Yet another day at the airport asking myself why I thought this adventure sounded like a good idea!? Most of my trips sound really exciting when I plan them…until I’m at the airport with no turning back, wondering if danger is lurking around every corner when I reach my destination. Are there wild monkeys where I am headed? Do they bite? Do they have Tsunamis? Typhoid? oh god, the list could go on and on…. On this particular day, the question remained; Is it legal to go to Cuba with all of these confusing travel restrictions? I will try to give you the information I came across while planning my latest trip to Cuba and share some of my experiences while traveling there to help answer these questions!!! Spoiler alert; I didn’t encounter any maniacal monkeys roaming the streets. Wild dogs? That’s another story.
When searching for travel information on Cuba, an ominous warning inevitably pops up on the computer screen stating that there are travel restrictions for Americans planning to go there. These restrictions are a bit confusing to say the least. To make a long story short, basically there are 12 categories that you can choose from to travel under….some may not apply at all to you, such as visiting a family member in Cuba. However, others are more ambiguous. “Supporting the Cuban People” is one of those categories. Apparently it includes staying in private homes or rooms that Cubans rent out to supplement their income, spending the majority of your time on a schedule that might include taking courses with locals and tours led by them. (More specific criteria is found on the U.S. website) Staying in government owned hotels and spending the day at the beach are a no-no. The Cuban government does not care what hotels we stay in or how many days we spend on their beaches, but if the U.S. government ever asked for your itinerary (and they have up to 5 yrs after you return to do so) you may not want to have 50 selfies to share with them of you on Vedado Beach sipping a mojito!
Booking Your Flight
Several American carriers fly to Havana, Cuba from the United States. Jet Blue has non-stop flights from NYC, as well as several other cities. American flies out of several cities including Miami and Delta goes there too. When you go to buy your ticket the 12 categories I mentioned will come up. Simply choose the one that you think you can fulfill and buy your ticket! I have been told that “supporting the Cuban people” is the easiest to adhere to. Nothing more is needed to buy your ticket. The airline ticket price includes healthcare insurance , which is required to enter Cuba. It also includes the 50.00 exit fee. A visa (tourist card) is also required for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba…this can be purchased right at the airport for around $50.00 on the day of your flight.
Where to Stay
After much research, I chose to stay at Tamara y Chen in a lively part (Obrapia) of old Habana. It is a privately owned apartment (2 floors) managed by the most amazing hostess….Tamara! These homes are called “casa particulars” in Cuba and there are many of them listed on airbnb . Tamara has 2 rental apartments in Havana to choose from and she provides everything you could possibly need during your stay. Her apartments are immaculate, she will book tours with locals , she can recommend restaurants, make reservations and even gives you a local phone so that you can reach her if you need to! I need a Tamara back home to be my personal assistant!!!
The Cash Situation
U.S. credit cards and ATM/debit cards do not work anywhere in Cuba!! Crazy, right? This means that you need to bring enough cash to get you through your stay. The exchange rate for U.S. dollars is 13% . Holy #%*# ! To make matters worse, Cubans have 2 forms of currency. For someone who lacks basic math skills (me)…this is a challenge. But no worries. I will explain it in simple terms! They have the CUC (used everywhere) which is easy because 1 USD is equivalent to 1 CUC. But then there’s the CUP which is worth about 4 cents to the dollar. The CUP is used mainly by the locals and you definitely don’t want to pay in CUC and get change with CUP. The CUC says “pesos convertibles” on their bills. The CUP does not! Below is a picture of their CUC .
Where to Eat
So I heard that the food in Cuba was ….. well, horrible! I was expecting to starve, planning to eat the crumbs at the bottom of my backpack in hopes of surviving. I’m so glad that I was wrong. We ate at locally run and amazingly delicious restaurants. Below are a few of my favorites.
Paladar Doña Eutimia
El Cafe (breakfast or lunch)
I will save my backpack crumbs for another day…
What to Do and Not to Do While in Cuba
Stating the obvious here, but remember that their government is very different than ours ( the U.S.) . Avoid any political conversations. Keep your comments to yourself. Know the laws. Do not take any photographs of police officers. Do not drink the water. Do not drink the water. Do not drink the water. Make sure you tip. For many locals, tips are an important source of income.
What to See and Do
We took a fantastic day tour with TripHavanaNow in a 1957 Chevy to Fusterlandia. Wow!! Fusterlandia is a 28 year old art project started by Cuban artist Jose Fuster who began by decorating his own house/property with painted tiles and mosaics. He eventually branched out into his neighborhood, decorating walls, his neighbors houses and even the bus stop! . He even taught his neighbors how to paint and create their own art-filled galleries to supplement their incomes. His neighborhood beautification project (influenced by Spanish artists Gaudi and Picasso) is still a work in progress. After the last hurricane, Jose was once again giving back to his community by giving out food and water!
Another great place to visit is Taller Experimental de Grafica. It is an old printmaking studio brought back to life by local artists who actually use the 100 year old printing machines to create modern artwork. We went there to meet with local artists, tour the studio, see how they use their machines and buy several pieces of their work. This is a great place to visit, shop and support the locals!
There are so many other things to do and see in Havana (Habana, as the locals say it). They have several art museums, Cathedrals, a fort and lighthouse, and a great walk along the waterfront that runs several miles called the Malecon. Ambos Mundos is a hotel with a rooftop bar where you can view photographs in the lobby of Ernest Hemingway with Castro, as well as one with him and a local fisherman….perhaps his inspiration for the Old Man and the Sea??? There are also day trips to tobacco plantations where you can learn all about the cigar industry from local farmers and even watch them roll cigars by hand!
Wifi is very limited in Cuba. Tamara gave us several 1 hour internet cards and has WiFi access in her apartments (which is rare) . Don’t expect to be connected too often. WiFi cards can be bought in many places. We found a small tourist office on Obispo selling them for 1 CUC per hour.
Cubans do not have access to the things we take for granted. bring some items with you to donate to a local school or to people that you meet. toothbrushes, small moisturizers, crayons, conditioner, etc. are some examples of things to bring. We found a school around the corner from our apartment to bring some supplies to.
The infrastructure in Cuba is in great need of repair. Watch where you walk…some streets have holes that appear to lead to middle Earth!
Don’t drink the water. oops, did I say that already? Well….don’t. Bottled water is available throughout Cuba.
If you decide to go…keep a detailed journal of your itinerary and keep it for 5 years. Go with an open mind. Enjoy the people, the culture, the food…. and say hello to Tamara for me.