in parks and watched the world go by. There was no pressure to post our favourite photos or share our latest insight into the country. It is as if Cuba still offers an age of innocence to travellers, an age when travel was about travel and not how many likes you could get on Facebook.

If you have never done so, try it next time you go away.  Disconnect, forget (if you can) that Facebook, Twitter, email and the internet exist and you quickly realise just how much we rely on being accessible. Cuba is going to change a great deal over the next few years as America looks to forge closer ties and without doubt one of the biggest and most rapid changes will be internet access. While that is a fantastic thing for the people of Cuba, for travellers we believe it will be a sad day. It will be just one of the quirky and charming differences of Cuba destined to be resigned to the pages of history…

– N&D

Bring on 2015: Another year of adventure for The Smart Way Round

What an epic year 2014 was for us. We completed our overland adventure from London to Melbourne, settled back into ‘normal life’ (for us anyway) back home and scattered in a few European  travels along the way. From spending New Years on the world’s highest train in China, to the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, it would be near impossible to pick a top travel experience.

Over the last few weeks many travel bloggers have been recapping on their 2014 adventures, and while we are incredibly proud of what we achieved we cannot wait to get stuck into 2015. From some great new adventures to hopefully an updated website (if we can figure it out!) we are planning for The Smart Way Round to get bigger and better!

First things first though, we are excited to announce that we are heading to Cuba! A long time bucket list destination, we are off to explore this amazing country at the end of February and are looking forward to some fun, sun and rum when we get there!

We also have a week in Prague planned – one of our favourite European cities.  In July Natalie is off to explore the Faroe Islands and Iceland (I’m likely to be stuck at work, but hey I travel around Europe for a living so don’t feel too sorry for me!). So 2015 is already shaping up as another exciting year for us.

This year we are also approaching a major travel milestone. We are both knocking on the door of visiting 100 countries (not all the same ones mind you), and are trying to plan how to celebrate this achievement. If you have any ideas please drop us a comment, email or Facebook post, between us we cannot decide which country to make lucky number 100.

So roll on 2015 and all the adventures it holds.  Wherever you are off too, happy travels!

–  Dean