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¡Bienvenido a Cuba!

¡Bienvenido a Cuba!

Old Feb 22, 2017, 6:19 pm
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¡Bienvenido a Cuba!

¡Bienvenido a Cuba!

Welcome to my trip report on our recent trip to Havana, Cuba. I'll go into a bit more detail regarding the planning process as an American visiting Cuba takes a little more effort than most places.

In early 2016, the Obama Administration issued new changes to the license requirements for travel to Cuba. In the past, Americans had to apply with the Department of Treasury to obtain OFAC approval and a specific license in order to travel to Cuba. Not only was that process expensive, but also nearly impossible to obtain without a valid reason (such as family visitation or part of an expensive group tour). In addition, there were no scheduled flights from the US to Cuba; one would have to book a charter flight ($$$). The new changes in 2016 included the ability for travelers to self-license themselves from a selection of 12 general licenses.

In December 2016 though, the first US based airline touched down in the country's capital city of Havana for the first time in more than 60 years. Not only was the market immediately flooded with capacity (Havana went from 0 service to the US to more than 25 daily flights) but flights were also dirt cheap. We were able to book round-trip from Tampa on Southwest for under $150 a person, which mind you, includes the $25 health insurance required for travel to Cuba and the $25 Cuban exit tax, effectively meaning the flights themselves only cost $95 per person. In terms of the license issue, we decided to pick "Educational" under the provision of "People to People exchange". The US regulation states that in order to meet this license, one has to maintain 6-8 hours of meaningful interactions with the Cuban people. Examples of this could be meeting with a local artist, museum director, Airbnb host, bartender, etc. The only requirement for proof is that you are asked to save your documentation for up to 5 years in-case the Department of Treasury asks for it (there is no documented proof that they've ever asked anyone for proof, though). The general consensus is that the US Government isn't blinking an eye at those traveling to Cuba.

So, what do you need as an American in order to travel to Cuba?
General Travel License (signed affidavit)
Health Insurance (included in airfare)
Full-time schedule of meaningful interactions with the Cuban people (6-8 hours per the US government)
Save all documentation as the US Government has up to 5 years to request proof
Pink tourist card/visa (obtained with the airline)
Cash!

Flight route for this trip. Havana is less than an hour in the air from Tampa, FL.


Money in Cuba:
So, about the money. US issued debit and credit cards cannot be used in Cuba. At all. You literally have to take cash for every expense, including emergencies. If you run out of cash, lose it or have it stolen (unlikely, we'll get into that later), you're SOL. On top of that, Cuban currency exchange centers charge an additional 10% to exchange USD over other currencies (in addition to the standard 4%-5% fee). Cuba issues two types of currencies; the CUP (Cuban Peso) and CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso which is pegged to the USD), the latter of which is strictly for visitors. The general exchange rate between CUP and CUC is 25:1, yet prices for many things are listed as 1:1. For example, entrance to a museum for a local will cost 8 CUP and entrance for a visitor is 8 CUC, meaning the foreigner is paying 25 times more for their entrance fee.


Hopefully, that has educated you a bit in terms of traveling to Cuba. I'll get more in-depth with things as we go, but the above was simply for a general understanding.


Below is an aerial image of Havana, which I've included to give a sense of where we would be exploring. The flight arrived in Havana at 7:30 AM on Saturday morning and we departed at 6:05 PM on Sunday evening, giving us nearly two full days in the city. Day 1, we would be exploring Old Havana, which is the area with the star labeled as Plaza Vieja. Day 2, we would be heading out west to the Vedado suburb (except for some morning photo shoots in Old Havana).


Day 1


Southwest recommended we arrive at the Tampa airport 4-hours prior to the flight's departure, meaning 2:15 AM. Not a chance that was going to happen. We set foot in the terminal a little after 4:45 AM for the 6:15 AM flight and still had about a half hour to spare once we were airside. Checking in was different from usual as you have to pick up your pink tourist card from an agent adjacent to the check-in counter. They provide you the visa (tourist card), health insurance documentation, Cuban entrance forms, and FAQs/emergency contact information. They then direct you to pick up your boarding pass with a Southwest agent who stamps your packet as "Cuba Ready".

Our plane to Havana, Cuba. A three-year-old Southwest 737-800.


On board the flight seated in the exit row. Today's flight had about 25 open seats, so about an 85% load factor. Not bad considering travel for strictly "tourist" reasons is still not allowed.


I managed to squeeze in an extra 30 minutes of sleep. I woke here as we were descending into Havana. Below is the Cuban coast just after sunrise.


We had a short taxi after a smooth touchdown at Jose Marti Airport. Havana Airport utilizes three main terminals. US carriers are split between terminal 2 and 3, of which Southwest uses 2. Terminal 2 is essentially a converted hangar with no jetways. Luckily, it was refurbished in 2009 to include air conditioning.


Deplaning via the forward airstairs.


Walking into the arrivals building. We were unlucky to have chosen the slowest moving immigrations line which was processing about one person per three minutes. Although we were only half way back on the plane, we ended up as one of the last through immigrations due to that.


First stop after passing through customs was to exchange money. Oddly, the currency exchange booth was located in the departures hall only, so it took a little time to find as that is rather strange. Once we loaded up on CUC, we negotiated our cab ride into the city for 25 CUC. The first thing we noticed was how old all the cars were. You always think that people exaggerate when they say "people in Cuba drive around in old 60s-80s cars". Well, that's true. I'd say about 75% of the cars are old American ones, 20% are old Russian Ladas and the remainder are new Toyotas or Mercedes.

The Airbnb we booked wasn't available to check in until 3 PM, so we opted to hit the ground running once we got into town. We had the driver drop us a few blocks from the Capitol building to get a sense of our surroundings.


Already putting the camera to use.


Look familiar? El Capitolio was designed after the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. It's not being actively used by the government so tours inside are usually available. They were refurbishing the forward stairs at the time of our visit, so, unfortunately, going in wasn't possible.


Front view.


Side view.


You're going to notice a trend here. I enjoyed photographing the old cars.


Exploring the area around the Capitol.


Cleaning an old Dodge.


The street near the Capitol.


Old Chevy?


After visiting the Capitol we made our way up the street to the Museum of the Revolution. We ended up having about a half our conversation with two of the employees here discussing the revised relations between the US and Cuba, how the new flights are doing and how we were liking Cuba so far.


Entrance fee to the museum was 8 CUC, plus an additional 2 CUC for a camera surcharge, although I wasn't charged.


Some sights in the museum.


Some sights in the museum.


"Thanks for everything, Fidel." These signs aren't just in museums, but visible throughout the city. There were other signs such as "Castro lives on with us." etc.


Caricature of one of an "anti-revolutionist", AKA George W Bush.


Roof inside the museum.


"Batista flees." Batista was the leader of Cuba prior to the revolution. We were approached by another museum curator here who discussed the current government in Cuba (hint, he wasn't a fan).


Poster regarding Che Guevara. He was involved with the Castros in overthrowing the Batista regime. He also assisted in attempted coups throughout Latin/South America and Africa.


Once we exited the museum we headed east towards the heart of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana).


Stray dog.


Chevrolet.


La Habana Vieja. Havana is actually a popular tourist destination, contrary to what you're likely led to believe. The city receives a huge amount of tourists from Europe, Canada and South/Central America. There are more tourists in this photo than locals, making authentic pictures of Old Havana rather difficult to capture.


Old Havana is (as the name suggests) the oldest part of the city. Most of the buildings here are in a decrepit state and in need of immediate repair. The government has stepped in and started renovating many of them, but the ones leftover before renovation are a great way to show you the original condition.


Walking along Mercaderes in Old Havana.


Also along Mercaderes.


A local musician.


After about 20 minutes of walking, we reach Plaza Vieja. The buildings within the square have been recently renovated and there are typically plenty of musicians roaming around. It's a nice area to visit for a few minutes, but I'd rather get a sense of real Havana rather than the new and touristy part of it.


Explanation needed. Yes, she’s naked. Yes, she’s holding a fork. Yes, she’s riding a rooster.


La Habana Vieja.


An image of Fidel Castro on someone's front door.


A church in Old Havana.


Locals.


We had made a full circle at this point from the Capitol. When we were there earlier, it was prior to 9:00 AM, which is when the building normally opens for tours. We headed back over just to see if they were open or not, which they weren't.


Make sure you match your car with your house.


At this point, we grabbed some lunch. Food in Cuba garners mixed reviews online. Some say they love it, others hate it. My experience with it is that most places that rank highly are government owned and places you'd consider "tourist traps" in other countries. We stopped at a place that ranked #38/600+ on Trip Advisor for lunch. Juan, the waiter, was very interested in talking about our visit and he shared some info on places to take pictures for sunrise the next morning. Each plate had a flag placed on it signifying where you were from (they asked). Most plates I saw passing by had the Canadian, UK or Mexican flag on it. I got some pork steak with rice and plantain chips.


The tricycles pictured below are popular in Old Havana. You can usually get them to bike you to a nearby destination for 1-2 CUC. Don't ask for recommendations for bars or restaurants though, they'll likely take you to their "friends" place and try to grossly overcharge you. That scam isn't just popular in Cuba though.


Restored.


A tourist-centric restored Chevy.


Havana, like Rio de Janeiro, has a Christ statue overlooking the city. Not nearly as large, though.


Plaza de la Catedral. The waiter from earlier recommended here for sunrise as the area is usually deserted. The Cathedral of Havana was completed in 1777.


Pick a door.


Maintenance required.


At this point, we were done with Old Havana. The plan was to take the ferry across the water to a castle and fort, but the ferry didn't seem to be running. The other option was to walk through the tunnel, but once we got there we realized there wasn't a sidewalk so we had no option but to take a taxi. The whole ride over the driver was saying "Feria", and being the fluent Spanish speakers we are, thought he was trying to say there was a ferry. Nope. Once he dropped us at "El Morro" we noticed he meant "Fair". Let's just say it was hectic.

Mural of Che Guevara.


What you don't see is the hoard of people along the hill to the right. Needless to say, we cut out the fort and only visited El Morro to avoid the crowds.


El Morro provides great views of Havana and the famous Malecón (the waterfront road/walkway).


A rusted out cannon.


Once we finished exploring El Morro, we noted it was nearly 3:00 PM. We had been carrying around backpacks all day, and although not heavy, was starting to irritate us considering how hot it was outside. We figured we'd head over to the Airbnb, drop the bags, do some cigar/rum shopping and prepare for sunset along the Malecón.


Accommodations in Cuba:
Hotels in Cuba are expensive. Most travelers opt to stay in casas particulares, which are essentially Airbnbs (we booked ours through Airbnb). They fill up fast, so there wasn't much of a selection when we booked. We ended up booking a room with Robert, a German/Cuban/Colombian living in Havana at the time. His house was located in Central Havana, about a 20-minute walk from Old Havana, but only 5 minutes from the water. All we were looking for was somewhere clean with two beds, air conditioning, and a private bathroom. This place fit the bill, the only downside was there were no windows in the room. Luckily, though, we had the world's best air conditioner! Can't argue for only 35 CUC per night. Robert was quick to check us in and show us around. His place has a nice rooftop area that you can sit and relax, though we didn't take advantage of that as we were only using the place to sleep.


The person I was traveling with had a headache from the sun so I set out for an hour or so to find some cigars and explore Centro Habana. Centro Habana isn't as touristy as Old Havana and is certainly more authentic and rustic. No, it doesn't look luxurious and it doesn't smell nice (at times). There were tons of blue "casa particular" signs so obviously, it's a popular place to stay, likely due to its proximity to the water.

I think this is an old Jaguar.


I was hoping she'd lift her head up for a picture but I think she was actually sleeping. Regardless, quite the interesting outfit she's wearing.


Centro Habana.


Kids.


Cigar shopping.


This color is lit.


Walking down the street approaching the Airbnb. I had purchased most of the cigars we needed and just needed to head back for my tripod and some money for dinner.


We've now entered the golden hour, the hour before sunset. That means it's time to head out to the Malecón for some pictures.


The classic image of the Malecón.


Looking west towards the suburb of Vedado. Unfortunately, I don't have an ND filter yet (blocks light coming into the camera, which is especially helpful in blurring moving water) so I tried to combine 20 photos at 1/20 of a second to get a longer exposure. Will never come out as good as having a filter, though.


Zoomed in still of El Morro.


Old Ford chugging along the Malecón.


We had a reservation at one of the better restaurants in the city at 7:30 PM, which was about a 20-minute walk from the Malecón.


11 CUC lobster for dinner.


After dinner, we headed straight back to the Airbnb. We were exhausted. We woke up at 3:45 AM that day, ran around a new city in the heat with 0 rest until nearly 9:00 PM. Needless to say, we slept about 9/10 hours.

Main hallway in the Airbnb. Lots of marble.



Day 2


Day 1 we explored Old Havana. The plan for day 2 was to walk over to the National Hotel of Cuba (landmark), see the US Embassy nearby, grab some ice cream, explore bits of Vedado and see the Plaza of the Revolution. The flight back to Tampa was at 6:05 PM, and since we were unfamiliar with the Havana Airport, we wanted to arrive 3 hours prior to the departure, meaning we'd leave Havana by 2:30 PM. I woke up well before my travel companion at 5:30 AM and walked to my photo spot.


Safety in Havana:
Havana and Cuba, in general, is very safe. Like China, punishments for crimes are pretty severe, so crime against tourists is nearly unheard of. Sure, you get your occasional pickpocket and scam artists, but as long as you're aware of your surroundings, you'll be fine. Statistically, Havana is safer than most other tourist-heavy cities (think Paris, Barcelona, Bangkok, etc). I never once felt threatened and felt perfectly safe walking to my photo spot before sunrise Sunday morning.


Havana Cathedral in Plaza de la Catedral during the blue hour, just prior to sunrise.


Plaza de la Catedral.


I did some exploring right after sunrise. I was hoping to get a picture of one of the old cars with the nice post-sunrise light, but I couldn't find any parked on the street in the right spots. Sometimes things just don’t work out as planned.


A side street looking towards the Capitol.


Sunrise near the Cathedral.


After the sun rose, I walked back to the Airbnb for a quick rest (water and snacks). We then started our day 2 itinerary. The first stop was the National Hotel of Cuba, which was about a 20-minute walk down the Malecón.

The sad reality of many buildings in Centro Habana.


Centro Habana.


Statue of Antonio Maceo Grajales. He fought in the Cuban War of Independence in the late 1800s.


Welcome to Vedado.


Local fishermen.


The colorful buildings are never ending.


Crashing waves.


Hotel Nacional de Cuba located along the Malecón in Vedado. The historical guest list includes Winston Churchill, Jimmy Carter, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, and Ernest Hemingway. The nightly rate for our stay would've been 488 CUC.


Marble signage in the lobby.


A cannon built to defend Cuba during the Spanish-Cuban-American War (per the sign). Commonly referred to as the "Spanish-American War" in the US.


The hotel housed some small exhibits about Cuba's recent history.


Getting our propaganda fix.


Cuba.


We walked to the nearby US Embassy which is within a stone's throw of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The goal was to check out the 132 flag poles the Cuban Government placed around the sole US flag pole to block the flag and the building from view. Ever since relations began thawing in 2015, Cuba removed 131 of its flags, leaving just one for each country. There were several armed security personnel around, so I didn't take a picture.

After that, we walked to an ice cream place someone recommended before the trip. This is a great example of Cuba's dual currency situation. I read online that lines are typically very long, and not surprisingly, there were about 100 people in line for what we thought was the ice cream place. Once we got closer we noticed that it was actually an ETECSA hotspot.

Internet in Cuba:
Private in-home WiFi is illegal. WiFi hotspots in restaurants, stores, hotels (for the most part) does not exist or is very expensive/unreliable. There are a few WiFi hotspots (provided by the government) around the city run by ETECSA. You typically pay about 4 CUC per half hour of use. The process involves buying a card which has a scratch off code that you enter to login. I wanted to test it out just to say I did, but I didn't have time for the line.


We continued walking and eventually encountered another long line, this time for the ice cream place. I followed exactly what I read online. We walked to the front of the line where they had someone (an employee I presume) manning the crowd. He locked eyes with us and asked, "You pay with CUC?" which we responded yes. That's how you skip the line.


Only 3 CUC for two scoops of ice cream and a Cuban Coke.


After the ice cream stop, we jumped in an old 50s Pontiac taxi, inclusive of super-bouncy seats and minimal floor board, and headed out further into Vedado.


Torreón de la Chorrera was the initial destination, completed by the Spanish in 1646.


Tennis.


Vedado.


At this point, it was time for lunch. I hadn't planned any place in particular so I just pulled up my offline version of Trip Advisor and picked somewhere nearby. I ordered the pork skewer, which was only 5 CUC.


Next, we set off on a 30-minute walk to the big cemetery nearby, which we ended up skipping as we were running a tad behind. Instead, we hopped into another taxi, this time an old Lada inclusive of a Cuban flag hanging from the rearview and loud distorted Cuban music blasting and drove towards Plaza de la Revolución.

Vedado House.


We only had about an hour left before we needed to head to the airport, so our visit to the Plaza de la Revolucion was fairly short as we were still a good 15 minutes away from the Airbnb. Two buildings in the square have large metal murals on them. This one is of Camilo Cienfuegos with the quote, "You're doing fine Fidel."


The super-Soviet looking José Martí Memorial in Plaza de la Revolucion.


Plaza de la Revolucion. The left building has a mural of Che Guevara with the quote, "Until the everlasting victory, always." Pope Francis held huge masses here during his visit to Cuba in 2015.
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Old Feb 22, 2017, 6:20 pm
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I got yelled at for taking this photo. The person traveling with me got my attention and said that the guard behind me (up a hill standing near the Department of the Interior, was yelling "No photo!" I know photos are allowed of the memorial so my guess is that he either thought I was taking a picture of the government building to the left or the security guard.


It took well over 10-minutes to wave down a taxi for some reason. On top of that, my direction giving Spanish is poor at best. In addition, I got my "left" and "right" translations swapped so that was an issue.


The ride ended up taking about 15-minutes to get back to our Airbnb in Centro Habana. We had about 15-minutes play with, so we grabbed our backpacks and walked around looking for a souvenir place. Once that was taken care of, it was back to the airport.

One last photo of Centro before heading back to the airport.


A sign on the way to the airport; "Fidel is with us for promoting tourism, peace, health and security."


Small food stall outside the airport. Bread with hamburger.


The Southwest ticket counter wasn't open when we got to the airport. In other words, three hours was a bit excessive. Anyways, once we got checked in we proceeded to the currency exchange to swap out the remaining 47 CUC I had on hand. The line was about 15 people deep. Right next to the line were two ladies dressed like janitors. They nodded me over, I gave them the 47 CUC, they went into the bathroom and came out with 47 USD. Excellent! 1:1 exchange. Most certainly wouldn't have done that if someone didn't tell me to expect it before we went to Havana though. How they get away with plucking people from the currency exchange line is beyond me.

We were through customs in about 10-minutes with no problems. My travel companion got the dreaded "SSSS" on his boarding pass, which would normally result in a full bag search, a nice foot massage and a long list of questions. Cuban officials though only had him take off his shoes. #security

Boarding was chaotic. Southwest normally boards in three zones, zones A, B and C. We were zone B, but I was able to board as one of the first 10 people in A since there was no organization.

Our plane to Tampa, another Southwest 737-800.


Havana Airport.


Climbing out of Havana.


Sunset over the Florida Keys half way to Tampa.



Final Thoughts:

As a photographer, Havana was fantastic. I wish I had been able to capture the people of Cuba (which, by the way, were all very nice) but I simply didn't have the right lens and I've never been a fan of asking people for their photographs. Getting around Havana was easy, the food was acceptable, the weather was great (though a little hot) and there were plenty of sights. Pretty much everything you'd want from a city. I plan on returning to Cuba, although I think I've covered Havana. The only nearby attraction I'd return for is Viñales outside of Havana. Otherwise, I'd love to visit Trinidad which I'd have to fly in to Cienfuegos for. Sure, you're money spent in Cuba may go to fund the regime, but in my opinion, things will never get better there without the people there interacting with visitors. Regimes such as Castros never last, especially this day and age where we live in a global economy. Havana is most certainly a unique city to visit and, I say this in full honesty, one that will absolutely stand out from the others. On top of that, if the Department of the Treasury comes knocking, I'm confident I'll be able to supply them with proof that our trip fit the license requirement of a full time, interactive and meaningful schedule of interactions with the Cuban people.
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Old Feb 22, 2017, 7:39 pm
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Great report and lovely pictures. I'd love to go to Cuba someday!
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Old Feb 22, 2017, 9:13 pm
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Your pictures are absolutely amazing!
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Old Feb 22, 2017, 10:07 pm
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I know I'm biased, but these are easily some of the best photos I've seen on FT. Glad I got the full in-person debrief on the trip. Let's make Trinidad/CFG happen.
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Old Feb 23, 2017, 1:26 am
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Some really great stuff^
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Old Feb 23, 2017, 5:44 am
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FANTASTIC photos! Thank you for sharing.
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Old Feb 23, 2017, 9:12 am
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The first of many Cuba trips on FT. Your photography is excellent ^
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Old Feb 23, 2017, 1:28 pm
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Absolutely wonderful photos!! Many, many thanks for sharing.
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Old Feb 26, 2017, 4:47 pm
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Originally Posted by boyerling3
Great report and lovely pictures. I'd love to go to Cuba someday!
Thank you. It's definitely a must visit place, especially for photographers!

Originally Posted by jubbing
Your pictures are absolutely amazing!
Thanks!

Originally Posted by sky303
I know I'm biased, but these are easily some of the best photos I've seen on FT. Glad I got the full in-person debrief on the trip. Let's make Trinidad/CFG happen.
Trinidad/CFG must happen.

Originally Posted by offerendum
Some really great stuff^
Thanks!

Originally Posted by cedric
FANTASTIC photos! Thank you for sharing.
Thanks so much!

Originally Posted by mike&co
The first of many Cuba trips on FT. Your photography is excellent ^
I figured the Cuba TRs would start increasing. I'm surprised at how little there have been TBH.

Originally Posted by roadwarrier
Absolutely wonderful photos!! Many, many thanks for sharing.
No problem, thank you!
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Old Feb 27, 2017, 7:29 am
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Bravo! Very good report, thanks you much for sharing it ^
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Old Feb 28, 2017, 12:37 pm
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This is an awesome report and I love your pictures! Makes me want to take a trip to Cuba!
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Old Feb 28, 2017, 1:25 pm
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Awesome photos of Havana, ChiefNWA, I really want to visit Cuba too now!
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Old Mar 1, 2017, 4:08 am
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Great report and beautiful pics!

As I am contemplating my own trip to Havana I am curious as to your choice to only spend CUC while there? Was that mandatory or could you have spent CUP if you wanted to? Also, how were the cigar prices?
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Old Mar 1, 2017, 11:07 am
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Originally Posted by b747lh
Bravo! Very good report, thanks you much for sharing it ^
No problem, thank you.

Originally Posted by Chadg
This is an awesome report and I love your pictures! Makes me want to take a trip to Cuba!
Thanks. You should go!

Originally Posted by DanielW
Awesome photos of Havana, ChiefNWA, I really want to visit Cuba too now!
Thanks, you have to go! Certainly a unique and fascinating place. Not to mention it bodes quite well with the camera

Originally Posted by philipperv
As I am contemplating my own trip to Havana I am curious as to your choice to only spend CUC while there? Was that mandatory or could you have spent CUP if you wanted to? Also, how were the cigar prices?
I had read that using CUP is very difficult, as in the locals won't accept it if you don't look like a local. You might be able to get away with it in small markets or to buy fruit/vegetables, etc. Most things I read said that locals won't do business with you, for the most part, in CUP.

I'm certainly not a cigar aficionado, so I don't know if what I paid was even a good deal... I only bought a few as gifts for people that wanted "cigars from Cuba". I paid about $11 USD per Cohiba Ciglo IV.
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