It took an entire day of travel to get to Cuba, but it was totally worth it. My day began at 4am with a three-hour drive to Atlanta. I made it in plenty of time with only a bit of Atlanta traffic, but the problems began with Atlanta Airport parking. There is construction all over the airport, and they sent me to the wrong lot twice. Eventually, I just had to park at the more expensive lot close to the airport, and it was a good thing that I did. I was hurrying through the airport but had to start running when I heard my name on the two-minute warning. Completely out of breath and dripping sweat, I made it on my first flight of the day! I don’t think I have ever heard anything positive about the Atlanta airport, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It is too big and problematic. But anyways, I made it!
I flew Spirit into Fort Lauderdale (FLL) where I then had a four-hour layover. I normally don’t have the best experiences with Spirit, but I appreciated the flight attendant who gave me a free water bottle today - I think it probably had something to do with me looking like I was about to pass out after the airport run. When I arrived I had to change terminals, which is easy to do in Fort Lauderdale as they are all within walking distance. I flew Southwest to Cuba. There is a special desk downstairs in the Southwest terminal to pick up your Cuba visa, and you also check-in at the desk downstairs. It was quick and painless and I easily picked up my $50 Cuban visa that I had pre-ordered online ahead of time. The most important thing to know about the visa is that you have to write everything perfectly. If you mess up, there are no do-overs, and you have to spend $50 more to get a new visa!
I know that there are plenty of misconceptions about travel to Cuba for US citizens, but I want to clear as much up as I can. As of this writing, you can currently travel to Cuba under one of the twelve approved reasons for travel by the U.S. State Department. However, this almost never comes up other than when you buy your plane ticket online, buy your visa, and again at the airport. Online it is simply ticking a box. At the check-in desk be prepared to tell them the reason you are flying to Cuba (one of the twelve approved reasons), but other than that I was never questioned about my travel to the country. I traveled using the support of the Cuban people visa. All that I had to do to justify this was to stay in an Airbnb, which is then technically supporting the Cuban that I was staying with. Airbnb is also the easiest way for Americans to travel solo in Cuba, i.e. without a tour group. Immigration in Cuba was a breeze. They have nothing to do with the twelve reasons situation and could care less why you are visiting - in their eyes you are just another tourist, and they are glad to have you there.
I headed to my terminal where I meticulously filled out my visa. I was in the brand new terminal of FLL which was really nice other than the fact that none of the restaurants had opened yet. As a result, I walked to the next closest terminal for food, then walked back to my terminal to sit and eat because it honestly was really cool and there was almost no one there! There was thunder in the area, but luckily my flight remained on time. In preparation for Cuba, I spent my four hours downloading anything that I might need offline, making a map in maps.me, and doing anything else online that I might need to for the next two days. The Internet is incredibly hard to get in Cuba, and I didn’t want to have to worry about spending my limited time there trying to get it.
The flight itself was so short - only about an hour. It was an okay flight, despite being beside the most talkative person ever on only three hours of sleep and an already full day of travel. I landed and went through immigration really easily, and was asked no questions at all. After immigration, I had to exchange money. I had read that $20 or $100 bills would be accepted everywhere, but for some reason, the airport would only take $100 today. I exchanged my $100 and would exchange my $20s in the city. Money in Cuba is another source of confusion, as there are technically two currencies, the Cuban convertible peso, known as CUC, and the Cuban peso, known as CUP. As a tourist, you only need to worry about CUC, which directly matches the USD. It is a pain to exchange money in Cuba but you have to do it. Bring plenty of crisp $100s and $20s with you, as well as your passport whenever you need to exchange. There are no ATMs in Cuba, and U.S. credit cards are not accepted. The lines in town can be very long and are filled with locals so be aware that exchanging money can become very time consuming very quickly. Also, be sure to exchange all of your CUC back to USD or spend it before you leave, as it is impossible to exchange it once you leave Cuba.
I found a taxi driver for $30 to take me into Havana, which is pretty standard. The drive was about thirty minutes, and I was staying in the heart of Old Havana. I found a nice looking, inexpensive Airbnb online (Casa Carmen if you’re interested) and it was exactly what I needed. Super central location, clean, safe, and air-conditioned. I met Carmen’s mom, also named Carmen, upon my arrival. She spoke no English, but it was obvious that she has done this introduction plenty of times. She easily showed me everything and even answered my questions without speaking English, which was pretty impressive.
I was settled in around 5pm, and after flipping through the TV (did you know they have Looney Toons in Cuba?) I fell asleep incredibly early. Before that, though, I sent a text home letting my parents know I was in Cuba. There is literally no service or wifi unless you wait in over an hour long line to buy a wifi card that then only lasts an hour and only works in public parks. I sent a text every night about my day but had no idea that they had received them until I got back because I was not able to receive any texts but somehow mine went through. Moral of the story: don’t count on being able to communicate from Cuba. Communication issues aside, I am really excited to begin exploring Havana tomorrow and am looking forward to the two full days I’ll be spending here!
The History Lesson
After an incredibly restful night of sleep, I had an exciting first day in Cuba to look forward to! The main point on my agenda was to just walk around and explore Old Havana. And boy, did I ever. My day didn’t go exactly as I had envisioned, but it was even better than I had thought!
I started my day walking just steps out of my door through beautiful Plaza de Armas and past Castillo de la Real Fuerza. I hadn’t seen much of Havana during the drive in, but today I was immediately in awe of how beautiful it is. The architecture throughout the old town definitely has a Spanish feel to it, but it is unique in its own way. Within another minute or so I was already to Plaza de la Catedral, home to a stunning Cathedral (I was only able to see the outside) and some cool little restaurants. I ate at Esto no es un café, where I had a giant chicken breast that was amazing. After lunch, I walked along Obispo Street, one of the most frequented streets in Old Havana.
I found a Cadeca (bank where I could exchange more money) and decided to go ahead and take care of exchanging more so I wouldn’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day. It was in line at the Cadeca that I met Tony, who is getting his PhD basically studying Cuba at UNC. The line took over an hour (I told you they were long), and we started talking about everything Cuba. It was fantastic because I could ask literally any question and he knew the answer. And trust me, I had plenty of questions. It was Tony’s last day in town after being in Havana for a few months for research, so he walked through the town with me for a few hours!
The first stop was to buy some Cuban cigars. I didn’t buy them for myself, of course, but I still had to buy some. I bought the cheapest box (because I want the box..) and afterwards, we sat in the cool hotel that the Cigar store was in where I was able to try the Cuban equivalent of Sprite. After having stood in line at the Cadeca for over an hour in close to one hundred degrees heat, it was a really refreshing lemon-lime drink.
After this stop, we spent an hour or so walking through Old Town and then walked to El Malecon, the street with the best view out at the Caribbean. It was such a beautiful viewpoint, and it is also a good place to look back at Havana from. I can’t emphasize how hot it was at this point, so we started to walk back to find air conditioning. We went to El Floridita, which is famous for being Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar. So many places in Havana are famous for something related to Hemingway. The Floridita’s is famous for its Daiquiri, which was Hemingway’s favorite drink. Anything cold would have tasted amazing at this point in the day, but it was really tasty!
After cooling off we sat for a while and just talked more about Cuba. I asked so many questions (probably too many) about everything from the Revolution, to how they get food and housing, to how communism works in Cuba and many other things in between. I learned so much in one day, and I can’t thank Tony enough for answering all of my questions! Seriously, it was amazing making a new friend who knew literally everything about such a unique country. I knew next to nothing about Cuba going into this trip, but I am so glad that has changed.
After the endless questions, we grabbed a quick dinner at a really great restaurant that his Cuban friends owned. They actually started it in what used to be their house, and now the owner lives upstairs. One of the most interesting things to me about Cuba was how everyone seems to always be trying to make extra money in a system that is inherently built on the opposite principles. I don’t know why this is, but it was intriguing! As was how much Cubans know about American culture - they know literally everything which I was not expecting but found to be really interesting as well.
After a great first day in Cuba where I saw all of the main sights of Old Havana, made a new friend, and learned a lot, I had another early night before my second day of exploring Havana tomorrow!
33 countries down, 165 to go.
Read about my second day in Cuba here.