I just arrived back in America from my most recent trip to Cuba! Our plane landed at 3:00am on Monday morning. Remind me to always plan a recovery day before returning to work. Coming to work on only 5 hours of sleep has been exhausting!
I started planning this trip a few months ago with my boyfriend, Shan (pronounced Shaun). We wanted to go somewhere exciting and tropical. Several of my friends have been going to Cuba since the travel ban has been lifted (more about that later…) and it seemed like a fun destination. Plus, Shan has premier status with Alaska Airlines and we could fly them all the way to Havana. He also let me use a companion fare that lowered the price of first class significantly. We were going to travel in style!
Our trip was from May 12-22nd. Ten days in Havana! We had plenty of time to research, so I quickly found out that you needed to purchase a tourist visa before arriving in Cuba. We bought them online and they arrived in a few days.
We also needed to submit an official “reason for travel.” Simple tourism still isn’t legally allowed for Americans. You have to comply with one of OFAC’s 12 designated reasons for travel to Cuba. They include religious, business, family, educational, performance, sports, among others. The one most tourists use is peer-to-peer education which means you plan to exchange culture with the Cuban people. Pretty broad, huh?
The other technicality of traveling to Cuba was that American credit/debit/ATM cards would not work. Americans are forced to use only cash for transactions. Better yet, once you entered the country, it was impossible to withdraw more, so you had better hope you brought enough! All of the travel blogs say a $75/person budget is average, so we figured $1500 total was enough for 10 days. Cuba charges a 13% fee on US dollar exchange whereas they don’t charge one for Euros. US banks do not exchange to Cuban currency, so we were forced to do it in Havana. If we brought dollars, we would be subjected to a $195 fee. Instead, I converted my $1500 to Euros while in Portland and saved so much money!
We gathered our documents and headed to the airport for our 5:00am flight. Shan and I have Global Entry so we got TSA PreCheck and a special line when returning to US customs. We simply walked though the empty PDX airport and onto the flight. It was my first time being in first class as an adult, so it was exciting! We got a yummy egg breakfast on each flight and unlimited mimosas and bloody marys!
We landed around 5pm with the pilot’s greeting, “Welcome to Havana where the local temperature is a warm 98 degrees.”
The airport was so tiny! No gates or jet bridges. The giant plane of 150 people unloaded onto the ground and we walked into the airport. I was wearing jeans and a long sleeve shirt since the plane was frigid, so I was sweltering in the heat. Going through customs and immigration was a walk in the park. No one seemed to care why we were in the country and there were barely any lines. We had to fill out a health form stating that we were symptom free and handed them to two nurses by the baggage claim area. They skimmed them and waved us ahead. There didn’t seem to be any formality in Cuba.
We exchanged our Euros into CUCs (the tourist currency. Locals use CUPs. 1 CUC = 1 USD) at the airport. We thought we would be able to convert the entire $1500, but each person was limited to only $200 and the office would only accept bills that had certain serial numbers. I still have no idea why. It was the first absurdity of the day and we hadn’t even left the airport yet!
We tried to find a reasonable taxi to our Airbnb. We spoke to a man who knew the location and gave a fair price of 25. We thought he would lead us to one of the many standard yellow cabs or one of the few nice retro cars. Instead, he told us to wait there. Three skeptical minutes later, he pulled around the corner in a rusty, rattling ’51 Dodge. We decided to go for it and hopped in.
We cruised 30 minutes into Havana and I was a little surprised. Cuba was definitely the least developed country I’d been to. All of the cars were rusted out. All of the buildings were dilapidated. Even the restaurants we passed were all tiny shacks with counters and plastic chairs in dusty front yards.
I expected the scenery to get nicer as we got closer to downtown, but the buildings simply got bigger in size, but not better in quality. We were staying in Centro Habana aka Old Havana. It is the area my friends recommended and is close to everything. It isn’t directly in the touristy downtown area (Habana Vieja), but it is a 20 minute walk away.
We soon came to find out that we were staying in the working class Havana neighborhood. Our first clue was that there weren’t really streets. Everything was just a dirt road between buildings, littered with old food, bones, and random splatters of mysterious liquids. Our large taxi tried to navigate down these roads, but there were at least 50 people trying to walk down each block, usually in the middle of the street. Our driver honked relentlessly to get people to move. They were all locals. Not a tourist in sight.
It soon became clear that our driver was lost. There are barely any street signs and certainly no stop lights or stop signs at intersections. He drove up and down the grid streets asking locals for directions in Spanish. People were swarming everywhere, so it was easy to get several responses. We continued driving around until he eventually found it. We recognized the bright blue exterior from the photos. He dropped us off, accepted his fare, and drove off.
We took a look around. The photo above is our street. Lots of people, animals, and cars (typically old, except for the occasional Audi or Kia) all squeezed into the same alley. We hauled our suitcases through the tiny blue and white entryway to the Airbnb, ready to start our adventure in Cuba.