Hellooooooo, if you haven’t seen my first post about traveling to Cuba, and are looking for tips or information I recommend checking out that page first.
So, my friend Minhae and I booked our tickets to Havana sometime in late September 2018 and the trip was scheduled for November. Originally, we were supposed to be there for 4 full days, excluding travel time.
Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate with our plans and our flight to Ft. Lauderdale from JFK was cancelled , so we spent a night in New York before leaving to try again the next day. This caused us to miss a day, but luckily, our Airbnb host was super helpful and understanding. We were also able to reschedule a tour we had booked for the lost day!
The next day we ended up flying to Boston, where we purchased our visas, and then to Havana. We arrived after dark, dropped off our stuff at the Airbnb and after learning how to hail a taxi (it was my first time, but Minhae was a pro) we headed out to “La Fábrica del Arte.”
La Fábrica is a mix between a bar, an art gallery, a club, and a concert hall. During our time there we visited several of the bars in the complex (I had the best piña colada of my life here) and toured the galleries, drinks in hand. When you first enter, you pay a small cover and get a punch card, and every time you “purchase” something like a drink or a snack, they punch your card. When you are ready to leave you pay for everything that was punched onto the ticket. Later in the night, we danced a bit and also enjoyed a couple of songs by a band that was playing in the concert hall. I think we may have gone a bit early but it worked out because we were able to get some food and enjoy the atmosphere before the crowds arrived. La Fábrica is a must-see if you plan on experiencing some Havana nightlife.
The next day, we walked to old Havana. Here, we are pictured with El Capitolio- an (almost) exact replica of the capital building in Washington, D.C. We spent the afternoon exploring The Museum of the Revolution, which detailed Cuba’s fight for independence and subsequent communist revolution. The museum had explanations for the images and artifacts in both English and Spanish, so it was very accessible for English speakers.
After the museum we went to get some lunch and explore around a bit. We checked the menus of several restaurants because I was on a mission to find pulpo. Or, octopus. Through my visits to Spain, I have become fairly fond of the dish and because it is not super common in states, I was determined to find some in Cuba. We settled on a cute American-style restaurant and I ordered my pulpo. Minhae ordered Ropa Vieja, a delicious Cuban Dish often served with plantains. We ate a lot of Ropa Vieja during the trip.
On our second day, we visited the Havana Club Museum of rum and were able to take a tour in English. Personally, I enjoyed the tour (although I had sampled some of the product at the bar beforehand) Minhae found it pretty lackluster. So, take that as you may. I will say that I found it strange that during the tour they gave a 15-minute history of sugar cane in Cuba without mentioning slavery once, so it is certainly a romanticized version of events.
One of my favorite parts of traveling is getting the opportunity to experience new, delicious foods. Besides pulpo and ropa vieja we ate lots of ice cream and had rice with almost all our meals. Also, the breakfast provided by our Airbnb included a variety of fruits, I tried papaya for the first time there. I love trying new foods, especially fruits but I discovered during this trip that I am not a huge fan of tropical fruits. Go figure. I also am a huge coffee drinker and throughly enjoyed the Cuban coffee prepared for us by our Airbnb host each morning.
On our last day we did a bike tour which included a stop at a local market where we were able to try several different fruits, which I have since forgotten the names of. The most interesting one to me was yellow, had a creamy texture, and reminded me a bit of squash. I really liked it so if you know what its called hmu.
Although we weren’t in the country for an extended period of time and did not interact with a ton of Cubans, those we did interact with were very kind and helpful and very willing to share their culture with us. One night, we sat on the deck of our Airbnb chatting with the mother of our host about her experiences growing up in the country and the attitudes towards the US. Despite the *strained* relations between the American and Cuban governments, the people treated us with kindness and curiosity.
Havana is one of my favorite places I traveled to in my life and if you get the opportunity, I would highly recommend visiting. Havana is a vibrant, beautiful city- a place I would love to return to one day. I have found through discussing my experience there with other Americans that many people think it is a dangerous place to visit or isn’t worth the hassle. During our time there I never felt unsafe and Cuba is a very safe country, in general. As far as the question of “is it worth it?” my answer would be 100% yes. It is more of a challenge that traveling to Europe or within the US, but if you’re willing to put the effort into planning a good trip, Cuba is the place to go.
In the fall of 2018 my roommate, who was on exchange in the US from South Korea, told me she was thinking about going to Cuba during Thanksgiving break. My immediate reaction was to feel nervous for her since I did not know a lot about Cuba and she admitted that she would be going alone. Over the next two days, I did some research into the process of traveling from the US to Cuba and ended up asking her whether she would mind if I tagged along. So, we booked the tickets.
Blogs, for me, were very helpful for research into the travel process and I’m hoping those looking to travel to this vibrant country will find this post helpful as well! That being said, I am not an expert on Cuba or US policy toward Cuba and travelers. This post only recounts my experience with the process. So, I highly encourage doing your own research as well :).
Some things to consider when thinking about going to Cuba
The US government does restrict travel to Cuba
What this means: According to the United States government, there are 12 reasons one may be eligible to travel to Cuba. These are Family visits, Official Business of the US Government, Journalistic Activity, Professional Research, Educational Activities, Religious Activities, Public Performances, Humanitarian Projects, Activities of Private Foundations/Institutions, Exportation/ Importation of Information or Information Materials, Authorized Export Transactions, and finally (the reason I used) Support for the Cuban People. This also means that, as an American, I could not spend money on government-owned businesses. The Department of State has the complete list posted here.
In order to travel to Cuba, when we reached our final airport before Havana, for us this was Boston International, we had to buy visas. These visas cost $75 and allowed us to enter and leave the country. When we purchased the document we had to state our reason for traveling to Cuba, which for us was supporting the Cuban people.
“Supporting the Cuban people” seems vague, and it is. This is the most flexible category for travel. One must have a “full time schedule” which means 8+ hours of itinerary on weekdays of activities that qualify as supporting the people of Cuba. Some of these activities include:
Meeting with local business people and patronizing local businesses
Exploring independent museums
Shopping at local marketplaces
Eating at privately owned restaurants
In other words, things you would probably be doing anyway! I will include the full text of activities that qualify under this category here.
2. American Credit/Debit Cards Do Not Work in Cuba
What this means: When traveling to Cuba you will have to bring all the money you plan on spending in the county with you- in cash. Also, there is an additional fee for exchanging US dollars into Cuban pesos. Because of this, my friend and I exchanged our dollars into euros before leaving the states to avoid the fee.
How much money you bring is entirely up to you. I like to be overly prepared so I estimated about $40 total for lunch and dinner (breakfast was offered for $5/day with our Airbnb). Then an additional $30/day for miscellaneous expenses like museums of souvenirs. In total it came to about $75/day although I did not spend nearly that much. But, better safe than sorry.
Havana is very inexpensive compared to Philadelphia (where I am from). Food costs very little and if you know some Spanish you can haggle for the prices of souvenirs.
3. Cuba Has Two Different Currencies
When you arrive you are going to change your currency at the airport to CUC or the Cuban convertible peso. CUCs are pegged to the US dollar so, the exchange is 1:1. The CUP is mostly used by locals and the exchange is around 27 CUP to 1 dollar.
It is good to keep this in mind when you see two prices for different things. The “higher” price is referring to how many CUP an item costs. Also, be aware as we heard of tourists receiving CUP as change instead of CUC, and therefore being shortchanged.
4. Your phone will not work in Cuba (or it will for a crazy fee)
I had my phone on airplane mode for the whole trip because my cell carrier charged a high fee for usage in Cuba. My roommate and I were able to buy internet cards which would, in theory, allow us to connect to the public wifi in parks. Yes, parks. My card did not work, I was never able to figure out why. So, I used Minhae’s phone to contact my loved ones to let them know I was safe.
Honestly, I missed the internet but for a few days it was nice to disconnect and really live in the moment of being in such a beautiful place. (Cliche, I know)
All in all, if you’re willing to do some planning traveling to Cuba is 100% worth the effort and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to experience a beautiful, unique travel destination.
I will also be posting a page about my experience in Cuba that is less logistical. So, stay tuned for that!