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Summary from a trip to Cuba

Summary from a trip to Cuba

Old Apr 30, 13, 5:13 pm
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Summary from a trip to Cuba

Since travel is limited to Cuba for Americans, I figure a mini-trip report may be useful for some of us that dream of going there.
I went on an educational trip to Cuba from Jan 3 to 21 as part of a group of students from a few upper midwest colleges. Our bill ended up coming out to be $5000. The good part is, once you get to Cuba, things are pretty cheap, being responsible for my daily noon meal (Our hotel served breakfast and dinner for free), drinks, and souvenirs, I was able to spend less than 250 euros in 17 days. If you have a stash of euros, bring these, as the US dollar is taxed at 10% for conversions, other currencies are not.

Getting there: I flew FSD-MIA on Delta and stayed overnight in MIA. The next morning, we had to be at the airport at 0900 for a 1400 flight on SkyKing. When we got there, we found out why. Since Cuban Americans are allowed unlimited travel, they often bring many items for their families back in Cuba. The line was long since people were checking bikes, large LCD TVs, Bundles of clothing, tires, etc. We were required to weight everything including carry ons and we also had to tell them our individual weights.
We arrived at our gate for the 1300 flight to find out that they were having trouble with the plane. We were delayed until 1700 when they could fly in new equipment. When 1700 rolled around, we found out that this plane also had problems. They delayed us until 2030 so they could fly in their last 737-400. (This carrier only has 3 B737s). They fed us individual pizzas for dinner due to the delays. After boarding at 2030, we finally pushed back about 2100. After taking off, we noticed how warm the plane was and a noticeable constant popping in our ears. The flight attendant was called multiple times from the cockpit, finally, the captain came over the PA with "flight attendants prepare to don oxygen" which upset many on the plane. Shortly after, he told us we were returning to MIA due to a problem pressurizing the plane. The pilot came out to brief all of us, as a plane full of Cubans can cause some unrest. Finally, what I believe was the engine bleed air was fixed, and we got in the air, and had an uneventful flight to HAV, finally arriving at 2300.
Tip: Avoid SkyKing, the crews were good, but there seems to be some quality issues.
Customs: Upon arrival, we were sent through customs at terminal 2. The students made it through just fine, one of our professors was questioned briefly by customs as to the nature of our trip.
Accommodations: After leaving the airport, we were met by our Havanatur tour guide, Nilda and our driver Tomas. We were taken to our hotel - Hotel Plaza which was in Central Havana about four blocks from the former capital, and two blocks from the Museum of the Revolution.
The lobby of the hotel is beautiful, definitely some old world charm. The rooms were like stepping back in time to the 1960s. Each hotel room had its own interesting quirks on whether or not things worked. Each room had a working safe, a TV, and a stocked minibar (Even had Coca Cola and Sprite)
In order to keep the length down, I will only go over a few of my suggestions for places to go. Our educational component included a 2 credit course in Cuba relations at the Jose Marti Institute (CEM)
The Museum of the Revolution is a good way to spend an afternoon, gives the Cuban side of the US/Cuba relationship.
In Old Havana, there are many places to wander around and visit. We avoided eating in that area due to the prices.
The Artisans Market located about a half mile from the cruise terminal is a good place to visit, lots of affordable artwork, also lots of touristy junk. I bought some good paintings though. Be prepared to haggle, they always quote high.
Malecon - A stroll along here is a good way to spend an afternoon or evening. It is fairly easy to strike up a conversation with Cubans. We were there one night with some Cuban students we met, and the police did check their IDs.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba - Visit the gallery bar, Carlos the bartender makes one amazing mojito. He taught us how to make them, so we could go behind the bar and make them at our leisure.
Vedado - we went here daily for lunch, there are many affordable paladars and cafeterias in this area. There are also some interesting buildings including the Coppelia ice cream parlor.
Industriales Baseball - we went to a game, people are very passionate about baseball in Cuba.
Tropicana - we visited this famous night club. The tickets are expensive, but they give you a cigar or rose when you walk in, along with a bottle of Havana Club with mixers for every four people in your group. Afterwards, they have an after party on stage where we may have fulfilled the stereotypical American tourist (See the photo: The Ugly American) Overall, I am not sure it is worth the money, but it was a fun experience.

Outside Havana:
We traveled to Varadero for a weekend to get a tourist perspective of Cuba. We stayed at the Barcelo resort which is all inclusive. The rooms were built to a European standard, although a few things in our room were broken. The hotel only had 1 of 5 elevators that worked. Otherwise, this resort was a nice place to go for a weekend. Lots of Canadians, a fair number of Europeans, we were the only Americans.

The second weekend, we traveled to Vinales in Pinar del Rio. This was the highlight of the trip. On the way, we stopped at the beautiful Las Terrazas ecovillage, it is a nice place, but very touristy.
In Vinales, we stayed at the La Ermita hotel overlooking the city. In typical Cuban fashion, the rooms were nice, but many things were not working in the rooms.
In the area, we did some hiking, visited a tobacco farm and had a farmer roll a cigar in front of us that we got to smoke, visited a cigar factory, and enjoyed the views. The road to get to Vinales is very curvy, so bring medication for car sickness.

Returning home: We left on SkyKing again, luckily without the mess we had the first time. The airport had a nice duty free area after customs, which is odd considering that terminal serves mostly US flights. SkyKing is not as worried about weight, etc on the way back since they have less cargo. When we arrived in MIA, we easily made it through customs, although one agent called us ignorant for saying we enjoyed the trip. When it came to baggage check, they simply asked us if we had any rum or cigars. When I said no, he said have a nice day. None of the 24 people in my group was searched. This is radically different than the stories I have heard about going through customs at MIA.

A few assorted tips:
If you are looking to save money, the cafeterias are walk up eating establishments meant primarily for Cubans, but they serve tourists as well. We went there for "peso pizzas" which were only 15 cuban pesos each (~25c USD). These were pretty filling and easy on our stomachs.
Paladars (privately owned restaurants that are oftentimes in people's houses) tend to be cheaper than state run restaurants. Food can be hit or miss, but they do make sure you don't leave hungry. Quality was okay. Many will try and actively recruit you to visit their paladars. Stay away from Chinese food in Vedado.

If you have any questions, Id be happy to answer to the best of my abilities.
AlmostJesus is offline  
Old May 7, 13, 2:30 am
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Thanks for the interesting report and it seems that you enjoyed the trip.

One question: How to buy a ticket from MIA to HAV? Are there special travel agencies? Probably not online. How much is an average ticket RT MIA-HAV?

I am planning my next trip to HAV from FRA and I would like to avoid going threw BOG or YYZ as MIA would be so much easier.
carpetbagger is offline  
Old May 11, 13, 1:07 pm
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My flight from MIA-HAV was a charter through SkyKing. They fly daily service to HAV, but it is coordinated through a few different travel agencies. Marazul Charters comes to mind as one of them.
So, it would not really work to fly through MIA to go to HAV. Other places you could look would be via Cancun or one of the direct flights to Europe (Condor from FRA, KLM from AMS, AF from CDG, Cubana from ORY).
Here is the link to the US charters to Cuba
http://cubatrips.org/charter-flights-to-cuba.html
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Old May 12, 13, 6:11 pm
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World Airways charters

Unfortunately, our experience on World Airways getting to/from MIA/HAV was even worse. Thirteen of us returned yesterday from a one week tour (5 nights in Havana and 2 nights in Cienfuegos). This was the 2nd time for my wife and me (our first visit was 3 years ago). On this visit, our group used Marazul Tours which chartered World Airlines to/from MIA/HAV (at a cost of $450 rdtp per person plus a $20 fee for each bag MIA/HAV -- but no extra fee HAV/MIA). World Airways apparently uses only two MD-80s. Our flight was 4 hours late departing from MIA on May 4 and 6 hours late departing from HAV on May 11 (not including the 3 hours at the airport prior to departure). Yesterday, as we lived at the airport for 9 hours we watched as two Sky King flights scheduled to depart after our World Airways flight came and left. We never got an explanation or apology from World Airways. In contrast, the Cubans working in the waiting area with us could not have been more helpful -- including the woman selling the toilet paper for the rest rooms who allowed us to use her private cell phone to try and call the US to change our connecting flights (be advised we could not call any 800 numbers from Cuba). Despite the awful charter flight experience, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit; we found the Cuban people we met wonderful albeit isolated from much of the outside world, with virtually no Internet and still dependent on 1950s American cars (we marveled at how they have kept them running and restored despite the hot, salt air climate). It is not an easy trip, but well-worth it.
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