Cuba

Hola! I just came back from a 2 week visit to Cuba and it couldn’t have came at a better time, with social media being saturated with the tense politics going on here (I’m looking at you, facebook!). Cuba’s lack of wi-fi availability is the perfect place to escape from it all, which I will discuss later in this post. I figure that I need to write an overview of the trip before I share further details on where I visited and what I did.

“Why Visit Cuba?”

I was frequently asked this by family, friends, and co-workers. It’s quite obvious, or at least to me:

  • Travel restrictions were lifted last year, thanks to President Obama.
  • Admire the historical sites and vintage cars.
  • Learn more about the Cuban culture.

Since legal travel to Cuba is still fresh to US citizens, there seems to be, in general, a lot of uncertainty. Let’s first address the travel requirements: you have to apply for one of the 12 travel categories, which does not include tourism. Unfortunately, the guidelines are vague so I did plenty of research to figure out how other US travelers went about this. Based on lurking on TripAdvisor’s Cuba Forums (I highly recommend browsing thoroughly as the community gets annoyed at users creating multiple topics on this matter) and chatting with friends that recently visited, the most commonly applied category is “Educational/People-to-People”. Kevin and I did run across two ladies staying at our Havana casa that selected “Support for the Cuban People”, although this seems to imply political involvement.

So how does one comply with travelling to Cuba on a “Educational/People-to-People” license. From what I have learned, there are two ways to accomplish this:

  1. Go with an organized group. This is clearly the easier method, where all your activities are set and will fulfill the license requirement. Of course, this option is not so flexible and can be pricey.
  2. Plan it on your own.

Of course, I went with the latter of the two since our travel dates did not coincide with any organized travel groups to Cuba. While I have planned many trips, planning this trip to Cuba the hardest trip I’ve done so far.

How Do I Get There?

There are a few ways to get to Cuba from the US, if you’re trying to go legally such as Alaska Airlines and American Airlines. Since I wanted to book my ticket and have my documents in order in spot, I went with JetBlue. JetBlue makes booking this trip so stupidly easy: just book the ticket online, select the visa you want to apply for and they will send you an email later on to reconfirm this. The day of your flight, you have to go to the check-in desk to get your boarding pass and pay for your visa. Buying the visa from Jet Blue is only $50 a person. Note: DO NOT LOSE THIS! You will need the visa to leave Cuba.

Also your airfare includes your health insurance for Cuba since travelers are required to purchase Cuban insurance. Like I said, Jet Blue its a one-stop shop for all your Cuba needs. And no, I am not being sponsored by Jet Blue to write this hahaha. 😉

Lonely Planet – Cuba is Your Bible!

There’s a reason why everyone and their mamas has a copy of Lonely Planet – Cuba glued to their hands. The guide has pretty much all the essentials you need for this trip: places to see, where to eat and sleep and useful bits of informations regarding the history and culture of the place. Without Wi-Fi, you will definitely need to bring a copy. There were many times where Kevin and I ran across cancelled reservations and going to the museum on a day it was closed. Thank you Lonely Planet for helping us during these situations!

Other resources I highly recommend using: TripAdvisor, Rick Steves, instagram. I find instagram to be an awesome tool to find places you normally wouldn’t look up.

What is up with the Wi-Fi situation??

Wi-Fi (pronounced “wee-fee” in Cuba) is scarce and seems to be a taboo topic to discuss. One of the first things we were told when we got to Santa Clara was from a Brooklyn man named Clinton. He told us that you will notice Wi-Fi hotspots if you spot a group of people congregated in one spot all up on their phones or laptops. In order to get access, you have to figure out who is selling the Wi-Fi card. Kevin and I immediately spotted a hotspot at Trinidad’s Plaza Mayor. We had to idea who to approach so we asked the owner of a mojito spot right on the plaza about these Wi-Fi cards. The owner’s smiling face quickly changed to a nervous look, shushing us.

Tourists all up on that Wi-Fi. Plaza Mayor, Trinidad, Cuba.

Now, there is an easier option by going to a hotel and purchasing internet access for $5 an hour, which you can spread out for up to 3 days. It can be inconvenient since you can only use it at the hotel, not at any hotspot. We had to do this in the middle of our Havana trip, just so we can follow up on reservations we made for Vinales.

How Do I Book Reservations for Accommodations or Tours?

This can be somewhat annoying. Let me start with making reservations with casa particulars. Since Wi-Fi is scarce, casa owners most likely will not respond right away. You can look up casa particulars by picking up a copy of Lonely Planet or browsing through TripAdvisor. If you go this route, be warned: many of these casas are booked months in advanced! Don’t wait until the last minute if you want to stay at a Lonely Planet recommended casa.

Another option you can use is Airbnb, which is what Kevin and I used to book our casas in Havana and Vinales. While I have read from users on TripAdvisor saying that this is more expensive than booking directly with a casa, this was the least stressful option. I like knowing that I don’t have to worry if they still have our reservation, which happened to us at our first stop in Trinidad and we ended up with our taxi driver walking around for almost an hour to find another casa to stay at. My personal advice is to at least book the first casa through Airbnb and then have your casa owner help you book your next casa. We did then when we decided to spend an extra night in Vinales and our casa owner fixed us up with a very kind family.

The last option you can go with is to just figure it out right when you get to your destination. I only recommend this is you are able to have basic Spanish conversations as not everyone in Cuba is fluent (duh!) in English. Our experience in Trinidad was a bit stressful. Luckily, our taxi driver was with us so he was able to help us communicate with casa owners so we can find a place to stay for the next few days. (Side note: you can distinguish a casa by finding a sign plastered at the front of the house with a blue “I”.)

As for tours, you can book these through Airbnb (which is fairly new and these book very quick!), TripAdvisor or you can just ask your casa owner to see if they can help you out. Our casa owner in Vinales pretty much took care of most of our reservations and was extremely knowledgeable on places to see and visit in the area. I love that the people of Cuba are not only welcoming, but they are more than happy to help you out.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

There is a high chance you will get sick in Cuba. Kevin and I have traveled around to places such as South Africa, The Philippines, Brazil, and Mexico. We never got sick at those countries but Cuba finally proved us wrong. During our third day, Kevin had GI issues that lasted for about 5 days while I had similar issues 2 days after him. There are a few culprits to this such as eating seafood (Kevin had fish our first two days and I had a lobster our first day in), indulging in sugar cane juice, or even the ice. Our casa owner in Havana told us that locals do get sick from the ice from time to time, btw. I do recommend bringing a bottle of probiotics in pill form to prevent this. We met a nurse staying at our casa in Havana that gave Kevin a couple of these pills and that helped with his recovery. While our case wasn’t too extreme we did run into others that fared worse, such as our Swedish casa mate in Havana. He was bed ridden for 2 days due to food poisoning. Or another couple we met that was also from Washington State, they were sick for several days and had to cancel a few of their tours.

Credit/ATM cards do not work in Cuba so make sure you bring more than enough cash. You will get the best exchange rate at the banks so don’t exchange all your money at the airport. If anything, just exchange enough to last you a couple of days. I recommend bringing in Canadian dollars since you do get penalized 10%, on top of a 3% currency exchange fee, for exchanging US dollars in Cuba.

As for currency, Cuba has two kinds of currency. Visitors are given CUC, where the exchange rate is $1 USD = $1CUC. CUC is widely used at most shops and private restaurants. The other currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP), which is used by locals. You might encounter CUP if you eat at a government own restaurant or if you attend a festival. Kevin and I ended up having to exchange some of our CUC for CUP when we were at the Havana International Book Festival and wanted to try the street food present.

You most likely will have to pay to use the bathroom in Cuba so its important to carry change with you at all times. Bathroom use is $1 CUC and usually the bathroom attendant will give you a small amount of toilet paper and sometimes paper towels to wipe your hands after you wash. There were times where the bathroom even wasn’t equipped with toilet paper or towels so it is wise to bring extra toilet paper/wipes and hand sanitizer.

Should I Visit Cuba?

It depends. I personally enjoyed my trip to Cuba. I have learned so much during my two weeks there and would love to visit again in the near future, which I will cover more in my next few posts.

With that said, Cuba is not a trip I would recommend to everyone. Your comfort levels will be tested, whether its the bathrooms missing a toilet seat or that the walls of your casa are paper thin and you can hear any conversation going on. Cuba will also test your dependency on the internet and I know plenty of people in my social network that would die without having easy access to that. The country will also test your patience and your ability to go with the flow. I quickly learned that I had to throw out my carefully planned itinerary after hitting a few hiccups on our trip, from our first casa not having our reservations to discovering that the museums are closed on Mondays. If you’re experienced in traveling or you’re willing to deal with what I just listed, then I think you’ll do just find in Cuba. And I really do think people should see Cuba for themselves.

I honestly could go on and on about Cuba but I will have to spread it out over the next few posts, as I don’t want this post to become a novel. Feel free to leave any questions or comments! I promise I will answer them. 😉

Ciao, for now!

 

 

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