5 days in Cuba-2018
I was a little worried about being able to go to Cuba with the new regulations imposed by the new administration but I was glad to find it as easy as traveling anywhere else with our privileged blue passport.
During this trip, in July 2018, I chose to travel a bit slower and not overwhelm myself with multiple cities in a short period of time. All I can pretty much share is my experience in Havana and a day trip to Viñales.
From what I experienced, Cuba is more than puros (cigars), salsa and classic cars, Cuba is about its warm and happy people who are hungry for more and are persistent in their pursuit to provide a better lifestyle for themselves and their families.
Before Going to Cuba: Visas & Research
Visa: In order to travel to Cuba, American citizens must get a visa and select 1 of the 12 traveling categories, I selected Support of the Cuban People. You can buy your visa at the airport for around 50 dollars but since I am a control freak I wanted to buy them in advance. I purchased them here for $85. They also charge a nice $25 for shipping but it was waived for us since we booked our flights with American Airlines.
Research: You can find the 12 categories on this site including a link to restricted places by the US Government. I did not have a problem with many of the restrictions since I planned to stay at airbnbs, also known as casas particulares. I personally think that’s the best way to do it. While researching I found some great articles/blogs that explain more in detail the new restrictions imposed at the end of 2017: What to Know Before you Go to Cuba and What’s the Result of New Cuba Restrictions.
I had absolutely no problem getting into Cuba or coming back into the US, no questions were asked. I’ve heard some people have an itinerary ready in case they are questioned while they are there. No one asked me anything. I always have an itinerary regardless. The only time I was asked the reason for me going there was by the monitor when I was checking in my flight at the airport.
Besides staying at casas particulares, I also ate at paladares (privately owned restaurants), did some tours in Havana and Viñales, visited museums, and got lost in the middle of the night in Central Havana. Some of my readings said to keep receipts in case you get audited by the US government. I have yet to hear anyone getting audited for going to Cuba. I was not worried about that, I got pictures and a vague itinerary and if that’s not enough well “lo bailado nadie me lo quita” (what I have enjoyed nobody can take it away).
Money: Take cash, cards don’t work there, at least American cards. Well that is what every blog and person I know told me so I did not even try to use a card while there but who knows maybe things are changing; I would not risk it. I changed my dollars at my local personal bank to euros because the exchange rate is better when you go there and you have to change it to CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos). CUCs are one of the two currencies they use. This is the money you will use there. The other currency is the CUP (Cuban Peso) which is about 1 CUC= 25 CUP approximately. Just so you have an idea if it’s worth it to change your dollars to euros, here it’s an example with the rates given to me:
- $1000 / 1.2466=802 euros. 802 euros x 1.3874=913 CUC
If I would have taken just dollars, I would have received this:
- $1000 *.87=870 CUC
If you are scratching your head, based on the above I had about 43 more CUCs just by taking euros instead of dollars. Is it worth it? that’s on you. Take into account that exchange rates fluctuate often. I also heard from a friend, who visits Cuba often, that you can get a better rate (.90 or a bit more instead of .87) at La Moneda Cubana. I changed my money at a CADECA, casa de cambio, (money exchange house) in Obispo Street. You can also change some at the airport but their rates are a bit lower.
Just to give you an idea, I spent about 600 dollars in 5 days including souvenirs, tours, airbnbs, food, museums, etc. That does not include my flight and some of the costs were split with my boyfriend.
Where to Stay: Casas particulares (Airbnb) are definitely the place to stay, you get to mingle with local Cubans and get an idea of how they really live. This was my first international Airbnb experience sharing someone’s house and I loved it. They give you tons of tips and Cuban’s hospitality was excellent. I spent 35 CUC on average per night. You will not get luxury but a clean room with air conditioner was all we needed.
What to See: Havana has many zones but the ones most people visit or talk about are Old Havana, Central Havana and Vedado.
There is a lot to do in Old Havana (Habana Vieja), we were lucky to stay right next to Plaza Vieja, a charming old square. Some restaurants and souvenir shops are here but I would suggest to go the Almacenes for that. Obispo Street is one of their main and busiest streets for tourists that leads you all the way to Parque Central where the Capitolio, Paseo del Prado, Jose Marti’s statue, Museo de las Bella Artes and the Hot Corner are located among many main hotels, and more.
Watching the sunset at the Malecon (seawall) is a must, take some change or small bills as you will have many people approach you trying to sell you fruit, gum or simply start serenading you with some salsa, don’t just dance with them, a tip goes a long way. Not everyone there is going to solicit from you either, some people just like to know where you are from and want to have a conversation. If you can head over to The Christ of Havana Statue on La Cabaña Hill for some nice panoramic views of the city, it’s worth it.
We did the Habana Bus Tour for 10 CUC per person; it’s a hop on, hop off bus. We also did a two-hour classic tour for 70 CUC. It was actually a little over 3 hours. I am not sure if that was a good price for those tours or not but we enjoyed it.
We got lost in Central Havana our first night there, it was full of old alleyways with houses crumbling down and with people just walking or hanging outside. We kept being told that it was very safe regardless of how dark it may get in the streets at night and they were right. We also walked down the Malecon and let me tell you, on a Saturday night, that is where all the locals go. They gather in small or large groups while playing music on their phones or speakers and just hang there in the dark. You may also find some kids just twerking there lol, don’t ask, or couples engaging in some exuberant PDA– hey it’s their place not mine. It was a site to see, I wish I would have taken a picture but the simplicity of enjoying just their own company was refreshing.
Our last night, we rented a private studio in the Vedado area which is their more residential neighborhood. Here we had some wonderful massages for 25 CUC for one hour and an amazing facial for 12 CUC. We checked out their “mall” a galeria de tiendas that consisted of a handful of clothing stores, a large electronic store and a food market. You can also catch a little train for 1 CUC that takes you via the Malecon area from Hotel Melia Cohiba all the way to the Almacenes San Jose (huge flea market).
We were able to go to their local beach, Santa Maria del Mar or Playas del Este, it was about 20 to 25 minutes away from Parque Central. We took a bus for 5 CUC round trip per person. The last one runs at 6pm. There were three stops for the beaches. We got off at the last stop recommended to us for a more private area. It was a Tuesday so it was not busy at all. At first, I was going to go to Varadero but I am glad we did not thanks to my fave blogger’s suggestion. I was just as pleased with this beach. Soft white sand with clean and pristine water was all I needed; I had a great time there.
We also went to Viñales on a day trip, from 7:30am to 7:pm. The cost was 67 CUC per person which included pick up from a major hotel, lunch, a free drink (if you want to call it that, some green liquid), a tobacco tour, a cave tour and a quick stop at a mirador for some panoramic views. You can purchase the tours at major hotels or you can rent a private taxi which may be about 120 CUC or more, if you split it with more people then you are better off.
If you have time, stay in Havana 2 to 3 nights and get out the city and explore places like Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santiago, etc. I just scratched the surface but I will be back.
Food: Food was okay but it was not great and this opinion can be biased since I am used to the taste and seasoning of Caribbean American food and this may have messed up my taste palate. Keep in mind they don’t enjoy the luxury of having supermarkets with 1 million products and seasonings as we do in the States. Some of the typical dishes I enjoyed were rice and black beans (moros y cristianos), puerco asado (roasted pig) yuca, tostones and veggies. Also, their lime soda nacional is bomb.
For breakfast, we mainly ate at our hosts’ house for a small fee of 5 CUC per person which included eggs, fruit, coffee, smoothies and bread with some type of spreading.
Food was relatively cheap at restaurants depending on where you go. I loved Don Julio’s Cafeteria-Pizzaria in Plaza Vieja. We had ropa vieja (shredded or pulled stewed beef), a pizza pie and two mojitos for 14 CUC total plus live music. Besides the lady who screamed at me because I did not want to buy a rose at that moment, I think that was my favorite place to eat. Castropol had excellent views of the Malecon and decent seafood. The paella was better than the one I ate in Valencia Spain but I also only tried one paella while in Valencia so don’t pay my paella reviews too much attention.
WiFi: What they say is true, WiFi is not really at hand’s reach but you can have it if you really want it. You need to buy a WiFi card, I got mine from Etecsa their main WiFi and phone company for 1 CUC for 1 hour or 5 CUC for 5 hours. They also sell it at other places for a slight premium. You can get WiFi at different parks or near certain buildings by the Malecon. It’s very easy to spot them since you will see a lot of Cubans all on their cellphones. I was lucky one of my casa particulares hosts had a WiFi router, which later on I was told it was illegal by another Cuban; if that’s true, well you got to love the ingenuity. There and at Floridita Restaurant were the only places I used WiFi for a total of a few hours during my entire stay. Being able to unplug almost completely was beyond relaxing, I guess one does not realize how dependent we can be to our phones until the internet vanishes.
What I learned: I was told repeatedly the average monthly salary for a Cuban is between 20 to 25 CUC, while a doctor may make 40 CUC a month.
They want more. They don’t understand how they have some of the best doctors in the world and they still get paid 40 CUC a month. I mean damn, I don’t understand either.
Cubans are highly educated, all my casa particulares’ hosts were former attorneys. One of the drivers was also a former attorney and the other a recent graduate of economy. They all turned to the tourism industry, Cuba’s highest paid industry. While all the people we spoke with seemed to express their desire for more for their country as far as income and a better quality of life, I did not get the same sentiment from my hosts. I actually asked the wife of one of my host if her husband was out working another job when I did not see him at home and her response was “no, this is more than enough.” This same sentiment was shared with us by some friendly guys at the Hot Corner, it seems like there are people doing pretty well for themselves with private businesses but this is not reflective of the pueblo (all the people). Our friendly masseuse said the same; she told me she knew the deal and some will be better off than others and that is how they will prosper. It was amazing to engage in conversation with them and how willing they were to speak with you just by us asking them how was Cuba.
Cuba also gave us a reality check of the privilege we often take for granted. For a Cuban just to get a passport can cost him 100 CUC, that can mean a 4 month salary for some. That’s not counting the visas, a visa interview can cost you a little over 150 CUC just to be denied and told to come back and try next year.
One other thing I noticed was the long lines at the Spanish Embassy, a fairly new legislation now allows Cubans to apply for Spanish citizenship if they can prove their grandparents lost or gave up Spanish citizenship as a result of exile. Having a Spanish passport would allow some the ability to travel more freely.
During Obama’s administration, they said there was an invasion of Americans, they did not know what to do, their prices skyrocketed but with the new administration that stopped quickly. They don’t see American tourists too often now.
One of our drivers mentioned Facebook and how his view of Cuba has shifted. He was only 22 and said when he was a kid he thought Cuba was the best country ever. Now that he can see more via social media and how others around the world live and enjoy life, he said that regardless of how hard he may work, he knows there is more to life that he cannot attain. I tried telling him it’s not always greener on the other side but who was I to really say that. Yes, I lived in poverty in Peru until 13 but I was given the chance to have a better life with more opportunities that others may not enjoy.
Cuba was refreshing, it was warm (well hot af in July) but you know what I mean, it was eye opening. It is not your typical all inclusive island vacation. There was obvious poverty, crumbling buildings left and right, dirty alleyways and a smell you get used to while wandering some streets. There were complaints from many, even the ones who made more money by working in the tourism industry. Not everything about Havana was colorful, in every sense of the word, but it was welcoming and beautiful at the same time, and I think you should all go experience it for yourselves. Take your dollars and enjoy.
You don’t travel for others to abide by your standards, you abide by their standards when you are traveling.