What to Expect when Visiting Cuba

Full Body - Trinidad (Cuba)With Cuba being the latest hotspot destination for Americans it is a good idea to know what to expect. It’s never been easier to Travel to Cuba, however, there are few things you can expect once you land and start exploring:

Your credit card and ATM card will not work. Cash is king!!! Make sure to get some CUC once you land. The line will be long but you will need cash for everything. You may get by using some US$ for the cab or your transfer, then I suggest going to one of the big hotels to exchange money. There will be no line and it will be fast and easy. A 10% commission will be taken and the exchange rate is the same everywhere you go. When I was there in January it was .87 and I doubt that it will change.

Some people recommend buying Euro and changing them, however, in my opinion, it will be a waste of money because you will pay a commission here and most probably lose on the exchange both in the US and in Cuba. Most people will be carrying a couple of thousand dollars at most. Therefore we are not talking about large losses.

Everyone speaks Spanish (of course LOL)….. so! unless you are at large hotels or touristy spots, you will need to be very creative with you basic English and use a very creative sign language. This is particularly true if you are staying at a bed and breakfast (casa particular).

If you think you will be connected to the internet you are dreaming!!! The Internet is harder to get than you think. You need to buy a one-hour internet card for 2 CUC and hope to find a hotspot. Usually, you know you are in a hotspot when you see people gathered on a street, along the sidewalks and hanging out with their noses glued to their phones. In Havana, it will be easier (a couple of spots here and there), especially if you are in a large hotel (usually one spot at the hotel). However, once you are out of the city good luck to you. In the city of Trinidad, there was one hot spot in a park and the service was lousy at best.

Don’t bother getting a sim card because your phone should work once you turn it on and it will be working on the Cuban service. I did use it to text my family and call them few times to check in. My phone bill arrived this month, my overage for the whole week was around $60 However, I used it sparingly to text and connect here and there. I did not download or use social media.

Forget about plumbing as we know it. All around Cuba they use a septic system….. so!!! you really cannot flush anything in those toilets. Guest houses and hotels provide waste baskets next to the toilets. When you go to a public restroom, you better have some toilet paper in your bag because the restrooms do not have toilet paper. Most of the time, you will find an attendant who will give you two tiny pieces of toilet paper for a tip. The shower pressure is another story, especially if you are staying at a guest house. The hot water level will depend on how many people are using the shower and hot water throughout the house.

Those lovely old cars that you see are a carcass of their old grandeur. I would say around 10% of these cars are well kept in and out. The others are basically put together with scotch tape, pins and glue LOL!!! They look decent and colorful on the outside but the inside is barely there. They are fun to ride and great for pictures.

You will also meet amazing people wherever you go. Most Cubans want to take pictures with foreigners and Americans in particular. We were standing by our guest house in Havana and a guy was passing through and asked us to take his picture with us. I mean, he does not have a phone and will never get to keep a copy of this picture. We took the picture and showed him. He was very happy and proud then went on to finish his job. It was very sweet. They are very happy we are visiting their country.

If you think you are going to shop in Cuban, you will be disappointed. Beside souvenir shops, books about Fidel and Che, galleries with printed oil paintings (I am sure made in China), there is nothing else to buy. From one city to another it’s the same thing and all at the same price.

Food at the hotels was not so great in my experience. However, the meals we had at the guest houses and the paladars were superb. Fresh, organic and delicious homemade meals.

Would I go again to Cuba?? May be!!! I would love to go again and see as many hotels as I can. With the influx of Americans going to Cuba I want to make sure the accommodations are acceptable for my clientele. I am glad I was there and glad I saw it now. Would love to see the change in 5 to 10 years.

La Alamandas

Las-Alamandas-Conde-Nast-JohansensGood, bad, or indifferent –  I got into the habit of going somewhere every year for a long week end to celebrate my birthday. No stranger to jetting off to Paris for a weekend, this time around I wanted to be close to home and limit the flight to just a couple of hours. I ended at Las Alamandas.   Located between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo the resort is accessible by car (approximately two hours) or by private plane (the resort has a landing strip). Completely unique and exclusive Las Alamandas is isolated from the big tourist areas, small and very private. A stunner!!!! An oasis of relaxation, you really feel like you are the only person there.

I felt right at home at Las Alamandas. The resort is right on the beach and set on 1500 acres of pristine wild terrain including four stunning private beaches, 2 lakes, a river, vegetable gardens, hiking, riding, and cycling trails. The private beaches can be set aside and reserved just for you. A perfect place for romance and privacy. Totally disconnected (even from technology) on purpose so you can just rest and unwind.

With two open air restaurants by the ocean and a roof top bar, most food served comes from the hotel’s gardens and orchards. The food is simple, fresh and delicious, not to mention the excellent and attentive service. No wonder a staff of 86 looks up for 17 rooms!!!

If you want a luxurious resort, the ability to relax and the urge to explore, Las Alamandas has it all and it all kept deliciously secret.

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Virtuoso Week

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People wonder what’s Virtuoso Travel Week and what happens during that week. If I have to describe it in two words (ok, four) it would be Speed Dating on Steroids!!!! Virtuoso Travel Week is where Hotels, Cruises, and Suppliers unveil new destination products to the market. Virtuoso Travel Week is eagerly anticipated every year with a record attendance this year of 4800 attendees representing 90 countries including 2032 preferred partners and 2284 travel advisors.

During the span of 4 days, advisors and suppliers meet in a multi track series of 4 minutes appointment (i.e. approximately 100 appointments per day). The final countdown of the last appointment on Thursday is the sight of relief for Travel Advisors and Suppliers alike.

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The week is also full of events, dinners, cocktails, networking parties and receptions sponsored by suppliers and an all night party at Club V (The Bank, one of Bellagio’s night clubs) ending all festivities. Awards, that puts to shame any Grammy event, are presented honoring top hotels, tour operators, destinations as well as top travel advisors and travel agencies.

Virtuoso Travel Week is slowly but surely becoming a media event as well. This year we had coverage from CNBC and NBC and 60 press representative in attendance, who, I’ve heard had their own version of “speed dating”. As Forbes magazine article says The Travel Industry is doing well and consumers have a better understanding of the value of a travel advisor and the valuable service we can offer our clients. Let me tell you we are on a roll, last year alone, Virtuoso’s 9,800 advisors sold over $14 billion in travel. Please don’t tell me travel agents are obsolete!!! We make helping clients a very personal experience and definitely beat hitting the return button on your PC because there is nothing more valuable than the human touch and human advice.

With its 11th annual recurrence at Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Virtuoso Week now ranks as the largest luxury travel event in the U.S., if not the world.

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Sydney Bridge Climb

SydneyIf one had to put a name on the fear of heights it would be TerryB in capital letters!!!

When I was in Cuenca (Spain), crossing the bridge of Saint Paul this was a real challenge for me. The current bridge was built in 1902, made of wood and iron. It stood at over 131 feet tall and when you are walking on it you can see through between the open foot boards several hundred feet down below to the river. The height really freaked me out and I was paralyzed in fear every time I had to cross the bridge from the Parador to go to dinner across the other side of town. My friends had to hold my hands and walked so fast looking straight ahead. Too bad because I missed the best views in town of the hanging houses and the amazing landscape.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when I climbed the Sydney Bridge…… for the second time!!! I proudly got my Master Climber Certificate complete with gold trim. I felt like a champion!!!! The first time I climbed the bridge in 2011 I was petrified, especially on the way down because you have to go down the four ladders on your own. I was counting the steps and looking straight ahead of me. The noise of the tram and the traffic below was terrifying (at least to me) and my heart was pounding. This time around I felt like an “expert” and following one of my colleagues who was terrified. I was the voice of reason (me!!!) encouraging her along the way. Going down the ladder on my own and took in the noise and the sound and even enjoyed the sunset and the views. The climb is exhilarating and not as strenuous or challenging as one might think. The experience takes around 3 hours and is very well organized and safe. The staff is very well trained, confident and competent. The views, on the other hand, are spectacular. The Sydney Bridge climb should be a must to on everyone’s itinerary and bucket list.