As soon as I heard that the restriction for US Citizens to visit Cuba had been softened to now allow more Americans to travel here, it skyrocketed to the top of my list of places to visit. This is not because I was some Cuban fanatic, this was mainly driven by the fact that I wanted to see Cuba in its most natural form before Starbucks, McDonalds and Ubers started infiltrating the tourist industry. I love being American but it’s a shame when you go on holiday and you are surrounded by other Americans. Let’s face it: we are friendly but we are LOUD.
Anyways, the blogs this week will be focused on my perspective of Cuba. It will touch upon the logistics of travelling here, how to do it legally, and as a solo woman traveller…how to do it safely. While I am a seasoned traveller, this will actually be my first time travelling completely alone, where I do not know anyone, and no one knows me.
I must admit, the decision to come to Cuba was all very last minute- very “un-me”. I have been put on an open sabbatical (meaning not actually sure when I will be back to work), as I wait for my next adventurous move to Ireland (hopefully). My parents decided to kick me out of my funk and while I wanted to go on some “Eat, Pray, Love” road trip around the United States, during winter, NOT the greatest idea. So my dad suggested Cuba, so about 11 days later here I am. The flights were relatively cheap, had I booked a round-trip (almost direct in some cases) it would have only been about $300-400, which isn’t bad for January 2017- less than 14 days away. I visited lots of blogs, Googled- the heck out of travelling alone; as an American; whether to do group tours or do it on my own. I was a bit forced into my hotel choice and my decision to do a group tour or not was basically chosen for me. Given I was booking last minute a lot of the group tours were either sold out or EXTREMELY expensive (talking in the realm of $3000-6000+ without transportation). Also given the sheer “newness” and government “overseen” tourist industry here, the choice of hotels was slim especially if you didn’t want to stay in HAVANA, which I didn’t.
Why you ask? Well I wanted quiet time, I wanted to push myself to relax, and what better way than at a beach. BUT ALSO, as a solo woman traveller, and perhaps – dare I say- Black American, I have read its safest and easiest when staying at a resort and especially if its all inclusive, you have less decisions to make. I know, I know, me? The control freak, doesn’t want to make a decision? Yes, this sabbatical has definitely taught me to LET.IT.GO.
Anyways, so after reading several reviews, particularly about ADULTS travelling in small groups or by themselves, I landed on the Blau Varadero, a bit pricey, but so far no complaints and the adult-only concept, “complimentary” bottle of champagne and complimentary massage definitely helped in the final decision. THANKS MOM AND DAD!
So, after booking flights and getting my accommodation, I wanted to double and triple check that I still wasn’t violating any laws given I wasn’t going on a guided tour. The US still has restrictions on visitors. There are about 12 ways that you can come here legally. I hope some day these 12 methods will be lifted and it will be free-range for American tourists. Nevertheless, these 12 ways, range from political interests, visiting your Cuban family, charity work, or most popular and most used “people-to-people” tours. In a nutshell, it means you are coming here to learn about the Cuban culture, you will interact with Cubans and you aren’t just going to sit at the resort and drink RUM cocktails on the beach all day. Now if that is what you want to do as an American there are definitely ways to do that, and some of the links I will provide can tell you how, but that’s not my cup-o-tea;-0)
So I went back to the GOOGLE board and searched people-to-people tours, individually, packaged, and after many days of searching found some pretty promising ones. While these tours weren’t certified “people-to-people” persay, I made sure that the description and itinerary of the tours matched those that were deemed legal. So far I am in the country and no questions asked yet, we shall see what happens on the other side on Feb 5th when I re-enter the US. But fingers crossed, I am doing all I can and I do truly want to immerse myself in Cuban culture anyhow.
A few things to note, as an American (and potentially as another citizen travelling to US), you will need: 1) Cuban travel insurance, 2) Cuban tourist visa, 3) Affidavit indicating you’re legally entering the country and once on the plan you will sign off your health and declaration of customs. Most airlines now include the travel insurance (approx. $25) in the airfare, that was surely the case for Alaska Airlines, who only a month ago started doing direct flights from LAX to Havana. Double-check the airline to ensure this is the case. I found that most airlines will make you declare which of the 12 methods you are taking to get to Cuba before you even purchase the ticket (probably CYA on their end), but they also have a dedicated section on travelling to Cuba, given it is quite new to US citizens. If the airline does not include it there are several ways to get it, even at the airport. This goes for the visa too. The visa is literally a blank card you fill out, you can buy it at the airport but also have it sent to you. I probably would have it sent to you just in case. It runs between $50-80 plus shipping. It is for one entry and you CANNOT mess up the form or you will have to purchase a new one. (OUCH!)
Okay so that is for the logistics. Let’s move on to my first sights, opinions and experience once I touched down in Cuba.
After the 5-hour flight to Cuba, landing in Havana, it was already about 4:30pm and it was time to start my adventure. The border control process is a bit chaotic, given I am now used to the British custom of queues. This was kind of find a lane, any lane, and then wait to be called. The people at immigration were so nice, they even asked if I wanted my stamp in the visa or my passport (she looked at me with raised eyebrow and a smile and said “visa, right?”). I immediately got the feeling I wasn’t the first unsure American who had walked down that hall (obviously!). I also had the feeling that this was going to be the case throughout my experience here in Cuba. They want tourism, they want Americans, and they will do all they can to make it a great experience. Anyways given I only had carry-on luggage, I walked through customs and out the exit. I had a bout 15min until my “hotel-arranged” taxi driver was to show up, so I decided perfect timing to exchange money.
YES, at this time American currency/credit cards or travellers cheques are not accepted. SO I literally travelled to Cuba with ‘000s of cash USD. Not ideal, but that’s also why I had a hotel-arranged taxi to pick me up. As a note, I read on many forums that in Cuba they charge about 10% fee to exchange USD to CUC (Cuban pesos). So in LAX, I changed my USD for Canadian Dollar and then at Cuba airport I exchanged that for CUC. I probably gained about 100-150 CUCs because of that. (As of Jan 2017 the USD and CUC are $1 for 1CUC). BE AWARE, at the Cuban airport the lady did not take one of my 20 CAD notes because it had a tear, which kinds of sucks since I got the money from a travel agency, only 5 hours prior, but oh well. I should also note that even if you are traveling with a non –US credit card or currency, most places here use cash. Even my hotel charges a 3% charge for paying hotel with a credit card, so I bet you know what I did with about half my money as soon as I got to hotel
So, after exchanging my money, and frantically looking for my taxi driver, who I thought was 20min late, we were on our way. BTW- he wasn’t late, we had passed each other several times but he had my name written on a white piece of paper the size of a post-it haha. Anyways, we had a good laugh about it on the way. He spoke English, but also I decided to give my Spanish a whirl. Its been quite a bit of time since I used it outside of the phrase here or there I spouted in in Ibiza or Barcelona. Yo necesito practicar espanol !!
The drive took a little over 2 hours, mainly jetting inward southeast and then back north east along the coast. The drive reminded me of India, with narrow roads, lots of passing cars on the left, honking of horns to let bicyclists know you are approaching, and the odd cow in the road. While I read about the 1950s cars, I presumed this was mainly in Havana, and for tourist purposes, but it is not. Throughout rural Cuba, in fields, on the side of the road, there was plenty of 1950s cadillacs, sedans etc. DAD, would have loved it. The narrow roads were outlined by sugar cane trees, fields of horses and cows, but basically barren. Every 20-30min or so we would drive through a neighborhood, or Cuban town (downtown as the taxi calls it) which maybe had one convenient store, maybe a gas station, but pretty much just houses, and a play area for keys, which probably in American terms would be interpreted as a patch of dirt. Just like in India, people were walking and cycling along the cars, not on a sidewalk, not on a dedicated path, but basically along the road. Not really a care in the world, carrying water, groceries, bags, etc. Even when we passed they didn’t flinch or turn around. I loved it.
By the time we arrived at my resort, it was dark. I was already extremely tired, but I was determined to explore the grounds, unpack, get dinner and check out one of the hotel shows, and obviously some of the all-inclusive (AI) offers. Being my first AI experience, I thought there would be more of a guided introduction to it all. But basically I checked-in, they gave me my AI wristband, a welcome drink, and told me to make sure I made my massage and restaurant reservations in advance. I asked about activities and tours, and they said all information would be on ground floor. Then I was sent on my way once I paid. WOW! Okay, guess I am truly on my own.
No fear, I will get into my room, unpack, review the documents in the hotel, and maybe check in on the WIFI and do some research. UH, NO! Wifi is basically non-existent, and so is any kind of 3G network. I was somehow able to push out a text through iMessage to my mom at the airport, but that was about it. So calls and pricey texts is all I will be able to do, unless I wanted to pay the 2CUC for 1hr 20min of WIFI each time. I eventually succumbed to paying given I needed to confirm my Wednesday Havana tour, but this was going to be an interesting week, once again truly off the GRID.
All the AI activities like Tai Chi, tennis lessons, salsa dance lessons, Spanish lessons, water activities was a bit overwhelming. Do I try to do it all? Do I just relax on the beach? Do I do none of it? What about tours off the resort, like tobacco farms? How do I arrange that? As you can see my mind was going a mile a minute. If you know me at all, I am not one who travels without a dedicated and detailed plan spreadsheet. So showing up to a resort and pretty much allowing them to dictate my time here was a bit unnerving, but I wanted to go with the flow. See what’s what!!
More to come, can’t complain thus far.
The buffet style food was okay, and the resort is beautiful. The staff really try to get to know guests and are super hospitable. It’s no Four Seasons or Disney resort, but for Cuba, who strives to hold on to its roots, it is GLORIOUS.
For now Cuba remains untouched, and I hope to God it stays that way as long as it can.
P.S. I hope the blogs for the remaining days are not this long. But like Cuba is untouched so will be these blogs, fairly unedited, and in its rawest form. Enjoy or fast forward!