Bucket List Item: Obtain a Cuban Visa
Trip Dates: Sunday, December 17th, 2017 - Thursday, December 21st, 2017
Happy Valentine's Day! Nearly two months after my trip to Cuba, I am finally going through my pictures and writing this long awaited, highly anticipated post! I've had a ton of questions leading up to the trip and since the trip from people wondering if it's safe to go to Cuba, if it's shady, if you have to fly out of a different country, so on and so forth. Rest assured, as I write this up, I'll do my best to answer your questions. Most importantly: Let it be known, my man Obama worked to end the 54-year stretch of hostility between the nations and in March of 2016, he was the first United States President to visit Cuba since 1928! In May of 2015, Cuba was removed from the United States State Sponsors of Terrorism list and embassies were established in the United States and Havana. And then, on June 16th, 2017, the big bad wolf came along and announced he was "cancelling" President Obama's deals with Cuba and by November 9th, the business and travel restrictions which were previously loosened would resume after all.
So yes, our trip occurred after our current president "cancelled" progress because we secured our airfare back on September 6th. We flew Alaska Airlines from Los Angeles to Havana and then I flew JetBlue Airlines from Havana to Buffalo. And, after many phone calls with the airline and visa company, I was assured it would be okay. Although, since visiting, research indicates Alaska Air has discontinued their daily commercial flight from LAX to HAV on January 22nd (more). In terms of obtaining the Cuban Visa (the true bucket list item!), these commercial airlines partner with travel agencies/services; Alaska partnered with Cuba Travel Services and it was surprisingly easy to get the visa - it actually came in the mail! While we can no longer travel as an individual under the “People-to-People educational travel” category, you can select that category if you're with a group. If going with a group isn't quite your thing, there are still some visa categories you can choose from... For example, the “Support for the Cuban People” category allows individuals to travel to Cuba as long as “each traveler engage(s) in a full-time schedule of activities that result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba and that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.” This certainly would have been applicable to me, but I ended up going under the "Journalistic Activities" visa which now requires a journalist visa from Cuba...
Preparing to visit Cuba is more stressful than actually being there... sort of... and I guess that's probably true for all trips. American credit cards do NOT work in Cuba. No debit cards for the rare ATM and no credit cards for anything. No, it doesn't matter if you don't have foreign transaction fees, they simply will not work. With that being said, you need to bring cash for your entire trip and you need to exchange your currency for CUC. If you bring USD, you'll have 10% taken off the top in addition to the current exchange rate. If you bring Euros (like I did) or CAD, you'll only have to worry about the current exchange rate. We ended up booking our accommodations via Airbnb ahead of time so as to not worry about bringing even more money for lodging. Yes, our credit cards worked on Airbnb and yes, we did have to input our visa type and address when booking. We ended up visiting Cuba for 4 nights/5 days and honestly, it wasn't long enough - especially if you want to see and do more than just hang around Havana. The modes of transportation include taxis, taxi collectivos (shared taxis), buses, and apparently rental cars(?). We traveled primarily by taxi collectivo but it wasn't like we could request the taxi for a specific time. Cuba is an island, and they're on "island time." Without further ado, our play-by-play, day-by-day experience...
Day One: Sunday, December 17th, 2017 - Travel Day
We arrived in Havana around 5pm, exchanged our Euros for CUC, and found a taxi outside the airport to take us to our Airbnb - Fifi's Home. Not even three hours after touching down in Havana did we have our first blunder... an iPhone X left in the taxi. If only they had internet and/or Uber in Cuba we might have been able to track it, recover it, or do something about it. Unfortunately, that was not so. From our
Airbnb we went to dinner at La Guarida, the restaurant featured in the Oscar-nominated film Fresa y Chocolate, and said to be one of the city's most legendary private restaurants. The entrance, however, is like a scene out of a 1940s film noir. We were greeted with a decapitated statue at the bottom of a grand - yet decrepit - staircase. Once you walk up the stairs, culinary surprises await. We were a bit early for our 8:30 reservation so we enjoyed our first beverages in Cuba upon the rooftop bar where we also encountered some rather interesting Swedish brothers... When it was time, we ordered the most delicious tuna tartare and I got the fish special - both of which were amazing! A lot of people warned me prior to going that the food in Cuba is not like we would expect -- it tastes plain, etc. I think it just depends on where you go. The government run restaurants certainly proved to be relatively taste-less but the privately owned restaurants were delightful. After a long day of travel and a delicious meal, we retired back to our Airbnb to rest up.
Day Two: Monday, December 18th, 2017 - Havana to Viñales
We traveled via taxi collectivo (arranged by our Airbnb host) to the countryside of Cuba - Viñales. I was ecstatic to turn the corner to be
greeted by our ride - an old classic car! We traveled the 2 and a half hours to our next Airbnb - Villa Cary - who arranged for us to take a horseback ride through the countryside and to a tobacco field! This was truly the highlight of my trip. We started at the tobacco field and learned all about the tobacco leaves, drying process, etc. tried and bought some Cuban cigars before hopping on horseback to see how Cuban coffee is made and try some Cuban rum. Did I mention the views? Absolutely breathtaking and since we took too long chatting with the coffee/rum guide, we reached our final point - an overlook - right at sunset. We rode back in civil twilight and then caught a ride to a farm to table restaurant - Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso - where we dined at an actual farm that grows organic, non-GMO vegetables and offers the best ingredients for a great price. We got nearly 25 plates of food for $10/person. And yes, there was way more than we could ever eat by ourselves. Had we not gone in the dark, my research indicates there is a great view as well. As if we didn't have an action packed day already, we opted to try a bit of salsa dancing after dinner at Casa de Musica and were greeted with quite the salsa production. Needless to say, we slept pretty well.
Day Three: Tuesday, December 19th, 2017 - Back to Havana
Once we got back to Havana and to our new Airbnb - Hostal Zaza - which was really in Vedado, where we dropped off our stuff and wanted to explore, explore, explore. Our Airbnb host eventually arranged for a taxi to take us to Fusterlandia... an interesting place, indeed. Cuban artist José Fuster turned his home neighborhood into a masterpiece of intricate tilework and kaleidoscopic colors – a street-art extravaganza. Literally mosaic art everywhere!!! It was really interesting to see. We had our taxi driver drop us off in "downtown" Havana to get lunch at
Cafe Arcangel before walking around and seeing the sights ourselves. We spent a lot of this time visiting hotel's in order for Ruth to use their bathrooms and in doing so we made a mistake thinking the free walking tour we wanted to do was at 4:30pm rather than 4:00pm, ugh. Everything is better with ice cream, though, right?! We walked to Coppelia on our way back to the Airbnb and actually got to eat with the locals (!!!). We wandered around looking for dinner and ended up at a government run establishment. I'm glad we went so we could compare government run versus privately run - and there were tons of options on the menu - but everything was pretty bland. Our Airbnb (Hostal ZaZa) actually had Wifi so we spent the evening relaxing and went to bed pretty early in an attempt to go to our last stop in the morning - Varadero - one of the largest resort areas in the Caribbean...
Day Four: Wednesday, December 20th, 2017 - Havana... to... Havana
I woke up in the wee hours of the morning and listened to the voice in my head. We simply could not go to Varadero. Even if we found a taxi
collectivo or got on the bus to get to Varadero, there was no guarantee we would find something back on Thursday in order to get to the airport by the time our flights took off at 2pm! All was not lost, however. Hostal ZaZa had availability for another night and once that was secured, we ate breakfast, and then it was time to head to the free walking tour we missed the day before. The free walking tour is sponsored by the MeGustaCompany and it's a "pay-what-you-can" type of tour. They depart at 9:30am and 4pm daily (rain or shine) from the intersection of San Rafael Blvd and Consulado St.... No reservations required, just show up. Be sure to wear comfy shoes and bring water. Our tour guide (his name escapes me) was incredible. He offered us so much information and history and took us by El Capitolio (Capital Building), Plaza de la Revolucion, Plaza Vieja, La Floridita, La Bodeguita del Medio, Calle Obispo, etc. etc. etc. Totally worth missing the beach for! The tour ended around 12:30pm and we headed for lunch which turned into lunch and many, many drinks. Our waiter was super cute... and friendly. After some adult beverages - the daiquiris went down too smoothly - I was on a mission to take a tour of Havana via a classic car... We hopped in a neon green classic car convertible, driven by a father and son duo and rode around town. We had a ton of fun, stopped at a beautiful park, and let our hair blow in the wind. And, low and behold, we went to the bar at El Floridita after the ride for more drinks!! We ended up also wandering around Hotel National before heading back to our Airbnb and trying to go dance salsa. Salsa ended up being a bust but it's all the more reason to someday go back to Havana...
Day Five: Thursday, December 21st, 2017 - Havana to the Airport
We woke up on day five, ate another fabulous breakfast and headed to the airport. Luckily my flight flew out of the newer terminal and I had access to Wifi (how many Wifi cards did I buy on day five...) food, and the ability to change my CUC to CAD (foreshadowing for my next venture...). Once it was time to board the plane, I had an entire row to myself and got plenty of rest on the way to Buffalo. So, all in all, it was a pretty action-packed trip (are any of my trips not action packed!?) and pretty shocking. I really had no idea how incredible the country of Cuba was going to be, how nice the people would be, or how much there was to do there... If I had, I probably would've stayed for longer! I know the regulations have changed and it's back to being more difficult to travel there, but if you have a chance - Cuba should be on your bucket list!