OK. On to business.
General Preparation List
Whether you are going to Cuba for an athletic event like I was or just to kick back, explore, and/or experience the culture, there are a number of basic things you will need to know/take care of before you go. It was hard for us to find this info in one place, so I’ve compiled it here in the hopes it can help all of you before you travel to the island:
Technically, everyone must have international medical insurance to enter Cuba. We went through insuremytrip.com for this on the recommendation of the folks at UnitedHealthcare – it was easy, cheap ($7.75 for 4 days), and reliable. We read we would need to show proof of this at the Havana airport but they didn’t say a thing…. So unclear if we actually had to worry about that! My motto when racing though = better safe than sorry! (FYI Michael, my teammate, flew Southwest and they said medical insurance was included in airfare, but I didn’t read that anywhere for JetBlue, which we flew).
You will need a visa to get into Cuba, but this can be bought at the airport when you check in – it is $50 and, at least with JetBlue, that includes entry into Cuba and back into the United States.
Everything in Cuba is done in cash (as of Feb 2017 credit cards are a no-go!) and you can't make the exchange until at the airport, but it is easy to do there! The currency you will need to use is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC; they ALSO use CUP - Cuban Pesos - but only in local markets, etc. So unless you are going off the beaten path for food, etc. you will only need CUC's). There is an exchange fee for USD, so you only get 0.87 CUC per $1 USD as opposed to Euros, Sterling, and Canadian currencies, which exchange without the fee. We figured that it would pretty even out as compared to doing a double exchange (USD à Euros or pounds à CUC), but if you have Euros on hand (slash the time and energy to get em), go for it!
There are plenty of taxis available at the airport – you can negotiate your fee before you get in (to a certain extent!). For us, a sprinter van that took 5 people + 3bike cases + suitcases from Havana to the Hemingway Marina neighborhood was 60 CUC.
When we were looking into lodging, there were many beautiful hotels to choose from but there were very pricey! A friend of a friend who had recently gone to Cuba recommended we go the route of AirBNB, which was much cheaper and, as long as you were careful with your selection, much nicer! I can’t speak to the hotel experience, but our AirBNB experience was fabulous! While there was a bit of a language barrier, it was great to meet Cuban natives and get to know them a bit! The home was also so spacious, comfortable, and easy to come and go from (thanks to Jorge, our host who drove us to the race course and back whenever we needed it!).
I have a standard race-travel packing list (such as race flats, rubberbands, helmet, etc. etc. Stay tuned for a later post on that! Having your standard checklist and organizational process is a must when dealing with crazy travel logistics and navigating new exciting/confusing places!).
But beyond those standard items, I brought the following specifically for Cuba:
It’s a little different traveling to new fun places when you’re racing there. Sometimes, you just don’t know what you’re going to get, and we heard about a number of athletes getting sick last year from one thing or another. So I brought with me enough essentials to get through at least race morning if I had to: packed with me: 1 bag of rice cakes, 1 jar of peanut butter, 2 bags of dried mango, 1 can of soup, 1 can of tuna, 2 bags of oats/chia seeds/cinnamon, 2 bags of my latest favorite light snack: Peas Please!, 4 Hammer Whey Bars, 6 Hammer Vegan Recovery Bars, 8 Emergen-C’s, and Goldenseal (plus race-day nutrition – Recoverite, 2 gels, and Endurolytes). Luckily our AirBNB actually had a beautiful kitchen and our hosts were amazing cooks! So we got to experience true Cuban cooking on both Saturday and Sunday night. Also remember: bottled water only! (We bought 2x 5L jugs each from the little “Mercado” 2 blocks from our house for only 3.80 CUC!)
Pump – I invested in the Lezyne travel pump before traveling to Cuba and am so glad I did! Definitely no bike pumps in site here! This pump is so easy to use and will definitely now be in my packing list for any race I go to.
Miscellaneous items – derailleur hanger, allen wrench, Park tool, chain lube, extra skewers, extra tube, and electrical tape. Most of these things I take to any race I go to. It sounds like a lot but I keep all of these things in one little bag, and there were absolutely 0 bike shops or maintenance support leading up to race day. So while luckily everything was fine with my bike, I was so glad I had everything I could have needed since it would have been bad if anything had happened!
Spanish Phrase Book
OK so I didn’t bring this but I WISHED I had! My very long life to-do list includes learning Spanish, particularly after a few races in predominantly Spanish-speaking countries over the last 12 months (6 years of French and 2 years of Italian unfortunately don’t seem to translate as well as I’d have liked!). But in the meantime, if I could go back, I would have invested in this before coming to Cuba to be able to communicate better with everyone down here!
These 8/9 items felt like a lot to think about in the days leading up to the race (particularly since it was hard to find all of this information in one place! So there was a lot of time spend researching everything), but it’s not actually that much nor was it that hard to do in retrospect! Next time we race here (and I hope there will be a next time), it will certainly be easier (particularly once I get my Spanish Rosetta Stone rolling!!!!)