This past July, I had the chance to go to Havana with a small group coordinated by Cuisine Noir and the non-profit Go Eat Give based in Atlanta. Our goal was to go explore the historical city that continues to lure Americans with its beauty, sexiness and mystic, eat our way through various culinary experiences and give back through volunteering with individuals and organizations making a difference in the country. In just seven days, we did all of this and more.
But just like traveling to any new place, there are lessons learned afterward that can be shared with others. Because Cuba is still not a place that Americans can openly travel to, (new diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will hopefully change that), I want to share my experiences with others who may be going for the first time whether for a people-to-people cultural exchange or work (health or education for example). Again, these are my experiences that are good to know before you go.
1. Arrive Earlier Than Suggested to the Airport Going and Coming Back – We flew out of Miami and with many Cubans returning back home or going to visit relatives, it was extremely crowded and busy. Because you need a Visa as well as other legal documents to enter the country, I would suggest getting there at least 3 hours before your flight to make sure everything is in order especially if you are flying an airline for the first time that you are not familiar with like we did.
On the other side, Havana is small airport and technology is not on their side therefore patience will be needed. The lines get really long and so will the wait to get to the counter to check-in for your flight. It took us at least an hour and a half and meanwhile I was concerned we may miss our flight. However, we checked in on time only to have our flight be almost two hours behind schedule. But you just never know. Lastly, don’t expect to find an array of restaurants or snack shops to grab something to eat before you leave. There is a Duty Free Shop as well as a snack bar that doubles as a souvenir shop so I would recommend having a nice meal before arriving as well as a few snacks in tow.
2. Research the Airline’s Baggage Policy – We flew World Atlantic Airlines which was a charter based out of Miami International Airport. I honestly can't say I would fly them again but we did arrive to and from safely. Prior arriving, our coordinator was that our checked bag could not weigh more than 44 pounds and the cost would be $20. However, when we got to the counter, ticket agents told us that a checked bag AND carry-on(s) together could not weigh more than 44 pounds and the airline wanted to charge us $2 for each pound over. This is not communicated on their website. After about 45 minutes of going back and forth, we settled on $1 per pound over. The lesson here is to not only do the research online but also talk to a representative via phone for clarification before your flight. I hate surprises, especially those that hit my wallet. The funny thing, however, is that the airline did not care about the weight coming back to Miami and my checked bag tipped the scale at 53 pounds with no issues at all. Again, check to be safe.
3. Show Me the Money – Cuba has two official currencies; the peso or CUP (known as the national peso) and the convertible peso or CUC. We exchanged our money for the CUC which is similar to using U.S. dollars. The conversion rate during our trip was $.87 CUC per one U.S. dollar. For example, when exchanging $50, I received $43.50 CUC. To calculate this, take the amount you want to exchange times the amount per dollar you will get for one U.S. Dollar which in this case was $.87. So 50 x .87 = $43.50 CUC. If you are exchanging $100, it is $100 x $.87 = $87 CUC and for $200, it is 200 x .87 = $174 CUC. We were able to exchange our money directly at the hotel we stayed at and there are also currency exchanges in the city where you can do so as well. Be sure to ask if there is an additional fee for exchanging one currency for another and be sure to have clean, unmarked and untorn bills because they may be rejected. I have had this happen to me in Indonesia and I got my money directly from the bank prior to leaving for my trip.
4. Don’t Lose Your Documents or Airline Tickets – Just like traveling to any other destination, be sure to keep your physical ticket (no scanning the Passbook app barcode in Cuba). I lost mine for the return trip and had to pay $10 CUC at the airport to have a new one issued. Although the U. S. Embassy is now open, just be sure to safely store your passport, visa and airlines tickets to eliminate any stress when trying to return home. Also, although you are leaving the country, be sure to have local currency available when at the airport in Havana in case something like this happens or you want to purchase something. I could not pay to have my ticket re-issued in U.S. dollars and I don't recall seeing a currency exchange in the airport.
5. Some Like It Hot – I do not. Coming from California, I am not used to the humidity. July in Cuba was a little too much for me. But if you live in parts of the country with a similar climate, it may not bother you. On average, the best time to go when the weather is not 90 + degrees with the humidity making it over 100 is November – April. Hurricane season they say is around October.
6. Don’t Get Hung-Up on Staying Connected – It was nice to be disconnected for most of the trip. We stayed at the NH Capri La Habana Hotel (which I enjoyed and do recommend) which is about 15 minutes away from Old Havana. Wifi was available for $4.50 CUC for two hours and ten minutes. I was able to connect my iPad up at the pool and in the lobby but could not connect my laptop. In addition, because of where my room was located in the hotel, I could not connect in my room like some of my fellow travelers could. On my iPad I was able the basic email checking and responding and the speed was fine. A short walk to the end of the block and across the street lands you at the infamous National Hotel which has a business center. Get connected here for $7 CUC for one hour with great speed. No matter where you stay, be sure to ask the hotel about their wifi connectivity before you go so you can properly plan ahead of time.
7. The Capitalist Spirit is Alive and Well – This isn’t a bad thing but just know Havana is no different than other countries in terms of using your negotiation skills or street performers who entertain those passing by as a way to make a living or supplement their income. Be sure to have some extra singles or coins available to drop in for performers on the street and in the restaurant as well as for some photos taken with women traditionally dressed or the woman sitting in the chair with a cigar.
In the addition, artisans and vendors at the Arts and Crafts Market located in the Old San Jose warehouses are excited to showcase their best work and memorable souvenirs often for a negotiated price. There are a lot of them who will be approaching you to show what they have to offer so don't get annoyed, just politely say “no, thank you,” and keep walking if you are not interested.
8. Come Prepared to Stay Healthy – Although we were out and about a lot, I don’t remember passing a local drugstore or any stores in general where you can get some basic toiletries and in my case cough medicine for the cold I caught. Prior to our trip, our coordinator told us to take vitamin c and zinc every day to keep our immune system on track but I forgot. I give this precaution because we were in an out of air conditioning which contributed to my cold and adds to this the fact that after a few days of overindulging in the local food scene, my stomach was not a happy camper. So, to err on the side of caution, be sure to pack aspirin, something for an upset stomach and even constipation (real talk) as well as some vitamin c, zinc and anything else you think you may need so you are feeling your best at all times.
I hope these tips are useful. For more information to help you plan your trip to Cuba, visit www.cubaabsolutely.com. Feel free to ask a question below and we'll also be sure to get back to you.
To check out more photos from the trip, go V. Sheree Publishing on Flickr.
Photo credit: V. Sheree Publishing