Cuba was the first internatonal trip for the Republik Tour. I spent my time preparing for Cuba by reading what I could find out about the island and by talking to people who actually visited the country. I didn’t trust what I read in the media because I’m such a skeptic when it comes to the media. The feed-back I received from those that have actually visited the island recently was mainly positive - specifically about the culture, people and architecture; the reviews on the food were not so positive.
I’m writing this blog in hopes that my experience will give you some clarity between myth and fact; and help you understand that much of what you hear about Cuba is conjured-up by Trump Administration and government; and people that make really poor choices in restaurants. I hope reading this blog will help you decide to visit Cuba you’re contemplating visiting the island.
Obtaining your Cuban VISA
Obtaining a Cuban VISA is easy. There are a lot of different rules and regulations that are important and you should understand when you apply for your VISA. To read more about the U.S. restrictions & apply for a Cuban VISA, I recommend checking out the following link https://cubavisaservices.com. Cuban VISAs cost $50 on this site; you can either pick it up at the counter at the airport or you can have it shipped to you. When I received the VISA it was blank; you merely fill out your name, DOB and nationality, very similar to how you fill out a Customs form when entering a foreign country. I flew Southwest, which provides VISA services when you purchase your ticket. You will need to cite one of the 12 qualified categories allowing travel to Cuba (see link above) when you purchase your VISA. If you don’t order your VISA in advance, and if you’re flying Southwest, you can buy your VISA at the Southwest gate before boarding your flight. Based on our activity, we cited Journalistic Activity; others may cite Support of the Cuban People. But, please note, that each of the 12 categories is for a specific purpose and leisure travel is not allowed.
Exchanging US Dollars for Cuban money was a little bit difficult. U.S. banks or exchange kiosks do not exchange US Dollars for Cuban dollars ( CUC or CUP), but you can exchange for Dollars for Euros while in the US. If you want to wait until you land in Cuba to exchange Dollars for CUCs or CUPs, you can exchange Dollars and Euros to Cuban currency at the airport or your hotel. That said, I wouldn’t recommend doing the exchange at the airport in Cuba because they take more than they should (and extra 10%). And here’s the most important tip: make sure you spend all your Cuban currency in Cuba! On our way back home it was a struggle to change our currency back to Euros (even after all the exchange venues said they would gladly exchange their currency back to Euros). Evidently, it’s a “well know secret” that they avoid converting their money back into Euros. So we ending up coming back to the US with Cuban currency in hoes that we could exchange it in the U.S. — and we couldn’t. That was extremely frustrating. **So, 😟if anyone is going to Cuba please DM me @PhyliciaAlvarez I have $160 in Cuban money to exchange dollar for dollar (in Cuba they give you only .85 cents (or less) on the Dollar).
Accommodations: where to stay?
My husband and I stayed at Hotel Saratoga, which is a beautifully restored hotel located in central Old Havana. It has an amazing rooftop pool with views of the Capitola and free Wi-Fi. Our friends stayed at nearby Airbnb‘s that were very hospitable and beautiful, as well. One of the Airbnb’s even provided a cell phone with Google translate and GPS map of Havana which was very useful for all of us. If you’re staying at Airbnb that is not updated with Wi-Fi, you can buy a Wi-Fi card on the street for a dollar or two dollars per hour, giving you a login code to connect to public hotspots located in public parks in and around the City. But, I recommend taking advantage of the rare opportunity of being able to “disconnect” from the world of texts, tweets and social media. Trust me, it will allow you to really enjoy Havanas’ architecture, culture and the people.
( the view from Lindsay’s Airbnb was amazing and the inside was just as beautiful)
Finding good food in Cuba was one of my biggest concerns, because everyone that I spoke with said that the food was bad. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case for us — except for the breakfast that was included at our hotel lol. Lunch and dinner, on both days, was amazing and so affordable! The first night, I had dinner at the hotel on the rooftop, which just was OK; however, the drinks were the best out of all the places we visited throughout Havana. Unlike most of the exclusive rooftop pools in the U.S., the rooftop at our hotel is open to the public, as long as you order something to eat or drink.
After a long morning of shooting at various spots in Old Havana, we had lunch at small joint called R. Orozco, which is in the square near the Havana Cathedral — and area with dozens of restaurants to choose from, which can be a bit overwhelming. At R. Orozco, ordered Ropa Vieja (yes, you’re correct, the Spanish translation means “old dirty clothes” LOL), which was melt-in-your mouth good! Every plate that our team ordered was absolutely delicious; and though you got 2 free drinks with the meal, the drinks were watered down, too tart or too sweet. My husband and I spent $24.00 total for both our lunch meals. But, wait, it gets better.
That night we had another amazing meal at Los Nardos, a very, very popular restaurant (both locals and tourist alike) just down the street from our hotel. The servings were huge and most dishes were under $10.00 — it was absolutely insane because the restaurant decor was so fancy and required a jacket (if you didn’t have one, they gave you one for dinner) if you walked in with a tank-top. Every time we passed that restaurant there was a long line out the door. I definitely recommend eating there. It’s two blocks from Hotel Saratoga.
( look at those portions sis! Each plate was less than $8.00)
The following morning we had breakfast at little, out-of-the-way spot called Di Next. Though a very cute little dinner, breakfast was not up to my standards. Sadly, I’m starting to think that Cubans don’t like a good breakfast or brunch. Oh well, their loss! 😁 Having finished breakfast so late, we skipped lunch and shot all day. For dinner that night, we walked to this amazing little restaurant called Donde Lis, which again, was amazing! The waiter knew the menu well and was thoroughly entertaining. And the drinks were bomb after we told the waiter our Mojitos tasted like Sprit LOL. I’m so thankful that we didn’t have the same poor dining experiences that everyone was talking about, because you guys know that I love to eat! 😂
( This was the fried pork that Josh ordered #foodenvy)
Getting around Havana
The only thing that I can say about Cuba that I didn’t like was the hustle. EVERYONE is on their hustle: restaurants, shops, Cuban folks dressed up like “Cuban folks” and especially the taxi drivers. And if you have a restored vintage car, they charge twice as much. Its a sad reality due to their economy and the relatively small tourist business. If you look like a tourist, to the Cuban locals, you’re a means of them getting/earning money. You’ll constantly be negotiating fares and fees and prices with everyone from cabdrivers to services that cater to tourists. TIP: If you’re staying in Old Havana, you shouldn’t more than 5 - 10 CUC to get anywhere. It was very stressful for me at one point watching my husband agrue — or “negotiate” as he called it lol OYÉ those Latinos — with the cab driver for ride that was supposedly five minutes away. They wanted to charge us extra just because they knew that we were tourists #everydaywehustling. It was so frustrating. After that experience, I just wanted to walk everywhere.
( the coco taxi the most affordable way to travel. But the diesel fumes are intoxicating)
Surprisingly, for a City and Country that is so poor, we felt safe walking to restaurants and through the neighborhoods; at times we found ourselves 2 or 3 streets deep into the local neighborhoods, and well off the main tourist areas. When we did our photoshoots in those neighborhoods, as well as in the tourist areas, the Cuban locals were so friendly. And even walking to and from dinner at 10pm at night, families and kids and teens were out on their neighborhood streets play and socializing. My opinion is that if you decided to walk anywhere in the Old Havana area, you wouldn’t have a problem. Surprisingly, I actually felt safer walking around Old Havana than I do in America.
Old Havana is an amazing area of the City of Havana. Its a city that is vibrant and constantly active with neighbors socializing and gossiping and kids playing footból in the street, no matter what time of day or night. It actually reminded me of the neighborhood I grew up in when I lived in New York. By the end of our trip, I had fallen in love with Havana. It’s a country full of beautiful people and culture. I’m actually planning to go back again next year to explore more of the City, the beach and caves and the outer areas of the County. Surprisingly, Cuba has taken me back to my Trini roots. I’ve developed an appreciation for things that I have previously taken for granted; and I’ve realized that some things I though were ‘so important’ are not that important when considering the “bigger picture.”
One final tip: I recommend going to Cuban with people that you enjoy spending time with. It’s a country that forces you to harken back to a time when things moved slower; a time before texting or even cell phones, the internet and definitely social media. With the lack of technology conveniences, it requires you verbally communicate; to make plans like “I’ll meet you at this spot at 7pm, if you’re late just meet us at the restaurant.”😁 Not to mention the affinity you create when traveling with someone into a foreign county as beautiful and captivating and challenging as Cuba. Though we were in Cuba for only four days, we’ll be able to share stories about our experiences of doing photoshoots throughout Old Havana; and relish in being treated like celebrities because we were models doing photoshoots; and reminisce about walking back from dinner through the streets of Havana, trying to remember, “is this the way we came?” The excitement and nervousness of entering a country that has been off-limits to Americans for over 60 years is something we’ll always share. The bond that I was able to create with the people I choose to travel with has made our friendship stronger and has created a special affinity that is beyond words.