On February 11th, 2017 my girlfriend Allison and I went on vacation with a group of Americans traveling to Cuba. There were 6 couples, all of which were friends or family. None of us are of Spanish decent, and only two could communicate effectively in Spanish. One couple had been to Cuba before and one of their previous contacts arranged our first taxi and the Casa arrangements for our entire group.
This post is simply my thoughts and in no way a guide or a right and wrong. There will be several notes throughout that we found to be very helpful/important. Things are changing in Cuba, so a trip several months from now may find you with different experiences.
We were split into two groups, one leaving from Orlando and having to fly back into Fort Lauderdale, the others driving from Merritt Island to fly in and out of Fort Lauderdale. Our itinerary was:
- Orlando International Airport to Havana for 3 nights
- Take a private van to Trinidad, stay there for 2 nights
- Take another van to Santiago for 2 nights
- On the last day travel to Holguin to fly back to Fort Lauderdale.
NOTE: At the time of our trip Orlando International Airport only has flights in and out of Havana. We wanted to travel to other cities and not spend 12 hours and $$$ getting a taxi back to Havana, it was cheaper and quicker to fly to Fort Lauderdale, rent a car and get home that way.
We arrived at the Orlando airport around 6:00am and noticed there were a few other Americans traveling to Cuba, but not like we were expecting. I guess its because we didn’t know what to expect- about any of it. There was a separate JetBlue line for people traveling to Cuba where we received our “people-to-people” form, an immigration form, and paid $50 each for our Cuban Visa’s.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Americans can not use credit or debit cards in Cuba. You must bring cash. We figured we would need around $100 a day, per person. Just to be safe we doubled it. All of the cities we stayed in had Cadeca’s (Money exchanges) where you could convert USD into CUC. We exchanged several days worth at a time to avoid standing in lines that sometimes took 30 minutes to an hour to get through.
Our flight departed at 8:27am and we were exiting the plane shortly after 10:00. Time in the air was only 58 minutes. Upon gathering our luggage and exiting the airport, we exchanged $100 USD each (The limit at the airport) for our ride into Havana and food/drinks until we could exchange more. The exchange is $.87 USD – $1 CUC (Pronounced COOC) due to a 10% tax on the USD on top of the 3% exchange fee. There were also a few other Americans traveling in Cuba that had changed too much money and were offering a 1:1 exchange just to get rid of their CUC. We bought some of what they had after we were sure it was the correct type.
NOTE: There are two types of Peso in Cuba, the National Money, CUP (pronounced COOP) which has FACES on the bills and is exchanged at 24:1. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) has MONUMENTS on it and is 1:1. When getting change be sure you are getting the correct type back. As a tourist you can spend the CUP, but we only used CUC our entire trip.
The 30 minute taxi ride into Havana was eye opening. As most Cubans do not have a car, there were hundreds of people walking and riding bikes. The people standing on the side of the road were often holding money trying to get a ride from a passing vehicle. Every major intersection had lines of people pointing in the direction they wanted to go. Traffic was chaotic with cars and trucks dodging people on foot or riding bikes. The smaller cars passing the old diesel work trucks that were slowly chugging along, often loaded with passengers in the back. The classic cars mixed in made it feel like we were back in the 50’s.
As we got closer to our first Casa in Havana and started driving up and down the crowded narrow streets, all of the old colorful buildings were an incredible sight. Many of them had “improvement” projects going on that were mostly finished but it seemed the work had moved elsewhere. Every single building was different, but the same in that it was old, run down, but still cared for as best as it could be with what was available. As we walked around over the next few days we realized that it was common for work to get started, then once the issue was fixed the clean up never takes place. Some of the projects we were looking at could have taken place years ago! Aside from our group we did not see many other Americans Traveling to Cuba, however at the hotels we stopped at for wifi there were many Europeans.
A few items that made our trip much smoother was Maps.Me (Android link FREE) (Apple Link FREE) After you download the app be sure you open it and download the CUBA map pack for offline viewing if not you’ll find it useless. This allows you to pin locations and search for nearby places (Cadeca, Wifi, etc) so you can get back to your casa.
When we go back again we will be bringing the following items as a must have: Imodium, Pepto Bismol and a prescription for Cipro to treat food poisoning if necessary. Pretty much everyone in our group had stomach problems at lease once during our trip.
Here is a few of the photos Allison took with her Cannon camera. There will be many more as she edits them and we publish them in an album.
There were many of these Bicitaxi’s everywhere in Havana’s streets.
There were also many classic cars available for hire ranging from $25-$35 an hour for rides around and through the city of Havana.
Many of the Cubans use horse carriages as transportation through Havana, often carrying food items or other supplies.
We saw many people playing chess or checkers in the streets in front of their Casas.
And lastly, sorry for the quality on this one but we did not want to lug around our other gear, and drones are still illegal in Cuba.
Americans Traveling to Cuba: Havana
We spent three nights at our Casa in Havana Cuba. It was located at 106 Aguacate which is in the middle of Old Havana. Our casa had a living room, kitchen and bathroom downstairs, and two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Both bedrooms had window AC units, and ours had a empty mini-fridge. Once we arrived there were 4 people there, one spoke english and was very helpful (Miguel), while another took our passports and signed us in, collected our money ($35 per night per room) and we never saw here or the other two again, even though we were told they would come cook us breakfast every morning for $5 CUC each.
Miguel gave us his cell phone number and went to help the others get situated in their Casa right around the corner. He also heard us talking about finding a Cadeca to exchange money and said he had someone that would change it for 90% instead of the 87% and he would come to us. It seemed a little off at first and is probably illegal, but we had no problems changing money with him and we all used his services several times while we were in Havana.
An artist named Juan lived across the street from our Casa, and one night Allison and I went over to see if he wanted some of the pencils we brought with us to give away. He was very excited to have a whole box to himself. He offered us a good deal on a painting that Allison wanted, and even let me help a little on the one he was working on.
We walked everywhere and felt like we were in a good location that made getting to what we wanted to see easy. On the same block was a store selling bottled water and (sometimes) cold cervesas. This was nice because we were not using the tap water for anything, especially after I got food poisoning at lunch on the first day that took me out of commission until the following afternoon.
We walked a few blocks West and found Hotel Parque Central which we would use for WIFI a few times to communicate with family back in Florida. This was also one of the hotels that I should have purchased the Cubans that I was going to bring home. You can buy the Havana Club ron anywhere, but get the Cigars from a nice Habanos store in a hotel in Havana. Just past the hotel was a strip “El Prado” that had artists selling their work and people hanging out and riding skateboards and roller blades. This was the street that separated “Old Havana” from “Centro” and we would later spend a few hours wandering the streets.
We traveled South down Aguacate and found a small park area with vendors selling Valentines items, puppies, and snacks. There was a small outdoor market just East of the park on Obispo that we picked up a few gifts to bring back.
Further South down Aguacate and East on Amargura we found a nice place that we ate breakfast at several times that was a buffet (dishes of food laid out on a table) and would cook eggs to order for us for ~$4.50 CUC per person. This included Coffee and fresh Pina or Guava juice.
Another block South at the corner of Aguacate and Brasil was “Bigote De Gato” or Mustache Cat bar that was a cool place Allison and I found one day and brought everyone back to before we left on Tuesday. Wood everywhere and lots of stained glass windows. The second time we were there we met a couple from New York that had just returned from Trinidad and gave us a few pointers on where to go and what to see while we were there.
One of the nights we were there we walked to Flor de Loto (near the corner of Escobar and Salud) in China Town for dinner. The service and food was good, but the portions were enormous. A couple could easily have shared one dish. We ended up giving most of our leftovers to Cubans we saw while we were walking back to our Casas.
Another night we went to Fabrica de Arte Cubano aka F.A.C. Bar. This is a must see in our opinion. We have never seen a place quite like F.A.C. It was a $10 taxi ride there but worth it. There was art in every room and hall way. There was three different types of music in three different areas, and had hundreds of people from all over the world hanging out, drinking, and talking.
One afternoon we took two classic taxis to Marina Hemingway ($25CUC per taxi) just to see what was there (nothing worth seeing) and stopped at Fusterlandia on the way back ($6 CUC More) and paid him $20 CUC to wait an hour and get us back to Old Havana. Fusterlandia is a sight to see. The whole area is broken tile sculptures and art. On the homes, on the walls on the street, everywhere centered around one guys home.
We followed Aguacate all the way North which put us at the Museum of the Revolution ($8 CUC per person) and spent some time exploring inside.
You could walk up and down every street in Havana and see the same thing, but it would all be different. Many blocks have people selling sandwiches, milk shakes, fruit, rice and beans, or waters out of their windows, many times in CUP. All of them were cheaper than going to a restaurant or bar to eat/drink, but after my first night of food poisoning, I decided to play it safe and stick to cleaner, slightly pricier restaurants.
Next was our trip to Trinidad. 10 of us rented a van for $30/per person for this ride.