When I was younger, I would think, “How cool would it be to go to Cuba?” It was uncharted territory. No one that I had ever known had ever been, and the only idea of it that I had was from Google images. It was definitely on my bucket list, but it wasn’t something that I really thought that I would get to do. So when then-President Obama lifted the embargo in 2015, I was ecstatic! This was my chance to go see this magical place that was virtually untouched by western society, but I knew I had to act quickly. Once the embargo was lifted, all Americans were cleared for travel, and commercial airlines started to fly there, I booked my ticket.
From the beaches to the tobacco farms to Havana, there’s so much culture to see and enjoy. Here’s some things to check out:
- Museo de la Revolución- As the name suggests, this is a museum that tells the story of the Cuban Revolution. It’s located in Old Havana in the former Presidential Palace. While the museum, itself, is a bit lacking, the building is beautiful. It was nice to learn about Cuba’s history from a Cuban perspective. The information on the exhibits is written in mostly Spanish, but many exhibits have an English translation. It costs 8 CUC ($8) to enter.
- Obispo– Obispo street is a beautiful area in Old Havana with tons of shopping, outdoor cafes, restaurants, and bars. This is a good place to get your souvenirs at a good price, as well as grab food and relax as you pop in and out of shops. You’re bound to see a street performance or two as well.
- Fabrica de Arte– Fabrica de Arte is a cultural center in Havana with food, drinks, music, and other cultural entertainment. They have different attractions going on different nights and I’ve been told that it has the feel of a trendy restaurant, a museum, and a nightclub rolled into one. It was under construction when I was in Havana, so I didn’t get to go, but my friends who have gone have told me that it is definitely a must-see.
- Vinales– If you want to get away from the city and see a different type of Cuba, Vinales is a good option. Vinales is in the countryside approximately 2 hours from Havana. There, you can take a horseback ride to a tobacco farm, hang out with some locals, and see how Cuban cigars are made. Vinales is also home to some awesome caves that you can take a boat ride through. You can travel to Vinales by bus or private car. If you plan to go by bus, which is the cheapest option, go to the bus station early the day before you plan to go to secure your seat. If you plan to go by private car, expect to pay around 100CUC ($100).
- Playa Santa Maria– Playa Santa Maria is a beach about 30 min from Havana. It’s clean and tourist friendly, with restaurants nearby. It’s easily accessible by taking the buses that leave from in front of the vintage taxis in Old Havana. The cost is 5CUC ($5) and the buses leave every thirty minutes.
Planning your Cuban Vacation
Where to fly into?
- Jose Marti International Airport (HAV)- If you’re going to Havana, this is the airport to fly into. It’s about a 20-25 minute taxi ride into the heart of Havana that will cost you around $30. Taxis are readily available once you step outside, so it is not necessary to arrange transportation beforehand unless you just want to.
- Antonio Maceo Airport (SCU)- If you plan to fly into Santiago de Cuba on the opposite end of the country from Havana, this is the airport that you will need to fly into.
Where do you stay?
- Casas Particulares– All over Cuba there are places called casas particulares. These are the houses of locals that are approved by the government that you can stay in as an alternative to hotels. You can stay in some casas with a family or you can rent an entire casa from locals. I rented an entire two bedroom apartment from a couple for only $40/night! It was centrally located, incredibly safe, comfortable with modern amenities, and they came to cook breakfast and clean for me every day. I would recommend renting a casa particular to anyone visiting Cuba who wants to get a more authentic experience.
- Hotel St. John– I stayed at this hotel the first night of my stay in Cuba. It was centrally located and a very comfortable place to stay after a day of traveling. It was clean and modern with a hospitable staff. I was able to pay online before I arrived and paid $82 for one night. If I were to give it a rating, I would rate it between 2.5-3 stars. Even though I only stayed one night, I would not have been opposed to staying the entire trip.
- Hotel Nacional– There are many high end hotels in Havana, but if you want to stay at the best of the best, this is the place for you. Hotel Nacional is probably the most famous hotel in Havana. It’s a massive 5 star hotel with impeccable service, its own money exchange counter, and multiple outdoor bars with spectacular views (try their pina coladas!). This hotel is NICE, so expect a nice price tag. One night here will run you at least $300. But from what my friends who have stayed here have said, it’s definitely worth it.
Things to Know
- Language– Spanish is the national language of Cuba. Most people with tourism jobs may know how to speak a little English, but most people don’t, so it would be helpful to know some Spanish. Check out the language cheat sheet under the “travel tips” tab.
- Currency– Cuba has two different types of currency. There’s the CUC, which is the currency that tourists use. The conversion is 1 CUC = 1 USD, so it’s basically like you’re paying for dollars for everything. The CUP is what Cubans use. The conversion is 1 USD= 25 CUP. However, tourists supposedly aren’t allowed to use CUP. The money situation can be sort of confusing, but here’s the gist: remember which money is yours. CUC will always have a picture of a historical monument on it. CUP will have a picture of a person on it. Be careful that if you give someone CUC, they give your change in CUC, not CUP, because your change would then be almost worthless. If you want to stray from the beaten path and live like a local, you can get CUP from a street vendor (buy something and request CUP.) This way it is easier to get rides from the comparitivos (local people who use their cars as taxis and pick up many people at a time for rides), buy street food, or buy food from local people cooking in their homes.
- Weather– June through November is hurricane season, so there is a chance that you will run into some tropical storms that may ruin your trip. December through April is the dry season. The skies are sunny and the temperature is in the 70’s during the day, but may drop at night, so it’d be nice to bring a sweater or light jacket for evenings. Cuba has the same summer months as the U.S. During the summer the weather is hot and dry- my type of weather!
- Transportation– To get from the airport to the heart of Havana, you’d take a taxi for around $30. They are all lined up around the exit of the airport, so you shouldn’t have a problem getting one. In Havana, you can take taxis, walk or the little tuk-tuks (bikes with two-seater carriages on them). Taxis can be pretty expensive- at least $10 per trip. I did a lot of walking, and took the bike taxis (they accept CUC and CUP) for $2-$5/ride. When I was traveling with local friends that I’d made, I took comparitivos, regular people’s cars that they use to pick up multiple people at a time for maybe $2. I wouldn’t advise this unless you are traveling with a Cuban. There are public buses, nicknamed wawas) that are really cheap, but they are also really crowded.
- Food– The food was one of my favorite things about Cuba. When I was doing my research, I came across a lot of people who said that the food was not good. They said that it lacked flavor because they used no spices. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth! Everything that I ate was delicious from meats to the vegetables. The prices were very reasonable, also. The best food, however, was food I found from vendors on the street. If you are sensitive to different foods, I would not recommend street food, but if you have a strong stomach and are willing to risk a little stomach upset, I say do it! Be sure to have some CUP on you to buy street food. I did eat at two magnificent restaurants while I was there: El Biky is a modern, higher scale restaurant with tons of different options from pastas to Cuban foods, and it is very reasonably priced. Ideas was my favorite place that I dined. It was so good, I had to go twice during my trip. It’s super modern and has the feel of South Beach. The food is AMAZING. Let me emphasize AMAZING. It’s the perfect place for a date night or just a late night dinner. I encourage everyone to visit this place. They are unable to accommodate larger parties, by the way.
- Misc.- Internet is not readily available here, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be completely off the grid. You may buy $3 internet cards from your hotel or people in the designated internet parks. You’ll know where the designated internet areas are by the large number of people that flock to a particular area to use their phones. One card will buy you 1 hour of internet usage.
- Crime is scarce here. The government is particularly hard on crimes against tourists, specifically, so, while you shouldn’t let your guard completely down, you shouldn’t be worried. I walked around at night alone and felt completely safe.
- The people aren’t suffering. While they definitely aren’t as fortunate as we are in the U.S. they aren’t ridiculously poor or starving. You may think that you should pack lots of toiletries and pens (lol) to give away or barter with, but this isn’t necessary. Your items may be appreciated, but they aren’t so desperately needed that you’ll get stuff for free in exchange for a tube of toothpaste.
Unfortunately, at the time that I am writing this, the current administration has restored the embargo against Cuba, so the future of travel to Cuba is uncertain. If you booked a trip to Cuba before June 2017, you are still able to take your trip. However if your ticket was not booked before June 2017, you might not be able to go independently for a while. People-to-people trips through group tour agencies may still be allowed to visit. These are much more expensive than independent travel, but it may be the only option left.
If you do get a chance to experience this untouched paradise, you’re in for a treat. Prepare to step back in time and enjoy Cuba and its beautiful culture.