A Trip To Cuba
Don and I just had a delightful jaunt to Cienfuegos, Cuba and it appears many of you are interested in the details of our journey. Let me start by saying it was easy and a wonderful experience!
If you have never been, or it was been more then 3 years since you have been to Cuba get ready to step into a place where time melds, and you see both past and future in any one moment. Someone’s Desoto from the 1950s, refinished beautifully, refitted to use diesel, and Apple computer logos on the window. A horse drawn cart, used for commuting in and out of the city, full of people dressed in outfits of today with someone talking on a cell phone. Buildings, some renovated to their former beauty from the 1800s with flat screen TVs in the living room or music blasting from big sound speakers, while others are crumbling down just next door.
Cuba is such a feminine island to me. She is magical, mysterious, enticing, and calls to your heart to feel her energy and see her beauty. She is full of contrast, and highly spiritual. As Americans we have all been taught to fear her politically and been restricted in being able to visit her for over 50 years. But she now awaits your visit with an open heart and welcomes you with a warm embrace.
The Cuban people have great pride in their country, and well they should as they have survived years of conflict, isolation, hardship, and restrictions, and yet they survive. Although the former travel ban for US citizens has restricted many Americans from visiting Cuba, remember tourists from all over the world have been going for years. They take great pride in being a safe country as there is zero tolerance of possession of guns and drugs, which seems to keep the crime rate low.
Restrictions in their way of living have been lifted since I was there in 2009. They can own their homes and businesses. We stayed in a home, we booked through AIRBNB using our credit card online, and our hosts explained they own 2 homes one in each of their names (they are restricted to owning only 1 house per person.) They own the business as well. That is new since my last visit. There were more storefronts in the buildings I passed by during this visit from children’s toys to everyday clothing or sundries, and of course art, music and souvenirs. Capitialism is expanding in Cuba, and of course with that comes the good and the bad, as I saw more prosperity and more waste. It was interesting to see that perspective.
One of the things that Don and I both enjoyed seeing alive and well in Cuba was equality that was across so many of the divisions we still experience in the US. The people were so very integrated in their relationships; race and gender seemed a non-issue. They have a great spirit of comradery and collaboration. Time and time again we saw people helping one another, and with great warmth.
Now of course you want to know the details of how we booked the trip on our own. I had been to Ci
enfuegos on my last trip and really loved it. It is smaller then Havana and easy to explore which fit the bill for going it alone for Don and me. I then discovered that American Airlines has a direct flight from Miami once a day to Cienfuegos. I then got online and found a plethora of options for “casa particulares” on Airbnb.
They can only rent you a room in their homes, unlike other countries where you can rent a whole house, but that turned into one of our greatest blessings as we loved living with Mabel and Jose (as well as the other guests from Corsica and Italy.) Our choice was Mabe’s Hostal, which was only a 6 blocks from the Plaza Marti, 3 blocks from Prado Blvd (the main street) and close to restaurants. Jose speaks English very well, and Mabel speaks it a little bit. They were warm and helpful in giving suggestions of places to go to eat or for excursions, and answered many of our questions about their country. The cost of 4 nights stay for both of us – $135.00.
Breakfast each morning was on the rooftop terrace, where we would sit and converse with the other guests while eating fresh fruit, toast, tea, eggs (meat was an option) juice and some days a little pastry. Please note that there is plenty of fresh food, but the choices may seem limited from our perspective, as they are mostly a self-sustaining country. The cost of breakfast is not included but is only 5 cucs per person (1 cuc = about $1).
Next we went online to book our tickets through American Airlines. The ticket includes both your exit fee and medical insurance that covers you while in Cuba. It does not include the cost of your visa. Once we booked the ticket we received a call from Cuba Travel Services that explained everything we needed to know about getting the visa (they sent an email with the link) and checking in at the Cuba Ready desk at the airport (more on that in a minute.)
Once I received the link I went online to get our visas as we had enough time to do it by mail. You fill out all of the information and check a box that covers your reason for traveling to Cuba. The current list of reasons that you can get a visa for includes one that seemed to fit our reason perfectly –“support for the Cuban people.” Yes, in and among reasons like Education, Cultural Exchange or Religious activity there is this one that seemed to include our reasons to go. At no time were we questioned about this. The fee was $80.00 and they mailed our visas to us within 5 days. Note: they arrive blank, so take your time in filling them out as there is an added fee if you make mistakes.
That was it for our setup. The day of travel flowed very easy. Once we arrived at the airport in Key West we hit a bit of a slow down, as it appeared we were one of the first that the staff at AA was checking in to go to Cuba. After a few minutes 3 of them had figured out the correct codes, etc. and we were checked in. We flew to Miami where we then were instructed to look for a Cuba Ready desk. It turned out to be a small kiosk right at our gate. We walked up with no wait, he checked our passports, paper boarding passes and visas, stamped them and we were ready to go. VERY SIMPLE! Only 20 of us boarded our Airbus 319 and in about one hour from takeoff to landing we were in Cienfuegos! (Please note AA may downsize the planes as they are getting less bookings then anticipated.)
Cienfuegos is a very small airport (only 2 flights a day go in and out of it commercially – AA and Jetblue) and the crew for debarkation was greater than the number of passengers. 3 steps and forms were used for clearing immigration and customs. 1. Passports and visas checked 2. Man with white coat (maybe a Dr) takes your medical form saying you are healthy and not exposed to recent illness 3. Bags go through a metal detector like we do checking in for a flight. They are serious about no guns/weapons! Once cleared, we exchanged our Euros for CUCs (the exchange for Euros is much better then US dollars) and we were picked up by a taxi driver sent by Mabel to pick us up. 15 CUCs.
We found walking around easy, there are also plenty of car taxis, horse drawn taxis and bicycle taxis if you get tired and all are very reasonable. Meals cost between 10 -20 CUCs, but keep in mind we only drank water (bottled of course with no ice). We found we could easily get by with about 100 CUCs for the 2 of us per day. That included some of our travel, ferry ride to the Jagua castle (2 cucs round trip) and a 53 Chevy that took us to the beach and back for only 25 CUCs and of course I got to sail a Hobie cat (20 cucs).
I hope this encourages you to go and answers some of your questions. Travel consciously, bring with you kindness and respect, and leave with new friendships!
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