Cuba has become the hottest destination on everyone’s radar. Since the floodgates of direct US flights, many Americans have been flocking to Canadians and Europeans’ best kept travel secret so they can say, “I made it here before the rest of America ruined it.”
This year, I took two trips to Cuba. Cuba is a place I can’t understand. Everything works because it doesn’t. Don’t come to Cuba for the beaches, the food, or the expectation of a glamorous vacation. More beautiful beaches, better tasting food, and WAY more glamorous places are out there. But go to Cuba for the imperfect surroundings that create unforgettable memories.
Getting there: The government has not lifted the restriction on travel to Cuba; it still has to fall within the 12 permissible categories. I have never flown direct to Cuba from the US. The first time was via Mexico City, and most recently through Cancun. A Cuban Visa should cost $25, but I read American carriers are inflating these prices. The 20 CUC “Exit Fee” was removed in May, 2016 and is paid prior to boarding your Cuban arrival flight.
Havana Airport: I always try to fly with a carry on only, but I strongly encourage this in Cuba. The airport is utter chaos when multiple flights land. Most of the staff do not speak English, and should something happen to your bag, it will be a hassle to recover. Immigration is relatively smooth sailing, but I did have some employees come up to me during both entry and exit asking to show my passport, provide a reason for entry, and length of stay. They appeared to be randomly selecting US Passport holders. This only occurred during my second time to Havana, but overall, wasn’t anything to be alarmed about unless you appeared to be fretting over your answers.
Havana Airport Transfer: 20 – 25 CUC each way into Old or Central Havana.
Currency: Cuba has two currencies, the CUC and CUP. While you can exchange for CUP, it’s a currency used by Cuban locals. Tourists should exchange for the CUC. A US Dollar is 1:1 CUC, but there’s a 10-13% tax depending on where you change the money. To avoid this, use EUR or CAD. If you must use USD, change your money at the airport to incur a 10% tax versus 13%. There are exchange places in central Havana that offer a slightly better exchange rate than the airport, but I wanted on line for over half an hour. I value time more than that.
What if I have leftover CUC? If you have CUC at the end of the trip, you can exchange it back at the airport. Although, you’re probably better off spending it… I saw a woman next to me get her money back in three difference currencies because the airport didn’t have enough of one currency to return. She wasn’t thrilled.
Lodging: I’ve stayed at both a hotel (Hotel Saratoga) and a casa particular. Despite being a “5 star” hotel visited by Beyonce, the Saratoga is subpar and with little return on value. Hotel prices have skyrocketed due to the influx of tourists. Casa particulars are easily bookable through Air Bnb. While our casas were far from perfect, they were affordable and centrally located with accommodating hosts. Expect that your host won’t speak English. If booking on Air Bnb, you will likely be communicating with someone managing the property on behalf of the host. I found the experience pleasant because we were easily able to pre arrange transfers. If possible, find an Air Bnb with windows or a balcony. While the places we stayed at were well kept, the lack of ventilation often created a musty smell.
Other Transfers: The buses are very affordable in Cuba, but arrange a collective transfer (a semi private transfer with 4-8 people). It’s a much smoother trip with door to door service. In my instance, it was the cost of a bus ticket when factoring in a cab ride to the bus station. Arranging a collective transfer can be done through your hosts, or if staying at an Air Bnb, message your “host” ahead of time. If your group is larger than 3, or if you would prefer to stop along the way, you can request a private transfer.
Toiletries: Bring your own! While there are convenience stores and pharmacies, all are stocked differently. I craved juice one evening, and wandered into three different stores before finding my coveted 50% orange concentrate juice. The first only had rum, and the second had a “pina colada” concoction and tomato juice. Essentials to pack that you might not think of:
-toilet paper (your casa will likely have, but many restaurants and clubs do not)
-bug spray (Cuba was a Zika zone earlier in the year, but they have been successful at containing. Regardless, avoid some itchy legs and use my favorite deet free bug spray: Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Spray)
-medication (acetaminophen, ibuprofen, antacid, etc. It’s worth noting I found a pharmacy in Trinidad and they are easily accessible in Havana, but save yourself the hassle)
Budgeting: On average, I spent 50 CUC per day in Havana, excluding lodging, airport and collective transfers. I was fairly liberal with my meals. It’s possible to spend 30 – 40 CUC per day if you’re more selective with where you eat. Drinks are very cheap and average 2-3 CUC in Havana. Casual restaurants price entrees at 10 CUC or less. The priciest entrees I have seen (like Rio Mar or El Cocinero) are around 20 CUC. Tipping is only necessary at nicer restaurants. Do not tip more than 10%. For more casual, lower end restaurants, you can round up your change. Do not tip cabs.
What I didn’t account for my second time around was budgeting for water. Hotel Saratoga included water with our room rate, allowing me to never think twice. A liter of water costs 1.5 – 2 CUC, and a small bottle between 1 – 1.50 CUC. Expect to spend 5 CUC on water per day. You cannot drink tap water.
Taxis: Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate! Start at a little below half and go up from there. If you can, exchange this banter in Spanish.
Wifi: AT&T and T-Mobile have reciprocal agreements and the service is great. I can’t speak for Verizon. Cuba is not included with T-Mobile’s free international data and you are subjected to standard rates ($2 per MB). Wifi cards can be purchased at official stores or in hotels (with a drink). I recommend purchasing the official wifi cards at the airport while you’re exchanging money. Cards average 1.50 – 3 CUC per hour. To find a wifi zone, look for people with heads hunched over their phones. Most major Plazas are wifi zones.
The People: Both trips, I felt extremely safe in Havana. During a photography tour, my guide pointed out the rarity of walking through an impoverished area in a developing country and not having to worry about exposing my Nikon and iPhone. That being said, you still need to maintain your street smarts.
But don’t be afraid to walk around. I love people watching in Cuba and seeing the resilience in Cuban spirit. There will be people that hussle you with the generic, “Hey, where are you from?…America?!…Let me show you a cigar factory.” It seems obvious not to fall for their tricks, but I’m told it happens often. I never formed anything that could be remotely seen as a bond on the trip (except with my guide), but I attribute it to my lack of Spanish. If you have time, brush up on your Spanish and you’ll truly be able to immerse yourself in the culture.
I chastised myself after for only knowing broken Spanish because I couldn’t further a conversation with our casa host about her tattoos. Or ask her how she still danced so well in her 60s. Trust me, you’ll get so much more out of it!
And finally…don’t overplan your trip. Don’t spend every moment trying to do everything. My favorite moments in Cuba are always the unplanned. Sitting nowhere in particular with a drink, chatting and people watching into the darkness.