Travel restrictions to Cuba are now a bit more relaxed for those of us residing in Gringolandia. Yet, if you are a U.S. citizen, your trip must fall under a list of 12 categories if you want to travel the legal way. The following are some tips and things I learned from my trip.
Plan Before you Leave
I am no stranger to traveling solo in Latin America, but I started researching and planning my trip to Cuba at least two months before I actually arrived. In previous backpacking trips, I looked at maps, decided which cities I wanted to visit, boarded a plane or a bus and looked for a place to stay. Yes, my lack of foresight may lower your opinion of me, but in my defense, it was a great time. I never made any reservations at a hostel, and cheap yet delicious street food was readily available. Cuba is a different story. If you go without doing your research, you might find yourself in a tough situation when it comes to money, supplies and cultural norms. With that said, if you speak little to no Spanish you are at a great disadvantage. Many Cubans speak English, but you will most likely be overcharged for food.
Remember that because of the embargo anything you can easily buy at Rite Aid may not be readily available in Cuba. Pack everything you think that you might need: antacids, soap, pain killers, toothpaste, lotion etc. Anyone on special diets should pack non-perishable food.
At the time, direct flights were not leaving out of Los Angeles, so I flew from Mexico City to Havana on Cubana de Aviación. Cubana has recieved mixed reviews about trip cancellations and delays, but both of my flights to and from Cuba were without incident and I would fly Cubana again. Cubana is owned by the Cuban government and has been in operation for over 80 years. On both flights, the cabin crew served ham sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, so if you are expecting fancy service with a smile and in-flight entertainment, maybe it is best to book flights elsewhere. The aircraft itself is pretty up to date. The flight from Mexico City was on an Airbus, while the flight from Cuba was on a Russian Tupolev which was exciting because of the white smoke coming out of the plane’s air conditioning system. The smoke happens because of Cuba’s high humidity, and stopped after take-off.
Before boarding your flight to Cuba, you will have to buy a tourist visa for $25 at the airline check-in counter. Your tourist visa is a slip of paper that is stamped before you are able to roam about the country. I took good care not to lose it, so good luck if you lose yours. I do not know what will happen to you.
After arriving in Havana, expect to pay about 20 CUC for a taxi from the airport.
Money and Currency
Forget about using American Express or debit cards issued by banks in the United States because in Cuba they will not work. All the money you will need while in Cuba must be brought in cash. Let that sink in for a moment. It would really suck if you show up with just your credit cards to find that you are stranded without a way to pay for basic necessities. Book your reservations at the hotel or casa particular before your trip, and research entrance fees for any national parks and museums that you plan on visiting so that you can create a budget.
Now is your time to get creative with hiding your money. I admit, I had some anxiety over carrying all the cash I needed for my trip for 10 whole days, but I made full use of my money belt by strapping it around my thigh. Before I left the States, I found these useful pair of underwear with hidden pockets that are the perfect size for a passport, credit card and cash. I used them as shorts to go under my skirts.
Cuba has two currencies: the peso cubano (CUP), which is used mainly by the Cubans, and the peso convertible (CUC), which is used by tourists. You will pay for most things using the peso convertible, but it is wise to change some of your CUC for pesos cubanos, that way you will be able to take public transportation and buy street food which is way cheaper than riding in taxis or eating at touristy restaurants. At the time of my trip, 1 US Dollar was equal to 1 CUC, and 1 CUC was about 25 CUP. Remember that exchanging US currency carries an extra 10% tax, so it is best to change your money into Euros. Here is a useful website with everything you need to know about Cuban currency. Euros have the best exchange rate, with US dollars having the worst. US currency has a 10% penalty when changing money in Cuba. There are exchange houses called CADECAs all over Cuba.
Where to Stay
There is no shortage of hotels in Cuba, but if you want to hang out with the locals, a casa particular is the way to go. They are also cheaper than a night in a hotel. Casa particulares are owned and operated by Cuban families who have a license from the government to rent out rooms in their homes. They usually have a blue anchor symbol hanging outside of their entrance. Since I went in September in the middle of hurricane season, I paid 20 CUC per night. The price often includes breakfast, and your hosts will have the inside scoop on the cheapest places to eat and what to see. The concept of youth hostels where a bunch of people share a dorm style room does not exist in Cuba, but if you meet travel buddies, you can split the cost of a room in a casa particular.
Cuba is not a foodie destination. If you are a vegetarian, you will have a hard time, but you can survive off of rice and beans. Restaurants in touristy areas offer expensive but not very good food. Ham and cheese sandwiches are readily available, and if you walk around, you can usually find someone selling fresh mango juice. Family run restaurants called paladares are great options for delicious homemade Cuban fare, and you will usually be eating in the living room of someone’s house. Paladar comes from a Brazilian telenovela about a woman who runs a restuarant. I highly recommend El Helecho in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. It’s a cute little house decorated with delicate porcelain knick knacks, ferns (hence the name), and the ropa vieja is para chuparse los dedos.
I know a lot of you like to post selfies on Instagram, but you’ll have to give it a rest in Cuba. It’s great to take a break from the web, but you’ll also want to send a quick email to let the folks back home know you’re safe. Most homes do not have free WiFi, but your casa host can point you to the nearest ETECSA office, which sells internet cards that you scratch off to reveal a WiFi password. In most major plazas around Cuba, you will find groups of people typing away on their laptops or Skyping on their tablets. These cost 2CUC, but make sure to go early, because people buy multiple cards to sell on the black market for higher prices. Internet is also available at some hotels, but it is more expensive and the connection is slower. Please note that lines do not exist in Cuba. Instead, you will see crowds of people in no particular order waiting their turn. Instead, ask someone “¿Quien fue el último?” or “who was last?”
Returning to the States
I traveled without a license and was stopped by a U.S. immigration officer when I returned to the States. Noticing that I only had Mexico stamped in my passport, he asked if I had been anywhere else, so I spilled the beans. He let me go after emptying out my backpack and questioning me about my trip.
There you have it. If you have any questions, let me know so I can update this post with that information.