xxWhen your best friend asks if you want to go to Cuba for your birthday – you must always say yes. Melissa and I both love to travel and when Cuba opened up to Americans, with direct flights from both of our cities (read more here) we knew we had to go!
Who goes there?:
Americans haven’t been able to travel freely to Cuba since the early 1960’s. People have gotten around the restriction through educational trips or flying through other countries. What’s most interesting is that many people fail to realize that although travel has been closed to Americans, Cuba is not foreign to the tourism industry. People travel from all over the world to visit their beautiful country, and they have many nice hotels.
Those we befriended while journeying through Havana:
Canary Islands, Spain
LA – NYC – Miami – San Francisco
How to get there:
Take a direct flight!
We both took direct flights from Houston and NYC.
You can purchase your Visa at the check-in gate for your flight, or you can order it ahead of time here.
Do I need to have a purpose for visiting?:
No. Read the article I tagged at the top. Cuba is now open to American travel. You will be asked when purchasing your ticket to pick a reason for a visit, but it’s not like before where if you chose education you had to be associated with a specific educational organization and fulfill the ‘people-to-people’ requirement. This is a good article about the differences.
You will also need travel insurance (not purchased from the US) for your trip. Options –
They will have a desk/person selling travel insurance for 5 CUC per day at the airport. You can purchase this before you go through Customs when you get to Cuba.
Our airline tickets (United and Delta) both included insurance for our trip. Save your ticket and carry it with you.
USD is charged at 10% higher exchange rate in Cuba. Recommend before your trip to exchange USD into Euro or CAD. Then, when you arrive in the airport in Cuba, go to the currency exchange there and get it changed over. MUCH QUICKER THAN EXCHANGE OFFICE IN HAVANA!! There are currency exchange offices in Havana and at hotels but the airport was definitely the best option.
*Note – not all currencies can be exchanged in Cuba (lesson learned for me as I took AUD which were useless there). Euro gets the best exchange rate.
US credit cards / ATM cards will not work (mine got eaten by the machine). Take as much money as you think you will need with you.
Non US cards might work in ATM machines. My friend was able to use an Australian card on her trip.
Cuba has two currencies – CUC and Cuban peso. 1 CUC = 1 USD. 1 CUC = 24 cuban peso. I only used CUC. You will use the CUC.
Where to stay:
We chose to stay in Casa Particular. There are tons of Casas available all over Havana. A Casa Particular is similar to AirBnB in that you are renting a room at a person’s home or apartment. The government allows the residents to rent out their homes. They’re all similarly priced, around 35 CUC a night. Best deal and you get to see Cuba through a local’s eye.
We chose to stay close to Old Town – which we loved. Our hostess, Elda, was so kind! And there were two other guests staying from the US when we were there as well. Elda’s place was very clean and comfy – perfect for our weekend. She even coordinated our taxis to and from the airport, which is a must, since you don’t have wifi/maps.
We also met people who stayed in Vedado, but they had to take cars more places. Vedado is filled with old mansions and has more of a neighborhood vibe.
Getting to and from the airport:
Ask your hotel or host to book a car to pick you up from the airport. If you are flying into Havana, you should pay 30-35 CUC to get into the city. Write down the address so you have it handy. The person will drop you off at your location and can call your Casa owner as well to let them know you have arrived.
They don’t have intercoms, buzzers, etc to get into the buildings! Organize this part to make your life easier.
My casa owner organized my car from the airport. It’s the BEST because the maps are confusing, and she actually gave us the wrong address, but the driver knew exactly where to go – was SUPER nice – and called her to let her know I’d arrived.
Do I need a converter?
NOPE – they use American plugs.
It’s hard to find WiFi. We didn’t use it the entire time of our visit. You can buy a card at a hotel, but not worth it to us. Live off the grid for a bit – it will do the soul some good.
Download Google maps offline
Purchase the map through MAP.ME
Melissa and I lived by this book and loved it.
Walking – we walked everywhere. Take some good shoes.
There are tons of Taxis in Havana, and we took them if it was late or if we were going a further distance. Remember Havana is a big city. You’ll find them everywhere. Many people saying ‘taxi, taxi’. Always felt super safe in taxis.
Havana also has its own version of ‘Uberpool’. You will see classic car taxis with the car full. There are taxis that run standard loops around the city. So, you can hail one down which has people in it, if they are going close to where you want to go, negotiate lower price and jump in! Enjoy the ride!
They have buses but they are PACKED! We took a bus to the beach but it was a special beach bus and very nice.
CoCo Taxi – little yellow have coconut like motorbikes for 2 to 3 people. I can’t even describe, see photo below. YOU MUST TAKE ONE! They are all over Old Town.
We did a 3 hour tour through Old Cars Havana
Great way to see the city. Drove us through Old Town, the Military School/Outlook (where we found the best Pinja Colodas EVER), Vedado, Miramar and the forest
CUBA IS REALLY SAFE!! Particularly for tourists as there are harsh penalties for harming tourists. I felt safer in Cuba than what I do in New York which saying something.
Take anything you think you will need with you – sunscreen, medication, sanitizer etc etc. Not much shopping or convenience stores around.
We drank only bottled water – suggest to do the same
If you don’t speak Spanish, take a travel language book with you as some English is limited. Or, download app on your phone (that doesn’t need data to operate) to translate words so you can converse.