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

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!

Post-Hurricane Maria Travel to Puerto Rico: How You Can Help

By now, many of you are aware that 2017 brought one of the worst Hurricane Seasons of history, ravaging through South Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean. If you follow me on social media, you’ve very likely seen my posts on updates throughout the season, mainly because I live in Texas, have close family in Florida and in Puerto Rico. The natural disasters have all affected me very deeply. During Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico the hardest, I was able to maintain communication with my mother, my in-laws and some friends who would send my husband and me constant updates while we heard the howling winds in the background. We’d receive live feed of the rains and destructive winds in real time, and all we could do was pray for the safety of our loved ones. I even had a missed call and a voicemail from my best friend (which didn’t come through until 7 days later) that she, her husband and her dogs were waiting on the second floor balcony of a neighbor’s home, to be rescued by the Army National Guard because the dam had been opened without warning, flooding multiple subdivisions of her community. The day after the Hurricane, which lasted over 8 hours, we lost all communication with our loved ones. There was no way to call, text or reach via inbox for weeks. 3.6 million people were completely cutoff from the world. The level of anxiety that the Diaspora like myself experience was excruciating! Even writing this piece brings up so many feelings of pain and desperation, but as the tears roll down and cloud my vision, it is crucial that I share this with you all. 
I am happy to report that my family, friends and all my my loved ones are safe, with minimal to none when it comes to damage, but not everyone on the island was as fortunate. Four months after Hurricane Irma and Maria, my Parents-in-law still don’t have power, like millions of others on the island. I shared the post-Maria stats in a recent post, after Thanksgiving, which included several organizations you can support remotely. 

Here are the current stats:
114 days after Maria reports:
*81% power generation
*55% of island has electricity 
*97% of the island has water (boil advisory remains)
Right after the Holidays, we went to visit the Island for a family wedding. The bride was determined to celebrate her union and have her family and closest friends be present. I applauded her tremendously, while dreading the trip. One, I feared that I would be overcome with emotion by seeing the island in such a dreadful condition as it’s been presented by the media, and, two, I didn’t want to be posting how much I could enjoy myself while there were still so many people suffering, without homes and struggling due to lack of services. For the last 4 months, I’d been very active raising money for local organizations in Puerto Rico, volunteering in several collection centers, sorting canned goods, clothing and basic necessities to send back to the island, but this felt different. Being there, in person and seeing it firsthand felt like it would be too painful to watch. We pushed through and made it to the island. I teared up just a tad when we landed after seeing from the plane how so many trees were leveled and buildings destroyed, but I took a deep breathe and thought to myself, “this trip will be good”. I decided then and there, that we would make the best out of it, and so we did. Our trip was short, so there was no room for us to do any volunteer work, which I thought I might do for a few hours in some spare time, but between family/friend visits and the wedding on the opposite side of the island, it just was not possible. So, I did the next best thing. I supported local businesses only. Supporting tourism and the local economy will be what helps the island get back to normal and even thrive. Here’s how you can do it, too!

  1. Skip the Starbucks

Yes, I know that your Venti Caramel Machiatto is absolutely necessary, but Puerto Rico’s locally grown coffee is imported Globally and is probably one of the best coffees in the world. Check out the local coffee shops and Panaderías for amazing coffee and breakfasts for a fraction of the price of these national companies. And you support the local business owners that are trying to keep afloat amidst the chaos. 

2. Choose AirBNB or Locally Owned Bed & Breakfasts

Big named, International hotels are great with all of the amenities, and give jobs to locals, yes this is true. But when you choose to stay at a locally owned Bed & Breakfast your money stays in Puerto Rico. Again, you’re supporting the local economy and the people who have invested time and money into these homes or condos. They probably are renting out the property on AirBNB for income they might not be receiving otherwise, due to lack of jobs. Many businesses have shut down operations after Maria and people are in a very tight financial situation. P.S. Our accommodations in Cabo Rojo were a find on AirBNB and were spectacular!
Green Bowls, Acai Bowl

3. Eat Local

We chose to only eat from local restaurants. Puertorican cuisine is world renowned thanks to Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmer and Adam Richman on the Travel Channel, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss certain restaurants I grew up dining in. We had the best seafood, rice & beans, Mofongo (even though Plantains were extremely scarce), the freshest fruit and even gourmet Latin Fusion. You won’t find better food on the island than in a hole in a wall restaurant! I guarantee it! Here are some of the restaurants we supported this time around:
  • JC’s Bar & Grill in Guaynabo serves the most amazing mushroom risotto, grilled chicken with guava sauce and my husband’s favorite, the skirt steak with mushroom sauce and rice & beans with sweet plantain. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!
  • Doña Ana’s in the Bayamon Market is filled with history and serves up your rice & beans in tiny cast iron pots. Cute and delicious!
  • Pizza e Birra in Miramar, San Juan is located right in the heart of the Financial district. A gem that serves, that’s right, Pizza & Beer. They have a fantastic beer selection and fresh pizza topping with veggie friendly options! Great place to hangout with your friends!
  • Cafe Lab by Latte que Latte in Guaynabo is a little off the beaten path, this hidden coffee spot really hit the spot with a semi industrial and bohemian feel. The coffee was delicious and I loved their hummus panini on Puertorican sweet bread (Pan Sobao). They also have poetry slams and open mic nights. What a cool place!
  • Green Bowls in Cabo Rojo for your healthy options. We loved this place so much we went twice for breakfast while we stayed in Cabo Rojo! Their Acai Bowl was so delicious! My family had some of their organic egg dishes like the veggie scrambles and omelets and they loved it! They have mostly organic ingredients, all locally farm fresh and are vegetarian/vegan friendly. Their Chai Latte with organic Almond Milk made me too happy!
  • Cuesta Blanca in Cabo Rojo is a Santiago family tradition. I started dating my husband 13 years ago, and I’ve been going to this restaurant on New Year’s Day for about 12 years. They know us by now! The name translates to White Hill because it’s literally up a hill and you definitely need a GPS to find it, but once you do, it’s like reaching heaven! The food and the family feeling is unparalleled. I can’t visit the island without going there!
Café Lab by Latte que Latte serves their signature Cinnamon Cookie with every coffee.
So, if you plan on visiting Puerto Rico, do it! Don’t feel bad about enjoying your stay. Puertoricans are extremely resilient and happy people. They are still partying, eating and celebrating life in the Caribbean. Some scenes are definitely hard to watch, but the best you can do to help the island get back to it’s splendor and rising above these incredible feats, is by supporting tourism, the local economy and it’s people. If you have an opportunity to volunteer and help, that’s wonderful. But if you’re on a tight schedule like I was, you can still help. Every little bit helps. 
Man playing accordion in Old San Juan. Photo taken by me on iPhone 7 Plus

Travel Tips

I’ve just returned from a Business Trip, so I found it fitting to write a post about my packing skills. My job has me traveling all around the US and sometimes internationally. In the past 6 years I’ve learned a few packing tricks that reduced my travel anxiety and has even saved me (and the company) money. My co-worker saw my small carry-on bag and couldn’t believe I could fit a week’s worth of stuff into such a small bag, so I thought I should share my tips.

The first thing I do is that I plan my outfits ahead of time. I lay it all out with the accessories, shoes and handbags to match. Something I do to reduce the amount of items I pack, is match 2 blouses to one bottom. For example I can use the same slacks/skirt twice and have it look completely different with another blouse and accessories. Now I know this may seem obvious, but a lot of people just throw in all the clothes from their closet and that’s just over packing. Planning ahead is the key to successful packing and can even save you tons of money if the airline charges for checked bags.

Always place your shoes at the bottom of your luggage and place your clothing items in a nicely rolled bundle. I packed 3 pairs of shoes and a pair of sneakers perfectly in this bag. I even managed to pack some thin sandals in the front pocket. If you have SpaceBags you’ll be amazed at how much you can pack into those things. Speaking of which, I need to get new ones, mine got lost in the move. All my toiletries were in TSA approved bottles in my handbag.
Using a large handbag for travels is incredibly useful. This one from JustFab, which has a long shoulder strap aside from the shorter handles, fits my laptop and other electronic devices, my makeup and jewelry bags, and my immediate necessities. Coordinate outfits around this bag so you can get maximized usage from it. 

And of course, don’t forget to dress comfortable. Cotton is a great choice for those long travel days with layovers. No need to wear sweatpants and look like you just rolled out of bed. You can spruce it up a little and still be very comfy.

Slip on shoes are perfect for going through airport Security checks without hassles. 

 The neck pillow is essential. Planes aren’t exactly the most comfortable, even if you’re flying First Class, you should definitely have one on hand.

Last, but not least, checking in online is a great convenience that saves time and avoids those long lines that sometimes cut it kinda close at the airport. I downloaded the apps for my most frequently used airlines directly into my smartphone. I love it, because I can check in easily and have my digital boarding pass, they also send me notifications and flight updates. Don’t forget to download games, music, magazines and a good book. I experienced insane delays yesterday (over 6 hours between 2 delays for 2 separate flights) due to the weather, that I could have never endured if it weren’t for all my apps on my Ipad, and a good drink at the airport bar.

Safe travels!