There’s been a lot of buzz about Cuba lately thanks to warmer political relations between the United States and Cuba. This has resulted in an uptick in travel by Americans to the island nation, and chances are, you probably even know someone that has recently been there. If you are considering a trip to Cuba, too, you are in the right place. After returning from a trip in December 2016, I learned a few things along the way that I think every first-time traveler from America needs to consider and know prior to arriving on the exotic (at least to Americans) island. Here are my top tips for first-time travelers to Cuba.
Be Cuba travel-ready
You probably know someone who has traveled to Cuba recently directly from the United States. It seems as if everyone is now going to Cuba, and with cheap flights, why not go, too? Well, before you start practicing your Spanish, be sure you qualify to go under one of the permissible categories of travel, because, contrary to what many people believe, travel to Cuba solely for tourism is still not permitted.
Although relations have changed somewhat between the two countries, the law has not changed much at all. You are still required to meet one of 12 categories of permissible travel. What HAS actually changed is that you no longer have to apply to the U.S. Government for your travel demonstrating proof that you fall within one of the 12 categories. Now, you are only required to submit an online affidavit identifying the category you fall under when you are purchasing your airline ticket. You can find more information about the categories and permissible travel here.
Cuba now stamps your passport twice, upon entry and exit, so keep in mind upon reentering the US, you may or may not get questioned by an immigration officer with an eye for that pink stamp. Just in case, be sure you have met one of the license requirements and have proof to support your affidavit because the penalty is steep. To date, I’ve not heard of anyone, including myself, being stopped and questioned upon reentry.
There’s an infrastructure for tourists, but it’s not perfect
When I first announced that I was traveling to Cuba, a few friends and family members immediately became confused and worried. They wondered why I would want to go to and what I would do in a country that has an embargo in place. Staying safe in a poor country, having access to goods and reasonable accommodations, and being able to see and do enough to pass the time were the primary concerns.
One thing to remember is that although Cuba might not be a tourist destination for Americans, it has been one for many other nationals, with Canada leading the way, for many years. Visitors will find a variety of accommodations, a network of transportation options, a decent selection of restaurants and bars, some unique shopping and a good number of sights and museums to keep you busy. It might not be up to typical American standards for a Caribbean vacation, but there is an infrastructure in place for foreign visitors who are seeking to learn more about the country, the people, and the culture. Just don’t expect a tourist office in the center of town handing out tourist friendly maps. You’ll have to do your homework before you arrive.
Cash in king; bring lots of it
I have to admit, it has been a long time since I’ve traveled on vacation with a pocket full of Benjamins. However, you’ll need to travel to Cuba with a lot of cash because American credit cards are not accepted and most places only accept cash anyways. The national currency in Cuba is the Cuban convertible peso, or the CUC (pronounced “cook”). The exchange rate is pegged to the dollar, except Cuba hits you with 10% penalty for exchanging American dollars to Cuban CUCs. Moreover, you’ll be hit with an additional 3% bank fee for the exchange on all transactions under $600. So, try to figure out how much you’ll be spending on your vacation and exchange your money all at once to avoid the 3% fee and to avoid having to wait in line again. (Waiting in line is a way of life in Cuba).
Also, it’s important to note here that there are two different currencies currently in use in Cuba. The other currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP), and it is what the Cubans are paid in. As a foreign visitor, you won’t have any need for the CUP, as all goods and services are in CUC. Pretty soon, this will not even be a discussion point as in October 2016, the state media announced that the Cuban government has plans to scrap the dual currency.
The street hustle is alive and well
One thing you will have to get used to as an American in Cuba is the street hustle. It really doesn’t matter if you’re an average Joe or a gorgeous blonde, you’ll get an equal amount of attention with the sales pitch tweaked a bit. It also doesn’t matter if you are walking along one of the popular tourist streets, in a hotel lobby, or exploring a locals’ neighborhood in the Centro; if you look like you are not from Cuba, you will get hustled.
But don’t worry, it’s actually just a harmless annoyance, as the Cuban people are generally friendly, and the street hustlers are not too aggressive. Just simply smile and say, “No Gracias” or “No Me Interesa” to let them know that you are not interested. It might take two or three times to get the message across as the hustler walks along side of you down the street asking you where you are from, but even the more persistent ones eventually get the message and will quickly leave you alone.
Cigars make the best souvenirs, but know your limits
You don’t have to be a cigar aficionado to know that a Cuban cigar makes a great gift, and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to buy these while visiting the island, especially in Havana. Best of all, as of October 2016, Americans can buy up to 100 cigars to bring back home for personal use. As long as the retail value (save your receipts!) does not exceed $800, you can bring them back duty-free. For more information on shopping for cigars, check out my guide to Buying Cigars in Cuba (coming soon).
Taxis are expensive, and fares are non-negotiable
Prior to my trip, I read a few websites that talked about negotiating taxi fares prior to getting in the taxi and that sometimes, you can tell the taxi driver what you are willing to pay with them accepting your offer. I also read that taxis use a meter, and if not, insist that they do. Well, this was not the case at all, at least not in Havana. Instead, if you plan to use a regular “tourist taxi”, that is, a yellow cab, whether you hail one in the street or get in one that is queued up in front of a hotel, plan on paying, at a minimum, 10 CUC for any ride in and between the Havana neighborhoods (Old Havana, Centro, and Vedado). At night, you can expect this price to go up to about 15 CUC or more.
One taxi driver explained to me that gas prices have gone up, so naturally taxi fares have to go up. But another one in front of the Saratoga Hotel gave me a BS explanation that they must charge the customers for the return trip and for the time they spend waiting in a queue for the next passenger once they return from your trip. Best of all, if you refuse to pay the 10 CUC for a ride that should only cost 5 CUC (according to a bellman at the Saratoga Hotel), they simply won’t take you nor will any other driver in the queue, so you are kind of stuck paying the outrageous fare. Just grin and bear it.
The food is not bad, but quality varies
Most people don’t travel to Cuba for a culinary experience, and you shouldn’t either. With ingredients difficult to come by, dishes have to be kept simple. For the most part, I didn’t find the food to be all that bad, but granted, I had very low expectations to begin with. If you stick to the basic dishes like ceviche, garlic shrimp, empanadas, croquetas and the traditional ropa vieja with rice and beans, you’ll be fine for the most part. But even with these simple dishes, quality varies from place to place. If there is one thing I would advise against trying, it is the dessert. I had no luck finding a decent sweet treat while in Havana. From a sour, stale tres leches cake at a nice restaurant where the food was actually good, to a gritty chocolate bon-bon from the popular chocolate shop in the tourist area, the desserts were awful. If you are craving something sweet, maybe try the churros from a street vendor instead.
Also, when choosing a restaurant, it’s best to select one based on word of mouth once there, so ask a fellow traveler you may bump into or your hotel for a recommendation. You’ll basically have two choices, a state-run restaurant that is usually expensive with mediocre food, or a privately owned restaurant known as a paldares where the food is usually better and cheaper. Check out my recommendations for dining options for Havana here. (coming soon)
Opt for a casa particular instead of a traditional hotel
When it comes to hotel stays, I’m definitely one that prefers to go with a chain hotel. I like the consistency in service and quality that comes with a chain hotel. However, when visiting Cuba, you might want to skip the large state run hotels that are grossly overpriced and many times outdated. Instead, opt for a stay at the more intimate and affordable accommodations known as casa particulars. Casa particulars run the gamut depending on the price. You can have an experience similar to staying in a room at a friend’s house or hostel for about 25 – 30 CUC, or you can stay in a modern more upscale place similar to a small boutique hotel for about 60-70 CUC per night. See my hotel and casa particular recommendations here. (coming soon)