Tuesday February 19, 2019
by Payge McMahon
As an American, traveling to Cuba is a lot easier and safer than you’d think. You also don’t have to go with an expensive tour group or cruise ship. We didn’t!
We flew to Cuba with friends and experienced the country as locals. We rented an apartment in Havana, explored the city and took day trips. No expensive tour companies. No resorts. The 8-day trip cost less than $700 a person, and this includes everything (airfare, apartment, food, beverages, excursions and shopping).
It was fun, educational and put myths and stories, we Americans hear about Cuba, into perspective.
Below is a short summary of what we did, tips on planning a trip and recommendations.
We picked up our ‘Family Visas’, at the Southwest ticket counter in Ft. Lauderdale, before our flight to Havana.
It was a short flight to Cuba’s capital city and customs was a breeze. We exited the bustling airport and exchanged a little money and took a cab to the apartment we rented through Airbnb.
During our stay, we walked all over Havana/ Old Havana, took cab rides in the 1950’s classic cars, did the Havana Club Rum tour, learned how to roll cigars, enjoyed grapefruit daquiris at Hemingway’s favorite bar – La Floridita, visited markets, historical places (ex. Plaza de la Revolución), walked along the Malecon (famous 5-mile waterfront esplanade), saw an amazing show at the Tropicana and the Don Quixote ballet at the The Gran Teatro de La Habana. We also did lots of eating, salsa dancing (FAVORITE – Club Jardines del 1830), went to the beach outside of Havana – Playa Mar Azule Santa Maria (30-min. cab ride) and spent a day in the countryside in Viñales. There we hiked in the Cuevas de Santo Tomas in Vinales (2.5 hr. drive from Havana), viewed The Viñales Mural de la Prehistoria and visited a tobacco farm.
Tips - Good Things to Know Before Going to Cuba
- Visa* - We were granted a ‘Family Visa’ at the Southwest airline counter in Ft. Lauderdale, before our flight to Havana. It was $50 a person. Note - we do not look Cuban, nor requested the ‘Family Visa’ in Spanish. The agent also did NOT ask us any questions about our alleged ‘Cuban family.’ We simply filed out a form and paid the $50 Visa fee. I’m not sure if it’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation, but ‘Family Visa’ is the way to go!
*As Americans, we must meet one of 12 categories of travel to obtain a visa to Cuba.
- Money - American credit cards and debit cards will not work in Cuba. Bring cash. $100 bills are best.
There are two official currencies used in Cuba. Visitors use the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC$) and residence use the Peso Cubano (CUP or MN – moneda nacional).
The CUC$ is pretty much an even, 1:1 exchange with the US$. However, the Cuban government imposes a 10% fee when converting US$ to CUC$. Interestingly, they do not impose this fee on other currencies.
Exchanging money at the government run airport, or any other government run venue, is expensive. You will lose $10 per $100.
The key to a better rate is to ask a local if they know a ‘guy’ who can give you a deal. Cubans are resourceful and know ways to work around the system.
We met up with a friend of a friend, our first night, and lost only $5 per $100. They have to make money too.
- Hotel vs. Apartment & Casa Particulares – As Americans, we are ‘technically’ NOT allowed to stay in any resorts or hotels run by the Cuban government*. Most are run by the government.
We rented a 2-bedroom apartment through AirBnB. It was $60/night – a holiday rate (the week of New Year in January). Normally, the apartment would have been $25/night. It included a once a day maid service. For an extra fee, the apartment’s owner offered to arrange someone to shop and cook authentic Cuban meals for us.
Casa Particulares are a great way to experience Cuba at the local level. Similar to a bed & breakfast, you rent out a room in a family’s home and they will also cook for you.
*The U.S. Department of States’ blacklist’ or ’List of Restricted Cuban Entitles’ can be found here.
- Toilet Paper/ Wet Wipes– Bring them everywhere! They are on short supply, even at the nicest of hotels and venues. Most places, you are lucky if there are toilet seats. Just sayin’!
- Internet – Internet access and its infrastructure is poor in Cuba. They have Wi-Fi hotspots and internet cafes - with long lines outside them. High-end hotels will have internet, but connection is terrible. For us, it was wonderful to disconnect for the week.
- History & Research – Post Fidel Castro, Cuba is still a socialist country, run by the Communist Party, with less restrictions. Eleven million people live within the 15 providences that make up Cuba (2.2 million in the city of Havana).
I personally like to know as much as I can before traveling to a new country. I recommend watching, The Cuba Libre series on Netflix and the movie, Papa Hemingway in Cuba. Read, : Lonely Planet’s guide on Cuba & Barcardi & the Long Fight for Cuba – The Biography of a Cause
- People – Friendly. Always negotiate. People don’t make much…most only make $30 a month. Doctors make $50/month and will drive cabs on the side to make more money. Everyone gets monthly rations (X amount of meat, eggs, vegetables, toothpaste, shampoo etc.). If they need anything else, they barter or buy it (if they can afford it).
- Spanish – Brush up on your Spanish. It always helps to know the basics and is appreciated by locals. Outside of touristy areas, most Cubans don’t speak any English.
- Food - Stores and most restaurants are state run. The good news, pricing is consistent. The bad news, there is little variety and grocery stores often run out of staples early in the day. There are also shortages. When we were in Cuba, there was a shortage of eggs. A recent hurricane had wiped out half-a-million egg-producing chickens.
- Gift Bags –Before we went, I bought $200 of necessities (shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, razors, tampons), Wigwam socks, items for kids (crayons, coloring books etc.) and made gift bags to give away to people. It was our little way of saying ‘thank you.’
- See a show at the Tropicana. It is spectacular!
- Walk along The Malecón
- Go salsa dancing at Club Jardines del 1830
- Jazz Club La Zorra Y El Cuervo – Highly over-rated. Ridiculously long lines and wait, to get into a very small jazz venue, located in a basement. While the artists were talented, the acoustics were deafening and piercingly loud.
- Fusterlandia – Known as the Cuban ‘Gaudi,’ artist, Jose Fuster colorfully tiled this neighborhood with street art. Lonely Planet compares it to Barcelona’s Park Güell. If you’ve never been to Barcelona, and are bored in Havana, check it out. Otherwise, Fusterlandia only covers a few blocks in a small town and is no comparison.
Last Thoughts & Planning the Next Trip to Cuba
Traveling with a tour group will easily cost $4,500 per person. Tour companies plan and handle all the logistics and that may be worth it for you.
The next time I go to Cuba, I will explore the south/east and its mountains near Santiago. I will still travel sans tour group.
Next Trip’s Agenda
- Fly to Santiago, in southeast Cuba, from Havana (a 12-hour drive or train ride from Havana).
- Explore Santiago and its history - the Spanish to Fidel Castro, Che Guervara and the Barcardi family.
- Climb Pico Turquino, the country’s highest peak (6,476 feet).
- Scuba dive off Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen)
- A beach visit to the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos)
Cuba is a beautiful country. Don’t miss an opportunity to visit!