Getting Ready for Cuba!

I interrupt this flurry of posts with pictures of food (I know that those of you who don’t appreciate deliciousness are overjoyed at the interruption) to say a couple of words on my second favourite topic: landing myself in random places and finding my way around.

In two weeks, I’m going to Cuba. You have no idea how excited I am. When I first realized I was going to Cuba with my classmates, I was kind of “meh“. My classmates are good people, but, um, as my profs put it, I’m a unique bird. Being stranded on a beach for week, talking about clothes and boring TV shows? While in a beautiful and culturally rich country begging to be explored? HELL NO!

So I took matters into my own hands and started preparing for an adventure.

I’ve backpacked a lot in the US and Canada, but this will be my first excursion in a country I was completely unfamiliar with. In case you are curious (I know most of you aren’t, but I’m going to assume you are), here’s my battle plan.

1- Talk to some locals/former tourists

I recently joined Couch Surfing, a networking site for travellers and traveller-friendly people. Friends had been telling me about it for long time, but I hadn’t bothered to sign up until a few days ago. Best idea ever! I had barely finished joining the Cuba group that I had a couple of people offer me some help.

Most Cubans don’t have internet access, but I was able to find a few who did and who gave me some insider info on the country. Couch Surfing is illegal in Cuba and none of those I talked to lived in an area I’d be able to reach on such a tight schedule even for a coffee meetup, but they were still super helpful.

BTW, if you’re like me and a love to travel roughly, definitely check out Couch Surfing if you haven’t already.

2- Figuring out what to do.

Cuba’s a pretty big country and I only have a week. Thus, two options:

1- See the whole island by spending all week on the bus, being tired, hungry and probably sick.
2- Stick with the Western/Central Western part of the country. I see less, but can enjoy the places I do visit better. I can also spend most nights in the fancy hotel I already paid for instead of sleeping on the bus.

I’m leaning towards Option 2. I’m staying in Varadero (yeah, I dare you to stalk me and pick me out among the MILLIONS of tourists) and would be able to spend time in Habana, Vinales (where I desperately want to go horseback riding) and Matanzas.

That should take up most of the week, leaving me maybe a few hours to check out the spa, stuff my face in the resort’s many restaurants and take a Cuban dance class.

For the rest of the country…well…I guess I’ll just have to go back when I get a month or so off work.

3- Covering my arse

I’m fearless but not careless. Cuba’s reputed to be a fairly safe country, even for a woman, but taking unneeded risks is silly. So here’s the safety plan:

Vaccinations: I went for my Hepatitis A and B shots as soon as I found out I was going to Cuba. Don’t want to end up with gross, nasty hepatitis!
A good pocket travel book: Internet is a rarity in Cuba and my e-reader is a bit slow for flipping across pages, so I got a light, map-containing travel book to stick in my purse.
Money belt: Harder to pickpocket than a purse or baggy pants pocket.
Sunscreen and bandanas: Sunburns and heatstroke suck.
International Cell Phone: I found a Roam Mobility phone in my local travel shop. I’m not sure if it works in Cuba (some parts of the website say it does, others parts say it doesn’t), but it’s worth a try. Even if it doesn’t, I’ve read up on how to find phones to check in with my hotel/friends regularly. Also, the phone will come in handy when I travel in the US since my regular phone doesn’t work at all outside of Canada.
Gravol/Immodium: Just in case my stomach throws a tantrum. I’m usually pretty good on that front (comes from eating a lot of snow as a kid), but I will cry forever if my trip is ruined by vomiting.

The one thing I am taking a huge risk with is not stocking up on Cipro. I know I should have some just in case, but my health insurance doesn’t work outside Québec, so seeing a doctor and getting a prescription filled in Newfoundland are just too expensive. Cuba’s health care system has a good reputation and I bought good travel insurance, so I’m going to take my chances.

4- Entertainment for the way

I think I’ll bring my notebook laptop so I can write and/or watch TV shows while on the go. It’s a bit big for my purse, so it’ll stay at the resort, but it’ll be nice for the plane and for the days I’ll be hanging around the hotel.

I downloaded a few books for my e-Reader and I’m pretty excited to sink my teeth into them. This is going to be my first trip with an e-Reader and I’m expecting it to be way more convenient than carrying around 2-3 heavy books that end up getting destroyed by heavy objects in purse/bad weather/mood swings.

My DS and my ipod will have their place too. I might leave the DS at the resort (although it would be nice to have for long bus rides), but I can’t travel without my ipod and my noise reducing earbuds. Noise reducing earbuds are like sanity on a wire when taking public transportation. If I had to recommend one thing to new travellers, definitely noise reducing earbuds.

Of course, I wouldn’t go running around the cities listening to my ipod, but for the plane and the bus…yes please!!

And there you go

I still need to make reservations (apparently everything gets booked in Cuba so you need to make your reservations early), but other than that, I think I’m ready to go. I can’t wait!

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3 Responses to Getting Ready for Cuba!

  1. Brangwen says:

    I would lean to the hotel option, not the sleeping on busses option. You haven’t backpacked outside the US/Canada have you? Yeah, no matter how feminist I am and say we should have a fair crack of the stick, reality is it’s just not like that out there. It is better to play it on the safe side when being a single white female traveling around. (also, I hope the below isnt telling you how to suck eggs! but ima say it anyway)

    I backpacked across Africa with a girlfriend of mine back in the early 2000’s and we found, that even together, we were singled out for “special attention” just because I was tall, she had blue eyes and… we were female.

    You may also have to contend with “american tourist” stereotypes. They are around for a reason, believe me!

    Also be on the look out for “tourist prices”. In heavy tourist spots, there are often local prices and tourist prices. Dont be afraid to walk away from things if you feel they are out of scale with the local economy just because you are a chick and “american”.

    Stick to populated areas when alone, stick to places recommended by more than one local, definitely get your shots!! oh yes indeedy! always!

    Get a body wallet to put your important documents in (like passport and extra cash), dont put anything in your day pack you dont want to get slashed or stolen (ie have your wallet easily accessible, but only have what you need that day in it).

    OK all seriousness aside (most of the above has been learned the hard way as well, having had my bags slashed, pickpocketed, walking through bad parts of town without realising, getting done over by tourist prices etc etc) – Option 2 looks better because sometimes a deeper appreciation of local culture is only found if you explore the one place slightly longer and then you can plan your return trip! HEE! Also, luxury hotel is luxurious! I recommend making friends with the hotel staff. It worked WONDERS for me in Fiji, we got all the gossip on where to go, even got us things they were not meant to (mmmm kava!)

    I bet there are plenty of out of the way places that the locals go to that you can find exploring back streets and getting gossip! But a week in cuba sounds wonderful! There will be lots of nooks and crannies to explore and strange shops and new food and night life and music and dance and … and … oh FUN!

    • Ophelie says:

      You’ve backpacked Africa and hungout in Fiji! How cool is that! I’m so jealous!!

      I did do a lot of reading and asking former Cuba backpackers and locals for advice, and I wouldn’t dream of sleeping on the bus (or travelling alone at all!) if I wasn’t sure of being safe. Cuba’s a good country for tourism, though, for the same reasons it seems like a not-so-fun place to live. The reliable bus line is mostly for tourists and is priced in a way that locals wouldn’t be able to afford it. Locals have their own bus line, which I wouldn’t be able to take due to my time limits (it doesn’t seem to have a real schedule, it runs when it feels like it). In the cities, there are police officers all over the place and the country is extremely strict about relationships between locals and tourists (for example, someone who doesn’t have a taxi licence isn’t allowed to give a non-Cuban a ride, no matter how well the pair know each other). I did get a money belt (or a body wallet as you call it) to lower the chance being being pick pocketed.

      Cuba is indeed one of those countries with two currencies, but from what I understand, all the tourist stuff (restaurants, hotels, reliable transportation) are all tourist currency, and stuff from markets, street vendors and sometimes taxis are local currency (though I’m told that street vendors/market people do try to sneakily change currencies to get more money from you).

      Varadero itself is a pretty meh area if you’re into culture and exploration which is why I’m itching to get out and about. It’s exclusively resorts and beaches so locals who don’t work in the resorts don’t have any reason to venture into the area. Hopefully Habana, Vinales and Matanzas will let me mingle a bit more. All the Cubans I’ve spoken to so far are in the far Eastern part of the country, so I sadly won’t be able to meet them.

      • Brangwen says:

        Hmm let me see, Ive done Eastern Africa (camping in the middle of nowhere is amazing!), Egypt, chunks of America, England (multiple times), France, Fiji, Thailand and most of Australia. I really need to see more of SE asia 😀

        Sounds like you are under control! 2 weeks… I demand pictures, ok?

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