Many of you have been asking the who, what and how of my recent trip to Cuba, so I thought I’d put together this travel guide answering the most common questions. If you are planning to travel to Cuba and have a specific question, leave it in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer it!
How can Americans travel to Cuba? I went to Cuba on a people-to-people program with Cuba Travel Services. The purpose of a people-to-people trip is to have meaningful interaction with Cuban people. The types of activities vary, from learning how to tobacco farm, to visiting a community center, to meeting a local chef over dinner at a privately-owned restaurant. Most people-to-people schedules are deliberately jam-packed with approved activities so there is very little free time for creative interpretation of the people-to-people parameters.
The important thing to note is that travel as a tourist is banned for Americans, and will continue to be banned even after the new U.S. policies take effect. This means recreational activities like lounging on a beach are out. But who wants to be a tourist anyway? My people-to-people trip was exactly how I like to travel — we were hanging with locals every day, playing Cuban music, dancing Cuban salsa, eating Cuban food, and learning about the Cuban way of life…and drinking ample mojitos and daiquiris along the way.
How do you fly to Cuba from America? Companies like Cuba Travel Services charter planes to get you to Cuba. We flew a charted Sun Country flight direct from Miami, but in March 2015 Cuba Travel Services will be operating a direct charter flight out of New York City’s JFK Airport! Round-trip airfare on the inaugural JFK-Havana flight starts at around $849/person. While many major airlines like United, Delta and U.S. Airways have announced their intent to begin regular flights to Cuba, the government still needs to approve these flights. For the near future, chartered flights will remain the best way for Americans to travel directly to Cuba without connecting through Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean.
How are the hotels in Cuba? I stayed at the Meliá Habana in the Miramar neighborhood, but I also checked out the Meliá Cohiba (lovely), the Hotel Saratoga (where Beyonce and Jay Z stayed…it’s gorgeous) and the Hotel Nacional De Cuba, which has beautiful grounds and colonial architecture, but I have heard that the rooms are slightly less modern, although I haven’t seen them for myself. My room at the Meliá Habana was on The Level, a concierge floor with an exclusive lounge, dining room and other upscale amenities. It had modern fixings, a gorgeous oceanfront terrace, free Wi-Fi and turn-down service that included a surprise bottle of wine and charcuterie plate one night. Breakfast included fresh guava, pastries, omelets, lox, and exquisite Cuban coffee. There were expansive pools at both the Meliá properties and a cute rooftop boutique-style pool at the Saratoga over-looking El Capitolo. Most of the hotel lobbies have a looming scent of cigar smoke but there are typically designated smoking sections and you can request a non-smoking guest room, which I recommend.
You can also stay at a casa particular, a Cuban bed-and-breakfast or room for rent in someone’s home. Some are rustic, some are luxurious villas. Prices vary but are typically cheaper than hotels.
Is there Internet in Cuba? Most Cubans don’t have Internet but some have access to a government-controlled Intranet. While most Cubans have heard of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram many have never used them. Hotels that have frequent business travelers, however, do have Wi-Fi Internet that resembles what we have in the States with a few exceptions — it’s much slower and you are required to re-enter your user and pin every 10-15 minutes. It’s also quite costly to pay-per-hour for Internet so if you find a hotel that includes it in the price of your stay, that’s a bonus.
How do I get around Cuba? Taxis: The 1950’s Cadillacs, Fords and Pontiacs that give Cuba its nostalgic postcard vibe are actually mostly share taxis. They act as shuttles, and will take up to five passengers to pre-determined stops. They always follow the same routes. You can also hire a private taxi to take you from place to place but they are more expensive than share taxis and typically aren’t classic cars. If you go that route, ask the price before you take off. Rental Cars: You can also rent a car. Our group used a van from Transtur rentals and our driver Lasarito was super cool. Hitchhiking: Hitchhiking is a way of life for most Cubans as the public buses are horrendously over-crowded, slow and too expensive. I even saw a group of doctors in their scrubs hitchhiking home from work along the highway. Hitchhikers in Cuba hold up different denominations of bills depending on how short or far they’d like to hitch. As a Cuban, if you do not have a full car of passengers, you are expected to pick up a hitchhiker. It is not recommended that tourists hitchhike. You may be waiting a very long time, or be hitching on the back of a truck-turned-bus on some very bumpy roads.
How’s the food in Cuba? In the last several years, restaurateurs from Cuba and transplants from abroad have made huge strides in bringing Cuba’s culinary scene into the 21st century. Had I not read that Cuban restaurants had a bad reputation for food, I would have never known it. I ate mostly at paradors which are private restaurants, as opposed to state-run. Try the antipasto at El Litoral, the chicken in “special sauce” at El Aljibe (state-run), the ceviche at La Fontana, and the whole fish that Sardinian Chef, Luigi Fiori served at Italian restaurant, Mediterraneo. Most of his ingredients come from their private organic farm nearby Havana. The deep fried churros I tried on the street in Old Havana were the best churros I’ve ever tasted. No cinnamon, raw sugar. So much better that way! There is even a new Soviet-inspired restaurant called Nazdarovie where you can dine on beef stroganoff and stuffed cabbage with one of the best views of the Malecon. But the most delicious meal I ate wasn’t in Havana, it was at El Paraiso, an organic farm in Viñales. I’ll share a video about that place soon!
The average Cuban doesn’t eat as well, though. I learned that Cubans still use ration books and sometimes they can wait on line for hours for subsidized rations at designated bodegas, only to learn that certain goods like rice or oil are gone for that month. Some staples like potatoes are impossible to find. A typical salary in Cuba is $20/month, and that goes for a doctor or a taxi driver. In fact tip-based professions like severs and drivers actually earn more than doctors or lawyers.
How is the nightlife in Cuba? Cubans are accomplished artists, musicians and dancers. And the lack of distractions like Internet and social media only strengthens their commitment to The Arts. The stages in Havana ooze with talent, from a cappella singers, to salsa performers to live supper club bands and dancers. If you have a chance to watch the Habana Compas Dance Company, their percussive dance show is a must. The 10-piece Cuban band at Havana Cafe was a nostalgic nod to the fifties. And the children who perform at the Muraleando community arts center will melt you heart. But even just wandering the streets of Old Town you’ll find live bands and galleries throughout. My favorite spot was El Cocinero, on the roof of an old factory. It serves dinner but also turns into a loungey hot spot late and on weekends.
How can I pay in Cuba? While debit card and credit card transactions will soon be approved for Americans, they aren’t yet. Right now cash is the only way to pay. The exchange rate is universal across Cuba so you can exchange your money at a bank, the airport or at a change bureau, but I found it was easiest to do it at your hotel front desk. You will receive CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos) and they are about a one-to-one exchange rate with U.S. Dollars.
Is it safe in Cuba? From what I’ve been told, the crime rate is low in Cuba although official reports don’t seem to be released. I felt totally at ease walking around at night. I have been haggled with more in Manhattan than in Havana.
Would you go back to Cuba? Cuba swept me off my feet. I felt every hair on my neck stand up when I walked out of the airport for the first time. I was trying to absorb every detail of the scenes that were unfolding. Four days there felt like a month because of the sheer amount of experiences we had, but at the same time it felt like I only scratched the surface of this country. I am already planning my next trip and I hope that this guide helps you start planning your own Cuban adventure.