A lot has changed in Cuba since I wrote my first guide at the beginning of 2015. Here is an up-to-date guide to help you plan your next Cuba trip!
During the extent of a fifty-four-year embargo, Cuba has remained a mystery to the American public, yet with the recent move to re-establish relations with the US, curiosity seekers can now see what the country really has to offer.
What allure does Cuba’s antiquated setting hold? I would compare it to the exclusive nightclubs and lounges of LA—the more out of reach, the more enticing it becomes. A forbidden fruit, if you will. Only 90 miles off the southern most point of the United States and there is still so much to learn about this small island nation.
Is it Legal for US Citizens to Travel to Cuba?
Yes! It is absolutely legal for you to travel to Cuba. However there is a catch, US citizens can not visit Cuba for tourism. On my last visit to Cuba, I was checking in at the counter and the ticketing agent was discussing the process for those boarding the flights to Cuba from the US. She has to fill out the reason each passenger is going, and when they say "vacation", she laughs and says "pick another reason".
Here is your list of legal reasons for a visit!
The 12 legal types of visits to Cuba without prior government permission:
- Family visits
- Official government business
- Professional research and meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions and athletic competitions
- "Support for the Cuban people"
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research for educational institutes
- Exporting or importing information or "information materials"
- Travel related to some authorized export transactions
Be sure to check the US Treasury Departments website for more information.
How to get to Cuba
The first time I visited in 2015, I had to go through Mexico to avoid filling out a ton of extra paperwork, even though my visit was completely legal. Now, you are able to get a visa and get on any flight from the US.
There are many non-stop flights from the states on from the US to Havana. Some carriers include: American, United, Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit. Some of the major cities include: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, New York, Charlotte, Tampa, Los Angeles, and Houston.
What Documents Do I Need?
- Valid Passport
- Health Form
- Custom Form (given to you on the plane)
Where to Get Your Cuban Visa
If you decide to go through Mexico, your visa will only be $20. If you go through the US it can range from $50-$100, or even more depending on shipping.
If you are traveling from the US, be sure to get the correct visa. The visa you need coming from the US is the pink one and is not the same visa sold in Canada or Mexico. On my most recent trip to Cuba, I used Cuba Travel Services. They have locations at many of the airports such as LAX, FLL, and MIA where you can get the visa the same day as your flight. Cuba Travel Services is able to ship your visa right to your door, or, if you live nearby like me, you can drive to their office and pick it up!
You Need Special Travel Insurance
In addition to a visa, you will need special travel insurance to travel to Cuba. Many of the airlines flying from the US directly to Cuba will provide this special insurance in the cost of your flight. This makes it easy, and one less thing you have to do. If you are unsure, contact your airline or check their website ASAP.
Will I have Wi-Fi?
Expect limited connectivity while you are in Cuba. More touristy areas, such as Havana and Varadero will have more wi-fi zones then more remote areas. If you are staying in a Casa Particular (AKA: A house or apartment such as Airbnb), you shouldn't count on accessing Wi-Fi from the home.
Understanding the Political Climate
Before hopping on a flight to Cuba, understanding the changes in the political and social changes is important. In recent years, brave Cuban citizens have taken steps toward capitalism. Cuban nationals, mainly in the big cities such as Havana began to open their homes as businesses. Leaving the poor paying government jobs for the unknown, they opened B&Bs and restaurants, catering to the tourists. Now these entrepreneurs are making on average $40 or more a day, when government workers (including doctors and lawyers) are only making $30 a month.
Is Cuba Expensive?
Cuba is certainly not a bargain, but it doesn't have to be expensive. Meals and drinks are less expensive than in the states, but some things are the same price you would pay in the US. If you plan to bring home souvenirs, you will be spending money quickly. Additionally, evening activities like the Tropicana can be fairly expensive.
Where to Exchange Currency
Exchanging currency can be done at airports, hotels and banks. Banks often have long lines, so your best bet is your hotel. You should also exchange some cash at the airport to get you through a couple of days just incase. The exchange rate for USD is a fixed rate of 1-1, but you will be taxed. The tax is around 13% everywhere so you will get $87 for every $100 you exchange.
Remember, Cuba still will not be able to accept US credit or debit cards. That means you can't use the ATM. Bring everything you need + extra. My recommendation is to bring $500-1000 more then you think you will need.
Where to Stay
Hotels in Cuba are expensive. Unless you have a high budget for your trip, your best bet is to stay at a Casa Particular. These used to be difficult to book before arriving. Thanks to the censorship on the US internet become a little more relaxed when it comes to Cuba, it is now very easy. Airbnb is now able to help you book accommodations in Cuba.
The other great part about staying in a Casa Particular is that it supports locals and capitalism. It is a unique time in history for Cubans, especially those venturing into the untamed waters of capitalism in a still very much communist nation. The money from a stay in a guesthouse is going directly into the pockets of the Cuban Entrepreneurs instead of the hotels (which are government owned or operated).
How to Get Around in Cuba
The best way to get around in Havana is to walk, take taxis, bicycle-taxis and coco-taxis. Once you leave Havana, you will want to rent a car, or be on a tour. (I'm more of a do-it-yourself type of girl, so I would opt for skipping a tour and renting a car and hiring your own private tour guide to make the most of it).
Maps.me is essential for traveling throughout Cuba without using wifi or data. Simply download the app on your smartphone and then download the country map for Cuba. Your phone will know where you are at all times. This is great for walking or driving directions and really comes in handy when looking for certain restaurants, hotels or museums.
Throughout Cuba you will find a mixture of European and US outlets. There will also be a mixture of 220v and 110v outlets. Some places I stayed had both right next to each other. Bring an outlet converter just incase, but don't count on needing it.
Hiring a Tour Guide
Hiring a guide in Havana was a lot more difficult in 2015 then it is now. I used to recommend a guide I used on my first trip, and he was decent, but since then I have met the best guide in all of Cuba!
I first read about Frank in a 2012 copy of National Geographic Traveler. Frank used to be a guide for those really expensive National Geographic Tours that were like $6,000 a person before flights. He has worked with high-end clients for years. When I contacted him, he was working for an organization that was government owned and wasn't able to do any private guiding. Shortly after I connected with him, he was given a 5 year US tourist visa, which is basically unheard of for a Cuban National. Before I knew it, we were hanging out in Los Angeles on his first visit to the United States. Frank has visited the US twice, and understands what American travelers are looking for in their experience. Frank is a very talented tour guide that can show you around Havana for just 4 hours, or guide you through the entire country over 10 days. I highly recommend booking him well in advance, as his guide services are highly sought after. And, if you are wondering how his English is, it's better than mine!
Where to Go in Cuba
- Get off-the-beaten-path by visiting Fusterlandia, a mosaic masterpiece rivaling Rio's Selaron Steps, on the outskirts of Havana.
- Have a daiquiri at the famed daiquiri bar El Floridita. Hemingway still holds the record of 14 daiquiris in one sitting (doubles with no sugar)!
- Take the ferry to the Christ the Redeemer statue
- Have a frothy mojito and dinner at Doña Eutemia. Be sure to make reservations well in advance as this spot books up quickly.
- Experience a night at the Tropicana
- Take a ride in a 1950's convertible (You can get one easily outside of Iberostar Parque Central hotel)
- Visit the handicraft market nearby the port
- Take the train on an adventure to explore the abandoned town of Hershey, where Hershey chocolate used to be
- Have a mojito at the roof of Ambos Mundos, and be sure to check out Hemingway's old room
- Take a 7 or 9 day motorcycle tour across Cuba with Che Guevara's youngest son as your tour guide with La Poderosa Tours (plan well in advance)
- Go SCUBA diving
- Take a salsa lesson
- Walk the streets with a mojito in hand
- Listen to live music
- Go dancing at Disco Ayala, the club that is actually in a cave
- Go on a waterfall hike to the Rio Seco waterfall
- Visit Finca Agroecologica, the organic farm and restaurant for a delicious dinner with a view
- Head to the central square at night for free music and dancing
- Visit a local tobacco farm to understand the process of turning tobacco into the world famous Cuban cigars
Where to Buy Cigars & Rum
Cigars should NEVER be purchased on the streets or in homes. They will be a ripoff and will be fake. Buy authentic cigars in one of three places.
- In a government run shop (I recommend the shop in the Parque Central Iberostar Hotel in Havana)
- The farms in Viñales
- The duty-free shop at the airport right before you depart.
Is Cuba Safe?
- Cuba is very safe. There are several reasons why. Punishments for small crimes are quite large, which deters people from committing crimes.
- There are almost no guns in Cuba.
- Communities are tight-knit, which means someone is always paying attention and people look out for one-another.
Will I like Cuba?
Cuba is a place that travelers will undoubtably love, and high maitenence tourists will loathe. If you are the type of traveler that is adventurous and willing to go with the flow, you will love it. If you need a plan, expect luxury, and don't want to mingle with locals, you may have a tough time (unless you plan to rarely leave your hotel). On my most recent trip, despite being electrocuted while charging my camera battery and being locked inside my guesthouse, I still loved my trip and loved the country.