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Friday, March 31, 2017

Arriving at HAV

It was a quick 45 minute flight from FLL to HAV.

Coast of Cuba coming into view.

The Havana Jose Marti Airport is very small. It's 1 building but can accommodate big jets. When we arrived, there was an Air China and Turkish Airline plane at the gates.

Our flight from FLL was only half full so it was quick to clear customs. Hand over your passport and your visa and get your picture taken. They stamped my passport but didn't stamp other's. Not sure how they decided.

After clearing customs, put your carry-on on the belt to get scanned. Hand your Sanitary Statement to the people in white coats then pass through to get your checked luggage, if you have any. After that, walk through the doors to leave the customs area and exit into the airport.

The Arrivals Hall was not too crowded and there weren't touts inside the airport. I had read that the Currency Exchange counter in the Departure Hall on the 2nd floor was less crowded so I went upstairs to look. The Departure Hall was chaotic with a huge line of people waiting to check in to their airline and another huge line of people waiting at the Currency Exchange counter.

I went back downstairs and walked outside to look for another Currency Exchange.

There were 2 exchange offices, one to the right and another to the left. There were no lines at either. They allow 1 person at each window so you can't go with your partner inside.

There is a 10% penalty if you exchange US dollars. You're better off bringing Euros or Canadian dollars to exchange. US-issued credit cards and ATM cards are not valid anywhere in Cuba so you have to bring enough cash. I budgeted $100/person/day but ended up only spending $50/person/day. This is just for meals, limited transportation and admission fees. If you want to buy souvenirs, you'll need more. One Cohiba cigar will cost roughly 20 CUCs. A bottle of rum is 3-20 CUCs.

The exchange rates vary very little between a bank and a cadeca or currency exchange booth. We brought euros and got 1.007 CUCs/euro at the airport and 1.015 CUCs/euro at a bank in Havana. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar, but after the penalty and the conversion rate, you'll get 0.87 CUCs per US dollar. 

Cuba has 2 currencies--CUCs for foreigners and CUPs or Moneda Nacionals for locals. I would recommend exchanging a small amount into CUPs as well because some restaurants still charge in CUPs and if you want to take local buses or buy snacks on the street, CUPs are used. A CUC is roughly 26 CUPs.

Tipping is expected in Cuba and here's a rough guideline:

Know the difference between a CUC and a CUP:

Money in hand, the next step is to find a taxi. There is no easy public transportation from the airport into Havana so you're left with taxis. You can hire an old-fashioned car at a premium or walk left as you exit the airport until you see the line of yellow cabs. Negotiate a rate before you get in the cab. It should cost 30 CUCs to get into Habana Vieja. No tip required unless the meter is used. I had written the address of my casa particular on a card and handed it to the driver. It's useful if you have the cross street.

2017 03 05

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Packing for Cuba

Cuba is very limited in what they have. Bring all the toiletries and feminine hygiene products you will need. I also brought toilet paper. You will need it if you have to use the restroom outside of your casa particular or hotel.

I brought mosquito repellant. I didn't see any mosquitos in Havana but they were present in the rest of the country. Cuba does have Zika and if you're pregnant or plan on getting pregnant within 6 months, you should NOT go to Cuba. It's possible to get Chikungunya and dengue fever from mosquitos in Cuba. The likelihood of infection is low but if you were to get a fever and joint pains, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. There is no vaccine for any of these infections. Fortunately, medical care in Cuba is one of the best in the world and your airline ticket includes medical insurance in Cuba so you'll be able to get care while in Cuba.

You'll want to bring a basic medical kit, including ibuprofen and medications for diarrhea and colds.

Don't forget your sunscreen and a hat.

I used a backpack while in Cuba. It was convenient for bus travel. This is all I had for a 9-day trip. I rolled my clothes and put them in ziplock bags, organized by outfits. I had a pair of Croc sandals and that was all I needed for travel in March.

2017 03 05

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Traveling to Cuba--DIY

We just returned from Cuba. We planned the entire trip online on our own and did not go with a tour group. Why go with a tour group and spend thousands of dollars when it's so easy to plan the trip yourself for a fraction of the cost?

At present, travel to Cuba is technically limited for US citizens. You can't go for tourism and have to qualify under one of 12 categories:

Most people go under Educational Activities to promote people-to-people contact. Frankly, no one cared why I was going. The Cubans certainly don't and US customs in Fort Lauderdale didn't either.

You can travel to Cuba on several US carriers, including Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Jet Blue, Southwest, Spirit and United. Check with the airlines to see how Cuban visas are issued.

We flew Jet Blue from SFO to Fort Lauderdale.

Near the gate for our flight to Havana was a Jet Blue "Just Ask" counter. They will process your paperwork for travel to Cuba. We were given 3 forms to fill out.

You'll get a Cuban visa for $50/person, payable with a credit card. Didn't see anyone use cash. Nowhere on the form does it ask why you're going to Cuba. Keep this form with you. It will be stamped by Cuban Customs when you arrive and collected when you leave Cuba. You will need to show your Casa Particular or hotel your passport and visa.

Cuban Customs Form. Again, nowhere does it ask why you're visiting Cuba.

"Sanitary Statement for Travelers" that asks if you've been ill within the last 15 days. This form did ask for reason for travel but only included "tourism, business, events or other." Since tourism is technically not one of the 12 categories, check "other." I don't think the US State Department will get a copy of this though.

I don't speak much Spanish and managed just fine getting around in Cuba. The Cubans are very friendly and try to help you if you need it. You'll be asked often if you'd like a taxi or a room but if you just say "no, gracias" and keep walking, they leave you alone.

2017 03 05

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Hilton SFO Park, Sleep & Fly

We arrived back at SFO at 10:44 pm. We had to be in the city the following day so we stayed at the Hilton SFO. We had the Park, Sleep & Fly package which included 7 nights of parking--$218 total.

2016 11 19

Monday, March 27, 2017

Home Team BBQ

Right before we went to the airport, we stopped for one last meal in South Carolina.

We found Home Team BBQ, located at 1205 Ashley River Road. Order at the counter. There is indoor and outdoor seating.

Pulled Pork Platter--$11.50. Platter includes white bread, house pickles, onions and 2 sides. We chose Hash (various animal parts stewed with vegetables) & Rice and Brunswick Stew (tomato based stew).  I liked the Hash & Rice but wasn't a fan of the Brunswick Stew. The pulled pork was tender and flavorful. 

We also ordered a full rack of St. Louis Ribs--$23.95.

We chose Mac & Cheese and Collard Greens as sides for the ribs.

2016 11 19

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Boone Hall Plantation

Ten miles east of Charleston is Boone Hall Plantation. It's located at 1235 Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant. The plantation is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $20 ($18 with AAA or military discount).

The plantation was established in 1681 and is still a working plantation. Peaches, strawberries, tomatoes and pumpkin are still grown, with U-Pick fields open in season. The plantation has been featured in several tv shows and movies, including North & South and The Notebook.

Enter through the Avenue of Oaks, a 3/4 mile drive lined with Spanish-moss draped oaks. This is even more impressive than Oak Alley in Louisiana.

Sign up for a guided tour of the main house at the Hospitality Center. It's a 30-minute tour through 5 areas on the 1st floor. There is no photography allowed inside the house. The house is still occupied by descendants of the Boone family when they're in town.

The antebellum mansion was built in 1936 and has a very impressive porch. There are shaded seats just in front of the porch. Meet here for the tour.

The back of the house

with a river running through it.

Next to the Avenue of Oaks are original slave cabins. There were 40 slaves who worked here.

You can listen to a lecture about slavery between the first and second cabins, near the mansion. 

The tour through the slave quarters is self-guided.

There are exhibits in each of the cabins. Press the button when you enter to listen to the presentation. Plan on spending an hour to tour all the cabins.

You can also take a Plantation Coach Tour throughout the 738 acre grounds. These open-air coach tours begin in front of the Butterfly Cafe and last about an hour. The tours are first come-first served and focus on the agricultural and natural history of the plantation. You'll pass by the cotton gin, which was being restored.

On the coach tour, you'll see cotton fields,

ponds & marshes with wildlife,

more housing on the plantation,

and even Fluffy's house!

Horses roam the plantation in penned fields.

One last presentation is on the Gullah Culture. This is a live presentation  on the evolution and development of the Gullah Culture in the Lowcountry. It's offered in the outdoor theater at 11:15 & 12:45. It's supposed to be a good presentation but we ran out of time.

2016 11 19

Saturday, March 25, 2017


Another place I wanted to try was Hannibal's Soul Kitchen, located at 16 Blake Street. It's a 30-minute walk from the downtown area so we were glad we still had the car.

It's located in a sketchy neighborhood.

We got there before 10 am. I wanted Crab Rice but it wasn't available yet so I got Sauteed Crab with Grits--$7.75. It wasn't a huge portion but the crab was so good. It was fried with onions.

Sauteed Shrimp with Grits--$6.50. This wasn't as good as the crab.

2016 11 19

Friday, March 24, 2017

Bowen's Island Restaurant

Bowen's Island Restaurant is listed in 1000 Places to See Before You Die. Of course, we had to visit it. We rented a car and drove 20 minutes south to reach it.

The restaurant is known for its "oyster room." For $30, you can have all the oysters you can shuck and eat. Throw the shells in the hole in the center of the table.

Unfortunately, on the evening we visited, they had a corporate event and the oyster room was closed.

You can also order oysters a la carte. Half trays are $11. This was a full tray for $16.

Unfortunately, some of the oysters were caked with mud and not edible.

They're also known for "Frogmore Stew." This is their version of a Low-Country Boil. I thought this wasn't worth $14. It had a few sausage slices, a few shrimp, a few boiled potatoes and a corn.

The oysters are boiled in big pots.

This was the corporate event that disrupted our plans.

2016 11 18

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Poogan's Smokehouse

We had lunch at Poogan's Smokehouse, located at 188 East Bay Street.

I had read about Blenheim's Ginger Beer and was glad to see it on the menu--$4. This is so spicy that you can choke if you breath in. It was so good though.

Sauces to go with your meal--mustard, BBQ and spicy apple vinegar.

Smoked Springer Mt. Farms Chicken Wings, served with Alabama White Sauce and Pickeled Celery--$13. This got rave reviews on Yelp but I was disappointed. The wings were tough and there wasn't much flavor.

Pulled Pork, served with 2 sides--$14. We chose Bacon Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Hash and Carolina Gold Rice. This was delicious. The pulled pork was juicy and tender and the sides were great. It also came with a dinner roll.

2016 11 18