Rolandoīs Backpackers (Havana, Cuba)
This summerīs trip has been to Cuba thanks to a generous university field trip and a lovely travel agent that allowed me to extend my flight for next to nothing. So while my colleagues from university boarded their flight back to England I packed my backpack and started my Caribbean adventure. Almost everyone not on a package ... holiday will start their trip in Havana. Although there are several other international airports across Cuba Havana seems to be the most easily accessible point of entry. And this stunning city is well worth a visit - everything from crumbling colonial houses, cheese pizzas for 10p and amazing street art is right at your doorstep.
While I loved every minute of my stay in Cuba I have to say that it is a difficult country for solo travelling. From Southeast Asia as well as from Central America I am used to meeting people in hostels, hanging out and making friends. Cuba is a bit different, your choice of accommodation are casa particulares (guesthouses with one or max. two rooms) and hotels. Both can be great but if you are on your own both options make for a lonely and expensive trip. What saved my trip and actually made it way better than I expected was Rolando's Backpackers Hostel in Havana. Being one of only two hostels in Cuba
Rolando's is a special place where people meet and friendships are made.
Right after the guys from universities left I felt super lonely. After two weeks of sharing rooms and spending all day with 30 plus people suddenly my hotel room felt very, very lonely. Luckily I found out about Rolando's right on my first day and got a bed there for the next night. The price for one night is 12CUC which is roughly 9 Pounds. Within ten minutes of moving I made friends with an Israeli guy and joined an Australian girl for Salsa lessons - my big Cuba adventure could begin!
* * * Location * * *
The hostel is located on the first floor of an old house in Havana Centre. Calle San Miguel is a typical Cuban street where kids play baseball on the street and old ladies offer you cheese pizzas and pan con tortilla directly from their living room. It is not a touristy area which means that you get to see some of the real Cuba. That does include some rubbish on the street but at least nobody will hassle you for a taxi or city tour. However, I want to stress that Calle San Miguel is a main road in a very safe area. As a solo female traveler I never felt threatened even when walking back alone during the night. For me it was the perfect mix between feeling safe and being far enough away from the tourist town that Havana Vieja is.
The location of the hostel is great. If you exit the door and turn right it is a ten minute walk straight down until you reach the city center with all the bars, shops and sights. Although I do like tourist town I would recommend having a look around Havana Centro as well. There are many street vendors selling fresh fruit and veggies and the cheese pizzas are unbeatable. The closest bars are in the area of Hotel Inglaterra and here starts the area where you have to pay on CUC (the tourist currency) rather than CUP (the local one) for food and drinks.
If you turn left outside the hostel and follow the road up a small hill you reach the University of Havana. The building is stunning and well worth a visit. In walking distance are also bigger hotels with internet connection (6CUC per hour) and the Copellia - the biggest ice-cream parlor in Cuba.
You can reach Rolandīs by taxi as well; just remember the full address which is Calle San Miguel # 567. Entre Gervasio y Belascoain. The last two streets indicate to the taxi driver where to find the hostel.
From the city center I would not pay more than 3CUC but it is an easy walk so it is not really necessary to get a taxi. From the Viazul station be prepared to pay anything between 5CUC to 7CUC, never more than that. From the airport it will cost you 25CUC while it is usually only 20CUC to the airport. Rolando can book you taxis so you can avoid the hassle of negotiating a price with the driver.
* * * The rooms * * *
The hostel itself occupies the first floor and the rooftop of a lovely old building. There are four rooms with 6 to 4 beds. The beds are comfy single bunk beds and the high ceilings make the room more spacious. What I really like are the big lockers (big enough for an 80L backpack) in the rooms. You can lock them with your own padlock or ask for a spare one if you - like me - donīt carry one around with you. When I was there the rooms were clean and a member of the family mopped the floor and cleaned the bathroom every day.
Oh yeah, very important, there is an aircon and an electric fan in every room. Cuba gets crazily hot and believe me that a night without fan or aircon is not much fun if you are more than 500m away from the ocean. There are several power sockets in each room but be aware that they are only the standard Cuban 110 volt and you will need a Central American adapter for UK three pin appliances. In some sockets you can use mainland European plugs but bring an adapter just in case.
All but one room have en-suite bathrooms. They are all very spacious and very clean. As the hostel was renovated at the beginning of the year the bathrooms are absolutely up to scratch. Hot water is available all day which is something that you donīt find everywhere in Cuba. Given that it is the Caribbean it is not actually needed but still a nice touch especially if you want to do your laundry as well.
* * * The common areas * * *
Right next to the guestrooms is the family living room as well as another bathroom. The living room features some comfy chairs, a couch and the big breakfast table. Travellers are free to hang out there but hardly anyone ever does apart from meal times or when it rains. Have a look behind the door to find a huge selection of books left by other travelers - there are also several copies of Lonely Planets and various maps available.
When I first arrived Rolando set us down, brought us some fresh mango juice and gave us a very detailed introduction to Cuba. He explained us the two currency system, showed us a city map of Havana and told us all the best spots to go to and which sights not to miss. He is a real character and knows heaps about Cuba, and as a bonus is English is very, very good! Within a few minutes he organized Salsa lessons for me and my Australian friend and even found me a Spanish teacher.
The main focus point of the hostel is definitely the rooftop bar! Itīs a lovely place with chairs and tables sitting around 20 people and Leo the bartender is a genius when it comes to making drinks. One night we would just tell him a flavor or a colour and he just made up very delicious cocktails for us. Heīs also very interesting to talk to and knows loads about Cuban history and politics.
One of the things that make this hostel so special is that you are allowed to consume your own drinks/food there. Many nights we would sit on the rooftop, have a street cheese pizza and drink cheap Cuban rum with even cheaper tu cola - and the family happily gave us glasses, ice and plates. At first we completely expected them to tell us that we have to buy all our stuff there but indeed they were perfectly fine with it and even showed us the cheapest place to buy more rum & coke in the middle of the night.
* * * Food and drinks * * *
The first page of my guidebook reads "nobody comes to Cuba because of the cuisine" . Frankly, thatīs true. Itīs not like the food is terrible, I actually had some stunning dishes there, but it is just not quite like Italy or France. You will find decent food but be prepared to eat a lot of rice and black beans. It is the basically the same with the food at the backpackers, a cheap alternative to street food but donīt expect any culinary miracles.
Breakfast for 3CUC is served until lunchtime. Just get up and ask for it. It usually includes juice, coffee, bread with jam, fruits and small sweet pasty like things. Itīs a nice way to socialize with people and a better way to start the day than cheese pizza. Not being a huge breakfast person I generally skipped it and invested my CUCs in Mojitos later that night.
Dinner starts around 7ish and is served on the rooftop if it isn't raining. You have the choice between vegetarian, chicken, fish, shrimp and lobster. Dinner includes a soup of the day and pudding. For 4CUC (6CUC for the lobster) it is ok value but in my opinion you can find tastier options in CUP eateries. What you can expect is a tasty soup that is usually vegetarian and (which is rare) is not the generic black bean soup so popular here. The main course is a plate of white rice with side salads (cucumber, beans, cabbage and tomatoes) plus your choice of meat or fish. I only tried the vegetarian dish so I cannot really comment on the quality of the meat dishes but the general opinion was that albeit tasty they were fairly boring. The pudding was generally a generic fruit salad with come cookies if we were lucky.
The main reason why I had dinner at the hostel a couple of times was that we were sitting on the rooftop in a big group and nobody fancied leaving to grab some pizza. So yeah, enjoy dinner there but it should be more for the atmosphere that for culinary highlights.
Drinks are a whole different level! Leo the bartender is not only a super nice person but also he really understands how to make good cocktails. Ask him for a Mulata and you wonīt be disappointed. The drinks prices are quite steep with 3CUC for a Mojito but at least it is only a short work to your bed and not a ten minute trek from the city center. We had some great nights on the rooftop and I met several people there with whom I travelled with for days or even weeks. It is the perfect atmosphere to ask "Hey, Iīm leaving for Vinales tomorrow - anyone wants to join?" and hey presto, you found a new travel buddy.
* * * Would I recommend it? * * *
Si, si, y si! Rolandoīs Backpackers made my stay in Cuba one of the best trips I had. Some of the people I met there will be friends for many years to come and I will cherish the rooftop memories forever. The family made all of us feel very welcome and mostly it felt more like a homestay than a normal hostel. They were so helpful and lovely and always ready for a chat - be it from football to the best black bean recipe.
I am aware of how important tourism is for Cubans and that casa particulares are often the only way for locals to earn CUC. With the hostel Rolando can obviously accommodate much more people which somewhat dilutes the homestay atmosphere. However, as a solo traveler it is the best (if not only) place to meet other travelers. So my advice would be to stay there, meet a travel buddy and enjoy real casa particulares in all the other amazing destinations Cuba has to offer.
An alternative would be to stay in a casa particular that belongs to the family and enjoy the rooftop terrace in the evenings. The casa is lovely and with 20CUC to 25CUC per double room the same price as the hostel. Just ask Rolando for its availability.
* * * * Quick Info * * * *
Book via Hostelbookers: http://www.hostelbookers.com/hostels/cuba/havana/70878/
Calle San Miguel # 567. First Floor, Entre Gervasio y Belascoain St, Havana, Cuba
24 hour reception
18 beds in 4 rooms, 3 of which have an en-suite bathroom, the other room is with shared bathroom. There is no price difference so make sure that you are in room 1 to 3
Single beds, bunk beds with lockers in all rooms (bring your own padlock). Bed linen, towel and if needed padlock are included in the price of 12CUC per night. At the time of writing 12CUC were roughly 9 Pounds.
Aircon and electric fan in every room. Hot water available 24/7.
10min walking distance from the city center. Around 7CUC for a taxi from the Viazul bus station. 20 to 25CUC to and from the airport.
From the city center walk to Hotel Inglaterra and follow the road leading towards the university. Several pizza places on the way. Bank and casa de cambio two blocks away from the hostel. Small shops and a small market on the same street.
Rolando can help with booking casas in other cities, booking taxis, organizing Salsa and Spanish lessons.
Roof top bar: Dinner 4CUC, lobster 6CUC. Big bottle of water 1.20CUC, cocktails starting from 3CUC. Breakfast available for 3CUC.
Booking in advance advisable during high season but try to just turn up anyway, theyīll find a place for you even if fully booked.
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We have just returned from a trip to Tallinn and Helsinki - the latter of which led us to spend 2 nights in this well recommended Hostel. We booked it through Hostelworld online and paid around Ģ50 each for two nights in a twin bedded room (sharing bathroom and kitchen facilities). In Helsinki EVERYTHING is expensive and ... therefore this place seemed like a bit of a bargain, the location is also good as it is literally a couple of hundred metres from the Ferry Terminal where you get off the boats from Tallinn, this meant when we arrived we could check in and leave luggage quickly and be in the centre of town by lunch time. The Hostel is on a small island connected to the mainland by a couple of bridges but you do not really notice this, it just feels like an extension of the mainland.
On getting to the Hostel I was pleasantly surprised to find that it feels and functions like a much less personal 'hotel' than a hostel (I hate over familiar hostels where it feels like you are lodging in someone's house). The lobby is large, light and has a big, professional looking reception desk at one end, there are also benches and tables, a lot of information in stands, a computer and some vending machines, a room at the opposite end to the reception desk is a bar and restaurant (which we never used).
Although we were early to check in (it was about 10.30am when we arrived) they let us have our room and provided us with info sheet and key cards (one each which was useful). Our room was on the 5th floor and was one of the 'hostel' rather than 'backpacker' level rooms (the only difference was a TV set we think). The rooms are clean and basic, two beds (make it up yourself from provided linen), table and chairs, wardrobes and plenty of hooks etc for hanging stuff on. Oh and a HUGE TV hanging from the ceiling in the corner on a bracket.
Bathroom facilities were at opposite ends of the corridor for girls and boys, the women's had two toilets and sinks in one room and then three showers and two more sinks in a separate room. There is a hair dryer attached to the wall which is great for a hostel and I never had to queue for anything, in fact both times I showered I had the shower room to myself - which I was pleased with as the showers have weird saloon style swing doors which do not quite meet in the middle and are also opaque - so no sympathy for the self conscious amongst you! I would advise to wear a swimming costume if you do not feel comfortable with this sort of thing.
Showers are also on a system where you activate them by waving in front of a sensor, this worked 90% of the time so was ok, water was consistently hot and powerful. The showers are also on a rather annoying timer system though so they go off every few minutes and you have to start waving again.
We did not use the kitchens (one on each floor) but they looked clean and tidy and were very popular with other guests, each night as we went out for dinner there would be lovely cooking smells from the one on our floor anyway!
You can buy wifi access here for Euro5 for 24 hours which I think is a bit steep, but everything is in this town. I did buy a pass and then got my moneys worth out of it and it was a strong signal and very easy to use.
From this Hostel you can get the number 4 tram straight into the centre of the city for around Euro3 - it takes about 5 minutes, we just walked it as you could walk along the harbours edge and get into the centre in about 15 minutes but it is a very nice walk.
My only gripe with this hotel is that both mornings I was woken up by maintenance staff making a huge racket on our floor, morning 1 they started at around 7.40am, hammering three rooms down, this carried on for about an hour by which point we had given up on a lie in and got up. Morning 2 they were dragging furniture about in the corridor and then hammering again (and started at 7.45am!). Surely if you have guests you should not start this kind of work until a later hour than this!?
I read Fizzywizzy's review (how did I just KNOW she would have been here!?) and agree with all she says - although we were lucky and had no such incidences with other guests - ear plugs are essential but this is a great value hostel and a brilliant budget choice for Helsinki.
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Villa Divine (Dubrovnik)
There are a lot of places in Dubrovnik that show up on Hostel World, but this one looked the loveliest (and the closest to the beach) which was why my friend booked it for her trip. The only way to get over the jealousy of someone else having a holiday is to have one of your own, so I invited myself along. She had booked a bed in a dorm ... but with me tagging along, a private twin was in order, so she fired off an email to change the booking, and we were all set. Villa Divine is only available online through Hostel World currently, but they're a website I know well, and I like their policy of taking a deposit only rather than the full amount on booking.
A Divine Location
We flew into Dubrovnik and rather than navigate the two busses and seemingly complicated walk that would be required to get us to Villa Divine, we jumped in a taxi instead. This cost a somewhat extortionate 270 Kuna (currently just under Ģ30) made only slightly better by the fact the driver didn't have enough change, so let us have it for 260 kn. Located in Lapad, Villa Divine is closer to the beach than the old town, and in quite a nice residential area. Getting around was easy (without luggage). We could stroll to the beach in 15 minutes, were a minute's walk from the waterfront and the area where the cruise ships docked, and could be at the local bus stop in 10 minutes if we wanted to head further afield. You could technically walk to the Old Town in about 45 minutes, but it was roasting hot when we went in June so we never went for this option.
The bus stop was outside the Post Office which was also a place where tours picked up from and dropped off, handy for us when we decided to pop over to Bosnia for the day. Going into the Old Town on the bus took about 20 minutes and the route was straight forward, ending at Pile Gate so you could stay on until the end and wait for the mass exodus even if you weren't quite sure where you were going.
Going back to the airport alone, I decided to get a taxi to the old town and then the airport bus from there, but as I went to ask about the former, the owner's husband offered to drop me off and drove me to the centre, where I could catch the 35 kn bus direct to the airport. Kirsty, travelling home a few days after me, was driven to the bus depot by the hostel's owner - just one example of the way she and her family go out of their way to be Divine hosts and cater to guests' every whims.
We were greeted, and I do mean greeted, at the door by Renata, the owner of the hostel. I had read all about her in other people's reviews of the place, and she certainly lived up to her character. It was about 8pm but the place was deserted apart from our host - we soon discovered it had been shut for a few days so we were the only guests. As such we had a choice of rooms across two floors and after being given a tour, we were directed to the kitchen area, given cold drinks and sweets, and told to relax. While we enjoyed the sit down, Renata came out with a massive wodge of information for us - maps and booklets and restaurant flyers. On the standard tourist map she marked on all the key things we might need, explaining them as she did so we soon knew where the best beaches were, where the bus left from, where the supermarket was and so on. It was a very personalised welcome which at first I thought was down to us being the only guests, but as others appeared over the next few days it became clear everyone got the same service.
Over our stay the welcoming feel continued. We were given a simple, hand drawn map for our first night as she didn't want us to get lost - it showed the highlights on the walk to the main restaurant drag with all the things you never get on normal maps (turn right at the bakery, go past the university and so on). When we got back that night after tea she had laid out juice and fresh fruit for us. The next morning she casually asked what we had planned and when we said the Old Town, she insisted on driving us in so we didn't have to bother with the bus, dropping us at the cable car having clearly remembered my comment about the wonderful things the night before. When we fancied a trip out we asked her advice and she not only recommended somewhere but also rang up to book it for us and then wrote out the details. It really was an exemplary service of the kind you never normally get in hotels or hostels, and she couldn't do enough for us and the other guests.
The Secret To Divine Rest
As if the service wasn't enough, Villa Divine turned out to be one of the most comfortable and best equipped hostels I've ever stayed in. Set across a 3 story house (with Renata and family living on the 1st floor, and guests on the 2nd floor and ground floor) it included everything you would want in a home away from home. We chose to stay downstairs and this was a self contained unit that I imagine could also be let out as a whole too, to larger groups. It included 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, a kitchen/living area and an outside terrace.
Our bedroom was a twin and nicely decorated in a bright, modern way. We had bedside tables and individual lights each, though aside from a stand for suitcases, there was no other furniture or storage space. However, there was a large wardrobe in the corridor I imagine you could have used, and there were small lockers in the main area for valuables, should you want to lock them up.
The bathrooms were family style, rather than the sort you normally encounter in hostels, and each had a shower cubicle, sink and toilet, plus mirrors (something else missing from our bed room). The doors were a bit see through (silhouettes rather than fine details, but still) and the shower curtain in one liked to attack you while you washed, but both had lots of hot water and fab pressure and both were spotlessly clean. We didn't really have anywhere to hang out towels to dry (we were given two each on arrival) but in the end I left mine on the hook in the bathroom since we were the only ones using it at the time, and that helped keep the dampness out of our room.
The main living area combined comfy sofas and chair and a large TV with a ton of international channels, with a cooking and dining area. The kitchen was supremely well equipped and very well done, to the extent that I wish I had one like it at home. We had a big fridge, an oven, hob rings, a microwave and toaster and so on, and if you wanted to rustle up a feast (perfectly possible given what was provided) the table could seat 6 or the one outside on the terrace could seat 8 or more. Everything was clean, everything looked brand new, and everything was stylish and designed with guests' comfort in mind.
Upstairs was a similar story, with more rooms (some small dorms with bunk beds) and bathrooms, and another kitchen/living room combo with a large flat screen. There was also a computer for guests' use - and free, fast wifi was also on offer if you had your own devices - and the reception desk had a mini library with a few books on it. We were given an English language guide book to Croatia downstairs, though I imagine this floated around depending on who had picked it up. It too was new - not one of those scribbled on things with ripped out pages you often get in backpacker places. The 2nd floor also boasted a brilliant balcony stretching the length of the house and stunning views overlooking the water, complete with comfy seating. The dooyoo photo above is the view from that balcony and is as impressive as it looks.
A Divine Feast
Breakfast was included and served from 8am to 10am every day, though on the morning we had to leave early for our trip Renata insisted we not miss out, and brought it all down to our kitchen the night before so we could help ourselves. Usually served upstairs, it was a buffet that included tea, filter coffee and proper juice (not nectar/squash) and a spread that featured toast (with butter, honey, cream cheese and random jams), cheese and cold meat, yogurts (fruit and plain), cereal and muesli, hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit and chocolate pudding. Yes, really. It was certainly enough to set you up for the day and there was only one morning where it was a bit busy so we decided not to linger and to leave the table so others could join.
We paid Ģ30 pppn in a twin room, so Ģ60 per room including breakfast. At first glance it's not really hostel prices, and of course it included things like shared bathrooms so you couldn't really call it a hotel instead. But, we felt we got real value for money in what is, it has to be said, one of the most expensive places in Croatia. The hospitality was outstanding, the location good, the views spectacular. We were very comfortable there and felt at home from the first night onwards. Kirsty was supposed to be moving on when I came home, but couldn't stand to leave so ended up booking another 3 nights there instead.
I feared it might be chintzy. At best I was hoping for rustic with a local flavour. Instead, this could have been anywhere in the world, and I mean that in the best possible way. It did not feel like a post-war zone. It did not feel like Eastern Europe (charming as that can be). It did not feel like we'd stepped back in time to 1988. Instead it was a stylish, comfortable place with all mod cons where the showers were always warm, and the electricity never cut out,
Staying at Villa Divine is like staying with a friend or with family. It could not be more different from your typical hostel and we felt personally welcomed and valued as customers. Renata truly wants her guests to have an amazing stay, and you end up feeling like an adopted child for the duration of your residency in the Villa. Any little niggles you might have - not enough mirrors, no drawers, having to leave your room to go to the bathroom - quickly become insignificant and for the stunning service alone, I can't give it less than a full 5 stars.
Villa Divine, Bokeljska 16, Dubrovnik, Croatia
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Youth Hostel International
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Address: San Miguel Number 567 / Youth Hostel International / First Floor / Between Gervasio and Belascoain St / Havana / Cuba
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Youth Hostel International / Address: Bokeljska 16, Dubrovnik, Croatia
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