Traveling to Cuba? Not a problem- as we had been told anyway.
We had no idea what we would find when we arrived in Cuba or how to get there for that matter. There are so many negative stories circulating about traveling to Cuba as well as staying in Cuba unless you’re coming in on a cruise ship with the ship arranging everything for you therefore we had a few reservations about going yet we were far too curious not to take this trip.
We were told you had to contact the embassy to get a visa. You must have travel insurance. You are required to declare any currency that you bring into the country. Plus, no credit cards would be accepted in Cuba, cash only. As it turns out all the things we heard about travel to Cuba were not exactly true with the exception of no credit cards being accepted, cash only.
As usual we elected to buy tickets and deal with whatever came our way as we went along. At no point were we ask how much cash we were carrying much less having to show our currency. Contacting the Cuban Embassy was not necessary as they have a small Kiosk near the airline counter to walk up give them cash, (no cards accepted) and fill out a pink slip which we were never ask to show the entire trip. The cost of the Visa could be anywhere from $50 to $100 depending on the airline. We flew Delta and had to pay $100. Another friend told me she only had to pay $50 flying Jet Blue. The form we were asked to fill out for Visa asked for information on purpose of visit, we chose education. From what we understood before our travel you cannot travel to Cuba as a tourist yet we were never ask by anyone our reason for being there. At no time were we ever ask to buy or show proof of travel insurance. We had been told the American dollar was not a good idea and the best way to go is changing to Euros at the airport, which is what we did. As it turns out that bit of information was true since the banks did not like the dollar. The Cuban currency is vey confusing for most everyone since they have two different ones the Cuc and the Cup, the Cuc being of more value. The confusion begins when you start to make a purchase using one and getting change back in the other. After 12 days there we still were not clear on their money and felt we were short changed while making purchases on many occasions.
Communicating with the outside world while staying in Cuba is very difficult as Internet is very limited. You are required to purchase a card choosing different amounts of money depending on the time you would like. Once you purchase the card you have to find an internet zone, usually a hotel or possibly a restaurant find yourself a corner to hang out, and log onto Wi-Fi on your phone, scratch the back of the card for the pass code and hope you are able to get on line once you enter the code. Most of the time we had to make several tries before being able to get online. I ask one of the gentlemen who worked at the place where cards are sold why the Internet was difficult to get. He replied that the U.S. had blocked the signals for them. Whether that is true or not, I have no idea. Also the lines to buy Internet Cards were very long and tiring.
Havana has many interesting points, music, dancing, old cars, art and many lovely and friendly people. There’s also an abundance of Airbnb’s that are very affordable.
We were able to find a one-bedroom apartment for the low price of $18 per day. The apartment was adequately furnished comfortable, clean and private. Hotels in Havana have rates compared to the U.S. with some being even more expensive than in the U.S.
The apartment we rented was centrally located and we were able to walk to all the areas we wanted to see with the exception of the beach. Going to the beach was not a problem by Taxi, Coco Taxi, or perhaps one of the old cars that lined the streets giving rides and tours. The going rate for a one-hour tour in one of the old cars was 50 Cuc. One Cuc is equal to one American dollar. Once again try to exchange for Euros because Cubans do not like or respect the American dollar. Even though we had Euros we went straight to one of the banks to exchange for Cuban Pesos or Cucs.
As we walked through the streets of Havana the buildings told many stories, one of which was the wealth that existed in that country at one time only now we see many of the buildings being braced by makeshift wooden frames to keep them from falling down or caving in. I fear that many of these buildings will soon be lost. Although the local people appear to be happy they seem to have no desire or incentive to do anything more than exist. I suppose that is typical of a Communist Country. I value the time we spent with these people seeing their way of life and experiencing just a tiny bit of what it would be like to be trapped there. To all the cruisers out there, you only see what they want you to see as they have one area for the cruise ships staged to look really good with live music to greet the people yet there is very little about the real day-to-day life.
Before traveling to Cuba I had heard many stories about dancing and music on every corner in Havana yet we saw very little of these festivities. The most dancing we saw while there were the dance lessons we had at La Casa del Son, one of the dance studios, along with a few bands playing at local restaurants. We enjoyed the dance lessons immensely getting the feel of the local dance along with a few moves I had never seen before. Apparently taking dance lessons in Havana is a very popular tourist attraction. We saw very few Americans there but many from other countries came for lessons and of course no locals taking lessons.
We signed up for a week of dance lessons for an hour a day and still had plenty of time in between for a walking tour visiting Art Museums, parks and taking a bus tour of the city. The bus tour was a big disappointment consisting of no more than a drive through the streets, a bit more than we had seen walking, yet nothing of interest. The tour guide narrating gave no information other than pointing out different hotels along the way. A taxi ride would have been far more interesting since you are able to have a one on one question and answer with your taxi driver as well as the driver being more willing to please to increase his tip. Actually the cost of the taxi would have been about the same as two tickets on a bus.
We had one last stop on our list before going home which was seeing one of the beaches other than what we had seen in and around Havana. Most all of the shore around Old Havana is filled with trash and debris and no beach to speak of yet we had heard they had beautiful beaches but did not realize we would have to travel 6 to 10 miles to get there. The owner of the apartment we rented had several recommendations of things to see and restaurants around town and recommended Tropi-Coco as one of the nicer beaches. Our choice of travel to get to Tropi-Coco was taxi or Coco Taxi. I chose the Coco Taxi thinking the open-air ride to the beach would be more enjoyable. I’m pretty sure Ched would have chosen the taxi looking for a less bumpy ride. The beach was beautiful with clear blue water as far as you could see but the overcrowding of local people left it a little less desirable than it would have been otherwise. Perhaps on another day it would have been more enjoyable.
We booked our time in Havana for 12 days but both agreed one week would have been more than enough. Our curiosity with Cuba was satisfied leaving us happy we took the trip yet glad it was over.