Anyone traveling on their own in Cuba needs to "know a guy."
Could be a woman, but enterprising locals typically offer a guy.
Looking for a casa particular, a comfy room rented by friendly, licensed homeowners? Someone knows a guy to make it happen.
Want to spin backward through time and Havana in a vintage automobile? Guys arrange that, too. Our guy knew a guy who drove us to the hovel where our accompanying friend's mother lived a half century ago, where a distant yet welcoming relative lives today.
Such experiences aren't found in air-conditioned tour buses, packed with strangers and pressed by scheduling. Gazing at one bus through Bar Monserrate's window, past my $12 lobster lunch with live salsa band, only confirmed our decision to do Cuba on our own over New Year's weekend.
Armed with two Southwest round-trip tickets (scored for $98 with vouchers), my wife and I booked four nights ($700) at the all-inclusive Hotel Tuxpan resort in Varadero, two hours outside Havana. We planned to bookend that beachfront stay with two days touring Cuba's capital.
First step: finding a guy to handle our Havana requests. Fittingly, my wife, Dianne, discovered an online source founded by a woman.
Cuba-Junky.com was started in 2000 by Netherlands resident Anja Verlaan, after her first visit to Cuba. The website includes a questionnaire on touring interests: Romance, sports or night life? Shopping, culture or restaurants? How much walking do you mind? Answers are used to shape a personal itinerary, along with any special requests like our friend's heritage search.
The site linked us to Tino, a self-proclaimed "cynical romantic" living in Havana for eight years. Tino is a brash Dutchman without regard for Varadero's manicured resort scene. We spent an hour sipping rum in a walkup apartment he's renovating, getting Tino's take on Cuba's essence, much of it confirmed over the next few days along the island nation's northern coastline.
We didn't pay Tino except by replacing the bottle we helped finish. Tino gets a piece of any action he brokers. He handed us over to Miguel, an affable driver for $20, patient with our language barrier. Suzanna, 19, joined us, a student volunteering in order to polish her English. She was stunned later by our $20 thank-you, a measure of Cuba's poverty and gratitude for tourists.
Four hours touring in Miguel's 1954 Chevy included a stop at Parque John Lennon and its bronze tribute to the late Beatle, while a street festival offered music, produce and dressed hogs for New Year's Eve roasting. We chose Old Havana's Obispo district for people watching, rather than historical landmarks on limited time. Ernest Hemingway's hangout, Floridita, was hectic; the Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi calmed. Crumbling neighborhoods — our friend also found her great-grandmother's residence — felt secure with Miguel and Suzanna leading.
Nightfall approached, Varadero awaited. Tino knew a guy who'd drive four of us for $170, an average rate per person for the two-hour ride. Pipo drives a Renault, one of the relatively few cars we saw in Cuba built in the 21st century.
After farewell rum with Tino, we departed Havana for four days in Varadero.
We found other "guys" in Varadero, hotel employees offering extras for back-end cuts. A lifeguard knew a driver for our return to Havana. We ate beachside seafood for a peso per plate while others waited in line for dubious hamburgers. A few ice cubes or a partial roll of toilet tissue in Cuba's scarcity culture is worth an early tip, trust me.
Our friends spent their final night in a casa particular near Havana's famed Malecón esplanade for $25 including coffee and a 4 a.m. wakeup knock. Tino knew a guy with a shiny, finned Cadillac greener than envy who arranged the layover on short, late-night notice.
Cuba-Junky.com offered a foothold in a foreign land, so close yet mysterious after decades of embargoed mistrust. Tour buses can be insulation against Cuba's dilapidated charm, its welcoming citizens and vibrancy. It's a place we'll revisit, boots on the ground, as often as possible, and why not?
I know a guy.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.