(Note that these blog posts will all be back-dated because we had very little Internet in Cuba, so I kept a paper journal)
We bought our flights from Miami to Havana on XTRAirlines (bought through this site). They were $489 each round-trip with an $85 charge for each visa. They send paper tickets and paper visas 2 weeks before you leave. We bought them in September and they arrived December 20th.
Our flight had a check-in time of 5am, even though boarding didn’t start until 8:15. We stayed at a fleabag hotel by the airport and slept a few blessed hours. When we arrived at the airport, we were the only non-Cubans in line, with everyone dressed to the nines and carrying things like TVs, stereos, kids’ toys, and giant suitcases. Even though our flight was a “charter,” it was a (dated) Boeing 737.
Upon landing, as about half the people had gotten off the plane, we stood up to leave and there was a loud “bang” and the plane lurched. Everyone stooped to look out the window. A BUS HIT OUR PLANE!
We were a little freaked out, but everyone was ok, so we moved on to the airport.
Our paperwork from the tour group said to change your money at the airport. Looking online, I found that in Cuba, they charge 10% to change from USD to CUC, but only 3% to change from EUR to CUC, also you can ONLY get Cuban money in Cuba. So we changed our money into Euros in Miami and then into CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) once in Cuba. The exchange rate was approximately 1CUC to 1USD.
However, at the money exchange booth, I put the money down on the counter and then looked away to put my wallet away. Coincidentally, Dave looked away for a moment as well, but he noticed the money teller put something in her bra. When we counted the money in front of her, suddenly 100 Euros was missing!! When I looked to the security guard standing right nearby, I realized he was looking straight ahead to keep guard of HER! So he was in on it too. Not knowing what we could do, we tried a few tactics, realized our money was gone, and moved on. Terrible way to start our trip 😦
Once out of the airport, we were supposed to look for someone carrying a sign with our names on it. We saw no one, so we wandered around for a while and got hassled by taxi drivers. After about 30 minutes, our driver finally arrived and we saw the sign. By then we were nervous worrying about not being picked up and angry about the missing money.
Luckily, he was nice and a decent driver and he took us to our homestay. With our tour, we were to stay at a Casa Particular, which is like an Air BnB, but the government gets a chunk of the money. The way the home owners make money is by feeding you meals or doing your laundry, which is under the table. Luckily, we found the food in the Casas to be better than many of the restaurants. Also, there was no snack food or pre-cooked food to be bought anywhere. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When we arrived at the homestay, “Casa Luis,” we were told that we were moved to a different one. So Luis walked us to “Casa Barbara,” about 6 blocks away. Again, lucky for us, Casa Barbara was more our speed: a small, but very clean room, with air conditioning, a private bath, and private entrance. And it was the only room she rents, the others were for her and her daughter to live in.
We spoke with Barbara for a little while, then headed out for a walk around Havana.
If you’re planning on going to Cuba, I highly recommend buying the iphone app Galileo Pro before you go. You can download maps of Cuba for offline use and then use your GPS when you’re in the country. As of now, there is no cell phone Internet service at all – for Cubans or tourists. But GPS works! So we had maps for walking around and didn’t worry too much about getting lost.
Central Havana is beautiful but also gritty. There are big piles of trash, stray cats and dogs, horse poop from the horse carts (not fancy romantic-ride-through-Central-Park horse carriages, but working horse carts for construction and rides for Cubans only)…
meat being sold unrefrigerated…
giant potholes, and people running “stores” from their front windows. That said, it is so picturesque when you look at it the right way. The only cars people can get are the old American cars (usually with new or totally rebuilt engines) or newer, but crappy Russian cars.
Also on our walk, we heard music coming from a top floor apartment and stopped to listen to it. A neighbor spotted us and told us we should go up. I refused, but he insisted. We went up a very steep flight of stairs to a tiny maybe 10ft X 10ft room stuffed full of musicians, their instruments, and recording gear. We listened for a little while and then excused ourselves to continue on our walk.
Next, we found a restaurant and peeked our heads in. Instead of finding a restaurant, it was someone’s living room, Tommy, a retired ballet dancer, who lives downstairs and has a restaurant (Notre Dame De Bijou) on his roof. We chatted with him for a while and promised to come back for dinner.
At this point, we were nearing the time when we were supposed to go back to Casa Luis to meet our guide, Tony. We walked back and met our group: Tony the guide; Elodie the secondary guide (this was never really clear); Christine and her mother, Mary; Tina and Deepak; Allen and Jim; and Annie, Jan, and Montana.
Once we got the skinny on how everything was going to work, we invited everyone to dinner at Tommy’s.
During dinner, we found out Allen and Jim had been ripped off by the same woman at the airport! But they had 200 Euros stolen!
We found out that this dinner would be like most for the duration of the trip: cabbage, tomato, cucumber “salad”; beans and rice; and fried fish (I think some had chicken?). I got orange soda and when I asked for a straw, I saw the waiter pull one out of another drink at the counter and give me a used straw.
For 9 people, the total was 63 CUC.