Now that the 50+ year Embargo has been lifted with Cuba I was determined to make this trip happen for Ty and I. Although the Embargo was lifted Cuba is still not open for tourism. So how do we go?
Step 1: Flight
Delta, American Airlines, Jet Blue, Frontier, Alaska Airlines, Spirit, and Southewest airlines have all started their direct flights to Havana. Choose your airline and purchase your flight. If you are flying form Miami (MIA), New York (JFK), Charlotte (CLT), Tampa (TPA), Atlanta (ATL), F. Lauderdale (FLL), Orlando (MCO), or Los Angeles (LAX) you can get a non-stop flight to Havana.
If you are not flying from one of those cities you will have a connecting flight through one of those cities. We flew Frontier from Las Vegas (LAS) to Miami (MIA) to Havana (HAV).
Step 2: Choosing your travel reason
As mentioned you cannot travel to Cuba for tourism so you will need determine which of the 12 categories your trip falls under from the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). We traveled under Educational/People-to-People. Be sure to keep an itinerary of your travels just encase you are asked for it down the line by our government wanting to know why you were there.
1.Family travel 2.Official government business 3. Journalistic activity 4. Professional research and meetings 5. Educational/People-to-People 6. Religious activities 7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, exhibitions and athletic competitions 8. Support for the Cuban people 9. Humanitarian projects 10. Activities of private foundations or research for educational institutes 11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials 12. Export
Step 3: Purchase your Visa
Delta, Jet Blue, and American will assist you in purchasing your visa for $50.00 and you can pick it up the ticket counter when you arrive at the airport. If you are on another airline like Frontier that does not offer assistance with purchasing your visa you can get one through Cuba Visa Services, which is what we did for $85.00. Our visas arrived in three days via FedEx with no problem. Make sure you fill these out correctly or you will have to purchase a new one at the airport for $100.00.
Step 4: Now that you have your visa and flight where to stay?
There are several hotels and Casa Particulars in Havana. Casa Particulars are family homes where you rent a room and stay with a Cuban family. You can also find an Airbnb or Innclusive option as well. We stayed at an Airbnb in Vedado a more modern part of Havana. It was beautiful and close to the Malecón and Presidente hotel. My host offered breakfast for 8 CUC per person a day. This was helpful because we were able to start out day on a full stomach.
Step 5: Money Money Money!
To date, there are no ATM or credit card use for American's in Cuba. Plan accordingly because you can easily run out of money. Getting money sent to you is a hassle and not easy from what I hear.
There are two types of currency in Cuba the convertible peso or CUC (pronounced as Kook or Kooks) which is mostly used by foreigners and you have the Cuban peso or CUP (called the "national coin or the in Spanish moneda nocional). If you are exchanging your money at a Bank be prepared to wait.,there are long lines. Even if the line isn't long, I didn't see anyone move with a sense urgency there. The bank will exchange your money at the rate of .87 CUC to $1 USD. . You can convert your USD to Euros before you leave the US and then from Euros to CUC. This was too much hassle for me so I just exchanged my USD to CUC when I got to Havana with my Airbnb host who gave me .93 CUC to $1 USD. You can also exchange money at exchange houses or with people on the streets (I don't advise this. I can't tell counterfeit USD let alone CUC). There are some people who will exchange monies with you dollar for dollar, which happened to a friend in Viñales.
Step 6: Research and Plan! The Internet is not at your fingertips
Get an outline of what you want to do. The internet is not readily available so pre-planning really helped us. If you are staying in an Airbnb your host can assist with setting you up with a guide or driver. I'm a wing it girl, but because I had others traveling with me I pre-planned. Its not hard to find a driver when you get there. Everyone has a hustle. You can negotiate just about anything on the streets.
If you need to have internet then you can purchase a Wi-Fi card from a hotel or one of the ETECSA offices. This will cost you 2 CUC per hour. You have to be in Wi-Fi zone to login which will notice because there will be a large group of people and everyone's head will be down. The Wi-fi isn't that great so it can be slow or you will be kicked off frequently. Don’t forget to logout!
Step 7: Transportation
You have several modes of transportation in Havana; there are taxis, shared taxis (collectivos), public buses, cocos (3-wheeled motor scooter with a round shell that sits 2-3 people). You can find a driver to chauffeur you the entire trip or you host can assist you in finding transportation.
Getting from the airport to where you will be staying will cost your around 25 CUC or $30 USD. We mainly used taxis which were reasonably priced, but after 11pm their rates go up. There are people who hitch hike and tip the driver. You will see this all over Cuba.
If you want to see other towns and do not want to pay the price of a taxi. An alternative is the Viazul bus. You can purchase these bus tickets in person at the bus station or you can purchase tickets in advance on their website. I recommend purchasing tickets in advance as the more popular destinations sell out quickly. If you purchase your ticket in advance, arrive an hour early to the bus station to secure your ticket and a spot on the bus. A trip from Havana to Viñales will cost you $12 USD round trip.
Step 8: Now that you have your flight, visa, and place to stay what to do?
First let me explain that Havana is not an all-inclusive resort type of vacation! This is not a place to lay on the beach and drink tropical drinks. You have to experience and embrace the history and culture.
I was there during the nine day mourning period after Fidel Castro died so I was not able to do or see a lot of things due to them being closed.
- The day we arrived in Havana we took some time to freshen up and then we took a tour of the city in a classic car
- We took a day trip to Viñales to explore the country side of Havana and partake in the organic foods and cigar farms.
We visited Finca Argoeco Logica Rivera to learn a little more about the cigar rolling process.
- The Havana Bus Tour is the equivalent to the Hop-on-hop-off bus in major cities in the US. For 10 CUC you can ride the long route (Feria San Jose/ Parque Central/ LeCecilia) or you can ride the shorter route (Parque Central/ Playas del Este) for 5 CUC. This is a really good way to see the city. You can jump off at a spot and then venture out to see things in that area.
- Visist Callejon del Hammel a area where you can see the works of Salvador Gonzalez Escalona for about two blocks. There are murals, shrines, and scultpters that line this area. On Sundays you can see Rumba groups play for free. You can pick up a guide in the area who would be happy to tell you about their culture and the artwork. We tipped our guy for his services. He was very knowledgeable and happy to answer all of our questions.
- Venture on the Malecón (sea wall that stretches 5 miles along Havana). This is the local hangout spot you can learn to fish, listen to music, drink, dance and embrace the culture. There are always people out on the Malecón. You have to be careful because the water will occastionally splash over the wall.
- Visit Cristo de La Habana and taken in the views of the city.
- Take an Afrolatina tour
- Visit Casa de Africa
- Take a visit to Ernest Hemingway's home
- Visit Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolutionary Square) and take a look a the mesume
- Visit neighborhood Fusterlandia and see the art work on Jose Fuster
- I’m a foodie, but in doing my research Cuba really isn’t the destination for food. I had good food, but it wasn’t a blow my mind good type of food. You can find tasty decently priced meals where you get a mojito, your mean, and desert for like 12 CUC. There are a lot of restaurants
- Download Tiposo from the Google Playstore or the Apple App Store. You can download a map of Havana and use offline. It still uses GPS so you can see how you are moving about, and you can pull up attractions.
- Take tissue paper or wipes. The tissue in Cuba is NOT the same as the US. There are some places that will charge for tissue, but I made sure I had my own.
- Take extra things with you to leave behind. We donated supplies to a local Elementary school. I also left my Spanish/English dictionary at my host's home. Some travelers have taken things like gum to give to children. I caution you to ask your host about donations, because you do not want to participate in creating a culture street begging.
- There is no longer an amount placed on cigars and rum that you can bring back into the US. I checked my bag an I was able to bring back several bottles of rum an cigars. If you are doing carry-on only, just remember of the limitations on liquids.
- Take comfortable walking shoes
- Connect with people and make new friends.