Life got real in Cuba
Vacations are great times to challenge yourself and gain more life lessons. Here are the top 10 things I learn while vacationing in Havana, Cuba.
1. In the Air
There might be a surge of American tourists in Cuba for several reasons. Not only did America and Cuba decide to end their embargo, but the flights to Cuba are very reasonable. The cheap ticket is what caught my cousin Diane's attention. Originally she wanted to go to Grand Cayman Island to celebrate her birthday, but then she saw round trip tickets from Ft. Lauderdale to Cuba for about $140, and she was sold!
She invited myself and eight other family members and friends to embark on an adventure to Cuba. Note that flying from the Southeastern region of America will shorten your travel time and cost. Most of the ladies who came along flew directly from Miami and lasted less than 30 minutes in the air.
Pictures of Mexico City, Mexico during our 6-hour layover.
My experience was a tad different since my sister and I flew from NYC. It took me about 14 hours to get to Cuba. I flew from JFK airport at 9 a.m. via AreoMexico and had a 6 hour layover in Mexico City. Then arrived to Cuba at 11 that night.
2. Visa to go please.
You must have a visa to enter Cuba as a American citizen. You can read this Huffington Post article that explains that under the President Obama administration the sanctions for Americans to travel to Cuba independently are now a bit lax, but you must declare the visit is for an educational journey or one of the other 12 categories listed to authorize the trip.
Visa can be purchased online or through your airline company. If your flight has a layover in another country, then get your Cuban visa there. I paid $320 Mexican Pesos (MXN) for mine, which is around $20 US Dollars (USD). Jet blue Airlines charges $50 and Spirit Airlines demands for $100 (outrageous!).
3. Life without Internet *sigh*
It's 2017 and internet and WiFi are still not common in Cuba. Luckily my first night was spent at an Airbnb near an Internet cafe. It was literally a park with benches and an Afro-Cuban guy with locs and freckles name Julian selling what looked like calling cards for less than $5 US Dollars (USD). The cards had the sign-on information, and it seemed like the wifi worked better on iPhones than Android phones (#ijs). When you find these Internet cafe space you must take advantage because outside of a hotel, those are the only places you can get connected.
4. Show me the money.
Cuba has no relations with American banks, therefore, there are no ways to withdraw money. Come.With.Cash.
My group and I tried to find a way around it by getting money transferred through Western Union, but sadly we were informed that Americans cannot receive anything if we aren't exchange or medical students.
Although research might say a USD to the Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) is 1 to 1, in my experience we received .87 CUC for $1 USD. When exchanging money it became very tricky. We attempted to exchange our money before we arrived, just to learn that most banks in US don't have CUC. So we traded in our USD for Canadian dollars, and when we arrived to Cuba we exchanged our Canadian dollars into CUC, just to avoid a 10% surcharge some exchange booth places on USD.
5. Cars go a long way.
Cuba is known for their vintage American cars, but I now understand why they've taken pride on restoring and salvaging these classic vehicles.
It's because you need a car to truly get around. There is no Uber, so if you're in the wrong location taxis are very hard to find. It's best to be selective when choosing your lodging location. If you settle down on the outskirts of the city, then secure a full time driver or book through a travel agency/group where grounds commuting is secured.
We secured a 4 bedroom 4 bathroom house with a pool in Santa Fe, Havana, which is a community on far west coast of the city. It is about 14 miles away from the heart of Havana. Our distance was like South Bronx to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn (for those who know NYC).
6. Hablo Espanol?
I got to Cuba thinking my Portuguese speaking skills will get me far, but boy I was wrong. Everyone knows how to read and write, but those without a college degree aren't familiar with English language. I found myself being frustrated in the midst of broken translation and conversation with the locals.Travel with your Spanish speaking friend, a translator or a translation app already downloaded to be able to have clear communication.
7. To Airbnb or not?
Yes Cuba has Airbnb, and from my experience they are cheaper than a hotel room. With a hotel room you'll have Internet, WiFi, a direct currency exchange desk in the lobby, but the price point can range from $300 - $500 CUC a night. Meanwhile an Airbnb in Cuba most likely won't have internet access, but you may will still have breakfast for a reasonable price. Our 4 bedroom 4 bathroom house in Santa Fe was about $970 for three nights. After dividing it among 8 people it just became $121 per person. (not bad for three nights).
8. A comida (the food)
Food in Cuba is very cheap. For about $4-7 CUC you get a hefty plate of rice, beans and chicken/fish from a local restaurant. My group and I had to spent less on food than anything else. We went to Area 53 restaurant for my cousin's birthday dinner.
It was more on the pricey end of things, but many of our meals didn't exceed $10-14 CUC.
One thing I noticed is that Cuban love their pork. If you have any food preferences pay attention. It should be obvious from their popular Cuban sandwich, but the swine was everywhere especially in the brown rice. In addition, the seafood is superbs. You can purchase two lobster tails for $12 CUC.
9. Plan your Excursions
Planning your trip to Cuba is necessary because you will not have access to do research when you get to the island. We didn't have much time to create a plan on activities to do. There was one thing my cousin was adamant about, which was exploring the caves in Varadero Beach, Cuba.
Varadero is about 2-3 hours away from Havana. For $5 CUC we swam in 66 feet deep, crystal clear fresh water in Cueva de Saturno (Saturn Cave). The water was so refreshing. The lifeguard told us not to pee in the water because there are little creature that will swim up your urethra. We were all shocked, until he started laughing and confessed he was joking. Supposedly there are no animals in the water, but it's definitely a place worthy enough to bring your goggles to discover what lies beneath.
Shortly after we went to the beach and got to watch as the sun set and twerk (of course).
10. Turn up
This should definitely be a duh? But often times when you're traveling things don't go according to the plan. Or there are a series of misfortune events. Regardless of what goes left, still try to saver the moments.
This is your vacation from your everyday routine and an opportunity to tap into a whole different world and meet new people. Don't get frustrated with the lack of amenities that have been a norm to you like hot water, fast-food and internet. You'll make it back to your materialistic prize possessions in due time. Until then embrace the different.