I’d been dying to visit Cuba ever since President Obama lifted the restriction, and my dream trip finally happened! My escape to Cuba was an amazing, humbling experience! I went with a college friend of mine who is half-Cuban, and we stayed with her family for a couple of nights. My experience was the perfect mix of tourism with a glimpse of life as a local. Here’s the breakdown of major things to know for your trip (because you’ll want to see for yourself after reading!):
The visa process:
We flew with Jetblue from JFK to HAV. The process is really seamless. They send you a separate email from your confirmation where you’ll choose one of the 12 reasons for your visit. I chose “family visit” because we visited her family, but no one checks once you reach Cuba.
When you get to the airport (for Jetblue at least), everything was done in one place: check-in, filling out your visa and dropping off checked luggage. The visa is $50 at the counter, and is easy to complete, however I have heard that they may charge you twice if you make a mistake and need a new form, so pay attention! Also, be consistent with your reason for travel, as you’ll have to write it again on the visa application at check-in.
You may also get your visa ahead of time from your embassy, but most people I’ve known have gotten theirs at the airport the day of. You’ll get your boarding pass and visa simultaneously. Keep both on you at all times, just in case, as your boarding pass doubles as health insurance!
*TRAVEL HACK: Here's a breakdown of the 12 approved categories for travel to Cuba. https://cu.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/local-resources-of-u-s-citizens/traveling-to-cuba/
We ordered euros ahead of time from the bank and exchanged them for CUC at the airport in Havana. We arrived at Terminal 3, and the exchange counter is right outside of the terminal. If the line is long, you can take a cab to Terminal 2 where there was no wait. You’ll need your passport to enter that terminal.
I changed $1000 US for the week. I changed about 700 euros to CUC at the airport, and didn’t change the rest until about day 6/7. How much you spend will depend on your tastes. You cannot get Cuban money here in the U.S., and you get a better exchange rate from Euros to CUC in Cuba. YOU CANNOT TAKE OUT MONEY IN CUBA FROM YOUR BANK. They do not take American debit/credit cards, so you'll need to have all cash on you!
*TRAVEL HACK: EUR to CUC is about 1:1 http://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/convert/?Amount=1&From=EUR&To=CUC
Your wait time to leave will depend on a few things. I’ve heard people spend up to two hours at the airport waiting for checked luggage. Ours only took about 30 min, BUT the money exchange line took at least an hour. You don’t have to exchange your money at the airport, but it is the better exchange rate. We stayed in Vedado (not far from Old Havana) and paid 25 CUC from the airport to our Airbnb for 7 people and about 12-14 bags. Be careful with the taxis because they may upcharge.
*TRAVEL HACK: Confirm the price of your ride before getting in the taxi!
Coming back to the States was the bigger issue because HAV is not ready for all of these new outgoing U.S. flights. I would suggest getting to the airport AT LEAST 3 hours early, and closer to 4 hours if you really want to get to duty-free to do a little shopping. We got to the airport about 2.5-3 hrs. pre-flight, and waited in the check-in line for over an hour. There are no signs to delineate between the different Jetblue flights, but the counters were only checking in certain flights. By the time we got through that, immigration and security, we went straight to the gate with 5 min to spare before our original take off! They did hold the plane about 1.5 hours late because there were still many people on the check-in line for a full flight, yet some people still didn’t make it! There are some shops with cigars, rum and regular souvenirs outside of check-in, in case you’re not early enough for duty-free.
The old cars will obviously be the most expensive, but you can haggle. All of taxis charged us per car, and usually maxed at 5 people (for regular sized cars). We didn’t use any particular driver for an entire day, but most rides cost us 10-25 CUC/car, depending on destination.
You will be unplugged! Savor it! It is so relaxing, and you won’t miss it after a while. If you really need to scratch that itch, you have to buy Wi-fi cards to get on the networks. They cost 2CUC/card and last up to 80min (depending on the card and where you are using it). We bought ours at El Presidente in Vedado. They did run out on occasion (some hotels may reserve them for their guests), so we didn’t have access for almost 3 days. I suggest buying a few at a time (I bought 4 for my stay), but I don’t recommend getting too many, because you should be spending your time enjoying Cuba!
Wi-fi is not usually strong, so use your time wisely. My signal was not strong enough for wi-fi calls, but some were able to Facetime. The popular Wi-fi hotspots are hotels and “Wi-fi parks” (just look for the crowds of people on their phones).
We stayed at an Airbnb the first 3 nights, which was amazing! It was well kept, the staff were nice and so was the AirBNB hostess. She gave us great tips on things to do/see before we landed and was easy to reach throughout our stay. The ladies made breakfast for us daily, and there was a security guard 24/7. I would definitely recommend it, especially for a large group.
Here's the Airbnb we used: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6153074?eluid=0&euid=3d976870-c08a-ee2c-df68-f698558e234 f
We also stayed with my friend’s family for 3 nights in Matanzas, Varadero (~2hours away from Havana). Varadero is a popular tourist area known for its nice beaches and resorts, and her cousins actually work for two of the hotels. We stayed with her family in the more urban area, which was not as developed. The most common forms of transportation there (mostly for locals) are bicycles, buses, trucks, and horse and carriages. There are also shared cabs that run similar to dollar cabs in NY, but they’re “more expensive” (~1CUC/pp, but that was an unnecessary expense to locals that use the other forms of transportation).
We spent our final night back in Havana at the El Presidente Hotel (walking distance from our airbnb). It was clean, not far from Old Havana, was a popular Wi-fi hotspot for the area, and included a daily breakfast buffet (including mimosas!). There are all-inclusive hotels available, but if you’re looking for 5 star accommodations, Cuba may not be for you.
The food was hit or miss in some places, but I enjoyed most of it. I mostly stuck to seafood and mojitos, but there were some gems that were good at everything!
On our first night, we went with our taxi driver’s recommendation and ended up at Restaurant Dona Carmela. It was one of our favorite restaurants by far! It was also one of the places Beyonce and Jay-Z went to during their Cuba trip. The food and drinks were amazing and they had live music. There was also a fort a short walking distance from there if you want to work off the food and check out some sights. There’s a live reenactment with daily cannon firings at 9 pm.
Another great restaurant was Restaurante Porto Habana, and was recommended by our tour guide. This was also walking distance from our airbnb and hotel. It is reservation only, so do that before heading to Cuba, or have your hotel/host call for you. This restaurant was called a Paladar, and is basically a restaurant in a home. They turned an apartment on the 11th floor into the restaurant, with great views and comfy decor. We had such a great dinner the first time that we went back on our final night!
Tours/Things to do:
On our second day, we went to Santa Maria del Mar, which is a beach in Havana. It was a bit overcrowded, but the water was beautiful! You can rent chairs and umbrellas for the day, and there are also servers (the same guys who’ll rent you the chairs and umbrellas) that will also take your orders for food and drinks.
Afterwards, we went shopping at Antiguos Almacenes, a HUGE souvenir market in Old Havana. Give yourself at least 1.5-2 hours to walk around and see everything. As a West Indian who’s traveled to many islands, a lot of the trinkets looked the same with a different name, but there were some cute finds specific to Cuba. There were also amazing paintings, hidden in the common typical pictures of Cuba.
Old Havana is also known for the older women smoking cigars, commonly seen in pictures and paintings. They are mostly located near the Plaza de la Catedral and tips are obviously suggested. Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana is also located at the Plaza.
La Bodeguita del Medio is a popular bar a block from the Catedral, and is known for patrons such as Ernest Hemingway (his favorite bar), Salvador Allende, Fidel Castro, Nicolas Guillen, Harry Belafonte, and Nat King Cole. Their mojitos are a staple, but are overpriced (5 CUC, while most restaurants charge 3CUC/cocktail).
We only did one official tour and that was the Viñales Tour (booked at El Presidente). It included a tobacco farm, lunch and boat ride at the India caves and visiting the Mural de la Prehistoria.
We walked into the caves for our boat ride, but one of the boats was broken and there was a higher than normal volume of people, so we decided go back into town and go souvenir shopping. At the Mural de la Prehistoria, they have horse and bull rides, great piña coladas (with pour your own UNLIMITED rum!), and a restaurant. We also chose to stop at the Hotel los Jazmines for its great views, before heading back to Vedado. The tour was 67CUC/person. We were on a tour bus that stopped at multiple hotels.
While in Varadero, we checked out Playa Varadero. It was much less populated and prettier than Santa Maria del Mar. There are souvenir shops, restaurants, a convenience store (with liquor), and an amusement park (mostly for kids) nearby. The amusement park, Todo en Uno, is also a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Also, I would definitely suggest going to a dance class, because… when in Cuba…lol. We didn’t get/need to, because we learned from my friend’s cousins, but I’m sure the class would be just as fun!
*TRAVEL HACK: This site has a lot of the places we went to, but lots of info on other cities and tours. http://ourfirstworldtrip.com/en/home/112-english/journal/cuba/549-cuba-sites-and-activities.html
Although we visited during their winter, but we lucked out on the beginning of the trip. We had high 80s and low 60s. We did have some rain and the last two days were chilly, so if you're planning to visit in January, bring sweaters and a umbrella/poncho. If you plan to go to the beach, I’d go mid-late morning if you want the most out of the sun.
Traveling through Cuba with children:
We traveled with a 4 year old, and all of our activities were kid-friendly. He was also pretty easy-going, so that helped. The amusement park in Varadero was great for him while we got to catch up on Wi-Fi (win-win!)!
- Do a carry-on if possible. You can always stuff a duffle bag inside for souvenirs and check one bag on your flight back, but having a carry-on when arriving in Havana will save you plenty of time in the airport and let you get to the currency exchance counter before the rest of your flight!
- Drink bottled water only.
- Traveler’s diarrhea is real, especially if you stay in the less developed areas like we did. Ask your Primary Care Physician for Cipro to take with you, just in case. You will need prescriptions at the Cuban pharmacies if you need antibiotics, unlike some foreign countries.
- Bring Pepto Bismol and electrolyte tabs - in case you have Gastrointestinal issues
- Plenty of places will suggest/make you pay for toilet paper or for access to the bathroom. (We had a waitress ask for tips after using the bathroom and just having paid for lunch - TURN OFF). If you say you don’t have money, they may frown, but it’s not obligated.
- Bring toilet paper/wipes/sanitizer- some places don’t have any
- Have small change available - for tips, because most people will say they don’t have small bills
- Budget at least 100 cuc/day. If you plan to buy souvenirs, drink and eat well, you might want to budget more.
- -Bring bug spray, as Zika has been noted there. I used the Repel 100 (available on Amazon), and only got one bite the last day in Varadero. I didn’t notice many bugs in Havana.
- Bring things to donate. We brought toiletries and clothes to give to the staff at the airbnb and my friend’s family, and they were very appreciative.
This trip was humbling for me because I really didn’t understand the history of the Cuban revolution and what it meant to the people. Many Cubans left because they were kicked out of their beautiful homes simply because it was deemed “too much for them” by the government. Many people lived in many crumbling buildings, in the same area as our palatial airbnb. Our family stay in Varadero was also a reality check to see how proud the Cuban people are with so little, and that they went above and beyond to make sure they spoiled us however they could.
I was able to stay in a hotel, an Airbnb and with actual hotel workers, and truly got a well-rounded Cuban experience. This trip was the perfect start to my travel year, and I will definitely be returning to Cuba!
Here’s a list of places & things I things I didn’t get to check out:
La Guarida, 418 Concordia, La Habana, Cubahttp://www.laguarida.com/en/booking/
O'Reilly 304, O'Reilly, La Habana, Cuba. A chic two-story restaurant with delicious eats and fancy cocktails. http://www.havanainsider.com/oreilly-304/
Fusterlandia, La Habana, Cuba http://www.cuba-modern-art.com/en/discover/fusterlandia/
Hotel Inglaterra, 416 Paseo del Prado, La Habana 10600, Cuba (rooftop terrace) http://www.hotelinglaterra-cuba.com/hotel_details.asp
El Floridita Bar, Obispo, La Habana, Cubahttp://www.floridita-cuba.com/
La Flor de Loto, La Habana, Cuba (Cuban/Chinese) https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d1450285-Reviews-Flor_de_Loto-Ha vana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html
Restaurante Café del Oriente, 112 Oficios, La Habana, Cuba http://www.havanainsider.com/cafe-del-oriente-best-burger/
Las Cuevas - a nightclub