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Practical Tips to Help You Prepare for a Solo Trip to Cuba
Journeywoman Donna Starr lives in San Diego. She is a writer, artist, photographer and online teacher of TEFL Business English to foreign students. Her garden buzzes with divebombing hummingbirds, raucous crows, a wonderful Mockingbird diva and a family of very bossy squirrels. Donna is the author of Cuba for Mama: A Daughter's Journey 2016: Travel Tales & Tips. We asked her advice on how to prepare for a solo trip to Cuba. Donna writes...
I'd always been fascinated by Cuba, having never visited a Communist country before. An aging black and white photo from 1940 of my great-grandparents in Havana still sits on my mother's desk; their promise to take her when she was older was one that could never be fulfilled. My mom's in her mid-80s now and she sports an artificial knee. Today her adventurous travel spirit must be satisfied by hearing about my many travel adventures. I'm an English teacher and once the opportunity to visit Cuba presented itself (via the new guidelines for U.S. visitors), I knew I had to go for both of us; to see this time-warped treasure for what it was, in all its unique beauty and sadness.

What's Cuba like today? I had no idea. I began my internet search and discovered current information on Cuba was difficult to find. I located one group, Jakera Cuba that offered to organize your trip prior to you leaving the U.S. They coordinated lodging and some meals and an itinerary for learning and volunteering, all for a reasonable weekly charge (even payable via PayPal). Having some structure, my lodging secured and a 'hub' to take daily Spanish classes, cultural walks and meet other volunteers and world travelers appealed to me. I organized my flight and off I went for a whole month of solo experiences. Here are my tips to help you plan your own journey.

black check Prepare well - Do your research before going! This is critical because the internet in Cuba is slow, expensive and difficult. A good travel guide will list many of the key sights to see (I recommend the one by Lonely Planet). There are several organizations that offer programs for Cuba including Jakera Cuba, GeoVisions, Road Scholar, and more.

black check Cell phones - U.S. cell phones don't have service in Cuba at this time. However, I recommend taking your phone to get on the internet occasionally. You can use it as a camera and alarm clock as well. I also brought my ipad with a SD memory card reader attachment and uploaded my photos on to my ipad. In general, I limited myself to two-three hrs. a week of internet time. It was a welcome vacation from technology!

black check Internet - is not available widely in Cuba. Only posh hotels downtown have it available. In order to use the internet anywhere - you need a scratch off coded internet card from Etesca. Etesca has an office on the main drag (Obispo Street) in old town Havana (la habana vieja). You queue in the line (which is often long) and wait, much like waiting at any government office. Slowly you are ushered into the building to wait a bit longer, the 'tellers' finally call you up and you can then buy one-hour cards to use. Bring your passport with you, it is essential. They won't give you cards without it - it's $2 CUC an hour (more on money later). Buy as many cards as you think you'll want - remember, the lines are long so you don't want to have to keep coming back. And yes, Big Brother is watching - remember your passport number will be attached to the code you input for internet usage. P.S. posh hotels offering internet will also sell you cards but it's more expensive, $3-5 CUC an hour. Sometimes just to get off the street and onto comfy upholstered seating, I'd go into the nice hotels and sit in their lounge, soaking up the A/C and atmosphere while using my internet time. I'd order a beer and relax and recharge.

black check Support the people - Stay at Casas Particulares, not government owned & controlled hotels. Casas Particulares are the Cuban answer to Air BnB, with Cubans offering a bed and bath in their home. They are MUCH cheaper than hotels, averaging $US25-40 a night. The hotels are really expensive anyway and to get a real people-to-people experience, you need to stay with Cubans! Jakera Cuba organized my Casas for me, I paid a weekly fee prior to leaving the U.S. so it was great. If you want a private room (recommended) make sure you are very clear about that prior to leaving. Once you're in Cuba, it may be difficult to organize changes and you may end up with roommates!

black check Power up - Bring your extra plugs and cables! Rooms may be nice, but many have only a plug or two that functions properly. Bring USB plugs and multi-prong plugs for all your devices. Cables might be difficult to replace or find in Cuba so if the gadget is essential, bring a backup. Cuba uses the same wall plugs as the U.S. so that's a relief, no adapters needed for North American travelers. The electricity shut off a few times (for several hours) when I was there, so bring a flashlight or have a candle and matches ready and easily accessible.

black check Weather - Check the weather forecast before leaving and bring appropriate clothes, pack extra shoes and clothes if needed and leave what you don't need or use behind. The Cubans are grateful for clothes and good shoes and flip flops (I left a few hooded sweatshirts behind). Reminder - You might need a light jacket in the evenings any time of year.

black check It's noisy! - Bring ear plugs or an eye mask if you need to block out sounds and light to sleep. The roads outside my first Casa were being jackhammered from dawn to late afternoon! There is a lot of construction going on in Cuba and it is not a swift process (your sturdy shoes and flip flops with thick soles will come in handy in these areas)

black check Meals can be pricey - I had breakfast and lunch included at the Jakera hub so I just had dinner to concern myself with. However, Cuba is not cheap! Hotels (if you go that way) are expensive, budget $20-25 CUC for each meal at least if eating out. The meal might be $6-12 CUC but you still have drinks $3 CUC each+ and the waiter and band to tip. I often just ate an appetizer. I brought a plastic protein shaker and used it often with boiled (filtered) water to make protein mix shakes, and miso soup. Tea bags are also a wise choice (and great gifts) to bring. I made sun tea by the pitcher, grateful for the unsweetened beverage. Bring a Tupperware container to bring back leftovers from restaurants. Waiters will just look at you blankly if you ask for a "doggie bag". No such thing there. I also always bring eating utensils and moistened towelettes when I travel.



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