Galvin Family Cuba Trip May 2017

Six of us traveled to Cuba, and many people asked us about our experiences and details so I thought I’d write it up as a blog.

In general the trip was excellent, we were sorry to leave (only 6 days there) and want to go back. It’s a bit of an adventure trip but

we thought well worth doing and relatively low cost.

We booked a private tour with this company:

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147275-d4961057-Reviews-Cuban_Trip_Compass_Private_Tours-Varadero_Matanzas_Province_Cuba.html

with 6 of us in a relatively spacious taxi-van and planned and unplanned activities throughout the trip.

Here is an interesting article on why U.S. tourism to Cuba isn’t growing as much as some expected:

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-is-why-american-tourists-dont-want-to-travel-to-cuba-2017-05-03

Note you aren’t “allowed” to just go for tourism, or to hit the beaches.  There are 12 valid reasons and we went with  a “person to person /education” reason (you need to select one at the airport before departing, etc.)

In theory, you can be fined by the U.S. if you don’t go for a valid reason or don’t have activities based on your reason, but it’s not clear what counts our doesn’t count (we had a friend who went there say they weren’t allowed to

snorkel, so their tour company apparently believed that’s not a valid activity, although we did snorkel).  Also some articles have said that no one in the U.S. is actually monitoring this so there is little chance of being fined even if you do “misbehave”.

Luis was our most excellent tour guide and for most days we had the same excellent driver (who spoke only Spanish) Norge. We got to know Luis very well. On the side he makes documentaries about Cuba and we said we’d put them up on youtube for him (Spanish with no subtitles). (There is very little, mostly slow, 3 CUCs for 1 hour Internet in the main squares of the main towns.)

Here is our agenda and some highlights of what we saw

HAVANA DAY TOUR

Date: May  8th monday

Tour guide´s name: Luis

Language: English

Car to be used: Yellow and white van

Pick up time: 9:00 am

Pick up location: Place in Havana (please, provide the address)

Drop off time: 9:00 pm

Drop off location: Place in Havana (please, provide the address)

Pax: 6

Total price: 350 cuc (includes transportation and tour guiding)

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147271-d149029-Reviews-Old_Havana-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html

Monument to Jose Marti

Old Square (Plaza Vieja)

Plaza de la Catedral

Fusterlandia

El Malecon

Vedado

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d801366-Reviews-Restaurante_Floridita-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html

HAVANA DAY TOUR

Date: May  9th tuesday

Castillo de la Real Fuerza

El Cristo de La Habana

Pharmaceutical Museum

Monument of the Street Person

Bacardi Building

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147271-d148919-Reviews-Museo_Hemingway_Finca_Vigia-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html

SANTA CLARA – TRINIDAD DAY TOUR

Date: May  10th wednesday

Trinidad de Cuba

Che Guevara Mausoleum

EL CUBANO PARK – CIENFUEGOS CITY TOUR

Date: May  11th thursday

Snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs

CIENAGA DE ZAPATA DAY TOUR

Date: May  12th friday

Plaza Jose Marti

Bellamar Caves – this about the only thing we didn’t think was worth doing

VARADERO MATANZAS DAY TOUR

Date: May  13th saturday

Tour guide´s name: Luis

Language: English

Car to be used: Yellow and white van

Pick up time: 9:00 am

Pick up location: Place I will book for you in Matanzas

Drop off time: 3:00 pm

Drop off location: Havana airport

Pax: 6

Total price: 240 cuc (includes transportation and tour guiding)

The red line shows the approximate trip we took. Lots of time on the road, but very little was boring. And we only saw a subsection of Cuba because it’s a very large island.

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 6.30.36 PM

6 of us went in total, including my wife, son, son’s girlfriend, older daughter, and 15 year old daughter (happy graduation presents!).

If we’d done a “normal” U.S. run tour, it would have cost ~$2,500 per person or so (including flights, hotels, food, etc). Still a mighty large bill.

I think we saved lots of money by arranging a personal tour via a Cuban company. The fee for the tour company, including taxi and tour guide, was about 350 CUC per day (total, not per person). The tour company arranged for places to stay in each locale except Havana (which they said was now complicated). The places were people’s houses turned into B&Bs, with generally nice features, very nice hosts, in good locations, for about 40 CUCs per room including breakfast. We got 3 rooms at each place so 120 CUCs per day for accommodation  plus breakfast for 6 – very reasonable (and generally great breakfasts including eggs, breads, and great fresh fruit).

Lunch and dinner at tourist places (more than we’d usually eat, and generally tasty) was about 120 CUCs (for each of lunch and dinner) per day. One of us had a bad stomach for 1/2 a day but otherwise no issues with food or water (we drank only bottled water which was readily available). On the last day we were running short of time so Luis took us to a local’s restaurant. Not much choice, we all got pork on sub bread. Surprisingly tasty, and including drinks cost all of 12 CUCs for the 6 of us. So you can live very cheaply if you live like a local.  Note for Havana I used airbnb.com to find a place to stay and thatworked out very well, plus you pay ahead via credit card so less money to have to bring.

Estimate of our travel costs, for 6 of us: $3000 for flights estimated (could be lower – round trip from Boston at the moment is as low as $300), $2000 for the private tour, $1500 for food, $1000 for accommodations (including breakfast) = $8500 for six of us for 6 days, or $1500 per person.

Alejandro at Cuban Trip Compass was very helpful. We emailed back and forth many times determining the schedule, sites, preferences etc.

It all went very smoothly, except some of us missed our flight from Jacksonville to Miami, so had to go standby and take the 6am on Monday.

With no easy way to communicate (U.S. cell phones don’t work in Cuba) we email Alejandro and he had Luis bring the others that were already there and meet us at the airport around Monday at noon. Could have been much worse.

Note we missed our flight because I falsely thought all the international hassle would happen in Miami but it happens at the origination of your international trip (JAX in this case) and we didn’t leave enough time. Plus lots of aggravating delays at JAX (it took 30 minutes to make it through TSA, even though we were TSA-PRE and there was very little line), etc.

And American Air was not very helpful.

Here are the top things to do in Cuba, as determined by tripadvisor ratings:

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g147271-Activities-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html

Here is a useful article about travel from the U.S. to Cuba:

Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How …

As opposed to more usual destinations, money management is a challenge for U.S. travelers to Cuba. Cuba is the only nation with 2 currencies. One is the “CUP” for internal use, which is about 1/25th of the one that tourists use, the Cuban convertible Peso (CUC, or “kook”). Be a bit careful that change for CUCs isn’t made in CUPs, for example, but we never had that happen.

Here are the official exchange rates:

http://www.xe.com/currency/cuc-cuban-convertible-peso

Although in Cuba these didn’t quite line up. Also not noted is a 10% conversion fee for U.S. dollars to the CUC. Also, conversion can only occur within Cuba, so don’t expect a travelex etc currency converter to handle CUCs. You need to wait for Cuba to do any conversions. While we were there the going rate was about $.97 per CUC, minus 10%. So $ to CUC, $1 got us about .87 CUCs going the “official” way.

The first place to convert is at the airport, but note there can be long lines.  When leaving Cuba we needed to pay for our tour, and didn’t have enough CUCs. I’d estimate that the line would have taken us one hour to do more conversions, but our tour guide excepted $ for the remainder of the fee so we skipped the line. One useful trick explained to me from an accountant who went to Cuba is to bring Euros to Cuba. They don’t have the 10% fee. Using our local AAA office, I converted $3000 to euros (recall 6 of us were traveling). We now had 2,616 in euros. In Cuba we converted those to CUCs, at about 1 CUC to 1.1 Euros. So we had about 2,900 CUCs for $3,000, much better than converting US $.

I probably should have gotten more Euros and converted more to CUCs. Instead we had $2,000 in 100 dollar bills.  Note this is just below the amount (we discovered on the customs form) that you are allowed to bring to Cuba without having to find a customs agent and discuss.  Not sure what that discussion would have been, or if dividing by meant we were no where near the limit.  It made us nervous traveling with that much cash. We split it up and carried it in under-shirt security wallets.  But it turned out we didn’t really need to. No pick pockets in site, no seemingly-threatening behavior, etc. It seemed very safe there and soon we were leaving cameras, lenses etc in our rooms with no worry.

One other discovery that’s a new option and saved us $. There are now two U.S. banks issuing credit cards that work in Cuba.  Note that no other cards from the U.S. will work there. We ran into a cool cat named Sacco (sp?) from the L.A. area traveling with friends. He said it was more expensive there than they thought, they ran out of $, tried to use their Bank of America debit / credit cards and they didn’t work, in spite of asking BoF ahead of time and getting assurances.  2 hours on the phone with higher and higher level BoA employees, they admitted the cards didn’t work and the best option was to have $ wired to Cuba. Sacco said that worked but that only Cubas are allowed to receive wired $ so they had to ask someone to retrieve the money for them.

So my advice, apply for a credit card from StoneBank: https://www.stonegatebank.com/form-consumer-credit-card.asp

Note they say it takes weeks to process, so start perhaps a month ahead.  Luckily it went much faster for us, as I discovered this only 2 weeks before the trip and got the card the day before we left. Note that you need to print, sign and mail a form letter as well as fill out the forms (stating you are going for a designated purpose, will only do legal things, etc).

It turned out the card could be used as debit for pulling CUCs from the ATM machines. I should have asked for a larger cash advance about as we started getting denied after 3 days of pulling 300 CUCs out. From memory we received 270 CUCs for $300 charged, so by far the best value in getting CUCs. ATM machines were uncommon but generally around in the cities. For example there only seemed to be one, a few blocks from our B&B, in Trinidad). Even tourist places didn’t seem to take credit cards, so except for purchases at the airport on the way out we didn’t use the card for anything else.

And yes, you can bring back seemingly unlimited cigars and rum to the U.S. Unfortunately I waited until the airport and duty free to try to buy those to bring back. Rum (12 year old and very tasty) that was 50 CUCs at stores in cities was now 75 CUCs. And cigar choices are limited due to demand. So try to shop at various places along the way if you want to bring back rum and cigars…

One other note on money – you need a visa to enter Cuba. You can buy them at the airport but we felt a little safer getting them ahead of time. They were about $50 each plus a processing fee. I believe they said at the airport that they were $90 each. They are stamped on arrival and you need to present them when departing.

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