CUBA TRAVEL GUIDE
Cuba. It's so close in proximity, but yet worlds away. It's a place that has always felt very mysterious to me. I really didn't know what to expect. It felt off-the-beaten-path and almost forbidden, but at the same time, there were far more tourists than I expected (mostly Canadians and Western Europeans). Traveling in Cuba wasn't easy. It's not a place I'd go for rest and relaxation (not to say that can't be found), but traveling there is rewarding. We found incredibly friendly people, lively music, bold culture, and even great food (we were warned the food is awful- not true!).
I traveled with a friend, and we spent 6 days/5 nights in Cuba- two in Trinidad and three in Havana.
For the average American, travel to Cuba is still restricted (as of Feb 2016). To my knowledge, the easiest and cheapest way (and the method adventerous Americans have been using for decades) is to enter Cuba from another country. Most Americans enter through Cancun. Simply purchase one regular ol' ticket to CUN, then a seperate ticket (most likely on a different carrier) from Cancun to Havana. We chose to fly through the Cayman Islands, as we wanted to stop over there for a few days. Really, any other country works. When you depart from your gateway country, you must purchase a $25 USD Cuban visa at the airport checkin counter. Once we landed in Cuba, I was a twinge nervous waiting to go through customs, but it was easy peasy. Breezed right in. I've heard you can request that your passport not be stamped (and Cuban border officials will oblige), but I didn't bother.
That being said, Americans can now enter "legally" (I use quotations only becaue the above method really isn't illegal, per se), by obtaining a visa for Americans prior to departure. I don't know a lot about this method, but legitimate reasons include journalism, tourism with an authorized agency, and a variety of others. We did meet one American couple who had obtained a proper visa simply by hiring a Cuban travel agent in the US and paying a $100 fee. This would make flight times shorter and easier (Havana is only a 45 plane ride from Miami- a flight that is generally reserved for Cuban citizens), but they paid upwards of $500 for just that leg of the flight, so it wasn't cheap.
All this being said, regulations are rapidly changing and it likely won't be long before Americans can easily enter Cuba. American airline carriers will follow suite by offering new flights and time will tell how these changes affect tourism (and life and culture) in Cuba.
Be prepared to step back in time- Cuba is a cash-only operation. If you’re American and/or have American-issued bank cards or credit cards, your cards will not work (as of Feb 2016). I tried. There are sporadic ATMs, but you will not be able to withdraw any type of currency with an American-issued card. For this reason, it’s important to calculate, create a budget, and bring the proper amount of cash with you. We brought Euros as we had read that we would be charged a surcharge to exchange U.S. dollars. (Interestingly, we met a Canadian couple who brought USD because they heard that was the best rate.) We paid a fee to exchange from USD to euros at home, then another fee to exchange from euros to Cuban convertible pesos (commonly referred to as CUCs) so I think it would’ve been about equal. Next time I’ll simply bring USD.
1 CUC is almost exactly equal to 1 USD. Our budget broke down as follows (per person):
• $100 5 nights lodging at casa particulares (we found these to be in the $30-40 range per room, which we were able to split between two)
• $200 for 6 days of food, drinks, and bottled water
• $120 each for a private taxi from Havana to Trinidad and back
• $100 extra just to be safe
We thought $100 extra would be more than enough, given Cuba is inexpensive and we didn’t plan to do any excursions. However, we actually ended up being dangerously close to running out of money. Everything has a tourist price, and when factoring in unplanned activities (guided hike to a remote waterfall, anyone?) and costly meals/drinks, we were not able to maintain our budget. After a failed attempt to receive a Western Union wire transfer from my husband (Americans are not allowed to received wired money in Cuba, even though Western Union in American told my husband we could), we eventually cracked the system by having money sent to the Cuban family we were staying with.
Bottom line, in general, I would say $100 a day would be very comfortable and you could eat and drink at your leisure without worrying about budget too much. We started with $600, but by the time all of the exchanging was done, actually only ended up with about 530 CUC. You could definitely get by for much less if eating at food stands, avoiding alcoholic drinks (they really add up), taking buses, or staying in one city. But, better to bring extra cash, because if you have leftover CUCs at the end of your trip, you can easily change it back to dollars at the airport upon departure.
WHERE TO STAY:
Casa particulares (which are rented rooms within peoples’ homes) are the way to go! Both for a more authentic experience, and to support the local economy (vs the government run hotels). However, a word of caution, the term “casa particular” seems to be a bit improperly used. Not all of the "casas" are actually in people’s home- some are run a bit more like hotels. We booked our first casa in Trinidad, Casa de Elio Ramos, based off of recommendations on Trip Advisor. (We booked via Facebook messenger, and our host even arranged a private driver to pick us up at the Havana airport and drive us 4+ hours to his casa). While we enjoyed the casa, it was more like a small hotel. We were hoping for a more intimate experience and interaction with the owner. Nonetheless, the room was clean and beautiful, and had air conditioning and a private bathroom with hot water- things you want to be sure to ask for when looking for accomodations in Cuba. The location was great and we were easily able to walk all over the city center.
We only booked the first two nights as we weren’t sure how long we would want to stay in Trinidad. We debated stopping for a night in Cienfuegos or Santa Clara on the way back to Havana, but decided to skip those and head right back to maximize our time in the capital city. With only 6 days/5 nights we just couldn’t see it all.
For future visits to Trinidad, I've heard good things about Casa Arcangel.
In Havana, we found our casa sight unseen through a friend of a friend of Elio. Everyone has a friend in Cuba who can hook you up with something. Admittedly, when we first arrived at the new casa, Casa Rene y Mary, we were not pleased. It was situated on a main floor with only one tiny window to an enclosed courtyard (not the street) and no air conditioning. But we decided to stay for the night as it was already getting late in the day and we didn’t want to deal with finding a new place or hauling our luggage around. I’m so glad we stayed because this casa and our hosts ending up being the highlight of our trip! We had two fans to keep us cool at night, which worked surprisingly well. But the hosts really sealed the deal. Unlike the casa in Trinidad, we were staying with an actual family- an adult son (Rene) with his mother (Maria) and grandmother. They all stayed in the home with us and we also loved their pets- a sweet little dog and a parrot. They only spoke Spanish and it was fun eating with them in the mornings and attempting communication. They were so sweet and helpful. When they found out we were running low on money they offered us the room at a significantly discounted rate (though we were later able to pay them the full agreed upon rate since my husband was eventually able to wire money). Rene doesn’t have a website (in Cuba, the best places probably don't!) but he can be reached by email.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK:
I had very low expectations of food in Cuba because almost everything I read on the internet lamented of awful, bland cuisine. Because of limited import, Cuba only has certain ingredients to work with. I get it. I went in with an open mind, but wasn't expecting much, especially as a vegetarian. I packed lots of Lara bars so I wouldn't starve. But lo and behold, I was pleasantly surprised!
Our introduction to Cuban food was at a food stand (I use that term loosely) on the side of the highway in a teeny, tiny village between Havana and Trinidad. Our driver bought us bocadillos that literally cost pennies (the prices below are listed in the local currency, not CUCs). While waiting for our food, we say freshly slaughtered goats slung on backs, adorable groups of uniformed school children in the most rickety old buses, and old men chugging along in tractors that barely moved. The sandwich was ok, but I loved the atmosphere. It felt like a fitting welcome to Cuba! It's also worth noting that the food was served on real plates. Cuban people are extremely resourceful (and environmentally friendly!) due the limited import.
In Trinidad we had some some lovely meals: a fancy-pants upscale dinner in the lush courtyard of Casa Osmary Alberto; lunch at the gorgeous rooftop of El Crillo, and I discovered my go-to Cuban drink, La Canchanchara, at a little place we stumbled into near the Plaza Mayor (the name of which I can't remember). Some of the drinks in Cuba were pretty disappointing, mainly because most places use flat water instead of carbonated water. But La Canchanchara (a mix of rum, honey, lemon), a specialty of Trinidad, was fantasic. I swear, Cuban honey is different. It almost has a grainy quality to it. It sinks to the bottom, and I purposely didn't mix the drink, just mixing all the flavors by moving the straw up as I drank.
For future visits, I'd love to try Taberna de Botija.
For a night out in Trinidad, Casa de la Musica is the place to be. It was always packed, and there was a mix of tourists and locals at this outdoor spot. Beware: if you're a woman, locals _will_ pull you out on the dance floor and you *will* be intimidated by their impressive salsa skills!
In Havana, like any big city, there are even more dining and nightlife options. We had excellent meals at La Guarida (it's worth going just to take picutres), Habana 61 (where I had the best cocktail of my life- no exaggeration- a piña colada made with fresh, homemade coconut horchata), Cinco Esquinas (cute sidewalk dining spot), and San Cristobals (where they gifted us with aged rum, cigars, and a tour of the property at the end of our meal! Oh, and the Obamas dined there, so you know it's gotta be good!). We had daytime drinks on the rooftop of Ambas Mundos hotel. The piña colada served in a pineapple was second only to the life-chaning piña colada I had at Habana 61. Ambas Mundos is worth checking out for the rooftop views alone.
Nightlife is plentiful in Havana too, though after one rough morning, we had to dial it back a notch. We attempted to get into Fabrica de Arte, but gave up due to long lines, and instead partied at Espacios, with a Cubano and group of American students we met while waiting in line at Fabrica. Espacio is a hip hidden restaurant/bar in a house that has a chill outdoor courtyard and Euro-styled trance/DJ inside.
WHAT TO DO:
The most fun experiences were simply wandering and talking to locals. Admittedly, it seems as though many people see tourists and they see dollar signs. Most Cuban people are extremely poor and they’ve capitalized on tourism. It’s common practice for a Cuban person to receive compensation (either monetary or goods) for bringing in tourists, whether it be to a restaurant, to a driver, to a man that takes tourists on horseback riding excursions, etc. Everyone gets a cut. I tried to keep an open mind, but in a way, this practice made me untrusting. I felt as though it was difficult to get genuine recommendations or ideas from locals, because they all seemed to have a hidden agenda. It’s an awful mind space to be in while traveling. But, I tried to remain as (safely) open as possible. We met many wonderful and friendly local people. I asked a local woman in Trinidad if a dog on the street near her house was hers, and after she said yes, we ended up petting the dog and talking to her in Spanish for probably a half an hour. She showed us photo albums of her family and we met her daughter and granddaughter. It was very endearing. Another great experience was chatting with a woman at a fruit stand in Havana. She was so kind and welcomed our photos and interest in her shop without pressuring us to buy anything or refer us to some tourist service.
Speaking Spanish (even a little!) in Cuba is extremely advantageous and will open you up to a much more authentic experience.
Read more about Trinidad here.
TIPS & TRICKS:
• Taxis and bicitaxis (bicycle taxis) are notorious for ripping off tourists. Be sure to agree upon a rate before getting into the vehicle and specifiy that the rate is for your entire group, not per person. If you don't have the proper change, don't be surprised if your driver won't either. Which brings me to my next tip:
• Carry small bills with you- it’ll make your life easier. If you don’t have small bills ask if they have change before getting into a taxi or handing over money to buy goods. (Tiene cambio?)
• If a friendly local who speaks immpeccable English tries to bring you to their favorite resturant, or hands you a business card and recommends a restaurant, take it with a grain of salt. As mentioned above, it is common practice for Cubans receive compensation for every tourist they bring to a restaurant. Usually, it'll be a couple (and they set up that way purposely to gain trust). They generally seem pretty harmless, but we did have one bad experience when the "good samaritan" got a little agressive.
• Need your wifi fix? In Trinidad, you can find it in the park across from the huge Iberostar Hotel. In Havana head to any of the big, government hotels- they’re usually wifi hotspots. Or just look for gaggles of people with their heads buried in their phones. It’s almost comically easy to spot. Internet cards (much like calling cards of the 90s) can be purchased for 2 CUC for an hour. That being said, the line to purchase said cards is always ridiculous. It’s much easier to buy them on the street for the inflated price of 3 CUCs. It’ll go down like a drug deal- very covert and the seller will be looking around and very mindful of watchful eyes. Illegal selling of internet cards must carry a large fine or penalty.
• If you’re a female, Cuban men will harass you. It’s very common (and really almost constant) to be catcalled on the streets. Men will yell, “lady, lady” or make loud, obnoxious kissing noises. Men in groups do it, men with other females do it, security guards do it, pretty much all men do it. It seems to be extremely socially acceptable. While I don’t like it, I made a conscious decision to just let it go and ignore it as much as possible. I never felt threatened or unsafe, even though in one instance, a presumably drunk male ran up to me and put it arms around me and practically drug me along the street. I literally had to shimmy away. Even then I didn’t feel unsafe because there were so many people on the street. For this reason though, I have to say, I'd be hesitant to travel to Cuba solo.
• Be sure to bring everything you'll need for the duration of your stay. Stores, in a traditional, American sense, do not exist in Cuba. This includes pharmacies, groceries, and clothing stores. I used up my 3.4 oz travel sized sunscreen, and was literally unable to buy more. I'm convinced it doesn't even exist in Cuba. Be sure to bring all toiletries, feminine hygiene products, and medications you may need. Do not assume you can buy anything upon arrival. (Even if you can, it'll likely be more difficult that you bargained for.)