Cuba Day 1
November 10, 2016
Since Stormy Monday is on the market to be sold and George wasn’t keen to travel to Cuba, I traveled to Cuba with my friend of 30+ years, Merrilee. We arrived in Cuba the day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and came home days before Fidel Castro died.
The United States has loosened the restrictions on traveling to Cuba within the last 18 months. We had to declare which of 12 licenses we would travel under. This document on the treasury website describes the requirements: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_faqs_new.pdf
We stated we would travel under the People-to-People license on a form provided by the airline. Per the US Government “Travelers utilizing this general license must ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.” … “In addition, persons relying upon this authorization must retain records related to the authorized travel transactions, including records demonstrating a full-time schedule of authorized activities.” To comply we kept a daily dairy of our interactions with the Cuban people.
If you book a trip with a travel group that is designed to fulfill the People-To-People licensing requirements it can be quiet expensive, $3-$4k for about a week. Rather than go that route I chose to book a tour that included travel insurance, lodging, a tour guide and a bus to allow us to visit several cities in the country; and then augmented the tour with our own activities to ensure that we met the requirements. We were able to do this for $470 pp airfare (included Visa & travel insurance) plus ~$120 pp per day (which included all our food, shopping, etc.)
We flew from Miami to Havana and wondered if our experience in the airport might be indicative of what was to come. We stood in one line to get our ticket using our invoice, then were directed to another line to get our boarding passes, but then they just took our ticket and walked us to the front of the line. The line was long, filled with Cubans taking large package of goods home. It was a friendly, unorganized mess.
When we arrived in Havana we walked down the steps and into Terminal 2. There were multiple customs lines with closed doors leading into the main part of the airport. It looked very organized and the lines were short. But when I was passed through customers and went through the door I realized that all doors dumped into 1 single line going through a security gate where they were to x-ray our luggage. It took a while.
There was a Taxi driver waiting with our names on a card, he was sent from the tour group. He showed to a Cadeca (acronym for Casa de Cambio, which means House of Exchange) so we could exchange our money. There is a 10% fee to exchange US, but luckily we had Canadian dollars also.
The peso, aka CUP, sometimes called the “national coin” or in Spanish moneda nacional is one of two official currencies in use in Cuba, the other being the convertible peso aka CUC, occasionally called “dollar” in the spoken language. There are currently 25 CUP per CUC.
After we exchanged money we had about a 20 minute drive into Havana to our Casa in Vadado. The main tourist areas include: Old Havana, Central Havana and Vedado. Old Havana is the oldest, most emblematic and most visited by tourists who come to the island in search of its historical and cultural highlights. Located between Old Havana and Vedado is Centro Havana which is mainly a shopping district. Vedado, which includes part of the Malecon coastline, displays similar architectural styles to Old Havana. While its buildings are of great visual deterioration, the appearance of the facades does not necessarily represent its interior. Vedado is a more modern and affluent neighborhood, but still packed with bars, restaurants, music venues and, best of all, regular Cubans.
While in Cuba we stayed in Casa Particular which are private homestays. You can book a Casa or a VIP Casa. We stayed in Casas. Typically they had at least 2 twin beds or 1 double bed and 1 twin bed. All had A/C, most with the ductless quiet type, 1 with a loud old A/C. It appeared that the same type of mattress was on every single bed we encountered, rather thin and hard but not uncomfortable to sleep on. Except for the one with cardboard boxes under it! Each room had its own adjoining bathroom, and they were all different, but all included beautiful tiles on the walls and floors. Some Casas were in better repair than others. Breakfast was always included, which typically included fresh fruit, bread, eggs and sometimes a fruit smoothie. Oh, and the coffee… yum… the coffee. There are so many Casa’s available I don’t think many people make reservations, but you can. Here is a website that allows that: http://www.casaparticular.com/. There are not a lot of hotels, but there are a lot of tourists! So the Casas make sense for the owners and the country. Our tour guide explained to us that last December there were more tourists than Casas available, so some tourists had to sleep in the park! Since then the government has setup a special license to allow home owners that are not typically Casas to accept tourists.
Merrilee and I were anxious to see Cuba, so we just started walking. We walked the Malecon (a paved walkway along the ocean) at sunset and made our way to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The hotel is beautiful, but we were glad we were having a more “Cuban” experience at the Casa. Casas tend to be ~$25-50(us) per night. VIP Casas are >$100(us) per night. The Hotel Nacional starts at $338(us) per night.
We were a tour group of 16 and so we were spread out over 3 different Casas. At 7:00pm we met at the “base Casa” and met our tour guide and the group. Our guide was named Alejandro and he was Cuban born and spoke good English. We came to know him as our Cuban Angel, because he took such good care of us. Our group was diverse, 21-70 years old and from all over the world, but we were the only ones from North America. In fact, we did not meet any other Americans on our trip except at the airport. Other countries represented included Australia, New Zealand, England, Germany, Hungary, and Estonia.
After our briefing which included information on where we would be traveling, information Alejandro would be providing and guidance on how to be patient with “the Cuban experience” we were about to embark on, we all went to dinner. We had dinner at a Paladar (privately owned restaurant vs. government owned) named Santa Barbara. All of our dinners included rice & beans and sometimes bread served family style in addition to the entrée ordered. We were warned in the states that the food might be bland, but we found that for the most part it was delicious with varied options. We spent the evening getting to know our tour mates and listening to lively Cuban music.
Next post will be Day 2 & 3 – Vinales
Grateful for it all…