twenty+ thirty+ trips to Cuba under my belt over the last five years, I would consider myself a seasoned adventurer in Cuba. With the recent opening of commercial flights and the surge of cruises, many assume that Cuba is your typical Caribbean tourist destination and port of call. However, it is not, which is a blessing and a challenge. Cuba is complicated. Let me answer many of your questions regarding travel to Cuba.
First things first, how can Americans travel to Cuba? Is U.S. travel to Cuba legal?
For global citizens, Cuba has been a playground for tourism for decades. In the 1990’s, Cuba began tremendous growth in this sector; however, because of the U.S. Embargo, travel for solely touristic purposes remains illegal for Americans. If you are an American, you must fall under one of the twelve categories for legal travel to Cuba.
The most popular ways to travel to Cuba (some changes have occurred since original publication in Dec 2016):
- Cuba Educational Tours: There are many tour operators and agencies that offer 5-day to weeklong people-to-people tours that combine multiple areas of educational interchanges including politics, religion, economics, art, and more. I'll be escorting private Cuba tours associated with the launch of Cubicle to Cuba in May 2017 as well as October of 2017 (SOLD OUT) and in 2018. Other companies that I would recommend are Gate1Travel for its Cienfuegos to Havana route as well as Road Scholar for its Havana and Varadero trip.
- Cruise to Cuba: As of 2015 multiple cruise companies offer trips to Cuba that too are covered under legal travel to Cuba. This provides all the comforts of a cruise with a taste of Cuba. You will spend more time on the ship with sea days than on the fascinating island. You may decide to take a deeper dive into Cuba with a land-based tour after your cruise.
- Self-certify Independent People-to-People Trips: As of 6/16/17, independent people-to-people travel is no longer a legal option.
However, as of recently with the easing of some of the previous travel restrictions, Americans can now go independently to Cuba without a tour operator or agency. So, you can fly on commercial flights and self-certify that you will do a full-time schedule of educational exchanges (ex. Spanish lessons, dance lessons, museum visits, and more). This independent route means you will need to find your own accommodations, which is challenging or better said complicado (complicated). More on that later.*
So are you ready to see what you've been missing?
Let me pave the way for you to have an unforgettable trip with these essential Cuba travel tips and answers to the most common questions about travel to Cuba.
Where to go in Cuba?
Must dos: ride in a classic American convertible, explore all four of Old Havana's plazas, take in a live jazz music performance or a show, sip mojitos and smoke cigars at the Nacional Hotel, and walk the Malecón (aka the world's largest sofa)
Must dos in Cuba's mini-Yosemite: hike amongst the mojotes (rock outcrops shown behind me), tour a tobacco farm, and admire the natural beauty.
Must dos: explore the narrow cobblestone streets and Plaza Mayor, climb the Palacio Cantero tower for this view, try a canchánchara (explained below), and do a little shopping for ceramics, embroidered items, and handmade seed jewelry.
Must dos: view the Bay of Cienfuegos from the Palacio del Valle in Punta Gorda (shown above), take a bici-taxi along the Malecón, walk along the Prado and Boulevard from the Benny Moré statue, and visit José Martí square.
What to pack?
Because of more than sixty years of embargo, US banks don’t do business with Cuba and thus don’t work anywhere on the island. That means that you have to bring in cash for everything: cabs, souvenirs, shows, meals, and mojitos. I would gauge at least $100-$150 spending money per person per day. However, if you go to top-of-the-line shows or collect art, you will want to bring more. A trip to Cuba is certainly a YOLO adventure. (FYI: For those global travelers with non-U.S. credit/debit cards, you will be able to use them, but only in select locations. Credit/debit cards are not accepted at most small stores or restaurants.)
However, be mindful of the conversion rate. One hundred US Dollars is eighty-seven CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso). To give you an idea of approximate costs, a full meal at a private restaurant, paladar, costs 30 CUC; whereas, a classic convertible car ride around Havana ranges from 30-40 CUC. Upon arrival in Cuba, you will convert some of your US Dollars into CUCs. You cannot exchange US Dollars to CUCs in Miami nor New York in advance. Along your trip, you can convert to CUCs at your hotel or at a cadeca (money exchange). (FYI: Many people ask me about bringing euros instead of USD. Honestly, you lose money each time that you exchange. To convert USD to euros to then convert into CUC may save some, but not enough in from my viewpoint. Also, some shops, in particular art galleries, are accepting USD.)
Bring Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer
Going to Cuba is like camping. The men will have few problems, but the women will be challenged. For some reason, the country lacks toilet seats. If you remember, Suzanne Somers and her ThighMaster, a trip to Cuba will be like that routine, no seat so you hover, but great for your thighs. In the major hotels and nicer paladares, there will be toilet seats, soap, and toilet paper. However, in standard bathrooms, there will be an attendant offering a small amount of paper for you as well as a heavily used bar of soap that you would rather skip. To prepare for this, bring hand sanitizer. I always get a pretty scent as it comes in handy when you are not so fresh after a day melting in the Cuban heat and humidity. Be aware that the attendants charge for the use of the bathroom. The going rate is twenty-five centavos (0.25 CUC). Ask for small coins at the airport and the cadeca.
Bring OTC and Prescriptions with You
Pack over-the-counter medicines for headaches as well as the dreaded, but inevitable traveler’s diarrhea (with no toilet seat). Common medicines like Imodium that are at every Walgreen’s or CVS are harder to find and pricey. If you have prescriptions, bring them in the original container and make sure that they will last your stay in Cuba. However, if you need to see a doctor, you can. The Cuban government mandates that all visitors to Cuba have health insurance. You will pay roughly three US Dollars a day for this health insurance at your entry airport. This entitles you to healthcare at one of the International Clinics. However, this doesn’t cover prescriptions or services such as stitches, surgery, or hospital stays. As a CYA, pack a little extra cash. If you don’t use it, treat yourself!
Pack Your Patience!
This is an essential packing item regardless of where you travel, but Cuba in particular. You have heard of island time before, that everything is at a slow, relaxed, no rush pace. In Cuba, that is taken to another level. So you city slickers and anal clock-watchers, take a chill pill (a.k.a. a mojito). You will need to embrace the slower service and most likely the wait for activities as more and more cruise ships and tourists flock to Cuba.
Where to stay?
If you are looking for accommodations in Cuba, you are not alone. With not nearly enough hotel rooms for the number of tourists, Cuba’s private sector has been growing with casa particulares (BnBs). The casas are typically part of the owner’s home, perhaps an extra room or an additional floor or wing. Prices range depending on the location of the casa, amenities, and time of year. A standard room with bathroom and breakfast is 25-35 CUC per night. Be aware, in Havana, the prices are much higher than in other smaller cities just as they would be in NYC instead of La Crosse, Wisconsin. To find BnBs in Cuba, I advise checking out Airbnb; however, the online system is NOT perfecto. Be wary as some reservations have been canceled last minute for CASH reservations in-person. Also, if you stay in a casa, it is wise to bring your own toiletries. They don't usually provide soap, shampoo, lotion, etc. Also, a small gift to the host is a nice touch.
If you want to stay at a hotel like the famous Nacional in Havana or an all-inclusive beach resort in Varadero, be prepared for high prices. In high season, a standard room at the Nacional goes for 600 CUC. The limited hotel space in Cuba has driven up prices significantly in the last years.
If you want to skip all the hassle, remember you can take a 5-day or weeklong people-to-people tour where the accommodations, meals, and activities are planned for you. If you are interested in touring Cuba with me on one of my Cubicle to Cuba tours in May or October 2017, click here.
What to eat, drink, and smoke?
Comida Cubana (Cuban food)
Cuban traditional cuisine is all about the slow roasted pork, which is succulent and delicious. Typically every meal whether pork, chicken, or fish will be served with moros (shown above). In addition to rice and beans, you will have many roasted or fried vegetables such as malanga (taro), boniato (sweet potato), yuca, and calabaza (squash/pumpkin). For meat lovers, Cuba is not a steak country. Save your money and eat churrasco in Argentina. However, there is a typical dish made from shredded beef that is called ropa vieja (old clothes), which is a mixture of sautéed garlic, onions, peppers, and moist shredded beef. (The shredded beef looks a bit like the bottom of tattered jeans with the threads of the cloth.)
AND, don't let me forget the best part, the desserts. Ice cream in Cuba is wonderful whether you wait in line at Coppelia in Vedado or at your favorite local paladar (private restaurant), it’s creamy and rico (rich). However, don't skip other Cuban sweeets like flan, arroz con leche (rice pudding), as well as natilla, a light custard or pudding.
Cócteles Cubanos (Cuban cocktails)
No trip to Cuba is complete without rum. There are many Cuban cocktails that you will want to try and perhaps repeat upon your adventure. The most famous is the mojito made with rum, sugar, mint, sparklingly water, and lime. A lesser-known libation is the canchánchara, which is the typical drink of Trinidad. It is also made with rum, lime, and sparkling water, but instead of sugar, it calls for honey. If you would like recipes for these Cuban cocktails, I have included them in my book, Cubicle to Cuba, along with a recipe for moros and natilla. If you’re not into cocktails, there are also non-alcoholic options like Tu Kola (Cuba’s version of Coke) as well as Malta (a malted non-alcoholic beverage). Salud in all cases!
Puros Cubanos (Cuban cigars)
Probably the most famous of all Cuba’s products is not the rum, but its cigars. Even if you have never smoked nor want to, you may want to visit a tobacco shop, cigar factory, or tobacco farm in Viñales during your visit. Whether you try one yourself or purchase some as souvenirs, it is worth a visit.
Top personal picks for good Cuban cigars: Cohiba (Fidel's favorite), Montecristo (Che's preferred), Romeo y Julieta, and Partagas.
I'm returning to Cuba this week, hitting up Havana, Viñales, and Varadero. Plus, I will be traveling to Cuba various times in 2017. Come with me in May or October 2017. Stay abreast of my adventures as well as my new book, Cubicle to Cuba (release 12/31/16) by signing up for my VIP list.
If you have more questions on travel to Cuba, please leave your questions in the comments section so that I can answer them for all that are interested in discovering the treasures of Cuba. If you know someone that is interested in Cuba, please share this post with them via email or on social media.
Until our paths cross in Cuba or on another adventure...
Here's to looking up!