A colorful Caribbean pirate town with European influence stuck in the 50s and filled with whimsy, adventure, and kind-hearted people.
I have to say, Cuba is probably one of the coolest places I have ever been. The people are honestly the kindest, most helpful, and hilarious people I have ever been around. The architecture and buildings are so beautiful and colorful. You can walk down one street and feel like you are in Pirates of the Caribbean, then walk down another and all of a sudden you are in Europe. Get to a main road and then you’ve traveled back in time to the 50s.
This post is all about what you need to know before going, where to stay and eat, and how to support the local economy. Stay tuned for more posts about the specific neighborhoods and day trip adventures that we took!
Traveling to Cuba
First and foremost, let’s talk about US citizens traveling to Cuba. I am just going to get this out out of the way from the beginning because I have had a lot of questions about it. Basically, Obama opened up (restricted) travel to Cuba and now Trump is tightening those restrictions. But there is a little bit more that you need to know.
A Brief History
In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew a US-backed regime and established a communist society in Cuba. At that point, trade between the countries came to a stand still (hence the snapshot in time of the old classic cars Cuba is filled with). Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) took over leadership in 2008. While still considered a communist leader, Raul worked hard to restore relations with the US.
Obama Lifts the Travel Ban
In December of 2014, Obama and Raul came to an agreement which lead to the release of political prisoners. Since then, Obama worked to gradually reopen trade and travel to Cuba. About a year ago, Obama officially opened up travel to Cuba that would not require a visa. Here is the catch: you must be traveling to Cuba for 1 of 12 reasons to travel there without a visa. If your travels fall under 1 of those 12 categories, you still must purchase a ‘travel card,’ but you will automatically qualify for a card and do NOT need to apply for a visa. Some of these 12 reasons include ‘people-to-people’ travel (educational-cultural purposes), journalism, visiting family, etc. To be honest, with the right amount of wording anyone can spin their travel to fall under one of those 12 categories. But that is a topic for another day.
Trump’s New Travel Ban
About a month ago (right after I had purchased my plane ticket), Trump declared that he would be bringing back the travel ban to Cuba, effective immediately. Like most bold statements made by Trump, panic and uproar settled in immediately. People were bashing him for just wanting to undo everything Obama has done and claiming he didn’t care about the Cuban people. I did some research and from what I found, only one of the 12 reasons is being restricted (people-to-people travel) … for now. His reasoning was that travel to Cuba wasn’t actually helping the Cuban economy and he still believed that Castro was still holding political prisoners.
Do I think that banning people from traveling somewhere is a good idea? No. Might he have a good reason for doing it? Maybe. The government owns 100% of hotels and most restaurants… so if you stay at a hotel or eat at restaurants, all of your money is going straight to the government (and not the economy). The purpose of lifting the travel ban was to support the Cuban economy. It turns out that that is a little trickier than we thought at first. There IS away to travel to Cuba and support the local economy (and not the communist government), but you have to know where to stay and where to eat. More on this a little bit later.
So, can US citizens travel to Cuba or not?
Short answer: yes. There are still 11 other reasons that would allow you to travel to Cuba. And the ‘people-to-people’ travel ban hasn’t taken effect just yet. These other reasons would be for journalism purposes, supporting the Cuban people, or group-to-people travel (essentially going with a complete tour group for the entire trip).
What all do I need to Travel to Cuba?
1. Tourist/Visa Card – You can purchase this for $85.00 over the phone/online or for $100.00 at the airport. You don’t need to do anything ahead of time to get this. As long as you state that you are going for one of the 12 reasons, the card is yours. After your trip, the US government technically has up to 6 years to reach out to you and confirm that you actually traveled for one of those 12 reasons.
2. Travel Health Insurance – Cuba requires that you purchase medical insurance before entering the country. You will be asked for proof when you get off the plane. Check out the US Embassy website to learn more about this.
3. Passport – I hope this one was pretty obvious.
The Money Situation in Cuba
There are two money systems used in Cuba. CUCs (pronounced ‘cooks’) and CUPs. The CUC is more of the touristy currency while the CUPs are used by the locals. Around 24 CUPs = 1 CUC. When you arrive in Cuba, you will be exchanging your money for CUCs. Taxis, restaurants, tours, museums, etc. all use CUCs. The CUPs are mainly for smaller little things for the locals like fruit stands and smaller restaurants. Some of the larger restaurants will also accept CUPs… but it won’t save you any money because it will always be 1 CUC = 24 CUP.
The one thing that you have to be careful about is people giving you CUP instead of CUC when you exchange your money or get change at a restaurant or store. The easy way to know the difference: CUPs have people on the money, CUCs have monuments (think: it takes 24 people to make a monument). I only had this problem one time the entire week I was there.
When exchanging money to CUCs, the exchange rate is a lot better if you exchange your US dollars into Canadian dollars or Euros before exchanging them to CUCs in Cuba. The exchange rates fluctuate, so just check them before you go to get the most bang out of your buck. I changed my money to Canadian dollars (which my bank at home does for free).
When coming back into the US, you must exchange all of your CUCs/CUPs back into US dollars. It is illegal to bring Cuban currency back into the US. One annoying thing: at the airport, the person exchanging the money only carries $20 dollar bills. So if your exchange rate should give you $95.00 back… you only get $80.00 back. You will get the rest back in CUCs and then will just have to spend it at the airport before you leave.
Getting Around in Cuba
Taxis are the way to go. Even better, most of the taxis are the amazing old classic cars, so it really is a treat! Definitely haggle your prices. We never paid more than 6 CUC total for a taxi from Vedado to Old Havana (the longest distance you can travel in Havana, about a 15 min drive).
If you want to travel even cheaper (and more like a local), catch a collectivo! A collectivo is a taxi that has a set route and picks up people along the way. You have to know what you are doing to catch one. Know the route that they travel (from Vedado to Old Havana and back) and stand on the sidewalk as they are passing by. They will look like normal taxis (with the taxi sign or sticker). When you see a taxi pass by, hold out your hand or beckon them to come to you. When they pull up, ask if they are a collectivo. If they say yes, say either ‘Havana’ if you are heading to Old/Central Havana or ‘Vedado’ if you want to go to Vedado. When they nod their head, confirm the price of 0.50 – 1 CUC and hop on in.
I was definitely taken back by how safe I felt when getting around Cuba. Alli and I traveled by ourselves (two young blonde girls be-bopping around… safely) and we were absolutely fine. We were smart about our travels (like you should be in any city) and made sure to not wonder down dark alleyways at night, so that helped. But what made us feel safe was how much we could trust the Cuban people. They genuinely want to help you out and are good people.
Learn a little Spanish before you go and try your best to only speak in Spanish. It will help you learn and the Cubans really appreciate it because very few speak English. The people working at bigger restaurants or Casas know enough English to get by, but it definitely helps if you know Spanish.
Stay at Private Casas to Support the Local Economy
Stay in private Casas rather than hotels. 100% of the hotels are government run and all of the profits go to the government. Casas are houses that locals rent out. You can rent a room or an entire Casa, depending on what you want. All of the Casas will have a specific sign (shown below) designating that they are a private residence that rents out. Internet is scarce, so your best bet is to go around and just ask the Casas if they have room. You will definitely get the cheapest price this way.
Another option is to find a Casa through Air BnB. Definitely a more expensive option, but nice to know that you already have a place to stay. There are a select few hostels, but they are hard to come by. We actually met someone from the US that just created a hostel called Hostel Don Domingo in central/old Havana. He was incredibly helpful and we learned so much from him! Definitely check out his hostel to stay or walk in for some good insider tips. Hostel Don Domingo is located at 73 San Lazaro (corner of Genios) and his number is (53) 7866-2949.
Casas We Loved
We stayed at two separate Casas (found via Air BnB) and were absolutely in love with both of them. Our first 5 days was with Isabel in Vedado. Her and her husband stayed downstairs, and we got the entire second floor to ourselves (two bedrooms, a living area, and a bathroom). She will cook you breakfast each morning for 6 CUC a person (for a TON of food!). Her freshly made mango juice is absolutely to-die-for. We even asked for some in the afternoons because we couldn’t get enough of it!
Our second Casa, Casa Caraco by Julio Hernandez, was in Old Havana. We had a private room/bathroom and there were other people staying in rooms adjacent to us. It was a beautiful house with an amazing host family as well. Check out their Facebook page here!
Eat at Paladar Restaurants to Support the Local Economy
The government runs most of the restaurants as well. However, there are restaurants called ‘Paladares’ (Palador, singular) that are privately run. You can just ask the restaurants if they are a Paladar and they will be straight up and honest with you. Most of the Paladares will be called ‘Paladar _____’, so that makes them easier to spot too. We did notice that the paladares tended to be a bit pricier than their government-run equivalents, but the pricing was still reasonable compared to an average meal in the US.
Paladares you HAVE to Try
Cafe Laurent – Vedado/Central Havana. This was our first meal of the trip and out last meal of the trip. It is a beautiful restaurant with typical Cuban cuisine located in a residential area. With a rooftop patio overlooking the water and Hotel Nacional, the ambiance was perfect. It was a bit pricier (around 15 CUC per meal), but because it was a Paladar, we didn’t mind spending the money. On the last day, we actually met up with fellow medical school blogger Nicolet of Nicolet.Life and her friend Jen!
Doña Eutimia – Havana Viaja. The BEST mojito slushies. And I don’t typically like fruity/sweet/slushy drinks. It was seriously amazing. The food was also delicious. Also serves typical Cuban cuisine, which is pulled pork or lamb in a delicious sauce, white rice and beans (con gris), and fried plantains.
Elizade – Havana Viaja. This is a fairly new paladar with an awesome bar and cool atmosphere. Definitely stop by for some Sangria! A Spaniard came over to Cuba to start the restaurant (hence the delicious Sangria).
Internet in Havana
Hard to come by. Almost no restaurants, coffee shops, etc. have wifi. If you need to get on the internet, you will need to purchase an ‘wifi card’ and go to a ‘wifi zone’ that can usually be found in a select few parks or government run hotel lobbies. Each card costs 1 CUC and will give you 1 hour of wifi. If you need more, you will need to purchase another card.
Here is the catch… very few places sell the wifi cards. Beyond that, locals will buy all the wifi cards and sell them for 3 CUC. We never found a shop that sold the 1 CUC wifi cards and had to buy all of ours on the ‘black market.’ You just wander around a wifi zone and ask people that look like they might sell wifi cards. They will generally point you to the next person who will point you to the next until you eventually find someone that will slip you a wifi card when you slip them 3 CUC. Supply and demand in a communist society… what can you do!
Cuban Cigars… what you have all been waiting for.
You can bring back Cuban cigars into the US. There used to be a $100 limitation, but last time I checked there is no longer a limit. This might change in the near future, so definitely double check on this before your trip. Expect to pay around 4 – 16 CUC for a decent Cuban cigar. Unfortunately, purchasing your cigars from government run shops is probably the safest bet. The government takes 95% of the tobacco farm cigars and sells them. The rest of the 5% is produced and sold by locals.
That being said, a cigar that the government sells for 4 CUC goes for around 12 CUC from a local. The other catch… you don’t always know what you are getting when you buy a Cuban cigar from a local. So you are paying 3x the price and there is a good chance that the cigar isn’t pure tobacco.
All in all…
If you have the chance to travel to Cuba… definitely make the trip. Stay tuned for more posts about things to do and adventures to go on!