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Rolando´s Backpackers (Havana, Cuba)

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Address: San Miguel Number 567 / First Floor / Between Gervasio and Belascoain St / Havana / Cuba

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      03.08.2012 15:15
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      The best place to stay in Havana, Cuba

      This summer´s 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 Roland´s 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 - don´t 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 don´t 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! It´s 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. He´s 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, that´s true. It´s 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 don´t 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. It´s 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 won´t 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, I´m 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! Rolando´s 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, they´ll find a place for you even if fully booked.

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