72 hours in havana, cuba

Why I went to Havana

 

My obsession with getting to Cuba is convoluted. My Uncle Mike was sick for well over a decade; a heart transplant led to lung cancer for the 63-year-old nonsmoker. His wife, my Aunt Suzanne, unexpectedly died in the summer of 2015, which was very hard for everyone in the family. But of course, it was the hardest for Mike; they had been married for 40+ years. We all saw how a part of him died the day Suzanne died.

I could go on and on about how amazing the two of them were but I'll keep it quick. After Suzanne passed, Mike became more obsessed with traveling. I think the depression of losing his one true love drove him to want to do some very ambitious travel. He wasn't well and probably should not have traveled internationally at all, so it took us all for a surprise when he told everyone we would be doing a family trip to Cuba the Christmas after Suzanne died. He wanted to do it before he died. A newly opened country to the US does not sound like the best place for a man struggling to beat cancer. But that was Mike.

I'm not sure if my Dad talked him out of it or if Mike just forgot about it or what exactly happened, but I know the conversation about Cuba stopped after Christmas. Mike passed away that June. Four days after my Uncle Mark (his brother and roommate) died. Yes, that is correct. We lost two uncles/brothers in the span of four days. I wouldn't say I was extremely close with either one of them. Mostly because they were far across the country. But both of them were amazingly kind and loving people. I admired them very much. And I loved them deeply. When they died, I silently went into a deep depression.

At first, it was the pain of seeing my Dad in so much pain. Other than my brother and I, Mike and Mark were his only living immediate family. His parents have both died. The fourth brother David, passed away in an accident in 2005. His brothers were his best friends. Seeing my Dad lose everyone made me want to scream. It was so incredibly painful. My Dad's great at keeping it together but I knew how much he was suffering. And probably still is.

When I got home from the joint funeral, and for the rest of the summer, anytime I got home from the bar or had a couple of glasses of wine in my apartment, I would sob in my bed. For hours. Sometimes, I'd drunk dial my brother and cry to him about how much I missed them. But other than that, I never told anyone how much I was hurting. If you don't understand this next statement, I don't blame you, but it's all I can do to explain the dark place I was in at the time - I had a survivor's guilt. I didn't think I deserved to live while the two best men I knew died in their early sixties. I hated it. At the time, I wasn't proud of anything I'd done. I wasn't suicidal but I just felt like the world would have been better with Mike and Mark than with me. 

I know that's not logical thinking and I eventually healed. I still miss them but I stopped that survivor's guilt thinking. I did want to feel closer to them though and I thought the best way was to do what they always wanted to do - go to Cuba. 

A little less than a year after Mike passed, I went to Cuba - alone, and having done little research. Only for about 72 hours. And about 20 additional hours of travel. I didn't do enough museums, tours, etc. Because I was too nervous about the language barrier and not having enough cash. But fuck it. I did the best I could. It was worth it. 100%.

I cried on the cab ride from the airport to my airbnb. Just seeing this magical, forbidden place and thinking about Mike and Mark. The whole trip was profound. The buildings are beautiful and colorful. When I walked around early in the morning, the streets smelled of men's cologne.

I cried a lot there. I cried because it was so beautiful. I cried because I was grateful to be there. And I cried because I missed Mike and Mark. But I wouldn't change anything. I'd love to go back and spend more time and do the right things.

This was only my second trip alone. My first solo trip I just read on the beach in a sleepy fishing village in Nicaragua. But in Havana there is so much to do and see and I wish I did more. I wish I went to the beach or the museums or some of the tours. Unfortunately, I had a lot of anxiety there. I was too scared to ask for directions or help. But I left that trip with so much confidence and I went on the next trip much more able to navigate big city travel alone.

I didn't wait for the perfect trip, where I was there for 10 days, practiced Spanish, and planed every day’s itinerary. I saw a small window of opportunity and just went for it. Even if I missed a bunch of stuff while I was there.

I don't have all the best advice on what to do there but I think walking around Havana for hours aimlessly is the best. It’s so beautiful. You'll see things there you won't see anywhere else. The smells and sounds are once in a lifetime. 

Here is some logisitical info you might find helpful:

Getting to Cuba

I planned for a five days trip to Havana. I was flying from a client engagement in Minneapolis to Havana, so that my flight there was paid for by my client. One of the few things I miss about consulting. I ended up cutting my trip short when I was asked to do another client engagement in San Francisco the following week. I just cut the trip to three days and flew straight to San Francisco from Havana. It was so much travel and I was exhausted but well worth it.

I flew Spirit to Havana. And American Airlines for my return. When I booked my ticket online through Spirit, the airline asked why I was going, giving a list of 11 choices. I chose education purposes - I was there to learn more about the Cuban culture to better US/Cuban relations. Its not as scary as everyone made it seem. Basically, you can't be there to get shit faced and celebrate your friend's bachelor(ette) party.

After I purchased my flight, I has to go to a separate website to apply for a Visa for about $75. Spirit Air provided me the link to the company they go through for Cuban visas. I heard confirmation from the company a few days later.

 

From my confirmation email from Spirit:   TRAVEL TO CUBA: We noticed you're traveling to Cuba. Que bueno!  There are very important rules & regulations for travel to Cuba relating to visa requirements, permissible travel reasons, Cuban health insurance (which has already been included in your ticket price) and more. Please be sure to review those details  here and take care of all paperwork beforehand to ensure that your travel to Cuba is authorized. Customers who don't meet the legal requirements to travel to Cuba will not be allowed to board their flight.  

I flew via Fort Lauderdale. Before my flight, I had to go to a Spirit counter and get the physical visa. The company sent Spirit the information so I just had to provide my Passport and I got my visa, which I needed to board the flight.

 

From Airline Brokers, the company who issued my Visa: Dear Travelers:  Your visa has been accepted !!!!! passengers who are departing to HAVANA, CUBA your visa's will only  be given to the person who requested and paid  for them in advance through our website , they will be handed at the  SPIRIT AIRLINES DEPARTURE GATE  INSIDE the  FORT LAUDERDALE  AIRPORT FOLLOW THE SIGN THAT SAYS CUBA VISAS.

 

What I Did in Havana

Customs at the Havana airport was pretty normal, but at the time, very busy. Mostly with young Americans. You're supposed to keep receipts and a log of what you do during your time in Cuba, proving you were there for educational purposes, i.e. receipts from a msueum. 

Don't plan on using debit or credit cards on the island. I brought about $200 with me and exchanged it at the airport. There are two different types of currency in Cuba.  The Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). You want to exchange most of your money to CUC. But apparently, its handy to have some small denominations in CUP for busses, etc. If your debit card is from the US, you probably won't be able to use your cards but might be able to use it at an ATM.

I stayed in a private room at an airbnb in Old Havana, near the Spanish Embassy. If you don't want to stay at a hotel because of price or any other reason, I recommend getting a room in an Airbnb in a family's apartment/house - Someone that speaks English. (Obviously, a hotel would have this sort of amenity too). Because you probably won't have cell or internet service and staying with someone who knows Havana and speaks English is key. 

I called both AT&T and Verizon (personal and work phones) and both said I would have service but I did not. You need to go to a government office when you get there and get an internet card, then you can use public wifi like at a hotel. 

I walked around the city for 8 to 12 hours a day. it's the most beautiful place in the world. A lot of the city is in ruin too. But I think it adds to the beauty. The people were so kind. Surprisingly, everyone, I spoke with loved Americans.

Havana is extremely safe. Tourism is one of their only imports and I heard that the government has strongly impressed upon its citizens to not fuck with tourists for that very reason. The most you'll have to deal with is the hundreds of cab drivers asking if you need a ride. 

Be prepared for less than great food. Especially if you're a Cuban food fan. It might have improved since I went, but when I was there it was still clear that the country couldn't get a lot of good food imported.

Things I didn't do but wish I did. Go to the beach. The Museum of the Revolution. Like I mentioned above, I did not do enough tourist things. It was only my second trip alone and the first one was on the beach exclusively. Again, solo travel was new to me. 

So I don't have all the best advice on what to see and do there. But I hope I helped with 

Whenever I travel alone, I listen to a lot of podcasts as I walk around. I was doing this on my last day when a woman, probably a few years older than me, stopped me and asked where I was from. Then she told me not to have my ear buds in. I should be listening to the sounds of Havana. People chatting. Music playing. Because that's what makes it so special and beautiful. 

Stephanie DeLacy unapologetically shares what it’s like to navigate the world as 20-something white girl, with humor, profanity, and raw vulnerability. Stephanie recounts stories of her travel, mental health, and the journey to loving her body. Her descriptions of dating are bawdy but incredibly relatable. She courageously describes her dysfunctional childhood, healing from trauma, and how she’s evolved as a survivor of sexual assault. At times, heart wrenching, her stories will evoke raw emotion and connect to you on the most guttural level. She hopes to inspire authentic living and human connection.  Stephanie lives in Cleveland with her dog and two cats.