Going to Cuba is like going back in time, like visiting a place in a certain time with all the inhabitants intact and still going about their lives just like they did 50 years ago. It’s a live museum of history, architecture, culture, music and art, and nothing like that exists anywhere in the world. I can’t say enough of what an amazing place this is and worthy of a visit.
Many have been to Cuba since loosening of travel restrictions for Americans and most will agree that it’s a fantastic place to see before it changes. Others are still not sure how to do it. With ever-changing political climate, the legalities of traveling to Cuba are a moving target, but if you do a little research, it’s manageable. Aside from visa requirements, there are some things that you should know about Cuba especially if you’re an American traveling as an individual.
- Start Planning Early. Cuba moves on its own time, and planning the trip there is not a speedy process. Because Internet is very scarce, getting in touch with people takes longer than usual. You have to arrange visa, tickets, lodging, and it’s not just a click away.
- Visa or How Americans Can Travel to Cuba? There are 3 ways for Americans to travel to Cuba: 1) Going with the travel agency/tour or a cruise boat; 2) If you fall under any other of 12 categories (business, religious, educational, etc. full list is here; 3) going through another country as a point of entry (for example, Mexico). If you want more information on a visa process, here is a good post from https://expertvagabond.com. If you’re an individual, you’ll want to check with the airline ahead of time. I used cubatodo.com travel agency to arrange for a visa, a flight and a car with a driver. They are also a good source of all information related to Cuba.
- Flights. American Airlines started flying to Cuba just as we arrived from there. But little known fact is that there are multiple charter flights each day from Miami to Havana on Cuban airlines. Flying with them is a bit different, but don’t be scared. The planes are very modern, new, clean, crew is fantastic and bilingual. The flight is only 45-60 min long. The only thing you have to remember is to show up 3 hours in advance of the flight. The reason for that is that when Cuban expats go back to their home country, they bring a LOT of stuff. I mean boxes, huge suitcases, all wrapped in a blue wrap, just mountains of stuff. All this needs to be processed by airlines and that takes a lot of time. I’m guessing the Cuban airlines have very different weight restrictions than everyone else in the world. I used CubaToDo.com to book a flight on one of those charter airlines to make this whole trip an authentic experience.
- Money. One of the most challenging parts of this trip was to figure out money situation. You can’t use debit or credit cards if they are tied to an American bank which will be for most Americans. So you have to bring cash and bring enough of it. It’s an ultimate exercise in budgeting. Keep in mind that deposit or safe boxes are not a given wherever you’re staying so you most likely you will be walking around with all your cash on you.If you can get euros that would be your best bet. Dollars have lower exchange rate, plus you get hit with a 10% fee. Here is an example:
If you have $100:
Exchange rate $1 : CUP 0.96 – 10% = 100 X 0.96 – 10% = CUP 86.4
If you have €100:
Exchange rate €1 : CUP 1.13 = 100 X 1.13 = CUP 113
- Budget. This is probably the hardest part. Those who travel, people in general, understand the basic concept of budgeting – you come up with a number you think you will need for something and put it aside. Budgeting when you have no idea about the prices and know that you won’t have any access (ATM, travelers checks, credit cards, etc.) to extra money when you run out of what you budgeted for, is a whole another ball game. This freaked me out the most, and I’m good at budgeting.Spending is such a personal thing so it’s hard to give an advice on that. As I might have mentioned before, I’m not a backpacker type and I like a glass of wine or two with my meal, so I budgeted $120 a day. That does not include accommodations. It was more than enough for meals, beverages and occasional shopping.
- Shopping. Such concept doesn’t really exist in Cuba just like it didn’t exist in former Soviet Union where I grew up. Cubans has couple things they are really good at and which you should buy: Cuban run, cigars and art.
- Accommodations. You won’t find anything fancy. Cuba could greatly benefit from investments into their hospitality industry. There are so many beautiful architectural bones in all the major towns. Restoring them and turning them into 5 start hotels would dramatically change tourism industry here. But for now, there are not that many hotels and from what I heard, their accommodations are subpar. Most people stay in the Airbnb type of accommodations called casas particulares. Airbnb does list plenty of apartments, but again you have to plan in advance because communications take a long time. You will also pay for your accommodations when you arrive there because online payment processing doesn’t exist, unless the listing and processing is handled by someone outside of Cuba. Many Cuban expats own rental real estate and manage it from afar.
- Food. You won’t be blown away by culinary masterpieces. In fact, Cuban food is much better outside of Cuba. Because of trade restrictions, they simply don’t have many ingredients. Private restaurants, called paladares make do with what they have and largely depend on seafood supply. Which was fine by me, as I, personally, have never met a lobster I didn’t like.
Grocery stores… they are sad. Mostly rice and couple bags of beans. Don’t expect to buy snacks to tie you over. A huge selection of rum is a dominant item in all grocery stores.
- Transportation. If you’re planning to mostly stay in Havana and maybe visit its beach suburb of Varadero or tobacco fields in Vinales, then you can get around by hiring taxis, though Vinales is far away. Again, if you’re here with a tour, you don’t have to worry about it. If you want to see more of Cuba, transportation is tough. Renting a car in Cuba requires planning ahead and in general it’s not something you would want to do for the following reasons:
- Renting a car is expensive
- There are very few cars
- Streets are not marked in any way
- Roads are bad
We used cubatodo.com to arrange for a driver. The guy picked us up at the airport and basically stayed with us throughout our whole trip.
9. Language. Learn some Spanish as English is not much spoken. Younger people are more likely to speak English than older ones. However, everyone will go out of their way to help you if you just try to speak your best Spanish.
10. Safety. It is very safe in Cuba. Whether we were in Havana, Vinales or Trinidad we never felt uncomfortable or unsafe. Violent crime is virtually non-existent. As in any foreign touristy country, you have to watch out for pickpocketers but otherwise, it’s very safe.
Although Cuba requires some research and adjusting expectations for Americans traveling individually, it is beautiful, unique and worth seeing it before it changes.
In Cuba, you get a chance to submerge yourself into this chill, fun-loving, optimistic culture. It’s the Caribbean before it became a playground for Americans sprinkled with walled-off resorts separating tourists from the locals and from any cultural experience.
Cubans are proud of their history, culture and their spirit. Despite all the economic shortages, people are happy, relaxed and truly know how to enjoy life. Just visit the main square in Trinidad where locals of all ages are dancing salsa non-stop all night long. Or stroll through the residential neighborhood to join a 4 o-‘clock an impromptu happy hour where music is bumping through the old speakers and there is always someone with a shot of rum to share.
Pin this for later!