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Travel Guide to Cuba

Havana, Cuba is probably one of the most talked about destinations in the US right now. Since the embargo finally being lifted under Obama, Americans have been clamoring to go there (including us). We finally got the chance to go and it was a pretty much everything we wanted it to be. But traveling to Cuba requires a little bit of planning.

Getting to Cuba

People make getting to Cuba sound complicated, but it’s not much harder than going to any other country. You should always check to see if you need a visa to travel somewhere. For Americans, you don’t need a Visa but you will need a “Tourist Card”, which you can get here. For people flying through the US it will be pink, for anyone else it’ll be green. Besides that, you just need your passport and a flight and you’re good to go!

Packing for Cuba

Buying necessities in Cuba is difficult, there aren’t a lot of convenience stores and necessities tend to be expensive. We forgot to pack soap or body wash and couldn’t find any where we were staying. We ended up using a bottle of face wash to get clean.

So, pack everything you will need. Here is a list of basics:

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Lotion
  • Face wash
  • Bug spray (they have Zika)
  • Sunblock
  • Soap/body wash
  • Comfortable walking shoes

Hopefully you remember to pack under garments, clothes, and chargers also

Converting Currency

Cuba has 2 primary currencies, Cuban Pesos Convertible (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP). Some people say the CUC is a “tourist” currency, but it’s actually not. CUC is largely used in the hospitality industry throughout Cuba, and Cubans use it for the same products as tourists. Pesos are a floating rate currency, so the conversion rate will vary. However, the CUC will be the only currency you should get for your trip. The CUC is pegged to USD 1:1, but in converting it there’s a 3% fee and a 10% tax. That means $100 will get you 87 CUC. You can’t avoid the tax and can rarely avoid the fee, so don’t waste too much time trying to arbitrage. Everybody accepts CUC throughout Cuba. Even in the off chance that a price is presented in CUP, you can pay in CUC and you’ll receive change in CUP.

If you’re an American or your bank is owned by an American bank, your ATM and credit cards will not work in Cuba. So make sure you bring all the cash you will need and then a little extra. We averaged about $150/day per person, but we also booked our hotel and some excursions in advance through Airbnb (more on that in a bit). You can convert at the airport and then there are a few banks and a market around Havana where you can exchange more as you need.

Where to Stay

Havana can mostly be thought of as three primary areas. Old Havana (Havana Vieja), Central Havana (Vedado), and West Havana (more modern and residential).

  • Old Havana is the oldest area (obviously) and is walking distance from almost all the sites you will want to visit in the city. This area is also the most expensive area to stay.
  • Vedado is a little more west, a little bit cheaper given the lower concentration of tourists, and more of a business district.
  • Western Havana is the most modern part of Havana and primarily residential, however this is also the cheapest area to stay.

Regardless of where you stay, Havana is pretty safe. Though, you should always be cautious,  aware of your surroundings, and respectful to the locals and their customs. Getting from place to place is also not very difficult, you can walk most places and taxi’s are not terribly expensive.

We stayed in a Casa Particular in Old Havana booked through Airbnb. We loved our hosts and also loved that we were a 5 minute walk from Plaza Vieja, which is bustling at all times and about 15 minutes from Plaza de Armas. There are quite a few hotels in Havana as well, but Americans are not able to stay in a hotel since they are government owned (as of the time of writing this).

Things to Do

We typically don’t plan out our trips too much, but since we knew we won’t have internet there, we made sure to book at least 1 thing per day ahead of time.

 

Day 1

Every trip starts with a historical tour with a professor. We love doing walking tours on day 1 because it gives us a lay of the land and we get to learn about the culture and history of the area. The tour lasted a few hours and we loved it. Afterwards, we retraced our steps and spent some more time in the places we found to be most interesting.

Day 2

A day trip to Viñales, also booked through Airbnb. We rode to and from Viñales in a classic car (3 hour drive each way), rode through a tobacco farm on horseback, got to see some cigars get rolled, took a cave tour, saw a painted mountain, ate lunch, and then came back to Havana by about 6 pm. We took the rest of the day to do some more walking through Havana.

Day 3

We went to Cojimar, a small fisherman town about 15 minutes from Havana. There we took an amazing cooking class at Ajiaco Café, which included a tour of a local organic farm. From there we went to the Santa Maria beach, which was beautiful. If you have time, we’ve heard Veradero is even more beautiful but we didn’t get the chance to go. At night we walked around Old Havana and visited the Capital, found a bunch of classic cars, saw remnants of the wall, and some of the more historical buildings within Havana.

Day 4

Our last day, with a midday flight, so we stayed local. Breakfast with our host and then walking around close by. We went to our favorite churros place one last time (we ate there at least twice a day) and then went to the airport.

Shopping and Gifts

The only things we found in Cuba that are made locally are cigars, honey, coffee, and rum. Everything else is imported and pretty pricey, so we don’t really recommend much other shopping. However, the cigars and honey are amazing, and the coffee is really good when its made with condensed milk.

Other Things of Note

  • Get Cash Before Going – Regardless of where you are flying from, I would suggest getting your cash out in advance of getting to Cuba. We met people from countries other than the US who could not get any cash out because their bank happened to be a subsidiary of a US bank. When you’re in that situation, you end up with very few options because Cuba also does not have Venmo or PayPal (or internet).
  • No Internet – As many of you may have heard, Cuba does not have internet available everywhere. To get WiFi, you need to get a prepaid internet card from a government owned ETECSA. That card will work at a designated WiFi hotspot (modern hotels or WiFi parks). Besides that, you’ll be without internet for the rest of your trip.
  • Download Your Maps – Because there is no internet, you should download the local maps on Google Maps (or your app of choice) ahead of time. GPS works in Cuba, so you just need the map downloaded and the addresses of the places you’re going.
  • The Food is Meh – Because of the embargo and the lack of naturally growing herbs and spices in Cuba, the Cuban cuisine is not really a driving factor for anyone to visit. There are some good restaurants in Cuba, but it’s definitely no Thailand.
  • Transportation is Easy – Havana is swarming with cabs, many of which are classic cars, and many of the drivers speak decent English. Cabs aren’t terribly expensive but you should definitely be careful they aren’t ripping you off. However, for trips to Viñales or Cojimar, it may be easier to work with your hotel or Casa Particular host.

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I’m Maryam, your new guide. Welcome to my Blog!

Maryam Ishtiaq is a content creator and social media strategist who currently resides in Dallas, Texas.

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