As soon as I finished writing about our experience traveling to Cuba last week I realized a lot was missing from it. We learned so much from our trip that I could not find while I was researching before we left. Cuba is, for the American tourist, uncharted territory so there wasn’t a ton of information. Below is a list of some of the tips, information and observations that we acquired while in Havana for 5 days. Hopefully, if your thinking of traveling or already planned your trip this will help you.Take what you like and leave the rest…
Flight: We were already in Florida which is why we started thinking about taking this trip, we were so close…but when I actually looked at flights I was surprised at how many airlines were going to Cuba! We settled on Southwest Airlines because it took care of our Visa for us for $50 more. We simply filled out a form online and when we got to the airport while waiting for our flight we went to the counter and picked it up. SO SIMPLE! For us it was worth the hassle free, no thinking convenience. It was the reason in the end we pulled the trigger and decided to go. So thank you Southwest for making it so simple!
Visa: Ok now the actual Visa, which was super easy to obtain, got really confusing. Of the 12 choices I could have choice I picked Educational-People to People because honestly that was what everybody else did. From what I had read online I gathered that I needed to create an itinerary of educational activities for our entire time in Cuba…pretty much every hour of our trip had to be accounted for. This itinerary along with receipts had to be kept for up to five years in case the US Government feels the need to audit you for any reason. I got nervous…and spent way too much time creating a beautiful itinerary, looking up what it meant to be educational (it is not just museums) and making sure we would pass any inspection at any point at any time. FYI: I never had to show my itinerary to anyone, at any point, at any time, not once! I was kind of pissed. I spent so much time and energy on it…hours, days…oh and we didn’t get one single freaking receipt, we paid cash for everything, duh, and with the language barrier nobody was passing out receipts. Anyway, my advice is do research on where and what you want to do because you won’t have internet when you get down there but don’t spend time creating some extensive itinerary. Keep a journal every evening and write down where you went and what you did and take pictures. We decided our receipts, if audited will be all our pictures.
Rent an Airbnb: Around the same time I was looking into our flight I also started looking into hotels and could not get a reservation anywhere. I am not sure if it was because it was last minute or what but it worked out for the best because I was turned onto Casa Particulares on Airbnb. They are cheap, clean and you get to know and stay with a local Cuban family. Our experience was perfect! We stayed at Casa Sonia with Icha and her son Raul who took care of the house for Sonia, whom we met and tried to teach us how to dance. Icha made us breakfast every morning for $5 which quickly became our favorite meal of the day. And Raul who spoke English better than Justin spoke Spanish was quite helpful. By the time we left it felt like we were leaving family, Icha even cried. Oh and our room was clean and huge too, but I hope you can tell the Casa Particulare route is so much more than just a clean room, it made our experience that much better than any hotel could ever have.
Bring all your supplies: So Cuba does not have CVS, Walgreens, or even grocery stores we take for granted. Take anything you might think you will need! You will not be able to run to the store and grab something you forgot, seriously you wont. We spent two months in Thailand last year and it was nothing like this. For example day two in Havana I started vomiting regularly and could not keep food down to save my life…for the rest of the trip that was just my life. I had not planned on getting sick and the only thing I had was a couple tums that the people in the room before us left. It wasn’t fun! I also got my period the morning we were leaving and thank you God it was the last day because I have not idea what I would have done. I only overshare to save someone else from my lack of preparation. I was trying to pack light…it back fired!
Don’t bring American Dollars: So the US Dollar is taxed heavily, 13%, compared to any other currency, just 3%, when I was doing research I realized this and we decided to exchange our money before we left. So we brought down Canadian (we could have just as easily exchanged it to Euros) to avoid the extra 10% tax. Also, when you get to Cuba only exchange enough for that first day at the airport. The exchange rate at the airport will not be as good as the banks in the city. There are plenty of banks in the city to choose from just be aware they are confusing and take some time, just go with it… follow the person in front of you.
Do not go to Cuba for the cuisine: Ok so we love food and we usually are not picky eaters. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT go to Cuba to eat delicious Cuban food unless you have the palette of a five year old. For five days we ate mosty deli sliced ham and cheese on white bread. It got old fast. We did go to a Paladar our first day which was probably our best meal. But every restaurant we tried was nothing special, usually not too good, and I wouldn’t go there again. Either we didn’t go to the right places, which is quite possible or they don’t get the best ingredients…I’m not sure. Either way I am in no way saying not to go to Cuba, we want to go back, I am just saying don’t have high expectations for the food.
Havana is very walkable: You can get a hop on/off bus for cheap like $5 for the day, we met some people who used it and said it was a bit annoying because they felt like they waited around for the bus most of the day. For us we never felt we needed it, every morning we left out our front door and went in a different direction. The streets in Cuba are alive, they are filled with elderly woman selling coffee at their doorstep, children playing with homemade toys, men reading the paper or talking about the day, vendors selling fresh vegetables and fruits, filled with community. It is refreshing and beautiful. It is not something we as Americans get to see everyday, actually we never see it anymore so walking around the streets all day was such a wonderful experience. The buildings are in desperate need of repair but life was going on regardless and because of the lack of cars people were walking, biking, filling the streets. The cars that were taking up the streets were newly painted and shining like the showcases they were. They were magnificent and so fun to see everywhere, although the smell coming from most of them was not so magical. Although one evening we did rent a bike taxi to take us home, for the experience, it cost us $3, I think we went like 7 blocks and it was so worth the silent, empty streets whizzing around in our little taxi. We also took a day trip to Vinales in a 1954 Belair the trip cost $150 and was well worth the experience.
Pack some extra supplies/gifts: I wish we knew about this before we went but there’s always next time. After speaking with other foreigners staying at our Casa Particulare and some other tourists we found out that it is common for people coming to Cuba to pack things like toiletries, toys, eye glasses, fishing gear, diapers, school supplies to share with Cubans you meet. Next time we go down we plan on stocking up a whole extra bag of supplies. In fact, we met a number of people who were planning there second trip down one was bringing a bike to give away and another was planning a scuba trip and was going to donate the scuba equipment when he left.
Our experience in Cuba was such a positive one and we are so thankful to have gotten a chance to travel there. We do hope to get back again at some point and I hope it does not change too much in the coming years.