This is remarkably different than my usual IT related entries. Back in October 2016, I received an email announcing travel from NY to Havana will begin in December for $99 each way. I bought 4 tickets for February and informed my travel mates. Those dates weren’t good, but re-booking within 24 hours, without penalty, and we had the start of a trip.
While American’s haven’t been traveling easily into Cuba since 1959, Europeans and Canadians have been. As such, there is a tourism industry that we can leverage to find hotels and Bed and Breakfasts, as well as rental cars and tourism spots.
An interesting place to visit, but….
The net, from my travel companions and my visit was that Cuba is an experience. It is far from a tropical paradise. It’s a third world country that requires a tremendous amount of improvements and cleaning to come up to what we’ve become used to in the US. It’s something we are very glad that we did, but there will be no rush to go back. Maybe in 10 years after they’ve completed some of the planned updates. I can say that we felt pretty safe there. It was easy to get in and out of both countries but there were a lot of “lessons learned” from our experience.
Through friends, we found some great resources. One of the best was this blog: cuba-travel-guide-for-americans. I don’t want to repeat everything they said. Take a look at that for yourself. Here’s an update to some of that info:
We booked our round trip to Havana. However, we ended our trip in Varadero. In hindsight, we should have flown home from the Varadero airport, a 20 minute ride vs. the 2 hour trip we took back to Havana. There are many airline choices now, but not all go to the same cities. JetBlue, for example, doesn’t fly into Varadero. However, had I waited two weeks, I could have gotten the same price from American Airlines or Delta.
At JFK, there was a separate line, downstairs from the JetBlue normal counters exclusively for the Cuba flight check-ins. You buy the VISA there. It’s a pretty long line, so get there at least 45 minutes earlier than you would a normal international flight. There was no online check-in for either to or from Havana, because of this.
Customs into Cuba
Pretty simple. On the plane, you receive two forms to fill out. 1. About the trip and where you’ll stay in Cuba. One per family. 2. Medical facts about you. Each person fills this out. On the trip form, there is the Reason for Trip. We checked off Other, as Tourism is not yet a legal reason for entering Cuba. We were there in Support of the Cuban People. That is one of the 12 allowable reasons to enter the country.
One person at a time can see the customs agent. Do not go up as a family, though one person can take child(ren). They stamped the Visa, took half and stamped the passport. Your picture is taken. Receive the other half of the Visa. DON’T LOSE the second side of the visa that is stamped on entry to Cuba. You’ll need that to get out.
As you exit the terminal, you hand the medical form to someone in a white medical looking coat. They didn’t look at it. Just added it to a pile.
They then Xray your belongs upon entering the country. You are in.
Customs out of Cuba (Emigracion)
They take you picture leaving. Again, one person at a time to the Customs agent….why say this? One in our party waited ahead of the “Wait Here” line. They moved that person to two different lines and an extra five minute wait. We have no other reason for them being moved, other than being “too anxious”. It wasn’t a problem. There was no extra scrutiny, but a longer wait. As we waited for the x-ray of our belongings after that, they were able to cut the line to us, so it really wasn’t terrible.
Customs into the US
This is where we expected extra scrutiny. However, it was no different that any other international trip that I’ve been on. I’m GOES eligible and used the expedited lines as I normally would. My travel companions were not, and were only five minutes behind me. Same questions you’d get on any international flight.
We found cards at the b&b and hotels to range from 1.50 to 3 CUC for an hour. Once you use them, don’t forget to turn off wifi in case you want to sign in again later. They have no problem letting you stay on longer and having the time expire. Also note that they don’t allow you to finish the left over time on another device. Card is good for one device only. We also tried to set up a Personal Hotspot to allow multiple computers to share, but that didn’t work. It’s “the standard” system, though out Cuba. We found there were times that it wouldn’t get to the sign on page. We opened Safari up and tried that. We re-booted iPhones. Sometimes, it was due to too many people signed on at once and others was that even though you appeared to be successful on the wifi, you weren’t close enough to the hotspot to allow the user sign on screen, which comes after wifi connect, to occur.
US Credit cards still do not work. We pre-paid for all rooms and rental cars to reduce our cash outlay. We converted US dollars to Euro’s prior to the trip. Then Euro’s to CUC in Cuba. Net – we lost $100 through the two transactions. That was way more than the 10% penalty to convert US $’s to CUC in Cuba. We converted directly on the way home.
We used Airbnb for a full apartment for two nights. FANTASTIC. We saw many, many Casa Particular (the sign with the T logo) though out Vieja Habana (Old Havana). Not a chance we would have stayed at any of those or the many, many we saw throughout the country side. Run down terrible looking places. If you don’t know someone that’s stayed there, already, beware. More on our B&B experience in my next entry.
As for the hotels, don’t be looking for a US hotel experience. The hotels we stayed at were older and needed major cosmetic improvements. For the price, I can’t really complain. But buffet meals might have a wide selection, but isn’t always very hot, unless it’s made to order. Rooms were adequate, but in need of repairs. Pools were okay, but also in need of repair. Some of the hotels were abandoned for many years and then “restored” for usage. The level of restoration might be as little as a coat of paint. One of our hotels had signs inside for the original hotel name.
We used GalaHotels to rent hotels in Havana and Varadero. Both looked reputable. Photos and amenities were okay. US credit card processing was good. Price was good. However, they changed one hotel on us two weeks before the trip. A very poor explanation and the email I received didn’t look credible, although the email addresses all pointed to their website vs some bogus site. It was too late for us to argue or re-book elsewhere. It might actually have been given a better hotel, but it didn’t have the same reviews as our original. In hindsight, I might use TripAdvisor next time for the booking. Oh wait, will there be a next time? 🙂
Transportation and Navigation
Lot’s of topics to update here.
Taxi’s in Havana and Varadero
There are many taxi’s from horse drawn carts, Coco cars, 1950’s era cars and modern “yellow cabs”. We found the rates to be reasonable. Ask for the cost to your destination before you get in the vehicle. Also make sure they agree that they know the destination as well. They typically didn’t know our street name, but knew the hotel next to our apartment. We didn’t use any of the Collective Taxi’s as there were always four of us traveling.
Within Havana, the buses are way over crowded and dozen’s of people were waiting to get on board an overly crowed bus. Some people waited hours for buses that seemed to go by regularly, because of the crowding. We didn’t do that.
We rented a car for four days, to get us from Havana to Varadero and back. I wish we could have rented for three days, but there were no vehicles available on a Sunday (they are open 24 hours at the airport), so we got it on Sunday. This is NOT gold service of a US rental car facility. We checked in at 10AM for our car. We got it at 1:30PM. We had to switch airline terminals (Havana 3 to Havana 1), which took over an hour. We rented from Cubanacar, which, like Havanauto, is owned by the government. They shared an office at Terminal 1. There were 4 closed doors and a lot of people waiting. Well, after an hour wait, we were re-directed to the office next door, which was Cubanacar alone. In any case, if you are waiting in line, anywhere, show a native why you are waiting and have them ensure you are in the right place. There is also a 200CUC security deposit and another 95CUC deposit for gas and insurance that you must have cash for at pickup. Several people ahead of us didn’t have that and went to an ATM to Cambio de Moneda to exchange money. 5 to 10 minutes. They wouldn’t wait on another customer until the prior transaction completed. Get some water before you get in line!
The car itself, was nice enough looking. It was an EMGRAND vehicle with 5 speed manual transmission and AC. Other than comfortable seats, the AC was terrible. Plenty of scratches on the car. They had spray painted over some of it. No worries. They did a good job of marking the problem areas so we wouldn’t get charged later. The cigarette lighter didn’t work. We had hoped to use that as a phone charging location. And the transmission was okay, as it shifted easily and correctly, but the car had no power. Most of the speed limit to Varadero was 100 kph/62 mph. The car was lucky to get to 105 kph. On hills, it dropped down to 80 kph/50 mph. We were getting passed by mopeds. It was ridiculous.
We didn’t leave ourselves much time to get to the airport, due to getting lost. (see below). We were able to leave the car at Terminal 3, at the counter we originally waited an hour to get a ride to Terminal 1. They processed the car in less than 5 minutes. We lost the 95CUC deposit because we didn’t take time to fill the gas. But we quickly got the 200CUC security deposit back. We were quite thankful for that. It could have been an additional 1/2 hour to drop off at Terminal 1 and pay for a taxi to get us back to Terminal 3. We didn’t have the time for that.
There are very few street signs. There are very few one way signs. There are no automated railroad crossings. You better stop, look and listen before crossing, as everyone else will. This is even though our B&B host said they’d only seen one train in the last three months.
We had some great maps. Small, laminated tri- or four-fold ones, that were easy to carry. We couldn’t have survived without them. We never could have driven in Havana if we hadn’t walked through it for two days. What looks like an interstate on a map may only be a two lane road, with horse carts, mopeds and pedestrians along the edge, taking up space and going slow.
GPS’ don’t work, as there is no over the air internet through cell phone signal. Download directions onto your phone, prior to using Google Maps. We printed Google Map directions, but it didn’t give you any reference points, other than distance and “turn right”. Not that it mattered as less than 50% of the streets had street signs so you’d know the name.
Example, we were leaving Varadero to go back to Havana. We had driven along the coast on Via Blanca, which was good, but the map implied a southern route was more “interstate like”. We saw a blue directional sign to La Habana, which directed us on a southerly route and a good road. When that road became closer to dirt and in a very congested farm town, we asked for directions. Net: 1:45 hours of driving in the wrong direction. We went almost back to Varadero and went back on Via Blanca. We asked a policeman and he suggested that was 2 lanes in each direction and far faster than the southern route we were looking for.
There are two routes into Jose Marti airport. The shorter one is not marked. We were fortunate that our Airbnb host had picked us up at the airport and driven us back to get the rental car. When we left with the rental car from Terminal 1, we “followed the signs” that got us to the longer route to Habana. As such, when we took the longer route back in, we were familiar with the back roads between the terminals, which again, aren’t well marked. Terminal 3 is for Internationale flights and Terminal 1 is for Nacional flights. Big yellow signs.
Asking People for Directions
We were fortunate to have a person fluent in Spanish and another that had some basic understanding. While driving, we met some wonderful people that were willing to give us directions to the “next major place” and then told us to ask directions to keep going.
While walking, however, we had a different experience. If asking for a restaurant location, multiple times, we were told that that restaurant wasn’t good, but they knew of a better one. Then they’d proceed to go out of their way to walk us there and talk to us about the US and Cuba, along the way. All while being extremely friendly and knowledgable. We learned that they’d get a commission if they took someone to a restaurant or other money making endeavor. We began to stick to our route pretty quickly, as a result.
There are plenty of inexpensive ones to buy. However, we were warned that they were counterfeit. We ended up spending close to 25CUC for very good cigars at a retail shop. Hotel was more expensive for the same thing.
We bought several bottles of Havana Club Reserve at a “Rum store”. So many samples, it was a great experience. This is not the Bacardi Havana Club. Here’s a link to learn about the difference.
Good news, your US cellphone will work there. Bad news, there is no pre-paid plan. For Verizon, it’s $2.99 per minute to all, about $2.09 a MB (not GB) for data, 50 cents to send an SMS text and 5 cents to receive one. After one day, one in our party got a text that they’d already used $50 in data. A quick call to Verizon to avoid future costs. Their recommendation:
- Settings –> Cellular –> Data=off
- Settings –> Messages –> iMessage = off
- Settings –> Messages –> Send as SMS = On (if you want some contact)
These settings get you to minimal phone usage, in case someone needs to contact you. If you really want to avoid all contact and charges, turn on Airplane Mode.
When on wifi, you might want to change the iMessage back to on. But don’t forget to change it back. For iMessage users that use Email address as the primary contact point, you might be surprised when you open a window to communicate with someone that it won’t go through. Don’t forget to use their mobile phone number, instead, so it goes as an SMS text instead.
We also received 2 to 4 copies of each inbound text. It will be interesting to see if we got billed for each.
Helpful Hint – Shared Notes
Using the Apple Notes iCloud feature that allows sharing of notes across multiple users, we pre-loaded a number of things so we would have them on our iPhones. I am sure there are other mechanisms, like Dropbox or Google Drive that could do the same things.
We loaded notes on Restaurants, Maps, Shopping, Nightlife, Things to do. On each item, ensure it includes an address and phone number. Web links are not helpful at all for additional info. We had to go to those links and cut and paste the content into the notes. Also make sure that you test the sharing on another device before shutting down the source. We created the notes via a Mac computer, but on one note, closed the computer before the sharing completed. That particular note wasn’t accessible on the trip. We just had the title as a tease of our (my) stupidity.
Cutting and pasting a picture of a map (screen shots) including the restaurant or attraction was also extremely valuable. We used some of our paid wifi time to do this once we got into Cuba.Very helpful as we walked around Havana.
What to Do in Cuba
I’ve written a separate entry on what we liked and disliked. If still interested, click here.