So my first adventure of 2017 kicked off in Cuba. Over the summer, a good friend of mine propositioned me to join her group trip she was organizing. Cuba had definitely on my bucket list, especially with the travel restrictions being lifted for US tourists. If you follow my blog or know me in “real” life, then you know I had to derail my travel and adventure when my mom passed away back in November. Needless to say, this trip was well deserved and long overdue. Initially, I started to cancel my travel plans. My heart just wasn’t in it. But I’m glad I went against myself. Cuba did not disappoint. It was everything I hoped for and more. As you scroll and read further, you’ll understand why.
Even with travel restrictions being lifted for US travel, there are still a few thing you need to be aware before booking your trip to Cuba. First and foremost, travel strictly for tourist activities is prohibited. When you book your flight, you will need to certify the reason for your visit and meet the regulations and conditions of a general license. The most common condition used is “educational activities or people-to-people exchanges”. To apply for a license or for an extensive list license conditions, you can visit the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) License Application Page.
- Visa Requirements: Visas are not a requirement for regular tourists who plan to spend up to two months in Cuba. Instead, you get a (tourist card) valid for 30 days, which can be extended once you’re in Cuba. Tourist cards can be purchased for around $25, at the gate from your carrier prior to boarding.
- Travel Insurance: As of 2010, health insurance that is accepted by Cuba is mandatory for travelers visiting abroad. Proof must be presented at the time of flight check in. Policies range from $25 to $50 per person and can be purchased through an agency that specializes in travel insurance. It can also be included in the cost of your flight through carriers such as Delta, United, and Jet Blue. Check with your carrier at the time of booking.
- Currency: The standard currency in Cuban is the Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). The exchange rate is 1.00 CUC = $1.00 USD. US currency and debit/ATM cards are NOT accepted in Cuba at this time. When you arrive, you will need to convert your money into Cuban currency before leaving the airport. The Cuban government levies a 10% penalty followed by a 3% financial transaction charge when converting from USD to CUC. So, for every $100 you exchange, you will only receive $87 CUCS. To avoid this penalty, some travelers will convert from USD to Euros (or Canadian currency), then convert to CUCs upon arrival.
- Internet Access: Internet access and cellular access is VERY LIMITED in Cuban. For internet access, wifi cards can be purchased at local hotels for about 4 CUCs per hour. Cellular service is very random. Some people are able to get access and others are not, depending on the type of phone or carrier. Check with your cellular provider beforehand. But don’t be surprised if your phone still doesn’t work, even if they promise service.
In Cuba, accommodations fall into two options: Hotels and Casas Particulares (private houses). Hotels are usually state owned and can cost almost four times what you would pay in a private casa. In my group, we took advantage of what Cuba had to offer and stayed in a private casa. Choosing a casa and living with the locals gave us the opportunity to experience Cuba’s beautiful culture. By the end of the week, I felt like a resident. Private casa range any anywhere from 15 to 50 CUCs per night. Some offer single, double, and triple rooms. So the cost can decrease drastically if you have a roommate. Many of the hosts offer breakfast (home cooked) for 5 CUCs. The hosts are very responsive and helpful. They also enjoy sharing their culture with you and making you feel at home. This satisfies to license requirement for Cuban travel for “educational activities or people-to-people exchanges. Hotels are state owned and can cost almost four times what you would spend for a private casa.
Taxis, bus, and walking are the most common modes of transportation. Most people navigate Havana by foot and use a taxi to travel outside Central Havana.
Things to Do
Before the trip, I wondered if I would have enough to do being in Cuba for 7 full days. But there is so much to do that I’m planning a return visit before the end of the year. Cuba has plenty to offer inside of Havana, as well as outside.
- Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market: This is considered to be Havana´s largest flea market. Hundreds of booths are housed here and offer clothing, paintings, tourist souvenirs, ceramics, and other creative wares. It is open daily 9am-5pm.
- Floridita: This spot is a historic fish restaurant and cocktail bar in the older part of Havana (La Habana Vieja). It’s known for its daiquiris and for being frequent hangout of Ernest Hemingway.
- Plaza Vieja: This area makes up one of the seven wards of Old Havana. The plaza was the site of executions, processions, and bullfights. Today, it is adorned with shops, restaurant, and nightlife with live music and salsa dancing. Think of the Vegas strip, Cuban style.
- Museo del Ron Havana Club: The Havana Club Museum offers daily tours tracing the origins of rum in Cuba’s history. You can learn about it’s history, production, and exportation. They also have rum available for purchase under their trade name, as well as cigars and other souvenirs.
- Callejon de Hamel: This area is considered to be the artistic headquarters of artist and muralist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona. Callejon de Hamel offers beautiful displays of Afro-Cuban art and cultural education on Afro-Cuban religion, traditions, and spirituality (Santeria).
- Valle de Vinales: We explored the countryside and tobacco farms of Cuba with a day trip to Vinales. We had the opportunity to visit one of the tobacco plantations where many of the cigars are harvested. The photos don’t do the lush greens and mountains justice. You will take a lot of pictures!
- Santa Maria Del Mar Beach: This beach is one of Havana’s most popular beaches, probably because it’s the closest. It’s located at 25 km from Central Havana (about a 20 minute ride by taxi). Santa Maria offers full beach activities (jet skiing, diving, and sailing), massage, Cabana service, souvenirs, and a restaurant. The taxi ride from Havana was about 30 CUCs.
- Las Terrazas: This is an eco-village community located about 2 hours outside of Havana. It’s a very rural town, similar to Vinales. We had the opportunity to go zip lining and to visit the home of the late Cuban singer Polo Montañez.
- Go with an open mind. Don’t expect the same modern accommodations that you normally find in the states or all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. Traveling to Cuba is like traveling back in time. And what it lacks in convenience, it more than makes up for in culture and aesthetics.
- Remember, internet access is VERY limited. You will need to purchase a wifi card to access the internet. Cards can be purchased at hotels for around 4 CUCs per hour.
- Pack toilet paper/disposable wipes. Many of the public bathrooms (even the more swanky establishments) do not have toilet paper in the bathroom stalls. Some even “charge” for toilet paper. Make sure you have some with you when you’re out and about. Also, although your casa or hotel will most likely provide toilet paper during your stay, it is often rationed out.
- Pack antibacterial sanitizer or hand soap. Again, some restrooms do not have it available or charge for it.
- If you decide to stay in a casa, pack as if your going to stay in a dorm for a few days. Bring your own towels, hand soap, etc.
- Some restrooms don’t have toilet seats, even in the casas. Don’t be alarmed, this is normal. Remember what I said about keeping an open mind? Don’t worry, you’ll live.
- Budget your money accordingly. After converting your currency at the airport, you won’t have much opportunity to convert again. US issued ATM and debit cards do not work in Cuba. Converting your money multiple times causes you to lose money when you add in the transaction fee.
- Meals: Average meals dining out ranges from 10 to 20 CUCs. Most of my meals were under 20 CUCs which often included an alcoholic drink and dessert.
- Safety: I never had a safety issue in Cuba. In fact, I felt safer there than I do at home in Chicago. I walked through dark alley at night, with other females in my group and a couple of times alone.
- Cuban people are very friendly and take pride in their culture. They love Americans and enjoy sharing and talking about their culture and history. They also have interest in our way of life and enjoy hearing about our customs, too.
- Tipping is customary. Make sure you factor this into your spending budget.
- Cuban men are very flirty. Keep this in mind if you’re easily offended by cat calling, blowing kisses, and other unwarranted advances. Whether you smile and say thank you or ignore it, they’re still gentlemen about it and will leave you alone.
- Visit the Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market for your souvenirs first. They prices are a little cheaper and they have a wider selection of wares.
- Bring an EU power adapter. Some outlets accommodate the North American standard and others do not. It’s pretty mixed.
- Bring a copy of your travel/health insurance. You will need to present it when you check in for your flight.
- If you’re a cigar aficionado, check out Partagás. Thank me later!
- Make sure you experience the Classic City Car Tour.
My group spend 7 days and 6 nights in Cuba and this barely touched the surface. Hopefully, you will find these tips useful and be motivated to visit before the year is over. Travel to Cuba is not as complicated as it seems. It’s very affordable and you will get more than your money’s worth.