These days, I’m sort of becoming a connoisseur of disaster. If I had a dollar for every time something profoundly ridiculous (and often times totally avoidable) happened when I traveled, I’d be doing yoga in the buff on my own private island. Juiceless cell phones, nonexistent spare tires and a timid driver made for one sidesplitting, albeit cringeworthy, experience. In these moments, I can’t do much else but toss my head back and just laugh. Laugh at my ill placed frustrations. Laugh at the family of baboons that chased me back into the useless vehicle (true story). Laugh with serendipity. Because without her, how else would I have caught these last beating rays of sunshine in our rescue jeep? Helping my outsides match the persistent light within.
Earlier this year, I was itching for an escape from my grey NYC winter. It was a brand new year, yet somehow I missed the part where I was supposed to leave all the major BS in 2015. It didn’t take long before I set my eyes on Jamaica (pre Zika hysteria) and found Mr. Chu’s place on Airbnb. By discovering this magical spot, I also found the lessons and light that inspired me to charge right into 2016. While I can’t fully express just how much Mr. Chu and his home really meant to me, the best I could do was leave him a gushing review. After all, in the travel arena, this is probably the equivalent to Midas gold. So here’s my Airbnb review (Yes. This is me. Quoting myself.):
“If you’re looking for an amazingly authentic Jamaican experience, quickly book with Mr.Chu so you don’t miss out on an opportunity of a lifetime! There aren’t enough dope words in Merriam-Webster to describe my dear Mr. Chu. However, compassionate, hilarious, wise, laid-back, accommodating and kind are just a few to start. He greeted me at the airport like family and it was the perfect beginning to an unforgettable trip. His home is LOVELY! It is clean and ridiculously spacious. Each room offers up tons of privacy with gorgeous ensuite bathrooms. The grounds are well cared for and the veranda makes for an awesome way to relax, sip on a Red Stripe while staring out onto the property’s stunning views of Montego Bay. Breakfast was another wonderful delight, as I ordered the callaloo and salt fish more than once. Yum! Mr. Chu offers up tours to some of Jamaica’s most popular sites, as well as a few that are off the beaten path. Do yourself a favor and definitely book one of these tours, Mayfield Falls was such a highlight! The strip is just a quick 20 minute walk from the house, and Doctor’sCave is another must see in Mo Bay. I really can’t thank Mr. Chu enough for helping me kick off 2016 in such a positive way. You know you’ve had one incredible experience when you leave the island with new family members!”
Thinking of a quick (and Zika sparse) Caribbean getaway? Hit up Mr. Chu and tell him Modupe sent ya!
Now that I’ve hopefully extinguished a lot of the confusion surrounding Cuban travel and simultaneously eased your fears about being locked away in a Cuban prison for trespassing, you’ve probably gone ahead and purchased that plane ticket to Havana, right? Great! But not so fast! There are still a few things to consider before you start packing your bags. Cuba is, after all, a bit of a time capsule. I’ll share some helpful tips below in hopes of making your travels a bit easier.
1.Visa. Get it at your departure airport (the flight heading to Cuba). As I previously discussed in my last post, you’ll want to make sure that you safeguard this golden ticket because somewhere along the line you will be asked for it.
2. Cash. If you’re an American, you MUST bring all the cash you intend to use in Cuba and then some. The ‘then some’ is just to cover any spontaneity that may creep into your soul while in Cuba (i.e. marry a Cuban, buy a painting, join a reggaeton group) because once you land, your credit cards and bank cards will not work. So don’t be THAT guy sending a life line back to the states via Western Union.
3. Money Exchange. A Casa De Cambio (la cadeca) is a money exchange office. These offices can be found throughout the island. Cadecas will exchange foreign currency to convertible pesos (CUCs). CUCs are the Cuban currency that foreigners are allowed to use. Make sure you bring your passport with you, as your ID will be checked for any transaction made at the cadeca. Definitely ask for a ton of small bills at la cadeca. Some merchants or taxi drivers will conveniently not have any change, making your interaction slightly more uncomfortable than it needs to be. As far as I can tell, there was no service charge for exchanging money at the cadecas. Additionally, you can exchange money at banks. I never went to a bank while in Cuba but I was informed that the lines at the banks can be very frustrating and time consuming. I only exchanged money at a hotel once, but be careful! Some hotels charge a service fee and others won’t let you exchange money unless you are a guest at the hotel. I won’t discuss exchange rates as those seem to fluctuate by the hour, your best bet will be to look it up closer to your departure date.
4. Exchange U.S. dollar to Euro? Prior to leaving, I read a lot of advice about arriving in Cuba with Euro instead of U.S. dollars because you get better rates. I’m not so sure just how valid this tip is when the U.S. dollar loses from your initial conversion to Euro (and the service fees) then you follow it up with an equal or lesser gain when you exchange the Euro to CUC. You may or may not want to consider this option.
5. Internet. So you’ve just hit the ground running in Havana but you need to quickly let all your loved ones back home know you’re safe and sound. You’d like to send a quick message or shoot off a an email but you don’t know where to begin. How can I put this lightly? Staying connected is probably one of the trickiest things to do in Cuba unless you are staying at a major hotel. There, you can purchase wifi access in the lobby of your hotel. However, if you are staying at a casa particular or an Airbnb, this next bit is for you. If you happen to walk by a large square with benches full of people not communicating with one another but rather everyone’s eyes are glued to the smudged screen of a cell phone or tablet, then you have just arrived at a wifi park! There are wifi parks scattered throughout the country with a large concentration in the city of Havana. These parks are not difficult to find as you can just ask for the closest one to your lodging (your hosts will know). Once at the park, wait for the sketchiness to commence. An individual will make eye contact with you then whisper to you “la wifi or tarjeta de internet”. Don’t run! He is going to covertly sell you as many NAUTA internet cards as you would like to purchase for 3 CUCs each. One card will allow you to spend one hour searching the web, checking emails or sending off as many messages as your heart desires. Each card will be brand new, so definitely don’t buy one that looks like it has been tampered with. Now this is the more convenient, albeit black-market, way to obtain NAUTA cards. The alternative is to stand in line all day at the phone company (ETECSA), waiting to purchase a limited amount of access for the day. Pick your poison.
6. Zika Virus. In March of 2016, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added Cuba to its travel watch list after cases of Zika virus infection were reported. Read here for what this REALLY means for you. While in Cuba, I definitely saw mosquitos on a daily basis but I came extremely prepared. I carried mosquito repellent EVERYWHERE. I made sure to diligently apply the repellent three times a day. As someone who is terribly prone to bug bites (the blacker the berry) this may have been the second time in my life that I walked away from a tropical climate with zero bug bites.
7. Getting around. Taxis and buses are everywhere. While taxi stands aren’t really marked, someone will be able to point you in the right direction. Being a foreigner typically means that wherever you are trying to go, your taxi driver will try to charge you more. If you’re anything like me, then you’ll never accept the first offer and barter your way into a more reasonable price. 20 CUCs was more than enough to cover our transportation needs for the day and night. Additionally, there are shared rides throughout the city that get you from point A to point B. These rides are significantly cheaper (think 1CUC), if you can withstand being squished amongst strangers for a few minutes. Yeah you read that right, basically it’s Cuban Uber Pool.
8. Air BNB vs. Casa Particular vs. Hotels. Just the other day, a reader of this here blog informed me that her search of hotels in Havana this coming July had turned up rather barren. Almost no vacancies. While hotels are extremely convenient yet somewhat pricey in Havana, a lot of things are made easier by staying at a hotel (see #5). However, if you find yourself in a bind like my reader, don’t worry too much. Your alternatives are plentiful. You can book casa particulars (private homes or paladars) via Homestay. It’s essentially Airbnb before Airbnb descended upon Cuba. This a completely safe alternative option. Now I know I’ve said this time and time again but I will say it once more. I love grabbing an Airbnb, as it allows me to connect with hosts that aid in my passion for experiencing new cultures. You can now book casa particulars via Airbnb and that is exactly what I did.
9. USB. So this one may seem a bit odd but it’s something that I greatly benefited from while in Havana. From photos to videos to music, if you happen to run into a Cuban that you would love to share any kind of media with or vice versa, carrying a USB is essential. In a nutshell, this is the only way you can take the info with you as sharing files via email is all but unheard of.
10. Convereters. Are you from he U.S.? If yes then don’t bother, you don’t need them! All outlets I encountered were compatible with all of my devices, including my portable iron. Did I just hear you judge me?
If you’re heading to Cuba soon and need anymore helpful hints, just leave a comment below. Other than that, safe travel everyone!