Cuba is a fascinating country filled with a unique array of experiences and an extensive lesson in history. If you happened to have been glazed over like me during that lesson in high school, take some time to brush up on the entire Cuban history from Spanish colonization, to sugar plantations and the slave trade, to independence from Spain, the Cold War and communism, and most importantly to understand Cuba, read about the Cuban Revolution and what a communist society under Fidel Castro has looked like. Refresh yourself on the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Read about Cuba’s relationship with the former Soviet Union and how that shaped them, and eventually sent them into an economic hardship upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Sorry if you’re not a history obsessed nerd like me, but the history of Cuba is something that cannot be ignored. This is one country that in order to understand and appreciate it’s uniqueness, you have to go back in time. This article will describe what you need to know when visiting Cuba.
Legality of Visiting Cuba as an American
UPDATE: As of June 2017, President Trump has tightened some of the Cuba travel restrictions. Travel to Cuba purely for tourism is not technically legal. At the time of writing this, there are 12 legal reasons for US citizens to visit Cuba. The one that most people will fit into is “Educational Activities.” Under Obama, this simply involved checking one of 12 boxes and no further questioning took place. In the off chance that someone asked for documentation of our “educational actives,” I created a rough itinerary for each town with a list of museums and possible cultural classes such as cooking, Spanish, or salsa lessons. No one ever asked, upon arrival or exit. However, Trump has made it so travel for educational purposes must be with a certified tour company as a group. The flights from the US will continue as they have been, but US citizens will need to be part of a tour. All visitors are required to purchase Cuban health insurance during their stay and the cost is typically included in your airline ticket. You will also need to purchase a visa. Some airlines allow you to purchase it ahead, others have you purchase it at the gateway airport. They cost around $50, although some online vendors charge an additional “service charge.” Arrive to the airport with plenty of time, because we noted they had a special checkin location for Cuba travelers. We flew with JetBlue airlines and were very happy with how smooth the process was.
Money in Cuba
Now that we got that out of the way…you should know that are two currencies in Cuba, the CUC (which is typically what tourists will use) and the CUP (which is more of a local currency that you probably won’t deal with much besides seeing it on some menus). The CUC is roughly equivalent to the American dollar. But here’s the catch: you cannot exchange to CUC ahead of time, you must do it upon arriving in Cuba. And here’s the other catch: when converting US dollars to CUC, there is a 10% Cuban tax on top of the already 3% exchange fee. So I highly recommend ordering Euros or Canadian dollars from your bank prior to your trip. Upon exchange in Cuba, you will only lose 3% instead of 13%. That’s a huge savings for very little trouble. You can exchange money at one of the Cadecas found in numerous locations throughout Havana and the rest of Cuba (currency exchange houses) or at a bank. The worst exchange rate will come from a hotel or resort. Always bring your passport to exchange money. One of the most important things to know before going to Cuba, especially if you’re an American, is there is no way to use an American credit card there (at the time of writing this). You MUST carry cash. That can be a scary thought. How much do you need? It depends on how much you shop, eat, drink, or travel around in Cuba. You know your spending habits better than anyone. Some people will eat cheap, others want to go to the nicest restaurants every night. We had read to budget for about $100/day per person. For a weeklong trip, that would be $1,400. I brought a bit of extra for cushion as well, but only ended up spending about $600/person. Of course traveling as a couple cut down on that a little because of shared accommodations and shared taxis. That doesn’t include the cost of airfare and two of our casas had been paid ahead via Airbnb. And we didn’t really buy any goods, just a couple cigars and a little wood carved sculpture. It seems scary to carry that much cash, but wear a money belt if it makes you feel better, and leave the majority of cash in a safe or hidden somewhere in your room. Cuba is really quite safe if you use common sense.
Limited Communication in Cuba
Your cell phones will likely not work at all in Cuba and internet is very sparse. There are occasional hot spots in Havana, Trinidad, Varadero, and other towns where a purchased internet card will work and you can ask around to find out where they are. In Havana, many large hotels will sell internet cards and you can use them in their lobby (but they may bug you to buy a drink as well) otherwise, just use them at the aforementioned city hot spots. Internet usually costs $2-$5 for an hour of usage and it’s rather slow. But that doesn’t mean your phone is completely worthless in Cuba. You can download Cuba travel apps ahead of time that will have maps of cities and listings of attractions, restaurants, and reviews that will work offline. Some of them are free but others cost a few dollars. Google offline maps did not seem to work very well for me. I also recommend downloading an offline version of Google Translate if you are not fluent in Spanish. Just to be on the safe side, it’s also a good idea to enroll in STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) at www.step.state.gov. It’s a free service for US citizens traveling abroad to receive travel alerts or be assisted in an emergency.
Where to Go in Cuba
What do you want to see in Cuba? My suggestions are for a one-two week itinerary. There are so many more areas of Cuba to see, and a longer itinerary would certainly provide you the opportunity to do that.
Havana obviously. The city is much bigger than just Havana Vieja (Old Havana city center), but this is the area where you want to stay and where you’ll find the majority of sites you want to see. And although you could theoretically spend a lot of time seeing much more of Havana, I felt 3 days was sufficient. Havana will feel like a party every day. It’s a feast for the eyes and senses. I suggest staying here first and then moving on to more relaxing destinations. To read more about Havana, click HERE. If you have the time, travel to nearby Viñales for a day or more and explore by horseback. It is an agriculture area for fruit, veggies, coffee, and mainly tobacco and was also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Truly stunning.
The town of Trinidad, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a 4-5 hour drive from Havana (or 3.5 if you get a crazy enough taxi driver like us). Quaint and charming, this small city is one of the best preserved colonial-era cities in the Caribbean. Tobacco and tourism are Trinidad’s main industries. The town is characterized by nonstop cobblestone streets (wear good shoes here!), an adorable Plaza Mayor, and pastel colored houses with wrought-iron grilles and terra cotta tiled roofs. If day excursions to waterfall hikes and swimming in fresh water pools sound good to you, Trinidad is the place to spend a few days. You’ll also enjoy the beautiful beach nearby. Trinidad is often people’s favorite place in Cuba, so you don’t want to miss a minimum of three days there. Cienfuegos is another favorite in the same area, a little bigger colonial city, but also aptly located for hiking trips and waterfalls. Some people prefer one over the other, but I can’t say enough about Trinidad. I wish I’d had at least one more day there.
Cuba is a Caribbean island which means there are beautiful beaches. The northern part of the island is known for having the most beautiful beaches but tiny islands, known as cays, dot the coastlines on all different sides of the island. Varadero is one of the most popular beach resort towns in Cuba. If it hadn’t been for the redeeming beauty of the beach and ocean, I could have easily skipped Varadero for more days in Trinidad. The town itself is stretched along one main street down a skinny peninsula of beautiful Atlantic Ocean beachfront. There are numerous touristy resorts, a plethora of not so impressive restaurants with a couple decent ones nestled here and there. The resorts, including the ones that consider themselves 5 star, are extremely outdated and unappealing in my opinion, especially for the prices. Get yourself a casa particular next to the beach or across the street for $30 per night instead. I recommend renting a scooter ahead of time in case they are all sold out when you arrive. Also take a taxi to the Saturno Cave and do some cave swimming in the cold, crystal clear turquoise waters. You certainly don’t need to go as a tour; just take a taxi for a couple hours. If I were to visit Cuba again, I would skip Varadero and spend more time in Trinidad, and the beach can be visited from there. I’d probably also opt to stay on a cay for a few days to relax.
How to Book
I can’t say enough about AirBnB! And if you follow my link, you’ll receive credit towards your first rental. Perks include lots of pictures, legitimate reviews, maps, the ability to save to a favorites list, easy communication with the host, amazing prices, and the fact that you can pay ahead so that you reduce how much cash you actually have to carry with you to Cuba. We utilized AirBnB in both Havana and Trinidad and couldn’t be happier. Another option for casas particulares is www.cubaccommodation.com. They are more of a Cuban travel agency with listed casas and you email them to request booking but don’t pay until you actually arrive. They don’t have reviews, so cross reference the casa name on Trip Advisor for reviews. If you insist on going with a hotel in Cuba, you will pay much more, and don’t expect significant luxury. What may be called a 5 star hotel, may be more like a 3 or 4 star compared to what you’re used to.
Getting around Cuba
There is limited and unreliable public transportation in Cuba. Moving around within a city is no problem, with the help of taxis, bike taxis, and even horse taxis. But don’t underestimate how large Cuba is. There is a public bus called the Viazul but tickets can sell out, buses can be delayed, and they take much longer than a car. Getting from Havana to Trinidad can take 6 hours, not to mention the price is not great at $25. It’s recommended to buy your tickets at the bus stop a day or two ahead of time. With the inconvenience of having to walk to the bus stop the day ahead, and the prospect of dragging our luggage to the bus stop the day of travel, we opted for a collectivo taxi, which is usually shared by 4 people. In Havana, you can go to most major hotels and reserve this in advance and the taxi will pick you up at a specified time at your casa. From Havana to Trinidad it was $30-$35 per person, and only took us 3.5 hours (because our driver passed every single car on the road and went about 90 mph the whole way). The shared taxi from Trinidad to Varadero was arranged by our casa owner and cost $25-$30 per person. In Varadero we had a little harder time organizing a taxi because you have to go to the Viazul bus stop where the taxi drivers are congregated organizing and booking collective taxis. Each time, we found the collective taxis to be very dependable and always on time. You just have to be comfortable with being smooshed together in the sweaty backseat of an oil leaking, seat belt-less car, listening to awful Spanish versions of cheesy American love songs, bonded quite literally to your neighbor by sticky arm sweat, who may or may not, fall asleep on you. With that said, if you don’t want to be stuffed in the backseat against a stranger, you can certainly spring for a private taxi.
Tipping in Cuba
Tipping is customary around Cuba and you’ll read different recommendations from different sources. In general, 10% is customary in Cuba. Many restaurants add this on to the receipt automatically so look closely for “servico charge” to know whether you should tip or not. It is up to you whether you should add to that 10% service charge or not. Bathroom attendants expect to receive change, like 25 cents. There’s a good chance the bathroom will be grungy, have no toilet paper or paper towels, and things will be broken, and yet you’ll still be expected to tip at the restroom. If you’re at a restaurant where a live band is playing, at some point they will likely come around and expect a donation. $1-2 is appreciated from the table. Staff at a hotel (bellhops, maids, etc.) should receive about $1-2 per day, tour guides $2-7 per day, spas 10-15%, taxi drivers $1-3 or 10% of fare. Considering that the typical Cuban makes less than $30 per month, a little tip goes a long way. Something else to note about dining in Cuba is the service tends to be rather slow. You have to directly request more drinks, request the bill, etc. Perhaps American culture tends to be more rushed than others. Try to relax and resist the urge to be in a rush.
I hope you consider a Cuban getaway. I can’t say there won’t be some aspects of Cuba you won’t love. But every developing nation has it’s flaws, which give it character and make for memories. Don’t get hung up on slow service and “5 star” resorts that look like they were abandoned in the 1990’s. The beautiful and flamboyant aspects of Cuban culture far outweigh the less pleasant ones. You can’t NOT be happy in Cuba with the sights, sounds, and smells, that will constantly bombard your senses.
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