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Trip Report Cuba: February 2016

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A trip to Cuba is something we have been wanting to do for a very long time. With the relaxation of travel regulations, and a foreseeable influx of Americans potentially traveling there, the time was now! Sorry in advance for the length of this report!

With help of this forum (THANK YOU!), my husband and I and one other couple, all in our 30s and early 40s, booked our trip as a private People-to-People educational tour, through Pototo’s Tourist Services. This turned out to be the key in an absolutely amazing trip. Pototo and the guide he assigned us were amazing. Because internet is extremely difficult to get in Cuba (which I didn’t realize when booking HOW difficult it is for them to get it), the communication was a little frustrating up front, but Pototo sent me a great-looking itinerary for our trip and told me “no worries”. I WAS a little worried, not knowing what we would really get, but let me tell you, it was so much better than I ever expected.

I’ll start by saying that he said we would have a full-time guide and car, but turned out we also had a full-time driver and his car was a bright yellow ’52 Chevy! So exciting to drive around in the “Yellow Submarine/Submarino Amarillo” the whole week! Our driver, Joisell, was a young Cuban who didn’t speak much English but was so incredibly friendly and excited to play us both Cuban and American music in his Chevy that has been outfitted to play a memory stick of music through updated speakers. Our guide, Azaris, was so so wonderful and knowledgeable about Havana and Cuba, and answered absolutely any questions we had (and even though she said it wasn’t, her English was very good). We learned SO MUCH from her about everyday life in Cuba and loved her stories about growing up in Fidel’s Socialist government. It was SUCH a unique point of view from everything we have ever learned in the States. It really made our trip. By the end, Azaris and Joisell were family. Ok, so here we go with the day-by-day account of what we did.

Saturday, February 13
We left Wilmington, NC, and flew to Charlotte and then on to Miami on American. We didn’t check bags, as we heard space would be tight in cars and living quarters in Cuba. Definitely glad we didn’t bring a huge suitcase. We were totally fine for 6 days with a roll-aboard each and small backpack. In Miami we had to go outside of security to the Cuba Charter desk and wait (quite a while, considering we were about 20 back) to check in. We eventually checked in with no problems, and then we moved down to the visa desk. We gave her our info, paid our fee and departure tax, and then had to wait about ½ hour for the guy to come with the visas. After that, we re-checked through security and to the gate. I would say the whole thing from our arrival at the Cuba Charters line until we got through security was about 2 hours. Maybe a little more. The flight was a quick 40 minutes on an American Airlines plane (where they even tried to get us to apply for an AA credit card…curious, since this was a charter flight), and we arrived in Havana, super excited!, at 7:30 pm (about 30 minutes late). We cleared customs and got our bags (our other friends checked bags) within 1/2 hour. Outside there was chaos with lots of people waiting on family/friends/tours, but it was somewhat organized…a man was stationed to find people’s rides and we told him our name and in 1 minute, he connected us with Azaris who had our name on a sign. She took us to Joisell waiting in our bright yellow 1952 Chevy. (Note: Pototo told us not to change money at the airport, that we would do it the next day at the Hotel Nacional…however if we did not have a guide that was going to float us that night, we would have needed money, and the exchange window seemed to be closed by then. There was one inside, but when we tried to exchange a small amount just to have, she told us to go outside but that one was closed.) We then drove to Old Havana to check into our casa particular (Casa Brina). It was just over from the Greek Orthodox Church near San Francisco Square, a really great location. *See end notes for more about Casa Brina and casa particulars in general.

We then went to dinner at l'Atelier. Our reservation (made by Azaris in advance) was for 10pm. We were tired but excited to be there. This was a very nice restaurant, probably on the upper end of price range in Havana. But compared to America: I got the surf and turf and I got an enormous plate of shrimp, lobster, pork AND fillet and it was 20 CUC (which is about equivalent to dollars). It was really tasty! Everyone liked their meals. And of course the rum drinks were good, and surprisingly the wine was great, which I wasn’t expecting. It is much more expensive than the rum, which is really cheap in general, but usually a good Chilean or Argentinian red. It was midnight when we were done and decided to go back to the casa and get some sleep so we could be fresh for the next day.

Sunday, February 14 (Valentines Day)
We had breakfast at the casa which consisted of a plate of cut up, fresh fruit for each person (a combo of guava, banana, pineapple and papaya: which we learned is a bad word in Cuba, rolls with butter and guava paste, and eggs anyway you wanted them with a slice of cheese and a few cooked slices of sweet potato (which is different there than here…more like a cross of a potato and sweet potato). From what I read, this is a very typical breakfast in any casa particular. You might want to learn the Spanish word for how you like your eggs cooked because that was hard (Miriam did not speak much/if any English)! We then headed out to the Hotel Nacional to change money. We brought Euro we obtained from our bank here in the US, because we heard there was a large tax for changing US Dollars. Because credit cards are virtually never used in Cuba, we had to change all our money and carry it around with us the whole time. It ended up being totally fine…I never ever felt unsafe, or like someone would steal our things. But, you need to be vigilant, especially when carrying around all your money for the week! We then walked around Old Havana…Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas and looked at all the book sellers (and interesting selection of books) there, and window shopped a bit. Then we had lunch at the famous La Gaurida, which was excellent, and then drinks up on the roof (you wouldn’t even know about the rooftop, but our waiter mentioned it to us because he needed our table to give to the next people…the staircase is right by the bathrooms). There is a very awesome view of Havana Centro from there. We then went to a private residence and took a salsa lesson that Azaris set up. There were about 5 young Cubans that taught us all the steps and it was SO much fun. I am not very good at dancing, nor do I like it that much, but this was the best experience, and I would definitely take a lesson if you can. We definitely worked off our ropa vieja in that hour! On the way back to the casa, we stopped at Revolution Square and took the mandatory photos with the big murals of Che and Cienfuegos. It is crazy to imagine that square with one million people in it, listening to Fidel make a speech. It being Valentine’s Day, we had made advance reservations for dinner at Paladar Doña Eutemia . It was very good as well and a really cute little place. We walked home afterwards along the Malecon (walkway along the sea), which is very beautiful (and a popular thing to do with Cubans and tourists). When we got back to the casa, our neighbors were having a loud party that was spilling out on the street, so we crashed it and it turned out to be a birthday karaoke party for the owner’s son. We grabbed a bottle of rum from our place and went over. They welcomed us with open arms and mikes. They did not speak any English, but we got by, and the only English song they had to play was Hotel California…we did our best! We also had a song that we plugged in from our phone, the Black-Eyed Peas “I Gotta Feeling” (that tonight’s gonna be a good night) and they knew most of it and we all sang it together. Can’t get much more People-to-People than that! So much fun. The Cuban people are so wonderful and love Americans, apparently!

Monday, February 15
We had the same breakfast at the casa and then headed to Viñales for the day. Once there, we made a stop at the Indian Cave (Cuevas del Indio). The was a cool cave that had many unique formations inside and then at the end you get on the boat and travel the rest of it by water. Pretty different. It only takes about ½ hour to do the whole thing, but can get backed up at the boat portion when a tour comes through. Next, we went to lunch on the organic farm el Paraiso at the Casa Confianza. This was probably my favorite meal of the trip. The setting is gorgeous, overlooking the farm and valley and they use everything they grow for the meal. They probably served 20 different things, which were all delicious. The main course consisted of roast lamb, fried pork chunks, roasted chicken legs, fried fish and ropa vieja. It was so much food! The vegetable soup (caldosa) was so good I had Azaris get the “recipe” (really just a ton of veggies peeled and put into a pot with water, salt and pepper and boiled until soft and then lightly mashed at the end) and I made it the day after we returned home. So good and healthy! After a flan for dessert and some sort of milky drink that you pour rum into, we left there stuffed and tipsy. Then we visited the tobacco farm and learned about tobacco production and how to roll cigars. Sorry…can’t remember the name of this one (too much rum)! We bought Montecristo and Cohiba cigars straight from the farmer, before they are bought by the government and labeled, so we got them really inexpensively! Before heading back to Havana (2:15 drive), we stopped at a beautiful lookout next to the Hotel Los Jazmines to take photos of the valley and to use the restroom. The hotel looked nice, if you were interested in doing an overnight in Viñales. Back in Havana we had dinner at the government run Jardin del Oriente, which was so cheap (to US standards…3-5 CUC for the meal and 1-2 CUC for a drink). It was simple food, nothing fancy, but tasty and great for the money. And we sat in the pretty outdoor patio. It was very nice.

Tuesday, February 16
Breakfast at the casa again. We then headed to the Fuster gallery to see his Gaudi-style tiled mosaics. It was very very cool and reminded me of a mini version of Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona. He tiled his whole property and much of the surrounding neighborhood. You can buy things from his gallery here and if you are lucky, meet Fuster himself (we weren’t so lucky!). Next, we headed just outside of town to Finca Vigia, Hemingway's house. This was a nice trip…his estate is very beautiful and you can see inside the house (you cannot walk inside, but they have doors and windows open so you get a good look). There is a beautiful view of Havana from his little tower. It was neat to see his pool and then look at all the old photos with him there on the exact same furniture, etc. and also walk around his boat. All-in-all, you really only need an hour or less here as there isn’t that much else to do. We then headed up to the seaside town of Cojimar where Hemingway kept his boat when he was alive and was inspired to write his “Old Man and the Sea” novel. We had lunch at Bodega Las Brisas there where we had some delicious seafood, including Lobster Thermador and a HUGE order of paella, and then we hung out by the sea for a little bit and watched the fishing boats. This was a nice day, but don’t think the visit to Cojimar was anything really special. Would probably skip next time. We headed back into Havana and then walked around the huge indoor market on the Malecon and bought souvenirs and paintings. This was a great market…make sure you bargain…the first price is never the best! That night we did a bar crawl we found here… Some of the restaurants had different names and some we could not find, but it was fun just to stroll around and find little cool places and have drinks and people watch. We started in Plaza Vieja and made our way up the Obsipo pedestrian street to the Floridita, the famous “Cradle of the Daiquiri”. Of course, you must have a drink here, but it is so very touristy and crowded with Americans and all other tourists. Our favorite places ended up being Castillo de Farnes and Bar Monserrate right on the busy Avenida Belgica. Get a table on the street and watch all the bustle on the street and the old cars driving by. So fun! We skipped dinner tonight and snacked as we got hungry at each bar. Good fun!

Wednesday, February 17
We had our usual breakfast at the casa and then got in the car and headed to Cienfuegos. Our first stop along the way was at a Crocodile farm outside Australia. It was nice with a bar and band and you can see the guy feeding the crocodiles raw meat. Yum. Then, we stopped at the Cueva de los Peces (Fish Cave) on the Bay of Pigs and went swimming. This was cool, a natural swimming hole that is fed underground by sea water, so it is saline. It is very clear and lots of pretty fish in there. A fun place to take a dip and there were also scuba divers down below. The next stop was Playa Giron where we ate at Paladar Crocadillo. I was hoping the crocodile would be on the menu, but it wasn’t that day (apparently it is illegal to serve, but they still do, hush-hush). They did have turtle, which was tasty! We tried to go to the Bay of Pigs museum but it was closed. We continued to Cienfuegos from there. Checked in to the Hostel Tania which was great (much better than our casa in Havana) and had drinks and watched the sunset from roof. We also got another impromptu salsa lesson and information about a new type of music that the “younguns” in Cuba are listening to, Reggaeton, from the bartender/owner(?) who was so great! We walked to the Plaza Jose Marti and had dinner at Palidar Bouyan.

Thursday, February 18
We drove along the lovely Malecon and down to the old gangster Meyer Landsky’s mansion, Palacio de Valle. It was a beautiful house on the water that is now a restaurant (wish we would have gotten to go there). We walked next door to the Hotel Jagua and walked out to the pool area, which is really beautiful and has a nice view of the sea. We stopped by a very local market in the city on the way home, which was interesting to see. Other than that, it didn’t seem like there was too much else going on for us to do. But it was nice seeing another city other than Havana. This one has more of a Spanish feel to me. However, overall, I would probably not recommend Cienfuegos…not really worth the 3 hour round trip drive (would love to see Santa Clara next time…although that is more of a 4-5 hour drive each way!). We made it back to Havana by early afternoon and hit the Museum of the Revolution, which is really interesting (especially the Rincon de los Cretinos—you’ll see if you go!). After, we strolled back to old Havana, stopping at Sloppy Joe’s for a drink and a snack and then at the Hotel Inglaterra for a drink and cigar and to watch all the hubbub in Parque Central. The were doing some major roadwork, I believe in anticipation of President Obama’s visit this month. We had one more drink at Dos Hermanos near our casa, where the cool bartender just let us add as much rum as we wanted to our mojitos! Our farewell dinner was at La Fontana in the Miramar district. This paladar was unbelievably beautiful. The bar area was SO cool and there were indoor fish ponds inside. The service was excellent and food was some of the best we had in Cuba. I highly recommend this place, even though it was a good drive from Old Havana. A perfect way to end our trip!

Friday, February 19
We got to the airport a little under 3 hours in advance, which was plenty of time. Compared to some airports I have been at, it was a breeze…the line were not too long for either check in or customs/security. Inside they actually take US Dollars at the shops and there is an exchange to change money (and actually to change back to US Dollars was a great rate…so we just did it that way instead of going to Euro). The flight was a super fast 30 minutes from Havana to Miami, passing over the beautiful Florida Keys. For our neighbor that is SO close to us, it was a world away, but a world I am SO glad and thankful to have visited. It looks like there will be a lot of changes (many are SO needed) in the future for the Cubans, and for relations between the USA and Cuba. We were so happy to go when we did, on the cusp of possible major historical changes for them. I will go back, but would like to wait a couple of years and see the changes with my own eyes!

*Ok, so some postscript commentary on random things. A note about Casa Brina, and casa particulars in general. This was not a fancy place. In fact, it was probably about the “least nice” place I have stayed in, to be honest (but that being said…we are used to nice, high-end travel). We booked our trip later than we should have, and there were not many options in Old Havana (which is where you REALLY want to stay because that is where a lot of the tourist action is). I am sure there are plenty of very nice places to rent, but I don’t think most of them are going to be what most of us Americans that are frequent travelers are used to. That being said, Sergio, our casa’s owner, was very friendly and welcoming. His wife Miriam cooked breakfast for us every morning that was good and fresh. I wouldn’t say the casa was dirty, but if you compare it to US standards, it would have been about a 1-star accommodation. But I still wouldn’t have changed staying there…you really get much more a feel for the Cuban experience doing it this way than staying in a hotel. Plus, it was $30 per couple per night! You get to meet more “real” people and see the way they actually live. The double bed was small, but not horribly uncomfortable. The sheets were very thin and blankets were pretty small. There was a weird open air hallway thing that you could see our neighbor’s hallway from. Very odd. But this is how it is in Cuba. They make due with what they have, because they don’t have a lot. Our bathroom was extremely basic and did not have much water pressure to even flush the toilet. After we talked to Sergio about the (super) cold water in the shower, he changed the batteries on the heat pump and it worked! The other thing was, we had paid to have all three rooms of the casa, even though we only needed 2. We just wanted to have it private. However, apparently, Sergio’s wife saw the third room was available, and booked it to a German couple without telling Sergio (or at least that was their story…not sure if I TOTALLY believe that). Imagine our surprise as we are getting ready and another couple appears and says they are staying there. Well, turns out the Germans were awesome (had spent a lot of time in Chapel Hill where I went to school) and it was fun getting their perspective on Cuba. I think when you go to Cuba, you have to be ready for these kind of things to happen. Go with the attitude of NO WORRIES. Just go with it and enjoy the ride! Sergio gave us the money back for the room and we got to meet a cool foreign couple we wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. Win-win.

In Cuba, you should bring your own toiletries: shampoo, soap, body wash, toothpaste, etc. Most of the time they will not have these things. Also, tons of public toilets have no seats, toilet paper, soap or even water coming out of the faucets. Bring toilet paper (one-ply because their systems cannot handle the plush stuff), baby wipes (throw these in the trash), soap and hand sanitizer when you are out and about.

Guys…cover your ears. Ladies, my friend that we went with camps a lot here in the States, and she brought this thing with her called the P-Style. It is basically a little silicone cup you put “down there” that allows you to pee standing up. I totally made so much fun of her before we went when she told me she was going to bring that. Well, the joke was on me, because that thing was brilliant. There are so many toilets with no seats on them, that the P-Style was magical for her. And when we explained what she had to Azaris, she was so taken with this thing, that she said she had to have one and told all of her friends about it. We are going to send her one. So, in short…get a P-Style and the little carrying case that goes with it, and put some toilet paper down in that case and carry it with you everywhere! You won’t regret it! Haha. If you do find yourself at a toilet that has paper, usually an attendant will hand you about 4 squares and it is customary to tip her, maybe a quarter or 50 cents.

Tipping, in general, in Cuba is a nice thing to do. I don’t think they expect a lot, but considering the utter lack of income they make in general compared to us, if someone does something nice for you, give them a little extra…they literally rely on it to live! Oh, and if you take a photo of a musician on the street, or a random local in general, it is very customary to give them 50 cents to 1 dollar. Make sure you get lots of small bills and coins for this type of thing. There are also lots of people who will come up to you to talk to you and then ask to take a picture with you and then expect a little money. Be ready to give them some or just wave them off in advance…but…why not!?!

As for money…we tried SO hard to find a credit card that we could use in Cuba. We finally were told a Barclay’s card, which is based in the UK, would work, but when we got it and called AGAIN to confirm, they said no. However, I believe March 1st US has cleared Amex and MC for use there. BUT and this is a HUGE BUT…NO ONE TAKES CREDIT CARDS THERE! Maybe the larger hotels might (not sure because we did not stay there), but NO restaurants, shops, etc. have internet, so cards won’t work. DO NOT go there thinking you will use a card there…it’s not going to happen. You MUST bring enough money to last you. Traveler’s checks won’t work either. Most US banks do not/can not do business in Cuba so you will not be able to get money from an ATM. Bring all money you think you will need an carry it and your passports around with you. We did it and felt very safe and had no problems. Just be careful. Until they get more access to internet, I don’t see how this will change in the near future, so just be prepared and it will be all good! ☺

If you go, bring little random things from home that you can give to locals you meet. We found out dolls, and toys in general are so very expensive there. That would be nice to bring. Music CDs…Michael Jackson, One Direction, Katy Perry, etc. These are all musicians I heard them playing. Pens, pencils, crayons. American candies (you can sometimes buy these there, but they are too expensive for locals to afford). A cool American tee-shirt or bumper sticker. If you are feeling generous, maybe one of those Bluetooth little speakers to play music on. People have cell phones with some music on them for the most part (but not internet). When I left, I gave our guide all of the things, toiletries, etc., that I didn’t use and she loved them all. They can’t get things like we can in Cuba.

I wasn’t sure what they would ask us upon our return for proof of our reason to go there (we had our full itinerary printed and ready), but the only question they asked us was how many cigars we brought back. Haha. And so you know, you are allowed to bring back $100 USD of cigars and alcohol combined per person, and $400 total of other souvenirs, etc.

My last bit of advice before you go…make sure that if you haven’t, read up on Cuba’s history, and in particular the history of the Revolution and Castro. Your visit will have MUCH more meaning if you do. The Revolution is everywhere in Cuba. It is still in the forefront of everyone’s minds and there are constant reminders everywhere…the only billboards in the country are government-sponsored ones talking about it, and what it has done for the country and the people. Regardless of how you personally feel, it is important to at least study up on the facts before going. I read Che’s biography, “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Lee Anderson. Ok, I only got through about 30% of it before I left because it is VERY long and VERY detailed. If you like that kind of thing it is very interesting, but maybe a little much. Netflix also has a good documentary (a little outdated, but still interesting) called “Fidel: the Untold Story”. There are a million books and documentaries on the subject. No matter what you read or watch, just get up to speed on the basics, because you will see the lasting effects of this Revolution EVERYWHERE over there and it is still part of their daily lives.

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