Traveling to Cuba? Here’s what you need to know!

For years travel to Cuba has been very restricted, especially if you were an American citizen. In recent years, it became less restrictive, and more recently it felt as it would be strict again, but it turns out that it’s actually very easy to visit this beautiful country. My research for planning this recent trip to the island was quite extensive, but there’s a lot you don’t know until you experience it yourself. When I returned I was received a ton of questions about how to get there and how things are when you arrive. Here’s some answers to your questions! Hope you’re able to plan and go visit!

1. Do you need a visa? What is the option for someone without family, education or medical reasons to visit?

Yes, you need to obtain a visa to travel to Cuba. When purchasing your flight, before entering you payment information it asks you to select your reason for travel. Two options seem to fit a category that doesn’t apply for medical, educational, government or journalism. One is “People to People” exchange and the other is “Support of the Cuban People”. These are very ambiguous and does not require any documentation to prove that you are going for this. Of course, when you visit the country, staying in BNBs, eating and shopping local, you are, essentially supporting the local economy so you don’t have to feel bad about these selections. You can purchase the visa online or at the airport. We traveled through Miami and they have a stand where they sell them for $100 per person. No questions asked. They also don’t ask any questions upon arrival or departure in Cuba.

2. I hear hotels are limited. Where should I stay?

If you really want to experience a cultural or “People to people”exchange, you should stay at a “casa particular” or a private house, which can now be arranged via AirBNB, Trip Advisor and even Expedia. Hotels are available, but yes they are limited. There are definitely resorts on the island. We stayed in the beach town of Varadero and we booked one of the best rated hotels on the island via Expedia. The Blau Resort is all inclusive, so all meals, drinks and most activities were included in the price.

3. Is there cell service or data available?

Major cell phone companies like AT&T and T-Mobile provide service under a roaming category for which you will be charge per minute on incoming and outgoing calls. Data and text charges also apply. Check with you mobile provider to learn about the costs, but I do warn that they are very steep, so if you don’t want extra charges on your mobile bill, leave it on airplane mode or turn off the data roaming on your phone and just use the WIFI options. Very limited private homes or businesses have WIFI. There are some public spaces or internet cafes that provide Wifi, and you would purchase a card for $1CUC per hour. 

4. Do restaurants and shops accept credit cards? Are there ATMs?

Unfortunately, no. You must have the cash in hand and exchange when you arrive. When we got there, one thing I hadn’t research was the dollar exchange. The CUC is the Cuban Convertible Peso. This is what you receive when you exchange your dollar or euro to purchase or pay for services. Now, if you check a conversion table, the U.S. Dollar is valued at the exact same rate 1CUC=$1USD, but when you exchange at the airport, they skim off quite a bit. If you were to exchange say $300, you could get as low as $260 in return. Yeah, that’s super high and there’s no way to fight that. And if you try to exchange on the street, which is highly UNrecommended, they can skim off even more. So be sure to take plenty of cash so you won’t find yourself penniless during your visit. Also, things are pretty expensive, regardless of what you may have heard. The tourist industry is growing and prices are built to get as much as possible out of tourists looking to ride the cool cars, get a tour of fun spots, drink mojitos with Hemingway, etc. It’s definitely not cheap and can add up. If you DO end up spending all your cash, there’s always Western Union and a loved one can wire you some money, but save yourself the stress and prepare to bring more than you need. It’s just better that way.

EXTRA TIP: There’s a 10% penalty for exchanging US dollars into CUCs– it’s only against the US dollar. So convert most of your travel cash into Euros in the US before arriving in Cuba. You’ll keep more of your money that way! -Iris Gonzalez from irisgonzalez.com

5. Where can I buy cigars and rum? Can I bring it home with me?

It’s recommended that you only purchase cigars and rum in shops. Our AirBNB hosts warned us several times not to buy off the streets. People will come up to you and offer to sell you cigars, but they told us those cigars aren’t legit and can contain toxic components. Also, if you purchase anything total home during your visit, pack it in your checked suitcase. You still have to declare it in customs, so there’s no guarantee how TSA is feeling that day that might take it from you, so your best bet is to purchase it at the duty free shop in the airport on your way out of Cuba. They provide you with a sealed official bag and when you go through customs they see that it’s official. They still might ask you to pack it in your checked bag at the check point, but at least they won’t confiscate it.

6. How do I get around?

There is no Uber type service but there are taxis, of course. You should definitely coordinate transportation with your hosts or hotel. Since we can’t use our phones, they schedule your taxi pickups and you coordinate with your driver to be picked up at a certain spot at a specific time. We were very nervous about possibly being stranded, but they are very responsible and if you tip them they might even be open to give you a private tour. Funny story, the car we had scheduled to drive us to Varadero (2 hours from Havana) had broken down before it was supposed to pick us up for our return. They had no way of calling us, so we had no idea. When we checked out we waited about 5 minutes and realized he wasn’t there to pick us up. I was about to ask the hotel to allow to me to call (for a charge, of course) and when we turned around a man was asking around in the lobby for us by name. I hear my name and responded “Yes?”, he said he was here for us because our guy, Dylan, was indisposed and he was here to take us back. That was almost like fate! We couldn’t believe the camaraderie between them and sense of responsibility to not leave guests stranded. It was a crazy experience, but it shows that the people are wonderful and was visitors to have a great experience all the way through.
That’s all I can think of to share that you might not find online, unless you hear first hand from someone who went. Our experience was lovely, and we’d go back for sure, especially with the new found knowledge we have and even better preparation. One thing for sure, we all say “it’s so beautiful”, “it’s like a time capsule”, “you should visit before it changes”, etc. The truth is that the people are still struggling. Their local currency is actually the CUB, and it’s $25 CUB to $1USD. We were told that the jobs they have are back breaking and a month’s worth of work earns them roughly $12 per month. Yes, education and medicine are free and they receive meal rations per month, but they still have to do so much to survive and that broke my heart. Being there all touristy, living my best life is hard when you see people struggling. Please make sure to tip, don’t be stingy and don’t haggle too much. If you want to support the people, please, really support them. Leave your hosts good tips, prepare a care package for young women in need, leave clothing behind for your attendants at the hotel. They need it more than you ever will. Other than that, enjoy your visit!

Days in Old Havana

Cuba, so close yet so far. I lived in Puerto Rico for 22 years, where as I learned about the rich history of the island I called home, I became more and more fascinated with the other half of this “bird” in Caribbean history. Cuba and Puerto Rico united forces during the Spanish-American War in the 19th century and as brothers, fought valiantly to attempt to escape colonialism, which is why both islands were known as “One bird, two wings”. They needed each other, brothers and sisters in arms. But alas, the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 also brought the end of Spaniard Colonialism, and part of the booty meant handing over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and as the island of Puerto Rico continues to be a U.S. Territory, the bird has long flown away and Cuba could not have been further to Puertoricans. Reading this made me so curious about this mystery island, now known as the island stuck in time that fascinates so many people from all around the world. 

For years I wanted to visit, and travel to Cuba has always been nearly impossible unless you had an approved reason like medical, sports or education/research. With less restrictions these days (we purchased a Visa with the People to People option and flew American Airlines), my husband and I finally made the plan to go. So, we visited during our Wedding Anniversary week and it was an eye-opening experience. We saw the similarities between Cuba and Puerto Rico, especially in the Spanish Colonial architecture, the history and the warmth of the people. I can see how they can be brothers. As a woman of Dominican roots, I also felt very at home. I saw so many beautiful skin tones that vary from the fairest (with blonde hair and blue eyes) to the darkest ebony (with the most amazing range of hair textures). 
Where we saw the differences, of course, was in the part where the island, especially Old Havana, can seem very old. The preservation of the old architecture seems halted. Of course, you see so many of the old timey cars, most of which have been restored and much to the entertainment of tourists, driving around with the top down. Our AirBNB hostess gave us the rundown of where to go and how to get there to fully enjoy the experience. We followed her instructions, well mostly, and found ourselves walking up the “wrong street” to get to one of the 4 “must see” plazas in Historic Havana. We had the map on our phone and it seemed to be the right way, but it was certainly the least tourist street ever. We loved every second of that walk! All locals, with a sprinkle of 1 or 2 Americans that past us by, we were walking among the Cuban people and fit right in. We may have stood out a tad because we carried a small bag with a camera in it, but not one person looked at us funny or stopped us or even begged for money. Once we arrived at the plaza, we laughed and said to each other “That was a legit adventure!”
At the plazas we could definitely see the change in the environment, where there were tourists from so many countries. A lot more Europeans than Americans, as I could observe the languages and accents I’d hear in their interactions. We stayed in an AirBNB in a part of town called El Vedado, a quiet neighborhood just a few blocks away from the Plaza de la Revolución and a short 10 minute drive to Old Havana, but it’s located away from the bustling downtown and quiet enough to relax when we needed to wind down. Our house was right around the corner from embassies and was very safe to walk to nearby restaurants and parks. The house is a colonial style home with an indoor deck for morning coffee and a gorgeous rooftop balcony where we sipped on Mojitos and Cuba Libres as the sun set in the horizon. 

More on our Cuba experience coming up!