Calculating the Costs of Visiting Cuba

Over the past two years Cuba has become one of the bucket list places for people to visit.  Whether it is to visit the beach, immerse yourself in the beautiful culture, visit one of the famed buildings or tourist attractions, explore the multi-cultural surroundings, or visit a local farm where cigars are made by hand, your first visit will probably change your previous impression of the country.  Anyone who has taken the time to do any level of research prior to their first visit understands that while Cuba has an excellent educational and healthcare system, there are some economical challenges facing the island.  For most places you would expect a lot of “state supported” price gouging; however, that is not the case here.

 

Moneda/Dinera (Money)

Cuba has two different currencies CUC and CUP (click on the links to view each currency); most tourists will receive CUC when exchanging money at the airport or in hotels.  As of this post, one CUC is equal to 25CUP.  Unlike many other caribbean islands I’ve visited, the us dollar does not hold a lot of weight in Cuba.  98% of my purchases were with the local currency.  Only one transaction involved american cash and that was… Well, let’s just say it was off the books, but a good souvenir for someone.  So, in order to purchase food, rent a room, ride in a taxi or purchase gifts, you will need to pay in the local currency.  As a tip, exchange the minimum amount required to get you through your first day and one-half at the airport and then find a local bank or hotel that will exchange the rest of your currency.  Keep in mind that there is an automatic penalty of 10% on us dollars.

 

La Comida y bebidas (Food and drinks)

Food is inexpensive in most parts of Cuba.  You an expect a dish of pork, chicken, or seafood, accompanied by a salad and arroz y frijoles negros to run between $10-15CUC.  That is actually on the moderate side of things.  You can also find some local spots that have local specials running $6CUC per meal.  Typically the places that have the more inexpensive dishes are the truly local spots and prices will be listed in moneda nacional (MN) where the CUP reigns king.  So your math skills will need to be on point in it is recommended that you ensure that you use the smallest CUC bills possible.

With respect to drinks, water and soda will typically run 1CUC; a local juice runs 5CUP on the street.  If you are looking for something more mature such as a mojito or frozen daiquiri, it will run between 3CUC and 6CUC depending on where you dine.  The famous Floridita charges roughly 6CUC for their frozen drinks.  Quite pricey compared to some of the other local spots, but this is one of Hemingway’s haunts so you are paying for nostalgia.

Cuidado – Beware of overly friendly locals who want to take you somewhere great to eat.  While some people can be genuinely friendly and welcoming, know that others are getting a bit of a kickback for steering you to a particular dining establishment.  Can I blame people for doing this, especially when the average family income is $25/month?  You have to do what you have to do to survive, but just know that this may happen to you at some point during your trip if you are traveling solo and not with a tour group.  The other thing to be aware of are the “free” beverages.  If someone asks you if you want a drink and you do, pay for your drink immediately.  Insist on it.  They my tell you that it’s okay, you don’t have to pay now; however, please know that (behind the scenes), they may have added a drink on your tab.  So, if you are traveling on a budget, order your own food, your own drinks, and eat where you want to eat (if there is room full of tourists, it’s a tourist trap).

 

La Casa (House)

While there are hotels and resorts in Cuba, most visitors opt to say at a casa particular.  With this type of lodging you essentially are renting a room in someone’s home.  In my casa, I had my own room with a two beds, a bathroom, television and refrigerator.  I brought my own breakfast food for the trip; however, the owner offered to provide breakfast for me at a cost of 5CUC.  My casa was located in Vedado, an area located approximately 10 minutes away from Central Havana by taxi.  The nightly rate for my CUC was $35; however, you can find units as cheap as $20/night depending on where you stay.

 

Transporte (Transportation)

There are a number of options to help you navigate the Vedado/Havana area.  The most economical of them is the local bus which will run 40CUP.  Please know that the buses run often; however, they are very crowded.  The next alternative is the colectivo taxi where you will share a ride with a car packed with locals. There are no set routes, so once you flag a cab, you need to ask if they are headed in the direction you need to go.  If so, hop in and pay 1CUC.  The final option is the “tourist” taxis.  Rides start at $5 up to $15.  I highly recommend you “exercise” another option and just set out on foot.  Cuba is a very safe, even at midnight, so if you want to burn some calories while enjoying the beautiful sun, strap on the tennis shoes and keep moving.

Just as everyone’s experience in Cuba will be different, everyone will have varying needs when it comes to budgeting for the trip.  I stayed four days and spent less than $300 (that included my housing, food, two taxi rides, and some souvenirs).  But unlike most people, I do not eat meat and I didn’t drink a lot of alcohol.  My recommendation would be budget between $50-100/day depending on where you stay and what you plan to do while visiting.

 

Happy traveling!

Cuba Libre – Preparing for an Amazing Experience

Recently I had the privilege of visiting the island that has been officially off the grid for most US passport holders.  This is a place that, as a little girl, I have always been told that it is bad.  The people are bad.  Their government is bad (said the pot to the kettle).  For as long as I recall, I would only remember hearing negative things about this place called Cuba.  This beautiful island with all of its vibrancy and splendor.  All of its rich culture and history.  This place that great you with warm sunshine and a full embrace welcoming you to come, explore, learn, live and love everything about this culture.  There is so much to tell and it will definitely be told in future posts, but the purpose of this post is to provide insight regarding my planning activities for this trip.

The plans for my trip started well over a year ago and intensified during the summer of 2016.  Seeing several posts from individuals on social media who’ve visited this island jewel via connections from places like Panama, Mexico, Canada and the Cayman Islands, I took many notes on places to go, where to each, how to get around, educational opportunities, etc.  However, I knew that I did not want to spend the time and energy to hop from the states to a nearby country and then to Cuba to get around all of the restrictions.  I also knew that I was not going to spend three thousand dollars for a four or five-day trip just to go with a group.  Thanks to the actions of President Obama, I didn’t have to do any of the aforementioned activities, I simply had to generate my itinerary, figure out where I would stay, and get my plane ticket.

  • First step – securing the plane ticket.  Based on schedule (and purposely avoiding MIA), I elected to fly with Delta for my trip with Cuba.  One of the primary reasons why I selected the airline is because I have a credit card that affords me additional perks on the airline.  The round-trip airfare was $250 which was great in my opinion.  Not the $150 fares that a lot of people are getting, but still a very good fare considering the distance flown and location.
  • The next step was to plan my itinerary.  Initially I reached out to a local tour guide for assistance, but figured out that I could save a significant amount of money by developing my own itinerary based on the research that I conducted.  The purpose of my trip was to have a true people-to-people experience, so I made sure my itinerary included time for social interaction and time for me to experience the food, religion, and culture of cuba.
  • The third step was to find my lodging.  Initially I was booked for a location in Old Havana; however, a woman in one of the social media groups I used during my research phase recommended the area of Vedado and provided me with contact information of a woman who owned the Casa Particulare where she stayed during her trip.  Casa particulares are basically the homes of locals where you are living with them in their house.  You typically have your own room in the house and access to the living area.  My particular home had a private bath so that I didn’t have to share with the family.
  • The final step was to develop a budget and determine which currency to take for exchange purposes.  Most sites recommended euros or Canadian dollars based upon the 10-15% penalty on american dollars.  However, based on my personal experience, I would recommend you take american dollars or euros.  In the grand scheme of things, the 10-15% penalty is much less than the significant loss you will have exchanging Canadian dollars.  You will lose approximately $.35 on a dollar exchanging CAD.
    • Regardless of the currency that you take for exchange purposes, be sure to increase your budget by 10% to account for any unplanned expenses due to a change in itinerary or the purchase of additional materials.
  • Taxi fees are set by the government so the possibility of getting ripped off on a taxi ride from the airport to your final destination is really low.  The one-way fare for a ride from the airport to Old Havana/Central Havana/Vedado is 25 pesos (CUC).  The cost is per vehicle, not per person.
    • If you take the local taxi (colectivo) to get around Havana, you typically pay no more than 1 CUC each direction.
  • Make sure you know difference between local currencies.  Cuba has two different currencies, the CUC (cooc) and CUP (coop).  You can distinguish between the two by knowing that the CUC has the monuments; CUP has faces.  The biggest difference is that CUC is worth more than the CUP.  Twenty-four CUP is equal to one CUC.  Some people have referred to CUP as the local currency and CUC is the tourist currency; however, that is not just the case.  It is possible, as a tourist to receive CUP, especially if you dine at a local establishment that only takes CUP and has to make change for you.  Just make sure you math game is strong when getting your change.  If you see a sign referencing moneda nacional, just be aware that it is a reference to the CUP.
  • Download a local map and use your feet.  I understand that people have very different comfort levels and not everyone is comfortable walking in a foreign land, but Havana is very easy to navigate.  I took a taxi only three times (one time to have the colectivo experience and the other two times because I met some other travelers and was traveling a sizeable distance away with them).  If you get tired while walking, you can always dip into a local park and sit down or into a local restaurant and rest your feet.
  • Plan to be unplugged.  Wi-fi and internet access is not widely available in Havana and most international phones do not work.  So, if you want to connect to the internet, know that you will have to purchase an internet card for your mobile device and then find a location where there is internet access.  You will not miss anything by being unplugged for a while.
  • Brush up on your spanish.  While there will be some cubans who have a basic knowledge of english, the vast majority of locals speak spanish.  If you have not been exposed to the language or at least conversant in spanish, take time to learn basic phrase like “where is”, “what time is it”, “how much”, “please”, “thank you”, “hungry” and “I’m thirsty”.
  • Finally, before you go, know that the topic of politics is taboo.  Cubans will discuss religion, economics, education and almost any other topic with you.  But, when the subject changes to politics or the Castro era, there will be radio silence.  The only exception to this rule is when they discuss the presidents in the states.  A lot of cubans have very sharp opinions on american presidents.

Hopefully these pre-planning tips will help those who would like to experience this beautiful island and have a true, enlightening culture experience.  I will share the full details of my trip in future posts.

Spice Spice Baby

Known as “the spice island”, Grenada is just shy of 1600 miles away from the southernmost tip of Florida and served as my temporary home for Thanksgiving 2016.  For five days, I had the pleasure of experiencing the east and west coasts of the island, taking in some of the great sites on the island, liming with the locals, experiencing the culinary delights and even taking in a football playoff game.

I arrived in Grenada after a long day of traveling and cleared customs and immigration in approximately 15 minutes.  Exiting the doors of the airport, I proceeded to the taxi area where grabbed a taxi and proceeded to my temporary abode located very close to Grand Anse Beach (more on that later).  Prior to my trip I researched many, many, many lodging options.  Grenada has everything from your budget sensitive rooms and hotels to your high-end luxury accommodations.  My particular lodging option was on the economical end of the spectrum, but met all of my requirements: close to public transportation and the beach, dining options nearby, and a microwave and refrigerator in the room.  As a bonus, the unit itself was HUGE.  There was a really large bedroom, separate kitchen and living area, balcony and spacious bathroom.  There was a supermarket within a five-minute walk from the hotel, I could see the beach and ocean from the balcony while I enjoyed breakfast, and the WI-fi connection was excellent.  After a long day of traveling, I opted for a quick walk around the local area before calling it a day and heading to bed.

Having rested well the night before, I set out to explore the local area.  First stop the local supermarket which was a five-minute walk down the road.  I picked up some bottled water, a few snacks, juice, pastries, and some croissants.  After returning to my temporary abode, grabbed my beach bag and gear and headed out to the local beach.  Ten minutes after leaving my front door I was enjoying the nice view, sand and ocean waves of Grand Anse beach.  The weather was around 80 degrees and there were not many individuals crowding the beach which was wonderful; the majority of the people were locals.  Two hours into my beach excursion the skies decided to open up and wet the ground.  Most people would be bummed, but not I.  A rainy day in the caribbean still beats any sunny day in the states.  So what is a girl to do but sit on the beach and enjoy the rain— just like the locals.  After a few hours at the beach, I headed back to the hotel to have lunch, do some light reading and send Thanksgiving wishes to friends back in the states.  To close out the day, I took another stroll around the local area to check out a few more sites prior to turning in for the evening.

Day three arrives and I get up early to get in a quick run on the beach.  Run finished and back to the hotel I go for breakfast on the balcony and to get changed to head out to St. Georges, the capital.  This day I decided to take the water taxi to visit St. Georges.  There are several water taxis that leave from a spot on the beach and, in true caribbean style, there is no scheduled timeline.  One hour after waiting for the taxi I arrive in St. Georges.  The water taxi took approximately 10 minutes point to point and cost $15EC.  St. Georges is home to the spice and craft markets and the docking station for numerous cruise ships coming into port.  Having made friends with one of the water taxi operators (a young man named Jay), I inquired about the best place to have lunch.  Jay walked with me to a local spot and then gave me his contact information to keep in touch in case I wanted to head to the fish fry later that evening.  After lunch, I spent the rest of my time in the capital enjoying the sights, browsing the markets, visiting fort George, and checking out the Grenadian history museum.  I visited the tourism office to figure out which local taxis to take to get back to the hotel and headed to the nearest stop to hop to catch the local taxi.  Back at the hotel I settled in for something to eat, change clothes and check in with Jay.

I decided not to go to the fish fry because some taxi drivers were trying to charge me tourist prices, so I connected with Jay to hang out at Wall Street.  Wall street was located within a 15 minute walk from my hotel and was the spot where a number of food trucks were stations serving local eats.  A nice band and singers performed covered Bob Marley songs and people popped into the local pizza spot for a quick bit.  We headed up a local bar for drinks… or so I thought.  Turns out that Jay doesn’t drink.  Wow!  So, it was just me drinking alone and, after the one really bad local drink of rum and coke (yeah, local drink??), I decided I didn’t need to get another drink.  So, over the noise of the music and television shows we took a moment to get to know each other and Jay provided me with a wealth of information about the island.  He even offered to take me to a spot in St. Georges where I could buy some spices and other items I needed.  That trip would be saved for Saturday.  After hanging out for a while Jay caught the local taxi back to his home and I returned to the hotel.

The following morning I repeat my routine from the previous day (beach run, beach and a return to St. Georges).  This time I took the local time up to St. Georges vice taking the water taxi.  The local taxi takes less time and only costs $2.50EC.  Once in St. Georges we visit a few stores for him to exchange currency to make change for the tourists and we visit a chocolate store.  I am not a big fan of dark chocolate so that was a very quick visit.  Following that we visit a local shop to try to find a bottle of particular Grenadian rum prior to journeying to the spice and craft markets.  At the spice and craft markets I pick up a few items, including some fruit to enjoy on the road and for the plane trip back to the states.  Jay is scheduled to work that day, so make plans to meet later for a football game and soca concert in Greenville (the east coast of the island and almost an hour drive away from my hotel).  I finish out my time in St. Georges once again taking in some of the local sites, finding and purchasing my obligatory shot glass and grabbing a bite to eat.  I head back to the hotel for a quick nap and to change for the football game later that evening.

So in the interest of time, I will speed up the timeline.  We went to the football game and arrived just in time to see the last 5 minutes of the match.  Following the match there was a soca concert on the field featuring a local artist and other international artists.  The concert was great and I enjoyed it, but I was very tired and not looking forward to drive back as it was long, windy and the hills were steep.  Good thing I feel asleep minutes after getting into the vehicle.  By the time I awoke, we reached the hotel.  Can’t remember if I changed clothes for bed, but I know I slept well.  When the alarm went off the next day, I did my last beach run and took time to just enjoy the sunrise and take a few pictures.  Returning back to the hotel, I enjoyed breakfast on the balcony while doing a light bit of reading.  This was my last day in paradise and I was going to enjoy it by relaxing.

Visitor information

  • People in Grenada are very friendly and helpful.  I did not have an issue walking around the local area early in the morning or late in the evening and felt quite safe— at least until I saw a big rat!
  • Grenada currency is the eastern caribbean dollar; however, the american dollar is widely accepted and exchanges at a rate of $2.70 to $1.00.
  • The fare for local taxis is $2.50EC or $1.00 american
  • The top rated local rum is known as Rivers rum and one version of it is so potent that you are not supposed to take it out of the country.
  • Taxi fare from the airport to the Grand Anse area is $40EC or $16 american.  All taxi fares are fixed and based upon geographical location.
  • I didn’t find the mosquitoes to be a problem during most of my stay.  The only time I had an issue with them is when I visited the spice market ironically enough.  Guess they are attracted to spices.
  • The electrical current is 220 volts; however, the hotel had a power converter available to aid me with my powering needs.  It may be wise to bring your own converter, just in case the lodging option you choose does not have a spare converter.
  • Buses run very early in the a.m., but typically stop running around 10p.m. or so.  If you board the bus at the depot in St. Georges be prepared to wait a while for it to fill up before departing.

This was a wonderful, enjoyable trip and I will definitely make a return visit.

Favorite Islands as of 16 January 2017

As I inch closer and closer to the completion of yet another bucket list, I have decided to update  my favorite island listing after each remaining island is visited.  At this point, based on the list* that I following to accomplish this goal, there are only six (6) more islands remaining for me to visit.  I am hoping to visit the at least five of the remaining islands, by the close of this year (God willing).  The updated current ranking was based upon my most recent trip of which the specific details of that adventure will be captured in another post.

 

28. Dominican Republic
27. Puerto Rico
26. St. Barthelemy
25. Saba
24. Turks and Caicos
23. Cayman Islands
22. Curaçao
21. St. Eustatius
20. Bonaire
19. Aruba
18. Bahamas
17. Bermuda
16. Anguilla
15. Martinique
14. Dominica
13. Trinidad and Tobago
12. British Virgin Islands
11. St. Lucia
10. United States Virgin Islands
9. Guadeloupe
8. Cuba **
7. Antigua & Barbuda
6. Barbados
5. Jamaica (but still #1 in my heart)
4. Grenada
3. St. Maarten/St. Martin
2. Belize

And still sitting in the number 1 spot…… St. Kitts & Nevis

 

* List is based upon the destinations found on Caribbean Travel
** Latest entry

Favorite Island as of 4 January 2017

So… those who know me are well aware that I am slowly, but surely working through my travel bucket lists.  I completed my first one a couple of years ago when I visited all 50 states.  Now I am working through the second to visit all of the islands in the caribbean.  2016, despite the many personal and professional challenges, was a banner year for me in terms of travel.  I had the pleasure of experiencing 12 new caribbean cultures, enjoying the local cuisine, participating in two carnivals, bringing back suitcases filled with treasures, and adding to my lifetime of travel memories.  Who could imagine that the last island that I visited for 2016 would have topped the list as my favorite?  This was truly a shock to me given the fact that I tend not to have great experiences with islands that have a certain “affiliation”.

I swear, when I was developing my rankings, my heart was in turmoil.  I felt that I was betraying my true love and favorite island of 2016, in favor of this one, but everything about it felt like home.  I was at peace and didn’t feel like a tourist at all and took to it like a fish to water.  So, to take away the suspense, the current ranking of favorite islands is provided below.  A detailed post about my trip to the newest member to the club follow later this week.  Enjoy and feel free to ask any questions you may have.

 

27. Dominican Republic
26. Puerto Rico
25. St. Barthelemy
24. Saba
23. Turks and Caicos
22. Cayman Islands
21. Curaçao
20. St. Eustatius
19. Bonaire
18. Aruba
17. Bahamas
16. Bermuda
15. Anguilla
14. Martinique
13. Dominica
12. Trinidad and Tobago
11. British Virgin Islands
10. St. Lucia
9. United States Virgin Islands
8. Guadeloupe
7. Antigua & Barbuda
6. Barbados
5. Jamaica (but still #1 in my heart)
4. Grenada
3. St. Maarten/St. Martin
2. Belize

And coming in at number 1…… St. Kitts & Nevis

 

* List is based upon the destinations found on Caribbean Travel