I’ve been told so much about Cuba these past couple of months. I’ve either heard, “go now because it’s literally like a time-warp,” or “you need to go before everything becomes commercialized.” I was sort of hyped into going to Havana. I have to admit, I despise anticipation and can’t necessarily handle waiting for things. Call it a millennial thing or the “Uber” effect but I planned my trip to Cuba about 48 hours before my arrival. With a carry-on and a couple friends in tow, I boarded a flight to what seemed like the forbidden city. What I experienced as soon as I landed was the opposite of everything I imagined.
Disclaimer: I had a not so great experience in Cuba. The country itself probably isn’t a terrible place to go to if you’re into adventure, mediocre food, lack of internet, overpriced hotels and horrible currency exchange rates.
Planning & Travel
In the past month or so, the capacity of US-Cuba flights has increased dramatically. With almost every major carrier flying to some city in Cuba, fares have become very competitive. For example, our flight from Los Angeles to Havana via Miami cost around $140 one-way. We booked the flight about 12 hours before departure and started packing. Little did we know that even though airfare is cheap, you should really do more research as to which airline charges the least amount of money to get a Cuban visa. As it stands, if you don’t have a visa, you will have to buy one at time of boarding. These fees can vary wildly as I experienced when we got to the gate in Miami. Currently, American Airlines charges $100 to obtain a visa at the gate, whereas JetBlue charges only $50. That can be a huge cost savings if you’re flying a family of 4 to Cuba and it can also be somewhat of a shock if you’re not aware of the fees. We paid the fees at Miami and boarded our short 40 minute flight to Havana.
I cannot begin to explain how excited we were to disembark and step foot onto Cuban soil. Everyone was taking pictures and snapchatting their new journey into the unknown. We said our final goodbyes to our friends over text message in Miami as we were aware of the internet situation in Cuba. Little did we know that what was originally planned as a 3-day phone escape would turn into a measly 24 hours of hell.
Almost immediately after landing, we were ushered to what is literally a clusterf*** of an arrivals hall. Although immigration moved rather quickly, our bags took more time to come out than the flight from Miami did. Actually, our bags never made it to Havana. We waited for 2 hours at the baggage carousel after repeatedly asking anyone who looked like an airline agent to help us. Everyone just responded that baggage is slow to arrive in Havana. Another 30 minutes passed and it was only the three of us and the human version of the elderly couple from the movie Up waiting for bags. At this point, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that my friend’s bag wasn’t going to arrive.
I’d like to think our adventure started before we even left the airport but maybe that’s just because every possible force was working against us. Between one of my friends having the smallest bladder in the universe and my other friend trying to find non-existent wi-fi, I thought it was time to make an executive decision and go in search of the baggage office. What transpired was beyond comical. We were told by 8 different people that the office was either on the first, second, or third floor. As we set out to find the office, I saw a booth that was titled “Information.” As I walked up and asked where the American Airlines office was, I noticed a group of people in a glass elevator just banging on the door. I quickly ran up to the desk and informed them that I thought people were stuck in the elevator to which the lady just responded, “Yes.” I chose to fight my own battle instead of continuing to try to get help for the people stuck in the elevator.
As soon as we got a clear understanding of where the office was (Level 3, in a very small corner that isn’t labeled at all and at the end of a tunnel), we were able to submit our report to a very genial AA agent. He was genuinely sorry for the mishap and offered to upgrade us on our flight out for the trouble.
When the baggage issues were sorted out, it was down to the arrivals hall again to exchange some money and hail a cab. Something I did know in advance was that Cuba has a 10% penalty and 3% fee to exchange US Dollars to Cuban Convertibles (CUC). For every $100 you exchange, I got around $87-90 CUC. We all exchanged some money and left to find a cab that could take us to our AirBNB.
Our Non-Existent AirBNB
Upon finding the taxi dispatcher, we gave her the address of our AirBNB. She took a couple minutes and came back to tell us that the address doesn’t exist. In fact, it seemed the address Cuba Apto. 6 Playa La Habana didn’t really exist anywhere in the world. I had a feeling we might run into this issue so I took a screenshot of the AirBNB address, phone number and confirmation. However, when the dispatcher called the phone number, it turned out that the person conveniently disconnected their phone. We all now faced the grim realization that we were in Cuba with no place to stay and a lost bag that had 99% of my friend’s clothes/essentials in it.
“Let’s not freak out,” I exclaimed while my other friend suggested that we head to the main hotel in Cuba, the Hotel Nacional. Our taxi driver brought us to the hotel where we promptly ran upstairs in search of the business center. Wi-Fi at the hotel was $10/ hour but it didn’t seem that bad considering our impending homelessness. We quickly logged on and frantically messaged the AirBNB host. Alas, there was no response. I mean, come to think of it, there’s no way that person would see the message until morning unless they were standing at one of the Wi-Fi poles installed throughout the city.
As our hour of internet started dwindling, we decided to buy another hour only to be told that the hotel had just sold us the last code. I quickly logged back on and looked up places to stay. Although we were in a hotel, they wanted $600 CUC to stay for the night and didn’t accept credit cards. I found a Casa Particular (someone’s home that they open to tourists) nearby and decided that it would be the best course of action for the night. Once we arrived, we were informed the fee would be $45 for that night to house all three of us. It was actually a steal considering this room had an A/C, power outlets and private bathroom. I actually have no complaints about the room and the hosts were really nice. For reference, here is a link to the place where we stayed.
Once settled in and calmed down, we decided to go explore Havana’s nightlife. Everyone back home exclaimed that Havana has some of the best nightlife in the world. I later realized that those people were probably on drugs because Havana is so boring at night that it’s just ridiculous. We first stopped by the Hotel Libre to grab a quick bite from their restaurant. Being managed by an international hotel chain, you’d think that the food would be okay. Well, to no one’s surprise, it was terrible. Whatever my friends ordered wasn’t edible so they just ate what I ordered and to be clear, I ordered spaghetti without sauce. It was just white spaghetti. By that night, we were now reveling at how good this white spaghetti was. Cuba officially destroyed us.
As soon as “dinner” was over, we walked around and followed some locals to the top floor of the Hotel Libre where there was a rooftop club. Cover was $10 and that seemed like an OK price to pay for a night of fun. As we walked in, it became apparent that we were the only ones in the club. As we waited for more people to come in, I could sense that this was going to be a lost cause. Although I had a couple more friends in Cuba at the same time, we never were able to get online at the same time and that made it impossible to find them.
About 40 minutes of waiting later, we decided to just leave the club and walk around the city. I did read about a quaint little cafe called “Woohoo” and it happened to be along the way that we were walking so we walked in and got a table. I didn’t know this at the time but most of these restaurants and places are government owned. It seems the only way to get real food is to go into someone’s home and have them cook meals for you. To cut it short, the food was also terrible. I mean, how does one mess up a brownie anyways?
Mulling over the entire experience we had, one thing that really irritated me was the currency. For a country like Cuba to value their currency on a 1:1 basis with the US Dollar or even 10% less than the Euro is absolutely appalling. For the infrastructure, transportation and even food to be as expensive as it was, everything should have been leaps and bounds better than what it was. This only means 1 of 2 things, in that the country is either a massive tourist trap or that the government is skimming money and not reinvesting it to build a country up. By the end of the night, we decided that it was both. With dinner at the Hotel Libre costing $50, a 4 block taxi ride costing $13 and internet costing $60, we blew through almost $240 the first 6 hours alone. At this point, we were getting worried as to whether or not everyone had enough money to stay the entire 3 days/2 nights. The numbers for their currency exchange simply don’t add up and it’s just annoying to spend that kind of money and not even get value out of it. I can’t even begin to imagine how others who actually pay $300-500/night for hotels in the city feel.
The next morning, we were woken up and asked to checkout by noon, which was totally fine considering the fact that we showed up almost unannounced the night before. It was decided that if, by 5PM, we weren’t satisfied with the city, we’d just book ourselves onto the short 1 hour flight to Cancun. With our carry on bags, we started walking around the city until a very nice taxi driver offered to show us around. He was the highlight of our trip due to the fact that he took us all around Havana and pointed out some important monuments. We asked him to take us to the best seafood restaurant in Havana, which he said was at the Hotel Saratoga. Once there, we were actually quite happy with how the place looked and the rather small menu. Lobster, shrimp, steak and much more were available. While it was pricey, it didn’t seem like a terrible cost after what we paid for noodles the night before. I don’t want to say that the food was bad but it wasn’t good either. I guess the word I’m looking for is mediocre.
Things were actually looking up at this point. The weather was pretty good, the food was edible but we had yet to find another place to stay. At this point, our bill for the food came out and it was $110. For a lobster tail and salad, I was shocked. Regardless, we paid and decided that we’d probably need to get out of this city due to the fact that we couldn’t just go take more money out of an ATM or use credit cards to pay for things. Be it what it may, the city just didn’t appeal to us the way we thought it would.
After booking our flights to Cancun, the three of us left for the airport only to find it even more confusing than the city. Check-in surprisingly was a breeze and Interjet agents were very nice and accommodating. Instead of exchanging back whatever we had left in Cuban Convertibles, we instead opted to buy some cigars from the gift shop past security. Everything was running quite smoothly and it seemed like we’d be able to leave on time as well.
However, our flight that was originally scheduled for 5PM hadn’t even landed by 5:30. I understand that flights can get delayed but what made it worse is that the airport is just terrible and ill-equipped to handle this new influx of flights. For example, the monitors never reflected the delay and at one point, started changing gate numbers for flights. This led to a literal mass confusion as passengers for one flight were running to another gate only to be told to go somewhere else. I can only describe it as a real life maze because everyone was on their own. There were no gate agents from any airline anywhere to be seen. To top things off, only one small fast food shop sells wi-fi cards at the airport and not surprisingly, they were sold out.
At about 7PM, we saw our plane land in the distance. Eventually, passengers started to disembark and for some reason, I will never forget the look on their faces. Excitement, curiosity and bewilderment were some ways to describe it. Meanwhile, I caught a glimpse of the three of us in the glass. Defeated, exhausted and battered – one of us still wearing the same clothes as the day before. I was ready to leave to a place where I could take a vacation from my vacation.
Edit: It seems as though many people are fixated on the baggage issue. To further note, we did not intend to check any bags to Havana. Upon arrival at the gate, the agent would not let us board with the bag due to “space constraints.” We were not given an option to take the bag along with us. If you’re able to read past the comments
of people that swear they know it all because they “backpack” that have little to no value, you’ll find some amazing advice from people who have been to Cuba on where to stay, eat and how to get around!