Viva Cuba

Today’s my last day in Mexico after a much awaited trip to Cuba. Planning for our trip began last December.

After reading countless reviews, we decided that flying to Cuba from Mexico would make the most sense and would definitely be more economical than taking a chartered flight from Miami or New York. From what I heard those flights tend to cost $700-1000, plus you’d have to find a way to get to Miami or NY.

We first got a great deal from Baltimore to Cancun. In January, we purchased the second leg our flight from Cancun to Havana on Aeromexico. All together we paid about $440 for both flights, it would have been $100 cheaper but we paid to have a carry-on and assigned seats on Spirit. Yes, we flew Spirit and it actually wasn’t bad.

The next step was to find a tour company to make our experience worthwhile. We endedimg_4558 up going with a company that provided “people to people” tours focusing on the Afro-Cuban population.

The tour covered most of the land portion of our trip i.e. our accommodations (we stayed in hostels/casa particulares), some breakfasts, and transportation to get from place to place. If you’re looking for a place to stay, we stayed in Terrazo House and Casa Robles. These neighboring homes are owned by Dayron Robles, a young Cuban track and field star.

We spent most of our time in Havana which is truly a unique place that looks like just like the photos. We stayed in Central Havana (Habana Vieja), a few blocks from the Malecon. We visited some cool plazas and spent time checking out the various parts of the city. Fortunately during the day we mostly got around via car. The humidity and heat were no joke.

One day we went to Varadero Beach, which is about an hour outside of Havana and is a night and day difference. The air was crisp and clean and it felt like a Caribbean beach town. The beacimg_4610h was just perfect, the water was crystal clear and very warm. You could easily walk out about 100 feet and the water barely reached your chest (I’m 5’4″ if that says anything). Although there were many classic cars there, they did not have nearly as smog and exhaust fumes as you’d find in Havana, which was a welcomed relief.

I highly highly recommend grabbing lunch at El Criollo, look for the Canadian flag on the same side of the street as the beach. My friends and I found that to be the best meal of our stay. Seriously, everything was fresh and they were so friendly. Speaking of Cuban food, overall it’s not that good as a lot of it lacks the flavor you’re used to when having Cuban food in the States, likely due to the lack of resources.

Trinidad isimg_4368 a sleepy, colonial town about a 4 hour drive from Havana, with vibrant colors and its own charm. I was surprised to see so many Americans and Europeans there, way more than in Havana. There were a ton of art studios and shops leading to the area where the stairs are, many offered very reasonable pricing. Not much to do there but it’s quiet and a nice respite from Havana. Make sure to check out the sugar mills while you’re there.

Some tips if you’re planning to travel to Cuba…

  • Definitely have a plan. Cuba is not a place where you can just wing it because you won’t have access (or likely it will be limited) to Internet so it makes planning difficult.
  • Explore all parts of Havana, but be prepared for a lot of smog from the old cars.
  • In Havana, if you’re into art check out some of these cool spots: Fabrica de Arte, Callejon de Hamel, and Fusterlandia.
  • Bring plenty of cash. I suggest converting money to Euro through your bank, if you can get a good rate. If not, you can use USD but there’s a 10% penalty on top of the conversion rate. Remember, I can’t stress this enough, you cannot use US-based credit cards and you don’t want to be that guy who ran out of cash.
  • We didn’t have cell or Internet service (one friend who has Sprint was able to send and receive text messages), but we expected to be without so we let our families know where we’d be staying in case of emergency. Your host may even provide a telephone, just ask.
  • Whenever you see large groups of people on their phones it’s usually a wifi spot but you still need to buy an access card to be able to use it and typically it’s only good for an hour.
  • Negotiate taxi fares and souvenirs, don’t be afraid to walk away for a better price.
  • Getting your Cuban Tourist Card/Visa. It will cost you $20USD (cash) at the airport you will depart from, for example we flew from Cancun so we purchased our visas there. UPDATE: When leaving from the US it’s $50 and should be purchased prior to travel.
  • Going through Immigration. They will stamp the Tourist Visa Card and you must keep it with your passport. They will ask if you want your passport stamped as well. If you have Global Entry I say go ahead, but if the US will be scrutinizing your passport on your return, I’d pass.
  • Eat where the locals eat. One of our drivers took us to a restaurant that he thought we want to go. Everyone spoke English and the entrees were $22-30. In Cuba that’s obscene considering how little people make there. We immediately got up and asked him to take us to where he likes to eat. He did, the food was tasty (a rarity in Cuba), the entrees were $5-6, and the cocktails were $2-3, that’s more like it.
  • Be mindful that most people don’t speak English and you shouldn’t expect them to. It’s helpful to know a few words in Spanish and be patient. The people are incredibly friendly and will do whatever they can to help you.
  • Cuban Currency – They use two, the CUC and CUP, but typically only the locals use the CUP. Never exchange your money with anyone offering CUPs.

I’m definitely interested to see how today’s Cuba will compare to Cuba in the next 5-10 years. So glad we had a chance to see Cuba in its current state and the people and culture that makes it so unique.

Update:
It hasn’t been a year since our visit and so much has changed already. For starters, the barrier to entry has been lowered and US citizens are now able to travel directly there for $200-300 from most parts of the country. More places are offering wifi access so you’re not a disconnected as it was in the past and there’s even a US hotel there now.

Here are a few photos from Havana and Trinidad, Cuba. More are posted on my Tumblr.

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