Category Archives: Caribbean

Cuba: Mystery Solved

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Havana was amazing.  A very vibrant atmosphere to fulfill all of your adventure needs. But there are quite a few things that need to be considered. While doing research for my trip, I found it extremely difficult to find specific information. Once you got passed the fluff of the gazillion blogs out there, I was starting to realize the lack of important “need to know” information available. Basically, I REALLY had to dig to find it. Hopefully, me posting what all I found out will make it easier for you.

First things first. Let’s get those expectations in order, shall we? Cuba is NOT the Dominican Republic. It is NOT Puerto Rico. It is NOT like any other Caribbean island out there. You have to understand that not everything is as plentiful and readily available there like you would find elsewhere. If you’re the type that likes to be catered to or have everything lined out for you, don’t go. No, seriously. And knowing basic phrases in Spanish will make your life that much easier.

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Authorized Categories for Travel into Cuba

Keep in mind that tourism in Cuba is still prohibited. You have to fall into one of the 12 categories of authorized travel set by the US government in order to book a plane ticket. Most airlines have a message that automatically pops up and asks you this when booking travel anywhere in Cuba online. As long as you fall under one of the 12 categories, you don’t need prior approval from the government. It is based on good faith. They include:

  1. Family visits
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  3. Journalistic activity
  4. Professional research
  5. Educational activities
    • People to people interactions
  6. Religious activities
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. Support for the Cuban people
  9. Humanitarian efforts
  10. Private foundations or research institutes
  11. Exportation and importation of information materials
  12. Special export transactions

So which one did I select? Educational activities. The people to people clause allows for you to make individual trips to Cuba by planning your own schedule of activities, without having to go through a private company ( which used to be the only way to go under the educational category and needed prior approval from the government).  Be sure to keep a detailed itinerary listing all the things you did. It has to be enough to cover a full day, so maybe 3-4 activities. Its suggested that you keep itineraries for your records for at least 5 years. Also keep in mind that you want activities that center around interaction with the Cuban people. I find it extremely difficult to go to Cuba and not have an educational, people to people type of experience.

Visa Requirements

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Here comes the fun part! I only say this because there is a wealth of conflicting information out there on this topic and it will literally make your head spin.

The Cuban government requires a visa for entry into the country. As a U.S. Citizen, you will need to apply for what the Cuban government refers to as a tourist card ( I know, weird because tourism is prohibited by our government… but hey, thats what the visa is called). Here’s where it can get confusing. There are multiple ways to obtain a visa. It all just depends on a) your level of patience in playing the waiting game and b) how much you are willing to spend. There are 3 ways in which you can obtain a visa:

  1. From the Cuban Consular office in Washington D.C.
  • Cost: $50 for Visa + $20 if request made by mail= $70
  • Must be paid with money orders, one for each fee
  • Legible copy of valid passport and stamped self addressed envelope are required.
  • Embassy of Cuba (Ref: Tourist Visa), 2630 16th St NW Washington DC 20009
  • I couldn’t get an exact estimate of processing time, but I would allow for 4 weeks. Government processes aren’t known for being the fastest.  Also, you can get the process going in person, but it will still take a few days for you to actually receive the visa. Its not necessarily same day pick up.

2. From a Third Party

  • There are a number of third party companies that can help obtain a visa for you. The most common one I heard about was Cuba Visa Services , which is who I used. I prefer convenience over everything. And with convenience often comes a premium. It was a seamless process though. You fill out the form online and pay the fee.
  • Cost: $50 for Visa + $35 processing fee+ $25 shipping via FedEx= $110.
  • I received it 4 days later after I submitted my order

3. Through the Airline

Now this one can vary a lot because prices and processes are not uniform across airlines. For instance, Southwest charges $50 while Spirit charges $100. Also, some airlines send you an email about 30 days out from your trip directing you to a third party they have contracted to provide the visa service. Others let you buy the visa over the phone and let you pick up at the check in counter. Or purchase the visa same day at the check in counter. Bottom line… if you’re going the airline route, CALL the airline and verify directly with them.

If you opt for a non-US carrier, you may be able to purchase the visa on a layover. For example, I flew Aeromexico with a layover in Mexico City. Some of the ladies I went with purchased their visas on our layover at the customer service desk for a whopping $20 (this is by far the cheapest option). I believe it is the same flying Copa Airlines with a layover in Panama City for around the same price. One note of caution in going this route: Make sure you have a long enough layover where you can comfortably do this. We were on a 2 hour layover in Mexico City and had plenty of time to spare. However, it wasn’t a busy time when we arrived so customs and immigration were a breeze. I’ve been on a layover in Mexico City with immigration lines double wrapped around the corner and the entire process took an hour. So just be mindful of connection times.

It is important that you fill the visa out correctly or you will have to purchase a new one!

Travel Medical Insurance

Cuba requires all U.S. citizens entering the country to have travel medical insurance. Most U.S. medical insurance policies through your employer will not cover Cuba. Also, some travel insurance policies won’t either. I purchased basic travel insurance through the airline, then purchased medical insurance through another 3rd party for like $12. InsureMyTrip is an excellent resource for comparing policies (select the “medical coverage only” option when doing comparisons). Also, you can purchase insurance at the Havana airport but its more expensive than getting it before you go. Some people will say that they weren’t asked about insurance when they arrived at the airport. When I arrived at the Havana airport, I was definitely asked to show proof of  it. So its always better to be safe than sorry.

Accommodations

Lodging depends on your level of comfort as well as your budget. We chose an Air BnB in the neighborhood of Vedado. We paid $366 for 4 nights in an apartment that slept 6. I would highly recommend you use the “Instant Book” option with Air BnB. There were quite a few instances of hosts canceling requests extremely close to travel dates. While Instant Book isn’t a guarantee your reservation won’t be cancelled, the likelihood of that happening is slim. Air BnB is still fairly new to Cuba, so there are still a few kinks to work out.  You also have the option of staying in a Casa Particular. A simple google search will yield plenty of mediums for booking. You can sometimes book one when you land in some cases. They are literally everywhere throughout the city. They are distinguished by a particular sign, which sort of resembles an anchor. Of course, there is always the option of a hotel. But given the influx of American tourism, the costs have increased. Like I said, lodging depends on your level of comfort as well as your budget. I will say that most of the people I know who traveled to Havana went the Air BnB/ Casa route.

You can see the symbol for the Casa Particular above the door way.
You can see the symbol for the Casa Particular above the door way.

Money Matters

PLEASE keep in mind that you can not use your credit/debit cards in Cuba. They will not work. Which means you need to pay for everything in cash. Which also means you need to budget your trip accordingly. I would say you would do fine on $100 per day. Whatever that total comes to, add another $200-300 to that just to be safe. I brought $1,000 total. I only spent half in 4 days. About $250 on food, $80-100 on transportation, $40 on our group activity with the remainder on miscellaneous items ( Cigars aren’t cheap! Budget accordingly).

I would advise you to exchange your USD to Euros first, then exchange the Euros to CUC when you arrive in Havana. Why? Because there is an extra 10% fee tacked on to the 3% conversion fee for USD due to the embargo. So basically:

  • For every $100 you exchange you get back 87 CUC. The conversion rate is 1 USD= 1 CUC
  • 460 Euros got me 466 CUC

I didn’t exchange the other $500 I had. I never exchange the full amount of cash I bring because of the fees associated with selling and buying currency. Don’t want to lose money on the cash you don’t use.

Other Miscellaneous “Need to Know” Tips

  • Wifi is limited. Be prepared to be disconnected. You can buy a wifi card from some of the hotels. I bought mine from  the Melia-Cohiba hotel. $10 for 1 hour. But the hotel was like 4 blocks from our apartment. Whenever you see a gathering of people on their phones, its a wifi spot.
  • Taxi rides from the airport should run you about $30. Negotiate prices and agree on them before you get in.
  • Bring LOTS of sanitizer and wet wipes. Sometimes there was no soap, running water or toilet paper in the restrooms at the places we were at.
  • Bottled water ONLY.
  • Trips to the beach in an official taxi (the yellow ones) will run you $50 round trip. You can try your negotiation skills with a local taxi though. Most definitely will come out cheaper.
  • If you have a sensitive stomach, start taking those probiotics!
  • Pack your allergy meds. The exhaust from the cars had mine going haywire at first.
  • When giving addresses for your casa/Air BnB to taxi drivers, make sure to include the street, intersection and house number. For example:
    • 6 calzada y 5, 115 means between 6th and 5th streets, number 115. Air BnB doesn’t always have the addresses accurately posted.
  • Google Translate is an awesome tool for the not so fluent Spanish speaker. But it translates English to proper Spanish. Some of the phrases you put in might not translate as smoothly to the everyday Spanish that Cubans use. So try to ask basic, yes or no questions.
  • I would strongly advise you to do carry-on only. Wait times from baggage claim can be at least 2 hours in most cases. They simply don’t have the personnel to handle the influx of tourism. Save yourself the trouble. If you’re buying cigars and alcohol, check it on the way back.

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If there is anything you would like to know that I may have left out, or you have a specific question, please feel free to contact me! Happy planning!

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Cuba On My Mind: My Visit to Havana

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There’s always this child-like fascination with “forbidden” things. Why is it bad? Why can’t we go? Some of the questions I found myself asking about Cuba since 5th grade social studies. It’s been drilled into our heads that Cuba was a no- go zone. I used to always wonder why, aside from the politics behind it of course. It usually makes something that much more interesting when you tell people its taboo. Which is why I jumped at the chance of buying a ticket to Havana. I had been preparing for this the last few years or so, ever since it was announced that Obama was considering easing the limitations on visiting. I was ready for yet another adventure.The preparation for such a trip was more work than I had ever done for any other trip (more on that in a later post) but it was totally worth it.

Fresh Off the Plane

We landed in Havana around 2:00 pm on a Thursday. I was anxious and excited. I felt like I was finally granted access into a secret club. The anticipation was so built up, it was spilling over. I had read all the blogs and posts about the customs and immigrations process, so I had somewhat hyped myself up a bit. There was absolutely no need for worry as the entire process was seamless. I handed over all my documentation to the agent and after about 10 minutes, all was well.  The next stop was for currency. What a time suck! We were in line a good hour and some change. Annoying, yes. But I had also read that waiting for extended periods of time was the norm in Cuba, as everything moved at a much slower pace. This was the first instance where my privileged was checked, and rightfully so. I needed this dose of reality to get me prepared for the humbling that was underway.

Havana, the Tainted Beauty

Havana is gritty. I won’t sugar coat it because I feel it would do you a great disservice. Often times, this is either overlooked in a heavily romanticized depiction of what seems to be a unicorn. When the reality is it’s raw. Its unkempt. The fumes from the exhaust of the old classic cars knocks you square in the face. The stench from the trash along the streets can send you into a dizzy spell. But even still, Havana is unique in her abilities to still captivate your attention and hold your imagination hostage, flaws and all. If you allow her to.

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We were based in the neighborhood of Vedado. A few blocks from the Malecon. Quite the hipster neighborhood, by Cuban standards at least. You didn’t have to travel far across the city to appreciate the photogenic gems lying around every corner. And there were so many. So much beauty in what some would deem ugliness. So much scope for imagination.  But we did manage to  travel a considerable amount around the city as much as we could in the time allotted.

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Because wifi is so limited here, you have no choice but to make the most of your time offline. Havana forces you to be in the moment. There was no instant posting overtime I took a picture. I think this is what makes it easy to really experience Havana. And the people! The people make the trip! From our gracious host, to our cab drivers, we were surrounded by nice people. People eager to meet us and talk to us about our lives in America.They didn’t hold back on questions. The most common question?

“How do you feel about Trump? “ My answer to that is another post for another day.

But they were just legitimately curious. My little bit of Spanish made it somewhat easy to have an open dialogue ( and Google Translate, of course). Best of all is that I felt welcomed everywhere we went. Yes, Cuba has its problems. And should you decide to venture there, you will find that not all Cubans are excited that the Americans are coming. But they will politely let you know. But you can expect to be treated with respect anyway. Which is how it should be.

It was a delight to witness everyday interactions amongst the locals. I always take great joy in doing this everywhere I travel. Old men arguing over baseball, women in hair salons gossiping, children playing in the streets. Something about it seemed so peaceful. Perhaps it reminded me of the stories my grandma used to tell, and how I would sit and paint my own visuals. It reminded me of her stories of how things used to be within the black community. The togetherness and sense of real community. Walking off the beaten path into the neighborhoods of Havana made me feel as if I was experiencing the very things my grandmother used to talk about.

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There were also reminders of Fidel Castro everywhere we went as well.

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Once I became accustomed to being on Cuban time, I started to enjoy myself even more. I should also add that Havana is extremely safe. Is there poverty? Yes. But I promise you, you have no reason to be fearful. Always take precautions, of course. But let Havana wow you. You’ll be glad you did.

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I know you’re probably reading this and thinking ” so exactly what all did you have to do to make this trip happen?”. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. There’s such a wealth of information to tell you that it would simply make this post too long. I’ll give a detailed break down of all the processes (and paperwork) you will have in order to make the trip to Cuba. So stay tuned!

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Travel Tuesday

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I love, LOVE to travel. The majority of my trips have been in the states, with my first out of the country experience being to Turks and Caicos last summer. It’s addicting. I get the urge about every 3 months. I love the idea of immersing myself into different cultures. The best thing about traveling for me is doing it solo. Yes. Most of the time I travel alone.

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Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos
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Sunset Sail Turks and Caicos
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Grace Bay, again

The thought of doing things on my own time, without worrying about catering to someone else’ s preferences, is so very liberating. I love to take the roads less traveled. As an introvert by nature, I typically stray away from touristy places. I know what you’re thinking, and none of the places pictured were bustling with tourists when I went. Timing is EVERYTHING (and off-season traveling is WAY cheaper). I like quiet and relaxing. I can go to a bar and party at home. Adding that to my list of things to do would totally defeat the purpose of a vacation, in my opinion. I couldn’t really afford to do the typical road trips and Spring Break excursions that most undergrads did in college ( I worked 2 jobs and took 18 hours every semester). So I have been exploring my adventurous side for the last 3 or 4 years because I can afford to do it now.

The really great thing about traveling is you never know who you may meet. I made some really cool business connections while in Turks and Caicos, danced with a Swedish man and made friends with a model from Chicago by way of Somalia. Good times and many more still to be had.