How we got there.
Folks have asked us about our trip to Cuba. In order to answer some of the questions we decided to write a blog. Lauren bought the tickets out of the blue about a month and a half before we left. We flew American Airlines from Indy because the tickets were cheapest at the time. So be sure to check nearing airports. We spent about $275 on flights. We connected through Miami and that was great because we could buy visas there for an additional $20 if anything went wrong with our online purchase. Our visas came from “Cuba Travel Services”. The airline reached out via telephone and ask for an email address to send you a link to buy the visas for $80 each. They also helped with better understanding the process for filling it out. We discovered that passports are supposed to be valid for 6 months after your return.
Get your money right.
There is a tax on exchanging USD. In order to avoid the tax, we bought Euros at our bank. We bought 1,245 euros for $1,500 USD. You may also want to exchange for Canadian dollars. Do a little research on the exchange rate at the time of your travel. For 1,245 EUR we received about 1,300. This was plenty for the week for two people including taxi rides, museum entrances, about 50 CUC worth of souvenirs, lots and lots of mojitos, mostly cheap meals (less than 20 CUC for two people) and a few expensive meals (40 – 50 CUC for two people). It is important to note that your credit card will not work and you will need to bring more than you need. That said you should also remember that you will then have mass cash to be mindful of. This may be a good time to say we felt safe during our entire experience.
How we got around on the island.
While in Cuba we traveled city to city by both bus and taxi. We took a bus from Varadero back to Havana that we bought online. Tickets were only $10/each and the bus was air-conditioned, left on time, and arrived early. They can tend to sell out so buy ahead of time and print the confirmation. Tickets are issued at the station the day of departure. So arrive early to be sure you can get in line for a seat as there are no assigned seats and we wanted to sit together. In both cities, we got tour bus tickets to a double-decker “hop on, hop off” style bus. In Varadero, you could ride unlimited for 5 CUC/day and in Havana it was 10 CUC/day. Both were well worth it and went to all the major sites to see. We stayed in Varadero and Havana. We took a taxi to Varadero from the Havana airport because as mentioned above, the Viazul tickets were sold out. It was 120 CUC total… very expensive but very fast as our driver was going about 120 kmph the whole time! We never took a taxi in Varadero but took one taxi in Havana that was a classic car and one to the airport for 25 CUC. The classic car was a fun experience but the bus is a more practical way to get around.
Where we stayed.
We chose to stay with the locals so we used Airbnb. Our host in Varadero was Emily. She was in the hospital for a kidney transplant but her family took great care of us, made us a delicious breakfast for 6 CUC/each and spoke pretty good English. Their suggestions on experiencing Cuba as a both as local and as a tourist were incredibly helpful. Our second host was Mildred in Old Havana. Again she make breakfast and talked with us as we planned. Staying in folks’ homes was more personable and authentic; most hotels were in concentrated areas away from the Cuban people. Suggestion: bring a gift for your hosts… maybe a candle or something small.
How we spent our days
While in Varadero, a beautiful beach town, we mainly camped out on the beach. We rented cheap beach chairs ($2) and drank cheap ($2) drinks around 28th street. You could find these cabanas every few streets in each direction. It was not crowded on any of the beaches that weren’t in the resort area. We also went on a hike at the Ecological Reserve complete with caves, bats, and lots of lizards. It was a very cool way to spend our last day there after frying in the Cuban sun.
After we arrived Havana, we did a little walking around to get to know our neighborhood. Then we took the double-decker bus to explore some of the major sites. Our favorite was the Cemetery of Christopher Columbus. It was great because we met an awesome Cuban man named Lazaro who gave us a tour of the cemetery, told us fascinating stories about the graves and the history of the cemetery, and answered lots of questions we had “honestly” about the revolution, the government, and lots more - under the shade of the gorgeous trees, of course. Did we mention it was hot?! Other sites we saw and found interesting mostly because we made friends and got lots of information include:
Plaza de Revolucion
Hotel Nacional/Cuban Missile Crisis Tunnel
Plaza de Armas y castle y museos
The Malecon via a classic car ride
El Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite bar
This trip wasn’t really about the food but rather the drinks! There was lots of seafood. We chose that as the other meat options were questionable and not prepared to either of our liking. We tried twice and gave up. This is not to say you shouldn’t try. If you are looking for good food and drinks and we recommend La Barraca (located at the back edge of the Hotel Nacional lawn) best in Havana and La Vaca Rosada best in Varadero. Mojitos abound! However other cocktails are going to be unique. So be prepared to try things in a different way.
This is a communist country. You can’t ignore how this is impacting the Cuban people. A tangible look at the monetary system can help illustrate this: CUC vs. CUP This one is not so fun to talk about. Basically, from what we understood, the government is subsidizing their economy with tourism and this is done through the CUC form of currency. They are almost one-to-one with euros. Unfortunately though, the Cuban people are paid in CUP – and just enough to live on. This is coming directly from a man we met, additional research linked above, though it was very apparent in observation that folks spending CUCs (tourists) were able to live in excess and “workers” were not. This is challenging because if tourists don’t travel to Cuba, there maybe some short-term relief in areas such as food supply. However, it will soon create more difficulties in equalizing salaries and rewarding entrepreneurship.
Few tips we wish we knew
Do some deeper research about the revolution and the history of interactions with the US and Russia, e.g. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara. Should you too skip that, engage with the people; we learned more in 3 hours with an informal tour guide in the cemetery than any book could have taught us. Also, this supports entrepreneurial efforts.
The sun is bright af – bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen even for the city; the sun will zap your energy so schedule in time for an afternoon siesta or nap so you can experience the nightlife!
Consider bringing small gifts for all the adorable children running around. We didn’t expect it, but they wanted the buttons on Meredith’s backpack!