I just returned from Cuba and cracked open my laptop when I got home at 1:00 AM after several delays. Perhaps it was because I was disconnected for a week, or maybe it was because I didn’t want to forget anything…either way, I immediately got to typing. You can stay connected in Cuba with a Wi-Fi card, but I never used the one that our host gave us. For starters, it didn’t work where we were staying. I also wasn’t eager to connect to The World Wide Web. Being disconnected allowed me to connect to those around me. We had conversations instead of staring at our phones, refreshing our timelines every five seconds. It was amazing. Okay, so here’s some info on Cuba that I think will be helpful for those of you planning to visit.
Yes, we can travel to Cuba. No, you don’t have to go with a tour group. Though if you’d like to hire me as a tour guide, I’ll be available after mid-June…one of the perks of being a teacher. Speaking of which, I had a friend say, “Let’s use your status as a teacher to go to Cuba.” I think that was the first time I’d heard “status” and “teacher” in the same sentence. I digress, it’s really not that deep. To purchase a flight to Cuba, you must choose from one of 12 categories. I chose educational activities, which includes people-to-people exchanges. Take a look at the categories, and choose the one the best suits your purpose for visiting. To visit Cuba, you must have proof of health insurance. I flew with JetBlue, and the insurance was included in the ticket price. Finally, you are required to purchase a visa that is good for 30 days. JetBlue charges $50 for a visa, which I purchased at the gate (with a credit card) in Fort Lauderdale…prices and process may vary by airline.
ARRIVING IN CUBA
Three of my friends flew Southwest, and three of us were on JetBlue. We had this grand plan to meet in the departures terminal to exchange money (more on that later) and go from there. Luckily, one of my friends must have an amazing international plan (or she’ll get a crazy bill later) and was able to use her phone to call a friend who’d flown Southwest. They were on the phone for at least 10 minutes asking if they saw stairs, signs, etc. They were both seeing these things, but in different terminals. Jose Marti International Airport (HAV) has three terminals. Eventually, we discovered that the terminals are two miles apart so we could walk or pay a taxi to get to the other terminal. I didn’t pack my Fitbit, so walking was out of the question (I’m that person who feels it’s a waste of steps when they’re not tracked on a device). Even if I had my Fitbit, walking two miles with luggage would have been out of the question. Long story short, we eventually hopped in a taxi, rode to terminal 2 without paying extra, and made it to our place, which we booked using Airbnb.
WHAT TO PACK
Not toilet tissue. Before visiting, I read tons of posts that said BYOT – Bring Your Own Tissue. At one point, a friend even considered purchasing a toilet seat because we read some reviews that places don’t have seat covers. All the bathrooms I visited while in Cuba had toilet tissue, and only one did not have a seat cover. So, don’t waste your precious space trying to squeeze those things in your luggage. Also, don’t bother packing heels. If you plan to do a lot of walking, heels are not the way to go.
Speaking of luggage, we were team carry on. I’d read earlier that it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to gather checked luggage in Havana. Between trying to locate our friends, exchanging money, and figuring out our taxi situation, we were at the airport for well over an hour. My friend said she saw some people on her flight who had yet to get their luggage; I’m not that observant, so I can’t say for sure, but based on the pace, I believe it.
Getting around Cuba is an adventure to say the least. My advice for passengers – close your eyes. People step out in the street without warning, horses on the road, cattle, lots of honking. Again, just close your eyes.
I’m sure you know classic cars are the thing to do in Havana. I love vintage cars, but I would not suggest booking one for a day trip. We took a trip to a tobacco farm in Viñales, which was about 2.5 hours each way. Now, the pro of riding in the classic car, it doesn’t accelerate as quickly as some of the other vehicles, so you can keep your eyes open for most the ride. Though we did almost get in an accident with a cattle. The cons, it doesn’t accelerate as quickly as some of the other vehicles, so it takes forever to get there. On the way back from Viñales, we ended up on the side of the road with tire issues. Luckily, we’d booked two cars for the day so the six of us had to cram in one car for the remainder of the ride home, which led to being pulled over by the police. It was an adventure from start to finish.
All that to say, if you’re planning a day trip to Viñales, I wouldn’t recommend booking a classic car. I also wouldn’t recommend booking a day trip to Viñales, but that might just be me. While it was interesting to see how a cigar was made, that’s not really my thing. Perhaps I would’ve felt differently if we’d done the tour by horseback, but probably not.
Money was the hardest part for me to figure out. How much do I take? Should I take Euro or USD? Where will I keep all this money once I get to Cuba? Here’s the scoop on the money…
For starters, I did my research. Since American credit cards aren’t accepted in Cuba, most people recommend $100 a day. That was a great starting point for me. Then, I came up with a budget where I guesstimated average prices for meals, taxis, the day trip to Viñales, going out at night, there was a line in the budget for souvenirs, and one for emergency funds. I’d determined I’d need to bring $787 (which I rounded to $800) to survive in Cuba for 5 days.
Now, a lot of posts recommended exchanging to Euro because there’s a 10% fee when you convert from USD to CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). The exchange rate to go from USD to Euro wasn’t the best, plus there was a shipping fee if I’d exchanged with my bank, so if my math was correct, it would have been a difference of $4 CUC. Not worth the hassle. So, I took 100 Euro that were left over from a previous trip and the remainder USD. The exchange rate was almost 1:1 for Euro, while at the airport my friends got 0.87 CUC for one USD. At the airport, we exchanged enough to cover a taxi. Then, we exchanged the rest with our host who gave us 0.95 on the USD.
If you’ve read my post on being debt free, you know I’m all about a good budget. Between Euro and USD, I exchanged $450 and didn’t spend all of it. So, it’s possible to have fun in Cuba without breaking the bank.
A copy of my budget. Actual costs may vary because I didn’t track each and every purchase.
Food In Cuba
Food gets its own section because I read a lot of posts about how the food in Cuba wasn’t great and you should be prepared to ask for salt. Due to all of those warnings, one of my friends had hot sauce in her bag swag. I’m here to tell you that minus one meal, the consensus was that the food was great! That one meal was in Viñales; you already know how I feel about that so I won’t go into too much detail. I’ll just say Lassie came up to our table multiple times, and for a minute we thought we heard a chicken being killed…luckily that was a false alarm. Speaking of Lassie, be prepared to see a lot of stray dogs and cats. Okay, that was an odd detour so back to food.
I ordered ropa vieja too many times to count, while most of my friends stuck to seafood. If you do nothing else, you have to eat at Dona Eutimia. I’d go back to Cuba just to have their ropa vieja y arroz con frijoles one more time. Plus, the bartender was super nice and gave us rounds of drinks on the house…at one point we were turning down drinks. You don’t even need free drinks in Cuba because the magic price at most restaurants is $3.50 for a drink. I’d also recommend visiting San Cristóbal, which is where the first family ate when they visited Cuba. When I say first family, I’m talking about the Obamas. The first family of hip-hop (Jay Z and Beyoncé) ate there, too.
Compared to the US, food in Cuba was priced extremely well. We were a group of six and each of us had an entrée, additional sides for the table, and at least two drinks with every meal…that came to about $20 per person for each meal.
Grilled fish with a live goldfish on the side at La Cocina de Lilliam.
Havana Temptation aka “The Michelle Obama” since that’s what she ordered at San Cristobal.
OTHER THINGS TO KNOW
Now is the time to brush up on your Spanish. My friend and I speak Spanglish pretty well, so between the two of us we’re almost fluent. Well, fluent is a stretch, but we know enough to get by and I only had to revert to, “Yo no sé” a handful of times. “¿Cuanto cuesta?” will be good to know to get your negotiations started. Don’t hop in a taxi before agreeing on a price. We made that mistake once and didn’t let it happen again.
We stayed in Miramar, which is about 20 minutes away from Havana Vieja. If I had to do it again, I’d stay in Old Havana to cut down on transportation costs. The places we found in Old Havana were more expensive, so you have to do the math and figure out what works for you.
Visit the beach, but not necessarily on the bus. We visited Santa Maria Beach and originally, I’d planned to hop on the bus because it was a quick trip and pretty inexpensive. Well, we saw that bus and how packed it was and decided to hire a driver instead. Our driver was amazing and we ended up asking him to drive us around for the entire day, which was the way to go.
Finally, don’t leave Cuba without visiting FAC. I won’t even attempt to explain it, I’ll just say you should take my word for it.
CIAO FOR NOW, CUBA
Leaving Cuba was interesting. Two people in our group left on a Thursday afternoon and they were able to exchange money, check-in, and get through security in 30 minutes. The rest of our group left on Friday afternoon and the process was not that quick. I’d say it took about an hour and I didn’t even exchange money because they didn’t have small bills in USD. I was told I could give them $100 CUC and get $80 USD in return because they didn’t have ten-dollar bills. You already know I wasn’t taking a hit like that, so we continued with the rest of the process. FYI, after going through security you can purchase things in the duty-free shop using CUC or USD.
Okay, that’s all I have for now. If you have questions, feel free to ask.
Safe and Happy Travels,