Cuba just may be the most exciting travel destination that’s a quick flight away from the United States. But it requires a lot more advanced planning than its Caribbean neighbors.
There’s no place in the world like Cuba, particularly right now. Only 103 miles away from the United States (that’s about the distance between New York City and Philadelphia), the largest island in the Caribbean has lived through a complicated estrangement from its nearest neighbor since 1961. What Americans call “the embargo,” and what Cubans call “the blockade,” has arguably done more (or at least as much) to shape Cuba’s present as its 1959 revolution. Since President Obama lifted many of the longstanding travel restrictions for U.S. citizens when he restored diplomatic ties with Cuba in 2015, Americans are now able to experience a country that, in the 1950s, they flooded with tourists. (Now, Cuba is probably flooding your Instagram feed.) What has happened since that high-rolling (and often mob-backed) heyday for American travel is a little paradoxical: almost nothing has changed, and almost everything has.
Many Americans describe Cuba as being lost or frozen in time, and this is true—while Havana is a magnetic, lively city, there’s been very little new construction since 1959. But Cuba also wears those six decades, more or less, on its sleeve—the half-century old cars chugging around the city neither look, nor sound, new. The ripple-effect of U.S.-Cuban relations touches almost everything having to do with the island, from the paperwork you have to fill out before your Havana-bound flight to the dearth of shampoo once you arrive. (We recommend you bring your own.) If relations continue to thaw, travel will likelier become easier for American visitors, but in the meantime, you’ll get the most out of your Cuba trip if you plan ahead. Here are all the nitty gritty, unsexy details you’ll need to know before you leave.
Here’s the good news: all the paperwork you have to do can be handled at the airport before departure. Tourist travel remains prohibited for U.S. citizens, but most trips fall under one or more categories of “authorized travel” permitted by the U.S. government. If you plan, on your visit to Cuba, to hear live music, you can confidently check off “public performances” as your reason for travel. If you plan to stay in a “casa particular,” accommodations provided by a private family, you can check off “support for the Cuban people.” If you plan to visit a museum, you can check off “educational activities.”
The Cuban government, on the other hand, welcomes you as a tourist. Some airlines allow you to purchase your $50 Cuban tourist visa, which you’ll pick up at the airport, ahead of time. Other airlines will sell the visa to you at the airport before your departure. If filling the tourist visa out by hand, write with care—if you cross anything out, you have to buy a new one. Make sure to keep it somewhere safe: You’ll present the visa upon your arrival in Havana, and again when you leave the country. If you lose it, you have to buy a new one. Not fun.
The money question
Cuba has two currencies, the CUP—the peso that most Cubans earn and use—and the CUC—which is linked to the American dollar and which is what tourists use. (You get one cuck joke. Use it now. Get it out of your system.) This system exists so that tourists don’t inflate costs for normal Cubans and so that Cubans can charge tourists prices they are used to paying—creating what’s essentially a local price and a tourist price. For instance, a Cuban might pay the equivalent of 5 cents to go to the Museo de las Bellas Artes, but an American tourist would pay the equivalent of 5 dollars. Expect to pay in CUCs, and make sure the change you receive is in CUCs too.
In Cuba, you can’t use credit or debit cards from U.S.-based banks. (Even if you do have a non-U.S. bank, few places take cards.) This means you have to bring all your money with you on the plane. And be sure to ask for new bills from your bank: the Cuban government will not take wrinkled, torn, or old bills. Cuba also charges a 10% fee for American currency—you can get around this by bringing Canadian dollars or euros; the exchange rate will almost certainly be less than the 10% fee. Do you research, and check exchange rates before you travel.
So how much should you bring? Havana is cheaper than, say, New York, but still within the same realm of cost. So, no $15 cocktails, but expect to pay $3-$8 for a mojito or daiquiri. Taxi rides will likely be your biggest expense: they can range between $10 and $30 for inter-Havana travel. Budgets will vary depending on the traveler and the itinerary, but if you have paid for your lodging ahead of time, planning on $200 per day is a safe bet, plus another $200 for emergencies. It’s better to bring too much than too little.
Where to stay
In Cuba, tourists can choose between services offered by the government or by private individual. In general, you will always get a better deal and higher quality when you go with private enterprise, particularly when deciding where to stay.
All hotels in Cuba are government-owned and operated. Havana has some truly beautiful old hotels built before the Revolution—the Saratoga, the National—which are arguably worth the extra expense. Still, a real taste of Cuban life can be found by staying with actual Cuban citizens in their homes, a style of accommodation called a casa particular. Casas are also a great place for food: almost all offer delicious and huge breakfasts for about 5 CUC per person. Most casas also serve dinner, which are some of the most affordable, generous, and best-tasting meals you’ll find in Cuba. Meals for two often look like they could feed a family of at least four. AirBnB is a dependable, but not the only, way to book and pay for a casa particular ahead of time.
There are about 150,000 cars in Cuba, a country of 11 million, and a big percentage of them are nearly 70 years old. They are a precious and limited resource in Cuba—expect to pay commensurately. A cab from the airport into Old Havana should cost at most 30 CUC. You can arrange for cars ahead of time through your hotel or casa, but in Havana there are taxis everywhere and everyone wants to give you a ride. It’s worth planning ahead if you have a particular schedule to keep to, or you want to lock in a specific price, or you want to ride in a specific car. Your casa or hotel will likely be able to help you out here. The quality of cars varies really widely, from dreamy candy-colored Cadillacs that have been lovingly cared for to fume-filled Soviet wrecks that look like they drove out of Mad Max. Also, say goodbye to seatbelts.
If you’d like to travel outside of Havana, you have a few options.
Rent a car. Rental cars are the only new cars on the island, so you won’t have to worry about getting a vehicle in bad repair. There are also so few cars on the island, period, that you don’t really have to worry about other drivers outside of Havana. You’re not going to run into a gridlock on the interstate.
Hire a private car. A private car ride from Havana to Viñales, a rural tourist town about two and a half hours away, can cost at least 100 CUCs. You can arrange and pay for one online through the Cuban government before you leave or you can arrange for one once you arrive, but making arrangements in person will give you the greatest flexibility and the most freedom to negotiate.
Take a taxi collectivo, which is a shared private car. Prices are comparable to the official bus routes, but you have more flexibility with regards to pick-up time and location. In Havana, it’s easy to arrange a taxi collectivo outside the city’s Viazul bus station, but it’s a conversation you can broach with any taxi driver. (If they can’t give you a ride, they certainly will know someone who can.) A taxi collectivo from Havana to Viñales can cost about 20 CUC per person, and they can pick you up and drop you off at your accommodations.
Ride on the tourist-only Viazul bus. Cheaper than a taxi collectivo (it costs 12 CUC per person from Viñales to Havana) and often more comfortable, the buses are new, air conditioned, and plush. The ride takes a bit longer, because it makes several stops and you have to get yourself to and from the station. You can buy tickets online ahead of your trip, but only a limited number are available for sale on the internet: a bus that appears to be sold out online probably isn’t sold out in person; you can always go to the station in person to check.
Buy a ticket for an inclusive tour. Many companies offer tours from Havana to other parts of the island. Many people, for instance, visit Viñales by way of a day-tour from Havana. On the plus side, you are more likely to be interacting with English speakers and you don’t have to worry about making all the arrangements yourself. On the minus side, you may get a rushed orcursory experience of the place you are traveling to.
Eating and drinking
As with lodging, private is better than government when it comes to food. Take advantage of the meals your casa offers: cheap, delicious, plentiful, and flexible to your schedule. Outside of casas, the best places to eat food are restaurants known as paladars. Originally conceived as private homes that offered meals for purchase, the paladar industry has gotten so big that you won’t ever mistake one for someone’s private home.
The best paladars, especially in Havana, require a reservation. Do this ahead of time—many have websites and all have phone numbers. (The best way to call a Cuban landline is by using the Skype app for your cell phone.) The best and most successful restaurants all have plenty of English speakers employed, so you don’t have to worry about the language barrier to make those phone calls. Once you arrive in Cuba, have your casa host or someone at your hotel reconfirm all your reservations by phone. Paladar owners realize that plans often change once people arrive in Cuba; they will drop your reservation if they don’t hear from you. Plan to tip 10 percent on meals.
An important note to keep you mobile and happy: You can only drink the tap water if it has been boiled. A lot of casas will offer boiled water in a central location (like their kitchen, or in a fridge), or else will provide bottled water for purchase or included with your room.
Spanish is extremely useful here, but not mandatory. People manage to make themselves known, one way or another. That being said, even just a few words can make a big difference. It’s worth breaking out (or downloading) some flashcards. Unless you are fluent, make sure you have the Spanish language dictionary for the Google Translate app downloaded on your phone. It’s a little awkward, but better than being completely unable to express yourself.
Yes, there are a few places to get access to the internet in Cuba, but why not just give up? You’re not going to get a better excuse not to check your email that being in Cuba. Put your phone on airplane mode, and just use it to take pictures, punch something into Google Translate, take notes, or look at maps. Maps.Me will allow you to download searchable maps of Cuba to use offline. You’ll be able to use it to find businesses, addresses, and get directions, even in airplane mode.
If you insist on using the internet, there are many wifi hotspots available across the country—often around tourist-heavy areas (the airport, hotels) or in parks; you buy access to them by the hour, which is easiest to do at the front desk of a hotel. You’ll receive a card with a temporary login and password, then you connect to the network with “ETECSA” in the name. After you join the wifi network, click on the “Learn more about…” link to bring up the login page.
To use the phone in Cuba, ask your hotel or casa host. They’ll also make phone calls for you on your behalf, if you need to confirm a reservation or order a taxi.
On the street
Havana is one of the safest cities in the world, and Cubans (as much as this can be said of any nation of millions of people) are very friendly. However, because the disparity between the CUP (the Cuban peso) and the CUC (the tourist currency) is so large, it is highly advantageous for anyone in the proximity of a tourist to try and earn their money. Taxi drivers and casa owners can make more money in a day than a doctor—the highest paid government position in Cuba—makes in two months. As a result, in touristy-heavy areas, you’ll likely be approached pretty constantly by people who want to offer you a taxi, show you a menu for a restaurant, sell you cigars, or lead you to a good music spot for a tip. You can either ignore (faster but more rude) and they’ll leave you alone, or engage in conversation but explain why you won’t be taking them up on their offer (pleasant but time consuming). If you are interested in what they are trying to sell you (this goes for taxis in particular), don’t be afraid to haggle.
One group of people to always give money to, however, is musicians: small groups will often set up in public establishments, play a few songs, and then pass around a basket for donations. It’s appropriate to pay between $1 and $5 per basket-pass, and it’s one of the most wonderful parts about walking around Havana.
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