I didn't know what to expect when arriving in Cuba after two and a half years. I was anxious while sitting on the plane, getting ready to depart from Fort Lauderdale to Havana. Not sure what would be the process of getting through customs and the luggage procedures.
A country constantly changing the rules about anything and everything can be frustrating when traveling to the island, so I was not sure what to expect. I asked my clients to let me through first, so I knew what to do if they said I could not come in. Not a single question was asked, and I went through the door, so I gave them a thumb up that everything was ok. But first, you must register online 72 hours before entering the country on a recently launched site, so the process is faster when arriving on the island. Should you be planning to visit the website is D'Viajeros, and you have to answer all the personal questions and whether you are vaccinated or not. No COVID-19 tests are required to enter or depart the country.
After passing customs, all your carry-on belongings must go through the x-ray machine, and then you can pick up your luggage. They will check your luggage tag at the exit, and off you go! This part surprised me because the health department used to be inside after you pass the x-rays machine, but now they are outside before you go through customs. If you did the online registration, they just scanned the QR code, and that's it. One thing that I didn't see this time was a table where they had people taking out all their belongings and counting them. That's for the so-called "Mulas," bringing tons of stuff to sell to their fellow Cubans on the island. All that to say that the process is more straightforward and more like you'd see in other countries.
Once outside, I called my brother, who was waiting for us and in line trying to buy water bottles because he could not find any. He told me that in advance, so we purchased about twelve bottles at the FLL airport. Our taxi driver broke down (I had reserved one in advance), so we had to hire another to take us to my mother's house until a replacement came for us to take us to our casa. It was so good to hug my family again but not so good to see my mother's health decline. At least I could bring her some much-needed medicine and other things.
There is a massive shortage of oil and drivers have to wait in line for hours to fill the tank. Our driver spent three hours getting some so he could take us to the airport the day we left. The clients went on a motorcycle tour to Pinar del Rio, and when they arrived in Viñales, they only had four hours of electricity. They also had to go several miles to find gas to return to Havana. Even with these two unforeseeable problems, they had a fantastic time and enjoyed seeing places that regular tours would not have taken.
The big issue is the currency. The government went ahead with the unification of the dual money, and there are no longer CUCs available, only Cuban pesos (CUP). To my surprise, they have 100, 200, and 500 pesos bills. The biggest bill used to be 50 pesos. The prices for everything are outrageous compared to people's salaries. While at my mother's house, a man came by selling eggs for 500 pesos a carton. That used to cost 30 pesos two years ago. No USD was allowed to circulate again on the island. You can pay in Euros or Cuban pesos, and the exchange rate is 110 pesos per 1 euro. You can exchange the USD for Cuban pesos at 100 cups in some places, but if you go to the Cuban bank, they will exchange it at a 24 x 1 rate.
People can use a card called MLC (Moneda libremente convertible or convertible money) to purchase items at government-owned stores. Still, someone must deposit USD or Euros into this debit card to make purchases. Two years ago, all I needed was CUC to go buy something there. I do not have one of those cards, so I didn't even try to see what they had available. Besides, I did not have enough time to spend hours in line just to "see" what they had so I could buy something for my family.
Cuba had no tourism; however, they continued to build five-star hotels across the island. Even in places that might be in danger of getting flooded when the ocean gets over the Malecon or in hurricane season. There are two new ones on Malecon avenue and two more on Prado. We went to the craftsmen's market and were the only tourists in the whole place looking for souvenirs. That was sad because the people spent the entire day waiting to make a sale. Fortunately, they bought quite a few pieces from different vendors and made their day.
There was no issue with the food for the clients; even Cubans were dining out in some places, but I'm not sure how they could afford to pay for it. As a Cuban, I see things differently because I know of their struggles, but you, as a tourist, may see it as a cheap place to visit. That's why it's essential when you go to be kind and generous. A few dollars go a long way!
One of the things that I noticed was that my clients were giving money to every person that seemed homeless and was asking for money. They gave money to the musicians performing outside of Doña Eutimia, our tour guide Henry and our driver Kenly. I saw that as a gesture of love and care for others. They were happy all the time and wholly immersed in the moment. At any moment, they asked if they could connect to the internet because they were there to have an authentic experience, so they did! They said they felt welcomed and liked hanging out with friends. That's the best I could hope for.
Even with all the different things happening there, it was a very fulfilling tour, and I can't wait for other people to go and enjoy the island as well. The next trip is Sept 7-11, 2022 should you like to join us. Contact Me to get started.
About Sheyla Paz
Sheyla was born and raised in Cuba. Moved to the United States 21 years ago. She is a Journalist, Actress, Producer, and Photographer with a passion for travel. Sheyla launched the travel agency out of her desire to share her culture, music, dance, and the architecture of her homeland with others. Her agency provides travel arrangements to all Latin countries, the Caribbean islands and Europe. She has several award wining short films and was recognized as a leading media personality in the Latino community in Tennessee with the award “Beacon of Light” in 2019. Sheyla was one of the few Cuban-American journalists selected to travel to Cuba with President Barack Obama in 2016 as part of the White House Press Corp. Sheyla is an ASTA Verified travel advisor, Signature Travel Network Luxury Certified Travel advisor and several destination specialist in the Caribbean and Latin America. She is also certified in Luxury River and Ocean cruises.
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