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  • Myra Yatco

Got a Serious Case of Cuban Travel Envy?

I spent so much time perfecting my last 2 Cuban blog posts that I am now completely and totally spent. No energy. No stamina. Just mentally and physically tapped out. Due to temporary blogger burnout, I did nothing but dilly dally this past week when I should have been writing. Case in point. Instead of finalizing part 3 of my Cuban blog series, I captured random photos of my flirty hair bun. Can my antics get any more asinine than that? Yes it can, but I digress.

My silly stall tactics have led to a complete blogpost standstill. But I'll press on since I want fellow travelers to experience glorious Cuba the way I personally experienced it. And I can only accomplish that by sharing valuable planning tips and cautionary advice.

But first, did I convince you to book your trip yet?

Dedicated Eat Drink and Be Myra followers would have done at least one of the following:

- Read either of my scintillating Cuban travel summaries:

- Watched vignettes from my top 10 recommended hotspots.

- Perused through colorful Facebook album highlights...OR...

- Salivated over titillating Instagram photos showcasing vintage cars, thriving organic farms, stunning architecture, and cobblestoned pathways.

If you engaged in any of these activities, at least one triggered a serious case of Cuban travel envy. Am I right? I get it. I would be jealous too if I didn't just return from one of my best trips ever. Cuba was alluring, effervescent, and downright awesome!

I guarantee that my aforementioned blogs, photos, and vignettes will trigger instant wanderlust and facilitate an impending Cuba-bound departure. Not convinced? This Havana Highlights

segment offers a visual glimpse of what to expect once you get there.

Now that I have piqued your interest, I'll streamline any initial planning efforts by presenting the best possible choice from the get go.

People-to-People License

Cuba is much more accessible to Americans now that diplomatic relations between the 2 countries have softened. However, contrary to what some people think, tourism is still prohibited. Don't fret. There are 12 other entry options sanctioned by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control. Click on the embedded link to view the list in its entirety.

Unless you have specific religious, government, artistic, or journalistic reasons for visiting, most Americans can only enter Cuba under the people-to-people umbrella. This option entails booking your trip with an approved vendor and adhering to a full-time schedule of educational activities that promote meaningful cultural dialogue.

This choice was expensive, but worth every dollar, euro, pound, yen, or peso.

Getting There the Quick and Easy Way

Booking my excursion through Friendly Planet was as stress-free as it gets. Why? I didn't have to worry about trip minutiae including...

- Tickets to and from Miami

- Visa applications

- Ground transportation throughout Havana, Varadero, and surrounding neighborhoods

- Cultural exchange activities coordinated in tandem with San Cristobal, a local tour group

- Daily meals at privately-owned paladars and hotels

- Pre-tour briefings in Miami

- Mandatory international health insurance

- Extremely knowledgeable guides at all cultural stops

- Hotel accommodations at 5-star facilities such as Hotel Nacional de Cuba and

Melia Varadero

Click here to view their Highlights of Havana and Varadero itinerary detailing extensive Cuban acclimation activities.

Note: Many people-to-people organizations provide similar services, but prices vary drastically. Friendly Planet was relatively more affordable than other options.

Miscellaneous Travel Advice

Now that you've booked your trip, what should you expect once you get there?

1) Connectivity

Verizon is the only carrier with roaming capabilities in Cuba. That may change. But for now, AT&T and Sprint customers must power down upon arrival.

Even if you're a Verizon subscriber, I highly recommend activating AIRPLANE MODE to prevent petty distractions from diminishing your Cuba-fabulous experience. No email. No Facebook. Zero disruptions. Shutting down and tuning in fast tracked full cultural immersion and left me wanting more. AT&T actually did me a favor since my senses were strengthened, my listening skills were heightened, and I fully embraced my environment via sight, sound, and motion.

Note: In case of emergencies, some hotels offer painfully-slow internet access for a steep fee.

2) Local Currency

Cuba created a dual currency system in 1993 when an unprecedented economic crisis fueled the need for a second, much stronger currency - the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

The original currency (the Cuban Peso) is used by locals, while the CUC (pronounces "cook") is for visitor use only.

Americans can exchange dollars for CUCs at airports, hotels, and other establishments. Since rates are set by the government, fees are the same wherever you go.

Tip #1: While the current ratio of USD to CUC is 1:1, Americans should factor an additional 13% fee when making conversion calculations. If you have extra euros from previous European jaunts, exchange those first since fees are either lower or non-existent.

Tip #2: Cuba is a cash economy, so make sure you have enough for tips, souvenirs, transportation, snacks, and more. While my Friendly Planet fee covered most expenses, reserve an additional $100 to $200 per day/per person to cover incidentals.

Tip #3: Stores and vendors are not fully equipped to accept credit card payments even if your bank pre-approves debit/credit card usage.

Tip #4: Check bills carefully to make sure you receive CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos) instead of Cuban pesos. Look for bills with at least 2 colors.

Tip #5: Reserve single CUC coins for tipping bathroom attendants at most cultural stops, paladars, bars, etc.

3) Tipping Recommendations

According to ONEI (Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas de Cuba), Cubans make roughly $20 USD per month. That is unfathomably low, especially since teachers and doctors are included within that income bracket. Some doctors even drive taxis to supplement their meager salary.

With that said, tipping is greatly appreciated by everyone including musical performers, tour guides, wait staff, and housekeeping.

Tip: Tip maids daily since shifts may change. Doing so may result in heartfelt thank you notes like the one I received below. Housekeeping staff won't automatically take coins from your room so scribble the following, " propina" (Thank you...your tip) on hotel stationary so they know those CUCs are for them.

4) Transportation

Most of your transportation needs will be arranged through your people-to-people vendor. But there could be opportunities to strike out on your own. In that case, there are various methods to get you from point A to point B.

Option #1: Open air egg taxis? I don't know what these oddly-shaped vehicles are actually called, but it would be fun to ride across town in one of these quirky automobiles.

Option #2: Hire a vintage car driver for roughly 30 CUCs per hour. These classic convertibles were my preferred choice since they offer the quintessential Cuban time warp experience I've often dreamed about.

Tip: Do NOT take public buses since they are extremely unreliable and no official schedule exists. Locals gauge timelines by asking, "What time was the bus last seen?" Um, enough said.

5) Cuban Souvenir Purchases

Americans can only purchase $100 worth of tobacco and/or alcohol products. US Customs officials will only allow $400 worth of total Cuban merchandise including the $100 cigar/alcohol limit. There are exemptions, however, which include paintings, books, CDs, sculptures, and other educational materials. So please support local musicians, artists, and booksellers whenever possible. I recommend stopping by Centro Cultural Antiguos San Jose and the Bookseller's Market near Plaza de Armas in Havana for your shopping needs.

6) Travel Journal

According to the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control, Americans must keep a travel journal chronicling their daily activities for a period of 5 years. Entries must prove that you traveled to Cuba for educational purposes. Keep a printed copy of your people-to-people itinerary with your journal in case you are ever questioned about the nature of your trip.

Cautionary Advice

The following section includes cautionary travel tips, which all travelers should heed.

- Do NOT drink tap water. Water from the tap is not potable so please use bottled water at all times even when you're brushing your teeth. Make sure ice is made from filtered water, especially when ordering those Cuban mojitos.

- Do NOT let water from the shower head trickle into your mouth. A friend warned me prior to my trip, and I did what I could to prevent this. Unfortunately, a drop of water seeped into my closed mouth, and I was sick within the hour.

- Do NOT solicit political opinions from locals. These topics are sensitive and should be avoided at all times.

- Do NOT purchase cigars from street solicitors. Some are counterfeit and leave an extremely bitter taste in your mouth.

- Do NOT fall into the toilet. Most public facilities, museums, paladars, and farms do not have toilet seats. If you're a seasoned traveler like I am, this shouldn't phase you since I've encountered this repeatedly in places such as China.

- Do NOT flush toilet paper down the drain. Cuba's aging plumbing system cannot handle it. Slow drains are common throughout the country.

- If you bring donations (e.g. medical/school supplies and clothing), call them "gifts" or they will be confiscated by customs officials.

- Safety deposit box. This is a no-brainer. Keep all valuables such as passports, cash, and jewelry inside your in-room safe (if available). Test the code first to make sure it is working properly before putting anything inside.

Last but not least, here is a breakdown of Cuba-specific items that you should pack prior to your departure. For a general checklist, please view my "Ultimate Travel Checklist" by clicking here.

Luggage Checklist

- CIPRO or other anti-diarrhea medication

- Emergen C packets (anything with electrolytes in case of severe dehydration)

- Sunblock/hat

- Cuban travel journal

- Insect repellent/DEET

(Pregnant women should exercise extreme caution in Zika-infected areas)

- Toilet paper/wipes

- Hand sanitizer

- Cash for incidentals ($200 per person/day if most of your expenses are already covered)

- Passport with at least 6 months validity

- Travel visa for US Citizens

- Travel converters: Most US plugs work, but voltage will vary from 110 to 220V

- Mandatory non-US Health insurance

- Poncho/travel umbrella during Cuba's rainy season (May thru October)

One last thing before I wrap up this final Cuban blog post. I highly recommend visiting now before the largest Caribbean island becomes an over-crowded vacation hub and loses its quiet charm. Airlines and cruise ships have recently established routes to Cuba, so crowds will continue to grow exponentially.

Bottom line: Don't wait to experience one of the best trips I have ever taken to date. You won't regret this travel investment.


Click here to read my Cuban love letter (Cuba Part 1).

Click here to read about my top 10 destination spotlights (Cuba Part 2).

Click here to access photo highlights.

*Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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