Alas! I would finally get the chance to live out my dreams of being in a hot, smoke filled bodega, while women twirled around in dresses and tube tops that showed off sweaty mid-sections and we brought up the sun with salsa music blaring from a loud live band in the background. *sigh* I FINALLY HAD MY CHANCE!
VAMANOS A CUBA!
Prep for Cuba started about four months in advance. The group that I traveled with all purchased roundtrip tickets from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Havana, Cuba (HAV) through Jet Blue. Tickets were about $130 roundtrip which was due to an awesome sale that we watched for and snagged! Everyone chose different flights to arrive to Fort Lauderdale. The deal that I found after watching for three weeks, was a roundtrip ticket from O’Hare in Chicago (ORD) to FLL on United for just a little over $200.
Choosing where to stay: for hotels, shop around and book in advance! With most hotels in Cuba, you will have modern amenities, like wi-fi, which is RARE there. AirBnB properties are the most reasonable and SOME will come with the added benefit of having some hosts that will make arrangements (dining, transportation and activities) for you. Some of the AirBnB homes will even have wi-fi! If not, you will be without and have to look for a glorious wi-fi spot (more about that later) in order to connect to the outside world.
Money: TAKE A LITTLE MORE THAN WHAT YOU THINK YOU WILL NEED! 1 USD = 1 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). Look at pricing for activities and factor in travel and food costs. Now, food and drinks can often be VERY cheap (CUC 5) for a whole meal, while other times, in more popular/touristy areas it can be a little more expensive (CUC 17-20); that isn’t a frequent occurrence though. I converted 400 USD to 506 Canadian Dollars (CAD) and got CUC 370 back at exchange. People have different methods of converting to try and get more value for their dollar while some don’t bother and just do a direct exchange from USD to CUC. At the end of the trip, all activities, food, drink, travel and souvenir shopping combined, I had CUC 70, left. Better to have more and not need, than need and not have!
Reason for visit: Out of the 15 of us that traveled, only one (who flew FLL to HAV) was asked her reason for travel. Its best to have it ready just in case. Most (like myself) chose “support for the Cuban people” or “educational activities.” We took toys, books, and toiletries to pass out to the children. Also, tours of the tobacco fields falls under the category of “educational activities.” The full 12 reasons are listed here: https://cu.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/local-resources-of-u-s-citizens/traveling-to-cuba/
Getting around: Download a map of Cuba and a Spanish/English translator to use OFFLINE! This is one of the best tips that Ive seen mentioned, repeatedly. It is even better if you familiarize yourself with some Spanish terms and some popular locations before you go.
- YOUR ATM/DEBIT/CREDIT CARDS WILL NOT WORK IN CUBA! You’re stuck with what you come with! Prepare accordingly.
- TAKE SEASONING! Cuba doesn’t have access to a lot of flavorings and seasonings that we are used to and sometimes they go for months before they see certain ingredients. Stash yourself some salt, pepper, tabasco sauce, maybe some Lawry’s, etc., to be able to add some taste where it may be lacking.
- Take personal wipes and hand sanitizer. Everywhere will not have tissue or soap, so unless you want to drip dry or eat with filthy hands, have your own.
- THERE IS NO WI-FI! That’s right. Welcome back to a time when you actually had to hold conversations with people around you and use real-life social skills. You won’t be able to check emails, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or Google anything. HOWEVER, most hotels and some phone stores will sell Wi-Fi cards that cost CUC 4, for an hour of internet access. Now where in the heck do you find a Wi-Fi spot? Many hotels will have Wi-Fi or you can simply ask……OR look for a random group of people huddled together in a random area, glued to their phones – WI-FI! The log-in process can be VERY cumbersome, as well.
- ONLY DRINK BOTTLED WATER!
- Take Pepto Bismol tablets just to be safe
- NEGOTIATE! Don’t just settle on a price because it’s what you are told. If you have the option to price compare with whatever you are trying to purchase (from a ride to a souvenir), do it!
- Reservations – when it comes to popular restuarants, its best to try to make your reservation in advance as far as possible (two to three weeks). It was impossible for us to get into the very popular “La Guarida” or “304 O’Reilly” over a whole weekend, without having a reservation.
Spill the deets:
Staying overnight in Fort Lauderdale was the most economical for this trip. Room rates in general were reasonable and our group had 3 people per room. The flight leaving out from FLL to HAV was at 11:44 a.m. To prepare and allow for the unexpected, we arrived at the airport around 9:15 a.m. For the flight to Cuba, self-check in would not work, but Jet Blue had an entire section of staff that was just for Cuba. Have your passport ready and if two one flights were bought for your trip, have both available so that you can show proof of return. Now there are 12 reasons for travel that your visit is supposed to fall under, however, I wasn’t asked. I was DEFINITELY ready with an ENTIRE script and reason of “support for the Cuban people,” which consisted of me having books (to pass out to children upon arrival) and some in the group brought toys. I also composed a speech about world peace and loving one another but it was not needed. That process takes about 15 minutes and the cost of the visa is $50.
The flight from FLL to HAV was approximately 45-50 minutes; enough time to buckle your seatbelt or take a quick pee before the plane is starting to land. In standard fashion, customs is annoying and the line is long and grueling with minimal air conditioning, especially if you have landed at the same time as other flights.
There are two things to remember at this point:
- Make sure your bags are properly marked, if required. Through Jet Blue, personal items and carry-ons had a tag that specifically said what they were. If those tags were not seen as you were trying to enter, you would be sent back in line to properly tag your bags (not quite sure of what that whole process consisted of).
- Have your immigration forms filled out. There were two (a blue one and a white one) that were required. If a person didn’t have one or the other, they couldn’t exit.
Now the fun begins………….
I’m in Cuba! Now what?!
I’d already changed out my dollars to Canadian money in order to try to get more value for my dollar. I just wanted to get my CUCS (pronounced COOKS) and go salsa in Old Havana with a glass of rum in my hand. WRONG! The line for money exchange at the airport was insanely long. There is one window on each side when you exit where exchanges can be done and the lines for both were equally long.
Recommendation: Taxi drivers (more about them in a second) will tell you where you can exchange money in the city. Do it. We went to a Cadeca (they normally close at around 8pm during the week and 5pm on Sundays) in the city that had a much shorter wait. Many drivers will know about locations that are throughout the city or about which hotels will be able to exchange the money as well. Despite the line not being as long, there was still a wait that was quite a pain. Ever watch paint dry while hearing nails scratched across a chalkboard? That’s comparable to the experience of exchanging money in Cuba. Getting as many small bills as possible (10s, 5s, 3s, 1s) is HIGHLY recommended, but the lady that was helping me was an evil witch who refused to give me small bills. Apparently everyone else had the same problem with attitudes and the request for small bills. HA!
Getting to where you are laying your head
Tons of taxis are at the airport. I mean TONS! We had the address to our AirBnB and while getting a taxi is easy, the hard part is the haggling. If possible try to prearrange a driver pickup from the airport. The airport was full of drivers holding up signs to pick up their passengers. Its easy to find drivers online, from recommendations from previous travelers or through a hotel. If not, try to bargain as much as possible in relation to the distance where you are staying from the airport and cushion your wallet for the charges.
GET TO WHERE YOU ARE STAYING AND HEAD OUT INTO CUBA!!!!
I thank the creator of a Facebook travel group that I am in for creating a list of activities that she felt like would give us a great experience in Cuba in just three days.
After the nightmare of exchanging money and getting to the AirBnB, it was time to head out. Plaza De Armas was the perfect beginning. Located in Old Havana, it is a hub full of tourists, natives, restaurants, clubs and hotels. There is also a wi-fi spot here in and around the hotel. Wi-fi cards are available for purchase inside of the hotel lobby for CUC 4.50 orrrrrrr someone is always lingering around selling them for cheaper, until they are ran off by the cops. Buy at your own risk (I didn’t have a problem when I purchased it from a random person)! Everything is available here, from souvenirs to live salsa.
304 O’Reillys (Restaurant) – this is a VERY popular restaurant that EVERYONE tries to get in to. If you don’t have a reservation made in advance, it will be very difficult to get in, if at all possible. The restaurant is very tiny – about seven medium size tables. We were told to put our names down to come back in a couple of days to PERHAPS get a table.
La Familia (Restaurant) – a stop here came after an impromptu tour guide adopted a group of six of us. The stories that you hear about people getting paid to take you into places is true and our tour guide was absolutely one of them! La Familia has a nice rooftop area which was crowded and gave a nice view of the immediate area, while you listened to live music. For dinner here, I had “Mariscadas,” which was a seafood mix of fish, shrimp and lobster, with green beans, Cuban rice, plantain chips, potatoes and slaw for about CUC 22. The amount of food was beyond filling and while the seasoning lacked in some parts of the dish (like in many Cuban places) it was still delightful. I loved the atmosphere more than the food!
Fabrica del Art (Club/gallery) – This establishment is recommended on quite a few travel sites. The group that I was with never got inside. When we arrived at about 10 p.m., the line was around the corner, about a block long. Its only CUC 2 to get in and there is no way to ask to pay more to get in, so don’t let any person that is pacing the line back and forth that you can pay a few more CUCs to jump the line. From the other group that traveled with us mentioned that there were quite a few tourists and it was more of an art experience than a club with music, lights, art and food. Though it may not be a typical club experience you would assume it to be, it is still a cool place to check out.
Day 2 involved an early wake up for a two and a half hour drive to Varadero, Cuba, a city that is famed for having one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It sits on a peninsula and puts countless fields of sand at your disposal. Being on the brink of starvation, we stopped at La Casita (on 1st ave, across from the bank) for breakfast. The prices were unbelievable! I was able to get toast with garlic & olive oil ( CUC 2), a chicken baguette with veggies and fries (CUC 3.75) and a margarita (CUC 3).
Beach location – we went to the part of the beach located on Calle 32. As soon as I walked down the little sandy path and saw the water, I was speechless. The turquoise blue waves hitting the almost white sand, is picturesque. The sand is so soft, you would think that you are walking on clouds. The bar on the beach has reggaeton and salsa blasting, as you decide if you are going to sit under a straw hut or rent a beach chair, which is only CUC 2 for an unlimited time rental. Drinks from the bar range from CUC 2 to CUC 3.50 and of course include mojitos and pina coladas. Lay and absorb the beauty around you or walk/taxi down 1st Ave to buy items from the locals that will make great souvenirs. Wi-Fi in this area is located at Calle 42, towards the back by the beach along the gate. You will see a group of people sitting around the gate and tree relaxing on their phones. I was able to grab a big bottle of Havana Club (the rum of Cuba!) for about CUC 5 for my friends and I, which we never finished. If you don’t like one beach, hop along the peninsula until one strikes your fancy, but trust me, it won’t be hard.
Dinner was at “Mediteraneo Havana” on Calle 13 in the Vedado of Havana at about 10 p.m. There was some initial worry that they wouldn’t be open, but as we arrived, the lights welcomed us with open arms! Upon attaining seats, we were warmly greeted and presented with menus. I chose the spaghetti with lobster for CUC 11.50, mixed croquettes (chicken, fish, spinach) for CUC 5 and a pizza (it was pretty large) for CUC 7. Drinks are very cheap: a vodkatini was EXTREMELY strong and only CUC 3.50.
Morning departure with the driver was around 6:30 a.m. Yay for another two hour ride! *sarcastic eye roll here* The ride into the mountains of Viñales was VERY scenic. KEEP YOUR CAMERAS READY! First stop in Viñales was at Mural de la Historia. It is one of the largest murals in the world that represents the life of the first inhabitants of the Cuban archipelago. It took four years to paint! It is 393 feet (120 m) tall and every bit of breathtaking. Also for CUC 5, you can have a pineapple cored & filled with FRESH piña colada and you pour your own rum.
The ride deeper into Viñales valley to tour the tobacco fields, is short. There are many farms to visit and tour where tobacco is grown, harvested and dried out to be fresh rolled into cigars. Also, there are horseback riding tours of the farms and area, that I’ve read some pay up to CUC 100 for, but once you arrive, it’s very easy to find a local at one of the farms or in the area that will do a horseback tour of the town and different tobacco farms for CUC 51 per hour.
We were able to stop by one of the farms for a quick tour and see actual tobacco plants, seeds, go into the giant straw/wooden huts where the tobacco leaves are dried and aged and understand the process that goes into infusing them with various flavors. All of the touring and exploring will undoubtedly make you hungry.
In Viñales/Rino del Pinar, there are tons of paladars to eat at. “Paladar” is a word in Cuba that is used exclusively to refer to a restaurant that is run and managed by self-employers. The food is homemade and you are given a realistic interaction with real Cuban life. Make a paladar your stop for a meal; do not drift to any of the tourist attraction eateries.
At Paladar Barbaro (per high praise from our driver), we were greeted by a lush home front full of tables and backpackers (which Viñales is FULL of). Sugar cane, passion fruit and pineapple was being freshly juices with the option of homemade rum being added for CUC 2. There are no menus; you eat what the kitchen has caught and prepared for the day and those options are told to you. I opted for the crab, while others at the table went with options like lobster tail and fried chicken. With the meal came an elaborate spread of fresh fruit, veggies, white rice, Cuban rice, plantain chips and tamal, all for CUC 10. The crab was made similar to a stew and had a hint of creole flavoring. It was hands down the best dish that I ate in Cuba.
Day three ended with a final trip back to Old Havana and Plaza de las Armas. Some recommended not to eat diary products while there, but guess what I had while wandering? Melon and hazelnut ice cream. It was sinful and something like a mix between gelato and soft serve, if that is at all possible. After some souvenir shopping, it was time for some Cuban nightlife.
Recommendation – Club Roma is a rooftop club located in the Plaza. Entry is free and there is a rickety old school elevator that takes 3-4 people at a time to the top. Though small, the atmosphere and view are amazing. Once again the drinks are cheap (ex: CUC 3 for margaritas) and STRONG! As for the house special which is a drink that has muddled starfruit in it. I was able to breath in the warm Cuban air while listening to a cool DJ from New York spinning tunes. The crowd was a mix between people watchers and the occasional couple choosing to make out. Perfect ending to the trip!
Cubas’ airport is rather small. However because of immigration, allow yourself an hour and a half and yes, you will have time to spare. Check out the Duty Free in the airport and pick up some Cuban rum and beer to avoid the hassle of going through customs with it. The costs are only a dollar or two more than what you would pay in the city.
You can switch your CUC back to USD at the Duty Free in the airport! We got 1 USD for 1 CUC. Not sure if all the shops in the airport will do it but it definitely takes away the hassle of converting back once you get home.
And now we bid Cuba, adieu……………
Cuba is a BEAUTIFUL country. You can feel the pride the people have for their country as they drive around in their old school classic cars and you can sense the struggle that is a part of their daily life, but in that simplicity, there is a pure sense of contentment that many of us have lost. It is a country that is still withstanding the complete infiltration of American influence and tourism. Visit before that innocence is removed and washed away by western civilization and its influence and bask in all that is Cuba.