A Girls Guide for Your Trip to Cuba
A good amount of people have reached out to me for tips, advice, and a general synopsis of my April 2017 trip to Havana and Viñales. I don’t usually publish things like this but since Cuba is such a unique experience and country to visit — especially for Americans — I felt the need to do one for my friends and family who are looking to visit soon. All information is based on my experience and current as of April 2017.
I split the details of my experience and this tips list into 2 different pieces to make it easier on the eyes. You can find my story here that will have recommendations of places to visit and my thoughts on the ever-changing Cuban atmosphere.
1. NIGHTLIFE is almost nonexistent in the foreign eye.
To give you perspective — the average Cuban makes about 27 CUC a month. The majority can’t afford to eat out or go to the bars. Almost every bar/club has a cover fee. It’s common to see people loitering outside because they can’t afford to go in. In fact, it’s common to see a lot of people outside at night, just hanging out. That’s their entertainment…hanging around outside and people watching or chatting. Literally. This is why porches and stoops were invented!
Of course, there are dancing clubs and bars everywhere that feature live bands and salsa dancing. But they are mostly filled with tourists and you pay for the live entertainment as well. On top of the cover fee and the drinks, every performing group will go around asking for money after they are done. You don’t have to tip them…but I’m an American and tipping culture is ingrained in me. Plus, it felt weird not to when they’re shoving a basket in front of your face after you’ve just danced your socks off with them.
Other than checking out Fábrica de Arte Cubano for nightlife…the Malecón becomes a giant dance party (sal. sa. dan. cing.) as it is filled with people at night. It’s so refreshing to see the outdoors become the biggest playground for them all — as it should be!! Impulsive web browsing and television watching are diseases of today’s modern society. Not witnessing someone combusting after being away from their phones for more than 10 minutes was a breath of fresh air and made me nostalgic of my 90s childhood. Ah, the good times, pre-technology. Grab a bottle of rum and put on that red dress for an evening out with the locals!
2. SPEAKING OF RUM…
Did I mention that rum is cheaper than water there?? So the only logical answer is to drown yourself in some fine rum, duh! Well, at least it used to be cheaper than water (2.50 CUC for a liter!)…still, it’s so cheap to pregame that you shouldn’t even bother buying cocktails at the bar. Cocktails are for tourists (seriously I was lectured on this at a tobacco farm); real Cubans sip on rum and usually pair it with a cigar. These two go hand-in-hand and are crafted meticulously — appreciate the art! Don’t worry, you won’t be drinking Captain Morgan either. You’re in the Caribbean. A 70 cl (~700 ml) bottle of Havana Club Añejo Especial is between 6–7 CUC…7 CUC!! Drink away, my friends.
3. THE WATER MYTH
Despite what word on the street is, sometimes even a locals word, tap water is safe to drink in Cuba. On top of that, a hallmark of the revolution was the promise to provide the country with access to clean, drinkable tap water. Bottled water is cheap if you’re still not comfortable drinking tap though. You can find 1 gallon for 1.50–2 CUC. Ask your host/hotel where to find these as most places sell the small bottles for 1.50 to tourists.
You’re probably going to get scammed by someone on the street. Remember, the average Cuban makes 27 CUC a month — they have to supplement their income by hustling! If anyone invites you to a special sale on cigars or a festival of the sort, don’t go (unless you want to). The cigars are fake…fake as in not the brand names they’re being sold as, and are probably mixed with things other than tobacco leaves. Ask your host/hotel for cigar recommendations or buy it straight from a tobacco farm or factory.
My host got us a beautiful box of 25 Cohibas — Cuba’s top brand and what Fidel Castro smoked. To give you perspective, one Cohiba Esplendido cigar costs around $37 each. If you’re purchasing a box of cigars, let alone Cohibas, make sure you examine the box and cigars themselves carefully. You can watch YouTube videos on how to detect a fake box. The box should have a state warranty seal on it, among other things.
However, if you’re not a big connoisseur and don’t really care, then just buy a fake box! But don’t buy it from hustlers on the street that’ll invite you to a house to purchase them. Again, that is probably blended with things you don’t want to smoke (hair, weeds, shit). When I say buy fake cigars, I mean go ahead and buy those Cohibas that are probably a Monte Cristo quality. Still real Cuban tobacco. I learned from my tobacco farm tour in Viñales that all tobacco is grown from the same plant. The different variations we see in cuts and brands are in the way the leaves on each plant is grown and groomed. For example, “Cohiba” quality cigars are taken from the top leaves of a plant because it gets the most sunlight (water is the enemy of tobacco). The tobacco quality is taken top down.
Top 3 Cuban brands:
- Monte Cristo
- Romeo & Juliet (said to be an aphrodisiac…it’s joked that if a farmer smokes one before bed, he’ll end up with 3 kids in the morning)
There is a certain way to smoke cigars as well. You don’t smoke it like a cigarette; it will kill your lungs as it is much stronger!! It is kept in your mouth instead of inhaling it all the way down to your lungs. Cigars are smoked for the taste. If the taste is too strong for you, as it would be for most novices, you can dip the mouth piece into rum or honey to help with the taste. Yes, this is a real method. Many Cubans do this. Make sure to pair it with a fine glass of rum, pinkie up, and feel fancy!
Ask whoever you bought your cigars from on how to preserve them if you don’t plan on smoking them soon. And let me know as well please :)
5. ALWAYS TRY TO HAGGLE
Keep in mind that Cubans think any tourists are loaded with money. I don’t think some of them realize that some of us brought exact cash, down to the penny, to last in Cuba. If you think about it…1 CUC is a lot to them if the average person makes 27 CUC. So always try to haggle! Be nice but firm.
The only time I used a taxi was when our legs were dead from walking all day and we didn’t want to spend the time to walk back to our casa — even though Havana is very walkable. You should never pay more than 5 CUC for a ride to anywhere in Havana. Don’t tip either (unless you want to). Always try haggling first…start off by saying, “ayer pagué 3 dólares para llegar a la vieja havana”. Which should translate to something like, “Yesterday I paid 3 CUC to get to Old Havana”. Ask your host/hotel for a better translation. It should also be a flat 25 CUC ride to/from the airport. Have your host/hotel pre-arrange this.
The food was nothing to write home about. In fact, I got an upset stomach every day and lost weight after my trip. Avoid any of the top rated paladars on TripAdvisor. They are a tourist trap and a waste of your money. We ate at 2 places from that list (La Guarida and El Chanchullero de Tapas) and paid 15–25 CUC per person for food you can get down the street for a cheaper price. It’s just a hype. Don’t give in to the hype!! If you must try one of these popular paladars, then I’d recommend El Chanchullero de Tapas. I didn’t get past 5 bites at La Guarida because my 20 CUC chicken, that wasn’t served with anything else, was so dry. El Chanchullero de Tapas food was good but not good enough for the price. The prices are hiked up because of its popularity on TripAdvisor, made popular by tourists.
On average, you should only be paying 10 CUC MAX for your food — that includes a drink and any “service fee” that they tax on. I would get recommendations from your host/hotel. The only meal worth raving about was at El Paraiso in Viñales. Now THAT was a real Cuban spread. The best part is that it’s literally farm to fork as the paladar is on the organic farm itself!
My host recommended us El Biky in Central Havana and Los Nardos in Old Havana, across from the Capitol. Both were good and cheap and I’d recommend them. A Cuban meal typically consists of rice, beans, and meat (usually pork or chicken) so there isn’t much variation to choose from either. Italian food is popular in Cuba and I ate more of that than I did with Cuban cuisine.
My trip would not have been possible if it wasn’t for my wonderful hosts. My first pick for a Casa Particular was booked so she connected me with her friend (a couple) who was absolutely amazing. I recommend staying with one of them if they’re available. A casa particular is a perfect way to immerse yourself in Cuban culture and to mingle with a real Cuban local who can help you with anything and everything! Michel, one of our hosts, literally had a contact for everything that you’d think he was leading Cuba himself! He helped us book our drive to Viñales, got us a great box of Cohiba cigars, recommended great places to eat, helped us exchange money, and the list goes on and on!
Please note that communication is limited for Cubans because of the internet so don’t take it personally when you don’t get a reply for weeks. Feel free to reach out to me if you stay with either of them and have questions.
- Lisbeth: email@example.com (she’s so awesome)
- Sunamy and Michel: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Write to all 3 contacts as sometimes an inbox is too full to receive messages.
If you decide you don’t want to stay with the above contacts or they are booked during your dates, you can find a Casa Particular on Airbnb.com or by visiting Couchsurfing.com. I’m a huge couchsurfing advocate. Couchsurfing is a platform that allows you to host or stay at a locals home…completely free! Understand that this is not meant as a freeloading opportunity but as a chance for human beings to spread love, culture, and knowledge to the world by opening their homes in this unique exchange. However, free accommodation is illegal in Cuba (income is regulated) so Cubans use couchsurfing as another platform to promote themselves. Other than that, booking an accommodation is mostly word of mouth.
If you’re a first time Airbnb user, create your account through this link and you’ll receive $40 towards your first trip of $75 or more!
If there’s one thing about Cuba…it’s that nothing makes sense. This is especially true to their currency system. No one can explain why they have 2 currencies!! There’s the Cuban Peso (CUP) that locals use and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) that locals also use but is generally geared towards foreign use. You’ll be sticking with the CUC — it is accepted everywhere. The USD has a 1:1 exchange rate but the Cuban government imposes a 10% tax on USD. So you’re really getting 1 CUC for $0.90. Exchange your USD to EUROS before departing, then exchange your EUROS to CUC when you land. Euros have a better exchange rate and you can only exchange your currency in Cuba. Always get a receipt and GET SMALL BILLS!!
Bring extra emergency cash either in USD or Euros just in case. American credit cards will not work. In fact, I don’t think they even take credit cards anywhere. This is a cash-only country. I calculated everything down to the penny for my trip and brought an extra $150 for emergencies. Didn’t need it. I brought 515 Euros to exchange for about 560 CUC (it can fluctuate depending on the exchange rate at the time) that covered me for 5 days and 4 nights. This included paying for my housing, food, transportation, a day trip, and souvenirs.
10. ELECTRICAL CURRENT
It’s pretty much the same as the U.S. and Europe. My casa had the U.S. pronged outlets and U.S. voltage output. I didn’t need to bring a converter or adapter.
11. THINGS TO BRING
Your accommodation should have towels and pillows…but they’re very low quality or practically nonexistent. You’ll thank me.
- Hand soap
- Toilet paper
- Hand sanitizer
- Tissue paper (they charge you for TP every time you use the toilet so bring your own)
- House/shower sandals
- Air freshener
- Shampoo/conditioner/toothpaste/face wash
- Bug repellent
- External battery
- Paper and pen
- Diarrhea medicine
- Woman hygiene products if you’re expecting a visit from Mother Nature!
I bought a SIM card that was preloaded with 100mb of data. It’s not amazing but was enough to load Google maps for me. Everything else advertised on there did not work for me (emailing specifically) but I still found it very helpful with the maps. If you get this SIM card, make sure to configure your phone to turn off cellular data usage for all apps (except the ones you’ll be using) to prevent any surprise data consumption. A good tip is to turn your phone on airplane mode after loading your destination. Google maps will still work and pinpoint your location and it won’t waste data! Don’t even try accessing social media as it will drain 10%-25% of your mb within seconds. You will need an unlocked phone to use this SIM.
12. THINGS TO DO BEFORE DEPARTING TO CUBA
- Don’t forget to print and bring all your required travel documents.
- Download an offline version of the Spanish language on google translate.
- Download an offline version of Cuba on google maps.
- Download the Galileo Offline Maps app as a backup.
- Download a currency conversion app so you know what the current rates are.
- Exchange cash.
- Have fun!!
13. GIFTS TO BRING
As you can imagine, Cuba doesn’t have a lot of items (yet) due to the past embargo. Everyday items that we take for granted are very appreciated over there. Things like soap or towels are heavily sought for. You can maximize space by bringing your own toiletries and towels and leaving it there after your trip! After all, you won’t need them anymore and can easily get them again back in the states. I brought my sisters unwanted toys, candy, sunglasses, towels etc. to pass out. The look on their faces and their genuine reaction of happiness was well worth it. It’s also a good way to befriend a local! I’ll list some items in order of preference:
- Children toys
- Toiletries (soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, etc.)
- School supplies
- Books in Spanish (Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world!)
- Music or movies on a flash drive
- Old clothes
- Old shoes (wear them then leave them!)
Some of these things you can bring for your own use during the trip and then leave it behind when your trip ends! Travel size bars of soap and pens are great and easy to hand out.
14. FLIGHTS FOR AMERICANS
As far as I know, there are only a handful of airlines that have direct flights to Havana and operate in select cities. As of April 2017, it’s pretty easy to fly to Havana from the U.S. Each airline operates a daily flight from a select city. For example, I flew with Alaska Airlines because they are currently the only airline that has a direct flight from my closest international airport, LAX. Other airlines, like Southwest and JetBlue, can take you to Havana but you’ll have a layover in the city it directly flies out of. For example, Southwest has flights to Havana from Florida. So, if you’re in California and book a flight with Southwest, you’re going to fly into Florida, then Florida to Havana.
I found my flight through my favorite search engine: Momondo.com. Kayak.com and Skyscanner.com will show flights to Cuba as well. Always search for flights in incognito mode on your browser! JetBlue and Southwest does not affiliate themselves with search engines — you’ll have to search up flights directly on their websites.
15. U.S. REQUIREMENTS TO ENTER CUBA
…is growing more and more lax as each day passes. I encourage you to be proactive and check the latest updates when you decide to visit Cuba. Things change quickly. Everything I’m listing is current as of April 2017.
YOU MUST FALL UNDER 1 OF THE 12 CATEGORIES to travel to Cuba as a U.S. citizen. Travel to Cuba for tourist activities is still technically prohibited by law…but I’ll help you get pass that~
1. Family visits
2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
3. Journalistic activity
4. Professional research and professional meetings
5. Educational activities and people-to-people exchanges
6. Religious activities
7. Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
8. Support for the Cuban people
9. Humanitarian project
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
12. Certain authorized export transactions
#5 is the category most Americans will fall under as it’s basically the same as being a tourist. You’ll be travelling to Cuba to educate yourself on its deep history and culture while engaging with its people on a day-to-day basis. I’d like to think of this as being a more sophisticated tourist.
Back in January, my friend had to provide an extensive itinerary showing all the educational activities he was going to do as proof that he was going for educational purposes. He couldn’t go to the beach because that’s considered a tourist activity. I traveled to Cuba in April and didn’t have to provide one to Alaska Airlines; I’d still make one just in case though. For the most part, the Cuban government doesn’t care what you’re there for — they’ll take your money and let you in!
THE VISA…depends on what category you are under. Most Americans will fall under #5 and will get a Tourist Card. Some airlines will let you buy the visa during check-in for $50 (Delta, Southwest, United) or refer you to a third-party service. To my knowledge, all the airlines have their visas taken care of by Cuba Travel Services.
It’s $50 for the visa plus a $35 processing fee…plus $25 shipping. It’s only $50 at the airport and administered by CTS as well. CTS even has a special page for you to purchase the visa online for a flat $50 but only exclusive to Southwest. I thought it was ridiculous to have such a discrepancy in prices when it’s all administered by the same company. It’s pretty much a monopoly and I feel like the difference in prices is just to make money off of you. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way around this. I’ve heard that you could take a flight and have a layover in an airport or country that sells the tourist visa card for $50 on the spot. I encourage you to read up on this alternative and to double check with your airline what their visa process is.
Alaska Airlines operates out of Los Angeles, California for direct flights and they refer you to purchase the visa on the CTS website (bummer). At least I was able to save on the $25 shipping by picking it up at their office, located in Cypress, CA. If you’re near the area, make sure to contact them about this option after you made your purchase. It’s not something they advertise.
TRAVEL HEALTH INSURANCE…is required to enter Cuba. Luckily, most airlines include this into your airfare price already. Your flight ticket is your proof of health insurance if you were to get hurt and need to seek medical services.
In any case, it is your responsibility to check up on the latest requirements to travel to Cuba with your airline as each airline may require other things on top of what I’ve mentioned. You can do this by simply typing in your airline name + Cuba into a search engine and a link to their Cuba information web page should pop up. For example, I typed “alaska airlines cuba” into google. And of course, you need a valid passport to travel!
16. BRINGING BACK SOUVENIRS
As of April 2017, you can bring back an “unlimited” amount of rum and cigars for personal consumption only. Meaning you should use your best judgement and not bring back 1000 cigars. On the other hand, the Cuban government “limits” you to 50 cigars. Anything over 50 will need a receipt (which you should always get!) and you’re good to go.
17. AIRPORT/DUTY-FREE/LUGGAGE ALLOWANCE
I always travel with a carry-on only because I don’t want to pay for checked-in luggage or wait for my luggage/risk it being lost (has happened before). That means I’m limited on what I can bring back…that’s why there are duty-free stores!! However, the duty-free store at the Havana airport is like the rest of the city: underdeveloped. There is only 1 duty-free store at the airport. The rum prices are maybe 1–2 CUC higher than what is outside but is still pretty cheap. However, I wasn’t aware that Alaska Airlines allowed 2 free checked-in luggage when you’re returning to the U.S. You only pay for checked-in luggage when you’re traveling to Cuba. I’m not sure if all airlines do this so be sure to check with the airline you’re flying with!
Monique purchased her duty-free goodies with a large CUC bill (100) and was able to get her change back in USD at a 1:1 rate! I think this will only work if you have a large bill but it is not guaranteed.
Don’t forget to find out which terminal your flight flies out from when you land in Cuba. Taxis will charge an arm and a leg to take you to the right terminal if you got dropped off at the wrong one! Make sure to come 3 hours before your flight leaves as everything in Cuba is slow…checking-in and getting through security can take some time. Better safe than sorry!
18. DON’T EXPECT TO USE INTERNET AT ALL
About 2 years ago the Cuban government struck a deal with Venezuela by trading the service of Cuban doctors for some internet. People can only access the web through 240 public access WiFi spots scattered throughout the country. If you see a bunch of people congregated in one area…that means there is a WiFi spot there. The WiFi is expensive to use and very slow — only good for checking email and some news outlets. However, it’s been announced last week that Google finally switched on servers that will allow material stored in-country to load much quicker than their current Venezuelan-provided internet. Another example of how quickly change is coming to Cuba. But the change is working behind closed doors — daily life in Cuba is still very much slow and unaltered.
You will survive without internet. There was life before smartphones and the world wide web. Embrace it and enjoy being unplugged!
A little preparation goes a long away and eliminates our reliance on technology — PRINT OUT EVERYTHING YOU NEED BEFOREHAND.
One of the interesting things I noticed on my flight back home that helped solidified the fact that yes, we are definitely a society that heavily relies on technology and are glued to our phones, was how calm everyone was when our plane touched down. Usually, as soon as a plane touches the ground and parks, everyone gets up to get their luggage and tries to rush pass everyone. As if no one else had to be somewhere as well…(it’s a pet peeve of mine). But on this plane ride, no one was in a hurry to get up. I was actually quite surprised. Then…as I looked around…I could see why. Everyone was on their phones reconnecting to the modern world. Good or bad? You decide.
19. THE CUBAN CULTURE
There were 2 notable things for me. One was how aggressive the catcalling is here! I was so annoyed but realized that that’s just how the culture and social mannerisms in this country is. Plus, no harm, no foul. You’ll tire yourself out within 10 minutes if you get upset at each and every one of them. Learn to roll with the punches and take them as a compliment because you will literally be catcalled on every block.
Two, Cubans are probably one of the best mechanics in the world. Can you imagine keeping a car running for 50+ years? Most of the cars there have been replaced with a foreign engine — like Hyundai. It’s common to see Cubans working on their car in the middle of the streets.
I hope some of this information becomes useful for you — I know it’s quite lengthy! Cuba is one of those countries where you should do research and come prepared. But not too prepared! Yes, it’s good to have a general itinerary to follow but use it as a guide, not a strict schedule.
You can check out my thoughts, experience, and recommendations for places to visit here.
Remember, you are entering a foreign country. RESPECT the culture and its people. Don’t bring up sensitive topics or any of your ethnocentrism. Cuba is unique since it is completely new to American visitors — nothing is more exciting than experiencing something for the first time. Let’s make a good first impression as we continue to improve and strengthen our countries relations with one another!
I’ve read recently that Americans are less interested to travel to Cuba this year than they were in 2016 because of the misconception that it is not easy to visit. This was disappointing to me because it shows that people aren’t reading up on these travel restrictions and are missing out on a great experience. Yes, it’s not easy to travel to Cuba because you have to put in a bit of work to prepare for your trip. Well, guess what? Nothing great in life ever comes easy!
Researching on the U.S. requirements to be able to travel to Cuba is not challenging at all — it’s just tedious. From my past experience and friends of mine, you only really need a visa, travel insurance, and a valid passport to be able to travel to Cuba. If you read through this whole piece you’ll know that getting a visa is not difficult (point 15). Your respective airline will list any other requirements that you need.
However, I can see what the major cause of anxiety for American tourists can be — Cuba’s lack of an efficient travel infrastructure. It’ll be a while until Cuba reaches a level of comfort that’ll satisfy many high-maintenance tourists; American or not. If you travel to a foreign country and can’t embrace its way of life or step outside of your comfort zone by leaving your safety nets (credit cards, smart phones, internet) at home…then Cuba probably is not the best place for you to visit right now.
But I strongly encourage you to break down your walls and make room for bridges by traveling outside of your world and into another.
“Take them as inspiration, accept them as challenges or follow them as rules. Just remember that the world is open to those with an open mind.
We believe that travel opens our world and our minds. Let’s open our world.
We only have one world, but it’s divided. We tend to think that there are more things dividing us than uniting us.
…everybody should be able to travel the world, to meet other people, and experience other cultures and religions. Travel opens our minds: when we experience something different, we begin to see things differently.” — Momondo