Cuba travel advice for Americans

Taken in Viñales

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about traveling to Cuba as an American, especially now that American based airlines are offering more and more flights to Cuba. I figured I’d write up some of my thoughts and offer (mostly) practical advice. I might still do a write up of personal travel experience, complete with all of those epiphanies, but we’ll see if that ever materializes… Anyway, I hope some of you might find this useful! And apologies in advance to those more knowledgable than I am about Cuba, I might be overgeneralizing from my fairly limited experience (e.g. the extent of poverty, etc etc).

I went to Cuba for 10 days from Dec 12–21. I wish I had stuck around much longer. Ten days was barely enough to see the three cities/towns I visited. Here are my photos : click here

Visa

First off… I’ve been asked by several people about the Visa process. For me, it was a pretty (comically) simple process.

During check-in (I flew with JetBlue), I was redirected to a separate line for Cuba flights (at JFK, it’s near baggage claim) where I had to fill out a form asking me for basic information (name, address, birthday), and my reason for travel. I just checked the box for education: person-to-person. I handed the form to the lady at the check-in desk who then asked if I needed to buy a cuban visa as well for $50. I said yes, and then I was handed a Cuban Visa. Make sure you don’t lose this — it’s apparently a huge headache to leave Cuba if you can’t supply your visa. If you want to save $30, you can find your local Cuban embassy and figure out the paperwork to get a visa for $20.

On my flight back, once I landed in the US, I had to go through customs and they asked me for the purpose of my travel. I just muttered “education,” and then they waved me through and I beelined for the airport bar. Theoretically, if you run into issues for the purpose of your travel, this would be the part where it happens. But neither I nor anyone else had any issues.

Other info: You might hear that you need Cuban health insurance or that you need to save 25 CUC to pay for an “airport tax” when leaving Cuba. At least for me, JetBlue took care of all of that, so I didn’t need to worry about it. They were included in the price of my ticket. I imagine that this is the same for other airlines as well, but you might want to double check, at least with the health insurance. With the airport tax, I asked a help desk officer at the Havana airport about the airport tax, and he said it’s paid for by the airlines, not the travelers. On my flight back, I was also never searched for fake cigars, despite claims that the Cuban government makes sure all exported cigars are real.

Get a travel book.

You’ll see a lot of tourists toting copies of Lonely Planet. I did too, and it worked pretty okay for me. Just of course, be mindful that the book makes everything sound amazing (with not at all contrived references to characters in Hemingway books, because just in case you didn’t know, Hemingway really liked Cuba. Don’t worry, you’ll definitely remember this once you’re done with the Lonely Planet guide). Likewise, all of the “local” restaurants/bars that they recommend curiously seem to only be populated by tourists. So don’t expect it to necessarily give you an idea of what “real” Cuba is like. It does however give some pretty usable maps, basic information on basics like money, common phrases, and inspiration for what to do if you find yourself wandering around aimlessly.

I didn’t have a working phone, and was able to survive/have a pretty good time mostly because of the book.

Language

If you speak any spanish, you’ll fare better than me. I learned a couple of phrases (“DONDE ESTA EL BANO”) and survived. There’s also plenty of other tourists, many from Germany and Canada, who speak english. And soon, I’m sure, many other Americans.

If you speak Spanish fluently, I’m pretty envious, as you’ll be able to engage with the locals more. You might also find your interactions more genuine and less “transactional” (e.g. jinteros that are overly friendly so that they can get you to go to an overpriced restaurant/bar). Despite the tourism, it’s still really interesting because, as many describe it, Cuba is a bit of a “time machine”. They drive around classic american cars, internet/wifi just arrived a year ago (and is largely unavailable), commercialization has yet to come, etc. And the culture is great too — people are really friendly. At one point, after some of us bought an avacado, a fellow on the street insisted that we eat it with salt and went back to his house to fetch us some. Another street merchant also gave us a free lime to go along with it.

Huuuuuuuge avacados

Money

This topic is covered really well by blogs, travel books, etc. But the gist of it is that Cuba has two currencies: CUC and CUP. As a tourist, you’ll be charged in CUC (it’s pegged to 1:1 with USD as of Dec 2016). If you’re a bit more thrifty and saavy, you can also exchange some of your CUC to CUP (1 CUC = 23-25 CUP, depending on who you ask) and buy things like a local, it’ll easily be between 2x-10x cheaper. But they also might not accept it, given that you’re a tourist or because you’re just in a touristy area. Also be mindful of making sure you get change back both in the right quantity and right currency. See here.

Aside from that, it’s usually advised to first convert your money to euros and then to CUC, once you get to Cuba. This is because there is a 10% fee for converting from USD, in addition to whatever fees the banks/cadecas decide to impose. Do the math to make sure that that 10% fee is more than the cost from your American bank, in addition to however much you value your time. But also be warned that most American debit cards aren’t accepted in Cuba.

As far as budgeting is concerned, Cuba can be pretty expensive. I’d budget ~55 CUC a day, minimum. See here.

Exchange rates on my 2nd to last day in Cuba at a local Cadeca (banks tend to be better)

Safety

Cuba is incredibly safe. Not that this is a great data point, but I lost my wallet at one point and someone handed it over to the police. I got my wallet back within two hours or so. Granted, this happened in a pretty touristy part of a small town (Trinidad). (running shorts with shallow pockets don’t store stuff well, it turns out. You think I would’ve learned this lesson after losing my cell phone and then retrieving it from the police in hong kong with the same exact shorts…)

On the other hand, my casa owner in Havana warned against pick pocketers and thieves. When I mentioned to her that I was gonna meet up with a friend, she responded that if I let him into the house, I should always keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t steal anything as Cubans can’t be trusted. But you’ll also see that people like to keep their front doors open and chill on their porches, often to just make conversation with passerbys. So I’m not sure what the verdict is. Maybe it’s just Havana that’s more prone to theft? If you’re uncertain, I think getting one of those secret pockets to store your wallet + passport will probably alleviate the risks here, since it seems like pickpocketing is the only concern.

Aside from petty crime, the crime rates, even if underreported, are supposed to be extremely low. I never felt unsafe. That being said though, I did meet female solo travelers who had their share of aggressive behavior in Cuba. I don’t really know whether they felt unsafe or not, but they just said that some of the men were very aggressive. I don’t remember the specifics of the story I was told, but in one instance, after a man approached a girl, and she had responded that she had a boyfriend, he said that “you don’t have a boyfriend, you’re by yourself.”

This is of course just my experience, and I’m sure there are also many people who might know someone that got their passport/wallet stolen. But I think the main thing to look out for are jinteros and scams. You’ll notice that the prices are absent from a lot of menus because they often try to charge as much as they can from tourists. See here for more info. I will also add though, that once I got out of Havana, there were far fewer jinteros and interactions didn’t feel as “transactional,” in the sense that the locals were just trying to squeeze money out of me.

Escaping Havana and the tourists

As far as specific things to do/see in each city are concerned, I’d suggest just consulting your travel book and/or talking to people. I hesitate to give specific advice, because I think a lot of the fun of Cuba is exploring on your own!

Not just in Havana, but everywhere, you’ll see a lot of tourists. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it makes for good company. I met a lot of really awesome people this way, actually, and I probably wouldn’t have survived without them. They also gave me great suggestions on what to do.

Anyway, I only had ten days in Cuba, so I only stayed around Havana more or less. I went to Viñales (~3 hours east of Havana) and Trinidad (~5 hours west).

  • Within Havana, check out old Havana for sure, but also walk around central havana, Vedado, and definitely the Malecon at night. Actually, in all of the cities, I really suggest trying to escape the touristy areas. It’s pretty easy — just pick a road and walk. You’ll see pretty staggering wealth disparity as the prices change from CUC to CUP, the pastel walls replaced with crumbling abandoned brick buildings, starving stray dogs, etc.
Old Havana
  • If you plan on checking out the museums in Havana, a lot of them close early, e.g. around 4–5 PM, so make sure you check that in advance. I didn’t and ended up never making it to any museums (or public attractions, really). I heard good things about Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, and Museo de la Revolucion in particular. I also enjoyed the Necropolis, even though I didn’t make it inside because it also closed at 5.
  • If you’re more of the resort type, Varadero is supposed to have the best beaches in the Carribean, or at least Cuba. If you’re not the resort type, I think it’s a huge tourist enclave. Also book your casa particulares early — there are only a few here and they fill up fast. Don’t expect it to be cheap. I never went, so I can’t say
This was just one of the beaches near Trinidad. The beaches in Vadadero are supposed to be way better.
  • [From Regina, advice if you’re interested in Vadadero]: “If you’re planning to stay in an all-inclusive in varadero, book it in advance. it’s pricier than casas, but still much cheaper than mexico’s — also snorkeling here, the water is very warm in the fall and the beaches are private , LOTS of mosquitos around here so bring spray, if you want to go snorkeling or scuba diving there are booths along the street and also at the hotels and they can set you up for a private guided snorkeling trip”
  • Viñales is definitely worth a visit. It’s incredibly pretty landscapes, and you can also go on a horseback riding tour. They’ll show you around the tobacco and coffee plantations, and give you a free sample cigar. I also heard good things about the cave tours; you can go swimming in them.
View from the swimming pool at Hotel Jazmines in Viñales.
  • [From Regina]: BE CAREFUL NOT TO DRINK THE WATER WHILE SWIMMING. “we met a tourist who ended up going to the hospital cause he accidentally gulped down some water during a cave swim. he turned out fine after a few days but not a pleasant experience”
  • Trinidad is picturesque and unreal with a lot of its architecture. I liked it so much I ended up spending the remainder of my time there, and would’ve stayed longer if I could have. Definitely stay in a casa particular and get breakfast here. While you’re in trinidad, you can go horseback riding (again), check out the beaches down south (everyone recommends playa ancon, but a lot of the beaches nearby are devoid of tourists and prettier! Playa botea offers all day snorkeling for just 6 CUC, while they charge you 1 CUC to “park” your bike at playa ancon.)
Inside a casa particular in Trinidad
  • Cienfuegos is supposed to be very pretty too, but I never made it out there sans a 5 minute pitstop with my taxi en route to Trinidad. From what I heard, it can be covered in a single day, but i also heard you can hang out with flamingos.
From my five minute pitstop in Cienfuegos
  • Santa clara is supposedly very boring. Or so I heard.

Housing and Transportation

With housing, I’d suggest just booking your first night or two via airbnb, and then figuring out the rest as you go along. Things are very much go with the flow. Once you arrive in a city, look for the casa particular signs over houses. Ask if they have space, check the houses out, and if everything seems okay, then you’re good to go. They also usually offer services like breakfast (a huge amount of food) for 5 CUC, laundry, bike rentals, tours, etc etc. Much of the tourism economy in Cuba is commission based, so it’s in their best interest to connect you with the local tours, or to help set you up with your next taxi collectivo. In my experience, the casa particular owners were also are generally very warm and friendly and tried to make sure I was happy, despite our language differences.

Usually for 5CUC, your casa owner will serve you a (massive) breakfast

It’s really amenable to a go-with-the-flow kind of travel, which is great news for people like me, that don’t have the foresight/motivation to plan and book things in advance. For instance, on my third day in Cuba, I was getting a bit bored of Havana and wanted something quieter. So I went to the viazul bus station (you can’t buy tickets online, only in person), and while all the bus tickets were sold out, a taxi collectivo driver offered to drive me to Viñales the next day for 15 CUC, which was actually 2 CUC cheaper than the bus. Plus, they’d pick me up from my casa and deliver me to my casa in Viñales, if I had one. I didn’t have a casa in Viñales, so they helped me find one once we got there.

The taxi collectivos were a really great experience. They’re usually these old classic American cars that they load up quite intimately/tight with 5–10 people, so they become sort of like a road trip. People are friendly, and I ended up making a lot of friends this way. In fact, I ended up staying in the same casa with two people I met in my taxi colectivo to Viñales, and traveling with them to Trinidad.

Taxi Collectivo en route to Trinidad

That being said though, if you have any sort of motion sickness, you might not have a pleasant experience, so bring anti-motion sickness pills. Likewise, don’t expect AC, so things can get hot, especially when the taxis are super cramped.

Like in Vinales, it was trivial to find housing once I arrived in Trinidad.

Note: December is high tourism season, so if you’re traveling to places like Havana and Vadadero in particular, you might want to book in advance. (I was able to book my first night’s stay in Havana a few days in advance through airbnb. I heard for vadedero, you need to book at least two weeks in advance. Also see here) Prices for casa particulars usually vary between 15–30 CUC depending on the season, room/location, etc.

Food

Don’t have high expectations for the food. It can be quite good (lobster, pork, chicken), but if you ask many of the locals for suggestions, you might finding them responding that they’ve never been to a restaurant before because they’re too expensive. Restaurants are almost exclusively frequented by tourists. The local eateries offer food that is not so great. Basic ham sandwich, not so great bread/baked goods, etc; although the pizza can be pretty good. My understanding of it is that for most Cubans, their diet did and still does just consist of rice, beans and chicken. Moreover, restaurants are only coming into existence recently because of the tourism boom.

The lobster was pretty amazing though

I once saw a tourist order a crossaint and then complain that it wasn’t real. He threw a huge fit, refusing to pay all of 1–2 CUC. I’m not really sure how he was expecting a real, flaky french crossaint in Cuba. Don’t be that guy.

Other thoughts

  • Things can be really really slow in Cuba. I had just come from NYC, so it was a nice change of pace, but also frustrating at times (e.g. when in line at the bank)
Lines. Everywhere.
  • This goes hand in hand with the slowness, but Cuba is a developing country, so don’t expect things to always work, to have amazing service, for things to be very clean, etc etc. During my taxi from Viñales to Trinidad for instance, our taxi broke down and our driver had to convince another driver to take us. That second driver then tried to extort us for an extra 10 CUC per person for “fuel”, but then ended up agreeing to 10 CUC extra for all of us. So if you like to schedule things and live on a strict timeline, you might find that that approach doesn’t work here. On the flip side, it goes really well with a more spontaneous personality. If you speak spanish, you can ask the bus drivers to drop you off somewhere along the way, for instance.
“Yup. We’re not going anywhere.”
  • Related to the last thought, but nothing is set in stone (I think I’ve sort of touched on this a few times already). Prices are negotiable, and can lead to price gouging if they think you’re rich. But it also means you can really change your plans last minute, and it’ll be okay. Housing, transportation, etc can always be rearranged last minute, and you can always find someway to entertain yourself. And you’ll find a lot of other tourists adopt this mindset. This also makes cuba amazing for solo traveling.
  • Depending on what kind of person/traveler you are, you might find it really refreshing to completely disconnect digitally. I certainly did, and it provided some valuable reflections on technology and society. Not having a phone forced me to engage more with people and led to a lot of serendipitous interactions just from asking for directions and the like. You also realize society/people can operate pretty okay without modern technology. The way the taxi collectivos and casa particulares self organize is pretty impressive! But if you do need internet, you’ll find people that sell wifi access for 20 minutes or so at a time. Lots of people congregate in these areas with their phones out, so they’re easy to find.
  • Like many other developing countries, tap water is not safe to drink. I brought along a sawyer mini water filter.

Other useful resources I found while prepping for the trip:

http://www.goatsontheroad.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-independent-travel-in-cuba/

http://www.athingforwords.com/cuba/traveling-to-cuba-as-an-american/

Tripadvisor, of course