I have wanted to visit Cuba for a long time, but getting there from Australia is never cheap and never quick. Cuba has been stuck in a time warp mostly because of the USA trade embargo with Cuba. A similar thing happened with Vietnam and Myanmar and both took off once the USA eased restrictions and started to trade with them. However both these countries had little tourism to start with, whereas Cuba has had a thriving tourism sector, mostly due to Canadians and Europeans visiting resorts in Cuba.
So I thought I should get to Cuba before the Americans do, which is what everyone else is thinking and to be honest is probably a false reason to visit now as all reports are saying its packed full of tourists in some parts of the county. after all, Americans already visit, technically illegally, but the government hasn’t prosecuted anyone for visiting Cuba. plus they have a rather ambiguous license system that means Americans can visit with a license, but the 12 categories are quite broad and easily fudged to include just about any reason.
Finding flights to Cuba from Australia is a challenge. Basically the main routes are via Canada, Mexico and South America. Canada via Toronto was quite expensive (although my friend Claire lives in Toronto so I could have stopped to visit her). Mexico was a bit cheaper and then I stumbled on a dirt cheap airfare to Lima, which also has direct and one stop flights to Havana. The direct flights on LAN were a bit pricey and could not be combined with my cheap Qantas/LAN flight to Lima, so I ended up getting a good deal on Copa via panama City. All up $2200 AUD to get to Havana, which is a decent price.
Another thing is Cuba requires just about everyone to have a visa or tourist card. You can get these from the embassy, but another handy feature is just about every airline sells them at the airport before boarding. So for me I’ll get my tourist card either at Lima or Panama City airport. At least I hope that is the case! Its also cheaper to do this.
Also worth considering is money in Cuba. For a start they run two currencies, the CUC or convertible Peso which is on a fixed exchange rate of $1US=1CUC and the Cuban Peso or CUP which is fixed at 24 CUP = 1 CUC. This seems to confuse many people, but its really no different to many countries I’ve visited that accept US dollars for larger purchases and local currency for smaller transactions. This is the same in Cuba, although Tourists tend to not access services requiring pesos, they certainly can if they wanted to. Another issue is getting money in Cuba. ATMs in Cuba will work as long as your bank doesn’t do transaction via the USA in that part of the world. So AMEX and Citibank are useless (My excellent Citibank Plus Visa debit which is fee free and uses a good forex rate will be of no use). My bank couldn’t tell me definitively whether my card would work in an ATM. So I’m taking Euros to exchange to CUC, and while I’m there I’ll test my cards in ATM’s for emergency purposes!
My final challenge was to book accommodation ahead of time or on the fly. I opted for the pre booking accommodation option, due to stories of rooms being sold out especially in popular locations like the old city of Havana and in Trinidad de Cuba. Organising said bookings is a challenge. There are numerous places that will book accommodation for you on the internet. You put your preferences in and they call them and see if they have a vacancy. The thing is I’m staying in Casas Particulares, which are basically private homes with spare bedrooms and bathrooms. They are cheaper than hotels and you get to live and converse with real Cubans. There are thousands of these places in Cuba and form an integral part of the Cuban tourism industry. Its an independent travellers dream to be honest! anyway I have bookings after finding out just about all my first and second preferences were booked out. Hopefully my bookings will be kept, but it seems even if they are not, the locals are always able to find you another room nearby.
So I think I’m ready, I haven’t even mentioned the internet yet, I might get some wifi access and might be able to do this blog minus photos. I really don’t know yet. We will see over the 2 weeks I’m in Cuba what is possible!