By Peter Delannoy and Erica Salzmann-Talbi
Cuba tops the list as one of the all time greatest trips abroad and Boomer 100 wants to encourage its users to go. US citizens CAN travel to Cuba and this guide is meant to serve as a short term travel option for someone who has a busy life and does not have the time to research the issues around making a trip to Cuba.
The time to go to Cuba is now before the influx of Americans begins to change this beautiful country into a more westernized nation. Cuba is a gritty country full of culture that contrasts the past with modern times. The streets teem with every manner of transportation: bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, old cars, new cars, horse drawn taxis and carts, as well as human and motor powered tuk-tuks.
Cuba is a country where you will find amazing beaches in addition to cities like Havana where the long neglected and dilapidated buildings sit next to newly renovated classic architecture which is uniquely Cubano. There are seaside restaurants and the particulars—restaurants in private homes—where you will eat excellent food coupled with amazing views within an ambience which is uniquely Cuban. There are open air markets squeezed among the buildings that sell everything from freshly butchered pork to malanga root—a potato-like stem that when mashed is better than any mashed potatoes that we have ever had. And then there are the old cars that motor through out the cities leaving you with the feeling that it really is still 1952.
Cuba is a country where people will greet you on the street and when they find out that you are from the USA they are likely to tell you how happy they are that you are visiting them. We can’t think of one instance where this didn’t happen and if the reader is like us, and travels to other countries frequently, then you know that this isn’t always the case. The bottom line is that you should visit Cuba while their country is still not westernized.
We recommend renting a car and driving from Santa Clara to Havana and back to Santa Clara. The trip took us about ten days door-to-door from Phoenix, Arizona. The trip works best with at least two people and one of them should have decent Spanish speaking skills. There were three of us on our trip and one of us was good at speaking the language though none of us were fluent. This way someone can read the map and issue directions and someone can speak to the locals when you get lost because there are few if any street signs in Cuba and getting lost is inevitable. This is not the trip of choice for anyone who likes to stay in all-inclusive hotels and travel in large groups effectively remaining at arms length from the culture and the language. Several times on the trip we felt really challenged but we’ve learned more Spanish and gotten to know some fantastic Cubans and that was the point of the trip. So if you choose to use this itinerary I can guarantee that you will find yourself knee deep in Cuban culture have an amazing adventure.
The guide is organized in the following way: The first half will list the key challenges including everything from getting the Cuban visa to bottled water in well organized categories. The latter half of the guide will present the itinerary that we used. Obviously you may use parts of the guide and discard others. Finally, the situation in Cuba is changing. The relationship between the USA and Cuba was improving when we made our trip in October of 2016 and the embargo may be lifted soon–or not. Some of the problems that described in the guide may not exist by the time you get there—traveling to Cuba is a fluid situation.
The Key Issues:
The visa is organized through the airline. When you purchase your ticket you will answer questions in a survey as part of the process to buy the ticket. Make sure to have your passport in front of you and when you fill in your name be very careful it matches exactly how your name is represented on your passport. For example, if your middle name is spelled out on the passport then write it that way on the survey. If you are married and purchased the tickets for both partners then you will enter the information for both persons. Make sure to have BOTH passports in front of you and look carefully at your spouses information to a avoid any mistakes.
At the airport when you check-in you will pay the visa fee which is $50 per person and the airline will issue you the paper visa. When you enter Cuba their immigration will take one-half of the visa and leave the receipt with you which will be turned back to them when you exit the country. Do not loose the receipt because this will cause you delays and probably money.
In the section that asks about why you are traveling to Cuba we entered education. For the record: we were never asked by Cuban or US immigration officials why we were making the trip. In October of 2016 establishing a solid reason to visit Cuba was not a high priority. Here is the most recent article that we could find on travel to Cuba under the new Trump administration.
We flew American to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Jet Blue to Santa Clara, Cuba. Not all airlines fly to Cuba and the airlines that do fly there, use different hubs. American and Jet Blue seem to be the most stable airlines available since the market is currently fragile. Keep that in mind when you plan your trip.
For us it was best to fly into Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from Phoenix, Arizona, and spend the night before flying to Cuba the next day. We scheduled our flying this way because of the difficulty in making a Jet Blue connection given the fact that we were flying to Florida from Phoenix, Arizona. Depending on where you live it might be convenient to fly to Cuba in one day.
At the moment, changing US dollars to CUCs (CUC is the Cuban currency) in Cuba will cost you 10% on each transaction plus a 3% fee. You are not charged the 10% transaction penalty for Euros or Canadian dollars. Next time we go to Cuba, if the monetary situation hasn’t changed, we will buy Canadian dollars in advance of the trip. Here is a web site where you can arrange to change US dollars for other currencies and get the cash delivered to your home: Travelex.
We took $1500 US dollars with us for the nine days. On the next trip I plan to take $1800-$2000 for the same time period. US citizens cannot use their credit cards in Cuba because our banks still cannot do business there: all transactions are in cash. And the cash goes quickly: gasoline, taxis (in Havana), restaurants, breakfasts at the BNBs, incidentals—it all adds up and you can’t replenish your cash using an ATM or by getting a cash advance at a bank; so plan accordingly.
Also, there were additional costs associated with the rental car that I will describe below. The bottom line is that you should take more cash than you think you need and change more money than you think you will use when you have the opportunity.
One last note: when we arrived at the airport in Santa Clara, Cuba, the money exchange in the terminal was open but no one was manning the kiosk. We waited for several minutes before an official appeared and told us that the attendant would not be back. Be prepared for the possibility that you may not be able to change money at the airport which means using foreign dollars for the taxi to Santa Clara and for the rental car deposits and so on.
Here are two car rental companies you may choose from in Cuba: Cuba Car Rental and Via Car Rental. We prepaid for the car by credit card in advance. Upon arrival in Cuba you will pay a deposit of at least $200 CUC plus insurance and the cost of additional drivers. We ended up paying about $333 USD for these additional fees because of the 10% penalty due to using American dollars and the exchange fee. Of course you will get the $200 CUC back when you return the car and can convert the deposit into US dollars at the airport–the kiosks were open on our return leg. If at all possible arrange for the car pick up at the Santa Clara airport otherwise you will pay $30 USD for the taxi ride into the city to pick up the car. We were unable to sort this out on the web site before the trip and our emails went unanswered but maybe you will have better luck.
The car drop-off was at the airport but there were a few tenuous moments when it seemed that the attendant wanted to send us back to Santa Clara to drop the car off. Make sure to carry paper documents of all transactions with you since there is no internet and you will not be able to pull up a rental agreement on your cell phone to show the attendant. We were able to establish that our drop off was indeed the airport by presenting the paper document to the attendant.
The biggest risk with the car is a flat tire because the roads are pot-holed with ridges and bumps and there are no shoulders. Make sure to physically check if there is a spare tire in the car and that the tire is inflated. Additionally, if you get a flat tire expect to change it yourself because roadside service is unlikely. The interstates are virtually empty of vehicles except when you are close to the cities.
The regular roads are crowded with every manner of vehicle, animals, and people. Do not speed and stay alert. Cuba rental cars only take 94 octane gas which is not offered at every gas station. Look for the blue handled pump. Also, expect lines at the gas stations in Havana. Our recommendation is to enter the city with a full tank, park the car at the BNB for the duration of your stay, and then drive back to Santa Clara and get gas along the way in the smaller towns. Expect to visit more than one station to find 94 octane gas. You can get directions from the gas station attendant to find the closest station with 94 octane gas.
We arranged all of our accommodations through Airbnb so we could maximize our time with the Cuban people. See the itinerary below for the exact accommodations that we used on the trip. Another advantage of using Airbnb is that you can pay ahead using PayPal for the length of your stay and for breakfast which we recommend. Prepaying for breakfasts will help to conserve cash which is a good idea since Americans cannot use ATM’s or credit cards for transactions.
Another advantage of using Airbnb is the fact that the host can help you with everything from making restaurant reservations (Havana) to providing directions to currency exchanges and bottled water. Most of our hosts spoke enough English that we could muddle our way through the language barrier well enough to get around and find the things that we needed.
A special note about the Bay of Pigs region: Bring insect repellent because the mosquitoes are really bad. We recommend having repellent with you no matter what time of year it is.
Make sure to take maps with you or download a map system onto your phone that does not require internet to use. A quick search of the iPhone App store using Cuba Offline Maps as the search term gives a myriad of offline map options. Do not expect to buy a map in Cuba. While you may be able to get one from the car rental agency, you cannot count on it, and the road signage in Cuba is poor at best.
The driver will not be able to look at the map and drive at the same time so one person will navigate. Havana was especially hard to sort out. Look for the street names on the upper sides of buildings located on small placards and on pyramidal stones (see photo below) fixed on the ground near curbside–but signage is often nonexistent.
This is where Spanish speaking skills were helpful since we stopped and asked for directions frequently. But make sure not to accept anyone into your car that may propose this as a way of taking you to your destination. Thank them for their help and move on because you may open yourselves up to being taken advantage of by grifters. Havana was an amazing city but it was also the only location on the trip where we were taken for dollars by people who seemed helpful at the time but later took advantage of us.
There was a shortage of bottled water in Cuba when we visited. Buy large bottles and replenish your supply when you see it being sold–don’t pass up the opportunity to stock up. More than once we passed a store where water was being sold only to be sorry later that we hadn’t stopped to restock our supply. In one case, we spent two hours wandering around Havana looking for a store that had water available.
Carry copies of Airbnb arrangements including directions to the location, rental car agreements, airline ticketing, etc. You will not be able to use a phone to pull up documents since there is no internet except in designated locations (see below). Don’t show up at the airport with the intention of showing your ticketing information to the airline by calling up the reservation on your phone. We saw one European try this with poor results and he was delayed at the ticket counter for a long time.
Internet is only available in town squares and there is a fee of $2-3 CUCs per internet card. The service is spotty and often times drops completely. We also found that the cards ran out before their prescribed time of one hour. Cards are available at establishments with this sign: ETECSA—there can be long lines.
If you buy a card on the street make sure that the password box is not scraped open and that the date on the right hand side of the card is current otherwise the card will not work. You can find internet locations quite easily: just watch for large clusters of people gathered together on the street working intently on their phones. Join the fray, enter your card information, and off you go, or not…don’t count on the service working consistently.
We used our feet and taxis to travel to Old Havana, central Havana, and to restaurants that were west of the Vedado. In Havana we do not recommend using the rental car to drive around because of parking issues, one way streets, poor signage, and the lack of street lights.
Ask about Taxi fees from your Airbnb host before using a cab. In researching this article I contacted our host in Havana by email to clarify the taxi charges and they recommended negotiating the cost with the driver before getting in the cab. While this makes common sense, and is our practice in foreign countries, it seemed more difficult perhaps due to our language skills and not understanding the etiquette in Cuba. The fact that there is a two-tiered system of taxis: one for the tourists and one for the locals makes the situation confusing.
According to our host a one way trip to Old Havana from the Vedado should have cost us between 3-5 CUCs but they also said that some visitors have paid as much as $20 CUCs for the same trip. We paid an average of $12 CUCs for trips of this length and spent an average of $30 CUCs per day for taxis.
We do not recommend walking at night in central or Old Havana because the lighting is poor. We did walk throughout the Vedado after dark but the lighting in this area was much better. In the other cities mentioned in this guide we walked to and from our accommodations and did not use a taxi service except in a few situations where we chose to ride in human powered tuk-tuks.
Fly to Fort Lauderdale and stay at an airport hotel: We recommend either the Cruise Port Inn or the Holiday Inn Express although you may choose from many other options. Both hotels offer free shuttle service to and from the airport, continental breakfast, and internet. There are good restaurants with in walking distance of either hotel. We dined at Waxy O’Connor Irish Pub & Eatery and Southport Raw Bar although there are a myriad of other restaurants to pick from.
Fly to Santa Clara, Cuba, on Jet Blue and drive to Cienfuegos:
When you check in with Jet Blue you will pay $50 US for the Cuban Visa per person and can use a credit card since you are still in the USA. Do not lose the visa because you need it to get IN and OUT of Cuba. We traveled with one carry-on bag per person and no checked luggage. Once through security, we bought sandwiches to eat on the flight since we knew that it would most likely take a couple hours to reach Cienfuegos once we landed in Cuba.
When we landed in Cuba we were disembarked to a bus on the tarmac that delivered us to the terminal where we passed through immigration and customs. Immigration will take one-half of your visa. Make sure not to loose the other half and keep it somewhere safe.
Pass through immigration and customs and exit the terminal. Car rental companies are across the street a short distance directly in front of you. To the immediate left is the arrivals terminal and the currency exchange is inside the terminal and to the right. They were closed when we arrived so be prepared to use foreign currency for a taxi to Santa Clara unless you were lucky enough to pick up your rental car at the airport. The cost of the taxi was $30 US and takes about twenty minutes to reach the car rental office in Santa Clara.
Once you have secured the car find your way to the Circunvalacion—the circular highway around Santa Clara. Take the A-1 toward Havana and watch for the first major crossroad that goes through Ranchuelo, El Tamarindo, Carlos Caraballo, Cruces, Palmira and then on to Cienfuegos.
In Cienfuegos we stayed with Olga Lidia Vazquez Varela, Hostal San Fernando arranged through Airbnb. To find Olga’s place make your way to Paseo del Prado. Watch for Avenida 54 and make a left onto this street. Proceed past Calle 39 and start watching the left side of the street. Stop when you see a building with bright blue pillars—this is Olga’s establishment. If you pass Calle 41 you’ve gone to far.
We rented one room with four beds for $34 per night and we also recommend prepaying for breakfast in order to conserve cash. There was secure parking for the car next door to Olga’s for $2-3 CUCs per night.
After getting settled in to Olga’s we walked to the Paseo, crossed the street and found a bank to change money in the area of Calle 34. The local banks close at 4:00 p.m. so plan ahead since we did not see any money changers besides the banks.
After securing CUCs we made a long walk along the Paseo toward the ocean. Cienfuegos is utterly beautiful (Pearl of the South) and amazingly clean. Eventually the Paseo turns into the Malecon and passes into a section of town called the Punta Gorda. Cienfuegos is very European and you will pass many French-colonial style homes and buildings with many opportunities for photographs. You will also pass a long stretch of water on the right and eventually come to the end of the road (2 miles) where you will find Palacio de Valle—a very beautiful Arabian or Moorish style hotel.
We encourage you to have drinks at the roof-top bar. There are great views, excellent music, and cold beer or any other drink you might want. There are numerous restaurants to choose from for the evening meal and taxis are easy to find if you want to avoid the long walk back into the city center.
In the morning, and after an amazing breakfast with Olga, we walked to the Plaza de Armas where we bought a black market Internet card and used the internet in the square. Usually Internet can be found in the town squares although you can find other hot spots by watching the locals because they will be clustered outside on the sidewalk with their smart phones, lap tops, and tablets in places where they can get a signal. You will still need a card to log on unless you are using the internet in an expensive hotel where the hotel provide its own access—$10 CUCs per hour. The Plaza de Armas is a beautiful European square with restaurants and coffee shops all around. Nearby you will find the pedestrian street, San Fernando, where there are more restaurants, bars, and side-walk vendors. It was on San Fernando that we came upon Cubans playing music and dancing at a number of outside taverns.
We left Cienfuegos at midday and drove first to Playa Giron and then on to Playa Larga. Drive north out of Cienfuegos on the CS. This is the same road that you arrived Cienfuegos. Bear left at the intersection that would take you back toward Santa Clara. Look for a left hand turn, Petrocasa, toward Yaguaramas. Make a left at the road to Yaguaramas which is the 122.
Use your wifi free map app and proceed through Horquitas, Babiney, and Bermejas to Playa Giron. We got lost once and asked for directions a few times. The signage is terrible and you will be making some unmarked turns. There are places to stop along the way for lunch and we recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to get down and gritty with the locals. The trip to Playa Giron took around two hours including a lunch stop.
When you arrive Playa Giron you will come to a T-intersection. We passed many “particulars” where you could make arrangements to spend the night although we already had reservations in Playa Larga with Casa de Beba. At the T-intersection you will make a right and proceed up the coast of the Bay of Pigs. After a short drive you will come to Playa Perdiz. We stopped here to enjoy this awesome beach that resides next to the highway. There is a bar on the beach along with a restaurant. After spending a nice afternoon in the water we motored up the highway to “Casa de Beba at Bay of Pigs.” Sylvia and her mother Beba run it the accomadation. Sylvia’s daughter Luci who lives and works in Tampa as a radiologist set it up on Airbnb. There is a good restaurant within walking distance of Bebe called Tikki. The food was good overlooking an amazing setting.
The trip to Havana took four hours from Bebe. My sister-in-law, Erica Salzmann wrote of our trip to Havana:
We left Casa de Beba at 8:00 a.m., stopping for gas at the first gas station which was about 15 km out of town. We weren’t desperate for gas but wanted to fill up before hitting the “autopisto” towards Havana. Unfortunately the gas station was out of “especial” which is the 94 octane gas we were told to put in our Chinese, Geely CK T/M rental car (economy size). A group of about 10 motorcyclists were at the gas station, members of the Latin American Motorcycle Association International. They all wore matching jackets and so we talked to them, especially the women, and took a number of pictures with them. That was a lot of fun. We were there about 15 mins. Then we headed towards the highway and a town called Rodas where we stopped and successfully topped off our gas tank before getting on the autopisto.
We drove at about 110 klm per hour (about 60 mph) all the way to Paseo, a main drag in the Vedado district of Havana where we would find our accommodations. Well, it was harder to find our Airbnb than we expected. After a few stops to speak with locals we eventually found the tall building where we would stay for several nights called Havana Penthouse and Panoramic Suite–contact person was Elvis.
We spent the next four nights at this Airbnb. The breakfasts and accommodations were excellent and we walked and taxied all around Havana from this location.
There are restaurants and shops down by the water along a highway called the Malecon. We also found water sold in the mall-like structure near the Spanish hotel: Melia. There are hot-spots for internet near the Havana Penthouse or you can pay for service at the Melia ($10 per hour).
On the ninth day we motored from Havana back to Santa Clara and stayed with Olga Rivera Gomez. The accommodations and breakfast were excellent, restaurants are within walking distance of Olga’s place and internet was found in the town square. The next morning we made the twenty minute drive to the airport, dropped off the car, and returned to the USA.
Day 10 was the reverse of Day 1.
Boomer 100 Contributor: Erica Salzmann-Talb
Erica Salzmann-Talbi, MBA, CFP holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in French and a Master’s in Business Administration, both from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She earned her Certified Financial Planner designation in 1994, holds numerous securities and insurance licenses, and has taken H&R Block Tax Preparation courses.
Erica works with individuals in the area of personal financial planning, retirement planning, insurance and estate planning, tax planning including preparing tax returns, asset management including socially responsible portfolios, and prepares software-based analyses to determine if retirement income resources will be sufficient to meet expected retirement expenses.
Erica served on the Board of Directors of the FPA Chapter of the Hudson Valley from 1994 until 2002, including a two-year term as president from July 1999 to June 2001. She also served on the Board of Directors of Hudson Valley Financial Professionals from 2003 to 2008.
Erica has lived in Poughkeepsie for 31 years where she raised her two sons, now ages 31 and 33. She has been an avid supporter of and member of the Advisory Committee of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center’s Girls’ Leadership Worldwide program for the past fifteen years, and has served on the board of the Ulster Dutchess County Chapter of Girls, Inc. for the past three years.