Ross drove Stacy and I down to the Otay Mesa border crossing and we walked over into Tijuana, Mexico and caught a cab over to the airport for $12. Then we had to fill out some kind of Mexican immigration paperwork that was 332 pesos. Then get our boarding passes to go thru to get on our plane. We grabbed a beer at the bar and then caught our plane at midnight and headed to Mexico City. It was such a long and uncomfortable flight (couldn’t sleep!).
We arrived into Mexico City pretty early in the AM and we’re pretty exhausted. We decided to post up at the airport hotel NH about $150/night. We rested up from 6a-12p then got lunch and headed to get our immigration passes and boarding passes to Cuba. We then entered security and grabbed a bite to eat. You must get a visa before traveling to Cuba (at least if you’re an American). It was 300 pesos (I think). Then we grabbed some local Mexican craft beer before boarding the plane. Coming into Cuba, it’s extremely lush and green. Farming fields, ocean. After landing we got off the plane and were taken by bus to the immigration terminal. It is humid in August! Once there, you present your immigration paper (given to you on the plane), visa, and passport. My lady was kind and conversational… Even with my broken Spanish. We went thru immigration and then picked up our bags and headed up to exchange money. Roughly 1:1 CUC to USD (add on a 10% royal screwing tax for USD). I picked up about 87 CUC for $100usd. And then gave 7 CUC exchanged into CUP (no one really takes these from tourists; the Cubans all know to only ask for CUC from tourists). We got a taxi. It’s 25CUC into Havana, but our beach villa was about an hour away so that cost us 50CUC.
On the way from the airport to the beach house, I learned a phrase from our Cuban cab driver Francisco when a truck pulled out in front of us on a busy road. He wanted to know how to say correctly “son of a bitch” in English. We died laughing and told him… So he traded and taught me some Spanish.
Hijo de puta – “son of a bitch”
One hour to hotel on a main road and then we got lost circling the property for our casa. It’s a cute lil place on the water… Like steps to the beach on the white sand . Quaint. Gracious hostess. We’re getting the breakfast tmw and it starts at 10am with lobster and crab for 15CUC. She said it’s gonna be big! After that we’re going snorkeling for 15CUC. Such a great deal. Stacy and I finished up the evening grabbing a beer and taking a walk along the beach. You could see a brilliant colorful lightning storm in the background. I can’t believe we’re here. Getting into bed at 11:30p Cuban time (like eastern time). My phone can pick up Cubacel tower… But it won’t give me a signal. So bummed.
Woke up around 9:15 and breakfast was at 10:00. Our hostess served us jamon y queso, bread, fruit (guyabana, guava, bananas), Cuban coffee, rich mango syrup/jam, and eggs and bacon. It was so delicious! The fruit was incredibly sweet and fresh. The coffee was like no other — potent, flavorful, caffeinated. I will def pick some up for everyone!
After that we had a nice conversation with Jaily (our hostess) re: Cuba, it’s future, her job as a lawyer, her planning for the house, the Cuban takeover of her beach property, etc. she’s a bright girl and has a lot of insight into the future of Cuba. She’s traveled extensively throughout the world. I’m amazed that the Cuban people get only $16/month. Health care is free.
Our catamaran showed up a bit late but we hopped on board and went for a sail and snorkel to a nearby reef. The water was warm, clear, and full of beautiful ocean life. It rivals the Similan islands or Zanzibar… Way better and more alive than the Great Barrier Reef. There were several fish eating away at a tortuga carcass. Sad, but it’s the cycle of life. After the sail, we came back and I played a bit in the water. Then relaxed in the nearby makeshift pool while Stacy took a nap in the hammock. Popito (one of Jaily’s friends and on vacation – he works as a bartender) brought us out cooked turtle and it was delicious. Meaty like chicken but flavored like… Thick swordfish? Poultry? Hard to describe. Goes great w a cold light beer which is what Cubans love.
We then wandered to the local bus stop to see how far it would be to Havana; roughly a mile to the bus stop (enough to give me blisters on my feet from flip flops). After that, we took a walk on the beach. The Cubans are so happy and jovial relaxing and vacationing along the water. Once we got back to the house, Stacy and I had a lil girl talk with some wine. Then our hosts brought us real coconut spiked with rum. It was so delicious! The sunsets here are stunning. I don’t know if it’s the beauty of Cuba or its people… But the sunsets are certainly spectacular.
Dinner was a lovely jamon y queso stuffed into a plantain for an appetizer and then a lobster, crab, and rice and cucumber salad entree. It was delightful. The crab was my favorite. The seasoning was exquisite! I was getting eaten alive by the Mosquitos so I went inside and showered. Dessert was a lovely eclair. It was a perfect beach day.
Oh no, the watery diarrhea started again last night. Woke up three times last night to get up. We had breakfast at 10am… Still heavy. Kaopectate will hopefully work it’s magic. We waited for a taxi and then decided to go out on our own and catch an old taxi for 3 CUC to Havana.
Once in Havana, we wandered around the downtown square and took pictures of the old classic cars. After that we wandered into La Floridita, a bar made famous by Ernest Hemingway. We both got the classic daiquiri. After that, we went down the many random streets and found the museo de revolucion. Very interesting tidbits of Cuba’s history. Heavily focused on Che and Fidel. The humidity and heat drew us to the Malecon wall where we took pics of El Morro and then downtown Havana. It was beautiful. We headed toward Hotel Nacional for wifi (7 CUC) and a mojito.
We went to watch the cannon show and then grabbed dinner at Dom Camillo.
We got home late this morning around 1:00am. The taxi ride was 20CUC back. This time we had a better idea of how to get back home. I went for a dip in the ocean around 9:30am. Enjoying this beach life. Now just lazing in the hammock, working on my tan. 😊
Played some dominoes with Jaily’s boyfriend and Stacy and a neighborhood boy. They were really good and it was Stacy’s first time to play. After that, Stacy and I headed back into the water. About 14 of Jaily’s friends came over for a party/gathering. It was nice to see the Cuban people party and just kickback. It was such a great atmosphere! All the guests bring stuff!
After no real breakfast, Stacy and I were getting pretty hungry so we walked into Guanabo town and ate at Chicken Little. What a cute place! Huge menu selection. I got the grilled chicken and salad. Stacy got the lobster carpaccio, and shrimp in garlic sauce. We shared a flan (it was delicious!). The cafe americano was perfect and Stacy’s cortado (espresso with small bit of condensed milk) was delicious as well. After a really late lunch (4p) we walked further into the town and discovered the electronic stores, markets, butcher, cafes, and park. People are very social here. Men stare a lot as well as make kissing noises to the ladies. It’s a normal part of their culture and it’s completely harmless. It’s slightyly uncomfortable bc they don’t hide that they’re checking you out. The Cuban women are gorgeous. There’s a lot of beautiful mixes in face and hair. Many people have light eyes. After a decent stroll, we walk back home and the heat and humidity completely zap my energy. I fell asleep in the A/C room.
Woke up around 9p and showered then chatted with Stacy for a bit.
Tomorrow, we’re heading to Havana and to get a hotel there so we’re closer to the action. We had a wonderful time at Brisas del Mar… Interacting with the locals, learning about the culture, enjoying the beach. But it’s time to get into the city and feel the vibe of Havana!
Had a late start to the day. Went into the city around 2p and checked out museo nacional de bellas artes (art museum). The Cuban art museum covered Cuban artists from the colonial times in the 1800s to the current contemporary period. Three floors of artwork. It’s still so hot!
Then we walked down to parque central and picked up a hot pink convertible ford classic car for a tour of Havana. What a kick!! Stacy and I had so much fun waving and seeing the sights and honking the horn! I have to admit that the gas fumes in the city were burning my lungs. My throat is starting to hurt.
After that we stepped into Monserrate for a bite bc we heard a lovely Cuban band. I grabbed a Cuban sandwich and a beer. Stacy saw a guy sitting by himself with an orange Michelin man shirt and invited him to sit with us. He’s from Guayaquil, Ecuador but has been living in Queens, NY and got his American citizenship. The band was great — Stacy was brave and got up and danced with the band! There was def a lot of coaxing before I’d be brave enough to get up there. After a snack we went walking along the Prado just taking in the sights and sounds of Havana at dusk. We then headed to grab a taxi to the famous Tropicana nightclub for a cabaret show.
Dinner at the tropicana was meh at best. Then came the show. We were seated in the middle with a group of people our age from Mexico, Austria, and Germany. The Austrian dude kept chain smoking and his wife urged him to stop. During the actual show, one of the guy dancers brought both Stacy and I up on the stage. I am so shy!! But after I got over my stage fright, it was totally fun! I can’t believe we were on the stage at Tropicana! 😳 after the main show, there was more dancing and fun interaction with the crowd. What a lovely night! After the show, we caught a cab back to Brisas Del Mar. He was totally lost and we helped him find the way to the house. We stopped him at the weird bridge and got out and walked the couple blocks home. $40 was a really good deal from Tropicana. Tmw we will stay in the city.
Breakfast at Inglaterra hotel. Got an omelet and americano and mango juice for 6.50. Was trying to get the Internet wifi card for $2/hr but they were out!
We headed out to the Partagas cigar factory, but discovered they moved it.
Partagas cigar factory tour $10/hr.
Cohiba – Fidel smoked
Behika – best
Cigar made from 5 leaves. Best leaf inside. Second leaf is flavor. 5th leaf is thinnest and just for outside wrapping.
One worker goes thru 1000 leaves.
Central vein removed. Used for Fertilizer or men’s cologne. Great factory tour. Dulce hooked us up with $15/Behika and $10/cohiba.
Headed to the supermarket and got some items for gifts. It’s still so incredibly hot and humid. Thank goodness my mom taught me how to haggle with a take-no-prisoners mentality. The pedicab to the cigar factory tried to charge us double but we agreed on an original price of $5.
After the cigar factory tour, we caught a taxi to the central market by the water in Havana vieja. I got several souvenirs and then Stacy and I headed to grab a bite in a hotel lobby where we grabbed a beer and bite and I got the chance to practice my Spanish. We walked from lunch back to parque central and got internet at The Hotel Inglaterra.
We retrieved our luggage from that hotel and proceeded up Neptuno to our casa particulares. It was a cute one bedroom, three bed, one bath on the rooftop. It was nestled in local Cuban neighborhood, not in or near a fancy hotel. I loved it! The family was so nice! We napped a bit and then hit the streets to get some dinner. We stumbled upon Mango Habana which was a yummy walk up eatery that we took to go. I got the fried chicken and rice (it was so delicious), salad, fish and a beer. My chicken alone could’ve fed two people! 😝 now I’m stuffed. My legs are sore. And I have a headache. Time for some rest before our last day!
Woke up around 11am. It was so cold last night in our casa particulares. We decided to stay another night here at a glowing rate of $25/night. I had the remainder of my chicken dinner for breakfast. It was still incredibly tasty! Walked down the street of Neptuno and a Cuban lady with a baby approached me asking for milk for her baby. I couldn’t say no. She walked us across a street to a grocery store and started getting all kinds of groceries. I got annoyed and said Milk only. In fact, my feelings were so hurt I just about walked outta the store. It was $6/bag of vitamin fortified dried milk. I paid $12 for two and left. I can’t stand when people take advantage of my generosity. I already woke up with a raging headache for being so dehydrated — the constant sweating and trying to keep up with hydration has really taken a toll on me. I’m so tired of the mosquitoes, the flies, the tobacco smoke, the heat, the sweating, the car exhaust fumes, the people coming up and offering cabs and services, the lack of cell signal, etc. I’m ready to go home. And for me, that’s a sign of a good vacay. 😊
Stacy met some girls from San Francisco who are just starting out their days in Havana. One is a peds onc nurse at UCSF and the other is in micro finance that offers small business loans to companies/startups. Both were really nice. They’re going from here to Haiti.
Keypoints (as of August 2015):
– Exchange USD to Euro for best exchange rate (Cuban banks will impart a 10% tax for every exchange from USD and then will make the exchange to CUC)
– Don’t bother with getting CUP the Cuban local currency vs CUC the Cuban tourist currency. Locals will not take your CUP.
– If you visit in August, it will be hot and humid. Bring or buy a hat, sunnies, umbrella, sunscreen to shade yourself.
– If you’re a budget traveler, consider staying in a casa particulares. They’re like the local Cuban version of the U.S. Airbnb but at a better price ($20-30/night). Make sure you find one with AC!
– You only really need 3-4 full days in Havana to experience it’s charm. Must sees: classic car tour of Havana ($30pp), museo de revolucion ($8pp), Partagas cigar factory tour ($10pp), Tropicana night club cabaret show ($75+pp), see the Hotel Nacional, La Floridita (Ernest Hemingway’s daiquiri place of choice), bar/cafe Monserrate (great Cuban music), central supermercado for souvenirs.
– Stay at a beach for a day or two to enjoy the turquoise warm waters and snorkel or sail: Brisas del Mar near Guanabo or Veradero.
– Practice your Spanish.
– Practice your dance moves. Don’t be shy!
– Try the street food and local beers!
– From the U.S., you will not get a cell signal, even if you purchase an international data plan from any of the major carriers. Some of the major Cuban hotels sell a wifi card for 2CUC/hr. Good signal for texting (get Whatsapp for international texting), Internet surfing, social media. Not good for FaceTime videos or audio.
– To get around the city, get the Maps.me which uses your phone’s GPS signal without cell. Great to mark local landmarks and get back to your hotel, etc.