One thing occurred to me over and over while on our trip to Cuba: How can a culture so geographically close feel so distant and lost in time? When an applause broke out on our uneventful flight from Miami to Havana, I knew it was just a brief glance into what was to come on our ten days in Cuba.
Even before we arrived I felt the people were very hospitable and friendly. All of our Casa Particulares/Airbnb owners were very kind and some even went beyond expectations to plan a surprise anniversary dinner I asked about arranging ahead of time. Contrary to that, being careful of jinteros (hustlers) also became apparent when we were caught in a situation where my boyfriend decided to grip his pocket knife while trying to organize a very sketchy taxi ride. The scenery was extremely beautiful; we went from wide open valleys of rolling hills in Trinidad with soft white sand beaches nearby to dramatic and picturesque green mountains scattered with tobacco fields in Viñales. Even more vibrant were the buildings throughout the country, painted colors to equally reflect the 1950’s style cars driving around and the spirited personality of the people. Perspective was given, though, when the contrast of Spanish colonial architecture was among such decaying buildings and poor conditions. What might seem beautiful in a photograph, may truly reflect something more important about the Cuban people.
Salsa dancing was found 24/7 and rum ran like water. Backstreet Boys still played on the radio and when you meet a guy who says he studied IT in Havana you start to wonder, “IT? In Cuba??”. During one of our tours, our translator said that the one song he learned in school when he was younger was “Imagine” by John Lennon and I’ve been thinking about those lyrics since then,
“A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one”
Traveling to Cuba was truly a trip back in time and provided just a glimpse into its puzzling society. And it all happened just 34 minutes away from Miami…
When Alex and I decided to take a trip to Cuba I didn’t completely realize what we were getting ourselves into. Planning and organizing the trip ended up being a gigantic confusing mess, so to pay it back to the many of you, especially U.S. Passport citizens, who will be going to Cuba in the future I decided to write a post about what we learned, enjoyed, and discovered on our trip.
Before you go:
This was by far the most difficult part of the planning process because of one thing: Cuban Tourist Visa. We flew on Frontier from Denver to Havana via Miami. As of January 2017, you have two reasonable options to obtain a travel visa, which is required for U.S. citizens traveling from a U.S. gateway city.
- The first option is you can purchase a visa ahead of time through Cuban Travel Services (most commonly used) or through an alternative visa provider. Yes, it will be about $100 for a visa. Don’t ask me why it is so expensive because I still don’t understand.
- The second option is you can get your visa at the Miami airport in front of the American Airlines check-in desk. This service is also provided by Cuban Travel Services and will still cost you the same amount, give or take a few dollars maybe. This is what we did, and although you have to exit the terminal and re-enter through security, it was a very simple and easy process.
Every airline has different visa policies and may offer cheaper options, always do your research on your specific airline and transfer city. Something to consider before booking your flight is the difference in cost flying via Mexico or Canada, as buying a tourist visa there can be substantially cheaper ($20!).
General License (12 categories of authorized travel)-
In addition to having a visa, you must also qualify under one of the 12 categories of authorized travel. Since Obama loosened sanctions with Cuba and airlines began flights from the U.S., it has become easier to travel to Cuba under the condition you declare to travel under one of these categories, which are:
- Family visits;
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
- Journalistic activity;
- Professional research and professional meetings;
- Educational activities;
- Religious activities;
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
- Support for the Cuban people;
- Humanitarian projects;
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and
- Certain authorized export transactions.
More often than not are travelers, including us, visiting under ‘Educational activities,’ more specifically ‘people-to-people-travel.’ Activities that qualify for people-to-people are, for example, museum visits, interactions directly with the Cuban people to gain insight, educational tours, salsa dancing, visiting historical sights, dining/staying at family owned businesses, etc. We did a variety of these activities, kept all the receipts we could get (which were very few), made sure to document everything well through pictures/videos, and kept a list of our itinerary as the trip went on. Coming back through customs on our return was extremely simple, and, to calm nerves about how particular this rule may be, I would just say not to sweat it too much. As long as you’re keeping a record of your educational people-to-people activities then you should be doing your part. You do not need to purchase or obtain an official document if you qualify under this category of travel.
Unless you are the exception of having a hotel booked, which I have read are fully booked months in advance, most likely you will be staying at Casa Particulares. These are rooms in a local home that are rented out. This is such a great way to immerse yourself in the Cuban culture and learn more about the people, not to mention that your casa will likely offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a reasonable additional price. Airbnb has been allowing travelers only since March of 2016, but from our experience, this was definitely the way to go. It provided assurance of our money and we always knew we were guaranteed a place to sleep. If you’re more of a ‘go-with-the-flow’ type, you can make plans when you arrive, but if that makes you anxious or if a crowd of locals shouting at you to book their casa sounds stressful, definitely look into Airbnb.
Heads-up, remember that this is a poor country, and if you’re booking rooms for $25 a night remember to keep your expectations at that level. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of casas in each city and many of the locals are just looking for a way to earn some extra cash. You may not be staying in a 5-star resort, but the casa hosts will almost always go out of their way to make sure you enjoy your stay- and that you write a good review about them in the end.
There are two currencies used in Cuba, the CUC (spoken aloud it sounds like ‘cooc’) and the CUP. From our experience, we paid for a few street churros in CUP and that was it. Most places only accept CUC. If traveling with USD I highly suggest exchanging for EUR, CAD, or GBP depending on the rate. There is a fee when exchanging any of these currencies in Cuba, but the fee for USD is high enough that your value will go further with another accepted currency. Currency exchange locations, called CADECAs, can be found at the Havana airport, and frequently throughout every popular city. There will probably be a line, we waited in line to exchange for over an hour a few times. Bring your passport!
This one was a struggle… I arrived in Cuba with the expectation of not using my phone very often, but when our taxi didn’t show up on time when we got there, that all went south. There’s always the option of an international phone plan, but if you’re a budget traveler that may not be ideal. Throughout each city, often in plazas, city squares, or sometimes hotels, there are Wi-Fi hotspots that can be connected to through a pre-purchased Nauta access cards. You will know when you come across a Wi-Fi hot spot based on the crowd of people hovering over their phones, and you will also know where to buy a Wi-Fi card based on the long line of locals and tourists waiting outside an Etesca office. Ask someone to point you to the nearest Etesca and they should be able to point one out.
Buy or rent a guide book! I highly recommend this, and bring it with you. When you’re at a loss of what to do, where to eat, or just simply lost, this will come in handy. This one and this one were both great guide books. I also like to read blogs ahead of time and make notes of anything I find that might be helpful.
Our first stop on our Cuba travels was a small colonial town 4.5 hours by car away from Havana. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this town was full of history, cobblestone streets, and beautifully colored facades.
- Getting there-
As Trinidad was our first stop, we took a taxi from the Havana airport that we pre-arranged through our casa/Airbnb host. When I refer to a taxi, I don’t mean a private, air-conditioned, modern taxi car. I mean a vintage or just plain old vehicle that you share the price between other travelers usually going to the same place as you. These are referred to as taxi colectivos. We paid 40CUC for this leg. Taking the local Viazul bus is another option, but for our dates they were already all booked and after considering the extra taxi fee to the bus station and the extra few hours spent on the bus, we were fine with taking a taxi to each city.
- Things to do/Places to eat-
-Take an old steam train to the Valle de los Ingenios, a beautiful valley where sugarcane was once the most prominent crop. Now it’s a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site and makes a great half-day trip from the city. The train departs at 9:30 am and returns at 2:30 pm. The train first briefly stops at the valley, but then continues on to Manaca-Iznaga, an old sugarcane factory. Biggest downfall was that the train was very crowded with tourists and if you want to climb Iznaga Tower or tour the sugarcane factory it will cost you an extra 1CUC each. The views made up for it though! Tickets for the train are 15CUC.
-Visit Playa Ancon, a beautiful beach only 10-15 minutes by car away from the center. Take a taxi for about 5-10CUC and pick a spot on the beach to relax for a few hours. If you’re into it, you can also rent a bike to get to the beach, but that didn’t look so enjoyable after seeing the drive. There are plenty of huts serving drinks and maybe some snacks or food.
-Eat at Restaurante San Jose, not only for the delicious piña coladas but for the air conditioned room in the back. We mostly had snacks here, but they were always good and the drinks were even better. Food in Cuba is very hit or miss, but this restaurant I would recommend.
- Where we stayed-
Out of the three casas we stayed at in Cuba, this was my favorite. The location was away from the center enough to be quiet but still within walking distance to everything. The room was very private, had a private bathroom, new shower, and had a nice terrace above the house. The pictures on Airbnb were inaccurate, but we were still very pleased with our room and our very friendly hosts! Casa Happy House.
Our second stop on this trip was none other than the city of Habana! It was amazing how drastically different the city was when walking through the neighborhoods of Centro Habana to La Habana Vieja, and even Vedado. This city was so lively and full of colonial character; it was an obvious ‘can’t miss’ on a trip to Cuba.
- Getting There-
Coming from Trinidad, we decided to find a taxi driver on the streets a few days before we needed to leave. I suggest this, but at the same time, I also express caution on making sure you’re not being taken advantage of and that you fully understand what you’re signing up for. Speaking Spanish, even a basic level, is highly recommended for this. Get your taxi driver’s number in case he doesn’t show up or you need to contact him for some reason. We heard of people getting deals as cheap as 15CUC but for us, we agreed to 30CUC and ended up paying 35CUC after a very stressful taxi situation, hence why I say to stand firm and be cautious and aware.
- Things to do/Places to eat-
– Take an antique car city tour! This was my favorite thing we did on our two days in the city, and I regret not doing it on our first day. Simply walk around the city, find an old car you like, and most likely the owner will ask if you would like a ride or a city tour. Bargain hard, and use this tour as a taxi ride to somewhere else you may want to visit. If you speak English, try to find an English speaking driver to make the tour more enjoyable. It was a great way to see most of the city and find new places you may want to see after the tour! We paid 25CUC for a 1-hour tour in a bright pink Oldsmobile Futuramic convertible.
– Visit all the old plazas in La Habana Vieja, specifically Plaza de Armas if you’re interested in shopping an outdoors vintage market. Alex and I spent a few hours here going back and forth bargaining with vendors and finding some really unique items. All of the plazas are beautiful and great places to grab a drink or take a break.
– Explore the Museo de la Revolucion y Memorial Granma. I wasn’t extremely impressed with this museum, most the information was in Spanish which made it difficult to understand for me, but the little I could understand was very interesting to read as an American. If time allows, I recommend this museum and suggest also seeing the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes which I heard positive things about. Tickets for the Revolution Museum were 8CUC.
– Floridita bar, made famous by Ernest Hemmingway, was a beautiful and an interesting sight to see. It was a shame that the place was extremely overcrowded and the famously made margarita was highly overpriced, but it was still a unique spot to see.
– Walk the shopping street of Calle Obispo. Not only will you find a CADECA, Etesca, and Infotour office, there are plenty of other little shops to look at and some quaint restaurants. The street leads straight into Plaza de Armas as well.
– Join in on the salsa dancing! We took classes through Salsabor a Cuba and, for me at least, I really enjoyed taking an hour lesson. It was fun doing something culturally immersing, even if I have two left feet. You can book lessons through Salsabor a Cuba on their website.
– Eat at El Biki! This became our go-to restaurant while we were in Havana, for one because it was only a few blocks away from our casa, two because the food was actually good, and three because they had an English menu. Sometimes knowing what you’re eating and knowing you won’t get food poisoning came before trying to seek out the most authentic local food through trial and error…
- Where we stayed-
We booked this casa on Airbnb and our stay was very hospitable. It was great being only a few blocks away from the Malecon, and the area we were in felt fairly safe and very quiet compared to some other areas we walked through. It is a bit of a walk into Old Havana, but otherwise, this was a great casa.
Our final stop ended up being an overwhelming favorite for me. This small town, in an area known for its production of tobacco, has a beautiful reflection of vibrant green colors and painted like hills, locally called mogotes. If you aren’t horseback riding, bird-watching, or bike riding, then enjoying the local views would be satisfying enough.
- Getting there-
The taxi ride from Havana to Viñales is about 2.5 hours from Havana, making it a popular day trip for tourists staying in Havana. After having a stressful taxi situation in Trinidad we decided to book a taxi through Infotour for 25CUC. We got picked up at the door of our Havana casa and dropped off at the door of our Viñales casa. It was a very simple ride.
- Things to do/places to eat-
– If there is one activity I have to choose to recommend from the whole trip it would be horseback riding in the valley of Viñales. Not only did our awesome guide and translator help to make this trip enjoyable, but seeing the valley by horse was an incredible sight. We booked our tour ahead of time through Riding Vinales on their website and chose to do the recommended 5-hour tour. Included in our trip was a stop at a coffee plantation, a visit to a cave (extra 2CUC to go inside the cave), and a stop at a tobacco plantation where they explain the process of producing cigars. We paid 25CUC for 5 hours.
– Take a tour to a nearby island like Cayo Levisa. This island, an hour by bus from the city and 30 minutes by ferry, was extremely beautiful and had so much potential to make for a great beach day, but unfortunately, we came on a day full of rain and cold weather. I would still recommend this activity, though, because of how beautiful the beach was even with the gloomy day. Book this tour at one of the tour agency offices on the main street in Vinales. For transportation and a sandwich lunch, we paid 45CUC.
– Dine at Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso (Finca Wilfredo’s) which sits atop a hill with beautiful views of the town (which we did not get to see because we went late for dinner.) This restaurant serves their food family style, and as soon as you’re seated they will start bringing out plate after plate of various dishes made from their own organic farm. Not only do you get to try various dishes, the food is delicious and there’s even dessert – everything for only 10CUC. And say hello to the house cat named Tom.
- Where we stayed-
We stayed at Villa Familia Fela, and overall had an enjoyable stay. There was a private entrance and the location was great for walking around the small town.
There are so many beautiful sights and cities to explore in Cuba, and we barely scraped the surface, I’m sure. From what we saw and activities we did, these were some of our favorites and some of the lessons we learned from our experiences. I’m hoping this will come in handy to future Cuba goers because I know how much I relied on blog posts and TripAdvisor reviews when I was planning my trip!
Viva Cuba Libre!