CUBA: First and foremost

First post of 2016 is finally here!

And it won’t be just any post as this time; I’ll be talking about my trip to Cuba, which was a two week road trip throught the west and central part of this gorgeous country. We’ve started with three days in Havana, then travelled to Viñales for another three days. Next was another three days in Trinidad and we’ve ended with a day in the tourist spot Varadero.

I had been looking forward to visiting this country for about ten months, so I can’t wait to finally share my experiences with you. I’ll tell you all about the places we’ve visited, the casa particulares and hostels we’ve stayed in, some Cuban customs and so much more. There is lots to tell and I’ll probably won’t be able to tell you all, but if you have any questions or want extra information, just ask!

Once again I’ll divide this up into different posts as I don’t see any other way to structure it. So in this post I’ll tell you all about how I got to Cuba, the organisation I’ve booked this trip with and the travel documents you need. Next ones will be about each part of my trip and then I’ll end with a post about some Cuban customs and things that caught my attention through my trip.

Air Canada

Aside from my citytrip to New York, I’d never flown a long distance, so for this lenghty trip, I decided to stick with an airline company that seemed trustworthy. Via CheapticketsI found retour tickets operated by Air Canada for “only” about 740 euros (insurance and costs included).

Initially we only had one transfer in Montreal both going and coming back, but about a month after we booked they informed us that we’d also be transfering in Toronto on the way back. This meant we had two transfers with each only one hour and a half to complete. The transfers in Montreal went really smoothly; our luggage was put into the next plane for us and we only had to go through one security point. Easy! But in Toronto, it was utter hell. We’ve only made our flight with five minutes to spare as we had to look after our own luggage and the security line was really long. We had to ask to cut the line to make it in time. So I’m still pissed that they changed our flight and gave us no other options as they said it was perfectly doable. Well, it hardly was.

Aside from that I enjoyed my flight. The food was good considering it’s airplane food, the staff was really nice and helpfull and the inflight system had some really nice movies. So on that part, I have no complaints and I will definitely fly Air Canada again if possible but only with more transfer time between two flights.

Travel Smart 

Considering that Cuba isn’t a western country -which is what I usually travel to- and I had no idea how to start planning a trip like that, we decided to book a roadtrip through the Dutch agency Travel Smart/ SmartCuba. This agency offers roadtrips in a couple of countries and they have a few formulas for Cuba as well, all with the option to alter them to your taste. I definitely liked that last part as I hate to give up my freedom of planning it at least a bit on my own.

We chose the ‘Cuba in a coconut’ route, but added one extra day in Havana and took one from Varadero as we’re more city people and less beach people. And it was a super good choice. So make sure you’ve checked beforehand what you want to do where and then you can determine how many days you need at each destination.

For each destination Travel Smart offers you a choice of three different excursions which usually take up a day or half a day. The rest of your stay, you’re free to do as you please. This way you can be sure you won’t miss out on the highlights of the destination as that’s usually what they offer, but you still have some freedom to do the things you want to do.

For the Dutchies and Flemish people I can definitely recommend this travel agency. They give you plenty of information on the country you’re visiting, make sure you have local people to contact once you’re at your destination, are quick to reply to your emails and it’s simply well organised.

Passport 

I think it’s pretty obvious that you need a passport to travel to Cuba, but I just wanted to mention it to make sure this post is complete. Note that your passport has to be valid until six months after your return, as usual.

Visa 

Something that is different for Cuba is that you need a special visa. This is a little card that you get either through your travel agency or via the airline company. Of this card you need to hand in one half when arriving in Cuba and the other half when leaving the country. We didn’t inform ourselves enough and ended up getting one via both channels (travel agency and airline company), which is of course better than having none. But since you have to pay for it (about 25 euros if I’m correct), it was a bit stupid of us.

You will also need to show this little card to the people at your hotel or hostel so take care of it. I put it between my passport as it just fits in between.

Insurance 

Even though I didn’t have to show it anywhere, it’s still something I just cannot not mention; When arriving in Cuba, you need a prove of insurance to be allowed in. You can just ask your insurance company to send you a paper on which they declare to insure you for medical expences etc and that ought to suffice.

And having an insurance when travelling to a country like this is always interesting, so it’s not a lost cost in my opinion.

CUC vs CUP 

In Cuba there are two currencies; the CUC (= Cuban Convertible Peso or dollar) and CUP (= Peso or National Coin). The first currency is the one mainly used by tourists so that’s what you’re looking for when changing your money. The CUP is the money of the Cubans themselves. They get paid salary in CUP but also have to change their money into CUC to go to restaurants etc. The CUP is used on farmer’s markets, so it can be handy to have some CUP as well in case you want to buy some fruit there, but it’s not necessary. We never needed any so it’s all depending on what you’re going to buy.

1 CUC = 25 CUP.

You can change your money upon arrival at the airport, or at the Cadeca which can be found in most of the main cities. At Cadeca you can only change cash for cash, but there are also banks in which you can get cash from an ATM, but then you of course pay an extra fee. It was easiest just to bring euros and change them at Cadeca.

I had a budget of 500 euros to spend on food, souvenirs, taxis, cocktails etc, and that was plenty for 11 days. You can easily find a meal for 10 CUC and cocktails are usually only 3 CUC each. A bargain if you ask me.

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Miscellaneous

A few other things you can’t forget:

  • Mosquite spray: In summer there are a lot of mosquitoes buzzing around Cuba so be prepared to fight them off. In winter season there are less, but we still got a few bites so you better take the spray with you any season.
  • Roll of toilet paper: Toilet paper is quite scarce in Cuba which means there usually isn’t any in public toilets or you have to pay to get only four little pieces which can be annoying. So make sure you have a bit of toilet paper (or paper tissues) in your bag at all times
  • World plug adapter: In Cuba they use 110V and the same plug as the USA/ Australia. So if you use anything else at home, make sure you don’t forget your adapter. In some hotels we did have a 220V plug, but not everywhere.
  • Little soaps/ pens: People in Cuba are quite poor and ask tourists for pens or health products a lot. If you have some pens or hotel soaps left, you’d make those people the happiest alive. It’s a little gesture but seeing the smile on those people’s faces is just wonderful. It’s nothing to us but so much to them.

And that was that for the general part. I hope I didn’t forget anything important or interesting. If you have any questions so far, you know where to find me.

Until next time,

With love, Ellen

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