So, you wanna go to Cuba? That’s awesome. A trip to the island of salsa can be life-changing. There is something unique about Cuba – it has to do with its rich history, vibrant culture and its people, who despite the limitations, have found innovative ways to keep going.
The lonely start of the Caribbean is not changing the way many want us to believe. The country is evolving of course, but the pace of life hasn’t changed much in the last five decades, and there are no indications that it will in the near future. Cuba is following its own rhythm.
Cuban way of life is deeply interconnected
What you need to know
There are twelve categories approved by the US Government to travel to Cuba ranging from educational, religious, journalist to family visits. As a U.S. citizen you are required to engage in a full-time itinerary of activities related to your categories of travel, and have to keep your receipts as proof for five years.
Since “people to people” individual general license was terminated on November 2017, the only way for American citizens to visit Cuba individually is through “Support for the Cuban People” category of travel. Similar to “people to people”, this general license is meant to encourage meaningful travel by finding ways to support Cuban civil society. For an in-depth look, check out my blog, Back to Cuba.
A week-long trip can be done for less than $1,000, everything included. During off season, the airfare costs as low as $200 (from Washington DC to Havana and back). Sleeping in Airbnb casa particulares is around $20/night for two people, and food is also cheap: breakfast $3-5 and dinner $5-10.
If you find it overwhelming to plan your own trip, hire a company like Viahero that specializes in helping travelers create their own personalized trips for a decent price.
Last year, prior to our return to Cuba in December 2017, while all the US media was overwhelmingly reporting on the negative effects of the current administration’s travel restrictions, only Viahero, and this article by Huntington Post brought to light the possibility of traveling to Cuba under “Support for the Cuban people”.
Another option would be to travel with a company specializing in “people to people” group travel, like InsightCuba, Cuba Travel Services or, for a more intimate experience, Cuba Educational Travel. Most of these trips are costly, and in my opinion the organized tours are limited for both Americans and Cubans. Driving around in a bus and hopping in and out at various pre-planned spots, will likely cause you to spend more time with your fellow Americans, than with the Cubans. And this would defeat the whole purpose of “people-to-people.” As an independent traveler, you’ll have more possibilities to meet locals that you wouldn’t otherwise, and have personal meaningful interactions with the local Cubans.
Cuba’s culture is a complex mixture of African, European and indigenous American influences. The country’s history and its socioeconomic development has been shaped by two big powers, Spain and after 1899 by United States of America. Despite the long embargo and the tight grip of the local government, Cubans have been resourceful and found innovative ways to make an extra buck on the side, in order to supplement their $20-30/monthly salary. The lucky ones benefit from the growing tourism industry, while others take part in the vibrant local street market.
Before the trip
1. Learn Spanish. There’s no way around it. Most of the locals only speak Spanish. How will you be able to have meaningful interactions with Cubans if you only hablo poco Espanol? Invest fifteen minutes a day with Duolingo for a couple of months, and if you can, get a Spanish speaking friend with whom you can brush up on your skills.
2. Buy the airfare. United, Jet Blue, American, and Southwest all fly to Cuba. Check the box “Support for the Cuban people” when asked. The airline will provide the tourist visa, and in the case of AA and SW, you’ll need to contact VisaCubaServices.com.
3. Book the casa particulares on Airbnb.
4. Create your itinerary and start planning the activities that will support your category of travel. I’ve included a few suggestions in Back to Cuba for activities that would qualify for “Support for the Cuban people” category of travel.
5. American debit cards do not work in Cuba, so bring extra cash. As USD is taxed at 10%, exchange your money in Euros or Canadian dollars prior to the trip.
6. For transport, should you rent a car? Short answer: no. It’s expensive and muy complicado. Make bus reservations online, if you plan to travel longer than two hour distances. They only sell a handful of tickets on-line, so book early. If you can’t, no problem, you can buy them once you get to Cuba. Lastly, there are internal flights that can be helpful for some people. A one way fright from Havana to Santiago de Cuba cost around $150.
7. Read about the history of Cuba. There are plenty of great books and documentaries on YouTube out there.
Once you are in Cuba
1. Change $40 at the money exchange at the airport. The taxi should not be more than 30CUC wherever you go in Havana.
2. The next morning, find the nearest bank and change all your CAD or EUR in CUC. It doesn’t matter which bank, all are state-owned and have the same price. The banks will give you the best rate. Go early as the line will be long. If banks are closed when you arrive, many hotels will also exchange money for a higher rate.
3. There are two currencies to make things more interesting, CUC and CUP. The CUP is only used by locals. One CUC is worth 25 CUP and one CUC is equivalent to 1USD.
4. Be patient. Things take more time here, and also be flexible if plans need to change. Remember, you are on vacation.
5. For transport, anything under two hours from Havana, take colectivos – shared taxis for half price, and for longer rides take the Viazul bus. It’s comfortable and cheap. It cost only 33CUC ($33) per person from Vinales to Trinidad, and 67 from Trinidad to Santiago de Cuba.
If you couldn’t buy the bus tickets on-line, grab a taxi to the Viazul bus terminal in Havana and buy the bus tickets as soon as possible. Go early in the morning as the lines are likely long in the afternoon.
6. Internet. High speed internet is new to Cuba. Recently, new Wi-Fi hotspots have been installed in major cities across the island. For $3-5 you can buy an Internet card that gives you one hour of access. Not being connected to the Internet was very refreshing to us. For the local population however, it’s an exciting time as now many Cubans have access to information and the ability to communicate with their loved ones outside of the island.
7. Get lost in the city and go beyond the tourist sites, go where Cubans live. In Havana, walk around the colorful streets of Centro Havana to get a taste of the real Cuban life. On Sundays, check out Callejón de Hamel to see live rumba drumming sessions every Sunday in Havana. In Santiago de Cuba, go south from Parque Cespedes, or go on foot to Santa Ifigenia cemetery where Fidel Castro and Jose Marti are buried. Since Internet is limited, you can forget about your smartphone. In many parts of Cuba paper maps are not much use either because they have the new names, and the locals only know the old street names. It’s like the 90’s. Just ask people along the way.
8. Negotio todo! (Negotiate everything) Long story short. You will use lots of taxi rides, and that will add up, trust me. If they ask 20, say 10, and so on. Use your natural instincts and practice this skill that you cannot learn in the US. Always establish the price before getting in the car.
9. Food. Breakfast costs 3-5 CUC, lunch 5-8 CUC, and dinner no more than 10 CUC. Eat in paladares– private home restaurants and always check the menu with prices first. Lonely Planet has great, up-to-date list of restaurants and paladares in Cuba.
Have breakfast at your casa particular. It’s the best way to get to know your host family and learn about Cuba.
10. Do not buy cigars on the street! They look legit, but they are not. The people who are trying to sell them, predominately in Havana, are trying to make a living by persuading tourists to buy cigars, rent private homes, eat in local restaurants and book shows, like the Buena Vista Social Club. These jineteros, (not a nice term to use) work on commission, and even though they have good intentions mostly, you should politely thank them and move on. It will save you money and time. By the time you arrive to Havana, you should have already reserved your lodging.
For best cigar and rum deals go to one of the cigar stores in Havana like La Casa del Habano in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana. Cigar Aficionado has a complete list of all the cigar stores in Havana. The shows can be booked in hotels and predestined kiosks.
11. Every city and town has Casa de la Musica. Go salsa dancing. We did, every night. Even if you are not a big dancer go and make new friends. This is a cultural experience that you should not miss.
12. Visit the country side. Vinales, two and a half hours away from Havana is a prime spot for visitors. With its beautiful lush green valleys the whole region of Pinar Del Rio province is famous for its top-quality tobacco in the world. Take a colectivo, shared taxi from the Viazul bus terminal for 20 CUC a person. In Vinales, take a private tour on horse back or on foot to visit coffee and tobacco plantations. If time permits, visit the Alejandro Robaina Tobacco Plantation, 50 minutes south in San Luis to see where the best Cuban cigars come from.
13. Don’t give money to people, especially kids. It creates a bad habit and promotes dependancy. A smile and a short conversation will go a long way. If you would like to bring some gifts to your host families, then pencils, erasers, notepads, would make many children happy.
14. For photo enthusiasts: Cuba is full of color, texture, culture and everything in between. I have never taken so many photos in my life. The Cuban people are very proud of their culture and love to be photographed. Most of them are excited to participate in the creation of art and documenting the moment as long as you connect and explain why you are photographing them. Remember, your images will show if you have connected with your subjects or not, and most importantly, how you have connected with them. Cubans are happy when travelers come and visit their neighborhoods far from the typical tourist sites.
Check out some of my photos on Flickr.
The story of Cuba is complicated, but to understand it, it’s even more complicated
It felt like home being in Cuba. Many aspects of life are similar to Transylvania, Romania, where both my wife Emoke and I grew up. Family values, respect for elders and a deeply interconnected society where people rely on each other for their daily struggles and triumphs. Many Cubans that we barely met invited us into their homes and fed us. On our last day in Santiago de Cuba, one local man, Rodolfo said: “Nico, don’t forget us”.