*UPDATED December 2017*
So you’ve decided to go to Cuba… yay! Get ready for the adventure of a lifetime. I’ve made this guide to help you navigate the island as easily as possible, although you should know that you’re about to embark on a unique journey. People will try to rip you off (like anywhere), you’ll get lost, you’ll have language barriers, but you’ll also have the best time of your life.
Let’s get to it…
CAN I GO TO CUBA? HOW’S THE VISA PROCESS?
- As of this writing, you do not need to apply for a Cuban VISA. The VISA can be bought right at the airport, before your flight, and the price changes and depends on the airline. I believe American Airlines is the most expensive one because of their processing fee and charge $85. JetBlue is the cheapest one, for around $50. Consider that when considering airlines.
- There are 12 categories to go to Cuba when it comes to the VISA. These include education, family visits, religion, and support for the Cuban people, among others.
- The most broad category and the one mostly used by Americans is “support for the Cuban people,” so make sure you pick that one. You can learn more about the categories and see the full list here.
- They will not ask you in Cuba nor in the US why you picked that category.
- President Trump changed some of the laws passed by Obama regarding travel to Cuba. The people-to-people category will be taken out at one point, although as of the time of this writing that hasn’t happened yet. When that happens, this post will be updated.
- Another one of Trump’s changes now prohibits Americans to do business with any organization/industry linked to Cuba’s military, like hotels. You might have to stay at casa particulares or AirBnBs.
- It’s important to remember that traveling to Cuba for tourism is NOT legal. Don’t say you went to Cuba for tourism or you can get into legal trouble, although I’ve never met anyone or heard of anyone facing any penalties for this.
WERE YOU BORN IN CUBA?
- If you were born in Cuba, things are different for you. You need to apply for a Cuban passport in order to go back to the country. Message me if you have more questions. You cannot simply travel with the VISAs I mentioned above.
UPDATE December 2017:
- President Trump’s change is already in place. The category “Support for the Cuban People” mentioned above was eliminated. You can still go to Cuba and you still buy your VISA before getting on your flight, with your airline, and most likely they will give it to you and won’t even ask you why you’re going. However, do be advised that coming back, Customs and Border Protection might ask you why you went. It all depends on who your agent is. Message me privately if you have any questions about the process.
- Under Obama one could go to Cuba under 12 categories. These included everything from humanitarian reasons to medical, and one special category named “Support for the Cuban People.” That category was so broad that most Americans traveled under it. Not even OFAC could officially define what support for the Cuban people meant, but it was something like spending money in the community. Tourism has been and is still illegal, so that you definitely cannot mention that. Now, Trump took off that special category, so technically going to Cuba is illegal unless you fall under the other 11. I haven’t heard of anyone getting turned away for mentioning X category, or getting asked for proof. This is why; VISAs to Cuba sound complicated, but it’s literally just a piece of paper. You don’t apply, and you don’t buy it from the government. You actually buy it from the airline right before you check in. You pay, and get the VISA. That’s it. They don’t even ask, as of now, why you’re going. They don’t care. In Cuba they also will never ask you. The one that might have an issue with it is the US gov, but it all depends on who’s your TSA agent. Obviously if you get someone that’s really strict they might question you, but that’s it. In case you don’t want to risk going and getting the VISA at the airport, you can go with an organized group. I don’t recommend this. They are expensive and useless. The other way is to have a detailed itinerary, in case you are asked, of your hour by hour plans in Cuba. Basically they don’t want to see you have any free time for tourism. If doing that, you should include that you are visiting schools, towns, etc. I don’t think they’re being strict at all, however, because I don’t even think OFAC has updated their website with the new restrictions.
- Although not likely to happen, I am not responsible for any legal problems you may encounter at the airport, with the Cuban government or with the American government. I am not, in any way, encouraging you to break the law when it comes to traveling to Cuba. You are solely responsible for your trip and its consequences.
- There are daily flights to Havana and other airports from Miami with American, jetBlue, Delta, and a few other companies. Use Skyscanner and check dates. At most, a ticket should not be more than $300, roundtrip. The average price is around $200. Havana is the cheapest place to fly to, with Varadero having some cheap offers sometimes through SouthWest and American Airlines.
- Pro Tip: Travel with JetBlue to save money on your VISA. They only charge $50, as opposed to American Airlines’ $80.
- This is the most important and most confusing part about Cuba, and it will require you to pay attention every time you buy something. There are two currencies in Cuba, the CUC (Peso Convertible, also known as dollar or “fula”) and the CUP (Peso Cubano). Contrary to popular belief, you’re allowed to use BOTH currencies. In fact, many times you’ll pay with one and you’ll get change back with the other.
- As of this writing, $100 USD = 87 CUC. You can and SHOULD exchange money at places named CADECA. These are the official exchange banks. You can also exchange at the airport, and I heard you might get a bit more money back over there, but I have not confirmed this myself. When you go to exchange money at CADECA, some locals outside will ask if you want to change it with them instead for a better rate. I suggest to NOT do this, because you can get counterfeit money. Only exchange at CADECA or with people that you already know. Ask locals for the nearest CADECA and they should help you.
- 1 CUC = 25 Cuban pesos (like I said before, also known as CUP). So, for example, if a pizza is 25 Cuban Pesos, you can pay by giving 1 CUC. I’ve seen tourists that have paid 1 CUC for a coffee (insane for Cuba!) when it’s actually 1 peso (or 5 cents) so always make sure to use common sense. For instance, if you see a meal for $50 on a menu, this, of course, means 50 Cuban PESOS or 2 CUC. Don’t you dare pay 50 CUC! It can be confusing but the more it’s practiced the better you’ll get at it. Also, 5 cents in CUC = 1 Cuban peso. For example, if a juice is 5 pesos (avg. price) you can give them 5 pesos OR 25 cents in CUC. Some places, especially in Havana, will take the CUC for 23 pesos and not 25 pesos, however, which can be in an issue and can be confusing. If paying with Cuban pesos, I always recommend asking “A cuanto usted toma el fula?” beforehand. If they say 23 pesos, and you’re paying with CUC something that’s 25 pesos, then you have to give 1.10 CUC. Remember, 1 CUC is 23 (in this case; usually 25) and then the 0.10 CUC represents the 2 pesos. It’s definitely confusing. It’s good to have both currencies. When you want to buy street food and things like that, they most likely won’t accept CUCs because it’s too much for them and they won’t have change. For instance, peanuts, something very common in Cuba, are about 10 cents in CUC or 2 pesos. If you give them a 5 CUC bill, they won’t have change.
- Credit cards won’t work in Cuba.
- ATMs are hard to find and I’m not even sure that American cards work there. Have cash and exchange it as you need more money.
HOW CHEAP IS CUBA?
- Cuba is really cheap, if done the right away. You can do Cuba, not including lodging, for under $10/day easily, and even under $5/day if you put some effort and look for non-touristy places to eat.
GETTING TO HAVANA
- After you land in Havana, you should not pay more than 30 CUC for a taxi to the center of the city, or wherever your place might be. You should still hustle and try to bring the price down, and you usually can bring it down to about 20 CUC. If someone says they’ll charge more than 30 CUC, go look for another car. This also applies to getting back to the airport.
- At the airport, you will see a lot of yellow taxis. Unless you want to pay quite a bit of money, don’t get on those. Look around and try to find locals with cars. They are around and will charge you a fraction of the price to get you to the city center.
- MAPS.Me Download this app. This app serves as a GPS on your phone without the need to have Wifi or Data. It’ll give you walking and driving directions, restaurants, everything. It’s a MUST have while visiting Cuba. Make sure you go in the app before coming and download the Cuba map. It’s free.
- Cars Stay away from the “cool” old 1950s car. As soon as they see you’re a tourist, they’ll try to charge you quite a bit. Don’t get ripped off. If you do have to move within Havana, let’s say, to the famous El Morro (the fort) or somewhat of a long distance, you should not pay more than 10 CUC. I promise you that as soon as you walk away and say no they’ll call you and bring their price down. To stop them at places like El Malecon, you stand on the side of the road (if there are none nearby) and put your arm out and your thumb up. When they stop, don’t get in the car right away. Negotiate the price. There will be many of them so don’t jump right in the first one, especially if you’re being overcharged.
- Renting: Around $100-115 a day. Unless you’re coming with a big group where you can split the cost, it’ll be very expensive. If you are still interested in renting a car, make sure you book it on their official site beforehand, because you probably won’t find any once you get to the island.
- You can rent your car here.
- Walking When I was working in Havana I went everywhere walking. It was the best way to see the city and I definitely recommend it. It can be done and you’ll save lots of money.
- Buses Unless you’re ready for the adventure of a lifetime, and not in a fun way, I don’t recommend buses. You’ll be crammed like a sardine, so if you’ve never visited a third world country before I really, really don’t recommend you get on the buses in Havana, although I recommend the buses in other sides of the country. There are way too many people and absolutely no space. If you are on a budget and you insist on taking them, then know that you only pay 1 peso or 5 cents in CUC. The most popular routes include the P5, which takes you around Malecon and all the way to Vedado (Cine Yara, Coopelia) and the A59, which goes to the Morro Castle, Guanabacoa, and a bit around El Malecon.
- Buses don’t work on a schedule. They come whenever.
- There’s also a little red train that goes all over the Malecon throughout the day. You can get on it for 1 CUC.
- As you should know by now, Internet in Cuba is very limited. There are Wi-Fi spots all over Havana (basically everywhere you see a bunch of local with their phones out, and usually public parks and hotels) but in other cities and provinces it’s much more limited. You buy Wi-Fi cards at the ETECSA office (telecom offices in Cuba) and they’re all around. You can check on Maps.Me for the nearest one. The cards have a cost of 1.00 CUC, and you can get up to 3 per transaction. Make sure you’re carrying any form of ID with you, as they’ll need it. After you buy the cards, you can go to a Wi-Fi spot, connect to an ETECSA.WIFI network, and put in the username and password from the card. These cards are good for an hour and DON’T have to be used all at once. So, you can use 10 minutes and save the rest of the time for another day. They expire within 30 days of your first use. Sometimes you’ll get disconnected because the network is slow and you might have to click “Forget Network” on your Wi-Fi settings and connect again. Some days it’s fast, others, not so much. If you plan to video chat with your loved ones back at home, tell them to download an app named IMO. It uses very little WiFi so it usually works better than Skype. FaceTime and Snapchat are blocked in Cuba as of this writing. Whatsapp is also a good way to video chat as it doesn’t use much data.
- Computers: If you must use a computer, and you don’t have one with you, you can also use that Wi-Fi card at computers located at the ETECSA office.
- People will try to sell you Wi-Fi cards for 3 and 4 CUC. Don’t forget they’re 1.00 CUC at ETECSA.
PRICES AND STORES
- An issue in Havana is overpricing by locals that buy products and then resell them in the street or shops, from water to beer. If you can, buy things like that at the official government shops (where they get it from) so you can pay much lower prices. Trust me, it adds up. Here are the OFFICIAL prices for products, give or take, all over the island, and all in CUC. If you buy these at privately owned restaurants and shops, they’ll be twice or three times as much.
- Small water bottle – 0.40 CUC
- 1.5 L Water bottle – 0.70 CUC
- 5 L Water Bottle – 1.90 CUC
- National Beers (Cristal, light; Bucanero; dark) 1 CUC
- Soft drinks (TuKola, Naranja, Limon) 0.50 CUC
- These can be bought at official stores, usually TRD Caribe, Rapido, Palmares, Panamericana. Ask anyone where you can find any of these.
- Old Havana is extremely touristy. After Obama gave permission for Americans to travel to Cuba under 12 categories, prices have gone up the roof. A lunch or dinner in this area of Havana starts at 5-7 CUC and can be as much as 20 CUC in some areas. I recommend you don’t eat much in this part of Havana, especially if you’re planning on staying in the city for a long time. Instead, walk around and leave that area, and go to Vedado area. There, for half the price, you’ll get much more food, better quality, and better service. Try to go to places where you see locals. If all you see are tourists, then you know Cubans don’t eat there. Your average Cuban, as of this writing, cannot pay a 10 CUC meal in Old Havana. Plus, by getting outside of this area, you’ll get to see the real Cuba.
- Paladares are private restaurants created by locals. These Cubans many times convert parts of their house, like their kitchen or living room, into a cozy (or even fancy) restaurant. These are all over and are much cheaper than government-owned restaurants, and you’ll be helping the local economy by eating here.
- Hotels: Hotels are overpriced and you pay per person, not per room. I don’t recommend staying at hotels in Cuba. Let’s say that you make a friend and want to bring him/her to your room/pool/etc; you cannot. Hotel staff will not let you unless that person pays around 15 CUC. Remember that due to President Trump’s change towards Cuba in 2017, staying in hotels is now illegal. I’m not sure how they’d know you stayed, but it is illegal. Save yourself some trouble and stay with local, support the local economy, and get to know Cuba much better.
- Airbnb: Totally recommend AirBnB in Cuba, just make sure that you book some days in advance because they don’t have internet all the time, so it might take them a day or two to get back to your booking request. Low-season in Cuba is May-Novemeber, and during those times you can find apartments for around $16-20. I paid $17/night for my apartment, which included all linens, towels, shampoo, and cleaning, twice a week. I was 10 minutes away walking from the Capitol and 2 blocks from el Malecon. Use my AirBnB code when signing up by clicking here and save $40 off your AirBnB stay!
- Casa particular: These are rent-rooms, and just like Airbnb, you’ll also be helping the local community by staying here. Most of the casas particulares are also posted on AirBnB. You get to stay with a local family! You can also find these by looking for signs that say “RENT ROOM” if you wait to find housing when you get to the city.
FOOD AND DRINKS
- As I mentioned before, you shouldn’t be paying more than 5 CUC for a meal, unless you want to eat in Old Havana. I recommend you find little cafés, what I call hole in the walls, where you can find food for 2 CUC or less. You’ll see them everywhere outside the touristy Old Havana. Try to avoid restaurants where they try to pull you in or they’re speaking in English. Go where the locals go to save money!
- Cuban food usually consists of some type of rice (white, yellow, or congris; the dark one), some type of meat, and vegetables. Pizza is also a staple Cuban food. Whenever you ask for a type of meat, it already comes with rice and vegetables, so no need to ask for that on the side.
- Juices and smoothies are also everywhere. These are around 2 Cuban pesos and 10 Cuban pesos (although 10 is pushing it.)
- In Havana, drinks should average 3-4 CUC. Pay more than that and you’re getting ripped off.
- Go to local, individually owned bars for better quality (and cheaper) drinks.
- Some of my favorite places in Havana (you can find them on Maps.Me!):
- Café Madrigal in Vedado. Great, upscale affordable bar with dozens of great drinks. It’s really cozy.
- El Diablito in front of el Malecón. El Diablito is a hole in the wall, but the food is so good! All prices are in Cuban pesos. Here, you can get a big portion of authentic Cuban food for $2 or less! More and more tourists are actually finding out about it and going here.
- El Italiano: The best Cuban pizza I’ve had in Cuba. They have all toppings, from pineapple to veggies and everything else in between. Extremely affordable — most pizzas are under $1.
- Tipping: Unless you’re eating at a sit-down restaurant, tipping isn’t expected nor required. Cubans usually don’t tip much, but as a tourist it is expected to tip. A 10-15% if the service is good is usually the standard.
- Lining up: If you’re going to buy a WiFi card, or get in line to get ice cream, or anything else that requires a line, you should ask “Quien es el ultimo?” or “Who’s the last one in line?” Cubans have this way of lining up and it’s like this all over the country. They do this in case someone leaves, either for a few seconds to eat something or completely leaves the line, to always be aware of who’s in front and behind. It somehow works, and I’ve seen tourists getting yelled at for messing up the line.
- Yelling: Cubans are loud. They talk with their hands. They aren’t mad. Don’t be afraid.
- Catcalling: Unfortunately an issue in Cuba, and even more if you’re a tourist. Locals, especially if you’re a girl, will whistle at you, tell you they want to be with you, etc.
OTHER THINGS TO BE AWARE OF
- Getting change: Count your money when you get change back and make sure you got the right amount, and that you didn’t get charged more than what’s advertised for a product.
- Theft: Cuba is relatively an extremely safe country, but just like everywhere, theft and pickpocketing can take place. Don’t ask people to take a picture of you on your brand new iPhone 7 Plus, for example, and don’t carry it in your hand as you walk around.
- Running into issues: If you run into any issue, you can go to the US Embassy. They have walk in hours Monday – Thursday until 12pm for Americans. Just make sure you have your passport with you. They also have two computers with unlimited high speed Internet that you can use while inside. Pretty cool!
- Water: Tap water in Havana is not drinkable. Buy enough water so you could always have some with you.
ENGAGING WITH LOCALS
- Cuba is a magical country, but what makes it so special are the people. How can you engage with them and get to know the real Cuba? Here are a few tips.
- Stay with them: Choose a casa particular, an AirBnB, or even a privately owned hostel instead of a hotel. You’ll have more fun and save money while at it.
- Talk to them: Ask locals for places to go to! They know the city, so they’ll send you to much better, hidden places. If you have a host, they can and probably would love to show you around.
- Leave the touristy area of Havana: The colonial area of Havana is beautiful, but it doesn’t truly represent Havana or Cuba. Get lost (and ask for directions while you’re at it) and visit different parts of the city. If you know a bit of Spanish, talk to the locals so you can learn more about Cuba and the culture.
- Go to small, privately owned businesses: Everytime you spend a dollar on a small private business, you’re helping the local economy and community in ways you can’t even imagine. Go with an open mind. Many times the food at the “holes in the walls” is made with much more love, and it’s as delicious.
- AirBnB Experiences: AirBnB recently released an option where you can now book experiences with locals! Check it out on their site. Whether you want to go biking with a Cuban or drinking or want to learn how to dance salsa, these “experiences” are a great way to engage with the community.
THINGS TO DO IN HAVANA – You can save all these places on MAPS.ME so you can easily access them while there.
- El Morro: Entrance is 6 CUC. This is the Spanish fort the Spaniards set in Havana to protect the city. It’s on the east side of Havana, and you’ll see it every time you walk through el Malecon. The views from there are beautiful. A car will charge you 7-10 CUC to get there, BUT, there’s an easy way to arrive for just 0.05 CUC. On your Maps.Me app, search “Ferries to Casa Blanca and Regla.” Take the ferry to Casa Blanca. It’s ONE Cuban peso ($0.05). To come back to Old Havana, do the same. When you get to the east side, use your MAPS.Me app and find walking directions to the Morro. At 9pm they have the cañonazo daily, where they fire the cannons! Definitely worth it.
- Christ of Havana: Cuba’s version of the Christ in Rio. You’ll see it on the way to the Morro, after you get off from the ferry.
- Malecon: The most beautiful sunset you’ll ever see. Grab a beer and sit there! At night, lots of vendors, locals, and music.
- Fabrica del Arte: An old factory turned into an art space, with drinks, music, and more. Probably one of the most famous places in Havana. Opened until 3am and it gets packed, so go early.
- Free Havana Walking Tour: More info here! Like in Europe, these work based on tips. Get to know the history of the city.
- Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: National Museum of Beauty Arts
- Museum of the Revolution
- Havana Cathedral: Free to go inside. You’ll have to cover up if wearing shorts.
- Old Havana: Get lost in all its streets. Obispo is known as the main street, so I recommend walking it up and down and ending at Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Park (there’s wife here!). Also go to Old Havana at night as it’s a different vibe.
- Paseo de Martí: Nice for a stroll. Lots of young people skating and playing. Beautiful area.
- Capitol Building
- Camera Obscura
- Rum Museum
- La Bodeguita del Medio: Home of the mojito’s and allegedly Hemmingway’s favorite place. Mojitos will be overpriced (6 CUC). Packed all the time. It’s located by Cathedral Square.
- El Floridita: Home of the daiquiri, and also allegedly Hemmingway’s favorite place to have one. Once again, overpriced and, in my opinion, overrated.
- Museo del Chocolate: A chocolate store! Lots of choices, not too pricey, and located in Old Havana.
- Teatro de la Habana: Cuba’s national theatre. Beautiful architecture and worth checking out at night.
- Cine Yara: A very famous theatre, with both national and international movies, usually for 1 Cuban peso or 0.05 CUC. Definitely recommend going and checking out what’s playing.
- Coopelia: Right in front of the Cine Yara. Havana’s most popular place to get ice cream. It has Wi-Fi! Long lines, and usually two, one for locals and one for tourists. Do the line with the locals and you’ll pay just a couple of cents for your delicious ice cream!
- Vedado and Calle 23: 23rd street in the Vedado area of Havana has lots of restaurants, bars, and it isn’t too touristy. Check out Café Madrigal while there – beautiful bar with yummy food (fried malanga!) and amazing prices.
- Monumento a José Martí: A monument to Cuba’s national hero, the author José Martí. It’s located at La Plaza de la Revolución along with the face of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
- Tropicana: This is the equivalent of going to Broadway in NYC. Celia Cruz performed here. It is a world-known cabaret and club, and it launched in 1939. According to Wikipedia, “Tropicana continues to operate to this day, attracting tourists to its Cabaret Shows taking place at 9pm, Tuesday to Sunday, in the open-air Salon Bajo Las Estrellas (weather permitting).” There are different deals for the show, with the cheapest one being $75. You can find all the deals and buy tickets here.
Have more questions about Cuba? I grew up in the island and I’ve gone back ten times now. Shoot me a message. I’d love to help you plan your next vacation.