There are ways for an American to travel independently to Cuba. In the past, it was required to travel with a certified tour group in order to meet the requirements. Probably the easiest way to travel to Cuba nowadays is on a “people-to-people” basis. Though, you still have to meet certain requirements such as have a full-time schedule of events that have meaningful interactions with the Cuban people. These activities can include chatting with local artists, playing with the children, educational projects at the local schools, living with a host family(Airbnb) and much more. However, getting through passport control and returning home was easier than I had imagined. We had all of our documents ready and were prepared to be interrogated but no one mentioned a peep. Though, that’s not to say in the future they won’t be, especially under the new administration. Laws can change so be sure to look up the most recent on the government’s site. This will be a long post to include helpful tips for interested travelers to Cuba from legal requirements, many things to do to meet those requirements, a checklist prior to leaving, and helpful tips once you get there!
With all that being said, Havana is so vibrant with life during the day as well as the night! It was something I did not expect. Cuba is not as cut-off as most Americans like to think. It took me by total surprise but they have more resources than I had expected. Actually much more than I have seen than on some other Caribbean islands. The one thing they do lack is the internet, though more wifi hotspots are on the rise, you will find that many places including homes will not have internet. Our home had modern kitchenware similar to those used in Europe but no internet connection. Air conditioning is another rare luxury that you won’t often find. Some restaurants do have them but many still use fans. I would advise anyone who is interested in visiting Cuba, to wait until November-March. We went in May and it was extremely hot and humid. I can’t even imagine the summer months! February is the harvest season for tobacco anyways, which makes it the perfect month to visit. Be sure to visit the Viñales Valley during then as well for the harvest.
Your checklist before going:
- Pick your reason for travel – we chose “people-to-people” but another friend of ours went with support for the Cuban people which is fine also.
- Get your visa, many airlines allow you to obtain a travel visa through their portal. A visa is $50/person. We traveled with Southwest Airlines and opted to pick up our visa at the gate(it’s literally right next to the customer service counter at the gate). After which, you have to get it validated and stamped at any of the counters. Many people don’t know this and stand in the adjacent line at the gate, which is always long. Find yourself another gate with a short line to get yours stamped. Here’s a link to them. https://cubavisaservices.com/product/sw-visa-card/
- Prepare your itinerary and paperwork, in detail if possible. It’ll get good for future references. We printed out current legal documents from the Embassy’s website that supports our reason for travel for future references in case the law does change.
- Book your stay– We chose to stay with a host family, which we booked on Airbnb. She spoke enough English and I enough Spanish to get by. We had breakfast with them every morning which was an extra 6 CUC/person for fresh fruits, juices, coffee, bread, cheese, eggs and deli meat. It was overall a great experience to stay with locals when in Cuba. There are also many places to stay in Cuba that doesn’t require prior booking. You’ll notice that they will have signs up that look like blue arrows. These are casas particulares, and they basically have rooms for rent that are usually around +20 CUC/night.
- Order some Euros from your bank. US dollars are kind of useless there. There is a high converting fee for US dollars and it’ll be smart to just convert your dollars to Euros or CADs before arriving. We spent about $100/day for 2 people. It’s hard to say how much you’ll need. It’ll all depend on what you plan on doing. A taxi from the airport to central Havana ran us 30 CUCs ~ $30USD. We pre-booked ours through our host, but depending on your bargaining skills, you can get one for ~25 CUCs. We tried to get CUPs (the local currency) but it was just too much of a hassle and realized we hardly ever used it anyways. Cuba uses two currencies, one for tourist and one for the local which is 25 times less in value. Note the differences (CUCs = tourists = pictures of monuments) and (CUPs = local = pictures of people). CUCs also look and feel newer. Refer below for the general cost of things.
- Download offline apps to use prior to leaving. Chances are, you may not have internet or reliable internet there. So download offline apps such as maps, a translator/dictionary and city guides before leaving. My 2 favorites (Maps.me and Tripadvisor – city guides must be downloaded separately).
- Pack, but don’t overpack, you’ll want space to bring back souvenirs. The $100 limit on rum and cigars have been dropped since October 2016. Though, I’m not quite sure what Trump has in mind in terms of imposing stricter regulations.
Returning resident travelers may import tobacco products only in quantities not exceeding the amounts specified in the personal exemptions for which the traveler qualifies (not more than 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars if arriving from other than a beneficiary country and insular possession).
My favorite tip is to pack bubble wrap in my luggage to avoid over packing. That way, it keeps my luggage lighter and I’ll have a cushion to wrap the rum in on the way back! I use to wrap bottles in clothes but once a bottle of red wine slipped out and broke, which ruined most of my luggage. Find other tips here if you haven’t already read them. Click here for more packing tips.
Things to do while in Havana:
- Sign up for dancing and/or art classes! It’s fun and you can add it to your list of people-to-people interactions.
- Cook up a meal with a local chef. Cooking classes are not only fun, but the sweet rewards for labor is a well-earned meal! We chose Cafe Ajiaco. Send them an email, they’ll reply, but it’ll take a couple of days.
- Roam the streets of Havana from Old Havana to the Old Square and even the Plaza de la Catedral. Believe it or not, it’s pretty safe. I never felt threatened or in danger at any point during the day or at night. Don’t be alarmed that the Cuban people like to sit outside and people watch day and night. Kids like to play soccer in the streets during the day and it’s okay to play with them if you wish. You’ll notice more things if you walk instead of taking the taxis.
- Tour a cigar factory, or if you have a chance, visit the Vinales valley during harvest.
- Tour the rum factory. It’s a decent tour at a decent price to escape the summer’s heat for a bit. You’ll get a free tasting at the end of the Havana Club 7.
- Walk the Malecon, Cubans love to mingle here in the evenings as it’s by the sea. It’s a great place to chat with people or sit and relax maybe with a mojito.
- Visit the grounds of Ernest Hemingway and the many places he frequented. Many of the bars he once frequented are now hot spots for tourists and expect to pay much more for a mediocre drink than you would elsewhere for a good mojito.
- Visit the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a cultural center for local artists, live music, fashion shows and many art exhibits. It’s a hip scene for young people on the weekends after midnight. Make sure to check their opening schedule as they do close 2-3 months out the year to set up. http://www.fac.cu
- Soak up some sun at Playa del Este, a stretch of sand and azure blue waters only about 30 minutes from Havana. The bus stops in the central park located across the street from the Hotel Inglaterra. There will be a line where the sign is located with a lot of beach goers. We visited Santa Maria del Mar which is at the very end. The bus takes you there and back for a measly 5 CUC (roundtrip fare) from Havana. Keep your bus ticket to reboard on the way back. I’d recommend the last stop anyways as it can get crowded and you’ll be the first back on, on the way back. Don’t spend the whole day baking away though, it is not allowed as your full-time schedule must include “meaningful” people-to-people interactions and you won’t find those at the beach.
- Ride in a vintage car! Your guide can give you a tour of Havana both history and culture, as most do speak English. There are numerous of them and best to use any bargaining skills you might have. An hour tour can range anywhere from 20 CUC to 50 CUC, though you can also book them for a day. I noticed that when you get closer to the touristy areas, the costs of these tours are higher. I’d wait to ride them towards the end of the day when they get more desperate and your feet needs a rest anyways.
Helpful Tips While In Cuba
- Do not drink any tap water. Even the locals don’t drink it. They use filling stations to refill old water bottles. We even went to the extreme of brushing our teeth with bottled water to avoid getting sick. But just in case, pack some medications.
- Exchange more than enough USDs to Euros or CADs before leaving the states. You will not be able to use your credit or debit cards at any time! It’s better to have more than not enough. I find that the best way to exchange your Euros to CUCs is in hotel lobbies. Ask your taxi driver to take you to a hotel such as the Habana Libre to exchange your cash after leaving the airport. The lines are shorter and less sketchy than at the airport and the rates are just about the same.
- Have some cash saved aside for the ride back to the airport and extra if something happens. Our taxi took us to the wrong terminal to depart and left before we found out (not on purpose I assume)! We had to take another taxi for 5 CUC to the other terminal which was 2km away. Make sure you know which terminal you’re supposed to fly out of.
- Reserve your lunch/dinner reservations. There are plenty of restaurants in Havana, but if you have some in mind, make sure you reserve a spot prior. Restaurants are small and some will turn you away if they are packed. Otherwise, you’ll be waiting awhile to eat. You can ask your host to call for you or go to the restaurants in the morning of or before to reserve. Most places will not take reservations by email or if you are calling with a number other than a local number. This is because of many no-shows in the past.
- Museum tours do not require prior booking. It’s very simple to walk in and ask for a tour. The person will ask you which language you prefer and you’ll have to wait a bit for the next tour in that language to begin (there’s usually an English tour every hour). If you come by later in the day and it’s sold out, you can reserve for the next day. Payment is taken 5-10 minutes prior to the tours.
- Walk! We stayed in central Havana, and it took us about 15-20 minutes to walk to the tourist areas. It’ll save you a lot of money and you’ll see some really neat things. If you do take a moped taxi, bicycle-taxi or any sort of taxi, bargain. We only took local transportation twice minus airport transfers. A bicycle-taxi can range from 2-5 CUCs depending on where you’re going. Our moped-taxi cost us a whooping 15 CUC from downtown Havana to the Plaza Vieja.
- Bring small gifts. We brought some candy, snacks, hand sanitizer, tissues. People will definitely approach you at one point or another if you’re roaming in the residential neighborhoods. They are very friendly, though they can sidetrack you from where you want to be. Some will ask for money or gifts, some will try to lead to somewhere to sell you things, some just want to talk. They do appreciate the small gifts from the states since they aren’t able to buy them there.
- Be wary of cigar scams. Don’t buy cigars anywhere besides the airport and in certified shops. Some people will try to sell you fake ones on the streets and some will lure you to homes of factory workers to sell them for cheap. We had 2 people come up to us, who were obviously working together, telling us that there was a cigar festival and we could buy some for cheap. The girl was a “tourist” and the guy approached us later pretending to know us as our “neighbor.”
- If you really need the internet, there are parks and hotels that provide wifi. You’ll have to first buy an internet card in order to access it. The easiest and best way, though not the cheapest, to buy the card is at any hotel lobby. We didn’t care to connect to the internet when we were there, so I couldn’t tell you how fast/slow/reliable it is.
- Download offline maps and apps on your phone prior to leaving. My favorite app for offline maps is called Maps.me. I use it just about anywhere. Tripadvisor also has offline city guides which also needs to be downloaded beforehand. The other thing I use is an offline translator and dictionary.
- We ate at many paladars which are like family run restaurants. Lobster is very cheap there, so load up on them while you’re there. It’s pretty amazing. Most of the time we had lobster and ropa vieja, which is one of the national dish of Cuba. It’s plain good comfort food served with beans and rice. So don’t forget to try it. An average meal can cost about 30 CUC/person at a mid-range restaurant. A lobster entree is about 15 CUC, 6 CUC for a mojito, and appetizers for another 6-7 CUC. Tax and tip are usually already included in the bill. Though if you eat like the locals and pay in CUPs, it can be ALOT cheaper though most Cubans do not expect tourists to frequent these places. Note the salary of a Cuban worker is about $20-30/month which is about the price a tourist would pay for a dinner.
List Of Some Bars And Restaurants In Havana
- El Chanchullero: one of the cheapest meals I had in Havana. The portion is large and the food was delicious! Mojitos are 2 CUCs! Most places are 5-6 CUCs.
- 304 O’Reilly: Another great spot with great cocktails and I especially loved the free salsa. I used it with everything!
- El Del Frente: Right across the street from 304 O’Reilly. They have a great outdoor, upstairs patio. The food and drinks were decent. The ceviche was different as it’s made with parsley instead of cilantro which I’m accustomed to.
- Habana 61: The best air conditioned place we went to in Havana! You laugh, but you’ll understand once you experience Cuba’s heat. This was the smallest of all the places we frequented.
- La Bodeguita: A bar frequented by Hemingway in the past. Now it’s become quite touristy for their mojitos (5 CUCs).
- El Floridita: Another touristy bar made famous by Hemingway. Known for their daiquiris. They’re made in batches at a time, quite watered down and was not that impressive to me. 6 CUC for 1 drink and crowded is an understatement.
- Cafe El Dandy: One of my favorite places to sit and relax or escape the rain. They serve up some mean Cuban coffee, mixed drinks and also offer food, though we did not try the food.
- Unknown – We tried to go to Dona Eutimia for lunch, but it was fully packed. So we tried the restaurant in the same alleyway, right across from it and it was delicious! I don’t have the name of it.
- Also Unkown! – We tried a restaurant with a couple of friends we met at our Airbnb on the Malecon and it was delicious and cheap. It is right next door to La Catedral, which we visited after dinner. The seating was outside and the outside area was large.
Hope you guys find this helpful!