Like many Americans, I have been fascinated with Cuba for years. The music, the food, the culture, the forbidden-ness of it all—I was intrigued. So when travel restrictions were loosened in 2016, I knew it was time to go visit. I got online and started researching “traveling in Cuba”, and sure enough, I found very little info. Europeans, Canadians, really citizens from everywhere else in the world have been freely traveling there for years, but apparently documenting their travels was not high on the list of priorities, at least not in blog form. I pieced together what I could, and by my second trip there, I had some things figured out. I’ve compiled this list of tips for your trip, that will hopefully help you avoid some of the pitfalls that I experienced on my first visit.
Travel restrictions have changed again since I was last in Havana in June 2017, so if you are planning a trip, I hope you have gone through the proper channels to select the correct visa and have an airtight itinerary laid out to support your visa choice. The last thing you want is to be detained at the border, in either direction.
First, I'll start off by saying that it was about a two day learning curve once we landed in Havana---maybe even three days. Cuban Spanish is spoken very fast, and they drop their vowels, making it a bit difficult to communicate, even if you do speak Spanish. Cubans run on their own time, which is not punctual, and you have to be willing to just go with the flow if you want to have fun. It's loud, and smelly from all the diesel fuel, and chaotic. That being said, I can’t wait to go back again.
FLIGHTS to Havana, Santa Clara and Santiago are available through several airlines now---Delta, JetBlue, American, Southwest, and Spirit. On the first trip, we flew from Jacksonville, FL into Havana with Delta, and back home with JetBlue. It just ended up working out best that way, layover-wise, as well as price. We got tickets for $250 per person (roundtrip total). We did run into a few issues because we had two one way tickets (rather than one round trip), and the second trip we made sure to have round trip tickets which resulted in far fewer delays while boarding our flights.
A very important note: you must arrive at the airport to fly out of Cuba NO LESS THAN 1.5 HOURS AHEAD OF TIME. They will not check you in for your flight with less time. We met a guy on El Malecón who told us a story about arriving at the airport only one hour before his flight on a previous visit. The airline would not check him in and he had run out of money at that point and could not buy another plane ticket (for more on this story, see the MONEY section below). You do not want to be that guy.
CUBAN HEALTH INSURANCE is mandatory, but luckily it is included in the price of your plane ticket. DO NOT THROW AWAY YOUR BOARDING PASS AFTER LANDING IN CUBA. You MUST carry your boarding pass with you as proof of your coverage.
VISAS are available at the final gate before leaving the U.S. for Cuba. We called Delta ahead of time and purchased ours for $50 per person. They had them waiting for us, no issues, no problems. On our first trip, we declared our trip as a Person-to-Person exchange. The second trip we were doing research for a potential television series, so we chose the Research option. You are not allowed as an American to go as a tourist, so you must select one of the 11 options for a Special Visa. The Person to Person exchange is still available for far more restricted than it was in 2017, so as I said before, be sure to have a planned itinerary if you decide to try to use that option.
LODGING: Both trips we booked lodging through Airbnb. Find a host that speaks English. It will save you a million headaches, no matter how good your Spanish is. Also, I highly recommend staying with a host. Don't book the whole casa. We missed out on some things that we wanted to do because we didn't have a local fixer who could arrange things for us. We found places that were about $30-$35 per person, per night, and both places included breakfast as well, one place was for an additional 5 CUC, the other was included. It just depends on the host. We ran into the issue that because internet is not widely available, we were not able to communicate with our host very easily prior to arrival, so expect a few delays when asking questions through Airbnb. It might take a couple days before your host is at a wifi hotspot again.
We stayed in both Old Havana (Habana Vieja), as well as Vedado, which were very safe (all of Cuba is ridiculously safe---other than possibly getting hit by a car---they are crazy drivers), but parts of Vieja are very run down, and more touristy, but not necessarily in a bad way. Head west of Old Havana to Centro or further west to Vedado to find authentic food and people after checking out the more touristy area.
WATER: Don't drink it. We brought LifeStraw bottles so that we could filter the water before drinking it. Also, when ordering your Cuba Libra or Mojito, order it without ice. Ice is made from the water that will make you sick. (I thought the alcohol would kill the bacteria. I was wrong.)
Brushing your teeth is tricky, and the LifeStraw bottle is a bit hard to suck out of with a mouth full of toothpaste, so I recommend going to a bodega and buying a big bottle of water that you keep by the sink for rinsing your mouth.
MONEY: Change your USD to EURO beforehand. We ordered our Euros through Bank of America. There is a 10% surcharge for changing USD to CUC, in Cuba, but a very small surcharge for Euros. They do not accept any cards issued by American financial institutions, so you must have all of your money, in cash, before coming into the country. If you run out, you are basically screwed. If someone has to wire you money, you must find a Cuban to accept wire. You may not accept wired money in Cuba as an American. We learned about this from our friend mentioned above in the FLIGHTS section who did not make it to the airport in time. So just plan ahead.
For two people, we spent 600 CUC total (about 600 USD) for 7 days, but we were also pretty conservative, and we stayed in Havana the whole time, with the exception of two day trips, one to the beach, and one to the countryside.
MONEY CHANGING: Change at least a little money at the airport. You will get better exchange rates at the Cadecas (kiosks), but you will probably need to buy water and pay for a cab when you get there, so you don't want to be without CUCs. Change some money to CUP (local currency) because at street vendors they don't have change for CUC a lot of the time, and you end up getting ripped off. The CUP is 25:1 USD. However, the locals also don't really like tourists using their money. If you are bold, go for it.
FOOD: Most meals in the more touristy areas are between 6 CUC to 10 CUC, 10 CUC being a very fancy meal. Drinks are cheap (2-3 CUC per drink). Some places you can find lunch for as cheap as 4 CUC. You can get a street pizza for about 3 CUC.
WEATHER: It was 80 degrees the whole time we were there in January, and in the high 90’s in June. There is little to no air conditioning in most places, so do your best to sit yourself as close to any fan you can find, whenever you can. Sweating will just become the norm. If you need to wash any clothes while there, I highly recommend a small bottle of camping soap that can fit in you carry-on quart size bag. I like to travel as light as possible, but it’s hard to re-wear clothes that you have completely sweated through, so a quick bathtub laundry session helps if you have the time to let your clothes air dry.
TAXIS: State run taxis are more expensive than the private taxis, but they are also regulated, so you actually get where you want to go. The bike taxis are a lot cheaper and a lot more fun. A taxi from the airport to downtown Havana should not cost you more than 25 CUC, just as a heads up.
WIFI: I can’t speak with authority on the current WIFI situation. I just saw an article that Cubans will begin having the ability to have data on their phones now, so I don’t know if that applies to visitors with data capable SIM cards as well. In 2017, there were 54 Wifi hotspots in the whole country and getting a data card to use it was pretty difficult. This all could change though, so let me know if you find out what the current status is!
POWER ADAPTERS: Everywhere we went had American outlets. If you try to use a hair dryer though, it will probably blow a fuse. Low electricity gadgets (Phones, computers, etc) are fine though.
TOURS: There is an on-off bus tour for 10 CUC, where you can see all of the sites over the course of one day. You get to see a lot of the area for pretty cheap. You can even get to the cemetery on the bus, which was super cool. There is another on-off bus for 5 CUC that takes you to the beach. I found the beach bus to be worth it, the sightseeing tour not as much.
TRIPOSO APP: We downloaded the Triposo app for Cuba and were still able to access it with our phones in flight mode, and all cellular data turned off. It was super helpful. There is a map app that you can also download through Triposo that also works pretty well. Google Translate also works without data.
RUM (to take home): Buy it at duty free in the airport. MAKE SURE YOU GET A RECEIPT. TSA confiscated our rum when we went through security in Florida on our way home because they didn't give us a receipt. I was pretty pissed. The second trip, I knew better and learned the word for receipt, and made sure the cashier sealed it in our bag before leaving the duty-free shop.
RUM (to drink there): We found a bodega right by our Airbnb that sold rum for 4 CUC per bottle, and a liter of cola for 1.60 CUC, making for very fun nightcaps back at the casa for very cheap.
FOOD: It's pretty bland in the touristy areas. Also, if you travel with vegetarians, many places have no vegetarian options. One of our friends found that out the hard way. Everything is rationed so often times half the menu is not available when you go into a restaurant. Eat at the family run restaurants as much as possible. It’s night and day compared to the food you will find in the areas intended for visitors.
Bring granola bars or some kind of snack in your luggage. There is no extra food to be purchased to just snack on. You can get a meal in a restaurant, churros on the street, and in some places you can find sweets, but if you get hungry between meals and want a snack, no bueno.
CIGARS: Get recommendations from your host on where to get cigars. There are scam cigars all over so make sure you are getting legit cigars.
DIESEL: The smell is overwhelming at first. The cars only run on diesel, so it's pretty heavy in the air.
UTILITIES: Water and power and gas are not always available. We had the power for our whole neighborhood go out one evening, and there was no water at the airport as we were leaving (which meant a very stinky bathroom situation).
TOILET PAPER: Bring a couple rolls and throw it away once used (don’t flush it! The septic systems can’t handle it!) Toilet paper is rationed so sometimes there is toilet paper, and sometimes not. Have some on hand always. Most public bathrooms do not have toilet paper or paper towels at all. They also don't have toilet seats in 90% of places we went, including the airport. Small tissue packs work really well to have on hand if you need to use a public bathroom.
DIVING: There are several options for diving in Cuba. The reefs are amazing due to the fact that commercial fishing is super regulated there, and Cubans are not allowed to have boats with motors (for fear that they will escape---no joke). You can stay at the Colony Hotel and the marina and dive shop are nearby. Another option is going out on a boat that takes several days. If you are thinking about that, look into PADI Travel. They can help set you up.
Despite all the warnings in this email, we had a really amazing time. The crumbling architecture, the communist mentality (I had never been to a communist country, so I found it fascinating), and the level of poverty are just part of the scenery of a very vibrant culture of warm, wonderful people. The people only make between 20-30 CUC per month, so most have no chance of ever getting out of Cuba. Some will talk about it, most will not. The music is amazing, the food was delicious, and the more I talk about it, the more I want to go back and explore more!