This Post is a guest post of a co-worker of mine. Toby is a Project Manager with L. R. Mourning Company and is raising his three children at home. His older son and son's girlfriend along with their two kids, recently moved in as well.
Toby has a full plate. He recently went on a solo vacation to get some much needed R & R to Cuba. This is his story, in his own words:
As a young boy growing up on a midsized ranch, I was always outside and looking for places to go. Many times going to what I thought was the far reaches of our farm, picking blackberries, and basking in the sun. As I got older would find out was not that far. The same inward desire to explore and find new places and experiences as a young boy has stayed with me, and so that is what inspired me to travel to Havana Cuba, and this is what I have experienced and learned along the way.
As you step off of the airplane you are immediately transported back in time. When the plane lands, and you look out of the window, there is no large terminal with a jetway extending to the airplane for your exit. You simply walk down the mobile staircase and onto the ground floor. There is no danger, but just the simple effort it takes to unload your things and walk into the terminal. And that is what Havana is about, old-fashioned simplicity. Most buildings, equipment, and of course the cars are classic, from a different era of time, but just as important very functional. After waiting in line for customs clearance, your passport is stamped, and your visa is verified. For US citizens a visa is obtained at the last point of entry into Cuba. So before I could check into to my flight I had to pick up my visa at the gate terminal where I was departing. You will want to pay for the visa at least one week prior to departure. Once purchase the visa will be available at will call in the airport. The US visa can be purchased for a small fee. Mine was a total cost of $50 dollars.
As you finish customs you will need to exchange your currency for theirs. The Cuban currency is a dual system. The Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban national peso (CUP). The main difference is the value. The convertible peso is considered equal to the US dollar, (1CUC = 1USD) and is almost exclusively used for tourists, and within the tourist industries. The National Peso is used among the Cuban people primarily for day to day living. The national peso is value is less (24CUP=1USD). The most important thing to know about being in Cuba for an adventure is this; Cuba is what I consider a cash country, I did not see credit cards or debit cards, everybody paid cash, so bring your own before you depart from your original country. There is not an ATM or bank inside of the Cuban airport and I did not see one during my five days of travel. As a single dad on a solo adventure, I was traveling on a budget. For me, I made a 5 day trip on 340 USD. Because I was going outside of Havana and into the country, I split my money, 300 CUC, and 40 CUP. I did purchase a small Hotel 2-night stay prior to arrival.
There are many options available for lodging, but typical to Cuba, there are a few challenges, if you are looking for an adventure. You can book an all-inclusive resort, which is easy, and if that's your style, go for it. Another option is booking a hotel through a third party website. Although not as easy, and lacking some amenities you will probably have a private bedroom, bathroom, and shower, you will also share a common space for eating and relaxing. The third and most adventurous would be finding a local Casa Particular. The Casa particular is best explained as what most people would find on Airbnb or a room to rent. All over Cuba, people offer rooms to rent. Keep in mind there are casa particulars for tourists and nationals. The Government requires a sign be posted to advertise availability. The difference between the two is the color of the sign, blue for tourists, and black for nationals. For my adventure, I pre-booked and pre paid for a small hotel on a third party site for the first two nights in Havana. Knowing that I was going to explore outside of Havana, during my days, I gathered intel about casa particulars north of Havana. I found several and the cost was minimal, only $20 CUC per night, in contrast to $100 CUC per night at the Hotel. The casa particular was a great experience for me. Not only was it cheap, but it gave me a good perspective of what it is like for the Cuban people, and a bonus the owner cooked me breakfast each morning.
To see Havana and other parts of Cuba it is easy to move around within the city, and my experience showed me that it is very safe and accommodating for tourists and adventurers. The most obvious way to see Havana is from a seat inside of a 50’s style classic car. A very popular tourist attraction, the cost is around 40 CUC for a short city tour. Just for getting around from place to place taxi’s are readily available, but I recommend negotiating a price upfront before you get in. I found a tourist bus going round trip to Santa Maria Del Mar, a beach about 45 minutes north of Havana. The bus stop is located at Parque Central in front of Hotel Inglaterra, the cost is minimal, one way is 5 CUC. A taxi will cost 20 CUC. The bus route runs all day and the last pick up from the beach back to Havana is at 6 pm.
Cuba is a unique place in terms of technology, they do have internet, however, it is not found in each individual home. The internet for most Cubans is found at the local parks or provided at Hotels. There is usually someone who walks around and sells an internet access card. The access card gives you one hour of time. Cost is about two dollars (2 CUC). The Cuban Government does not give subsidies to US-based cellular or Data services. Before you go, take advantage of google maps and download a map for offline use, and use other wifi for data usage to connect to the rest of the world.
My trip was for four nights and five days. Upon arrival, I took a taxi ($25 CUC). The cost was more than expected, but I did not see an alternative means since the airport is a good 20 min ride outside of Havana. I arrived about 8 pm at the Hotel in the Verdado area on the West side of the city, and since I only brought a backpack for a suitcase it took no time to put my things away and explore the city that night. I walked along the Malecon, a seawall protecting the bay for the ocean. The Malecon is a popular place as people go there to cool off from the heat and gather for music and dancing. The next day, I spent time walking around Old Havana. There are several Plazas of interest that gives a quick history of the people and culture before the revolution. Plaza De Catedral and Plaza De Armas, have beautiful architecture. Along the way stop by La Bodeguita Del Medio, the storied watering hole of Hemingway and other Celebrities. I took a final stop at an artisans market called Almacenes San Jose. This, in my opinion, is the best place to pick up a souvenir. While you're there find a pop-up shop selling fresh drinks using a fresh pineapple as your cup mixed with coconut or pina colada… !!! After two days and about 18 miles of walking, I was ready for some relaxation. I went to the beach and was very surprised at how beautiful it was. Santa Maria Del Mar was a great getaway, there are several hotels along the beach. This area is not commercialized and gave me thoughts of what a small beach town might have looked like in the 50s. At the beach, for 6 CUC I was able to have an umbrella and lounge chair for the day. Although there are hotels available, I chose to stay at a Casa Particular about 5 miles from the beach. I used the local bus system to navigate my way and must say. Speaking Spanish would have been a big help since it is easy to get on the wrong bus, I found from experience!!
This great trip had to come to an end. Reluctant to leave, the owner of the Casa Particular called a friend to drive me back to the airport. It is important to arrive 2-3 hours before departure. The departure process can take time. If you have any currency left over an exchange it after you go through customs. Be warned the airport exchange will not exchange CUP back into your original currency, again another lesson learned! Looking back on my adventure, I am glad to have had such a great experience. Cuba is a great place for adventure, my travels only scratched the surface. Havana is very safe, the people are welcoming, and there is a rich history and cultural.
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