I've always said it, I'm unofficially Cuban or Cuban by association. Just check my birth certificate- born in Hialeah Hospital at 3:05 p.m.
Just kidding more like 9:30 p.m. but that would have been funny.
If you keep up with my work then you would know I recently had Cherie Cancio and Amanda Rabines from CubaOne Foundation on my radio show Meet Them Mondays. Our interview left me completely inspired and with a strong desire to visit Cuba, a country with a culture embedded deep in my person, but one of complete mystery- I'm American of Colombian decent. [[You can read about my cultural ancestry test here.]]
Over Labor Day weekend my wife and I decided to take a spontaneous three day trip to the Island 90 miles away. We booked a casa particular on Air B&B and bought our plane tickets. This is how we spent our #72Hours.
First you'll have to buy your flight, we mostly fly American Airlines so we went online and purchased one that worked for our travel dates. American Airlines does not include the visa with the purchase of the flight, but they have the Cuba Travel Services desk right next to check-in at the airport where you can purchase a visa in person. It cost us $100 at the airport with them, and if you purchase the visa with them online it's $85 + shipping which totals to $100 as well. Here's the link for the visa and we chose the "people to people" option because aside from being the most obvious it seemed like the one that most travelers choose when we did our research. Also, you only get one chance at filling it out so be extra careful and focused. CubaOne Foundation has a great post by Amanda Rabines on all the stipulations and documents needed if you were born in Cuba or if you're not a citizen. It was actually really helpful for us and you can read that by clicking here. American Airlines also has their own version of Cuba Travel Requirements.
The flight lasted about an hour to an hour and 30 minutes because the Cuban airport had shut down while we were in flight. The captain spent about 30 minutes trying to land, maybe longer but the airport kept telling him it was because of delays in departures. He then went back on to tell us it was because of operational issues at the airport but he said he wasn't sure if this was really what was happening. We were finally able to land but that just goes to show you how they operate in Cuba. They shut down airports knowing people need to land and they just keep you on hold until orders are given and you don't really get a clear answer as to why.
YOU MUST TAKE CASH* as no credit cards work in Cuba. I'LL SAY IT AGAIN... YOU MUST TAKE ALL OF THE CASH YOU PLAN ON SPENDING WHILE THERE... Don't be that guy whose stuck without money because you took credit cards thinking you could use them in Cuba. This part was relatively easy because I went to my bank, ordered euros and had them exchanged for me there.You can also look up local places like Euro Exchange in Downtown or Foreign Exchange across the street from there. It wasn't worth it to me because I would spend in parking and gas what I would be saving through them. Our friends had mentioned we should get euros because we would get more currency versus the dollar. Almost everyone we know does it this way, unless they 1. Know of another currency that at the time has a better exchange rate or 2. Know someone in Cuba who can give them a fair exchange rate or something close to 1x1 such a 1 peso =1 usd. We calculated that we would spend $100 per day, and we added to that the $25-$30 dollars to and from the airport for the driver, and the $70 for the day trip to Viñales plus a little extra for things we wanted to buy or tips and eating out. So total about $450 each. We came back with about $13 pesos or $13 dollars, remember each peso is about $1, not really it's a little more but if you think of it this way you will stay within budget and it makes for swift mental calculation.
Step One: Book Your Casa
We rushed to find a place to stay after our first casa cancelled on us three days before our trip. This was probably the best thing that happened because we found our host Amaury on Airbnb and he really impacted our time there and what we chose to do. I would go back to Cuba and stay with him in a heartbeat because yes, although he is a host of a home and we are clients, he never made us feel like he was looking at walking dollar signs. It's Cuba and everyone is on a hustle, but he was genuine and made us feel like friends. As a matter of fact its official because we're connected on Facebook. The last day of our trip we ended up eating breakfast in the living room of his home dancing to videos of "El Micha" blasting his speaker. As a curtesy we decided to take him and his wife a little gift. Think about being in their shoes, most of the Cuban people live in poverty so literally anything helps. Anything they don't have to spend money on is a positive thing for them. I find that the people there are so grateful and content with anything you bring them, it's about the thought for us but the necessity for them.
Click here for his information if you want to stay with him in Old Havana and you can reach him directly too: Amaury: (535)2461976, email:firstname.lastname@example.org, Address: #58, apto 11 e/Angeles y Aguila. Centro Habana.
Step Two: What To Do
Since we only had three days we knew we had to spend our time wisely. We had friends who had gone to Cuba previously and recommended a day trip to Viñales so we split our days like so: Saturday morning we arrived in Havana and we would explore Old Havana, Sunday we would rent a car which Amaury coordinated for us for our day trip to the country aka Viñales ,$70, (make sure you tell Amaury you want Fernando Rodriguez Corpoa to drive you in his museum of a car, a 1950s Bel Air Chevy) and upon arriving that night we would further explore Old Havana. Monday we would explore Old Havana again and a planned part of our trip which was to visit the On Cuba Newsroom which I was kindly invited to by Cherie Cancio of the CubaOne Foundation. Pro Tip: While in Viñales you MUST eat at Balcon Del Valle, the views are breathtaking, the food is scrumptious and the hospitality was five stars: Km 23 carretera a Viñales 120 m al oeste del Centro de Informacion del CITMA Pinar del Rio Cuba, 53-48695847/53-53103858, email@example.com, click here for their website.
Here's a list of some of the places we went to while we were there on the map below:
Callejon De Hamel: Think of this as a small street corridor with a rich history of Santeria and Yoruba culture. For $10 you get a small tour by one of the locals. We stayed with Fernando Rodriguez Corpoa during the tour because I had a sketchy vibe. There was nothing dangerous about the place, but a lot of young kids hang and ask for money from tourists around that area. Again, this is common given the conditions, but I felt better with his company not that we actually needed it.
Fábrica De Arte: This place is a gigantic re-purposed factory that houses art, installations, video and other multimedia art projects under one roof. They also feature a live entertainment venue inside and a mini food area along with vendors. $2 CUC for entrance.
We had a slightly scary but funny situation that happened while we were on the way there.
We flagged down a taxi at the park nearby Amaury's and it was hella vintage and as we were on the way it broke down. The first time, it happened right at a light and our driver began to push the car until he got it to turn on again and hopped in. The second time it broke down in a desolate alley with no street lights and Melani (my wife) and I figured this was the end. The guy was so pissed by the second time he basically shat on everyone's mother and grandmother cursing up a storm with us in the back of the cab. We got out of the car and told him to calm down and that we would still pay him the full fair of the ride. He obliged and told us he would walk us the rest of the way. Luckily, the blocks in Havana are small and he walked us all the way until the corner of the entrance. We gave him $13 dollars for the ride which was way more that he asked for because he kept his word and got us there and of course for his troubles.
While at La Fabrica we discovered Clandestina, a Cuban apparel brand. The map above belongs to them and we grabbed this map when we visited their flagship store in Havana. Think of it as the hipsters guide to Cuba. Clandestina: Villegas 403 e/ Teniente Rey y Muralla. La Habana Vieja, CubaTel.: +5353814802
Mural De La Prehistoria -Viñales, This is one of the largest murals of the world representing the life of the first habitants of the Cuban archipelago. The planning of the mural began on September 11, 1959 and painting commenced in 1960 and completed four years later.
We also visited La Cueva Del Indio, it's a cave with water that you ride through in a little boat. To reach the boat you have to walk through. It's right by the mural above but if you cannot find it reach out to Amaury and he can tell you where to go as he instructed our driver Fernando Rodriguez Corpoa where to take us.
Since the heat in Cuba makes you feel like you're in the seventh circle of hell I suggest you take Bici Taxi's, those are the small bikes with seats attached to the back and dude in the front driving you. I recommend them if you're not down to walk around too much and you don't feel like passing out of heat exhaustion. It's also completely safe to flag a cab down and ride anywhere you need to. I say be smart about it and ask what the prices are before you jump in. Amaury also helped us giving us the average tourist prices for taxi rides etc so we wouldn't get ripped off.
Double Decker Bus or the Hop-on, Hop-off:
For most of our trips especially when they are #72Hours we buy tickets for hop-on, hop-off bus. We’ve adopted this tradition for a while now and we find that it’s helpful in many ways but the most obvious is that you get to see a majority of popular areas in a short period of time. If you like a particular area you can hop off and explore and catch the bus again when you’re ready and you avoid walking or having to take a cab to each place individually. We purchased our tickets via HabanaBusTour by the Capitolio building in Old Havana as they had a bus stop there for $10 CUC or $10 USD, children ages 0-6 are FREE and the ticket is valid from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The bus also makes a stop at 3XL, it is a buffet restaurant that for for $10 CUC you can stuff your face and then hop on the bus when you're done.
Here's a list of necessities:
-Re-fillable water bottle
-Hat, head wrap or cap
-One of those hand fans so you look bougie-but you're really just trying not to die
-Open mind- shit is real in Cuba, embrace the struggle and be mindful to the situations that happen. You're on a trip, this is every day life for Cubans.
-Random things to give to people if they ask: gum, pens, deodorant, toothbrush. Seriously, anything helps.
Cuba was really amazing because of the people that live there. One thing that I do need to point out is the heat. I was in a daze all three days of how hot it was there, but it's part of the experience. I covered as much as I could about our experience but if you have questions please leave me a comment below or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay tuned for my next #72Hours post on our Pittsburgh trip and save travels.
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