Cuba, The Country Lost In Time (Guest Post)
I'm so excited for my brother to be my first guest writer on my blog. He recently took a trip to Cuba and his pictures definitely made me jealous of his adventure. He writes about his experience and gives some tips for those curious to make the journey to the island.
Viva Cuba!! My first blog and I get to write about my trip to Cuba, the country lost in time. That’s a yes and a no. Now, is it a country that is in still developing? Yes. Is it a country that has been deprived of any development or culture or happiness? No. There are a few times you will be reminded that you are a third world country, but there are plenty more times where you get lost enjoying the arts, music, architecture, culture, and people of Cuba. You start to wonder what would have become of the island if it wasn’t for the embargo between USA and Cuba. I HIGHLY recommend going as soon as you can, it’s one of the most affordable places you can travel to internationally and damn near domestically (if you’re flying). I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the trip, so here are some of the points I’ve discussed.
I decided to fly through Mexico via Tijuana to Cuba. I could’ve flown through San Diego or LA for about the same price ($380-$400 round trip), but Aeromexico offers 2 free checked bags and it's easy to get to through the pedestrian bridge crossing at the US border (https://www.crossborderxpress.com/node/1). I also found out that the visa to enter and exit Cuba was only $20 in Mexico City, versus $100 flying out of LAX. I’ll elaborate on that.
One of the biggest things I’ve discussed is how does the visa thing play into getting into the country. As I mentioned above, you will get your visa for Cuba at the Airport that you are flying out of. For whichever airline you booked through, there’s usually a separate counter you will go to fill out your visa. So save time waiting in the regular check-in line and just ask where to go for your Cuba flight when you first get to the airport. I can only speak for Aeromexico and for Alaska Airlines (where the rest of the group I met flew out of), but you will be buying your visa and filling it out with an airline ticket counter agent, so there’s no need to be prepared for an extensive US Customs interrogation. They just want your name, address, passport number, and the reason for travel. But...
Reason for Travel
Don’t obsess over it, but research and know which one of the 12 sanctioned reasons for travel you are going for and have an explanation ready just in case (and probably an email or piece of paper to support your reason). I took a couple of my construction business cards to support my reason of “Professional Research & Meetings”. Keep it simple to Journalistic, Professional, or Educational activities. The only discussion I had about my travel to Cuba was on my way back through customs in Atlanta, and it was a 30-second conversation.
Customs Agent: “Where are you traveling from?
Customs Agent: “What was your reason?”
Me: “Professional Research.”
Customs Agent: “What industry are you in?”
Customs Agent: “OK, have a nice day.”
I HIGHLY suggest staying in an Airbnb over the hotels. The hotels are mainly older and you won’t feel like you got bang for your buck. I stayed in 2 different Airbnb’s in Havana and a hotel in Varadero. You can stay in a nice Airbnb for $30 a night. The setup is more like a Bed & Breakfast for most places, to where you are staying with a host and you are renting out a room and share the common areas (Kitchen, Living Room), but you usually have your own bathroom. The great thing about this setup is that it will give you more of an authentic experience and your host can tell you about some of the better places to go and can help schedule your transportation. Your host can usually cook you breakfast for $5 (Cuban Pesos CUC) too. Here are the 2 places I stayed in Havana (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/11926265?s=51) and (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/17049479?s=51). I really suggest staying in the 2nd place with “Ma Rosa.” The place is central in Old Havana, so you can walk to the restaurants, hotels (for wi-fi), and sight-seeing. The only thing is that the place is at the top of the building, so there are about three flights of stairs you have to walk.
They do not accept the US dollar for transactions out there and you can’t use your debit card or credit cards. I believe if you have an international bank or if your credit card is international you can, but it’s better to have cash. In Cuba, they use the CUP and CUC. The CUP is mainly used for locals and the conversion is about $1 USD to 26 CUP. The CUC is what tourists use and most of the prices you are given will be in CUC. After reading a few blogs and suggestions, it was suggested to convert my money ahead of time to Euros in the US and then convert my Euros to the CUC. The reason why being that the US dollar is almost a 1 to 1 conversion, but there is a 10% fee charged to convert the US money. I took about $500 in Euros, which cost me about $590 US dollars to convert and then got about $540 CUC’s in Cuba. I also took US dollars and converted $140 in Cuba and got back $119 CUC. So if you don’t have time to convert your US dollars to Euros, don’t worry. You can take your US Dollars and convert your money in Cuba and it ends up the same. There is a conversion spot at the airport, but the line can be long and you can have your taxi driver take you an exchange place (or a hotel) in the city, there are enough places around.
So, I personally wasn’t impressed with the food out there. I’m a bit scarred though cause I got sick out there and ended up throwing up the last night in a restaurant bathroom. A couple other people in our group got sick as well. It could be just different types of bacteria that we aren’t used to that contributed to the sickness, but the quality and freshness of a lot of the dishes we ate left us underwhelmed. With that said, the best restaurant I went to in Havana was Café Eutmina. That’s why it’s cool to utilize your host to find out where the locals go to eat.
There is a lot to do and see in Habana (how the locals write and pronounce it). Your biggest cost will be the taxis (which most are the Old School cars), so you can save some money by walking around most of the city (bring comfortable shoes during the day). If you haven’t prepared a lot of things to do ahead of time, you can go to the Hotel National and hire a nice convertible old school to take you on a tour of the city. This will give you a good idea of places and areas to go back and check out in depth (don’t pay more than $30 (CUC)/person and try to negotiate for more than an hour). If you have a larger group this is a nice place to stay, this is where the larger group I met up with stayed (you can rent out the whole house) (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1 5826721?eluid=1&euid=37987f5a- 73b0-04b3-8c79-38f85efeb49d).
Varadero is a small beach town that is about 2.5 hours away from Habana. You can take a taxi for about 50 CUC/person from Habana to Varadero or there is a Greyhound type of bus called the Vericruz for 10CUC/person. The bus is clean and safe. The Airbnb’s are a little bit more expensive a night (about $60), but I still suggest the Airbnb over the hotels. I didn’t stay at this Airbnb, but it had no vacancies for the night we needed. But I met a couple from Switzerland who were staying there and they enjoyed it. It’s pretty dope in-person and right on the beach.(https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/17318174?s=51). If you have a larger group this is a nice place to stay. This is where the larger group I met up with stayed (you can rent out the whole house) (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/17553027?s=51). The beaches are clean, the sand is white, and the water is beautifully blue. I had my best meal at a hole in the wall spot at Café Anzul on Calle 62. I paid 2 CUC for a large plate of Arroz Con Pollo. There’s also an outdoor bar that is poppin’ at night on Calle 62.
Most of the restaurants and nighttime activities are further up the peninsula in Varadero in the Hotel District and going back and forth in the Taxis can add up (about 4/5 CUC each way). There is a bus that can take you back and forth for about 1 or 2 CUC, but you also can rent scooters for about $35 CUC/Day (plus a 25 CUC deposit). You need your driver’s license and passport to rent one, but it helps you move a bit more freely in Varadero and is just cool to do.
Cuba is a must go destination right now. There’s so much to see and do. I heard Trinidad is a nice place to go visit (it’s like Havana, but nicer, smaller, but with more tourists) as well as Cienfuegos (more of a nature type of place to visit). It doesn’t take long to realize that even though travel to Cuba from the US has been restricted, the rest of the world has been traveling there, you will see tourists from all over and some of the European influences. Cuba is probably one of the most affordable places you can go right now, for 5 nights and between 2 cities I spent about $1,000 total. That includes my flight, Airbnb, food, drinks, and souvenirs. If you are into art, I suggest taking an extra bag or leaving some space for bringing back some artwork as it’s probably 1/4 of what you would pay for here in the US. Also, dress how you like to dress since there didn’t seem to be any cultural rules. Feel free to wear American clothes, like flag-print or labels or sportswear, most people were dressed pretty modern. I felt safe the whole time I was there and the people were very friendly and are just looking to capitalize on tourist dollars. So I hope this will help anyone planning on going soon!! Viva Cuba!!
Brian ware is the owner of Best Way Construction Services, a Construction Consulting Firm based out of Southern California. For any additional information, you can contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.bwconstructionservices.com