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.