About a month ago, one of my best friends and another girlfriend invited me to go to Cuba and I said “Yes!” on a complete whim. Without thought, I instantly booked my flight [which was ridiculously cheap] and the countdown to Havana began! In the short weeks before the trip, we learned that there is a lot of preparation required before visiting Cuba. And thank God we did our homework! It could have been a completely different and probably disastrous experience if we did not do our due diligence. So I feel it as my duty to share some helpful tips to my fellow travelers and wanderlusters who would like to visit one day!
CUC – Cuban Convertible Peso (what most tourists use) or CUP – Cuban Peso
DO NOT bring US dollars to Cuba. Cuba does not accept US credit cards or debit cards either. I advise exchanging your USD to Euro, Canadian dollars, or Pesos before you get there. The CUC and CUP are the two currencies of Cuba [which means you will commonly see two prices listed], but the CUC is mainly used for tourism. And I cannot stress this enough – bring enough cash with you! Anticipate on spending approx. $100 per day to be safe [which I rarely did, but Cuban cigars and excursions can add up quickly]. Food and beverage are fairly cheap [approx. $5-$10 CUC for lunch/dinner or a cocktail], but you’ll need extra spending money for taxi rides and tourist activities.
Passport + Visa Required
Visa’s are required to travel to Cuba as a US citizen. I purchased mine through Cuba Travel Services for approx. $85.00 plus shipping. The Visa process will ask for a reason for travel, and “Tourism” is not one of them. The most common would be “Educational – People to People”, which you can easily justify if you intend on learning the Cuban culture and having people to people interaction. I was never questioned during immigration though.
Airbnb, all the way! I’m biased because I only stay at Airbnb’s on international trips, but I feel that it’s part of the adventure! You can stay at a hotel anywhere – but staying at an Airbnb is a fun and affordable way to experience the culture of any country. And in Cuba, hotels are Government owned and very expensive. But, hotels were very useful in purchasing Internet cards or speaking with tourism/travel agencies. Most hotels were willing to help us even though we were not hotel guests.
Internet [or lack thereof]
WiFi is extremely scarce in Cuba. Prepare to be OFF THE GRID. And with this, I also suggest printing copies of any Airbnb itineraries, copies of your VISA/Passport, tourist activities/receipts, etc. Even if you do purchase an Internet card from a hotel, the signal is usually spotty and weak. You may also come across “WiFi zones” around Havana, usually in a public park or alley [you will easily recognize these “zones” by seeing 15-20 people sitting closely together and glued to their cell phones].
Download this app before the trip! It will save your life. The maps.me app is an offline map/GPS that is very easy to use and does not require data or WiFi. You will always have a clear view of where you are, and you can save pins of your hotel, Airbnb, places you plan to go, etc. It was also very helpful in showing taxi drivers where we were staying whenever there was a language barrier.
There are two types of taxi’s in Cuba; the classic vintage-style cars, or the yellow Government taxi’s. We were discouraged from taking the Government taxi’s. Vintage cars are the way to go. But be sure to negotiate the fare before you get in! Average price from the Jose Marti International Airport into Havana was approx. $35 CUC, and trips between Havana were typically $8 – $10 CUC. Just be sure to confirm the price before you get into the car.
I will stop here and provide more helpful tips in the next post, Havana diaries Part II! Come back soon!