My Definitive Guide to Cuba
Cuba is literally a country frozen in time. On the plane ride back, I remember typing three words into my Evernote: “Vibrant, nostalgic, simple”. And despite 60 years of setbacks, Cuba remains an incredibly upbeat and open place.
In the wake of the Trump presidency, my college roommates and I decided to take a 5-day trip to Cuba before it was too late. It may seem like there are a lot of hoops to jump through, but I am here to assure you that it really isn’t too bad as long as you plan ahead. I spent a lot of time reading various blogs in preparation for this trip, and it really helped. That is why I figured I’d share some of the things I learned while I was there.
(Update: After several years of rapprochement, new travel regulations announced by the Trump administration on June 16, 2017, appear to have stymied some of the progress. Read more here.)
- Convert your USD in Cuba, not beforehand.
The main issue is that there is a 10% fee for swapping American Dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Another option is that you can swap your USDs to Euros or Mexican Pesos and THEN exchange to CUP. The issue with this is that this is much more of a hassle, and you will lose roughly the same amount if you were to convert USD to CUC. Save yourself the trouble and just convert your USD when you’re in Cuba.
- There are two currencies.
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the currency that you’ll be using for almost all of your purchases (accommodation, transportation, restaurant meals, bus tickets, internet). The Cuban National Peso (CUP) is the currency that the locals are paid in, and the one that they most often spend. Street-food, small snacks, local buses and fruits & vegetables at the markets will be charged in CUP.
Before you go:
- Plan everything beforehand.
Getting internet in Cuba is extremely difficult, so I recommend you figure out all the details of your itinerary beforehand. I also say this because locals will try to scam you by pretending to be your friend and then convincing you to go to a restaurant or a bar because it is where all the locals go. I thought I was prepared for this, but it happened to us three times. Do your research and don’t get scammed!
Have all your information available offline.
Here are a few apps that came in handy when I was there:
Google Translate: You can sync Spanish onto your phone, so this was very helpful if you don’t have any Spanish speakers traveling with you.
Google Sheets: I did most of my itinerary planning on here, and you can sync your spreadsheet onto your phone.
Google Trips: I use this app almost every time I travel. It will automatically sync with your Gmail account and pull all your trip information (flight, hotel, etc.) into digestible cards. It also saves all your saved locations via Google maps and allows viewing offline.
- Do you need insurance?
I ran into a lot of blogs telling me that I needed to purchase Travel Insurance before you go. At first, I thought it was mandatory in order to get in. The answer to that is no, at least in our experience. I think if you really want to play it safe, purchase Travel Insurance. We were fine without it.
At the airport:
Get a Tourist Card.
You will obtain your Tourist Card at the gate of your flight, so don’t worry about having to get it beforehand. Be aware if you fly American, it will cost you $100 versus the $50 on other airlines. I purchased mine in Miami.
Landing in Cuba.
When you land in Jose Marti Airport, you'll either be in the new facility or the old. We landed in the new which supposedly is much more developed. Make sure you fill out your custom forms correctly or they'll make you get back in line. The airport staff are not friendly. They can stop you at any time and ask you to open your luggage for inspection.
Exchange your money at the airport.
Make sure to exchange your money downstairs either on your left or right hand side when walking out of the airport. There is usually a long queue, but exchanging is pretty straightforward. I went ahead and exchanged roughly 80% of my money at the airport. This will save you less trouble because there are limited places to exchange money. Those places are:
Catecas, which are ATMs. You need cash to exchange.
I heard at most major hotels in Havana have money exchanges. Try the Hotel Internacional.
Getting around Cuba:
Taking a taxi is the most convenient option to get around Havana. And if you do it right, you will pay around $10-15 CUC per ride. Here’s how I did it:
Stand on street and wave your hand to flag down a taxi
When they pull up, first tell them the address/location
Once they confirm the address, ask "Cuanto Cuesta?"
They will give you a price. Be sure to have a rough price in mind before you bargain. No taxi in the city should cost more than $15. $10 was average. I once negotiated a taxi down to $5.
Rebuttal their offer with the words: "(X Amount) para todos."
Sometimes they will fight back, but be stern with your price.
If they continue to refuse, don't be hesitant to just walk away. They will sometimes yell back and accept. If not, there will be another taxi in no less than a minute.
When you arrive, count the money in front of them to ensure you don't get cheated. If you are needing change, check the bills to make sure it is CUC before exiting.
- Getting to Vinales
If you're going to Vinales, the cheapest solution is to take the Viazul bus which is $10/person. The problem with Viazul is that you usually need to buy your tickets beforehand and they take you to their designated stop. We ended up asking the Airbnb to find a van, but it ended up costing $130 CUC, much more than we had anticipated. However, we were able to negotiate a taxi to take us straight from Vinales to our Airbnb in Havana for $40 CUC.
- Walking around
Infrastructure in Cuba is pretty shauty, so be prepared for very bumpy roads and sidewalks. I went with a group of guys, and we never ran into any shady situations when walking around the streets. We were even out wandering the city around 3am one night, and for the most part it was quiet and everyone minded their own business. Obviously, we are male and foreigners, but I also think being in a Communist country played a role in crime rates in the country.
Eating/Drinking in Cuba:
Have a home-cooked meal.
If you book your stay at an Airbnb or you’re staying at a Casa Particular, you will have an opportunity to request a home-cooked meal. Definitely do it. For roughly $10, you can get your choice of pork, chicken, fish or lobster as your main dish plus a range of side dishes including rice & beans, salad, and/or guavas. Simple, no-fuss, and tasty.
Here is a list of restaurants we ate at in Havana.
- Rio Mar - The restaurant is located on the coast so if you can, sit outside. We made reservations for dinner and ended up being 40-minutes late, but they are kind enough to offer us seats. The food was a bit slow with smaller portions but the atmosphere is nice.
Factorio Artes de Cubano - What used to be a former cooking oil plant now houses the hippest place in Havana. As the late-great Stefon from SNL once said, “this place has everything”. For (I think) $10 CUC, you can wander three floors of incredible local art, listen to live music, watch a movie, or eat/drink from a variety of food stalls inside. This is a must go-to if you are in Cuba.
El Del Frente - After spending the morning wandering around Old Havana, we ate lunch at the rooftop of this incredible restaurant. Fresh ceviche, grilled fish with plantain chips, and a Bloody Mary. Can’t beat that.
La Guarida - This is one of the most popular restaurants in town. I tried making reservations beforehand, but it was only until arriving at the restaurant did the waiter notify me that I didn’t have seats in my name. The craziest thing was that there was a lovely couple who made a reservation for 8 but had 4 friends cancel on their trip. Instead, they invited us to join them for dinner. Both the food and the space have a unique blend of old and new. I highly recommend this place. Also, walk around the restaurant after you’re done. We climbed to the rooftop and had a great view of the city at night.
If you want true local food, go to a Cafeteria.
If you want to try local local food, go to a Cafeteria. It can be quite intimidating because everyone is a local and knows what to do. Because it's local, food will be in CUP but they will also accept CUC. Food is also dirt cheap ($1-3 CUC). However, our food took forever to come out, and there wasn't a rhyme or reason to when it came out. My friend got his meal first and then we waited another 15-20 min. Service here is not necessarily kind to tourists looking for a quick bite.
Here is a list of Must-Do's:
- Wander around Old Havana
- Go to the Museo de la Revolución
- Go to Factorio Artes de Cubano
- Catch a jazz performance at Jazz Club La Zorra Y El Cuervo
- Spend a few days in Vinales
- Drink a mojito or Cuba Libre or anything with rum
- Ride in a classic car down the Malecon at sunset
- Wander into any of the dilapidated buildings in Havana
- Smoke a Cuban cigar