Susan and I have been fascinated by Cuba for a long time, but I think we first got the bug to go there years ago after watching the movie “Havana” starring Robert Redford. It wasn’t a great movie, but something about it captured our imaginations, and we’ve had Cuba on our radar to visit ever since.
If you read our blog you’ll know that we took three years off to travel on our sailboat, Compania, in the early 2000s. We had always planned a stopover in Cuba, but in 2004 things were a lot different. We were headed back to “dirt world,” as we call it, when the Bush administration decreed that all U.S.-flagged boats would be subject to confiscation if caught in Cuban waters. Not keen on jeopardizing our major investment, we reluctantly bypassed Cuba on our final passage from Mexico to Florida. As we sailed by Cuba over the course of a day and a night, we wondered – would we ever get a chance to visit that remarkable place?
What a difference 12 years makes. With relations between the U.S. and Cuba continuing to improve, it’s never been easier for U.S. citizens to go there. Finally, after careful planning, we were able to fulfill our dream to visit this incredible island!
Here’s our advice for folks who want to follow in our footsteps:
START EARLY – CUBA ES MUY POPULAR!
We decided to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Cuba to take advantage of Susan’s holidays and enjoy the cooler temperatures in December. I started planning this trip last July – and it was barely soon enough. We picked the brains of friends who had recently made the trip and also bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba. I also read every online source I could get my hands on to get the most current information possible.
We knew from the start that we wanted to stay in casas particulares (home-stays), but they book up very early in the high season. Even six months ahead, I still had to scramble a bit to find our lodging. I started with the casas listed in the Lonely Planet and eventually found openings through Air B&B and a couple of other websites. I’d venture to say that as the island opens up more to U.S. tourists and begins to accept credit cards, it will get even harder to book casas.
On our first day in Havana we took an awesome bike tour that gave us a real lay of the land.Here’s the outfit we used: www.rutabikes.com. And here are another couple of helpful sites: www.cuba-junky.com and www.bestcubatravelguide.com.
BUT WHAT’S A CASA PARTICULAR?
Travelers to Cuba have many lodging options to choose from, ranging from high-end (and usually government-run) hotels to youth hostels. But one of the best ways to experience the real Cuba, and help real Cubans in the process, is to stay in a casa particular. Since 1997, the Cuban government has allowed private citizens to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists. Recent reforms by Raul Castro have greatly expanded this program and these home-stays are now as ubiquitous as rum, cigar smoke, and images of Fidel and Che.
On our recent visit, we stayed in four casas — two in Havana, and one each in Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Prices ranged from $35 a night for our first Havana homestay to $55 in Trinidad, in a fantastic place that was more like a small boutique hotel than a private residence. For booking the casas, try Airbnb, now active in Cuba, and Trip Advisor. We also used www.casaparticular.com and www.bbinnvinales.com/bedandbreakfastrentweb.
The first thing to know here is that Cuba is operating with two separate currencies – Cuban convertible pesos, also known as CUCs, and regular Cuban pesos. You’ll be using CUCs for just about everything but it’s inevitable you’ll end up with a few regular pesos in your pocket, too. Just make sure you can tell the difference, since CUCs are on par with the U.S. dollar and regular pesos are only worth about a nickel.
If you’re starting out with U.S. dollars, don’t wait until you get to Cuba to change your money or the Cuban government will sock you with a 13-percent service charge. Instead, change your dollars to Euros before you leave your point of origin, since the Cuban fee for exchanging Euros to CUCs is only 3 percent.
When you land at Marti Airport in Havana, you’ll find a mob of people trying to exchange money at the CADECA on the ground floor. By accident, I went upstairs looking for the restroom and found another CADECA, almost completely deserted. Save some time and go upstairs, or better yet, wait until you get to town and go to a CADECA there – you might get a better rate.
One more comment about money: take more cash than you think you’ll possibly need. Since it’s so expensive to exchange dollars in Cuba, and also since it’s not possible to use U.S. credit cards or ATMs there, you will be “cash and carry” for most of your trip. This made us a lot more budget-conscious than usual when we travel, but the good news is that we didn’t have a big credit card bill when we got home!
For our road trip from Havana to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, we took the Viazul bus. Our first casa owner got all of our tickets for us for a 10 CUC fee, well worth it for the time and hassle it saved us, and she explained the skinny on checking in. When you show up at the Viazul station, you need to find the check-in desk and get a seat assignment, which no one pays any attention to (it’s basically open seating on the bus). Viazul has a really helpful website – www.viazul com. And here’s another useful writeup about travel on Viazul: www.fivepointfive.org/travelling-by-viazul-bus-in-cuba. We paid Viazul $118 round-trip for both of us to travel from Havana to Cienfuegos, from Cienfuegos to Trinidad, and then from Trinidad back to Havana.
It’s rare to find toilet paper, paper towels, or even toilet seats in public restrooms. Instead, most restrooms have ladies standing outside to hand you a couple of paper napkins for a tip. So trust us on this – stash a couple of rolls of TP and some hand sanitizer in your backpack. And tip the ladies anyway.