Let’s just say, Cuba was a long time coming. My original flight was booked over a year ago but when Hurricane Irma hit Havana it was best to reroute someplace safer: Ireland. Fast forward. Cuba, here we come!
Getting to Cuba Part I: Documents
Visa | To enter Cuba you need a visa. A simple Google search will do (try Cuba Travel Services). Around $100 will cover processing and shipping. Your visa comes as a blank slip where you fill in the details. There’s no date listed and it doesn’t expire. With flights connecting through Miami visa’s can be purchased at the airport (sounds risky though).
Health Insurance | All Cuban travel sites stress the need to buy health insurance for your trip. However, after speaking with a friend who didn’t need it, we took the risk. It paid off and we were never asked. In the off chance you do need insurance, it’s sold at the Havana airport. Rumor has it medical care for foreigners in Cuba is poor and may be the reason you need health insurance covering an emergency flight out of the country.
Getting to Cuba Part II: Flights
Flights are cheap so it’s a great time to visit Cuba (around $250 from Chicago during rainy season). US airlines fly directly to Havana, typically connecting through Miami or Panama. We flew through Charlotte with American Airlines but other options are available.
Getting to Cuba Part III: Immigration
Cuban immigration was quick and painless. When entering the country, no real questions were asked. The return was a different story though. US immigration wanted details about our visit and what we brought back. There are limits on things like coffee, honey, cigars and rum but small amounts can return without a problem.
US immigration swabbed packages and conducted pat-downs on many passengers. After grabbing my bag from claims I noticed my lock had been clipped and my things searched. On the way in to Cuba, a gift box of cologne had been stolen out of my luggage (therefore, the need to lock up). If you plan to bring any valuables in to Cuba hide them deep in your suitcase and remove any packaging.
Accommodations: Booking a Place to Stay
Typically, hostels are the way to go, using Hostelworld as the primary booking site. It makes comparing simple and offers features like reviews, photos and maps, however, Cuba isn’t the norm. There are no true “hostels” and apparently the government takes a huge cut from Hostelworld so local families don’t benefit much from the site.
Instead, home stays are the norm. Use a Cuban version of Airbnb like Cuba Booking Room. Be aware though, booking is a process. First, put in a request for the days you need. The site will contact the family and let you know if they’re available. Then, confirm your stay. The agency will request detailed information from you: flight details, accommodations before and after and possibly a deposit (more than five nights or so and you’ll pay $5/night in advance).
Money: Cash, Exchange & Duel Currency
Most importantly, bring ALL the money you plan to spend in CASH. This includes money for food, accommodations, travel and shopping. You’re not able to access any US banking systems whatsoever (even at banks or the airport).
If exchanging US dollars it’s best to first exchange them into Euro’s BEFORE you arrive in Cuba. Cuba applies an extra 10% fee on any US currency so this tip can save you hundreds. Once in Cuba, exchange your Euro’s for CUC.
There are two currencies in Cuba: the peso convertible (CUC) and peso Cubano (CUP). Be careful to use the CUC (pronounced “cook”) for all tourist activities. CUP are 1/25th the value of CUC and mainly used by locals. Sometimes locals will trick you by giving the wrong currency in return, so be cautious.
Transportation: Buses or Private Taxi’s
Transportation is very expensive in Cuba and being an island doesn’t help. Cars are old, gas is pricey and repairs are likely slow and difficult. There are two main transportation options in Cuba as a tourist - buses and taxi’s (and by taxi’s I mean ‘collectivos’ or shared rides which are prearranged, not hailed street side).
Everything I read before arriving suggested private taxi’s were wildly expensive while local buses were much more affordable. Truthfully, we didn’t find this to be true. Often times a private taxi would be the same price (or $5 more) than the bus (per rider). Taxi’s offer added convenience by picking you up at your home stay and dropping you directly at your next stop. If you were to ride the bus you’d need a taxi to and from the station. Private taxi’s are also much faster (sometimes twice as fast) and offer more comfort.
That said, arrange your rides at least one day in advance. Otherwise, you’ll run the risk of no taxi’s or sold out buses. Ideally, a good price from the airport to Havana would be 20-25 CUC ($25-30) and a ride from Havana to Trinidad, 30 CUC ($37.50), while the bus runs 25 CUC ($30). Thankfully it never came to riding local buses because they resembled army trucks carrying livestock. They’re open-air and standing room only.
In total, for just over a week we spent nearly $500 on taxi's. This includes rides to and from the airport and between four cities (Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Viñales). Remember to barter with drivers - they’ll lower prices on most occasions.
Booking "packages" was super expensive so we kept things loose. Keep in mind, although home stays are very accommodating they aren’t hostels and may not have great recommendations on activities. They’re smaller scale and don't know much about tourist activities but still a good resource.
There’s not much of an infrastructure set up in Cuba for tourism but it does help to ask locals for help with food, travel and tours. Things aren’t really what you’d expect so be flexible and open, as well as prepared. After few days we realized it best to start carrying around an “emergency” supply of snacks, water, sunscreen, bug spray and rain gear - just in case.
Internet & WiFi (or Lack of)
In recent years, Cuba has adopted WiFi zones. Most often, these zones are in public parks or other central locations where people gather. You’ll need to buy and charge a card to use WiFi (roughly 1 CUC/hour). Unfortunately, these areas are busy and the connections are slow. To be safe, save screenshots or download any important information for your trip before entering Cuba. This includes addresses, names, exchange rates, maps, flight details, etc.
Day 1: Afternoon | Explore Old Havana on Foot
With a backpack full of water, snacks and camera gear my girl and I took off from our hostel on foot. The streets of Old Havana were full of vivid colors, mostly spray paint and accent colors on old buildings. The city felt clean but quieter than I expected. People sat around watching others walk by and chatting with friends.
Around every corner was something new. The buildings were massive but crumbling into pieces. Tourists were here and there but it was rare to see large groups. The weather was hot and humid with cloudy skies.
We bumped into a group of locals playing music and dancing on stilts - the kind of thing you see in movies. As we walked through the streets, parks and small plazas sprung up every few blocks.
As one might imagine, classic cars were everywhere (although not as many as I expected). Most of them were in pretty bad shape, being driven daily for nearly 70 years over bumpy cobblestone streets. Updates and maintenance are costly so many cannot avoid wear and tear.
Old cars were being driven as taxi’s and owners were never far off so it was tough to get up close and snap a photo. And the fanciest cars were used to drive tourists around for up to $70 an hour.
Hanging outside nearly all the buildings were clean clothes, drying in the wind. Lush plants grew out of every window and around each corner. We didn’t notice much in the way of shops or restaurants. Business seemed to be non-existent. The few restaurants we did find were tourist traps serving overpriced meals with identical menus.
After some time exploring we found the National Capital Building, El Capitolio, which is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Previously, it was the organization of government in Cuba until the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Behind the Capital Building, a little cart was selling fresh coconuts for 1 CUC. The owner recommended a local spot for lunch just a few blocks away near Jesus Maria and Habana Street, called Cafetería Doña Alicia.
The place was tiny and packed with locals eating all kinds of food. For 3 CUC we ordered rice, black beans, plantains, sweet potato and fried chicken. It was delicious but we were tricked by the owner. She returned local currency rather than CUC but only scammed us out of a few bucks (still such a bummer getting ripped off). Eat and beware.
Day 1: Evening | Witness a Cannon Shooting
In the evening, Mari and I met with a friend’s brother who lives in Havana studying as an eye doctor. Near the Capital we caught an old taxi up to Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro for 5 CUC. Driving through the underground tunnel in an old fashioned car was pretty cool.
Once on the other side, the taxi parked and we unloaded. After buying tickets for 16 CUC we entered the castle for the evening ceremony. Every night at 8 p.m. soldiers reenact a cannon shooting. The ceremony began as soldiers marched to drums and reached it’s climax as the cannon fired - BANG!
After the cannon went off we explored the grounds, looking in the shops selling souvenirs at the top of the castle.
Morro Castle was built by slaves in the 16th century and used to defend the city of Havana. Designed by an Italian and originally under the control of the Spanish, Morro Castle was captured by the British in 1762 and returned to the Spanish years later.
The castle’s cannons are now badly rusted but it’s rock walls stand tall. The fort has central barracks and an underwater archaeology exhibition, old latrines with a chute into the sea and doors with a drawbridge system. Another interesting fact lies in the prisons where holes in the back walls were used to feed prisoners to the sharks.
After visiting the grounds, we hailed a taxi to Plaza Viejo, the newer area of Havana, for 10 CUC. Our friends suggested dinner at Motivo which looked touristy but turned out to be pretty tasty. Mojitos, lobster, shrimp, fish and ceviche for 30 CUC - not horrible for a tourist trap (you’ll find it tough to find authentic Cuban food in most areas).
Casa Havana is a pretty neat hostel (it’s more like a mansion) in the heart of Old Habana. The ceilings are super high and the entire place is full of crystal chandeliers and velvet furniture. Staff was very nice and helpful but not as knowledgeable as expected. The location was great and accommodations were very clean. Breakfast was also tasty.
Initially, our air conditioner was broken so we moved rooms which then had a broken safe but you’ll find it pretty typical for things to be broken in Cuba so don’t stress. Definitely recommend!