Cuba Travel Guide
Updated: Dec 11, 2018
This guide is everything you've ever wanted to know on how to get to Cuba, what to eat and everything in between!
Word of caution, always check and make sure that you as an American can still go to Cuba! The political climate is always changing so make sure to stay abreast of the news! Also, remember Cuba is a communist country so please respect that and the people there!
Can I actually go to Cuba?
If you are an American, you probably have the misconception that we aren't allowed to visit Cuba! For a very long that was very true, but thanks to a couple political changes here and there by former President Obama it's actually quite easy to visit Cuba!
If you're truly concerned or want more information, you can check out the State Department's advisory on Cuba here.
How do I actually get there?
I used Google Flights to see which airline had the best deal for flights to Havana from Philly, and Delta seemed to be the only airline that was flying there for cheap! I paid $200 round trip for my tickets and was there from Friday to Monday at the end of November.
Once you have purchased your tickets, you're going to have to purchase a Visa. I purchased mine through the airline because it was cheap ($50) and convenient! But essentially, I called up Delta after I purchased my flights, I gave them my flight information and informed them that I wanted to purchase my Visa for Cuba. I was asked a few questions and my reasoning for going; I said *. According to the U.S. Department of State, you can only go for the following reasons below:
Official U.S. Business
Professional research and meetings
Support for the Cuban people*
Activities of private foundations
Exportation, Importation, Transmission of Information
The reason I went was for "Support of the Cuban people" because one cannot just go on vacation to Cuba; you have to have a reason for being their country.
Once you purchase your Visa, you'll receive an email, so make sure you keep it handy for when you actually get to the airport. There are two options on how you get your Visa. If you have a connecting flight like I did, you won't get your Visa until your flight that is direct to Cuba. For example, my flights were PHL -> to ATL and then ATL -> to HAV; I didn't receive my Visa until the second half of that trip (ATL -> to HAV) at the gate. If you don't have a connecting flight, then you just go to your gate and get your Visa.
Once you get to the gate, you'll receive a piece of pink paper; that's your visa. You'll fill it out like any other documentation, but for the love of God don't mess it up or they'll make you purchase a new Visa.
You will receive on Visa paper, but it's actually two individual Visa's. One gets stamped when you enter into Cuba and the other gets stamped when you leave. So again, for the love of God don't lose it!
Once you arrive in Cuba, in my case Havana, you'll go through Cuban customs possibly answer some questions and get both your passport and Visa stamped.
Then viola! You've made it inside Cuba!
Money, dinero, argent, moolah
Okay, this is probably the second most common question I received when I got back from Cuba! Cuba does not use the US dollar in their country. In fact, when you exchange it, they charge you a 10% fee which you don't see with other currencies like the Euro or CAD (Canadian dollar). Also, another note: Your credit card, debit card, Amex, Visa, Mastercard, Discover WILL NOT WORK IN CUBA. Bring one for emergencies as always, but don't expect to use it in Cuba. So bring cold, hard paper.
In Cuba they use the two currencies: the CUC$ (Cuban Convertible Pesos - which you'll use) and the CUP$ (national currency - which the locals use; called moneda nacional). At this current time (12/2018) the CUC is pegged 1:1 to the USD, but they don't convert equally. With that being said you have a couple options in exchanging money:
Option 1 - You can bring the USD and exchange it at a CADECA (their bank/currency exchange place) at the airport or wherever you decide to stay (whether it be hotel or casa particular - more on this later!)
Option 2 - Bring Euros or CAD, where you don't get charged the 10% fee. But if you haven't been to Europe and go to a Travelex, you may save more money just bringing US dollars.
When I went, I had a combination of Canadian dollars from when I went to Canada the week prior, some Euros from when I was in Europe, and an extra $200 USD just in case for emergencies.
After you leave the airport and customs there are multiple CADECAs to exchange money. Julio (more on him later) took me outside to the CADECA that had the shortest wait; super convenient!
I would definitely recommend bringing the equivalent of $100CUC/day. Not because Cuba itself is expensive, transportation and tours etc. will eat up most of your money. Most of the time, my meal was around $5CUC to $20CUC at the very most! But my three hour tour with Julio cost me $30CUC (which is significantly cheaper than most other people!).
If you go to where the locals eat and go, like I did, you'll be getting a mix of CUC and CUP. Sometimes they will try and cheat you (didn't happen to me, but be cautious) and give you CUP instead of CUC. This is because the 1 CUC is equal to 24 CUP, so be careful and make sure to look at your money before you leave.
Just be sure to realize that you will need to exchange your money all at once. You'll be very hard pressed to exchange your money once you leave the airport. It's not impossible, but it certainly isn't convenient.
Where to stay
I stayed at an Airbnb and had a private room in a casa particular; I stayed at this one to be specific! (Use my code to receive $40 off your first visit!) It was a beautiful place and had almost all your modern amenities.
Side note: a casa particular is pretty much a private home with a room where you can stay while in Cuba. I preferred to stay in one than a hotel that was in the more touristy places.
The place I stayed at was amazing and I would easily stay there the next time I visit Havana! What made this place great was the fact that they had breakfast, a full bar, and an amazing rooftop which was so amazing for seeing the stars at night and laying out during the day!
The breakfast was pretty basic, but still good: toasted bread, yogurt with granola, fresh fruit, Cuban honey (which is liquid gold) and eggs with tea, coffee, or a guava smoothie.
Let me take a second and rave about the guava smoothie. When I say it's probably my new favorite drink, I truly mean it. I mean guys, it's the best drink I've ever had that wasn't alcoholic. When you go to Cuba drink only three things: bottled water, mojitos, and guava smoothies. I just truly couldn't get over how delicious it was!
On my last day there, we combined the guava smoothie with rum and I almost gave my two weeks notice at work, because I didn't want to leave, that drink was just so good!
Okay back to reality. You also have the option of staying at a hotel if you're fancy like that but I preferred to stay kinda close to where the locals were staying so I found an Airbnb that was close to the city center and wasn't in the more touristy areas of Havana. As the city experiences more tourism more hotels will be and have been popping up, so you will definitely have some options. But at the end of the day do you boo boo, do you and stay where you want!
Expect nothing. Truly. Cuba is a dead zone for internet and wifi. If you attempt to use it through your phone carrier expect to come to a bill that's a couple hundred dollars! You can buy an internet card for about $2CUC, but it's not worth it. Just enjoy your time in Cuba and get to know the culture and the people. If God forbid you need to make a call, someone is always willing to help you! Accept the fact that you're not getting wifi in Cuba and enjoy not being attached!
So a friend of mine had been to Cuba before with school and said that the food was not that great! I was a little nervous and didn't think I'd like the food, but LET ME TELL YOU. If you go where the tourists go, the food ain't good. It is not good.
You have to go where the locals go, it's the only way. Whenever I travel anywhere I always ask, where would you go, I'm not the biggest fan of going to "touristy/instagrammy" restaurants (I really don't like it even more so now after going to La Guarida).
But the first restaurant I went to, I can't tell you the name! I know, I'm a bad blogger, I'm sorry but I truly couldn't even remotely give you the name of it, but let me tell you the food I ate that night - to die for. I got an octopus salad with ropa vieja with avocado, rice, and black beans with a mojito, and it was one the of best meals I had in Cuba! Julio recommended this place as well as a local spot!
Now if you go to Cuba you have to try two things: A mojito (that you can get literally everywhere you go) and a Cuba sandwich. If you're not getting your Cuban sandwich from Quinta A, it's not gonna be good. It's just not.
This sandwich was so flavorful and delicious and filling and everything you could ever hope a sandwich would be. I got mine with a guava smoothie of course! Everything about this meal was just delicious; even the mustard you can put on it! What was even cooler about this place is that all the prices are in the CUP I mentioned earlier. When you pay in CUC, you get CUPs back which are so cool to see and have in general! Just know that you technically can't take CUPs outside the country!
This is a place that really only the locals go, and I'm so glad that Julio took us there to eat!
If you want dessert, I recommend going to this random helados (Spanish for ice cream) place called Bim Bom Heladeria. It was such an interesting experience, I won't ruin it for you, but it was certainly interesting!
Now the ugly side. The instagrammy/touristy side of eating out. So, per usual, I did a bunch of research on places to eat in Havana, and one place I came across was La Guarida. It's the famous restaurant that people take these photos at like this one!
Don't get me wrong, the architecture is BEAUTIFUL. It's so old and beautiful inside, but the food. It's gonna be a no from me dog. The food was just so bland and terrible, and not good. The staff and drinks were great, but the food was just a no go.
I am even more mad at myself because Julio was like, he's taken people there before and they didn't like it. I definitely should have listened because it was God awful. Those photos though, to die for.
When it comes to food, listen to your guide, who is a local and knows where to go. Don't do as I did and go to that terrible restaurant that is truly a tourist trap!
Getting around and finding a taxi in Havana, specifically, is very easy. There is a bus system but I have no idea how it works because I didn't take it, so if you have taken let me know in the comments below! But our entire time there we had Julio drive us around everywhere we wanted to go, or we just used our good ol' fashioned legs. I am a walker/hiker so I prefer to walk everywhere before I decide to take transportation.
A lot of tourists take the old chevy's that are literally everywhere.
Julio had his own car that we drove around in that was just like any other car, but it was a European car. You have the option to take any of them just be prepared to pay. One night, I got a taxi from a bar back to my Airbnb and it was $10CUC for like 2 miles. They will rip you off, so be prepared to haggle for prices. If someone says $10CUC to go a short distance, then say no thanks and move on.
If you get a ride in a car, and not specifically any type of taxi don't expect it to look like the uber/lyft you are used to. There is a good chance the inside will look like this and smell like straight gasoline:
And if you've got a couple extra CUC laying around you can take a ride in Chevy just for the experience of it like I did!
Like I said in the money section, Cuba is very cheap, its transportation that's gonna kill you so make sure to budget accordingly!
I don't have a lot to say in this section because I didn't get the chance to go outside Havana, but I know Viñales and Cienfuegos are both beautiful places that I plan to hit up next time I go to Cuba.
If you can get a day trip in, I would say definitely do it! It's about 2.5 - 3 hours to Viñales by car. You can usually get a tour there for about 100-150 CUC, if they ask for more don't do it!
Couple Extra Tips!
Know a little Spanish before you go! Luckily I went with my best friend Yolanda, who is pretty fluent in Spanish being that she is Puerto Rican! But if you aren't going with someone who knows Spanish I recommend downloading the Google Translate App, and downloading the Spanish language and your language so that you can quickly Translate! I also recommend Duolingo as well, that app helps you learn the basics of any language before your trip!
DOWNLOAD GOOGLE MAPS!! I cannot stress this enough! If you don't want to get completely lost in Cuba, download the map for whichever city you go to in Cuba. Because I went to Havana, I downloaded the Havana map and it allowed me to figure out how to get around. Mind you, when you use Google Maps without internet, it gives you the driving directions and not the walking direction!
You can bring back cigars and rum, just as you would from any other country! You obviously just can't sell them commercially! I brought back rum, cigars and some coffee for myself, friends and family!
You can buy cigars and rum at the Havana airport! It's just right passed security. They still don't take American credit cards there, but if you have extra dollars left over, you can exchange them at the CADECA and then buy your last minute goodies! They are slightly more expensive at the airport compared to going to a regular store in the streets, but not that much!
As I said in the money section, and I cannot stress this enough, BRING EXTRA CASH!! Once you run out, you run out!
Lastly, please, please, please, please be polite! Don't be a typical American in a country that truly just started allowing American tourists to go! You are in their country, and they were just fine before you, and will be just fine after you! Be respectful of their culture and customs. Thank you for attending my TedTalk.
Last, but certainly not least, if anything should be first! Julio Moret is truly my best friend. This man made my trip to Havana AMAZING! I can't wait to go back and see him again and his family. Julio is the nicest man you could ever meet, and will do anything he can to make sure you are having a great time. I truly can't recommend this man enough!
His contact information: JulioMoret@nauta.cu
Contact him and be prepared for the trip of a lifetime!
I hope this little travel guide has been helpful! And if you have any more questions or need clarification hit me up on my instagram! Read my other blog about things to do in Havana in 3 days!
Until next time beautiful peoples and remember: We are here for a good time, not a long time! xx
Photos to inspire you to visit the beauty of Havana