Search

Bren Around the World

El Viajero Comelon-Bilingual Travels

En Cartagena y Barranquilla Me Quedooooo

Reconocido por su buena rumba, sus mujeres hermosas, su comida riquíiiiisima, y su Español fácil de entender (pues en algunas ciudades ja, ja) Who wouldn’t want to visit the beautiful country of Colombia?! After seeing tons of pictures, reading countless blog posts,and chatting with numerous Colombian@s (folks from Colombia) I figured I had no other choice but to check things out for myself. Recognizing the vast differences between the various cities, my main task was to determine which city I wanted to visit first! After comparing flight costs, accessibility, activities, the # of friends in each city (haha), and potential weather conditions, I ultimately decided that Cartagena de Indias would be my best bet!

How did I get there?

So I’m sure some will look at this in utter disgust, while others will scratch their heads with confusion and others will understand completely..*Drumroll please*. I flew with Spirit Airlines! I know, I know….How could you? Well for the flight times offered, and the super cheap price I felt like I couldn’t pass it up! I had flown with Spirit in the past, and had a decent experience so I figured it couldn’t be that bad. After comparing prices, Spirit beat the other competitors by $100-150 easily. Round trip tickets from Chicago to Cartagena registered in at about $250 (team carry-on, so checking baggage isn’t an issue), while most other major airlines started around the upper 300’s. So for a starting price of $250, plus Spirit’s hefty discount (always check out for the 99 percent discount flash sales), the price came to around $170 (the 99% is taken off the price of the ticket, but you still have to pay taxes which is why the difference doesn’t seem like that much). Discount codes in addition to READING THE DETAILS are the key to flying with spirit.

  1. Read their baggage guidelines, and you won’t have to pay for a carry on. Spirit allows for a “free bag” as long as it fits the size guidelines. Do a quick YouTube or Google search and you’ll see that the bag size is actually pretty decent.
  2. Print your tickets at home before arriving. Having Spirit print your boarding pass at the airport will cost you about $10, so save yourself the headache and print it before you head to the airport.
  3. Bring your own snacks. Yes, Spirit charges for all snacks including a cup of water haha. It’s better to bring your own snacks anyway, because you know what you like, and at least you know it will be fresh!
  4. Know that the seats are smaller. So I’m pretty tall (6’5″ to be exact), and simply put,…there was no leg room. I knew this ahead of time though, so I tried to make everything else as comfortable as possible (Clothes, neck pillow, shoes etc). Spirit is a budget airline, so making sure you have leg space isn’t a priority for them. They’re literally just here to get you where you need to go.spirit2

Where did I stay?

If you’ve already started researching your trip to Cartagena, you’ve probably realized that most turistas stay in 3 main areas; The Walled City, Getsemaní, and Bocagrande. Just so you have a brief description of each one, I’ll start with that..

  • The Walled City: Pretty much the heart of Cartagena. Here you’ll find most of the tourist attractions like museums, street performers, Palenqueras (Afro-Colombian women in colorful dresses normally selling fruits and posing for pictures), and all of the other touristy stuff haha.
  • download (6)
  • Getsemaní: Literally right outside of the walled city. Getsemaní is seen to many as the “up and coming” part of Cartagena. Previously with a bad reputation, things have turned around in Getsemaní, and lots of tourists are staying there. Getsemaní offers an “at home” feel as the area is mostly residential, and locals are going about their everyday routines. Getsemaní is no more than a 5 minute walk from the main entrance of the Walled City, and offers slightly lower cost housing options.donde_getsemn_mg_4798
  • Bocagrande: Really simple….Think Miami. Bocagrande is where you’ll find lots of fancy buildings, casinos, cafes, and resorts.Boca-Grange

Always opting for the most “authentic experience” I chose to spend half of my time in Getsemaní, and the other half in the Walled City.  I used Airbnb to find rooms in both cities, and both accommodations were even better than I expected. Because I was only in Barranquilla for a day and a half, I decided to make things easy and reserve a room at a hotel.

What kinds of things can you do there?

First things first. Cartagena and Barranquilla are both coastal Caribbean cities, so you can expect lots of sun and lots of heat. Whether you prefer to spend most of your time soaking up the sun at the beach,  taking a day trip to one of the islands off the coast of Cartagena, or just wandering around the streets of the walled city…at some point you’ll find yourself baking in the sun haha. The sun/heat in Cartagena is intense, and you should DEFINITELY be prepared for it before going. Every morning before I left out for the day i would check the weather, and by 9am the temperature was already around 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit. Colombians told me that the heat in Barranquilla surpasses that of Cartagena, but from my experience I would say Cartagena was the winner! But on to the activities!

1.  Take a day trip to Playa Blanca, Isla Grande or any of the other nearby islands. The collage you saw at the top of this post was taken in Playa Blanca, so if you liked it JUST GOOOOOOOOOO!!! haha. Just outside of the walled city, there is a terminal where you’ll see tons of vendedores (Folks trying to sell you packages to get to various tourist sites). I’ve learned the art of negotiating, and I believe you should as well! I know it may be kind of overwhelming with the vendedores constantly trying to explain to you why their price is “the best”, but I recommend that you search until the price feels right. I paid 40,000 Colombian pesos (yeah I know sounds/looks like a lot, but $1 US=3000 Colombian Pesos), so it ended up being around $13-14 US. This included roundtrip bus transportation, free drinks and lunch! When we first started asking about prices, most folks quoted between 50-60,000 pesos, but then as time went on (about 2-3 minutes) we were able to find an option for 40,000. We were told by the vendedores that taking the lancha (small boat) would be around the same price,but they charged a tax to enter to island, so we figured getting there by bus would be the better option. On our way there I decided to be curious and ask the other folks on the bus how much they paid for the trip. Everyone on the bus told me that they paid 50,000 pesos, so it turns out we did get a good deal after all! The bus ride itself was painless. It took around an hour to get to the beach, and our driver was funny and made the ride more tolerable. Once there we were told what time and where to meet for lunch, and of course what time we would be leaving, and then we were free to explore the beach.

2. Visit Palenque (the first settlement of freed and escaped slaves in “the Americas”)       Prior to making my arrangements to come to Cartagena I had heard and read a lot about the village of Palenque (also note that this is where the term “Palenquera” comes from. Palenqueras are the women you may see in the walled city with colorful dresses and many times posing for pictures or selling items such as fruit). While you are free wander the streets of Palenque on your own, it may be worth it to get a guided tour just to learn a more in depth history of the town and to support the local economy! Also take the time to ask a little about “Champeta” music while you’re here! Palenque is fairly easy to get to. All you have to do is go to the bus terminal in Cartagena and ask for the bus to San Basilio de Palenque. Once you’re there, in order to get to the actual village you will have to take a “moto taxi”. There will most likely be a group of guys there on their motorcycles waiting to take you into town, so it shouldn’t be hard to figure out what to do once the bus drops you off haha. The cost is very minimal, so it’s definitely a budget friendly trip.

3. Wander around the Walled City. So the Walled City, or “Ciudad Amurallada” in Spanish, is one of the main tourist sites in Cartagena. Here you’ll find lots of colorful buildings, Palenqueras, tons of artwork, street performers, museums, lots and lots of tourist shops and even more tourists haha. The area is quite large, so it’s easy to spend a day or two here just wandering the streets and taking in all of the sites. Within the walled city you’ll also find one of Cartagena’s universities, so if you’re lucky you may be able to sit in on one of the classes, or just simply get a tour of the campus. If neither of those interest you, then you could always just chat with some of the students there to learn about what they’re studying, some of their aspirations, help them practice their English or maybe they’ll even walk you around the ciudad amurallada to show you the most interesting parts!

4.  Take a trip to Barranquilla. The city of Barranquilla is maybe an hour and a half-2 hours away from Cartagena, and just costs a few dollars to get to (I went by motorcycle with a friend, so that’s always an option too haha). Although it isn’t as touristy as Cartagena, it is a nice escape and offers a different experience! Shakira and Sofia Vergara are from this city too, so you could always say you visited their hometown haha. Here are some of the things you can do if you decide to visit:

  • Dance at “La Troja”

If you like, love, or even if you think you hate salsa music I still say that you should                 make a trip to La Troja. La Troja is essentially like an outdoor bar where lots of                         locals  come to watch soccer games, socialize, drink a few beers, and of course                           dance salsa!!!!!! The great thing about La Troja is that people are literally dancing                     everywhere! Although there are tables around the establishment, you’ll quickly                       realize that at any given point, people will get up and start dancing; even if it’s                         right next to their table. Now I will warn you that Barranquilla style salsa is a little                different than what you may have learned elsewhere; particularly if you’re familiar                with Cuban or Puerto Rican style. I’ll try to attach a video so you all can get a taste of              it!20160507_201031

  • Catch some free music in the park

If you’re lucky you may be able to catch some live music at “El Sagrado Corazón”                     park! I had the chance to attend a concert while I was there, and it was a fun                             experience! The band played some local favorites like Joe Arroyo’s “En Barranquilla              Me Quedo” and everyone started dancing at the sound of the first few notes haha. At            the end of the show it’s a tradition to take a picture with the performers!

  • Visit “El Buenavista” Shopping center

El Buenavista is essentially a huge mall comprised of two locations. No real need for            an explanation here. Shop, eat and meet up with people. The end haha

  • Check out the statue of Joe Arroyo (En Barranquilla me quedooooo)

So I know I’ve referenced his name and song several times throughout this post, so               it’s only right to include his statue in the list of things to see in Barranquilla haha.                 Joe Arroyo is a Colombian Salsero  (Salsa singer), and his hit songs “En Barranquilla              Me Quedo” and “La Rebelión”(No le pegue la negra) can still be heard in salsa/Latin              music clubs across the world!

5. Eat EVERYTHING! Well not literally, but almost haha.  Anyone that knows me knows that I’m basically obsessed with food (hence the name “El Viajero Comelon” haha), and my travels basically involve eating everything in sight. Colombia was no different! From arepa con huevo, to pataconazos (plantains with loads of goodness stacked on top), to patacones rellenos (Stuffed fried plantains), to pescado frito w/ arroz de coco (Fried fish with coconut rice), Colombia did not let me down! And the prices were verrrrrrrrrrrry affordable!

 

6. Go to the Beach in Bocagrande. So if you’re short on time, or if you don’t feel like going too far outside of Cartagena, you can opt to take a trip to the beach in Bocagrande. Now I will say that this beach is NOWHERE near as nice as the Isla Grande or Playa Blanca, but it’s close, and will get the job done haha.20160505_171303

7. Practice Your E’pañol (remember you’ll be hearing Caribbean/Coastal Spanish haha) Como muchos dicen, Colombia en general es un buen lugar para practicar/aprender español! Folks from Cartagena (Barranquilla and Santa Marta too) have what’s considered a coastal or “costeño” accent. This entails slightly faster speech, “cut off” words, seemingly silent letters and lots of contractions haha. For example…”Para allá” becomes “Pallá”, “Pescado” becomes “Pesca’o (pes-cow)” and “Mujeres” becomes “mujere'” (kind of like with a silent H at the end). For a better idea, just search for some videos of Cartagena on Youtube, or even better take a trip there and experience it en vivo!!!! haha

 

Cartagena, in my opinion, has lots and lots to offer and it’s a great way to experience Colombia! The people are friendly, the weather is perfect (I enjoy heat, so if you don’t maybe it won’t be perfect haha), the beaches are great, and the food is addicting!!! If you have more questions, or want more tips about what to do feel free to ask! A special thanks to Ivan, Bernardo, Freddy, Arley, Andrea, Maryelis, Nelsy, Mafe and Faiber for making my trip so awesome! Los quiero mucho!

Colombians

How to get from Jose Marti Airport to Old Havana for less than $1

If you’re reading this I’m sure you’ve already done some type of research about getting around in Cuba. You’ve probably seen the posts saying that cabs from the Jose Martí Airport to Old Havana can be anywhere from $15-30CUC depending on your negotiation skills (translated as “Spanish level” haha), and you’ve probably considered getting a private driver. While both of these are viable options, you do NOT have to pay 30, 20, 10 or even 5 dollars to get from Jose Marti Airport to Old Havana or Centro Havana, and I’ll explain how!

Most people arriving to Cuba will be flying in from other countries, which means they’ll be arriving at Terminal 3. Terminal 2 (which is where you’ll need to get to) is where you’ll go to find the “cheap way” to get to Old Havana and Centro Havana.There are a few ways you can get to Terminal 2 depending on your preferences. You can take a Máquina(old classic car), CocoTaxi (an egg shaped taxi), one of the white vans used to transport workers, or you can walk! Heading to Terminal 2 I took a Máquina, and heading from Terminal 2 I walked just to be able to share more information. After you arrive and exchange your money (there are two CADECAS upstairs at the departures! I recommend getting both CUC and CUP while you’re there), head outside and let the fun begin! As soon as you walk out you’ll see a line of old classic cars waiting  to take you! This is where speaking Spanish helps TREMENDOUSLY! I’ll share a fun story here. I made a friend on the plane over from Cancún and decided that I would let her in on the secret of getting to Old Havana for 1 dollar. Eager to begin the adventure we exited the airport and approached a pretty cool looking taxi. I addressed the driver in Spanish and asked if he’d be willing to take us to Terminal 2. He politely said yes and told me that it would cost 10pesos per person (10 Cuban pesos translates roughly to .40 cent). The taxi is pictured below!20160112_143639

So we put our bags in the trunk and head on our way. While in the car of course we’re being super tourists taking tons of photos and asking even more questions. The driver shared details about his car and how long he had been a taxi driver, and even things about his family. The short ride, no more than 5 minutes, quickly came to an end and we were ready to continue our adventure. As my new friend exited the car, I decided that I would pay because after all I was the one that invited her on the journey.I handed the driver 10pesos (CUP/Moneda Nacional) as he had asked, and what happened next took me by surprise. The previously joyous driver turned aggressive and almost disgusted at the amount of money that I was handing him. He told me in Spanish that the currency I was handing him was for Cubans only and that tourists weren’t allowed to use it, so I would have to give him 10CUC (10 dollars!!!) Say whaaaaaaaaa? O_O. I explained to him that when I first asked him he told me that it would be 10pesos, and so that was what I would be giving him. He tried his best to argue that he meant 10 tourist dollars (also called Pesos Convertibles), but I wasn’t having it. I spoke the fastest Spanish of my life explaining to him that I refused to be charged 10 dollars for a ride that took all of 5 minutes. He ultimately acknowledged that he was wrong and told me to just take the bags and keep going. Yep a free ride!!! haha. So long story short. ALWAYS VERIFY THE EXACT PRICE FIRST, especially if you’re not comfortable with Spanish.

So on with the adventure..Once at terminal 2 ask someone how to get to “Calle Boyeros” (Pretty much the only visible street, so just walk to your left until you see the giant billboard haha). On your way, you’ll pass another group of taxis looking to take you somewhere, but just pass them up and keep going toward the billboard. Once there, about a 3-5 minute walk, you’ll see this20160112_145629

Once there stand in front of this billboard and you will have two options. Take the P12 bus to Parque de La Fraternidad (right next to El Capitolio in Old Havana) or Plaza de La Revolución (Centro Havana). Or take a Máquina (old classic car) to either one of the same places (Plaza de la Revolución or Parque de la Fraternidad). The bus will cost you .40 in pesos Cubanos. You probably won’t have any coins yet, so just give one peso(CUP/Moneda nacional). Just as a warning, the bus is ALWAYS super crowded, so only plan to take this option if you have little to no luggage haha. A máquina will cost you 20 pesos Cubanos (about 80 cents in dollars) or if you don’t have Cuban pesos just give 1 CUC. If you choose to take a Maquina just flag one down and say “Hasta El Capitolio” or “Hasta la Plaza” and then you’ll be on your way! Also, don’t be surprised if you see your cab driver texting and driving haha.

 

Option 2: Walk to Terminal 2

As I said before, the second go around I decided to walk the route just in order to be able to give you all a thorough explanation of how to do it. So here’s what you do! Once you exit the airport, look to your right and you should see 3 or 4 white vans. These are the vans that transport airport staff back and forth between the terminals. If you’re lucky they may even offer you a free ride to the terminal. If not, just keep walking to your right following the side walk. Once you reach the end you’ll know because you wont be able to walk forward anymore haha. Look to your left and you’ll see a yellow and red building, walk toward it and pass through the gate you see in picture 3. Once through the gate turn to your right and follow the path! You’ll come across various signs pretty much telling you where to go, and ultimately you’ll end up at the billboard shown in the last picture below. Honestly, if you just follow the path you’ll have no problem getting to terminal 2. It took me about 15-20 minutes to walk from one terminal to the next and I had an average carry on bag. Once you get to the billboard below, follow the same steps above to get to Calle Boyeros and then you’re on your way to enjoy Havana!

 

¿Qué bolá, Acere? 50 Things I learned in Cuba!

  1. Cuba is only as expensive as you make it to be: Between eating street food, finding cheap restaurants, chatting with Cubans, walking, using various methods of transportation, and “looking Cuban”, during my 1 week visit I managed to spend a grand total of..*drum roll please*.…75 Dollars!!! (which actually could’ve been less had I not taken Viazul one day haha)
  2. You can get from the Jose Marti Airport to Old Havana/Centro Havana for less than 1 dollar! I’ll explain in more detail in a future post, but it is ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE to get from the airport to El Capitolio or Plaza de La Revolucion for 20CUP(about 80 cents) not CUC(about 20 dollars) by using the Maquinas. It can be even cheaper if you really want to be adventurous and take the P12 bus. The bus ride will cost you less than 1CUP!!!!


  3. There are already tons of tourists in Cuba: I know many are hopeful to catch Cuba before the “great change” and before “tourists take over”. While neither of them are likely to happen any time soon, there is already a considerable amount of tourists wandering around Cuba. I particularly saw tons in Viñales and even Trinidad; even potentially more tourists than I saw Cubans. McDonalds, Starbucks, and other well known chains probably won’t be around for a while, so that should be no issue.

     

  4. Airport staff generally don’t seem to care why you’re in Cuba: I know many are worried that TSA is going to ask questions about why you’re going to Cuba, and that your passport stamp is going to set off some type of alarm, but honestly that wasn’t my experience AT ALL. As I was getting ready to board the plane on my way to Havana, the gate agent made an announcement saying all US travelers needed to fill out a declaration form stating why we would be traveling to Cuba. When I went to him to ask about the declaration form, he asked if they had given me one when I checked in, to which I responded no. He told me not to worry about it and that it didn’t matter, haha. Other travelers on the plane told me a similar story.  When I arrived in Cuba the only questions they asked were if I had traveled to Africa within the last year (I assume because of the Ebola epidemic, but I’m not sure), and if I had any medicine in my suitcase (Even if you have medicine for allergies, they’ll want you to step over to a different line. Nothing happens, they literally just ask you what it is and tell you to keep going haha). Cuban airline staff, by far, are the most relaxed I’ve come across.
  5. Taxis ignore Cubans and tourists alike! It only took a few times of trying to hail a taxi to realize that taxis in Cuba will ignore pretty much anyone haha. At one point I sat back to try to observe the art of hailing a taxi in Cuba, but even native Cubans were being passed numerous times by taxis. Granted some taxis will pass you if they see you’re signaling in a direction they’re not going, others will obviously pass if they’re full, but the rest just seemed to not want to be bothered haha.20160113_171153
  6. Always negotiate the price for long distance trips FIRST: On two separate instances I had “interesting” experiences with pricing. The first was in the airport when a taxi driver tried to charge me 10CUC instead of 10CUP (more about this in a future post, but ultimately ended up being free haha). The second time was when I was trying to go from Havana-Pinar del Rio. Quotes started at $60, the next one wanted $40, then down to $15, and then another cab driver let me in on the secret for getting to Pinar del Rio for $2! (this will come later in the post).
  7. Cubans, for the most part, are extremely honest: When I was asking for directions, if someone didn’t know where the address was they would literally just say “No sé” or “No quiero decirte mentiras” (Idk/I dont want to lie to you). They never tried to guess about a location and would even ask others around them if they knew where the location was! Something I definitely appreciated!
  8. You’ll probably hear more reggaeton than salsa in the streets: While Cubans are known for their salsa, I was actually surprised to find out that reggaeton may be just as popular. Whether you’re walking down the streets of Old Havana or taking a taxi to your next location, you’re bound to hear the booming bass of reggaeton. Cubans young and old can be seen dancing to reggaeton and if you’re lucky enough they may even recite some lyrics for you! haha
  9. Cuba is a really safe country: Generally speaking, Cuba is a really safe country. At no point did I ever feel threatened or in danger! I walked around by myself late at night with no idea where I was going, and no one ever bothered me or even made any comments aside from “Hola”.  Of course I would still recommend using normal precautions (I’m sure crime does still happen), but for the most part you should feel really safe in Cuba!
  10. The scams you read about online are true!  So if you read most of the discussion boards and posts from individuals who have visited Cuba, you’ll more than likely see that some scams have happened to almost everyone. Luckily I read about these ahead of time, so I was fully prepared. One of the scams involves women asking tourists to buy “leche en polvo para el bebé/powdered milk for the baby”. What happens is that the tourist will buy the powered milk for the woman which will later be resold back to the store at a higher price (the store owners and the women are usually in on the deal so they both get a profit). The second scam involves non-authentic cigars with individuals saying that there’s a “one chance deal” to get some authentic cigars from a nearby factory. If you make it over to the town of Regla, while it may not be a scam, it is something to look out for. If someone offers to read your palm they may, in the end, try to get you to buy some jewelry to “protect you”. The reason I say it may not be considered a scam is because of the practice of “Santeria”, which is kind of similar to voodoo practices. The person will tell you that you need the jewelry to protect you, or that you will need to buy a doll and take care of it for your own well being. While by no means are you obligated to buy the jewelry, they definitely will pressure you and if you don’t feel comfortable in your Spanish it may be intimidating. I just told them “Voy a caminar un poquito para pensarlo/I’m going to walk a little bit to think about it” (I never went back haha).

    20160117_161448.jpg

  11. Jineteros, generally, only bother you if you “look like” a tourist: I was only approached by a Jinetero once my last day in Cuba, and honestly I probably did “look like” a tourist. I was wandering down random streets taking pictures of everything and asking tons of questions. The Jinetero asked me what country I was from and asked if I was looking for a nice girlfriend. I told him I already had one, and he left me alone! In Trinidad, lines of Cubans looking to convince you that their casa is the best will show you photos of how beautiful their house is, and why their option should be your number 1 choice. If you “look like” a tourist, they will definitely swarm you once you exit the bus. They pretty much ignored me when I walked by because they thought I was a local haha. 12540650_4494755844086_1264179577043173155_n
  12. Cuba has more than just old classic cars: While the classic cars still dominate the streets of Cuba, don’t be surprised to see modern cars like Mercedes and Audi. There are also some other models I wasn’t as familiar with (clearly I’m not a car enthusiast haha)20160119_112422
  13. Cubans love to chat: Whether you’re talking about sports, food, life or whatever it may be, Cubans will love to chat with you. In general, I believe that Cubans are passionate about everything they do. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with a cab driver about their classic car and understand the pride they take in maintaining it. You can also strike up a conversation with the many fisherman along the malecón to learn about their various fishing tips and secrets and to hear them take about their catch of the day. If neither one of those interest you, you can always chat with some of the people playing dominoes in the street! Cuba is the perfect place to practice Spanish!

    12540760_4494806485352_316819526485162232_n 

  14. Speaking Spanish is a huge help! Most Cubans don’t know a lot of English, so if you speak Spanish it will help you tremendously!  More than anything I believe speaking Spanish comes most in handy when hailing cabs, because cab drivers tend to make up whatever price they may want if they feel you’re unaware. Also, if you speak Spanish, Cubans are more likely to give you tips about navigating the area. If Cubans feel like your Spanish is good enough to understand what they’re saying, they’ll gladly help you out with learning the frugal way to wander around Cuba. If not, they’re more likely to give the “tourist way” to navigate Cuba haha. In general I felt like my experience was a lot more pleasant because I was able to strike up conversations whenever, and actually feel like a local. If you feel intimidated by Cuban Spanish, try talking with the youth first! They’re always willing to talk! Entonces deberías practicar lo mas que puedas antes del viaje! 12540882_4494795765084_2783515662283694275_n12417662_4494743283772_9146166995781529571_n
  15. Cuba has a dual currency system. There’s the CUC(kook, Cuban Convertible Peso) which is the “tourist currency” and the CUP (Coop, Cuban Peso, also called “Moneda Nacional”) which Cubans use most often. The CUC is about 1:1 with the US dollar. The only difference is that, due to the embargo, the dollar is penalized by 10% when exchanging currency. You will also be charged a 3% processing fee leaving the dollar at about 87cents per 1 CUC.  Due to this, most US tourist opt to bring Euros which are not penalized and are worth more! For me, it was really easy to differentiate the two currencies. For one, CUC’s have “pesos convertibles” printed on the front of the bill, and they actually look like money tourists would use haha. They have monuments on them and other things that look like tourist attractions. CUP have the faces of significant people in Cuba. Pictured below are the two different currencies. Can you tell the difference?pesos-cubanos-cup-cuc
  16. You can exchange your money at CADECAS, Hotels, and on the street (if you want). While in Cuba, you will have a variety of ways to exchange your currency. In the airport, you can exchange your money in one of the 3 CADECAS (Casas de Cambio/Currency Exchange). There is one in the arrivals area, and two upstairs in the departures section. You will also be able to find CADECAS in most of the cities across Cuba, just be sure to verify their hours. If you ever run into a situation where a CADECA is closed or not available and you need to exchange money, find the nearest hotel and they should be able to exchange currency for you(at the same rate as the CADECAS, or sometimes better). There are also people who will wander near the hotels with big satchels of Cuban currency. You can choose to exchange your money with them as well, but I have been told that some are known to exchange counterfeit currency so just use caution!
  17. The exchange rate (at least for dollars) varies in different places: Depending on where you change your money, the exchange rate may not be that bad! While in Trinidad the exchange rate for Dollars to CUC was .96 to 1! Which is actually pretty good compared to other places.
  18. There’s dual pricing at many places: Most places (restaurants and museums mostly) have two prices;one for Cubans and one for tourists/foreigners. The price for Cubans tends to be SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than that of the tourists. Similarly, restaurants will sometimes have half of their menu in English, and the other half in Spanish. The side in Spanish usually tends to have cheaper prices, and will have more details. In one restaurant I noticed that the side in Spanish came with details that the entrée came with two sides, but on the English side it just listed the entrée and then the sides separately.  I posted an example below of one of the museum entrance fees. The price for Cubans at the Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution) is 8CUP (about 30cents), while the price four tourists is 8CUC (8 dollars). Huge difference, right?20160113_161615
  19. If you “look Cuban” your experience will be a lot cheaper: If you “look” even remotely Cuban, Cubans will give you the “Cuban price” for various things (Museum entrances, taxis, food, etc). As I mentioned before, a lot of places have dual pricing so if you can “pass for Cuban” your wallet will receive a huge break. When I walked into the Museo de la Revolucion, I walked up to the counter and the woman asked “Una entrada para un Cubano?/ One Cuban entrance?” I responded si, and without hesitation she asked me for 8CUP(30 cents). I hadn’t said anything prior, but just by looking at me, she figured I was Cuban haha. This happened several times in other museums, restaurants, and even with taxis!20160113_162443
  20. Internet card prices vary WIDELY:  The truth is that if you’re paying more than 1CUC for a 30 minute card, or 2CUC for a 1 hour card, you’re probably being cheated out of your money! I found this out one night when I was wandering around the streets of Old Havana trying to use the internet. You’ll be able to purchase internet cards from most big hotels, any Etecsa location, and even people on the street reselling their cards. So my first stop was at the Etecsa on Obispo St. The store was about to close, but the guy standing at the door told me I was still able to purchase an internet card if I wanted to. When I walked in, I was told that only 1 Hour cards were left and that it would cost me $5CUC. I told them no thanks and kept wandering. My next stop was Hotel Parque Central where I was told that an internet card would cost me $6.50CUC; I literally almost ran away haha. Similar things happened at Hotel Sevilla and Hotel Plaza. My final stop was at Hotel Inglaterra right across from Parque Central. The rep at the desk told me that they had already sold out and that I would have to come early in the morning in order to get one. The next morning, I went back to Hotel Inglaterra to buy an internet card and they had just received their new stock! The rep pointed me toward the last register and said “Si la gente ve estas tarjetas, estamos jodidos/if the people see these cards, we’re screwed”. She gave me a 30 minute card and asked for 1CUC, PERFECT!!! So if you’re ever looking for internet cards, go to Hotel Inglaterra and STOCK UP! 12523133_4494720003190_3352198105864392035_n
  21. Wi-fi on your phone may not always work: If you’re in Old Havana, you’ll know where the wifi hot spots are because you’ll see tons of people standing/sitting on their phones talking on facetime, Skype or something similar! When I was finally able to get an internet card, the wifi worked one time on my phone and then basically said “F you” for the rest of my trip. Even in the wifi “hot spots”, my phone wasn’t able to pick up the wifi signal and even the compass (that previously worked without wifi or mobile data) decided to stop working. Then once I got back to the US, everything magically started working again -_-.
  22. The computers in the ETECSA offices are actually pretty fast: As I explained before, my phone basically decided to hate me during my trip so I had to use the computers in the ETECSA office. The good thing about the computers is that they work with the normal internet cards you buy from ETECSA, and they’re generally always unoccupied! So if you already have your internet card, you can literally bypass the line of people waiting to buy internet cards and go straight to the computers! Once you log in, the computers will have a timer in the bottom right corner so you know how much time you have left on your internet card. The numbers will turn red and start flashing once you have 5 minutes left. I recommend opening all of the pages you need to open when you first log in so that they can be loading while you’re logging into your first website. 20160114_171500
  23. Most of the symbols on the keyboard are in different places: So it took me a few minutes to realize that the symbols on the keyboard are in a variety of different places haha. The keyboards are pretty much the same as any standard keyboard in the US, but when you press shift and any of the numbers or other symbols, you’ll realize that a lot of the symbols are mixed up. After typing my password incorrectly several times I decided to press all of the symbols to see where they were. For whatever reason, I was never able to find the “@”, so I had to copy and paste the symbol from the Gmail site haha
  24. Many Casa hosts have computers in their homes: Due to the surge in tourism, home owners need to be able to communicate efficiently with their potential guests in order to secure their reservations. As a result, the government allows these homeowners to have access to email in their homes. It seems as though the only way Cubans can have full access to internet in their homes is if they’re close enough to a wifi hotspot to pick up the signal in their home.20160115_144459
  25. Payphones are widely used across the island: From my understanding, cell phone calls in Cuba range from .30CUC to .40CUC per minute, so one could imagine how expensive that is considering that the average Cuban salary is about 20-40 CUC per month. While I never used one of the payphones, I would imagine that they’re a lot cheaper because I almost always saw people on them (both young and old).
  26. Many buildings/homes either have crumbled or are crumbling: While it is true that the architecture in Cuba is beautiful, one can’t help but realize that many of the buildings are in bad shape. The average Cuban can’t afford to make the necessary repairs to their homes, so unfortunately many Cubans die in their homes due to their homes crumbling on top of them (due to weather conditions, years of decay, etc).
  27. Cuban burgers are made with pork meat! One thing I learned in Cuba is that carne de cerdo/pork meat pretty much rules the Cuban diet. I later found out that the reason why is because beef is very expensive in Cuba. So when you’re buying street food and want a burger, don’t be surprised to see pork meat instead of beef. Even in the “Burger Restaurants” they’ll list that the burgers are made with pork meat. They’re actually pretty good!20160113_101605
  28. Prices of street food can “change” magically, haha! I’m pretty sure this is another thing that has to do with your ability to communicate in Spanish, and how much you “look like” a tourist. I saw tons of people lined up at a food stand to buy churros, so I decided to get in line to try them out. While waiting in line I looked at the prices and the pictures to know exactly what I wanted. While doing so, I began to overhear the conversation going on between the woman behind the cart and the woman in front of me. The woman, in English, asked for churros with powdered sugar (which were listed at .50CUC on the cart). In broken English, the woman behind the cart explained that they “didn’t have anymore of the .50 churros and that the only ones left were 1CUC O_o. I looked down at the cart to see what .50 churros consisted of, they were listed as “simples”, and they were literally just churros with powdered sugar. So when I walked up I decided, just out of curiosity, to order in Spanish. I said “Me da unos simples, por fa/ Can you give me some plain ones, please”. She nodded her head and proceeded to give me churros with powdered sugar and asked for .50CUC. After I got mine, I went back to the other woman to explain to her that the churros were actually .50 instead of a dollar. She said that she figured such, but just decided to give 1 CUC anyway to avoid the frustration.
  29. Cuban pizza (and street food in general) are REALLY good! The first time I saw “Cuban pizza”, I wont lie, I was a little skeptical. It consists of a pretty thick, but fluffy, bread, either grated/block cheese and it may sometimes have sauce.It was DELICIOUS! I believe the bread is what won me over, but overall the taste was really great. Most food stalls sell pizza which is normally Pizza con queso/pizza with cheese, and it will cost anywhere from 5-15CUP(.20-.60 cents) depending on where you are. Some places will offer pizza con salchicha/pizza with sausage which is really good as well. These will cost between 15-20 CUP (.60-80 cents). Street food in general around Cuba will range anywhere from 1CUP-30CUP and it is always delicious! I normally opted to eat street food for breakfast, and I was always satisfied20160117_10580020160117_141429
  30. Some of the best food is made in Casa Particulares: After a long day of travel, and being completely drenched from the rain, I decided that I didn’t want to go back outside until the next day. When I came in and the hosts saw me, she asked if I wanted to eat dinner with her family for 3CUC, or if I wanted to go back outside to try to find some food nearby. Not wanting to be bothered with the intense rain again, I opted to eat with the family. Literally one of the best decisions I made! Her husband is a fisherman, so he was an expert in making fish dishes! He made friend fish w/ lime, white rice, cabbage salad w/ carrots and fried ripe plantains (maduros). I literally COULD NOT stop eating! I literally had to force myself away from the table in order to keep myself from eating everything on the table (potentially plates included haha).   20160115_194445
  31. The rumors about Coppelia are true: Prior to going to Cuba, I kept reading a lot about an ice cream parlor called “Coppelia”. Bloggers and other commenters would all talk about how there were always huge lines of people waiting to get their hands on this ice cream! One day as I was headed to Viñales, I decided to stop by to see if all of the comments were true; and indeed there were. I first arrived on the side where visitors can pay in CUC, and there was literally only one person there. As I continued to walk I then saw the long line of people waiting to be called in. There were two long lines on both sides of the entrance (mainly younger high school aged folks). The line moved painfully slow, so I decided to bypass the craze and continue on my way to Viñales.
  32. The ice cream is good and cheap! Although I didn’t have the chance to try the ice cream at Coppelia, I did try several different flavors of ice cream from the various street vendors! The ice cream has a kind of different flavor due to the fact that it’s most of the time made from powdered milk. Nevertheless, it comes in a variety of flavors including strawberry, vanilla, pineapple, butter pecan, grape, apple and the most popular chocolate. Prices range normally between 1-3 CUP for a single scoop and 5-7CUP for a double scoop.

  33. Lots of Cubans love to drink! One thing most Cubans will tell you is that you cant have a party without the “ron” (rum in Spanish). I definitely found this out during my adventure. On my way to Viñales, there was a group of young guys who got on the truck each with a bottle of rum in their hands. After about 15 minutes I began to hear people cheering, and as I turned I saw each of the men passing the bottle taking turns chugging rum. Not even halfway through the trip, the guy pictured below to the left had been defeated by the bottle of rum. He passed out and his friends had to help him get off of the truck. The other guy to the right passed out early one day while I was in Trinidad, and stayed there for most of the day. I would walk by the building a few times just to see if he was ok, and every time I passed he would be sleeping in a different position.
  34. The beer in Cuba is good! Just like rum, beer is also a very popular beverage in Cuba. During my trip, I noticed 3 main types of beer that most people would drink; Cristal, Bucanero, and the beer from the truck (for lack of a better term haha). Out of the three, I believe Cristal is the most common and will be the one you’re mostly likely to see in restaurants. Bucanero is the second most common beer, and it has a stronger taste than Cristal. The last type of beer is the kind you can by from local trucks in the community. If you bring your own water bottle, jug, etc., the workers on the truck will fill your bottle with beer for normally less than one dollar. The amount you pay generally depends on the size of your bottle. The beer from the truck  has a smooth and light taste! Of course there are other brands available, but these are the top 3 that I saw during my visit.
  35. Meat is sold at two different rates for Cubans: After speaking with one of my hosts, I learned that there are two different kinds of meat markets where Cubans can shop. One market is controlled by the government, and the other is more of a local style shop where Cubans can buy items once a month. My host gave me the example of buying chicken. She explained to me that at the government shop, one kilo of chicken would cost around 3CUC. At the local shop Cubans have the opportunity to buy chicken for 10CUP or less per pound, but they only have this opportunity once a month, and the lines are usually very long.
  36. Always check your bills at the restaurants: A bill mix up only happened to me once, and was resolved easily; but I heard stories from others who weren’t as lucky. The waiter ended up charging me for an item that he previously stated wasn’t available, and when I pointed it out to him he simply apologized and fixed the bill. Some other travelers told me about their experience in bars where one or two people would come to  their table and “chat”. While they were chatting, the group would order drinks and close to the end of the night would somehow “disappear” leaving the unsuspecting tourist with a pretty high bill. One traveler even told me they were stuck paying 50CUC. Waiters are usually in on it too when it happens.
  37. Lechon/Puerco Asado/Roasted Pork is delicious! While wandering the streets of Trinidad, I stumbled across a street festival where literally every 10 feet was a roasted pig (Yes literally an entire pig)! Lechon/roasted pork is essentially slow roasted pork and it makes for a really good sandwich. If you’re ever in Trinidad, or even Cienfuegos, you’ll be able to find lechon sandwiches from street vendors. A sandwich should cost you about 10CUP(about 40 cents)
  38. Cubans will offer you a cup of coffee or a shot of rum as a welcome gift. Whether you’re sitting on a patio listening to one of the many live salsa bands, or meeting the host of your casa particular for the first time, you’ll be asked if you’d care for a cafecito (little cup of coffee). I am by no means a coffee drinker, (besides when they’re .99cents at Dunkin Donuts), so most of the time I just told them that I didn’t drink coffee. What they would do next definitely caught me by surprise! “Pues quieres un vasito/trago de ron/ Well would you like a shot of rum?” They would then get their bottle of rum and pour a shot for everyone in close proximity. A few minutes later they would ask “Quieres otro/You want another one?” Well played Cuba, well played.
  39. Cuban coffee is tasty! As I explained before, almost everywhere you go you’ll be asked if you’d like a cup of Cuban coffee (as a welcome gesture). My last day in Cuba , the host actually brought me a cup of Cuba coffee as I walked through the door, and of course at that point I couldn’t deny the offer. To my surprise, the coffee was actually really good. It wasn’t bitter and it was actually pretty smooth. Thumbs up from me!
  40. Mojitos in Cuba are DELICIOUS! Two of the most recognized mixed drinks in Cuba are the Cuba Libre and the Mojito; the latter of the two being my favorite! As you wander around to the various bars and restaurants, you’ll quickly realize that the prices of the drinks tend to vary depending on the location. For the most part, a mixed drink will be anywhere between 1-3CUC, but can go up to 6CUC depending on the bar/restaurant. I never paid more than 1CUC, and the cheapest I was able to find was 15CUP! (another plus for Trinidad!) 20160116_194747


  41. It’s easier to find juice/pop (yes I say pop instead of soda haha) than bottles of water: In almost every store you’ll visit, you’ll see giant bottles of pop which tend to be a lot cheaper, and a lot more plentiful than bottles of water. They’re called “Gaseosas” and they are pretty strong! Occasionally you will be able to find bottles of water in the same size, but honestly you will have to do some searching.20160116_183330
  42. Almost any vehicle/moving object passing will give you a ride: Cuba, by far, has the most diverse methods of transportation I’ve ever experienced. I rode in the back of trucks, in horse drawn carts, a variety of taxis, coach buses and even cargo vans. Pretty much if the vehicle has open space, they’ll probably be willing to give you a ride.
  43. You can get from Havana to Pinar de Rio for less than 2 dollars:After my adventures of negotiating prices with taxi drivers, one finally caved in and told me that I could take a “Camion/truck” to Pinar del Rio for 40 CUP (a little under 2 dollars). He drove me to a specific area on the expressway (yep another Midwestern term haha) where a lot of other people were waiting. When I got out, I went directly to them and asked “¿Las camionetas para Pinar del Rio pasan por aqui?/Do the trucks to Pinar del Rio pass by here?” One woman responded saying yes and signaled to one that was coming down the street. The truck was like one of the ones used to transport hay with a makeshift hood. I’m not gonna lie, I was a little nervous at first, but as soon as I got on, I knew I was in for a good time! I actually have no idea how long the ride was, but chatting with all of the people on the truck made the time pass by a lot faster.
  44. You can take a ferry ride to the cities of Regla and Casablanca for less than 1CUP! Ferries going to both Regla and Casablanca leave from Old Havana about every half and hour and only cost about .40 cents CUP. Most of the time you wont have money that small, so you can just give 1CUP and the staff will give you change. You can learn about Santeria in Regla, and you can visit the large statue of Christ, similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro, in Casablanca.

    12510472_4494722163244_3973777090838560380_n

  45. The Supermarkets don’t have very many options: The first time I went into a supermarket was in Viñales. When I walked in, I was pretty surprised to see that there weren’t very many options. About half of the store was filled with beverages (mostly pop, and a few cases of water). Then were basic products like cooking oil, diapers, soap, and pans. Then there was an entire wall of alcohol haha.


  46. Viazul is actually pretty efficient, although expensive: When you factor in the fact that most Cubans make an average of 20-40CUC per month, it would be pretty hard to imagine someone paying 24CUC for a one way trip from Havana to Trinidad (which is what I did). I know I could’ve saved myself a lot of money by taking a taxi, or finding another truck, but I was tired and wanted the easy way out. I didn’t reserve my ticket the night before, so I had to get to the station early in order to get my ticket. The process was very simple.  When I arrived at the station, the rep instructed me to go to the next room where I could buy the ticket. The rep asks for an ID/Passport and the amount of CUC, and then you have your ticket! The buses begin boarding about 30 minutes prior to the departure time, and the buses leave at the EXACT time with or without you. One thing you should note is that if you don’t have a reservation, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll be able to get a seat if you just show up at the station. I tried to do something similar leaving Trinidad, and I was told that buses were sold out until the next day haha. 12510414_4494754284047_3278082006525614064_n
  47. Reminders of the Revolution are everywhere: Pretty much anywhere you go, you’ll see billboard, posters, and street art with reminders about how much the revolution means in Cuba. Whether it be a sign saying “Fidel es Cuba” or “Patria o Muerte”, it wont be hard to miss.

  48. Baseball games cost 1 peso (about 4 cents)! Between baseball and boxing, I’m not sure which one dominates in Cuba, but one thing for sure is that Cubans love baseball. I had the opportunity to go to a pro baseball game between the Industriales (one of the most successful teams in Cuba) and Ciego de Avila. Having read that tourists sometimes have to pay more money than Cubans, I decided to make new friends and ask how much Cubans normally pay for baseball games. They told me that games were only 1 peso(CUP), and that they would have no problem buying an entrance ticket for me if I wanted them too. Happy to know how cheap the game would be, I gladly obliged and gave them the peso! When we walked in, I thanked them and then we parted ways! The game itself, I must say, was the liveliest baseball game I’ve ever been to. Cubans are extremely passionate about sports!


  49. Cuba has very talented athletes, especially youth: In every city I visited, I was able to observe athletes doing what they do best! From aspiring boxers training in the Rafael Trejo gym, to young kids practice their sprint and relays, to watching young guys practice their pitching and batting, to groups of kids playing soccer in various places….Cubans really do love sports!

  50. A lot of Cubans are happy about the improving relations between the USA & Cuba: After speaking with my casa hosts, and making general observations while wandering around Cuba I came to the realization that many Cubans are excited about the improving relations. From many people wearing clothes with the American flag, to taxi drivers waving the American flag in their cars, it doesn’t seem like Cubans have such negative thoughts about the USA. My casa hosts explained that the improved relations between the two countries should bring a lot of profit to the island. They expressed having improved access to internet and cell phone service, a boost in the economy from tourism, and overall potentially better relations with a number of other countries.

20160118_135315

How to get to Cuba!

As the relations between the United States and Cuba slowly ease, many tourists are flocking to Cuba in hopes of “Seeing Cuba before McDonalds arrives”. While this seems like a great idea, the reality is that Cuba already has tons of tourists wandering around its streets! At one point I believe I saw more tourists than Cubans, but we’ll go over that later.

Now legally, the government still requires that travelers leaving from the US travel under 1 of 12 approved categories (review them here:OFAC ), but from my experience this is a lot more relaxed than it seems. For extra safety I stated that I was going to Cuba for purposes of education,  but in the end I was never asked any questions about why I was going to/went to Cuba. Airline staff at one point made an announcement about all US travelers needing to fill out a declaration paper stating their reason to travel to Cuba, but when I followed up with the staff to understand what the paper was about he told me to forget about it and that I didn’t need it. (Weird, right?)

So on to the process…

Step 1: Identify your method of travel

Many people who desire to travel to Cuba from the USA will do one of two things:

  1. Book travel through a charter company that specializes in trips to Cuba (such as ABC Charter)
  2. Book tickets independently and travel through another country (México, Bahamas, Panamá, Canada, etc)

I did the latter of the two and it was super easy!

Using trusty “Google Flights” and doing some general internet surfing I was able to find some really good deals to Cuba! I ended up flying Southwest Airlines to Cancun and then Aeromexico to Havana! The only tricky part to this came when it was time to pay for the flight to Cuba. Aeromexico won’t allow the use of US credit/debit cards to purchase flights to Cuba online, so you’ll have to call their headquarters. The first time I called, I spoke in English and the representative informed me that I wouldn’t be able to go through with the transaction due to their sales office being located in London and due to the time difference I wouldn’t be able to speak with them (idk if it’s really true, but I said whatever and waited until the next day). So the next day I called back and spoke in Spanish, and the rep told me that there’d be no problem and that he’d connect me to their main office in Mexico City. (I guess the London office *if it actually exists* may be for the English speakers, and Mexico City for Spanish speakers). Anyways I was able to book the ticket over the phone and I was set to go! The ticket ended up costing a little over 200 dollars round trip (plus an extra fee for doing it over the phone *7 dollars, and a money conversion fee charged by the bank *like 3 dollars).

*Quick tip: If you already know what days you would like to travel to Cuba, you can fly through an airline called Interjet where you can find roundtrip tickets from Cancun to Havana for around $150

Step 2: Pick your accommodations

The easiest way to find housing in Cuba is through what’s known as “Casa Particulares”. Casa Particulares essentially are private rooms in the homes of Cubans that are rented to travelers. Most casas include a queen sized bed, a private bathroom, and depending on the location, a private balcony! I’ll post examples below!

Reserving your casa can be done through airbnb.com, which I highly recommend, or once you get to Cuba you can just walk around the streets of Havana or whatever city you may be in to find an available casa. Typically a casa particular will cost anywhere between 15-30 dollars a night. Casas can be more expensive depending on the location and features of the room, and they can also be cheaper if you’re into the “dorm-style/hostel” accommodations (I paid $11 for dorm-style accommodations and it was super cool!).

You will learn as you continue to research facts about Cuba that internet in Cuba is pretty scarce, so you may not get immediate responses to your requests on Airbnb, and the availability may not always be updated. Generally, folks who have their homes listed on Airbnb have access to email in their houses so they will respond to you within 12-24 hours, sometimes faster, so just be patient!

*quick tip: before you head to Cuba, be sure to write do your hosts’ full address and check for any address changes. My last day in Cuba the host had the old address listed, so when I arrived the home was vacant (Yep, fun times). Luckily, a neighbor was familiar with the host and knew that they would host travelers and walked me to their new address!

Step 3: Get your Cuban Visa

In order to travel to Havana (and Cuba in general), you’ll need to purchase a Cuban Visa. This is super easy to do! If you’ve booked your flight through a charter company, they will more than likely include the price of the visa in your package. If you’re taking the more adventurous route, all you have to do is buy the Visa at the airport. With Aeromexico, all you have to do is go to their ticket counter and ask for the Cuban visa. For whatever reason, the rep at the ticket counter told me that using a card saved more money than paying cash (which actually turned out to be true). The price of the Visa was 16 dollars (using a card) opposed to the normal 20 dollars. When you are charged they charge you in the local currency, in my case I was charged in Mexican Pesos (314 pesos).

Once you have your Cuban visa and your boarding pass you are ready to get on the plane and head to Cuba! When you board the plane, they will take one half of your Visa, and you’ll need to present the other half when you’re heading back from Cuba, so BE SURE TO KEEP UP WITH IT!

20160113_084403Once you arrive in Cuba, they will stamp your Visa and not your passport. But upon exit, the staff will stamp your Visa and then ask if you would like to have your passport stamp. So if you’re worried about the government knowing you went to Cuba, you have the option to not have the passport stamped.

That my friends, in a nutshell, is how you get to Cuba! Feel free to ask questions if you’d like more details about something.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑