TWO WEEKS AGO we set our automatic vacation away e-mails and jetted off to travel to Cuba. The sig other was fascinated by the ‘forbidden’ land. I was a touch more reluctant but ultimately my reasoning was along the lines of, ‘Well…the Kardashians did it.” So we went with it.
Because of the government tension and embargo, to legally travel to Cuba you need legit specifics. We went in the ‘support of the Cuban people’ as per our itinerary, designed by Laura at Via Hero (thank you, Laura!), but mostly in pursuit of an adventure.
Sharing is caring, so read on (health caveats included).
First Things First
When traveling to a foreign country where there is no international access to your funds, make sure to carry plenty of their currency in cash. Cuban currency comes in two forms – Cuban pesos, and international CUC’s. Tourists use CUC’s (or ‘cooks’) where 1 CUC equals about 97 cents in US currency. We exchanged dollars to Euros at our bank in the States, then Euros to CUCs to minimize the exchange fee losses.
Health Disclaimer: Drugs
When traveling to countries with questionable food and water supplies, consider asking your doc for a short course of anti-parasite meds just in case. No one wants to overprescribe medications because of concerns about resistance, so some docs may be reluctant. If you vow to use them appropriately, your doc may be game. Having a short course of these to tide you over if medication is not readily available is not a bad idea.
Don’t forget the over-the counter stuff. Bring ibuprofen and cold medication. In our case, we were golden on the ibuprofen, but when a cold hit hard we suffered through the sinus symptoms because we forgot the cold meds.
JetBlue now flies to Cuba from NY so that part was cake. Make sure your passport is not expired and buy a $50 travel visa at the airport.
Buy travel insurance a week beforehand, so they can airlift you out if something serious happens.
Pack lightly. Not only may you end up moving around like we did and having to unpack and pack a few times, but you will also be a lot happier knowing your clean laundry is above your head and not on another flight to the opposite side of the world. The convenience of a Target in Cuba is a fantasy.
The Cuban Countryside
Eight months of overexposure to hospital fluorescent lights and electronic data since our last vacay left us craving nature. Unlike most who start the trip in Cuba’s capital, Havana, we puttered off to the gorgeous Cuban country side in the back of a rusty 1980 Lada.
Soon (or two hours later) the panoramic views of lush farms, valleys, mountains, and tobacco fields trumped worries of premature death as we veered between horses, carriages, classic Cuban cars, and bikers down winding dirt country roads in our sputtering collectivo (think Uber without the flair of electronic app convenience).
Arriving in our village, sans street signs since the street names were only known to its inhabitants by word of mouth, we stopped at multiple houses to find the street with our casa particular.
Unlike hotels or hostels, the travel phenomenon of casa particulares was totally new to me. Basically, they are the Cuban version of AirBnbs, but with the option of a very affordable breakfast included. We booked our stays ahead of time using AirBnb paying between $35-$45 per night. Health Disclaimer: Definitely bring travel hygiene supplies including a roll of toilet paper. Not all of these casas will be equipped with toilet paper, soap, or hair dryers. Yes, they have towels.
Cheap motel fare goes a long way in Vinales. Our room at Casa Osmany Quiñones was just $35 per night, a two minute walk from the center of the village. It was also pristine, with a modern bathroom, fresh towels, clean sheets all complimented by Osmany’s wife’s, Jeanette’s, bright smile and infectious laugh.
The house had a cute patio where we woke up to Jeanette’s hefty breakfast, complete with an array of fruit, fresh squeezed juices, Cuban coffee, warm bread, butter, jam, ham, cheese, pastries and Cuban pancakes: a personal buffet for just $5 CUCs each.
Osmany was warm and welcoming and not only pointed us around town, but also mapped out a picturesque bike route through the countryside and recommended places to indulge in the fresh country cuisine of Vinales.
After three days of meeting Cuban farmers, exploring tobacco fields, and biking expeditions, we were thoroughly refreshed and ready to get the rum flowing in the capital.
A few days away from the city bustle left us craving it again (we are Manhattanites after all), so it was on to Havana.
We decided to forgo the Lada this time, and took a bus (viazul.com). Health Disclaimer: Beware the winding roads with this option. Keep breakfast on the lighter side if you so choose to eat it and bring a jacket – these buses get cold!
We booked casas ahead of time but as we discovered Havana, we ended up changing it up with the lodging situation. Our first casa, mis-advertised for its amenities (they boasted a pool that turned out to be the size of a puddle) was in the suburban neighborhood of Vedado, about 15 minutes away from Old Havana by taxi.
So we moved.
We ended up backpacking through old Havana, getting to know a few of our Cuban hosts. Although the casas we found there were both fairly clean and welcoming for the price of $30 per night, we discovered an unexpected gem of a B&B in Centro Havana, known for its rougher looking buildings, and much less touristy neighborhood.
The 24 hour desk service, rooftop patio, stocked refrigerator, and fantastic shower in the room on the top floor of San Lazaro 115 was comparable to a luxury boutique hotel. Looking outside the box can go a long way, guys.
Unlike the Cuban government owned restaurants where the money paid for meals goes to the Cuban authorities, paladars are private family owned eateries that charge for meals with the funds directly supporting the Cuban families. These paladars with their bright lights, tastes, and colors hint at capitalism and stand in stark contrast to the government run buildings, giving life to Havana’s darkened alleys. Paladars was where we dined (both as an effort to support the principles of capitalism in Cuba, and because it was, well, legal). Health Disclaimer: Drink only bottled water even when dining at the privately owned restaurants. Parasites are not a myth.
Something must be said about Cuban rum. I was baffled by the lack of hangovers, and the reasonably priced, large, and delicious drinks. Health disclaimer: Women should limit alcohol intake to one drink per day and men should limit alcohol intake to two drinks per day. A drink equals one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine, 1-1.5 oz. of 80 to 100-proof alcohol. If on vacay, drink responsibly.
I don’t know what it is about Cuban rum, but we did not feel it the next day. Maybe it has something to do with the fresh ingredients, or the mint in the mojitos, or less preservatives. When you figure it out, keep me posted.
Going screen free
Let’s just say it’s so worth it.
Havana has come a way from what Cubans refer to as the Special Period, a extended period of economic crisis that began in 1989 primarily due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but it is far from what we’re used to.
Internet is bought by the hour and only available in limited hotels and paladars, where it is spotty at best. Stores are few and far between and many require you to check your bag before entering. Stores also sell very limited items, since food is rationed to Cuban citizens and not lining grocery store shelves.
Pay phones are hopping. Kids talk face to face and are not attached to their cell phones. Ice cream seems to be the drug of choice as kids and adults line up at the few kiosks that dole out half melted ice cream cones from old soft serve machines for a few pesos.
Nevertheless, despite the crumbling buildings, trash in the alleys of some of these Cuban streets, and the lack of convenience there is an Old World charm that rings through the city.
Horses clack on the old cobblestones, pulling along carriages with tourists or farmers. Men gather in doorways in the evening smoking cigars in the darkened streets. Lines of laundry hang over balconies drying in the tropical breeze. Dinner brings with it the music of silverware clinking against plates sending its echoes into the street, mingling with the voices of children, Spanish music, and American 90’s bands.
Roosters start their morning songs crowing loudly in the morning and dogs bark demanding scraps. There is an ebb and flow to life that is lost on us at some level when we’re always plugged in.
So I hope this post reminds you to take a moment.