The Facts and 'Fake News' of Cuba
Bienvenido a Cuba!
As many of us know, American citizens now have the ability to travel to Cuba, whether for support of the Cuban people (the most common I’ve found) or for workshops, religious/educational activities etc. With that being said, I wasted no time booking a plane ticket to embark on my next adventure! Before going to any new destination, I do my Googles to see what activities are there, things I should be cautious of such as crime, rainy seasons, museums, art districts and any cultural factors I need to be aware of. SO, let’s dive right in.
In doing my research, here are the top statements I constantly came across.
- You should wait and let other people explore before jet setting to a country that’s been off limits to us (Americans) for years.
- There is no toilet paper in Cuba, and if there is you’ll have to pay for it.
- Convert your cash to Euros before arriving to Cuba.
- You should take about $1,000 – $1,500 in spending money for your stay. (On average I was reading about stays for about 4 to 5 days).
- There is minimal crime; roaming the streets at any time of day is not an issue.
- Santa María is the top beach in Cuba.
- Buy all bus and tour tickets in advance.
- “Brace yourself for change.”
Before we even dive deep into the meat of things, lets just stick a toe in… Do not, I repeat, DO NOT let anyone turn you away from going to a certain destination based on their opinions alone. No one’s experience is or will be exactly the same as the next person’s. My adventure to Cuba fell on my 24th birthday, I invited many friends who were not comfortable with going to Cuba because of hearsay information. Friends, sometimes the biggest prejudices and dangers we face are right here in our own backyard. This is where doing your own research plays a factor; unless there are serious, known, factual wars or heinous crimes going on, do not let fear of the unknown be the reason you miss out on a new experience. Do. Your. Research.
Moving right along…
Havana is a beautiful, character filled city. There is so much life found in the architecture, the art, the food and the natives in general. Though many of the streets were not the cleanest, almost every establishment/home we had the opportunity to go inside of was kept organized and tidy. From the restaurants to the clubs and bars, every building I entered had toilet tissue in the restrooms. If the tissue wasn’t located in the normal spot in the bathroom, there would be tissue in plain view outside of the bathrooms. Additionally, I never encountered a situation in which I needed to purchase toilet paper. This my friends is…fake news! If you’d like to be extra prepared, it won’t hurt you to carry some wipes or a roll of tissue in your purse, but it isn’t mandatory.
Here is everyone’s favorite part, the dinero! Before taking a vacation, I think everyone likes to know exactly how much they need to budget for. As a broke millennial, I need to know exactly what I’m getting into before I can agree. Fact: converting from dollars to euros before ultimately converting to CUC saves you a bit of cash. Most major banks will have the capacity for you to walk in the day of and convert your USD to Euros, but be sure to call in advance just in case that may not be the case. It takes about 3-5 business days for foreign currency to be ordered if they are not able to accommodate day of. If you do not convert to Euros before hand, don’t fret it isn’t the end of the world! You can also convert your money from USD to CUC in Cuba, but you will be charged a 10% penalty fee along with a 3% processing fee. In total, I saved about $78 by converting my money beforehand. This gave me an extra $78 to splurge on the delicious Cuban rum! Though I was told by the locals that there are places outside of the airport that will process your cash conversions, your safest bet is to do it at the airport. It was a timely experience, nearly an hour long wait, but this cuts down on time spent running around looking for a place to convert as majority of the restaurants, taxis, and any other service will not accept USD.
I spent 5 full days in Cuba When arriving to Cuba I had the equivalent of $600, which gave me about 580CUC. Prior to arriving to Cuba, I kept reading about others taking at least $1,000. If I haven’t said it enough, I am a financially challenged millennial…I ain’t got it. So I budgeted for $600 and regardless of if that was enough or not, I had all intentions of making it work. Not only did I not spend all of my money, but I returned home with about $112 in pocket. Majority of our meals were very cheap, not costing more than about 12CUC. Besides going to a touristy restaurant that I found mentioned online, most mixed drinks were between 2-3CUC. Additionally I split a cab ride to Varadero which was 100CUC split between two of us, and purchased a bracelet, ring and as many drinks made my heart content. Is it possible to spend less than $1,000 in Cuba, YES. I’m honestly not sure how it’s possible to even spend over or close to 1K, as everything was ridiculously cheap.
I can’t say it enough, Havana is such a beautiful, culturally rich city, but every city has its bad apples. As for crime itself, we were more than okay walking through the main and side streets at any time of the day. The only issues encountered were the sellers – sellers of tours and taxi rides – that will try their hardest to get over on you. For example, my friend and I were offered a tour for the price of 40CUC to show us all around Havana including the residence of Fidel Castro, take us to a lunch at a local restaurant and then bring us back into the city. Before stepping foot in his car, yes it was one of the super cool old school ones, we asked more than once if that price was for the both of us in which he confirmed. At our last stop, the driver tries to convince us that we need to pay 80CUC, as the 40CUC was per person. Throughout our entire drive, we spoke more English than anything unless he was unable to think of certain words, but for the sake of not getting finessed I had to argue with him for over 10 minutes in Spanish. (I know a little somin’ somin’ thanks to my Spanish minor and study abroad time in Granada, Spain). He eventually agreed to accept the 40CUC as promised, but he definitely did not agree without a fight. Even if you are not a Spanish speaker, do not allow yourself to get swindled. It also won’t hurt to learn some basic greetings and common phrases such as “how are you?”, “how much?”, “have a great day”, making the small efforts definitely makes a difference.
This next one is sheer opinion, as the answers varied when asking many of the locals. Is Santa María better than Varadero? Many of the locals turned their nose up when mentioning Santa María as it’s where most of us tourists go to. Though the Santa María beach was still very clean with breathtaking waters, it did not compare to the beaches of Varadero. Varadero is known for its crystal clear water, and just how blue the reflection of the water is! After going to both, I prefer Varadero hands down. Not only did I find the beach more visually pleasing, but there were also plenty of restaurants located a very close distance to the beach. You could find anything from pizza, seafood, burgers and more. We settled for some Cuban pizza which was delicious and so refreshing after spending a long day at the beach! If you don’t have much time, Santa María is still an awesome beach to check out as it’s only about thirty minutes or so from the city, and a pretty inexpensive cab ride. If you’re staying in Havana, the drive to Varadero is about two hours, but so worth it! We took a taxi for 100CUC and he stopped at all of the viewpoints along the way so that we could take pictures and check out the scenery! On the way back, he even stopped at the natural cave in Matanzas. If you have the time, check out both so that you can decide which you prefer!
In some cases, buying tours in advance can be a good idea, but I personally do not like being restricted to a schedule. Though the option is there to buy some of your tickets in advance, don’t feel that you absolutely have to. Prior to going to Cuba, I researched taking the bus to Varadero, and I’m so happy that I didn’t purchase that ticket in advance. Otherwise, I would not have been able to stop at all the viewpoints along the way. Additionally, the bus was a much longer ride than taking a cab. When visiting the city, we were able to get advice from some of the locals on things to do and places to see, many of which were easy to navigate to and through without purchasing a ticket or having a tour guide. If you don’t mind being on a schedule and would like more structure then a tour and advance ticket purchases are certainly the way to go!
One thing that I didn’t fully understand until arriving to Havana was the statement “brace yourself for change”. As soon as I stepped foot off the plane, I understood exactly what that meant. Visiting Havana, in a sense, was like taking a trip back in time. Many of the buildings, restaurants and cars of course were older giving off vintage vibes. There is no WIFI anywhere, outside of a couple of parks and the airport; at both locations to use the internet you are required to purchase a card for 3CUC that will give you a password to access the internet. The card lasts for one hour, but you are able to use it at different times up until the full hour has run out. Many people don’t have cell phones and tablets/laptops aren’t even thought of. When interacting with many people there, you’ll realize that they focus not on material things but on experiences and the simple things in life. It was one of the biggest eye openers, and truly allowed me to focus on nothing else but having a good time. Having the ability to be shut off from the rest of the world was a good way to recoup and relax.
And those, ladies and gents, are the facts and fake news of Cuba.