Big changes between America and Cuba have come since President Obama and President Raul lifted the embargo December 14, 2014, with plans to normalize relations after more than 55 years as adversaries. The news intrigued curious Americans who wanted to be the first to visit, before this frozen in time, island country in the Caribbean, is morphed into a modernized version of its former self. Although it is now legal, with restrictions, there are things to know before going to Cuba for Americans.
I just returned from my first visit to Cuba and I wanted to share what I learned while it was still fresh in my mind. Cuba is so much larger than I had imagined so I wasn’t able to see even one-fourth of it, but I did spend time in Old Havana and Varadero, which are probably the two most popular areas to visit.
Here is a list of some things to know before going to Cuba for Americans.
Just because it is now legal for Americans to travel to Cuba, doesn’t mean any American can just jump on the next flight from Miami with a suitcase and passport in hand. There are still firm restrictions for travel to Cuba for Americans and tourist activities remains prohibited. Americans who wish to travel to Cuba must fall into one of the 12 category reasons authorized by the Cuban government.
- family visits
- official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain governmental organizations
- journalistic activity
- professional research or professional meetings
- educational activities, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
- religious activities
- public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- support for the Cuban people
- humanitarian projects
- activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines
I used journalistic activity because of my travel blog, but most use educational activities or people-to-people. When getting the visa documents at the airport, the reservationist handed me the paper to fill out and told me to just choose #5. I thought it was strange because she clearly had no idea if I fell into that category. The airline workers seemed as if it was just routine to choose that category for literally everyone and it was all very informal. I, on the other hand, was kind of freaking out that I should have not used journalistic activities now, but instead used educational activities. I was going to change it, but I already used journalistic activities when purchasing my plane ticket online and was told to “stick with your story”. And most importantly, whatever you do, to never, ever say your visit was for tourism, if asked. My husband kept joking that if they asked him he was going to say for smuggling. I was going to kill him! This is not a joking matter, especially in this still sensitive time of transition. I also wasn’t aware that the visa for entry into Cuba was $100.00. I did know that they require everyone to get Cuban health insurance, which is $25.00, but most airlines cover the cost in your ticket price.
Before I left, I spoke with a lot other travel bloggers and friends and family who have already gone to Cuba and they all said its super easy to get in, the only issue may be coming back into the United States, that you could be questioned by customs and immigration, but most likely you won’t. Lucky us, on our return, we were asked!
This is how it went;
immigration officer: “What were you doing in Cuba?’
me: “journalistic activities”
immigration officer: “What were your reporting on?”
me (gulp): “my husband and I run a travel blog.”
immigration officer: “Okay, did you bring any tobacco or alcohol back with you?”
my husband: “Yes, a box of cigars (starting to open his suitcase to show him)
immigration officer (to my husband): “No worries, you don’t have to show me. Welcome home.”
Phew. I nearly shit my pants! Within those few seconds thoughts spun in my head, “I should have just changed it to educational activities, damn it!”, ” I’m going to be fined!! Ahh!”. “OMG! I’m going to Cuban prison!!” But thankfully, I was just freaking out for no reason. He was just going through the customary questions and wasn’t making a big deal about it. I was! So, my tip to you, just choose category 5, everyone else does. Since it’s the most common category chosen (seems like the only one), you probably won’t get asked a thing.
When it comes to money, cash is king. You won’t find any places in this country that will accept American credit or debit cards, so keep your VISA and MASTERCARD at home. With that said, keep in mind that when you try to exchange USD to their currency (CUC), they will charge you a 10% fee. The best way to avoid this is to exchange your USD to CAD or EURO before you leave the States. The conversion rate is better and you won’t be slammed with that fee on top of it.
Another thing to consider when it comes to money is because plastic or USD isn’t taken in Cuba, you have to carry the amount of cash you will need for your entire trip with you. I admit, this was very difficult to figure out how much to bring since we didn’t really know the prices of things and the amount can vary so much depending if you stay in hotels or casa particulars, if you like to go on tours, if you want to buy souvenirs like cigars and rum, if you want to travel to a lot of different areas, if you dine in hotel chains or paladars, if you want to sip on mojitos everyday? All of these things need to be considered so you don’t end up penniless and stranded for a ride back to the airport on your last day. Lots of planning and budgeting must be done beforehand. One valuable tip to help alleviate bringing large sums of money is to book accommodations in advance. Although you could save money by just showing up and renting a casa particular for around $30 CUC/night, which are virtually everywhere, for added peace of mind, this can be done through AirBnB and a few online companies. You won’t find hotels on your normal go to travel websites such as http://travelocity.com, http://priceline.com or http://expedia.com (not yet anyway), but in my research I did find a few that will work with US credit cards. We booked through http://elvoline.com and http://skoosh.com through a website all about Cuba called Cuba- Junky(http://cubajunky.com). Make a point to browse over their website before you go. There is so much great information in it. Please note, hotel rates in Cuba are extremely high and if they have a 5 star rating in Cuba, they most likely will more like a 3 star in the US, Canada or Europe. In Old Havana, they run between $400-$500 USD/ night for a standard room, bare minimum with no view. Ouch!
After reading the last section you may be thinking that it could be unsafe walking around Cuba with a bunch of cash on your person. I instantly thought of that too. I thought that by being an American, the locals would know this and we would be a walking target for getting pick-pocketed. Thankfully, from word of mouth of other Americans, talking with the locals and my personal experience, that was not an issue at all. In fact, Cuba is extremely safe and has hardly any crime. The first few days while strolling along alleys of slum neighborhoods, I had a hard time not thinking the worst, especially at night. However, once the culture shock wore off and nobody harassed us, I understood this to be true. Oddly enough when speaking to the many locals, they would ask us why we have so much violent crime in our country and boasted how they are such a safe country with no gangs and a very low crime rate. The irony.
I traveled to Cuba with my husband who is not as an adventurous traveler as I am. In other words, he is a bit on the high maintenance side. This means he prefers hotel living over AirBnB rentals or homestays. In Cuba, the best and the cheapest way to stay is renting a casa particular, which is a phrase meaning private accommodation or private homestays in Cuba, much like a bed and breakfast. You don’t even need to book them in advance, actually you can’t with most, but some use AirBnb to advertise their place.
There are signs virtually everywhere you look for rooms for rent and they will only run you about $30 CUC/night in Old Havana, and even cheaper outside of the city. On the other hand, if you want to stay in hotel, you are looking to spend easily $400+/ night. These extremely high western prices for hotel rooms don’t exactly give you western standard accommodations. Most hotels are very run down and out-dated and only have the bare essentials.
- The positive of staying in a casa particular is saving so much money and experiencing the true culture of Cuba. Most casa particulars offer dirt cheap meals too and you get to immerse with the locals.
- The negative of staying in a casa particular is you will not have wifi, won’t have a television, and probably wont have air-conditioning either.
- The positive of staying in a hotel is you will usually get breakfast included, television, wifi (with a charge of $2.00-$4.50 per hour), air-conditioning, restaurants, and maybe even a pool. Also, if you prefer booking ahead of time, this is the best way to do it. Furthermore, if you book ahead you will now only have to bring spending money with you.
- The negative for staying in a hotel is the high cost for subpar standard rooms and not getting to know the locals.
In hindsight, I wish we would have stayed in a casa particular. Maybe if I go again without my husband, I will?
If you visit Cuba, you may have a hard time finding foods you like if you are kosher or a vegetarian. Their main source of protein is pork, with more pork on top of pork. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but the menus have numerous pork dishes and you will find whole roasted pigs at every restaurant and paladar you visit. A paladar is a restaurant run by self-employers, unlike a hotel chain or a government-run restaurant.
If you have a sensitive stomach you may want to avoid them, or only go to ones that are recommended, because you will not be positive of food handling safety. However, if you aren’t too concerned and want an authentic, cheap, Cuban meal, it may be your best option. If you don’t like pork, you may like one of the national dishes of Cuba made from beef (more commonly lamb at paladars) called ropa vieja. It is made with shredded meat, a tomato based sauce and vegetables. It’s usually served with rice and beans. I tried this at two places. The first was at a paladar and it was very chewy and tasteless, but then I had it again at Parque Central Hotel (http://hotelparquecentral-cuba.com) and it was delicious. (Make sure you visit this hotel and go to the rooftop pool and restaurant. It’s a great way to take a break from the heat and chaos down below and it has an amazing view of the El Capitolio and the city. This is true for the Saratoga Hotel(http://hotel-saratoga.com) as well, which is where we stayed on our first night.)
Vegetarians may be disappointed with salad offerings. Most of their vegetables are canned and salads are mainly made of chopped cabbage, some shredded beets, green olives and ham. So if you do order a salad, make sure you mention, no meat. The same goes for the fruit. They generally have canned fruit and the fresh fruit doesn’t look too appealing. We saw this at all of the hotels and restaurants we went to and were very surprised. I would have thought in a tropical location there would be an abundance, but this wasn’t the case. They did have some street vendors selling fruits and vegetables but there were very slim pickings.
If you like protein bars, snacks or nuts, you will not find them anywhere. Same goes for hair conditioner and sunblock. If you can find them, they will be super expensive. If you know you will want these items, make sure you pack them with you. Also remember like any 3rd world country, it is not safe to drink the water. Always use bottled water, even for brushing your teeth. Keep in mind, if you are drinking coffee with milk in a paladar, they use unpasteurized milk, but hotels will have pasteurized milk. Same rule applies to ice as with water in paladars, so stick to no ice or canned drinks, but in hotels you will be fine.
Just like any big city, Old Havana has taxis everywhere you go. What’s so special about Cuba is you may end up in a classic 50’s car. These cool cars make you feel like you are in a time warp. The reason they are still around is because of the embargo with the United States. Since 1961, during the Cold War, the United States blocked any US companies from trading with Cuba, leaving Cuban people holding on to their vintage American cars, patching them up and using any parts they can get from other countries to keep them running. Walking around Old Havana you feel like you are in a classic car museum. It was one of my favorite things about Cuba. You will see newer Japanese and German cars, but Fords and Pontiacs will be from the 1940’s and 1950’s.
If you are spending the day strolling around Old Havana, you find out quickly how large the city is. For a fun and inexpensive way to get around you can take the hop-on-hop-off bus for $10 CUC/ per person/per day. They also have them in Varadero for $5 CUC per day/ per person. It’s especially fun getting on top of the open air double-decker bus. Keep your eyes peeled for low branches.
There are many places to visit in Cuba, each with its own unique charm. People don’t realize until visiting Cuba, just how large it really is. I surely didn’t. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and it is a little smaller than Pennsylvania. It is 760 miles long and 55 miles wide. It will take you 12 hours to drive from one side to the other. Because of this, I wasn’t able to go to two places I had originally planned on. Trinidad (a colonial town that was highly recommended and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988), which was 4 hours away by car, and I could have gone to Vinales (the valley where they grow tobacco and was told how gorgeous it is) since it wasn’t too far from Old Havana (could be visited for a day tour), but we ran out of time. We were also shorted by one day due to snow and delays from de-icing our plane.
Besides Old Havana, we split the week in half, spending three days in Varadero at their pristine white sand beaches and perfectly turquoise ocean water, which was a two-hour drive from Havana. Going there you will not find any culture, as it is void of locals, but full of Canadian and European tourists and all-inclusive resorts. I knew this before visiting the area, but we wanted to spend a few days relaxing on the beach and getting some much-needed sunshine, especially coming from two major blizzards in our home state.
If you weren’t prepared with some knowledge on the distance of places, not to mention the high expense for the transportation to and from them, you could be very disappointed. Mapping out your itinerary ahead of time may help you organize your trip better.
Here are a few examples of typical cab fare from Old Havana to popular cities:
Old Havana to Varadero is $120 CUC one way
Old Havana to Trinidad is $160 CUC one way
Old Havana to Havana airport is $30 CUC
Old Havana to Vinales is $100 CUC one way
Old Havana to Santa Clara is $140 CUC one way
To save money on transportation, you may choose to use their bus system. Taking the Viazul bus from Havana to Varadero is only $10.00 CUC, from Havana to Trinidad its only $25.00 CUC. (To see their schedule you can check out their website at http://viazul.com, they leave four times per day to many cities nation wide.) This is a huge difference, but don’t forget that you need cab fare to and from both bus terminals and they are not always right where you want to be when you get to your destination. Also, it takes longer and you will not get to make any stops if you see anything of interest on your way. We were going to take the Viazul bus from Havana to Varadero, but once we got to the bus station, we were approached by a cab driver who was willing to make a deal with us and another couple. We ended up sharing a cab for $20 CUC each ($80 CUC total), and was delivered straight to the front door of our hotel. The cab driver was also kind enough to help find a casa particular for the other couple who didn’t have a reservation anywhere. It was high season and at first he had no luck finding a room at the first few places we checked, but low and behold, he found something for them. So remember this if you have no hotel booked ahead of time and need a place to stay. The cab drivers always can find a room for you and are happy to help. I think they get a finder’s fee for it too? (another way to help the Cuban people). It may have been a little more money but when we figured the $25 CUC we would probably spent to and from each bus terminal and the $10 CUC each for the bus equaling a total of $70 CUC, what was another $10 CUC for the convenience? Plus we made friends with a really nice Serbian couple and talked the entire ride. They may even come for a visit to stay with us in New Hampshire. They love skiing and are planning a trip to New York City soon.
One place that is a must-see on your visit to Cuba is the hottest new spot in Havana. It is Fabrica De Arte Cubano (www.fac.cu), which is an art museum/club/ restaurant. There is no dress code and you will find people of all ages there with a mix of locals and tourists. It’s super trendy and seems like something you would find in New York City. The place opens at 8:00 pm, but be sure to arrive early because the lines get extremely long. Also, we didn’t get to do this, but there is a restaurant right next door that is supposed to be good, and if you dine there beforehand, you get VIP entrance. It is an old peanut factory that offers Caribbean, Latin and Cuban food and it is called El Cocinero (elconcinero.cuba). Reservation is needed.
Another thing worth mentioning, (even though I didn’t try it myself) is La Guarida restaurant (laguarida.com). By word of mouth, it is supposed to be the best restaurant in Havana. I heard about this and knew it was going to be very popular so I would need a reservation. I booked it for the last night of our trip. During our visit we weren’t having the best of luck with food, so I was even more excited to end my week with a delicious meal. When we arrived the hostess said she could not find my reservation. I told her I booked it online last week and she went back to check her computer. Still nothing. At the same time there was another couple from Ireland who ran into the same issue. We were all so disappointed. We talked to them and they told us about a cool new art place and restaurant they were told about (you know the one). Then, we bumped into a young American girl from Minnesota who asked if we were eating there. We told her our story ad she said the same happened to her, but she ended up getting a table on another day. She was visiting Cuba for 18 days and will be spending quite some time in Havana with her husband and baby, Juddah. She said the meal was so good and they only one she really enjoyed since she has been there, that she booked lunches for the rest of the week there, since they are much easier to get. She loved the place so much, she changed the location of her casa particular purposely to be next door to it! If that’s not a good recommendation then I don’t know what is? So, obviously booking online for a reservation is a joke, but if you go there in person right when you arrive, they will probably have availability to dine there at least once on your visit.
I didn’t cover a whole lot on Varadero, Cuba and the reason is because its your typical all-inclusive beach resort area. You really wouldn’t know if you were in Cuba, Bahamas, Dominican Republic or Mexico. If you love white sand beaches and crystal clear blue water, this is a perfect stop for you. If you want a ton of culture and history, you won’t find it here. We spent three days at the Royalton Hicacos Resort( http://hotelroyaltonhicacos.com). It was said to be the best resort in Varadero. It was nice, but if this was the best one, I can’t even imagine the worst one. It used to be a Sandals property, but they sold it to Blue Diamond resorts company. Our time there fell on Valentine’s Day, so it was really romantic at sunset on the beach.
They even offered a special Valentine’s dinner on the beach for an added fee. We didn’t do that because the food at the resort wasn’t good. I actually was supposed to teach yoga there through a company called NRG2GO (http://nrg2go.net) two years ago, but at the last-minute the company cancelled because they had a problem getting me a work visa. I was so disappointed because this was right at the beginning of Americans being able to travel to Cuba and I thought this was my in, but due to this, it was too complicated for them to want to deal with. They ended up hiring a Canadian yoga instructor instead.
After a few days of eating the lackluster buffet-style meals at the resort, we wanted to get off the compound and find a restaurant in town, and explore Varadero a little. We took the hop-on-hop-off bus to the center. There were shops and horse-drawn carriages, a few restaurants and bars and of course, the beach. We stood in front of a restaurant reading it’s menu and we were stopped by a nice Canadian man who is always there for business. He noticed that we were looking for a place to eat and suggested the best place called Varadero 60 (http://varadero60.com). He said it may not be as good as food in the States, but it’s the closest you will find in Varadero. I’m so glad he suggested it because he was right and if he didn’t tell us we would have never found it since it’s location was on a back street a few blocked away from the main road. Also, we would have never gotten a reservation because it is so popular, but because we went so early, at 5:00pm, the dinner crowd hadn’t come yet. Their reservations start at 6:00pm. We had a lovely meal and at the end, they gave me a red rose. It was a nice touch.
After we ate a nice meal at Varadero 60, we went to the Beatles Bar to hear some live music. It was a really cool place and if you are a Beatles fan, you will love it!
Then, we obviously had to go check out the beach. It was just as pretty as the beach at our resort.
Cuba is an amazing place to visit. It’s like nothing I have ever seen. It is a mix of old-world charm, rumba music, dance, art, history, culture, classic cars, cigars, beaches, valleys, colonial towns and friendly people, but, there are things to know before going to Cuba for Americans. I hope I covered the most important ones in this post. If you are planning on visiting Cuba and have any other questions I’d be happy to help if I can. My biggest piece of advice I can give you, is to go now, before there are McDonald’s and Starbuck’s on every corner.