Travel to Cuba, Read This First

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.

Arriving in Cuba

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.

Melia Habana Room

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.

Melia Habana Pool

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.

Casa Particular Vinales Cuba

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.Driving in Havana Cuba

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!

La Fontana Havana Grilled ShrimpCuban Food El Paraiso Vinales

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.

Cuban Ration Book

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.

Havana Cafe Cuba El Cocinero , Havana CubaMuraleando Community Center Performance

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.

 

 

 


44 Comments

  • Sarah McKenna says:

    Beautiful post! Will you do a post on your Cuban travel style? Love that dress!

  • Joel says:

    Really enjoyed this Court! Your passion for travel is contagious!

  • Henry Gallardo says:

    Hi Courtney,
    The first photo caught my eye of you as you are walking in front of the small group, such a pretty woman. I love photography and spent several summers working in Yosemite just so I could do my photography. Great article on Cuba and loved the pictures you posted along with it. I’ll be sure to start following your blog and see your adventures, what a blessed life you live to travel as you do. God be with you on your journeys. I am your newest fan!

  • Excellent write-up, thanks for the info Court!

  • Zuma says:

    Beautiful post Courtney! I loved the details and could feel your excitement! Your description of Cuba reminded me of Armenia where I grew up… The hitch hiking, the long lines for food for locals, the beautiful scenery… Your travel tips are excellent! Z
    http://www.livingzbeautifulmix.com

  • I visited in 2013…loved Havana! But yeah, most of my food experiences sucked – I heard it’s because of the lack of ingredients. Thankfully the food got better as I hit the countryside.

    • Naiara Wilkenhurst says:

      I was in Havana last month and had really good food experiences in some off the beaten path places. Our travel agent hooked us up with some of the best paladares in the city. If you need guidance contact them they were great – DMC of MIAMI – 305.443.0417

  • Jose says:

    marvelous blog! I felt the vibe and feelings you experienced in the land I was born in three decades ago. excellent photography full of meaning and reality. thanks for sharing.
    🙂 the privately owned restaurants are called “paladares” /palates to reflect a person’s appreciation of taste and flavor. glad you enjoyed them!

  • Drew says:

    Great post! Very interesting about internet in Cuba. Thanks for sharing.

  • Paige says:

    I loved reading about your experience in Cuba. I’ve never heard of people-to-people programs, but it sounds fascinating. Thank you for sharing about Cuba and your experiences. It was a great read!

    • Hi Paige! So glad you enjoyed the Cuba posts. I hope you get the chance to visit Cuba soon. I would definitely recommend the people-to-people program that I did with Cuba Travel Services. xo

  • Lauren says:

    Awesome post! Cuba looks absolutely beautiful. I hope Cuba opens up their country to tourists sometime soon because I would absolutely love to visit!

  • Monique says:

    Amazing!!!! Iam going in April!! Already bought some euros … Upon coming back to the US were you automatically flagged at customs and border patrol because you went there?

  • This is great, Cuba and the US are getting along much better giving guys like this the opportunity to make a living.

  • jeff says:

    for currency, if traveling from US to Havana via mexico city, which is best?..

    1. get EUR here in us and exchange for CUCs in Cuba
    2. Get MEX at mexico city airport and change for CUCs in Cuba
    3. get CUCs for USD at mexico city airport
    4. get EUR in mexico city and exchange for CUCs in cuba?
    5. same as above except swap euro for CAD

    thanks.

  • Cubasolidays says:

    Great and useful post. As you explain, the culinary scene in Cuba is just getting better and better. Many private restaurants have emerged or just gone better and the organic eco farm in Viñales serves mouthwatering dishes. You can combine eco excursions + a meal at this unique organic restaurant https://www.cubasolidays.com/en/cuba-tours

  • taiwan brown says:

    Thanks for letting me know about “people to people”

    I was going to see if they will let my blog come as a “Journalistic activity” LOL! Great read, thank you.

  • Loved your post on Cuba! I’m on my way and came across your website. Very helpful information. Thank you!!

  • Jack says:

    Love what you’ve created here – the pics are amazing and it seems like you had an amazingly rich cultural experience. We’d disagree slightly on the food – we had a few rough experiences – but overall the experience was awesome. Couldn’t recommend Cuba enough!

  • Manuela Jones says:

    Hi Courtney,
    My two daughters and I travel eking in three weeks to Cuba. Do we need prove of insurance? I have heard different stories.
    Thanks, manuela

  • Jorge Perez says:

    Beautiful pics about Cuba!! Thanks !

  • Here is a collection of pictures for all of you who dream about the island: https://www.behance.net/gallery/40978619/Cuba

  • Ria adam says:

    I like the information that you have mentioned in your blog. Keep sharing good stuff with us. Thanks
    School trips

  • Thanks for the mention in the article! We are very excited about all the new changes going on!

  • Kristina says:

    Hi Courtney!

    Happy to read this useful and colorful Cuban story! Thanks for the tips, especially on where to enjoy some food!
    Did you post El Paraiso video too? Where can I find it?

    Thank you!
    Keep posting 😉

    Kristina

  • Emily says:

    Is there a way to get some beach time? My bestie and I are going in May and I was wondering if it is possible to pay a resort fee for a day to use their beach and/or pool?

    • From what I have heard from travelers who visited Cuba more recently than I have, you shouldn’t have any problems going to beaches once you are in Cuba. Even though travel as a tourist is still technically not one of the 12 categories, as long as you enter the country under one of those categories you are pretty much free to explore as you wish! Enjoy Cuba, I can’t wait to go back and see how much as changed since my first trip! xxx

  • Caney says:

    Hi Courtney! thanks for posting. Just a few things that caught my eye:

    “Taxis: … They act as shuttles, and will take up to five passengers…” – Most old American cars take 7 passangers plus the driver. Others take even more people.

    Buses are … too expensive. – 40 cents of a Cuban Peso (CUP, not CUC; 25 CUPs = 1 CUC) too expensive?

    I ate mostly at paradors which are private restaurants – I think you meant “paladares”.

    A typical salary in Cuba is $20/month, and that goes for a doctor or a taxi driver. – A Cuban doctor earns around 64$/month. A taxi driver can get that money in one day…

    Regards!

  • Sarah Meyer says:

    Great article! Planning my trip and this will be very helpful!

  • Hi Courtney, great post and lovely accompanying pics!

    Great that you posted some info about casas particulares as they’re often cheaper, better, more authentic and friendlier than hotels! I also noticed that you didn’t provide any info on how to book one. Typically this has required tedious emailing but our booking system helps to make life easy for both travellers and casa hosts. Please feel free to check us out and link us in the text above if you think we might be a helpful resource for other travellers! http://www.cubacasa.co.uk

    Cheers and safe travels!

  • Cherryl says:

    We went to Cuba in 2013, with my family. Everything was optimal – the place we stayed at, the people, the experience. What I regret is to exchange all the euros to CUC’s which I had many troubles to exchange on the departure. In one moment it felt like there was no chance of getting the euros back from CUCs, but a friendly person at Havana Airport was willing to make an exemeption for us.

  • Donné says:

    Hi Courtney,
    How are you?
    My husband and I are travelling in South and Central America. We’ve very intrigued about Cuba but we’ve heard that its quite expensive (compare to Mexico/Guatamala etc) and that tourists are exploited? Was this your experience?
    Many thanks
    D

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