Cuba trip: How to get there as an American + Day 1
June 7, 2016
So the whole planning process gave me a ton of anxiety. Even up until walking through security I was hoping I didn’t miss anything and they would let me back into the country.
We decided to be pioneers and plan our own trip. No travel agency.
First of all, go ahead, try and call the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. Three weeks later, no one answered.
We went to South Beach for the weekend before heading off to Havana Monday early afternoon.
If you want to go the easy route, call Cuba Max travel agency in Miami. It’s where we ended up finally getting our visas the day of the flight. They weren't open on the weekends so we had no other choice! I’m sure you’ll be met with just as much sass as we did. We even got charged $10 extra per visa because we didn’t book with the agency. Pay with cash because they will charge a 3 percent fee for a card. BUT buy them here instead of the airport. You’ll save at least $30. Final price is $85 each. You can plan your whole stay with them if you’d like!
You have to choose your reason for visiting and ours was to support the Cuban people.
Also, before you leave be sure to check out the best exchange rates and get some cash. We went with Canadian and exchanged in the Havana airport. Make sure to bring more than you think for emergencies. Remember none of your American debit or credit cards will work.
Also, as of right now none of the cell networks work there. There are wifi cards $3-$5/ hour available and I used my phone as a camera so it made the cut when packing. I decided to go without Internet but some of my friends bought tons of the cards.
Make sure to write down all the addresses and numbers in the U.S.! We stayed at a few different airbnbs and I made sure to handwrite everything down. Again, I had anxiety.
You will be charged checking your bags before hitting security. There was a pound limit of 44lbs and after that a fee per lb. Luckily we were under. And only had to pay the set fee. We got charged $70 with fees and everything for our checked bags. Be sure to keep $25/person so you can get back into the country.
Our flights in total were the same as our friends that flew Chicago>Panama>Havana and our flight was less than 40 mins. But we were pioneers, damnit!
Passenger Facility Charge:$9.00
Immigration and Naturalization:$14.00
Interntional Arrival Tax:$35.60
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service :$7.92
The flight was quick. We were served a cheese sandwich on the flight, dealt with some turbulence. Thank god for Gin GIns!
And the whole plane applauded when we landed.
Day 1 Havana:
Once we landed we walked the tarmac to the security line. Went through a metal detector that beeped for everyone. Got waved with a wand. And that was it. We waited about 40 minutes for our bags and then headed to the taxis. We then decided to go back into the airport and grab some Cuban CUCs.
Tip: Go straight up to the yellow cabs and lock in your price to where you're staying. Ours was $30. You can also arrange ahead of time to have your casa particular or airbnb to pick you up!
You can also get one of the 50's convertibles. But be prepared to pay a premium!
Our airbnb was right in the plaza of Old Havana so we couldn't get dropped off by it and had to walk through the plaza.
It was just me and my husband as our friends had already been in the country for the weekend. We had no idea what the address was for the place only the cross streets but luckily one of our friends was drinking a beer in the corner restaurant we just happened to be walking by. The waiter ran after us and crisis averted.
After that we went back to the airbnb where one of our friends was already dealing with a stomach issue from something he ate or drank. Within an hour of getting settled we all ventured back out into the city. We brought some heavy duty bug spray to protect from Zika to be safe and I wore that as my disgusting perfume daily.
FIrst stop in Havana was Cuban cigars. We went to a famous store where many celebrities had been. I'm not too big into cigars so I looked around but didn't purchase anything. Casa del Habano, Hostal Conde de Villanueva was built as the mansion of Claudio Martínez de Pinillos, Count of Villanueva, but it has been given a new life as a nine-room hotel. Every room and suite is named after a brand of cigars. As you enter the courtyard, on your right you will see a flight of stairs to the old servant quarters on the mezzanine; at the top of the stairs is a hidden gem: a Casa del Habano. You'll walk buy black and white photos of celebrities who have been to the hidden spot. Casa del Habana, is managed by Antonio Hevia and staffed by one of the most sought after in-store rollers in the city, Reynaldo González. This beautiful little store with adjoining bar is truly one of the hidden treasures in the cigar world. Whether you select one of Reynaldo’s exquisitely rolled cigars or something from the full assortment of Habanos’ offerings.
We then headed over to the Hotel Ambos Mundos. We had some really crappy drinks, I barely sipped mine. It was a terrible mojito with brown mint leaves. BUT the view was an amazing 360 rooftop.
After that we went to one of the tourist hot spots, La Bodegita del Medio for dinner. We all agreed that the mojitos were better and the food was decent, I was scared at this point to get a stomach bug, so I stuck to fried root veggies and rice. My secret weapon for the whole trip was activated charcoal pills. I luckily had no problems until the day I arrived back in the states! Pretty sure it was something I caught on the plane and not in Cuba.
The restaurants were always a treat with live music! There is so much talent in Havana and every band we say was amazing!
We did some sightseeing and walked by the government buildings, ballet theater and capital. There are a lot of people trying to scam you in this area. We were asked to buy some really yucky cigars but declined. We didn't feel scared or anything and they gave up pretty easily and didn't get aggressive. They will make up super elaborate stories, all while telling you to never buy cigars from someone on the street. Two of our friends walked off on their own and they had a story to tell in the morning! They totally ended up in some dude's house for a cigar presentation "to get 50% off". The scammers told them they had friends that were workers in the cigar factory. They get to take cigars once a month to sell. Again, they never felt threatened and all ended well. Crime is really low even in the larger city! Our Airbnb hosts kept trying to remind us that at every place throughout our trip. So it must be true, right?
We walked back, late night with no problems. Only elaborate storytellers trying to scam Americans :) It was nice to finally chat with some locals, but not after we realized they were trying to scam us. It was okay because in the days to come we were going to be able to chat with a ton more people and get their thoughts on Cuba and answer every question we threw at them. Stay tuned for the rest of my Cuba trip!