Before I get down and dirty with the details, I need to say that everything written here was based on my own personal research and first hand experience. Travel to Cuba can be confusing to most Americans. Is it legal? Is it safe? What can we do? Where do we stay? I had all of these questions prior to traveling and I read as much as I could to prepare. I’d also like to add that I am not a historian and will admit that I knew very little about US-Cuban relations. Having been born and raised in a developing country like The Philippines, I am familiar with issues of political alliances and how one person (or a group of people’s) opinion may not necessarily be shared by the rest of the country. The issue whether tourism in Cuba may or may not be helping the regime is something you will need to decide for yourself upon further research. I chose to go because I needed to see/feel/hear for myself how life is on the island.
Is it legal for Americans to travel to Cuba?
Yes it is. BUT you must travel under one of twelve categories. They are the following:
Official business for the US government, foreign government and certain intergovernmental organizations
Support for the Cuban people
Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
Exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials
Certain export transactions
Educational activities and people to people travel
You will notice that TOURISM is not one of the categories. So if you’re planning to come to Cuba and stay at a resort and sip mojitos by the beach for 5 days while updating your Instagram feed, I’m sorry to tell you that you can’t do that.
Under the Trump administration, people to people travel can only be done through a packaged tour group so if that’s something you plan to do, you can stop reading now. It’s not hard to find a tour company to plan your trip for you. The downside to that service is, it can be expensive. I was not in the position to do that so independent travel was something I was looking into.
Support for Cuban People was the broadest category I could travel under and it required a few but simple requirements. Under this category, travelers must ensure that their visit includes about 6 hours a day of activities that support individuals and privately owned businesses. This includes but is not limited to staying in private residences called casa particulars (Airbnbs and private homes), eating in privately owned restaurants (paladares), taking private taxis, joining guided tours run by private guides, and shopping at privately owned shops. Visits to museums, concerts and art galleries are also counted under this category. The law requires you to also retain records like receipts and itineraries at least five years from the date of travel and you’re to avoid any transaction with any government run establishment. These are all very simply rules but they do require meticulous planning. The State Department’s list of restricted entities can be found through the State Department Site.
How to plan your trip
Planning is easy. First you need to decide what you want to do. Then map out your days and make sure you have enough activities each day to fulfill the full time requirement. Airbnb was instrumental in our planning with their introduction of Airbnb Experiences. In case you didn’t know, you can now book tours through Airbnb. What’s particularly helpful is that the tours show exactly how many hours an activity will take which makes planning easier. We browsed through the available “experiences” and decided which days we would do them. Easy right?
Another way to do it is having a local plan your trip for you. I found ViaHero through my online searches and for as little as $25/day, they will make sure you have a government approved itinerary complete with a guidebook you can access offline through an app. Through their site you can select the kinds of activities you are interested in and the website will provide you with a selection of “Heroes” who specialize in the kind of trip you plan to take. Just select your Hero and he/she will be in touch with you to further discuss your trip. It takes the planning out of the equation and they can even make transportation arrangements and lodging recommendations for you. Just buy your ticket and enjoy your trip! We opted to plan our trip ourselves to save on money since we didn’t mind the planning part but know that this option is available to you.
Can I still go to the beach?
Of course you can, but that cannot be the only thing you do that day since sitting under the sun doesn’t exactly constitute as supporting the Cuban People. Just schedule an activity before or after your beach visit so you’re still within the requirements.
Visa and Health Insurance
As per Cuban law, all visitors to Cuba are required to have travel health insurance. Check with your airline because the price of our airfare with Jetblue included health insurance coverage. Visas cost $50 and were obtained on the date of departure upon check in.
One of the most confusing parts of the trip was figuring out currency conversion. As of this writing 1 USD=1 CUC. However, US dollars are taxed about 10-12% so $100USD will give you less than 90CUC. The way around this is changing your USD into a different currency like Canadian dollars or Euro and converting that to CUC. It’s sounds complicated but the extra step ensures you get the most of the conversion.
But wait, I’m not done. Cuba actually has TWO currencies. CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). CUCs are more valuable than CUPs. As of this writing 1 CUC = 26.50 CUP. The former is what you will get when you change your money, the latter is what locals use to pay for local goods. You can get by with just using CUCs since that is what restaurants, taxis, etc accept. But if you decide to buy goods and art on the street, they may not have CUCs to give you as change. You need to learn the difference between the bills of CUCs and CUPs. Both bills come in similar denominations but CUCs will have images of monuments and CUPs will have images of their national heroes.
Your US-based debit and credit cards will not work in Cuba. You will need to bring enough cash to get you through your trip. You cannot run to an ATM to withdraw money halfway through your trip. This is why it is essential that you book and prepay your tours and lodging prior to your arrival so the only expenses you need to worry about are for meals, cab rides, and souvenirs. Be careful with your spending. Most of us started counting bills 3 days in after we realized we had spent a lot on mojitos early on.
Navigating the streets of Havana
Your phones will not work in Cuba. Don’t bother with roaming. Also access to wifi is limited or practically non existent. There are a few hotspots around the city where you can access wifi and you need to buy Internet cards to log on.
Good thing the Google Maps app allows you to download a map of a city so you can access it offline. Click here to learn how to do it. GPS location tracking will work offline so the map can locate you on the map while you’re walking around the city. The Maps.me app works the same way and I was told that locals use this to get around.
Do I need to speak Spanish?
Yes and No. You don’t need to if you’re just sticking to guided tours the whole time but then you’d be missing out on interactions with locals. English is not widely spoken so only those who have regular interactions with tourists are fluent. I took beginner and advanced beginner Spanish a few years ago so I basically speak Spanish like a toddler but I know Tagalog and we share a lot of words with the Spanish language so I got by better than the average beginner. Thankfully I traveled with a Chilean and a Mexican so we had enough Spanish speakers in the group to get us through.
I highly recommend learning or traveling with someone who’s fluent because I can’t imagine having gone through that trip without the conversations we’ve had with all our guides and hosts. Even our cab drivers and neighborhood merchants were quick to offer us insights and suggestions.
How do they feel about Americans?
If you’re concerned about them being hostile, don’t. Cubans are such amazingly warm people. Europeans, Canadians and other tourists have been visiting Cuba for decades. Tourists aren’t anything new to them. The only difference is with the sanctions imposed for Americans, we are required to engage more with them as opposed to just being in a resort on a beach. Everyone from our hosts, cab drivers and locals on the street have been kind and helpful. I can count more than a couple of times where someone on the street would wave us over and assist when we looked obviously lost. A few even went out of their way to walk us to the place we were trying to find. Cubans are amazingly kind people, despite their struggles. Of course, I can’t say the same applies to the rest of the country but we’ve not encountered a single person who’s showed us anything but warm hospitality.
From left to right: The group with our city guide Jenny and our new Mexican friend Hector / with our hosts in Soroa, the two Jorges, Maria and Pachi / our Airbnb hosts in Havana, Jose and Yanetsi / with our Airbnb host from Trinidad, Kati / These two ladies we met while walking around Trinidad. They welcomed us into their home and gave us a tour and even gave us plant cuttings (which we unfortunately couldn’t take with us.
Dining in Cuba
I’ve read a lot of articles and blogs about travel in Cuba and a lot of them share the same sentiment that the food in Cuba sucks. After a week there, I can see why they would all say that. Access to meat and produce is very limited. The country still practices food rationing as they’ve done in the last 50 years through what is called La Libreta. Trying to find food outside a restaurant is next to impossible or ridiculously expensive. I won’t go in detail about this. A simple Google search of “How Cubans Buy Food” will lead you to a number of articles explaining this practice. Cuban food in general, I found, is really very simple. A little rice, a stew of beans, (maybe) an avocado and some meat. Pork is king here and they typically cook a lot of their food with it for flavor. This was pretty standard in the majority of our meals in Cuba. I suppose since our group was from a mix of Asian or Latin American background, this type of food was not a problem for us. Fruit is a luxury and not always available. One of our travel companions was Vegan and she had a particularly hard time finding anything to eat that wasn’t rice or bread. If you have dietary restrictions, I strongly advice packing a lot of food you can prepare and eat in your Airbnb. There are no groceries and supermarkets you can just walk into and pick up a carton of eggs, milk or fruit. If you do find one, it will be very expensive. Airbnb hosts will offer to prepare you breakfast for a small additional fee, our hosts charged us 5CUC per person. Offerings vary per household but we had eggs, bread, ham, fruit, juice and coffee with ours. I highly recommend availing of the added service as it gives you one less meal to worry about. Locals have their go-to places to source their ingredients and trying to go about it on your own can and will be a challenge.
Since they have little to no access to any goods from the US, it would be nice to bring a few items to give your hosts and guides such as chocolates, shirts or anything local to where you’re from. We gave them I love NY shirts and some chocolates and they were very much appreciated. Consider this part of the cultural exchange. Tips are not expected but are welcomed. We were told the average Cuban salary can range anywhere between $15-$30/month!!! We tipped our amazing Havana host at the end of our stay and we all got very emotional because he couldn’t believe how much we gave him. A little to us is a lot to them.
Do bring everything you need with you. There isn’t a pharmacy you can just walk into to pick up a package of tampons, a bar of soap or toothbrush if you need it. Access to basic goods are limited or very expensive so make sure you have everything you need. Don’t forget the bug spray and sunscreen, they are lifesavers. We found a few small shops that appear to sell toiletries and such but they were mostly only located in the touristy areas of Old Havana.
There was not a single moment where we felt unsafe in Cuba. You will occasionally encounter a few people asking for money or begging you to buy their children milk but no one was aggressive and these were mostly concentrated in the touristy areas.
Also I feel the need to add the meal prices aren’t exactly what you would expect of Caribbean countries (read: NOT CHEAP). Meals in restaurants range in the $7 US dollar range for the cheaper restaurants and up to $18-$25 for higher end paladares. Bring enough cash with you. We did eat in their own version of Chinatown twice and I scored a plate of basic fried rice for $3. Mojitos and beer range between $3-$6 depending on where you go.
If you managed to get this far, I thank you. You might be thinking now how much work is actually needed to plan a trip to Cuba and wondering if it’s at all worth it. It all depends on the kind of traveler you are. If you’re looking for an easy, relaxing vacation, then this may not be the trip for you. But if you’re up for adventure and exploration then go for it. Cuba is a literal time capsule and the time to see it is NOW. There is no other place like it believe me and it must be seen. I don’t know how fast changes will happen now that US-Cuba relations are slowly thawing. Soon more foreign investors will come in and it won’t be long before you’ll see Starbucks and McDonalds setting up shop. I have very mixed feeling about this. But until then, I will hold on to the image of a city without the blatant branding and advertisements.
Our Airbnb Accomodations
Our Airbnb Experiences
Cuban Cooking Class - We booked this but host had to cancel at the last minute due to technical issues
Fabrica de Arte Cubano - Open Thursday-Sunday 8pm-3am
Dinner at El Cocinero - Reservations Highly Recommended
Dinner at La Guarida
Driver to Trinidad (4 hours from Havana)
Contact: Humberto Mesa firstname.lastname@example.org