La Vida Es Un Carnival: Cuba
Whew the last three weeks were a blur! I turned 30, witnessed one of my best friend get married and went on the best trip OF MY LIFE!
Yes, I traveled to Cuba which is a place I've wanted to visit for some time now. It was by far the most authentic and enjoyable trip that I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking. The people were so genuine and kind. I can’t wait to tell you about my time there but first lets get to the legalities.
What does the legal process look like?
I've been asked a hundred times over how I was able to travel to Cuba from the US and it was quite simple. YES, you can still travel to Cuba. It is legal but it is also highly regulated. However, as long as you follow the legal process, there is nothing to worry about.
To begin with, along with your US passport, you'll need a visa . You can obtain a visa through your airline, online or at the airport prior to your flight. The price is different depending on the airline (for example, JetBlue charges $50, Southwest $75 and American Airlines $100). You will also need health insurance but this is usually included in the price of your plane ticket (make sure to read the fine print of your airline ticket).
There are now 11 categories under which you can legally travel to Cuba. “Support for the Cuban people” is the most used category for travelers. Under this category you must keep contact with locals on a regular basis during your visit. You can meet the requirement for this category by lodging with Cuban residents in “Casa Particulars” (most Airbnb listings in Cuba do qualify as Casa Particulars) and going on authentic Cuban tours with local guides in the area (I will share more about our experiences below). These are the things that make for a truly authentic and enjoyable experience in Cuba.
You can not openly trade/exchange Cuban currency outside of Cuba and credit/debit is scarcely used in Cuba so make sure that you bring enough cash to use on your trip. Cuba has two currencies: CUP for locals (faces appear on the bills) and CUC for tourists (monuments appear on the bills and the exchange rate for CUC to USD is 1:1). All currency is exchanged at a 3% fee but USD incurs an extra 10% fee so a tip that some of our group used was to convert our USD to EUR/CAD and then EUR/CAD to CUC. This is purely optional and those of us who did not convert USD to Euros barely noticed a difference.
Where we stayed.
With 8 rooms this awesome home sleeps up to 16 and was more than enough space for our group. The owner Ernesto lives on the premises and was super friendly but rarely around. However, a member of the staff was available 24 hours a day to assist us with all of our needs whether it be suggesting restaurants and activities or helping us book a taxi. They took awesome care to ensure we were safe, secure and enjoying our trip. There was a pool and game room that provided more than enough entertainment if we wanted to stay in for the day/night. We also had a chef onsite to prepare breakfast, lunch or dinner at our request. This was the best bargain for our money as each meal was buffet style and extremely fulfilling for a low price (6-14 CUC). The only thing I must mention about this home is that it is on the outskirts of the city so taxis were a bit more expensive and it usually took 20-30 minutes to get to most of the activities we had planned in the city. Otherwise, it was the perfect place to stay, especially if you have a large group.
What we did.
As previously mentioned, our group had an awesome time because of how authentic this experience was. There are many local travel agents in Cuba that are willing to take visitors out to experience all of the beauty that Cuba has to offer. However, the easiest way for us to access these experiences was through Airbnb which is a newer feature for the site. All of our experiences were hosted by Cuban residents and not only filled with fun but educational history as well.
This was a walking food tour led by husband and wife duo Richard and Maryla. We started with an authentic mojito fresco and the history of the origins of some of the most famous Cuban cocktails at La Paila. We followed up with a hearty lunch with more history and great conversations that were beneficial in assisting us with understanding Cuban culture while getting to know each other on a personal level at Locos por Cuba. After a photo opp at the University, our last stop was Amore, a tasty gelato shop that was perfect for cooling us off after a long walk in the hot, Cuban sun.
WHAT A NIGHT! This bar hop was led by Andito and his friends Luisma, Karolina, Alex and Elizabeth and what an awesome bunch! We started at Cafe Madrigal, getting to know the individuals in the group. We also shared a shot and an authentic Cuban cigar while Andito filled us in on the history of the drink and his personal family history as it related to the cigars we partook in. Next we taxi’d to El PaZillo to partake in more authentic Cuban shots while getting more acquainted with one another. At our final stop it was time to let loose and hit the dance floor to some great Latin and international hits at club Efe. It was an awesome time, dancing with old and new friends!
Two classic cars picked us up from our Airbnb and transported us to this beautiful, local beach. Not only was a beautiful day at the beach but our hosts were friendly and also shared even more Cuban history and insights with us. We stopped at an authentic restaurant and then had a photo opp at the Cuban fortress that dates back to when Cuba was under Spanish rule. This offered us break taking views of Cuba “from the other side.” This experience also can with many different vouchers to be used in the city, compliments of the host.
Fabrica De Arte
FAC is a 3 story art museum that hosts local art but also doubles as a night club. This was an awesome stop on our visit because we got some many things out of one venue. Art, live music, food and drinks. It was almost like a maze with greatness around every corner. The line can get long but it moves quickly so don’t get tricked into paying someone to “move you up in line” because it’s a scam! I promise you, FAC is worth the wait!
The best part about these experiences was not what we did but who we did it with. I cannot begin to express how awesome, welcoming and kind each host was to us. Though our time with them was limited, they made lasting impressions and I do not believe that our trip would have been as awesome had we not crossed paths with each and every one of them!
What made this trip unique
Not only was this trip fun but it was challenging in a way that I had not previously been challenged before. Most times when I’ve traveled out of the country, I have been in a tourist area that has not forced me to go outside of my comfort zone to interact with the local residents. This trip was different and I am so glad that it was because the immersion into culture made for an authentic experience. The connections we made were memorable and the residents because like family and friends so I implore you to visit Cuba!!
Tips for traveling to Cuba
-Not all places will have tissue and it is not customary to flush tissue down the toilet because the sewage system cannot handle it. Although, these tissue-less places were few and far in between, it does help to carry tissues/wipes and hand sanitizer with you while you are out.
-It’s also not customary to leave the AC on when noone is occupying a space so don’t be surprised if you enter a warm Airbnb or restaurant. They will usually turn on the air for you once you occupy the space.
-Residents make about $40 a month in Cuba, it is very nice to tip those who assist you on your trip
-Wifi is scarce and a wifi card is necessary to use it. I suggest going unplugged to truly take in the greatness of Cuba. However, there are a few apps that you can use offline to make your trip easier:
Maps.me - this app will allow you to use a map to navigate but make sure that you download the map while you have wifi or else it is useless (I know from experience)
AlaMesa - it’s like yelp for Cuba!
Google Translate - it probably goes without saying but many people in Cuba do not speak english. You can use google translate offline to help bridge the gap. Try to speak in spanish, they will appreciate it!!
Shazam - while there you will hear some awesome tunes! Many people aren’t aware but Shazam has an offline function that saves samples until you have service again!