When we were asked to join The Wahine Project on a trip to Cuba to connect young girls to the ocean through surfing, we did not hesitate to say YES!
We had no idea that it was going to be so hard to get to Cuba from Miami! Not to mention, we were bringing donated surfboards and gear with us for the girls to use. We said yes to Cuba before even knowing how we were going to afford the trip or get the days off from our 9 to 5's.
With only 3 weeks to plan, here's what we did...
Figure out why you're going
What is the purpose of your trip? Are you going as part of an organized group, visiting a research facility through a University, visiting by water on a dive charter, on a photographic tour of the island?
Because Cuba has yet to declare their island completely open to US tourism, if the purpose of your trip falls below one of their 12 pre-approved visas, you are good to go! I was surprised to hear that bringing candy for the kids or spending money at a local store easily fall under the Humanitarian category, but you make the call. For further clarification, check out this article for guidance on traveling to Cuba as an American.
Other categories such as Education or Photojournalism may require additional paperwork and an approval process that can take several weeks. Be sure to read the fine print when selecting these categories.
How Are you going to get there?
I will admit, it was naive of me to think that it would be easy to hop on a plane and zip on over to Cuba from Miami for a long weekend. In the end, this is exactly what we did, but I stumbled across a great deal only after having purchased a ticket that was twice the price and 8 times the travel time! Luckily the Universe was watching out for us and I was quick with my cancellation so as to not incur any penalties. It was a close one!
So, when looking for flights, don't expect to use Kayak to find you the best deals. We found a great deal through Cuba Travel Services, paying around $400 to fly direct from Miami to Cuba. Better deals pop up here and there so keep your eyes open. I'm still learning how to be one of those point-savy travelers!
In comparison, we would have had to pay double to fly through Mexico City, Cancun, or the Cayman Islands to get to Havanna. If you have the time, go for it, otherwise stay focused: surfing in Cuba. Since we traveled to Cuba, scheduled airline service from the US to Cuba was restored so as these schedules get approved, traveling to Cuba will become more accessible.
Don't bring plastic & don't exchange dollars
The majority of Cuba operates on cash so don't even consider paying with a credit card. Instead, you'll want to be sure to take out enough cash to last you your trip. Money is a funny thing in Cuba. First off, they have two different currencies: the primarily used Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the lesser used Cuban Peso (CUP or peso Nacional). When compared with the US Dollar (USD), $1.10 USD = $1 CUC = $24 Nacional.
Since you can only exchange your money to CUC or Nacional once you get to Cuba, consider these few points:
On top of the 3% currency exchange fee, there is a 10% penalty charge when exchanging USD to CUC or Nacional.
For example, if you exchange $100 USD, after the fees, you will only get $87 CUC
The same 13% fees also apply to Mexican pesos being exchanged to CUC
Exchange to Euros in the US, then exchange your Euros to CUC & Nacional
Only the 3% currency exchange fee is applied
We found that it does not matter where you exchanged your Euros, the exchange rate is the same in Havana Airport and the Casas de Cambio (exchange houses) in town. Most of what you will need cash for will be covered by the CUC, but it is always nice to have $20 USD worth of pesos Nacional for those times when a cortadito y pan con mantequilla (Cuban coffee with bread and butter) from a garage bodega is all you need. This kind of breakfast may only cost $0.42 CUC so paying $10 Nacional is just easier.
Pack heavy, leave light
Here is something you must understand about surfing in Cuba before you go surfing in Cuba: there are no surf shops in Cuba. Although Fidel Castro valued health, noting that a healthy life meant a healthy community and therefore a healthy Cuba, he did not recognize surfing as a sport. Instead, people often mistook the floatation devices for escape vessels bound for Miami. Even during our trip, Pay had to help the taxi driver of our 1950's Chevy explain to police what the surfboards were doing on the roof of our car. Even having to prove that they were strapped down securely.
That being said, the way Cuban surfers get boards, wax, and other gear is by friendly donations. They get inspiration from reading surf magazines, watching surf flicks on VHS, and now streaming YouTube clips in one of the newly established WiFi parks around Havana.
Nevermind the dead chicken that just floated by
Cuba is steeped in tradition with Spanish and African roots. One religious tradition that is still practiced is Santaria which is a system of beliefs that stems from Yoruba mythology, Christianity, and Indigenous American traditions. Central to the religion is the sacrificial offering of animals to the Orishas or Gods as food. Worshipers believe that by offering food, they are nourishing the Orishas who in turn help them live a better life. Without such sacrifice, the religion would cease to exist since it is through sacrifice that all important events, including initiation into the community, are celebrated.
Yemaya is the spirit of the ocean. She is honored with sacrificial offerings of chickens that are killed on the shoreline then tossed out to sea. Because of oceanic currents, it does not take long for these chickens to reappear on the beaches where they were sacrificed. La 70 is a local surf break outside of Havana where you just may encounter a dead chicken in the lineup. As long as Yemaya is well fed, there is no need to worry.