Cuba Pt. 1 - Rosemary Woller
New Zealand

ROSEMARY

WOLLER


On January 1, 2020 I took a flight to Havana, Cuba. I would be staying in the country for the entire month. Why? Because I could. I was/am in a time in my life where I don't have too many obligations: no partner, no full time career, no kids, no pets, no debts, no house.


Initially, I wanted to go to South East Asia for the winter in search of warmth and rock climbing. The plan was to go to South East Asia for the winter and then make my way to Europe for the spring. Some friends expressed interest in meeting me over in Asia during a little portion of the trip, but a couple months prior to the winter season they mentioned the idea of Cuba to me.


They had some friends planning on climbing in a place called Vinales for the entire month of January. Honestly I really knew nothing about Cuba. I was pretty ignorant of anything that had ever happened/that was happening in Cuba. Shoot, I wasn't even completely sure I knew the exact location of Cuba.

It took me about a week to give in and accept I was going to Cuba. I researched the area and came to the conclusion there would be beautiful tufa formations to climb on, I would be warm, and on top of that, I would have people to meet up with. No climbers I knew were going to Asia anymore. Warm weather, and tufa climbing: those were my reasons for wanting to go to Asia, but now I could find that in Cuba, which was way closer and cheaper to fly to.


My initial idea was I'd buy a one way into Cuba and figure out the rest of my travels once I got there. I soon found that it would be better if I had a plane ticked booked out of Cuba before I got there. I wasn't sure if they would let me in without an exit ticket, and I wasn't sure if I would even have reliable internet to buy a plane ticket from.


It was getting down to the last week before departing, and I was starting to get a bit stressed out. I could pick almost anywhere in the world I wanted to travel to next. I'd have to decide, research, and find accommodations fairly quickly. I did a lot of research into Mexico as well as Spain. My goal was to get better at Spanish this year, and those two countries had areas that would be warm, have great climbing, and speak Spanish. I got so overwhelmed with all the options and the fact I'd be traveling alone, I ended up just booking a ticket back to the States. It seemed logical and quickly calmed my nerves.

I had half the people in my life encouraging me to go on this big travel/climb trip I had in mind and the other half worried for me. I had people telling me two things. To go, and not to go! To go on an adventure and to stay home where they knew it was safe. I knew my heart was telling me to go, but the other part was starting to give in to the fear others had for me.


So now I was scared. What if I was making a stupid decision. Why was I even going? I had family, friends, jobs, everything I needed here. I was safe. I was comfortable. (Except the fact that it was winter and I was cold lol) I didn't have to go to Cuba. I didn't have to go anywhere. Why was I going away? Why was I escaping everything I had made for myself the last few years? These aren't exactly the things you want running through your head days before you leave for a trip.


I was traveling somewhere with almost no expectations. I couldn't make many anyway because Cuba has been such a hush hush place of travel for Americans for awhile. Things were unknown. Not many people I'd known had been. A lot of people didn't even know it was possible for us as Americans to go to Cuba. Thankfully, I did have a few people in my inner circle who'd been before so I had a little bit of hope!

What I found out was Cuba was almost easier to travel to than any other country I'd gone to before! I booked my plane tickets and Air B and B's ahead of time so all I really had to do was show up and worry about transportation. I flew out of El Paso and had a brief layover at the Houston airport. Houston would be my last stop before Cuba so before boarding the plane I quickly bought my visa which also came with health insurance. As Americans we can travel to Cuba for 30 days, and then renew for another 30 if we choose to. I was flying United Airlines so the visa/insurance cost me $75. Other airlines have slightly different prices.


As of December 10, 2019, Americans could only fly into the Havana airport, and getting to Cuba via boat (like a cruise) was still not an option. This didn't affect my travels much though since flying into Havana would be my course of travel anyway. I had no trouble getting through the airport once in Havana.

If you are traveling to Cuba in 2020 as an America you still have to carry all cash. Your American credit card doesn't work there. This is a little intimidating considering you have to carry around a lot of money, but the good thing is you don't have to worry about your card info getting stolen or your bank putting your card on hold (as had happen for one of our friends from Europe later on in the trip). As long as you are responsible and aware of where your cash is you should be fine. I had around $1000 dollars in cash with me during this month, but it ended up being way more than I needed considering I only needed to pay for food, transportation, and some souvenirs. It was nice to have a cushion in case anything happened. The exchange rate was also a little heartbreaking so plan for that at airports or banks as well. There airport took 13% of every dollar I exchanged! I found out later that most of the Casas will do a better exchange for you than the banks. I wouldn't have exchanged such a large amount at the airport if I knew that ahead of time.


At the airport I found a couple girls to share a taxi with. It cost us $10 a person to share the ride to our separate Air B and Bs. My plan was to stay one night in Havana, and catch a bus to Vinales the next day. That evening I went to the bus station to ask what times the buses were leaving the next day. I found that the Viazul bus leaves around 8am, 11:30am, and 2pm, and you need to arrive an hour prior to try to get a ticket. I could have bought a ticket online in advance, but I was a little confused and decided to just show up on the day of and see what happened.

The next morning I showed up at the bus station at 10am. 8 was too early for me (I am NOT a morning person), and I thought if I couldn't, for some reason, get a ticket for 11:30, I'd still have another opportunity for the next departure. The Viazul ticket office was a complete disaster! There were so many people, and there were like 4 different lines, and I could not even decipher what each line was for. I ended up just picking a line, and if the people around me spoke English, I asked if I was in the correct line to buy a ticket. I was directed to a different line about every 10 minutes. I would lose my spot in one line just to go to another line and this process continued for over an hour. I was very hot, sweaty, and carrying around a lot of heavy luggage. I was confused, but somehow able to stay very calm and relaxed. Part of me knew at some point something would work out, and if not, freaking out wouldn't fix anything anyway.


The stressful thing though was I was supposed to meet up with a couple people (Mark and Alex) in Vinales at 7pm that evening. I had never met these people in person before, they were just friends of friends so I didn't even really know what they looked like. These were the people who convinced my friends and I to go to Cuba instead of Asia. There wasn't much internet around so it would be hard to let them know if I was unable to make it that day, and to try and coordinate another meeting plan. That was really the only thing I was worried about.


About an hour and 6 line changes later, this lady finally told me where I had to wait and that 5 other people were in front of me trying to get bus tickets to Vinales as well. 10 minutes later one of the guys in the group found out all tickets to Vinales were sold out for the day. At that point the 6 of us decided we would try to get a taxi instead. One of the guys spoke Spanish and was able to arrange for us to split a taxi for a total of $120, or $20 each. The bus would have cost us $12 so $20 each seemed like a great option, considering we couldn't even take the bus anymore.


During the drive to Vinales, one of the girls in the taxi mentioned how she had yet to find accommodation. The room I booked had two beds and one would be unused for at least a week until one of my friends would arrive, so we agreed she could split the room with me for a few days.


It turned out to be a blessing because my hosts only spoke Spanish and I only really spoke English. Thankfully this girl was able to help me speak with the host and get settled in. Without her things would have been a lot more complicated.


Later that evening I met up with Mark and Alex in town at our predetermined time and location. To my surprise everything up to that point ended up working out smoothly and moosstly according to plan. I've learned that not everything is always going to go 100% to your original plan, but as long as you stay calm and open to ideas, something even better may come along!


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