| Havana, Cuba |
Since returning from Cuba, I have been asked quite a few times about my trip and my experience with traveling to what has always been known to us as a “forbidden country.” Traveling to Cuba was everything and, if you decide to go, I promise you that you will not regret deciding to make the trip. Below are some tips based on my personal travel experiences.
It’s Still Not Legal to “Vacation” in Cuba
Despite popular belief, it’s still not legal to go to Cuba as an American citizen unless the purpose of your travel falls into at least 1 of the 12 categories provided by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Fortunately, President Obama did expand legal travel for Americans in the sense that you no longer have to apply for a license or get approval from OFAC. The US government approved categories and more information about legal travel to Cuba can be found on the OFAC’s FAQ page. Obviously, with new administration . . . this could be subject to change.
Bring Enough Cash For Your Entire Trip
Cuba is a cash only country, at least for now. American debit and credit cards do not work in Cuba, so you will need to bring enough cash with you to last for the duration of your trip. If possible, avoid bringing US dollars–convert your US dollars into Euros or British Pounds before leaving, as the exchange rate for those currencies is much better. When you arrive in Cuba you can exchange for convertible Cuban pesos (you cannot get Cuban currency outside of Cuba). I brought about $50 in US Dollars as emergency money, which I never planned to exchange.
Also, Cuba has a dual currency system. The national currency is Cuban pesos (moneda nacional or CUP). However, the currency that you will be using is called the “convertible peso,” or CUC. It is said that prices are slightly better in the moneda nacional, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t worry we tried. As a non-Cuban, you are pretty much required to use CUCs even though some place with list their prices in both currencies.
Brush Up On Your Spanish
For me, brush up meant actually learn Spanish. Fortunately, I traveled with a group of people and a few of them knew Spanish and others were brave enough to test their limited capabilities. I, on the other hand, did not realize that I was using cuándo and cuánto interchangeably until the last day of our visit. Fluent English speakers are few and far between in Cuba. Even spending a few minutes on Duolingo every day leading up to your trip would be useful.
Leave Your Makeup at Home
When I got to Cuba and realized that the heat was so sweltering that any makeup would just seep right off my face, I was hurt to the core. My dreams of strolling around Cuba like Beyoncé with a beat face had been crushed. My suggestion is bring some concealer and / or your favorite lipsticks, but that’s about it. Anything else will most likely be a waste.
The Taxis Don’t Always Say “Taxi”
It was often cheaper when we did not take a taxi that had a taxi sign–taxi particulares. Marked taxis are operated by the state whereas taxi particulares are privately operated. They are still legitimate and should honestly be your first choice. Be sure to negotiate the price before getting into the taxi. About 5-7 CUC for a taxi anywhere is pretty much the standard price to go anywhere in Havana–regardless of how far you’re going or how many people are in the car.
If You’re Traveling with a Group, Prepare to Be Split Up
I don’t mean to scare you, but this is the reality of traveling to a country where you cannot use your cell phone, laptop, or tablet to connect with . . . anyone. Once you get to Cuba, you are pretty much completely off the grid. There is one hotel in Havana that offers WiFi through pre-paid Internet cards, but honestly it’s not worth the effort. I traveled to Cuba with about 7 other people and we got split up almost every day that we were there, especially because only about 3-4 people can fit in any given taxi. Make sure you have a default meeting location. After the fact, we thought maybe we should’ve have invested in walkie-talkies . . . if anyone tries this out, definitely let me know how it works out.
Travel with People You Like and/or Genuinely Want to Get to Know
Without being “connected,” you spend a lot of time with your co-travelers. Definitely travel with people with whom you can see yourself spending a lot of quality time. From the moment we got off the plane in Santa Clara, all 8 of us shared a 4-hour taxi ride to Havana. And, that was just day one. Prepare to spend some quality time with the people who are traveling with you and know that you can’t just pick up your phone and browse the Gram when you’re ready to block everyone out. The realness of this one might not kick in until you get there . . .
| Trinidad, Cuba |
There’s More Than Just Havana
If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, I highly, highly recommend seeing more than just Havana. I spent about 3 days in Havana and booked a car to Trinidad. I, myself, had to be convinced to make this trip to Trinidad. Best decision I ever made. If time and money permits, explore towns outside Havana. I’ve also heard great things about Viñales and Santo Domingo.
Leave Your Comfort Zone
If Cuba is where you want to go to lay by the beach for a week with your headphones on and catch up on that novel you’ve been trying to read all year, then I’d recommend that you travel elsewhere. Cuba is a place where you should leave your comfort zone and travel in a way that you’ve never done before. Cuba is still developing and, as a result of the embargo, there aren’t too many ‘activities’ that you would find in most Caribbean countries. I’d recommend visiting the cigar factory and taking a salsa class. Aside from going out at night, there isn’t too much more to do other than interacting with Cubans and getting a sense of their way of life. In any country I visit, I want to get a sense of how the lifestyle. But, this was particularly important for me in Cuba because of the rich history and culture.