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Cuba is gorgeous, and traveling through the country is a fascinating experience, but it can take a good bit of planning. I put together the first version of this Cuba travel planning tips list in a Google Doc at the request of friends, coworkers, and even strangers (hey, maybe that’s how you found the link to this v2!). Questions continued to filter in, so I decided to beef it up a bit. Things are changing every day in terms of what Americans need to consider when traveling to Cuba, but most of this should remain relevant even as restrictions loosen up.
Here’s our itinerary in case it’s a helpful starting point, and enjoy Cuba!
Flights & Visas for Cuba
- You need a visa! But the visa process actually differs by airline.
- Southwest: they’ll send you an email with a link to Cuba Travel Services. The form takes 5 minutes and the visa costs $50. You pick up the physical visa slip upon check-in at the airport.
- American: you also get sent to CTS but it costs $85 and you get the visa slip ahead of time. At check-in, the airline double checks the visa.
- Delta: Per their website, “Tourist cards will be available for purchase from Delta for $50 at the gateway departure gate, prior to boarding.”
- Havana’s Jose Marti is one of the most popular airports for American visitors, and its terminals are pretty far from each other, so:
- If you are arriving on a different plane than your companions, make sure to have a plan A of where to meet within the terminal as well as a plan B (aka taking separate cabs to your lodging). While most international flights do arrive/depart from Terminal 3, sometimes things change. (We had a slightly chaotic start to our trip due to my flight gating at a different terminal.)
- Make sure you get dropped off at Terminal 3 when you leave (unless otherwise noted by your airline). Otherwise you may have to pay 10-15CUC for another cab to get yourself to the right terminal.
- Also, check-ins are slow as hell in Havana. Get there at least 2 hours in advance.
- If you’re flying American Airlines out of Cuba, there is no 25CUC exit tax.
- But if you do end up with extra money, the duty-free stores has prices comparable to the rest of Cuba.
Money in Cuba
- Yes, listen to the interwebs. Bring Euros or Pounds, leave your dollars at home unless you just like losing money to the 10% penalty imposed on US dollars.
- And yes, do make sure you bring enough to cover every cent you’ll need since your American credit and debit cards won’t work.
- Banks have better exchange rates than CADECAs (Casas de Cambio), but they can also have way longer lines, especially in smaller cities. These lines are also Cuban lines, so if you’d like an experience in the Cuban quotidienne, stay in that line and be open to the experience. Otherwise head to a nearby CADECA, pay a few more cents, and save yourself some time.
Cuban Food & Drink
- Hang out at cafes and drink their fun concoctions (i.e. carajillo, which is half coffee, half rum – you’re on vacation!)
- In Havana, we liked Cafe Escorial in Plaza Vieja.
- Eat street food! Street pizzas are da best.
- Don’t be a noob. Fold your street pizza in half like a taco and eat it the Cuban way.
- If you want a sit-down restaurant, find the places that offer menus in CUP but accept CUCs. That’s a good way to know it’s authentic Cuban food for locals. These were our best meals.
- Some of the paladars that cater to tourists were great too. But why pay 20-30CUC when you can pay 5-7?
Getting Around in Cuba
- Download maps.me before leaving as it allows you to use GPS and do navigation searches without data or wifi. It’s a lifesaver.
- If you’re taking a taxi/bicitaxi/whatever:
- Always negotiate. Even rates that sound reasonable are sometimes ridiculous, and while in some places there are “union leaders” who try to band all the drivers together and stonewall you, there’s almost always room to negotiate.
- Make sure to ask if the amount named is for everyone in your group or for each person. Otherwise you could get fleeced.
- If you’re planning on taking Viazul buses between cities, do go to their office or kiosk and buy your tickets ahead of time. They do sell out pretty frequently.
- If your Spanish is like mine and mostly consists of vocab words rather than full conversational abilities, check out their website ahead of time so you know which routes and times you want. It’ll make your and the ticket counter person’s lives a lot easier.
- Double check your receipts to make sure you’re booked on the right routes.
- We had wonderful experiences staying in Airbnbs. Not only were they much cheaper than hotels, but we also got to see how Cubans live and interact with more locals.
- Some of our hosts spoke English, some didn’t. With minimal Spanish skills, some charades, and the occasional Spanish-English dictionary query, we got along fine and even shared some good jokes.
- Our spots: Havana #1, Santa Clara, Trinidad, Havana #2
- All of them offered home-cooked breakfasts for 5CUC per person. Every place’s breakfast was a little different but all had so much delicious food.
- Start remembering this now: toilet paper always goes into the wastebasket, never the toilet!
- On that note, always keep some change with you for public toilets (and sometimes even ones at restaurants and such).
- You can always haggle with street vendors, but there’s not a lot of need to shop around for things like cigars and rum. Prices for those iconic Cuban items are more or less the same everywhere (and you’ll want to buy them in reputed shops to avoid counterfeits).
- If you want to bring Cuban rum home but don’t want to check your bag, wait until you get to the airport and buy it from the duty-free shop. Basically the same price.
- Leave some space in your bag for new toiletries, gently used clothing, and treats to donate. Deliver some joy, save clothing from ending up in landfills, and have extra space for cigars and rum on the way back!
- If you speak Spanish, you can walk into residential areas and personally deliver them to local kids (and adults).
- Highly suggest you only do this if your Spanish is good enough to carry on a real conversation. Otherwise you end up being “white girl in Africa.”
- If you don’t, ask one of your Airbnb hosts or other local contacts if there’s a local place that can use such donations (in our case the stuff went to a girls high school and a retirement home for impoverished seniors). They will typically be happy to take it and donate it on your behalf.
- If you speak Spanish, you can walk into residential areas and personally deliver them to local kids (and adults).
- If you’re female, be prepared that you will likely be verbally harassed by men of all ages and at all times of the day. (I’m not kidding, we witnessed this school kid doing a sly maneuver as he walked by to graze his hand on our derrieres!) It does get incredibly exhausting, but generally the men are not super aggressive or physical.
Related: Looking for more info to prepare yourself? Here are 25 things to know.
- Classic car tours are worth it, and I’d suggest doing them on your first or second day. Why? That way you hit up all the major places and then can decide where you still want to trek to. It’s more efficient than hitting up some places on your own only to revisit them in a car tour later.
- We booked ahead of time with Old Cars Havana for peace of mind, knowing that we’d be exhausted from our travels, but you can totally pick up a tour once you arrive (and likely for less if you haggle).
- The “city forest” of Havana is pretty cool to check out. Super interesting how you go from an industrial city into a lush forest so quickly.
- Definitely take a day, if not overnight, trip to Vinales. It is absolutely gorgeous.
- We went with Discover Vinales and our tour included horseback riding, hiking, and smoking cigars/drinking rum with a farmer in the valley. While it certainly could have been way cheaper booking it while in Cuba or booking the transportation separately from the tour, honestly it was worth it given that we spoke minimal Spanish, didn’t have Internet access, and really didn’t want to scramble to find an agency as soon as we landed.
- In Vinales, try out Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso. It’s both an organic farm and a restaurant – super delicious!
- If you like eccentric and you liked Gaudi in Barcelona, check out Fusterlandia, the mosaic-clad home and neighborhood of artist Jose Fuster. It’s about a 15CUC cab ride from Old Havana, and taxi drivers are happy to wait for you until you’re ready to return to town for the same price.
- Closes between noon-2 for lunch and then closes at 4, so time yourself!
- If you like modern and/or traditional European-style art, check out the National Museum of Fine Arts. Especially great for a rainy day!
- Fabrica de Arte Cubano is their “meatpacking district warehouse turned hipster art gallery and club.”
- It’s an experience and the art is really cool, so if you have a free night and want to go out, why not? But it is hipster, somewhat pricey for Havana, and there’s not all that much dancing going on.
- Casa de la Musica, the popular salsa spot in central Havana, was under renovations as of March 2017.
- You can go to the location in the Miramar district if you’re willing to make the trek.
- Or, if you’re headed to Trinidad, there’s one there too.
- Since Casa de la Musica was closed, we were directed by promoters to Cafe Tilin down the street, which was a bit slow in the beginning but picked up once the live music started around 11:30ish. The live music and dancing was great once it started.
- If you’re interested in trying out La Guardia the restaurant, make sure to book way ahead of time. They get booked very fast.
- I can’t comment on the food as our reservation didn’t get confirmed, but I’d skip their rooftop bar. The staff touts it as a great way to experience La Guardia if you didn’t get a table, but we felt the drinks were overpriced and poorly crafted.
Santa Clara suggestions
- Your guidebook may say that Santa Clara’s food isn’t all that great compared to other major hubs, but we had the best food here.
- SaborArte and El Alba (I believe both on Maceo) were amazing local spots and so affordable. Averaged about 7-10CUC per meal with multiple courses and drinks.
- It’s a little college town whose claim to fame is Che Guevara and related revolutionary monuments and landmarks. It’s definitely worth a visit and I’d suggest at least 24 hours to allow yourself a chance to really chill and enjoy life, but no more than 2 days needed unless you’re also making day trips to Cienfuegos or elsewhere.
- Drink canchancharas! That’s the local speciality cocktail.
- It’s also the name of the clay vessel the drink is traditionally served in. You can buy it all over town.
- Go to the Trinidad Municipal Museum around sunset. It’s 1 or 2 CUC for entrance and barely visited. The museum is a municipal one, and there are some interesting displays, but the gem is the rooftop terrace. There’s a gorgeous view of the city and surrounding beaches and mountains. Bring a beer, chill out.
- Disco Ayala is the nightlife king because it’s a disco in cave. I felt it was overrated, but if you’ve never been to a cave to party, it’s worth checking out.
- Lines will get long and they’ll be Cuban lines (i.e. blobs instead of queues), so be assertive and don’t let people step over you.
- Topes de Collantes is nearby and has tons of parks to hike in. Definitely spend some time up there if you like the outdoors. It’s gorgeous.
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