As entitled Americans traveling to Cuba for the first time, we set our expectations pretty low. We were most worried about my Cuban born father getting in and out of the country, knew how to convert our already converted American dollars from Euros to Cuban pesos, brought toilet paper and had zero hope of internet connections. What we did not expect was how hard it would be to find coffee, cigars and churros (a traditional Cuban donut-like treat) in the country that invented caffeine, tobacco and sugar.
There are certain “must know” things for every American traveling to Cuba but also quite a few surprises.
Americans still cannot travel to Cuba as tourists and need a reason like a sporting event (which was supposed to be my reason), writing a story (another one of my reasons) or people to people to get there. People to people involves doing good will and charitable acts for the Cuban people while you are there, which is what my brother and sister-in-law did.
Once you have a good reason (or not, they really couldn’t care less as long as you’re spending money) contact a reputable travel agency like Miramar Travel in California. They took care of our visas, airline tickets, house rental (they also book hotels) and our driver. The total cost was around $2000.00 per person and was worth every penny. Having a great house (private houses are called casa particular), with a great host and breakfast served everyday was key as well as our beloved driver Jesus without whom we would not have been able to do even half of what we did.
Do yourself a favor and learn Spanish. Not very many Cubans speak English plus, it’s embarrassing, especially if you look like me. #RingtheShameBell
The Cuban currency is a CUC or Cuban peso. The easiest thing to do is to get Euros in the U.S. (some Cubans also accept Euros) and convert them to CUCs once in Cuba. However, expect the bank experience to take at least an hour as the employees bring new meaning to the word “slow” and do not, under any circumstances go to the bank on Monday! Monday is payday and the lines snake around the corner. Not joking. Cubans do not have direct deposit.
As for credit cards, no card we had with an American based bank (MasterCard, VISA, etc.) allowed transactions from Cuba. My dad has a Santander card which is a Spanish banking group but that was also not accepted, primarily because they don’t have the technology to run the transaction.
Take cash/euros/pesos and bring more than you think you will need. We tipped everyone and you will want to also. They are so grateful for the smallest tip and just the gesture itself.
They don’t have it. AT&T actually told us they have a “passport package” that included Cuba but, once there, we quickly found out they don’t. It’s absurdly expensive to try and use your phone for anything but phone calls. Also, as you can imagine, the internet service they do have is slower than the bank tellers.
Although food was easy enough to come by, there was a surprising lack of fish. You would think being on an island in the middle of the ocean you would be bombarded with fish choices. Not even close. We also had trouble finding out why. To the best of my dad’s knowledge the issue is that fishing is highly regulated and they don’t want fishing boats going out too far…like to Florida.
The below restaurant is called “La Taberna del Pescador” or “Tavern of the Fisherman” and there was no fish.
The cost of the food is wildly inexpensive. The dinner we had with 20 people (yes, 20!) with appetizers, drinks (I personally had three mojitos) and dinner with meat, rice and beans and salad, cost a total of 250 pesos. Most of our meals for the 10 of us cost less than 50 pesos total.
After traveling to Spain, Italy and Kona, Hawaii in the last three years we were prepared to get our socks knocked off by Cuban coffee. It was fantastic, full, rich, bold and peppy but was rationed out at breakfast in a coffee pot from 1987 and cups to match a doll’s house.
After we realized there were almost zero cafes serving coffee past 10am, we downed as many of these tiny cups as we could before leaving our house.
When I saw Starbucks at the Newark airport when we landed back in the U.S., I got teary-eyed.
Is this the first thing you think of when you hear “Cuba?” Right. Apparently the Cubans did not get the memo because it was pretty hard to find cigars. Our driver, Jesus, got a few for my dad the first night we were there from his “guy.” Yes, like a drug dealer. Then, in Havana, Jesus took us to a smoke shop but they wanted 500 pesos for 12 cigars and, you weren’t allowed to smoke them first.
Finally, my dad’s cousin’s son came though with a few boxes full, at no cost, just before we were leaving. My dad was not overly impressed with the quality or taste of the cigars so it was pretty disappointing. He has been smoking cigars since he was like 8 so, he knows what he’s talking about.
If you’re going to Cuba and want to get cigars you either need to know someone or you better get a lot more pesos!
My dad raised my brother and I with a healthy obsession for churros, when the only place I remember we could get them was the Magic Kingdom at Disney. My kids pretty much lived on churros when we were in Spain so, it’s kind of a family tradition to eat them and we were excited to have authentic Cuban churros.
There is exactly one dude (above) who makes them and, you guessed it, the line is ridiculously long. As democratic Americans we wondered aloud why some other guy didn’t set up shop right down the road and sell them for a little cheaper. I guess the wait is part of the build up and, I can say it was definitely worth it!
OTHER INTERESTING TIDBITS
Prostitues are called “social workers” so if this happens to be your line of work, come up with something else.
There are stray dogs everywhere so if you can’t handle it, don’t go. I’m working on getting information on how to donate to their humane society so hold tight.
They love Obama because, of course and they think Trump is “your problem.” Indeed.
I will leave you with this picture of me, in a Cuban restaurant, holding my sleeping son. Miles was battling his own ear infection (luckily I had antibiotics for him before we left) so he fell asleep at lunch and, like any good mom, I had him sleep in my lap. And, like any good husband, mine helped me to hydrate properly.
Stay thirsty my friends!
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Are you surprised by the lack of cigars, coffee and churros? Fish?
Are you a “social worker?”