We are going to Cuba!
Thanks to Obama opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba, American airlines are now flying to the island from various cities in the U.S. From Fort Lauderdale, the airfare round trip is dirt cheap, $150. Visas cost $100 round trip per person. So, for $250, we can fly an hour to a country that has been under a U.S. embargo for 60 years, an embargo that failed miserably. I want to get there before the old cars vanish, before franchises move in, before Cuba is transformed into resorts and casinos.
For lodging, we’ve opted for a casa particular – a room, apartment or home in a neighborhood that is rented out to travelers for far less than the hotels charge. I was surprised by the hotel prices- $400-$500 a night. Then I realized that for years, Cuba has been a tourist hub for travelers from numerous other countries who apparently are willing to pay those prices. Air BNB is the route we took.
Air BNB is one of those marvels that developed because of the Internet. They list hundreds of casas particulares all over the island with photos, prices, numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, locations, every bit of information you need to make an informed choice. We’re staying at Casa Jose, an apartment to the west of Old Havana that sleeps eight. There will be 7 of us for the four nights, an eighth person for two nights. When we split the cost of the apartment, it comes out to about 40 bucks per person per night. The apartment is about a 20-minute walk from Old Havana.
The apartment has a kitchen, air conditioning, a balcony that overlooks the city. I’ve been in touch with Jose, the host, whose English is better than my Spanish, and he has answered all the questions I’ve asked.
We are going to be seven in the group that arrives first. The eight person is arriving the day after we do and leaving a day earlier. Jose will pick us up at the airport and the ride to the apartment costs 25 CUCs, not bad when you’re splitting the fare with others.
I have learned that there are two currencies in Cuba – the CUCs and the CUPs. One CUC is worth one dollar; this is the currency tourists use. The CUPs are the currency that locals use. It’s best to exchange money at the Havana airport, even though a 10% fee is imposed, which actually means one dollar is worth a bit less than one CUC. I’ve learned that local transportation is relatively inexpensive, so we don’t need to rent a car. However, if we wish to make a day trip out of Havana, there are inexpensive buses or we can hire a driver of one of those incredible cars from the 1950s.
I’ve also learned that the best places to eat are private restaurants and cafes, rather than those owned by the government. The prices are more reasonable and the food is better.
Lonely Planet has a fantastic book on Cuba and I’ve been going through it, selecting spots I really would like to see during our four days on the island. On Sunday afternoons, for instance, there’s a public drumming session by local santeros that Lonely Planet describes as “hypnotic.” There’s a Santeria museum that I hope to visit. Art and music are huge on the island and I’ve selected a couple of spots in Old Havana that are high on my list for both of these pursuits. There’s even a nightclub that features flamenco dancers.
Outside of Havana, I would love to see the island of Trinidad. The caves. The beaches of Matanzas. My friend, Marina, who was an ER doc in Havana and now works at our local Publix, has been advising me on which areas to see. I’ve got my Cuba book in my car, with my map of the island, so that when I see her again, we can pore over it.
I’m psyched for this trip. Cuba has been on my bucket list for years, ever since my dad told me about his stopover in Cuba during the Batista years. I actually never thought the island would open up to Americans in my lifetime, Thank you, President Obama.
Internet is sketchy on the island and when you have it, the price is steep. Supposedly, AT&T finalized a deal with Cuba in October 2016, but Verizon was there first. This Internet iffiness may be a challenge for me, but frankly, I just want to have photos and if I can’t upload them until we get home, well, so what. I’m ready to embrace the entire experience, whatever it may be.