Wednesday, March 21, 2018

5 Days In Cuba

I just thought it would be interesting to breakdown my itinerary for Cuba to give you an idea of what I was able to squeeze in within a short period of time. I have a full time job so when I take vacations I try to be very strategic so I can maximize my limited time off, without further ado here is what my itinerary for Cuba looked like.

Day 1, Havana:

I landed in Havana in the afternoon and I wasted no time in familiarizing myself with my surroundings. I spent all afternoon exploring Havana Vieja on foot and fortunately all the points of interest were close to each other so it made it easier to check them out one at a time. Some of the points of interest included: Parque central, Obispo street which is a lively pedestrian street and several plazas.

Day 2, Viñales:

I decided to pay for a full day tour of Viñales which cost me $67, lunch was included. The tour departed from Havana in the morning at 7:30 and we got back to Havana at around 6 pm. We got to visit a small tobacco farm, the famous pre-historic mural and some pre-historic caves.

Day 3, Trinidad:

I traveled to Trinidad via a colectivo which is a shared taxi, the trip took about 4 hours. We made a couple of stops to fix a flat tire and to get some snacks and use the toilet at a convenience store. We arrived in Trinidad in the afternoon and I decided to walk around town familiarizing myself with the streets and enjoying the various music being played at different spots. There were taxis offering excursions but after being stuck in a car for a good amount of time I just wanted to spend time on my feet and was not interested in getting into any car for the rest of the day. I spent a night in Trinidad before heading back to Havana the following morning.

Day 4, Havana:

I arrived in Havana in the afternoon and since I hadn't seen Havana Nueva yet, I decided to treat myself to a taxi tour of the newer part of Havana. For $30 I was driven to see some of the main sites in Havana Vieja for an hour before being dropped off where we started, at Havana Vieja. I did more site seeing and got to check out places I hadn't checked out before.

Day 5, Havana:

As you can see I had been on the go non stop from the beginning so on the last full day in Cuba, I just wanted to take it easy. I checked out Callejon de Hamel which is a small street where every Sundays they have performances of Afro Cuban music that starts at noon. After that the airbnb hosts that I was staying with drove me check out a couple more spots that I hadn't been to where I was able to get a good aerial view of the city. Later on I decided to take a last walk along Obispo street before calling it a day.

Day 6, Departure:

I flew out of Cuba in the morning, very tired but happy at having achieved what I had set out to do. I know it was a lot but I really did enjoy myself.

Budget Breakdown:

Before we get into the budget breakdown let me first note a few things to consider. $1 is equivalent to  1 CUC which is the Cuban currency you will convert your money to. The Cuban government levies a 10% penalty on the American dollar (politics) then there is an additional levy of 3% for transactional charges. At the airport I decided to change $200 to CUC for starters, there is a currency exchange machine that you deposit your dollar bills into and it lets out the CUC. The machine accepts one bill at a time so if you have a lot of bills on you.....tough luck! I had only $20 bills so yes, I had to deposit each one at a time. Not fun! at this machine the exchange rate was 1 CUC for .87 (remember the 10% fee and 3% transaction charge levy). I never saw a currency exchange counter with a person working behind it so I am not sure if I just missed it or the currency exchange machine is the only option at the airport. If you know some locals you can change your dollars with them and they will factor in only the 10% fee.

The amounts listed below are in the Cuban currency CUC

Cuban tourist card - $20
Taxi ride from Havana airport - $25
Tour of Viñales - $67
Colectivo to and from Trinidad - $70
Homestay in Trinidad - $25
Taxi tour of Havana - $30
Taxi ride to Havana airport - $25

Total Expenditure = 262 CUC

Initial currency exchange at airport $200 * .87 =  174 CUC
Currency exchange with airbnb host $200 * .90 = 180 CUC

Total budgeted money available 354 CUC

Food and some souvenirs 92 CUC

I spent a total of $400 for my 5 day stay in Cuba, food was cheap as I ate like a local and any drinks I bought were less than $5. I had carried an additional stash for emergency but I decided I was going to convert only $400 just to see how far it would stretch me. I must say I did good as I din't go over my intended budget, it certainly felt good coming back with my emergency stash that I was able to put back into my savings.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Saying Goodbye to Havana

I left Cuba today, woke up early in the morning to catch my flight after a hearty breakfast from Yuneisy. As her husband Junior loaded my suitcase in the car I looked at the empty street behind me thinking how fitting, good byes can be a little sad and the street did match that gloomy feeling. I will for sure miss navigating through these normally lively Havana streets.

Yuneisy and Junior drove me to the airport and once again hugs, kisses and promises to keep in touch were made. They sure did go out of their way to ensure I had a good time and I am super grateful for that.

Well, that's it! my stay in Cuba has been amazing and I got to meet some really cool folks that I definitely want to maintain contact with. This will certainly not be my last trip to the island, hopefully not!

Random Thoughts of The Day:

I never paid attention to this before but airbnb has an option that indicates "send money to your host" Damian was telling me that a lot of Cubans in other countries use this option to remit money back to the island in order to help their families. Think of it like Western Union.

The embargo that the US has on Cuba really only hurts the local people more as the politicians lack for nothing so they don't feel the struggle. All the Cubans I have had the pleasure to talk to want the relationship between Cuba and the US to be good so that it can open the Island up to more opportunities. It's too bad that they are caught in the middle of all the politics while all they want is life with opportunities, who doesn't want that?

I was told that when Obama visited Cuba as he tried to build a relationship with the island, people were so excited and tourism shot up dramatically with Americans flooding Cuba to visit, what is even more interesting is that I was told more African Americans started visiting Cuba during this time. The influx of American tourists brought in a lot of business opportunities for the locals who were more than happy to embrace it. Now, with the new administration the effect on tourism can be felt. Americans are still traveling to Cuba but not as many as before. By the way, citizens of other countries still contribute to tourism and they visit a lot so all is not lost.

Damian, Yuneisy and some of the people I met in Trinidad who work with tourists were telling me that before they never used to see that many black tourists visiting Cuba but now they are seeing a lot more which gives them an opportunity to understand the different cultures that they are coming from as opposed to relying on what the media shows........or doesn't show most times. 

Lastly I just want to add, if you decide to visit Cuba stay in the casas particulares which are local family homes that people have converted into accommodations that can be equated to a bed and breakfast. At least this way you know your money will go directly to the local families. Don't get me wrong, the government does get their share in the form of taxes but still this is more money that a Cuban family can earn.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Last Day In Cuba

I can't believe it's my last day in Cuba, unfortunately time does fly when having fun. I wanted to make sure that my last day in Havana was going to be relaxing because I have been on the go so much and haven't had any time to really relax and just take in everything around me. 

I slept in late which felt really good then had a feast for breakfast thanks to my airbnb host Yuneisy, I had to switch houses because Damian and Chaveli's house had been booked on the last day I was going to be in Havana. Yuneisy recommended that today being Sunday I should check out this one street called Callejon de Hamel. Every Sunday there is Rumba Cubana which is Afro Cuban song and dance performed on this street. Now this was one event that I was not going to miss!

The performances usually start at noon which worked perfectly for me because it gave me an opportunity to relax and sleep in before heading out. When the time came I made my way to the location which was not too far from Yuneisy's house, the directions I had been given were very straightforward and as I got closer to Callejon de Hamel I knew I was on the right path as I could hear very lively drums and singing.

When I arrived at the site of the performances the street was already packed with tourists and locals and with my short stature I was lost in the crowd and it was hard to see the stage. Luckily I managed to locate an elevated spot that I quickly made my way to and I was able to get a really good unobstructed view of the dancers and singers. The performances were amazing and I have to hand it out to the dancers who had crazy stamina given how vigorous the dances were and how long they were able to perform without skipping a beat. 

I watched the performances for a few hours before deciding to leave. It was so hot that I could feel sweat dripping down my back! it didn't help that the space was very small and there were so many people. It was worth it though and I am so glad I got to check this event out. For anyone reading this and planning on visiting Havana, make sure to stop by Callejon de Hamel on a Sunday afternoon for some good live Rumba Cubana performances.

I made my way back to Yuneisy's house and we hang out spending time just talking and taking photos as we waited for her husband to get home. They both wanted to offer me a late birthday surprise, how sweet! right? I always end up meeting amazing people during my trips and that's part of the reason why I love traveling so much. 

Yuneisy asked me if I had the chance to check out the statue of Christ which overlooks the city, the area where the statue is gives you a very good aerial view of the city and at night many couples like going there to spend some romantic moments. I hadn't visited the area so their gift to me was to drive me there to take photos, they told me we could spend as much time as I needed and they would be at my service.  I was so moved and touched by their kind gesture, they really didn't need to do anything for me but they chose to because they wanted me to feel special and have some memorable experiences in Havana.

I didn't take as many pictures because I was busy taking in the lovely views and chatting with Yuneisy plus there were so many tourists and it was a hustle trying to find a good spot for a picture.

Yuneisy showed me what once used to be Che Guevara's house. It's big and the view from the house is stunning as it overlooks the city below. I see the man lived very well in Havana!

After spending some time admiring the view around, Yuneisy and her husband asked me where I wanted them to drop me off as they had guests coming to their house and they needed to go meet up with them. I requested that they drop me off at Damian and Chaveli's house. I wanted to hang out with them one last time before leaving plus they had invited me to come see them.

I spent a couple of hours conversing with Damian & Chaveli and met some of their extended family who welcomed me with open arms. After many hugs, kisses and promises to keep in touch I had to say goodbye, I left their house and decided to head to Havana vieja to walk along the lively Obispo street one more time before going back to Yuneisy's house to start packing my stuff in preparation for my departure the next day

Random Thoughts of The Day:

I noticed so many pictures and photos of Che Guevara around the places that I have traveled to in Cuba and when I asked how come Fidel Castro's photos are not as prominent, I was told that before dying he requested not to have his photos displayed so that's why they are not as prominent as Che's.

Having no easy internet access has been a challenge, I feel so cut off from everything but then again, its been good to just shut off and focus on my surroundings and the people around me.

I was having a conversation with Yuneisy and she was telling me that there are a lot of men in Havana who practice "gay for pay." During the day they have their wives and kids but at night they sleep with old tourists for money.

Abortion here is legal and some women end up having so many abortions as means of birth control. I was chatting with this one Cuban lady and she told me she has had 7 abortions! before I could pick my jaw off the floor she casually added, "I have friends who have had 10 to 14 abortions." I was too shocked to even ask why not use contraceptives, I was literally speechless!

Airbnb has presented a very good opportunity for local Cuban families to earn a living. Salaries are low here especially if you work for the government, both the hosts that I have stayed with here in Havana had regular jobs before quitting and focusing on airbnb which helps them make more money. Its admirable to see how they have converted their homes to maximize their income potential via ariana.

Yuneisy's husband was a civil engineer and Yuneisy herself was a physical education teacher, they decided to get into airbnb and it has paid off very well for them. They both quit their jobs to focus on their airbnb venture, they ended up doing so well that they got another house which they also use to rent out on airbnb.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Year Older In Havana

Happy Birthday to me!! I turn 38 today and what can I say? I feel good, age is nothing but a number after all........until your body starts failing you! but I am not there yet so I will not worry about it for now.

I woke up early in the morning to get a colectivo back to Havana. My very amazing airbnb host Damian had arranged one for me and planned for it to pick me up first so I could get the front seat of the car which is the most comfortable, how sweet right?! I rode along with two guys from France and one other guy from the UK, the ride was uneventful until some idiot in the colectivo decided to fart! I swear I was so pissed and of course everyone acted like nothing had happened, who knows which guy in the car it was.

We arrived in Havana after 4 hours and when I got to Damian and Chaveli's home I was presented with flowers from both of them as a birthday present. This couple is just the best! Damian had actually told the lady I stayed with in Trinidad that it was my birthday and to make sure to wish me well. The lady gave me a big hug and a rose flower first thing in the morning when I got up and was preparing to leave for Havana, I thought it was such a nice gesture.

Even though I was super tired and my feet were so sore from all the walking, I decided to hit the ground running and do more sightseeing around Havana. I headed to Havana vieja and took one of the colorful taxis you see below. For $30 they offer a one hour tour of Havana vieja and nueva then give you an opportunity to take photos. I figured since it was my birthday I might as well treat myself to something fabulous so I went for it.

We passed through the John Lennon park in Havana nueva where the statue of John Lennon sits. Turns out he had and still has quite a following in Cuba, occasionally concerts are held here in his honor and they play all The Beatles music.

My driver ended up being such a cool guy and we chatted through most of the tour as he explained the living conditions of regular Cuban citizens, the politics, history of the revolution and how the government has been since Fidel Castro's death. It was so interesting and we were so engrossed in conversation that at times he would forget that he was giving me a tour and was supposed to explain the significance of various sites we passed through.

The ride actually ended up being far much better than I expected, at the end of it even the driver said he enjoyed himself very much especially the conversation we had and how much interest I showed in learning more about Cuba from a local. It was also super cool riding along the Malecon with the breeze blowing through my hair as I listened to Celia Cruz on the radio, sounds corny but hey! I was enjoying myself!

After my ride I took a walk along this one street called Obispo, it's one of the main busy pedestrian streets in Havana vieja and it's where all the action is. It was very lively with salsa musicians and dancers giving live shows. I took my time enjoying all the entertainment around me before going to find the famous "La Bodeguita del Medio," a bar-restaurant that is well known for all the famous people who have passed through, it is said to have been Earnest Hemingway's favorite bar and this is where the mojito was born although there are disputes about this.

Damian and Chaveli had told me that it's overrated and just a tourist trap so it would only be cool for a photo opportunity and nothing else.

Right across from the bar was a gentleman talking to this one lady, he reminded me so much of Oscar de Leon (great Venezuelan salsa musician). I had to walk over and tell him that, he was so flattered and thanked me for making his day, he even offered to have me take photos with him on the little motor taxi you see below. He had this old school gentleman vibe about him that I was drawn to.

I walked around some more, stopped to get some desert at this one coffee shop before finally deciding that I was done for the day. I came back to my room, took the longest shower ever and decided to watch a movie on TV. Overall it was a good day today so no complaints whatsoever. Happy Birthday to me! 38 does look good on me if I must say so myself.

Random Thoughts of The Day:

Cobblestones are tough on the feet especially when wearing sandals. You may not feel it while walking but boy will you feel it at the end of the day, my feet are so sore!

Even though this trip has been hectic as I have tried to squeeze in as much as possible within a short period of time, I am super proud of how I have managed to execute my plans. It's been tiring but so worth it. 

I still can't get over how safe this place is, I love it! Even taking out your phone to take pictures doesn't feel scary at all, believe me I have been to places where you better have those valuable tucked away and not dare take them out in plain view.

To be honest I would love to come back to Cuba and if I ever do I am definitely coming with my husband. We (Damian, Chaveli and I) have even planned on a couples' date when I come back to Havana with my husband.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Trinidad, Cuba

Today I decided to travel to a city called Trinidad located in central Cuba, it is a well preserved colonial town with cobbled streets and brightly colored buildings. The older part of town which is where the colonial influence can be seen, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had heard good things about the city so since it was highly recommended I decided to check it out. unfortunately Trinidad is 4 hours away from Havana by car so I had a long trip ahead of me!

Damian my airbnb host arranged for a colectivo to come pick me up early in the morning. A colectivo is a shared taxi so you get to ride with other people who are going the same place or direction you are. It is cheaper than a private taxi and even though buses are the most economic means of transportation, a colectivo is just so much more convenient. The price varies between $30-$35, it cost me $35 and I rode with three other people.

I left Havana at 8 in the morning and arrived in Trinidad at about 2 pm. The car got a puncture so we had to stop for the tire to be replaced then stopped again to get some food. Damian had arranged for me to stay with a host family that he is familiar with so the colectivo dropped me off at their door step saving me the hustle of trying to find the house. I was warmly welcomed and after exchanging pleasantries I decided to hit the ground running. I freshened up a bit, got a map from the lady hosting me and off I was to explore the town.

It was super hot and I was tired but I managed to do quite a bit of site seeing. Some of the streets really reminded me of Antigua, Guatemala and once again I kept having that deja vu feeling.

As cute as these cobbled streets look, they can be tough on your feet!

Had to stop and get a hat to shield myself a little bit from the sun........still didn't help! it was HOT.

After walking for quite a bit I stopped to grab some lunch then headed to this bar called canchanchara  that had been highly recommended if I wanted to try the local drink guessed it, La Canchanchara! it is made from rum, honey and lemon juice I believe. It's served in a small rounded clay pot and you have to stir it to get all the ingredients mixed up especially the honey which sits at the bottom.

The bar had some good live music so I decided to stay for a while to enjoy the music and my drink. I ended up making a friend which worked in my favor because I got to be shown all the cool local spots for live music and dancing. This Cuban guy started chatting me up and upon finding out its my first time in Trinidad he insisted upon showing me all the local places that are happening so I can experience the town as a local.

This place is spoilt for choice when it comes to live music, every corner we turned there was a band playing salsa and I am talking about really good bands, the quality of music was top notch and it was all free! of course at the end of the performances people had the option of tipping. I was in heaven! I haven't enjoyed salsa in a while so it was nice to listen to all these different bands playing good salsa and what was even better is that I was introduced to all the band members from the various bands because the Cuban guy knew them all.

Here are some of the good bands I had the pleasure of seeing perform.

All in all it was a very good day albeit very exhausting!

Random Thoughts Of The Day:

I feel so intimidated dancing salsa here in Trinidad just because there are so many great dancers and I am bit rusty with my moves since it's been ages since I danced.

I think I will need a long rest after this vacation, I have been on the go since I got here and I am slowly beginning to burn out.

Initially when I got to Trinidad I was not feeling it but after walking around and having the chance to be shown all the different cool spots, I really like it and I realize there is so much more I could have experienced here but unfortunately I am only here for a day and leaving tomorrow morning.

Trinidad is very touristic and there are plenty of tourists around, with it comes all the sly "casanovas." All I can say is, ladies just be wary of these smooth talking dudes, some of them just want an opportunity to get out of Cuba in search of better opportunities. It is what it is, let's just say I have seen and heard things!

It is HOT over here! Jesus! In Havana the weather is actually really nice and I was told I came at a time when the weather is cooler because it does get really hot too. Prior to coming to Trinidad I had already been warned that it's hotter than Havana, Ooh! I feel it, trust me!

Ok folks, that's it! time to hit the sack because I am tired and today has been a long day! I have to save some energy for tomorrow, my birthday! until then........bye!