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I recently returned from Cuba, so the following topics address many of the questions and misconceptions about traveling to Cuba:
Travel from the US to Cuba opened in late August 2016 and around that time American Airlines offered flight deals for travel in early October. Our airfare was $300 RT. Two weeks prior to the departure date we received an e-mail from Cuba Travel Services regarding our Visa to Cuba. We went to the website, entered our personal information, selected a reason for the visit (we did education-people to people), and paid $85. They sent our blank Visa forms (two documents) via FedEx.
Day of Departure:
We were not able to check in online, so when we got to the airport (3 hours early) we checked in at a kiosk and dropped off our checked bags. Our flight had a stop in Miami and from Miami the flight was under an hour. We were given the typical customs forms to fill out. When we arrived to Varadero (beach town in Cuba), we stood in line for customs. You must fill out both sides of your Visa prior to entering the booth. They will stamp one side and the other side is stamped during your departure. When you are standing in the booth there is a long camera that is quite small and aimed at your face. Don't smile when they take your picture. Stamp, stamp, and you're out. Once you exit customs you will go through screening of your carry ons and walk through a detector. After you're finished there you must retrieve your bag. If your bag requires further inspection, there is an area to the left near the exit. Also, there will be someone there to collect your customs paperwork from your airlines.
Outside of the airport:
Once you exit with your baggage you are met with humidity and heat. If you've been to Miami, the feeling is familiar. To the left of the exit is where currency exchange occurs. I found it odd that this is done outdoors, but that's the setup. Be aware of overly friendly individuals looking for a tip. US travelers be aware that we pay a fee/penalty in Cuba, so when we exchanged our money we received approx. .86 CUC per 1 USD. That's rough. You have the option of converting your USD to Euros to save a little, but I took $400 spending and only converted half in Varadero. The remaining money was converted in Havana.
I strongly suggest that you look into renting a room or entire apartment for your stay. We rented a room in Varadero for two days and a room in Havana for three days. In Cuba their Airbnb's are called Casa Particular. They are regulated by the government, but you can book these accomadations through Airbnb's website. I recommend doing this and paying for your accomodations online, as you cannot use your credit or debit cards in Cuba. CASH ONLY folks. Our accomodations were clean and our hosts were incredibly friendly. We paid 5 CUC each morning for breakfast. Take advantage of this, because great food options are minimal and pack your favorite snacks! In booking accomodations this way we were able to get advice on where to find WiFi (no WiFi in homes, you have to go to a common area and purchase a WiFi card), great prices on souvenirs, and information on bus tours and our bus to Havana. You may not get that staying at a resort.
We were two females traveling alone and we felt incredibly safe. Cuban people are very loving, so we were stopped by men and women and asked where we from. There was a genuine interest and curiosity when we said we were from the US. I've never felt more welcome while on travel. Wear comfortable shoes when going out and about and dress accordingly, it is hot!
Tips and recommended places:
Please learn common Spanish phrases. Google them, take classes, do what you have to, but learn a little, so you can get around. People are friendly and they will work with you, but a little will go a long way.
In Varadero definitely do the hop on/off bus tour for 5 CUC. You get to see all of Varadero and you can get off at the Marina, hang out there for a bit. Hop back on to the bus and hit the beach. Pay attention to the color of the flags. Hurricane Matthew hit nearby areas, so the ocean was too rough and red flags were placed everywhere. Lifeguards will tell you to stay out of the water if it is too dangerous.
When partying in Varadero Calle62 is a must! We went on a Thursday night and the band was amazing. The crowd was fun and the drinks were great. Dancing on the dance floor and in the street!
When traveling to Havana from Varadero we considered taking a taxi. We were quoted 120 CUC round trip. We asked our host about it and she suggested we go into a nearby resort and purchase a bus ticket one day prior. The bus ticket was 10 CUC and one way. We took a short taxi ride to the station and we arrived an hour early. Pay attention, because even though you may have a ticket, you may not have a seat if you move too slow. The bus is air conditioned and similar to a MegaBus or Greyhound bus. The bus only makes a few stops and the ride is about 2.5 hours.
Havana is times square and Varadero is a quiet beach town in Florida. You get dropped off in the heart of things. Don't get flustered, take your time, and find a taxi to get you to your Airbnb. Utilize the e-mail confirmation to show your taxi driver the exact location. Take a screen-shot, because you may not have any cell coverage.
Some fun places to visit while there:
Capitole- Capitol building that looks similar to the US Capitol
Floridita- Amazing daiquiris, live band, and lots of tourists
Habana61- Beware: they ask if you have a reservation. Not sure why they do that but the fritura de malanga (fried taro root, similar to a tater tot and hush puppies) and lobster enchilada are amazing!
Factura de arte- Amazing club that features local art. Industrial building and artwork is displayed in differently themed rooms. Each room also has a different type of music. Indoor and outdoor, several floors. Arrive early, as the line wraps around the corner (before 11PM). About 5 CUC to enter and you're given a punch card for drinks. Present the punch card at the exit to pay for drinks.
Day trip to Vinales- On the way to Vinales our driver (booked for us by our hosts for 120 CUC total) took us to a cave and we did a boat tour through that, we viewed a prehistoric painting on a mountain side (very cool), we visited Salto de Sorao (Soroa) (beware there are a lot of steps to reach the falls, drink water and wear comfortable shoes!), and finally made it to Vinales. Vinales is the tobacco farm that supplies tobacco to all of Cuba. 90% of the tobacco grown there is sold to factories and 10% is used for sales at the farm. You can smoke free cigars and learn about the way the tobacco grows, is picked, and how it is rolled for free. If you would like to take a horseback ride to the farm, that costs approx. $60 CUC each. You can also purchase cigars, which are wrapped in banana leaves to protect them. They will explain how the cigars should be stored.
Upon departure our hosts had a friend willing to drive us back to Varadero the morning of our flight for 60 CUC (much cheaper than the 120 CUC we were quoted initially.
When you depart from Cuba you will have to pay for your bags in cash. Don't blow it all, folks! The price with American Airlines was $30 USD or 25 CUC. You go back through customs and the second side of your Visa is stamped (please keep this in a safe place). You are then released into the waiting area. There is a small terminal with signs that all say Duty Free. There was only one large store that accepted USD and gave change in USD, so be sure to ask. The restrictions on cigars and alcohol have been lifted (after we get back, of course). Please reference the following link http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/14/america...us-embargo-lifted/
When you arrive in Miami (if that is a stop for you), you will go through customs again. Please note that you are able to carry your alcohol from duty free through the screening area as long as your bags are still sealed. I was worried we would be asked for documentation or proof of our reasons stated for our visit, but I was asked why I went, which was to learn more about Cuban culture and I was able to go through.
This was one of my most memorable trips and I will be returning very soon. Happy travels and be a tourist, enjoy every moment!