Travel

Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Cuba

May 23, 2016
visit cuba from US everything you need to know
everything you need to know about visiting Cuba

Since before I left for Cuba, people have been asking me how we went, what it was like, where we stayed, how US customs handled us coming back home, how much it cost, and more. So, here you go! All the information I can think of to share. If you have any questions please let me know in the comments and I will answer them ASAP. For more on my thoughts about Cuba, read this post.

Where we went – One Week In Cuba itinerary 

We only had eight days in Cuba, and my first recommendation (which is pretty much my recommendation for anywhere) is to take more time. It’s not always possible and in this case it wasn’t for us due to work schedules, but if you can make it work your trip will be better.

vintage cars classic cars cuba

We flew into Havana via Mexico City, and spent three nights there. There is so much to see and do  that you could easily spend a full week. I won’t tell you what to see and do in Havana because there are a million articles about it already, and for the most part you should see and do everything they all say. Old Havana is especially beautiful, as are the houses in the Vedado area.

From Havana we went to Trinidad for two nights. We spent our first day lounging on the beach, and the second day hiking and exploring the city. We hiked to the waterfall at Salto del Caburni, which, fair warning, was a little more strenuous than advertised. Probably my biggest regret from this trip is not spending more time in Trinidad and I already can’t wait to go back. It’s a beautiful city with so much history and I would have liked to see more of it.

Next we headed to Viñales, which was by far my favorite place we visited. Coffee and tobacco plantations, stunning vistas, ultra relaxation — heaven. You can read all about it here.

best airbnb vinales cuba

cigars in havana cuba

Then it was back to Havana for one more long and amazing night, which lasted until we left for the airport at 4am.

sunset el malecon havana cuba

Where we stayed

Airbnb started operating in Cuba in last April, changing lives for both Cubans and tourists. With the sudden influx in tourism, hotels in Cuba are booked far in advance and are expensive (not to mention profit the government and not the people). Even casas particulares are booking up fast. But with Airbnb, there are more and more options for local accommodation, and more and more opportunities for people to make some extra money.

best view in havana cuba

In Havana, we stayed in a beautiful two-bedroom, three-bed apartment with views of the water and Hotel Nacional. Our host G.G. was amazing – friendly and extremely helpful – and as far as location, comfort, and amenities we couldn’t have asked for anything more. The fridge was stocked with beer, water, and soda, and for $5 each morning we were served an elaborate breakfast of smoothies, eggs, cheese, ham, fruit, bread, and coffee. We paid $430 for three nights. Of course you can find something much cheaper, but as this was a fun vacation for us and we wanted our first nights to be comfortable (and because it was split between three people), we were fine with paying a bit more, and in the end extremely happy with the entire place. You can book it here.

casa kiwi trinidad cuba

In Trinidad, we stayed at a cute place called Casa Kiwi, where we had a room in an apartment with other tourists. Kiwi, the woman who runs the Airbnb, is spritely, sweet, speaks perfect English, and is an incredible cook. We had a seafood dinner at the casa one night and it was easily the best meal of the trip.

best seafood cuba

The apartment is outside of downtown Trinidad, but a five minute walk from the beach. Book it here. 

vinales cuba

In Viñales, we stayed in a bungalow at the very end of a farm road, with gorgeous views of the hills. Sunrise and hearing the world come alive each morning was magical. I could have spent days and days just lying in the hammock at this Airbnb, getting up only for the wonderful breakfast served each morning. The host and her family, who live in the adjacent house, were very nice and offer tours of the area and other services if needed. Book it here. 

Money

As of now, American credit or debit cards won’t work in Cuba, so you’ll need to bring a lot of cash. Don’t listen to your bank if they say your card will work (like mine tried to). It won’t. We met an American couple who thought their cards would work and didn’t have enough cash, and had to deal with an exhausting and expensive wire transfer from her mother. Don’t let that happen to you! Exchanging USD in Cuba is not recommended. You’ll pay an exchange fee plus an extra 10% tax that doesn’t apply to other currencies. So, we brought Euros (which we got from our banks ahead of time), and exchanged all of it to Mexican Pesos at the Mexico City airport, and then exchanged those in Havana. For one week, we each brought the equivalent of $1000, which was the perfect amount. We ate and drank a lot, paid for cars, taxis, souvenirs, and other random expenses, and still had about $250 left. You could do it for a lot cheaper than we did too, but I would still bring about $1000 to be safe.

Prices 

Food was cheap, drinks were cheaper. I’m not sure if this will change as it becomes more and more touristy, but as of our visit, beer and mojitos were around $1.50, and we usually spent about $10 a meal, but that included a lot of food. Taxis were also pretty cheap compared to the US, but more expensive than I would have guessed. It cost about $10-15 to get across Havana, and our Airbnb hosts told us a taxi from the airport to the city center should cost about $25-30.

Internet

There was more Internet availability than I had expected, but it was a hassle. You can buy a card with an access code that works at different hot spots around the cities. It’s $2 for one hour, and you can log off and on to preserve time. However, it didn’t always work and was in general pretty spotty. The fastest Internet was at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, but it was $7 for an hour.

Getting Around

Taking a bus is the cheapest way to get between cities. We were going to rent a car, but after hearing many horror stories decided against it, and hired drivers instead. Because of time constraints, and because there were three of us splitting the cost, hiring a driver made sense. Plus, we learned a lot about Cuba from talking to our drivers (in verrry broken Spanish), and had more freedom to stop and take photos, try gas station snacks, share Cuban and American music, and all the other things that make road trips so much fun. Looking back, these car rides were some of the best parts of the trip.

Food

Several people had warned me that I would be disappointed in Cuban food, but that was not the case. While there wasn’t a lot of variety, what was offered was consistently good. (If you don’t like seafood you might have a more bland experience). This is random, but we thought the appetizers — things like croquettes and other stuffed and fried treats – were amazing, and often we just split a table of those instead of paying for a whole meal. Coffee was one area where I was disappointed – read why here.

Safety

Violent crime is virtually nonexistent in Cuba, and we felt very safe the entire time. Like anywhere, you should watch your wallet, passport, and other valuables.

Coming Home

We were a little nervous about coming back into the US. When booking flights, you have to check one of 12 reasons you’re visiting. I said ‘journalistic,’ and Emily and Laura veered between that (they could be photographers!) and ‘people to people.’ In the end, we had no issues. The border control agent didn’t ask Emily or Laura anything, and said ‘I wish I was a travel writer!’ to me. Easy.

Comfort

If you’re flying from the US, chances are you’ll have a long layover somewhere. (Though that will change soon!) We had 10 hours in Mexico City both ways. Because of an unfortunate error on our part, we ended up flying First Class on the way home, but on the way there we still wanted to use the AeroMexico First Class lounge.

mexico city airport lounge

What I’m like without the comfort and nourishment of the AeroMexico lounge.

Our flight from Chicago left at 11pm and we were too excited to sleep, meaning we arrived around 5am tired and not ready to sit in an airport all day and still be functional on arrival in Havana. Did you know you can pay $25 for a day pass to the lounge? Emily discovered this for us, and I will be eternally grateful. We drank Bloody Marys, made friends with a waiter who brought us fresh beers the second ours were empty, snacked on tortillas, and watched movies. So worth the $25. Oh and at some point we napped.

mexico city to cuba airport

What are your questions about visiting Cuba? Let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them. Do you have any other advice or helpful observations to offer? Let us know in the comments!

classic cars cuba

For more about Viñales, read this post.

For more about my thoughts on visiting Cuba, read this.

And for packing tips, click here.

 

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1 Comment

  • Reply BloominginBordeaux May 27, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    Awesome post! Thank you for all the useful information about Cuba. Your photos and last few Cuba posts have made me want to visit Cuba so badly! Also, great pictures!

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