“My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway
***I only had time to visit Havana. I spent four and a half days there with a one-day visit to the valley of Vinales. It was not enough time. Make sure that you’re giving yourself plenty of time to explore the island. If you’re only looking to see Havana, four days is enough to get a good feel for the city.***
WHY TO GO/BACKGROUND
The island, like its neighbors, is breathtaking. The beaches have white sand and clear, blue water, there are lush jungles, picturesque valleys, mountains, and clear skies. The people are wildly friendly. The artists are inspired. The island is incredibly safe. The food and drink are both traditional and progressive. And I shouldn’t even have to mention the unique culture steered by (less than hidden) political undertones.
NOTE: The people do not make much money. The average income for Cubans is ~25CUC (~$25) a month. They do, however, have guaranteed health care and a place to live. Many Cubans take side jobs relating to tourism (if they’re available)—driving, hosting travelers, leading tours, etc.
It’s much easier to get to Cuba than you’ve heard. Yes, there’s still a travel (and goods) embargo between Cuba and the US, but there are 12 official reasons that Americans can go to Cuba.
1. Family visits
2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, etc.
3. Journalistic activity
4. Professional research and/or meetings
5. Educational activities
6. Religious activities
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
8. Support for the Cuban people
9. Humanitarian projects
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. Transmission of information or information materials
12. Certain export transactions
I went as a journalist so I could inform my wonderful readers and followers, but a catch-all is “support for the Cuban people”. Take some children’s clothing, toys to hand out on the street, or small goods to hand out. That’ll qualify! If that’s not enough, you’re helping them by giving them your tourist dollars!
You are required to get a Visa to travel to Cuba from the US. You can purchase one and have it shipped before your trip, purchase one to pick up at the airport, or chance it by purchasing one directly from the airport. (Southwest passengers can get a discounted Visas at cubavisaservices.com.) I purchased mine online from the same resource beforehand and had it overnighted, just so I had the peace of mind of having it in my possession. When traveling or moving officially to other countries, you are required to have a visa. This is so that the Government knows who has a permanent residence in that country. Without one, you could face the possibility of being deported. The process isn’t easy though, but there are ways that you can track your visa application, like checking out your USCIS Case Status for example. This can help to give people peace of mind. That’s why it is so important that you check with the country that you are traveling to on vacation, (or permanently) if you are required to have a visa.
You’ll be required to show it and state your reason for going to Cuba before you leave the US. (I flew through Ft. Lauderdale and was required to do this at the gate before boarding my connecting flight.)
“Yes, the future is here. But the past too is everywhere. The buildings, the cars, the gears of the whole system are still largely stuck in time.” – Anthony Bourdain
MONEY, CURRENCY & TIPPING
As of August 2018, American credit and debit cards DO NOT WORK in Cuba. Be sure to take enough cash for your entire trip. Better find some inventive (and smart) hiding spots in your carry-ons.
Cuba has two currencies—the Peso Cubano (CUP) and the Peso Convertible (CUC). The CUC is considered the tourist currency, and most of what you’ll be doing will use that. The CUP is used for farmers markets and fruits/vegetables on the street; mostly exchanges made Cuban to Cuban. Exchange houses are called CADECAs, and you can find them around Havana. Also, the airport and many hotels will have exchange services.
$1 USD = 1CUC 1CUC = ~23 CUP
Tips are expected in Cuba, but not large ones. As I mentioned before, the average Cuban’s income is low, so why not be generous?
Here are some good benchmarks for tipping in Cuba:
– Hotels: 1CUC/day for housekeeping, 1CUC for bellhops
– Restaurants & bars: 10-15%
– Tours: 2-5CUC
– Taxis/transportation: 1-3CUC/trip **NOTE: if the cab is metered, the driver works for the state and tipping is expected. If the cab is not metered, they own the car and tips are not expected.**
When you land, there will be taxis available at the airport. If you’re staying at a hotel or at an AirBnB with a helpful host, they may have the option to prearrange an airport pickup; I’d recommend doing this.
Once in Havana, there are taxis (see tipping section for additional information on these), “collectivos”, classic cars, Coco Taxis (small, Dr. Seuss-looking open air taxis), pedicabs, and horse-drawn carriages. Most of the fares, except taxis, can be negotiated … if you’re up for it. Collectivos are cabs or cars that are basically carpools. Again, your hotel, casa particular (private homes renting out a room or two), or AirBnB host may be able to arrange these for you.
You assume that everyone is being hyperbolic when they say that WiFi is nearly impossible in Havana … but they aren’t. There are some hotels, public spaces, and parks that have public WiFi available (which is unexpectedly quick), but you can only access it with a ETECSA card. You can find these cards at offices or hotels, and they cost $1CUC per hour. Buy plenty of cards when you find them, if you’re able. (Some hotels will only sell to guests.)
NOTE: WiFi is actually easier to find OUTSIDE of Havana proper.
PRO TIPS: Don’t count on being able to access WiFi; be prepared with all your desired destinations written down, in a note, or in a Google Map. Remember that you can save a Google Map so it’s accessible offline.
While you’re there, you’ll be required to carry health insurance coverage. You can find inexpensive coverage from some providers online; just Google it! More details.
PRO TIP: If you fly Southwest, it’s included in your ticket price; just make sure to carry your ticket and some information with you wherever you go.
FOOD & DRINK
You knew I’d have something to say here …
Overall, the food is very traditional. You won’t have any trouble finding a mojito or a (blended) daiquiri, both of which are usually about 4CUC!
UNTIL I HAVE MORE TIME TO WRITE ALL MY FAVORITE PLACES UP, HERE’S A LINK TO MY MAP OF PLACES TO VISIT: https://goo.gl/maps/HAg61FAvmFk
- Daiquiris are all blended with ice. Indicate shaken if you don’t want it frozen.
- Mojito Mafia – a mojito with dark rum
Make sure to visit a paladar for dinner. These are restaurants that (at least originally) opened in peoples’ homes. The food is often incredibly traditional; this is really one of the best ways to get a taste of real Cuban cuisine.
ADDITIONAL RANDOM TIPS AND INFORMATION
- If you pay 15cuc, you can swim at the Hotel Seville all day (some places let you pay that fee and use that as credit at the bar)
- The San Jose Market (was by Parque Central) houses artist and such, but it burned down in July 2018
- Ice cream was regulated for years and was only recently opened. Go with the state ice cream bc it’s super cheap
- Take a bottle of rum (ron) to the beach
- Always make sure you know if they want a CUC or a CUP – the peso is ~1/25 of the CUC (food street food vendors, it’s usually CUP, also outside of Havana)
- Never be in a hurry. It just doesn’t work.
- Everyone is fucking kind.
- Go to Havana first. The country is much cheaper — it’ll be a nice change
- If going to another area for the day, MAKE PLANS FOR TRANSPORTATION!!!!
- Bring toys for kids and give them out on the street