I consider it such a privilege to even be able to travel to Cuba as an American, given our extensive history with the Caribbean nation. Before I went, I did A LOT of research about visas and I was still so confused! I was scared they would ask me to prove something that I couldn’t prove on arrival, thus not allowing me into the country. In reality, it could not have been more relaxed and easy.
What is needed for Americans:
- Valid Passport: Self-explanatory, need at least two empty pages.
- Insurance: This is usually provided by the airline, and included in your ticket price. Contact the airline if you have questions.
- Tourist Visa Card: This can be obtained at the gate as you exit the United States. It costs $50 USD, and has a place for you to fill out your name, birthday, and passport number. You can order one in advance online, but it’s completely not necessary and costs more with shipping included. Make sure that you fill out the tourist visa correctly, if you make any mistakes… you have to purchase a new one for an additional $50! I saw this happen to a girl on my flight.
- Customs Form: These are always handed out during the flight. As of 2017, Americans traveling to Cuba need to be traveling under one of twelve approved categories, as tourism is not an approved reason to visit yet. However, it seems that in the past two years that Americans have been traveling to Cuba, this has gotten SUPER relaxed. On the customs form, it asks you to select your reason for travel; a few I know of off hand are if you have family in Cuba, journalism purposes (I know someone who used this just for a blog!), and educational/People to people. I chose Educational/P2P which basically means I am going to Cuba to learn more about Cuban people, history, and the way of life. I prepared an itinerary of activities based on things I had read prior to travel, such as museums to visit etc… turns out this was completely unnecessary because I wasn’t asked a single question while going through customs. Don’t let the following warning scare you (I received it when I checked in for my flight), the separate OFAC Travel Cert only applies to those traveling outside of the 12 travel categories.
- Cash: As of March 2017, Cuba still doesn’t accept anything linked to American banks, such as debit or credit cards. You HAVE to bring cash, and you need to bring enough of it. The USD is taxed more than other currencies on exchange in Cuba, so bring Canadian currency or Euros. The line to exchange currency at the airport was SUPER long, so allow time for that (my cab driver took me to another spot in town with no line). Another thing to note is that Cuba has two types of currency: Cuban Pesos for the locals, and CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) for tourists.
Optional, but helpful:
- GSM Unlocked Phone: My host let me borrow an old Nokia Lumia (you can buy one online for $60), and helped me purchase a $5CUC Cubacel sim card so that I could call and text in Cuba. It was super helpful and I’ll be traveling with an unlocked phone from now on when international. Trust me, you do NOT want to use your US phone in Cuba- SUPER expensive.
- Maps.Me App: Another gem I learned about through this trip, Maps.Me is an app that allows you to download maps for certain areas so you can use them offline. I had my iPhone in airplane mode and could still use GPS and get directions with this app. Super helpful.
- Google Translate App: Just incase your Spanish is sub-par, this will help.
- IMO/WhatsApp: These are two apps used to text/call/video chat in other countries. IMO is more popular in Cuba because it takes up less space on phones apparently. WhatsApp I use in multiple countries, but I found that Cubans don’t use it as often as IMO.
Where to Stay
I stayed in an AirBnb called Havana Green Home, and I highly recommend it. It was affordable, in a safe location (about 10 minutes drive from Old Havana). My hosts were super helpful and nice! You can find it on AirBnb here, or at HavanaGreenHome.com!
As I‘m sure you’ve heard, Cuba is a little bit behind the times. That being said, there is limited access to wifi, but it’s not impossible if you know what you’re doing. First, don’t trust that any place (AirBnb, Hotel, etc) will have wifi included, even if they advertise it. The wifi at my AirBnb was simply not fast enough to even use with an iPhone. However, you can buy Wifi cards (1 hour for roughly $3CUC) to use in approved places. I bought one card in Parque Central, you’ll notice the random people walking around asking if you’d like to buy one (they usually cost $1.50 CUC, so the people sell them for $3CUC and make money). Once you have a wifi code (pictured), you’ll need to find a place with wifi; I used Parque Central Hotel’s lobby. You’ll connect to the wifi network, and open up Nauta.com in your browser, and it should ask for the username/password listed on your card. There is a way to log-out and save some of your time, but I usually used the whole hour so I’m not sure how to do that.
Habana Bus Tour
For your first day in La Habana, I highly recommend doing the Habana Bus Tour. It’s super cheesy and touristy, but it’s a cheap way to see the city before you decide where to focus. I caught the bus in Plaza de la Revolucion; it’s a big red bus with Habana Bus Tour on it. When you get on, you’ll purchase a day pass (pictured) for $10CUC, that allows you to use the bus all day. You can get off and get on at any stop, and there are several around the city. Cabs can be expensive, so this was nice for a day. Plus, the busses are double-deckers, so you can sit up top for a great view.
Catching a Taxi
One thing I learned about Cuba, is that they have official Taxi’s that usually cost approximately $10CUC to go anywhere in central Havana, but if you’re adventurous (read: brave) enough, Cuba is home to the original ride-share! No fancy apps, obviously… Cubans give each other rides in their personal cars often, and it’s usually much cheaper depending on the number of passengers (Uber pool? lol). I was able to catch this a few times (I don’t think they usually like to pick up tourists), and ended up paying $1-3CUC verses $10CUC for a ride. Nice!
I also found that in more remote neighborhoods (such as where I stayed), it was a bit difficult to catch a taxi. In tourist-heavy areas, no problem. I arranged rides through my AirBnB hosts when I was at my casa particular, but I’d be curious if there was a general number to call for a Taxi.
Retro Car Tours
There are several spots in town where you can find really nice vintage cars that will do tours of the city. A few places I know of are Plaza de la Revolucion and Parque Central. You can get an hour tour of the city for $40CUC (they’ll start by asking for more, but make an offer). It’s totally worth the $40 just to ride in one of those cute cars.
I had read online prior to traveling that it is customary to bring gifts for the local people, because they sometimes can’t get basic necessities as easy due to rationing. I decided to bring two bags: one with art supplies (markers, pens, pencils, glue, crayons) for a local school, and one with toiletries (soap, travel shampoo, toothbrushes, pain reliever, tampons). I gave each bag to a local that I ended up spending time with to disperse, and they seemed very thankful. I read that it’s not a good idea to just hand things out randomly, but to arrange for the items to be dispersed with a local.
Don’t Skip the Beach!
Just because you’re not traveling hours outside of Havana doesn’t mean you should skip the beach! Santa Maria is a BEAUTIFUL beach, and you can get a car in Parque Central to take you there for $30CuC roundtrip (and they’ll wait for an hour as you swim). Totally worth it, and I wish I would have spent more time there.
- Fabrica de Arte: This was my favorite spot, but the wait to get in is long on weekends. Get there early.
- Roma: Tourist bar
- Sarao’s: for Reggaeton
One of the many reasons I love traveling solo so much is the unique experiences I am able to have with local people. I met a few people there that I spent a lot of time personally connecting with and they taught me a lot about Cuban culture, politics, and history. It felt like a movie. Dejé un pedazo de mi corazón en Cuba