An American in Cuba
Way back in 2014 when President Obama announced that U.S. relations with Cuba would be normalized, I knew I had to make a move. While “tourist” travel is still prohibited, 12 new options became available in January 2015.
So, I went with my girlfriend. Upon returning we’ve been inundated with questions from our curious American friends who up until now, Cuba had just been a twinkle in their eye. I’ve decided to share our experience, as I know millions of others out there are eager to visit our “it’s complicated” friend Cuba.
Option #8 in the list of approved reasons for travel is “Support for the Cuban people”. That right there is your easiest way in. Cubans are in desperate need of basic necessities. Toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, clothing. The things we take for granted are the thing they need most. Bringing over a box of these things are your ticket into the country. Staying in a Casa particular? The money paid to your host is considered support. Visiting El Nicho Waterfalls? Your entry cost goes to the preservation of the park. That’s support too.
In the end though, we didn’t opt for any of the 12 choices for legal travel. We were concerned that since the process was so new, the U.S. government would give us trouble without a physical license in-hand. We found an organization called EchoCuba who granted us licenses ($150 each) for People-to-people travel. The money went to a good cause, and enabled us to travel without worry. They mostly do expensive group trips, but if you email them, they’ll hook you up with the license so you can make your own itinerary and do it solo. Going with a group can cost multiple thousands of dollars. Also, for what it’s worth, we never once were asked to show these licenses to anyone. Just saying.
Booking the travel
I’m getting ahead of myself though. The first thing you need to do is book your flight and accommodations. If you go the route we did, acquiring a license, your travel information is required when applying for that travel license. You’re going to want to begin this process no less than 1 month prior to the time you actually want to go so you have ample time to get all your paperwork and everything in order.
We live in New York, and when we booked, our options were extremely limited in terms of getting a flight out. (UPDATE: 11/28/16 — regular direct flights from JFK just launched via Jet Blue for as low as $200 RT from NYC or $110 from Florida). We decided to extend our vacation and hang out in Miami first, where there are multiple flights to Cuba per day. We booked our flight through Cuba Travel Services via CheapAir.com which run charters from MIA to HAV. It cost us $470 per person round trip. The day after booking we were contacted by Cuba Travel Services so we could provide them with some information as well as $85 per person for a Visa.
Next, we booked our accommodations using Airbnb. Hotels are expensive and we thought it’d be better to give the money directly to a Cuban (Most hotels are government run). We booked a room in the heart of Old Havana for only $50 per night. I’ll tell you more about our accommodations a little later.
Before you leave
Convert as much money as you think you’ll need to Euros. Converting USD to CUC will screw you over big time. EUR to CUC offers a much more reasonable exchange rate. You can’t get CUC in the states, you’ll exchange your Euros at the airport in Havana.
Your credit and debit cards won’t work in Cuba, so don’t even bother bringing them. Make sure you bring more cash with you than you think you’ll need — it’s better to have too much than to run out and have to wash dishes or sell your body to the night to get by for the rest of your trip.
To help us get around, we printed out an extremely detailed list of things to do with their exact locations, detailed maps as well as bus times and any other information we’d typically just Google to find out here in the US. We also brought guide books and fold-out map of the country to help us along our way. As it turns out, guide books are useless, outdated and generally only lead you to tourist traps. We used the Lonely Planet Cuba Guide and we suggest that you don’t. Do research ahead of time and don’t rely on a book.
Arriving at the airport
If airports weren’t already nerve-wracking enough, what with the pat-downs, radiation exposure and bomb-sniffing dogs all up in your business, imagine traveling to a country that’s been blacklisted for the better part of 55 years. As it turns out, we didn’t have anything to worry about.
Not a single eyebrow was raised through the entire process. We showed up at the ticket counter for Sun Country Airlines (our charter flight was operated by them) and there was a friendly agent from Cuba Travel Services right up front who handed us our visas and sent us to check in. After paying the $25 per person departure tax and checking our baggage, we breezed right through the security line and waited for our departure.
As we were waiting to depart, a golf cart full of Paul Blart mall cop look-alikes rolled up on some guy, handcuffed him and whisked him away. We never found out what happened but it didn’t seem like it was going to end too well for him.
Landing In Cuba
A short 45-minute flight later, we were in Havana! We made it through customs fairly quickly, and then here’s where things got a little tricky. We had arranged with our AirBNB host to pick us up from the airport. All we gave him was an approximate arrival time, and all we had from his was a picture of his face. After about an hour of searching the outside of the airport we decided he might not have shown up, and took a taxi to the AirBNB instead. As it turns out, he had a relative in the USA doing all the back-and-forth, and it was never actually communicated to him to pick us up!
The rumors about technology in Cuba are true. There is none. Only the richest have cell phones (or those with generous family outside of Cuba), and the Internet practically doesn’t exist. A few hotels have a dial-up internet connection and to use it for an hour costs the equivalent of a one-week average Cuban salary (about $4).There is one free WiFi hub in the entire country but prepare to wait on a very long line to use it.
Arriving at our AirBNB
After a short 30 minute car ride in a classic 1955 Chevy we arrived at our AirBNB in Old Havana. Our host, Dany, and his wife Carina greeted us like we were family. After clearing up the airport pick-up confusion, they gave us a tour of the beautiful apartment. After seeing the state of most people’s homes in Old Havana, I can tell you that this apartment is a luxury oasis. Dany invited us to his own apartment and not even he lives in a place as nice as the one he rent out, not even close.
Communicating is… difficult. For a fluent Spanish speaker, you’ll get by with relative ease, but if you’re anything less than fluent, prepare yourself to do a lot of miming. The Cuban Spanish dialect is very unique and they tend to make up a lot of their own words. Thankfully, my girlfriend is fluent in Spanish so she handled 99% of the communication.
Some things to know before you explore
Cuba is an extremely safe country for travelers. Since Tourism is pretty much the only industry they have, the punishment one would get for messing around with a tourist makes it very much not worth it for them.
That doesn’t mean the country is devoid of any hustlers and swindlers. In Old Havana specifically, there are lots of folks who will walk up to you and try to get to know you only to, a couple of minutes later try to convince you to go a venue they’re almost certainly getting paid a commission to send people to. Just be aware that almost anyone coming up and talking to you probably wants something from you. Don’t be rude, but you’ll quickly realize that after the 4th or 5th time you need to come up with a solution to dismiss them as quickly as possible so you can actually go and explore. Being from New York, we were very much prepared for this.
You also need to prepare yourself to be screwed when attempting to pay for stuff. Cuba rocks a dual-currency. CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos, or “kooks”) as well as CUP, the national money or “moneda nacional”). CUCs are what you get when you exchange your money at the airport. They’re 25 times more valuable than CUPs and are designed to screw you over.
CUCs can be used for most things: Food, cab rides, hotel or casa, but in paying with these, while still cheap compared to US-standards, you’re overpaying — a lot. Your best bet would be to find a bank that can convert some CUCs to CUPs and when paying for things tell the person you only have CUPs and you’re likely to get a far cheaper rate than you would otherwise.
In Old Havana, pedicabs are everywhere. That said, it’s also illegal for tourists to ride in them. If caught in one, you won’t get in trouble, but the driver will — and you’ll need to get out. We didn’t ride in any, and opted for walking around everywhere in Havana, it’s a small enough city that it’s easy to get around on foot.
You can take a cab anywhere within about 30 minutes away from Havana for 10–15 CUC. One thing to note is that people on the job in Cuba seem to prioritize their personal business before their professional business, whether it be waiting for them to finish a conversation before they help you, or in the case of two cab drivers we had, going to pick up a family member to come along for the ride, or delivering a box to a friend while you wait patiently in the back seat.
We relented pretty early on in the trip and realized that Cuba operates on Island Time. Nobody is in a rush, and things will happen when they happen. It was not as much of as annoyance as I was anticipating and was actually quite a breath of fresh air.
If you’d like to hire a driver with a beautiful vintage car for a day, it’ll cost about $40 CUC, give or take. The owners of these cars take extremely good care of them, oftentimes it feels like they’re right off the assembly line in the 1950s, save for a few upgrades like CD players — one driver we had liked to play a burned CD with A$AP rocky songs on it, mixed with a little Celia Cruz of course.
Our AirBNB host arranged for a friend of his, a driver of a beautiful vintage car, to be our personal driver for 2 days for $120 CUC/day. His mission? To drive us from Old Havana all the way out to Trinidad (it’s about a 4-hour drive). Whenever we had a place we wanted to stop he would, and patiently waited while we explored. Apparently lots of people do this, as wherever we went there were other drivers there doing the same thing, and they all seemed to enjoy showing off their vintage cars to each other while their passengers were off doing their own thing. We made stops in Cienfuegos, El Nicho waterfalls, and a handful of beaches along the way. We stayed in Trinidad overnight, where our driver made an arrangement with a Casa Particular down there (which we stayed in for $20 CUC). The next day, he drove us back to Old Havana.
While Cuba looks small on the map, I highly suggest hiring a driver for a couple of days to take you around. Cuba is an absolutely gorgeous country and it’s very much worth exploring as much as you can.
There are also busses. We took the Viazul bus from Havana to Varadero and back one day. It was on time, it was clean and it was air conditioned. This is a much cheaper option that hiring a driver but it also takes twice as long to get anywhere.
What about food?
I’ve avoided talking about food in this article so far, and that’s simply because I don’t have much to say about it. The food in Cuba isn’t good. You will find far better Cuban food in the Miami airport. Why? I’m not sure. The food was extremely bland and none of it tasted all that fresh. Also, beware, breakfast doesn’t exist. Ham & cheese sandwiches are pretty much the sole breakfast food in Cuba. We actually had a pretty decent toasted ham & cheese in the middle of no where on the side of the road for breakfast one morning. Don’t get excited about having the best Ropa Vieja you’ve ever had in your life, it ain’t gonna happen, pal. We heard the seafood in Cuba is what’s best. Unfortunately, I don’t eat seafood and my girlfriend just didn’t get around to ordering any. If that’s your thing, give it a shot, you may have better luck.
The best things to do
As subjective as most of the article is, this section is even more so. Here’s a few things we really enjoyed.
- Private Jeep Tour to Viñales. Includes a visit to a tobacco farm, a boat ride through a cave and much more.
- Museo del Chocolate. They’ve got an amazing assortment of chocolates. We tried nearly all of the ones they offer (twice) and suggest you do the same.
- Take a Viazul bus to Varadero, a resort-like beach community. Gorgeous white sandy beaches and crystal clear water.
- Make your way to Trinidad. It is hands down the most beautiful town I’ve ever stepped foot in.
- In Trinidad: Go to the top of Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos for breathtaking views.
- In Trinidad: Visit Casa de la Musica at night for amazing live music and dance performances.
- Drop in to Fusterlandia, a short drive outside of Havana. It’s an incredibly unique experience you need to see for yourself.
- Climb to the top of El Nicho waterfall. It’s freezing cold in the water, but it’s a refreshing experience given the unbearable heat and humidity Cuba has to offer during the summer.
- Help people. My girlfriend and I donated a huge box of school supplies, found a local primary school and dropped them off. I’d highly suggest doing the same. It’s also great to bring basic toiletries like toothpaste, soap, and even clothing to give to those who ask (and you will be asked).
- No matter what you do, don’t limit yourself to Havana. That was our least favorite part of the country. Get out and explore!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it true that there’s no toilet paper anywhere?
Not entirely. 70% of the establishments we found ourselves in had toilet paper, but for those that didn’t, we were sure glad we carried some with us everywhere we went. Bring hand sanitizer too. You’ll be hard pressed to find soap anywhere.
Where can I buy cigars?
Lots of people are going to offer you cheap cigars. They’re garbage. The only places you can buy real cuban cigars are at government-run shops, and they’re gonna cost you (Cohibas are approx $20-$40 each). That said, we bought some cigars at a tobacco farm in Viñales that were $1 each and while we don’t smoke, we were told by the cigar aficionados we gave them to that they were some of the best they’ve ever had.
Can I drink the water?
Not really, no. Most restaurants serve bottled water anyway, so you don’t need to worry or think about it. It’s okay to brush your teeth though.
Are the stray animals dangerous?
Dangerous? No. Dirty? Yes. Stray animals are abundant all over Cuba, but they’re all extremely friendly, very happy and playful. You may want to worry about the diseases some of them may be carrying though, so be careful. Admittedly, I petted quite a few of them.
Can I charge my electronics?
Yes. You’re probably not using much other than a camera, but Cuba has the same outlets that America has. They also operate at 110 volts compared to the US’s 120 so you can use hair dryers and things like that too.
What can I bring back?
You can bring back up to $400 of general goods. $100 of that can be alcohol and/or tobacco-related products per person. Although, nobody actually checked our bags.
Do Cubans dislike Americans?
If they do, they never let onto it. Most were intrigued that we were there and were very excited at the prospect of more tourism money coming in. We saw a lot of anti-American (well, more like pro-socialism) propaganda everywhere though. One Billboard was just simply a fist that said “Cuba” on it, punching a drawing of Uncle Sam. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Is it true there’s no advertisements anywhere?
Yup! This was the coolest part. An entire week and a half of not being sold to by huge corporations. The only ads we saw were the aforementioned Socialist propaganda billboards on the side of the road.
Go. Have fun. Believe me when I say you want to go to Cuba before there’s a Starbucks at the Havana airport. As American tourists begin to travel there in droves, it’s kind of inevitable, isn’t it?