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An American Couple in Havana, Cuba for the First Time (but not the last!)  

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kokonutz
(@kokonutz)
Silver

As a couple of Americans, my wife and I are just back from a weekend in Havana, Cuba and I thought I’d share some experiences, thoughts and impressions.

First of all, this is a trip that currently requires planning for Americans. A LOT. There are legal as well as logistical issues that MUST be worked out in advance. And this trip requires follow-up that must be maintained for five years.

In other words, this is not a spur of the moment sort of trip.

Hopefully our experience can help others researching how to do it and what to do.

Let’s start with the legal. Do your research. There are only so many reasons an American can visit Cuba. And, worse, there is no official step-by-step instruction manual. Official sources are severely lacking in specificity. Here’s one of many unofficial attempts at explaining things: http://legalcubatravel.com/

So basically you get your visa (either beforehand from a service or at the airport gate from the Cuba Ready desk) and pick one of the purposes and just do your best to comply.

We chose people-to-people. Started with a solid itinerary and then documented all of the people we talked to including our Casa guy, a tour guide, several vendors we chatted with for up to 15-20 minutes. Conversations with everyone we met, tour guides and museum/exhibit workers. With owners of and workers at paladares (private restaurants). Even bartenders and the folks at Havana Club museum/bar. We 'maintained a full schedule of activities which resulted in meaningful interaction and exchange with the people of Cuba,' which is as specific as the Treasury Department will get. I put all that documentation on a Google Drive and will maintain it, as required, for five years.

So I feel pretty confident if Treasury ever comes a callin' I’ll be ok. But honestly, who the hell knows. If Trump chooses to screw us for having gone then he will screw us. C’est la vie.

Ok, so on to the logistical. We have come to rely on unlimited international T-Mobile Data pretty much all over the globe. But it’s pretty worthless in Cuba. In practical terms there is no internet at all in Cuba. Ok, so there is. But it’s more or less not for you. You can buy wifi cards for a few CUC but their utility is spotty at best and slow when it works. We chose to treat Cuba as an Internet blackout and prepared thusly. This is easy to say but hard to do. See, I tried to book dinner reservations, salsa lessons and tour guides in advance by email. It was an exercise in patience as it often took days to receive replies to inquiries. Did I mention that Internet sucks in Cuba? Yeah, apparently for Cubans too.

Do yourself a HUGE favor and download an offline map app (we use Citymaps2go https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/citymaps2go-plan-trips-travel/id408866084?mt=8 ) which has great offline features like the ability to look up local attractions and businesses). Old Havana is a pretty simple grid, but the new town is a bit of a maze.

Then there is the whole question of where to, you know, sleep. We originally booked a suite at the Hotel Plaza in Havana. For like $700 a night. Because supply and demand. Then I checked on FlyerTalk and quickly realized how stupid I was being. Havana is thick with Casa Particulars, which are private flats that one can rent for a fraction of the price at the few decent hotels in the city.

We ended up staying at Casa Obispo, which we found on AirBnB for $70/night. The advantage of AirBnB is that you can pay by CC in advance rather than having to pay in cash there (since US CCs don't work in Cuba yet). This is actually relatively expensive for a casa particular. You can find them for as cheap as $15 or $20/night if you google around a bit. Cuba Junky http://www.cuba-junky.com/cuba/cuba-casa-particulares.htm is a great place to start for Casa Particulars and all other manner of info. But this one was the equivalent of staying on Bourbon Street (although the analogy is poor as Obispo is NOT Bourbon, but point being it is in the center of the action and everything you want to see) and it is relatively high quality for Cuba. We thought it was worth it for the location alone. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1645098...f-4df3e9f70e32

I know many people who visit Havana like to eat on the cheap and that is certainly possible and easy. But we like nice long dinners at nicer places. And despite the internet issues, I did manage book Paladar Café Laurent Habana by reaching out to them on Facebook a week before we went https://www.facebook.com/RestaurantePaladarCafeLaurentHabana/ and they were (relatively for internet contact in Cuba) very responsive. This is an awesome restaurant on the top floor and large deck of a building which means decent views and a nice breeze. Not cheap at all by Havana standards, we paid about 110 CUC for dinner although a lot of that was wine (mixed drinks are dirt cheap in Havana but wine is expensive).

Another relatively responsive vendor was the tour company Fertours http://www.fertours2havana.com/ We took their ‘Barefoot in Havana’ walking tour and it was awesome. We had already explored the old town, but doing it again with a guide allowed us to actually understand what we were seeing as well as the history behind it. And Cuba has SO much history from pre-colonial to colonial to independence to revolution to creeping capitalism. I was in history nerd nirvana. And our tour guide Michael was awesome. He not only did a great job taking us around, he ended up booking our Saturday night dinner for us, which was super-helpful.

That dinner was at Ivan Chef Justo http://www.lahabana.com/guide/ivan-justo/ another gem of a paladar this time on the edge of the old town across from the Museum of the Revolution.

The coolest thing to me about Cuba (aside from the history, of course) is that they are experimenting with capitalism in a unique way. Nearly all hotels and restaurants are nationalized. But you can rent casa particulars from a private person as we did or pay to eat in a 'private home' like Café Laurent and Ivan Chef Justo so long as they do not serve more than 50 people at a time. It's kind of like the gig economy without the gig. Very cool economic experiment.

Similarly, taxis were plentiful if you knew what you were doing. Ie., wave at any 'classic' car and 95% chance he'll be your taxi. Uber without the app!!!!

Most interesting and mind-opening for me was the lack of squalor, beggars and hustlers. Having traveled (and I mean TRAVELed) extensively in the Caribbean and Central America I have seen some heart-wrenching squalor. Don’t get me wrong, there is poverty in Havana. It’s pretty much the norm. But the Cuban system means that while there is not a lot of luxury neither is there abject squalor nor the problems it engenders. Also, the mandatory education requirement means that there is plenty of English spoken and thoughtful conversations to be had.

We'll definitely be back (if Trump lets us) to dig deeper into Cuba's history and culture.

PRO TIPS:

1) There IS arrivals and departure services at HAV (assuming terminal 3). As for the airport VIP service, we tried to book it in advance but were too late...they need about 3 days notice. But we read that when you get off the plane if the VIP people are there you can ask to have it and in most experiences they will give it to you. We did that (I think it helped that we were among the first off the plane) I think it was $25 or $30 pp and we paid once we got to the curb outside the airport. It was really nice to use the diplomat/crew line at immigration. And there is a security check to get into Cuba and the VIP service allowed us to cut to the front of the very long queue. Saved us an hour or so of hassle and queuing.

2) If you value your time, consider taking the 3% hit to change cash at a hotel rather than at the Cambio. The lines at Cambios are 45 minutes to an hour, as we learned the hard way. We were only in Havana for a couple days so the second time we needed to change money we said screw it and paid $3 per $100 to have it done in 2 minutes at a hotel. Also the Cambio requires your passport while the hotel we used did not.

Happy to answer any questions or provide further clarity if I can.

Quote
Posted : January 30, 2017 3:35 pm
Canarsie
(@canarsie)

Thank you for posting this trip report, kokonutz.

Do you have any photographs to share?

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Posted : January 30, 2017 4:10 pm
Randy Petersen
(@randy-petersen)
Admin

The cash thing bears a question: In many other countries it seems that i could get by with using the good old US dollar. Did you try using USD or was your notice about exchanging to local based upon "no welcome Ben Franklin"?

(thanks for the post, good reading and i love the idea of "Pro Tips". Please include that with more of your posts here—very helpful).

Have a great day and for what it's worth ... behind this post is a guy that loves what he does for frequent flyers, so contact me anytime.

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Posted : January 30, 2017 4:19 pm
kokonutz
(@kokonutz)
Silver

Canarsie, post: 2778514, member: 57 wrote: Thank you for posting this trip report, kokonutz.

Do you have any photographs to share?

I do. Will have to read the sticky on how to post 'em :).

ReplyQuote
Posted : January 30, 2017 4:25 pm
baccarat_guy
(@baccarat_guy)
Silver

Great report. Since I live a "last minute" life, probably not for us. But, definitely love all the details. As [USER=7]@Randy Petersen[/USER] mentioned, can you choose to pay in US Dollars if you desire. (I know this requires you be quick with regard to conversations in your head... but wondering if this brings any advantage?)

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ReplyQuote
Posted : January 30, 2017 4:26 pm
kokonutz
(@kokonutz)
Silver

Randy Petersen, post: 2778519, member: 7 wrote: The cash thing bears a question: In many other countries it seems that i could get by with using the good old US dollar. Did you try using USD or was your notice about exchanging to local based upon "no welcome Ben Franklin"?

(thanks for the post, good reading and i love the idea of "Pro Tips". Please include that with more of your posts here—very helpful).

In researching the trip I read that Cubans preferred 'easy euros' over 'difficult dollars.' I did NOT have this experience in Havana. The VIP service lady allowed me to pay in USD since I had not hit the cambio yet and the queue for it was even longer than usual at the airport. The guide also accepted a tip in USD since we were running low on CUC.

That said, none of the cafes, bars or even paladars would accept USD.

And the Cuban government likes it that way as they take a 10% 'penalty' on exchanging USD that they do not take on GBP or euros.

The only random exception was the cigar store where we bought $150 worth and he accepted USD (and even did so at the official exchange plus 10% penalty rate).

This is one area where it would be fantastic if Congress ended the embargo so Americans could do like all the Canadians and Europeans around us were doing and pay by CC.

ReplyQuote
Posted : January 30, 2017 4:32 pm
Canarsie
(@canarsie)

kokonutz, post: 2778520, member: 121 wrote: I do. Will have to read the sticky on how to post 'em :).

That will not be necessary. It is so easy to do.

When posting or editing content, you will see three buttons below as shown in the screen shot I just added to what I am posting here.

The middle button is UPLOAD A FILE. Click on it to choose a photograph or other image file which you would like to add directly from the hard disc drive on your computer or other device. You have a choice of adding it as a thumbnail or a full image. Use the full image option to include it in the content which you are posting, as I have done here.

It is quite simple; but if you have any questions, let me know.

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Posted : January 30, 2017 4:35 pm
Randy Petersen
(@randy-petersen)
Admin

kokonutz, post: 2778524, member: 121 wrote: In researching the trip I read that Cubans preferred 'easy euros' over 'difficult dollars.'

I find this most helpful as I'm likely much like others and have both pounds and euros laying around from other trips. Who would have guessed that one of the better tips is to drain and take along your European currency collection! Thanks.

Have a great day and for what it's worth ... behind this post is a guy that loves what he does for frequent flyers, so contact me anytime.

ReplyQuote
Posted : January 30, 2017 4:51 pm
kokonutz
(@kokonutz)
Silver

Indeed, some people suggest doing some arbitrage if it makes financial sense and changing dollars to euros or pounds before going. Depending the fee and the rate you can pay less than the 10% penalty doing so. If you already have them from traveling all the better.

ReplyQuote
Posted : January 30, 2017 4:54 pm
ewrgal
(@ewrgal)
Silver

Wow, your wife's post on FT has been deleted. What did you do? 🙁

ReplyQuote
Posted : January 30, 2017 6:09 pm
kokonutz
(@kokonutz)
Silver


All boarding passes from the USA to Cuba must have a 'Cuba Ready' stamp indicating a valid visa and valid reason for visiting.


The many cool classic cars are a major attraction. Almost all of these guys will be your taxi if you ask or waive them down. And the love to talk about how they keep them running.


My favorite.

My wife's favorite.


The Florida, home of Hemingway's favorite daiquiri. It's now a tourist trap and all they sell are overly sweet daiquiris that Hemingway wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole.


Hemingway famously spent lots of time in Havana and wrote much of 2 novels there.


Due to injuries sustained in airplane crashes he used an early version of an adjustable standing desk, long before Varidesk was a thing.


And he received this telegram informing him of his Nobel Prize in Havana.


Signing the wall outside of La Bodeguita. As Hemingway said, "My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita" Signing the wall there is a tradition Hemingway supposedly started. Didn't try the mojito having been scarred by the daiquiris at Floridita.


A typical (fancy) cuban meal.


The view of Obispo from our Casa.

These really great musicians played while we ate lunch. The sax player is amazing.


At the Museum of the Revolution. Tame stuff compared to the exhibits at the Museum of American War Crimes we visited a few years ago in Ho Chi Minh.


Our guide at the Havana Club museum. She had fascinating insights/opinions on both rum and Cuba.


One of the 'Uber' drivers that we waived down for a ride.

ReplyQuote
Posted : January 30, 2017 6:14 pm
kokonutz
(@kokonutz)
Silver

ewrgal, post: 2778537, member: 87421 wrote: Wow, your wife's post on FT has been deleted. What did you do? 🙁

Wow. That's nutz. Hope I didn't get her in trouble over there.

ReplyQuote
Posted : January 30, 2017 6:15 pm
HomerJ
(@homerj)
Silver

Or you can do what my American friends have been doing for years.
Drive/fly to Toronto. Take one of the almost hourly flights to pretty much any destination in Cuba enjoy a week at an all inclusive and then return to the US. A simple request at Cuban customs to not stamp your US passport (a removable page is used) will be honoured. You will want to get $CND before you leave, and that's about it. when US customs asks about your tan...just say a week of skiing in the sun. Two sets of US friends have done this and this was well before the embargo was lifted. We've met American's on the flights pretty much everytime. Just as a side note its much cheaper to fly there from here than from the US. Hth.

ReplyQuote
Posted : January 30, 2017 9:14 pm
kokonutz
(@kokonutz)
Silver

HomerJ, post: 2778582, member: 3925 wrote: Or you can do what my American friends have been doing for years.
Drive/fly to Toronto. Take one of the almost hourly flights to pretty much any destination in Cuba enjoy a week at an all inclusive and then return to the US. A simple request at Cuban customs to not stamp your US passport (a removable page is used) will be honoured. You will want to get $CND before you leave, and that's about it. when US customs asks about your tan...just say a week of skiing in the sun. Two sets of US friends have done this and this was well before the embargo was lifted. We've met American's on the flights pretty much everytime. Just as a side note its much cheaper to fly there from here than from the US. Hth.

My wife and I have and very much value Global Entry. We'd never take this sort of risk (however small) of losing it.

YMMV! 🙂

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Posted : January 30, 2017 11:00 pm
Wandering Aramean
(@wandering-aramean)

Randy Petersen, post: 2778526, member: 7 wrote: I find this most helpful as I'm likely much like others and have both pounds and euros laying around from other trips. Who would have guessed that one of the better tips is to drain and take along your European currency collection! Thanks.

That is the first piece of advice I've given anyone who asks me about visiting Cuba. Paying an extra 10% on top of the already significantly inflated CUC prices is brutal. If you can get to CUPs (the local currency that comes at a 26:1 ratio to CUCs) you do even that much better. Alas, most of the options in Havana make that harder for tourists.

The second is to get out of Havana.

HomerJ, post: 2778582, member: 3925 wrote: Or you can do what my American friends have been doing for years.
Drive/fly to Toronto. Take one of the almost hourly flights to pretty much any destination in Cuba enjoy a week at an all inclusive and then return to the US. A simple request at Cuban customs to not stamp your US passport (a removable page is used) will be honoured. You will want to get $CND before you leave, and that's about it. when US customs asks about your tan...just say a week of skiing in the sun. Two sets of US friends have done this and this was well before the embargo was lifted. We've met American's on the flights pretty much everytime. Just as a side note its much cheaper to fly there from here than from the US. Hth.

The flights are not actually all that much cheaper any more. Especially if you have to position to Canada. Also, I'd favor many other destinations for all-inclusives given the lack of infrastructure in Cuba today.

The old cars are pretty enough if that's your thing. And the people I've met on both my trips were very nice. But it is not a world-class destination by any means. Probably not even a top 10 island in the Caribbean IMO.

Completely agree on skipping La Floridita. I made it about 3 steps in the door before pushing my way back out. Smoke-filled and clearly not what it once was.

Wandering Aramean | Twitter | Travel Tools | World Heritage Sites | Trip Reports

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Posted : January 31, 2017 11:26 am
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