I’ve just recently returned from a trip to Havana, Cuba with my boyfriend. I’ve been wanting to go to Cuba for a while, so when I was browsing google flights for funsies and saw a ticket for $250, I jumped on the opportunity.
I’m going to break this post up into three categories: The first will be what one needs to know when traveling to this country, the next will be what we actually did on our trip, and the last will be my final thoughts.
What You Should Know:
- Tourism from the U.S.A. is technically not allowed. Though everyone does it anyway, it’s officially not suppose to happen. There are special requirements to visit the country, and upon applying for the VISA you will need to check a box stating why you are going. An easy one to say is that you are visiting family. Some people say they are going to learn about the culture through some “people to people” thing. Whatever you choose, just keep it consistent.
- You will need a travel visa and health insurance to enter the country. For some airlines, the visa and travel insurance are included in the ticket. We flew sprit airlines, and a $25 charge for the health insurance included in the ticket and our boarding pass was our proof of insurance. As for the travel visa, we had to book that separately. We booked online and I was able to get my visa for $75, but if you wait to buy it at the gate it will cost about $100. Don’t worry though, these are both very easy to obtain and once you buy your ticket your airline should send you an email with the information. Just know, you will need both of these to enter the country. Once you have them, put them in a safe place and don’t lose them. It will make it extremely difficult to leave the country and you will need both of these upon departure.
- You will need to bring cash. They pretty much don’t accept credit cards anywhere. This means you will need to plan ahead. There is a 10% tax on converting American dollars into Cuban, then another tax for the conversion, so what we did was convert our money into Canadian money, then into Cuban money. You can also do Euros; just see what saves you more. There are two forms of currency in Cuba; the CUC and the CUP. You will want to convert into CUC. This is the most commonly accepted form of currency and the conversion is 1:1. Make sure you bring more money than you need so you don’t find yourself in a tough situation.
- If you do find yourself in a tough situation, you can have a friend/family member Western Union you some money. Unfortunately, Sean and I didn’t realize how credit cards would be accepted literally nowhere, so we had my dad Western Union us some money. It’s easy enough though. They will just need to go in person to a western union and fill out a form and send the money. They will tell you the number and you can go to any Western Union in Cuba and get it. You will need the transfer number, you passport, and be able to give them your address and things like that.
- The internet sucks. Don’t think you’re going to be able to relax in your airbnb and watch your favorite episode of “The Office” on your iPad. You’re lucky if your place even has wifi. Internet was just recently set up in the country, so everything is pretty slow. If you need internet, you will need to buy and internet card. You can buy them at most hotels, at trucks set up that say “Etesca,” or even from people selling them on the street. It’s around 2 CUC per hour, but are sometimes more expensive if you buy them from a hotel. When you connect to wifi, a page will pop up for you to sign in. Just follow the directions on the card. The best signal is found at hotels, but it’s only really good for checking email and things like that; you can’t really download anything or watch videos. If you can’t find wifi, it’ll be easy enough; just look for hoards of people staring at their phones.
- Getting around. Getting around is easy enough, as you will be constantly bombarded by people calling you “amigo” and offering you taxi rides. If you feel like they are charging too much, you can haggle. Just be prepared for a bumpy ride; these cars are super old and may or may not break down on the way to your destination, as Sean and I learned on a hilarious trip heading back to our hotel.
- You’re gonna need to know decent Spanish. I was surprised how few people seemed to really know English. Luckily, I speak decent Spanish and was able to get around easily enough. If you don’t know any Spanish, at least download a translator app before hand. It’ll really come in handy.
- Don’t drink the water and don’t expect fine dining. Just a rule of thumb; don’t drink the tap water in foreign countries. Better safe than sorry. Also, I hate to say it, but the food sucked. There was hardly any flavor to anything. If you are going to order something, I recommend the fish. It was always pretty good when I ordered it.
- You will be constantly approached by people trying to sell you something. If someone comes up to you in the street, asks where you’re from, then tells you they have an uncle/aunt/cousin there, you better believe it’s the beginning of a sales pitch. Just be friendly and move on. The police there for the most part will come up and stop people from talking to you, as they don’t like locals bothering the tourists. Just be ready for it and don’t be afraid to just say “no gracias” and walk away.
- It’s a relatively safe country, so have some fun. There is a strong police presence in the country, so it felt safe walking around. Obviously you don’t want to be walking alone in backstreets at night flashing your iPhone, but it definitely felt like there were police watching over. The people are nice, but I wouldn’t say overly friendly. It kind of felt like talking to a super New Yorker; they’re a little more abrupt and not so up-to-date on social nuances, but aren’t being mean. Just more blunt.
- If you have an iPhone, download the app triposo. It doesn’t need internet, has an up-to-date navigation system that can show you where to go and track where you are and has a million tips/ideas/travel tools that will give you ideas on what you can do. This app is free and so incredibly helpful. Just do it.
- Bring a good book/download some podcasts/bring things to entertain yourself at night. There’s only like 5 channels on T.V. and there’s like no internet. You might get bored at night in your hotel/airBnB.
- Drink up. Drinks are super cheap; I’m talking 2 CUC per cuba libre. Have fun!
What We Actually Did:
Alright, so now that we’ve got through the logistics, let’s go through how our trip actually was!
As we got ready for our trip, we were super excited to find out our flight was delayed enough that we would miss our connection. Yay spirit airlines! But honestly, we weren’t really that upset about it because we were on vacation. They set us up in a hotel for the night and we were off the next day.
We arrived in our airBnB for only $30/night. The family was awesome and we were set up in our own private room that had a kitchen, bathroom, a direct rooftop access with views of the city. It was great. For only $10/day, we had breakfast every morning on the rooftop before our daily adventures.
Our first day we decided to just take it easy and go to just kind of walk around and check out the area. We went to a nearby grocery store and that was quite an experience. There was hardly anything. They had pasta, water, crackers, and a few other things, but I’m telling you; that’s it. There was meat but it was exposed and covered in flies; there was butter but it was locked behind a counter and you needed assistance to access it. It felt like everything was rationed and it was the kind of ingredients you’d expect in like a war or something. Oddly enough though, there was a huge, cheap selection of alcohol. Priorities, am I right?! I wasn’t allowed to take pictures so unfortunately I can’t show you.
For out next adventure we walked into Central Habana. On the way there we wound through tiny alleys and watched as cars from as early as the 1920’s zipped by. It felt like stepping into the past. There were big, beautiful buildings, but nothing seemed very well maintained. People stared as we walked by. Everyone was sitting outside, chatting, doing laundry, playing music; the city is lively. We went to the revolutionary museum. It’s a museum held in the old home of Batista and tells you about the Cuban revolution and it’s turn to communism. It was interesting to read about communism in a different way than we are taught in the U.S., and even more interesting to see government funded, negative opinions about the U.S.
Later, we caught a transtur bus in front of Hotel Inglaterra in Parque Central to Playa Santa Maria. The bus was only $5 CUC round trip. The beach was really nice; soft sand, turquoise waters, and high, bright sun. The water was a great temperature, the waves were perfect for body surfing, and we enjoyed a coconut filled with rum right on the water.
On our next excursion, we visited Morro Castle. This was a castle built in 1589 and was constructed to protect Havana from invasion. It was beautiful. You could look over the harbor and get a great view of the city. You could see the canons pointed towards the harbor and just imagine firing them off towards invaders. It honestly felt like being in a giant castle on game of thrones or something; it had that ancient, mystical feel.
Later, we visited Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, or the national art museum. There was so much beautiful art, even dating from before the revolution. What really struck me was how sad a lot of the art seemed to be. Take from that what you will. I was only able to get a few pics before I was told to not take photos (oops.)
On our last day, we decided to take it easy and just walk around the city, take a quick bus tour, and finish off our stay by smoking the world renowned Cuban cigars and drinking mojitos on the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra while listening to live music.
Cuba is a beautiful country. If you like cheap drinks, live music, and history, you’ll love it there. If you’re looking for a more “vacation-ey vacation,” this isn’t the place to visit. You must be aware of their governmental status and be prepared to see a lifestyle much different than that of the United States. I didn’t get much of a chance to ask people what they thought about their government, as I thought it was inappropriate. If you decide to visit Cuba, take it more as an educational experience than a happenin’ vacation spot. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but if you do decide to go, it’ll be an experience you won’t soon forget.