I returned from a trip to Cuba two days before President Obama essentially broke down the last remaining obstacles. As of Tuesday, March 15, Americans can now visit the island under the guise of “people-to-people” trips, meaning all that it takes to make the visit legal is pretty much what you’d do on any trip anyway: Talk to locals. Record some memories in a journal. Keep a business card from a private homestay (the Cuban equivalent of backpacker hostels in Europe).
Which means the world is now a more open place, Americans can experience a land unknown to them, but most importantly, I wasted three hours of my time drafting an initial blog post about how to skirt the laws. Woe is me.
Anyway, I still hope the following will be valuable to anyone traveling to Cuba, but particularly Americans, since there’s still quite a bit of confusion out there about a destination that was for so many years off-limits. Here’s how I did it.
DISCLAIMER to the CIA: I went for “journalism,” which is one of your 12 acceptable reasons Americans can visit Cuba. See this blog? Basically the New York Times.
There are more direct flights from the U.S. opening up every day, but to err on the safe side, and because none left from San Francisco, I went through a third country (Cancún, Mexico). Many people also choose to go through Canada. So you buy two round-trip tickets, one from San Francisco to Cancún (for example), and one from Cancún to Havana. The downside of this, of course, is that the trips aren’t linked to each other, so if your first flight is delayed, you’re kind of out of luck if you miss the second. Fingers crossed it all works out!
At the ticket desk before your flight to Havana (or elsewhere in Cuba), you’ll be asked to fill out a paper stating the reason you’re traveling to Cuba. This is very recent, thanks to policies implemented by good ol’ Barack, and I got a little nervous about it until I asked the lady what they do with the forms. She said, and I quote, “They sit in a pile for a bit over a year and then we throw them all away.” Isn’t bureaucracy a treat?
One note: They now stamp your passport going into and coming out of Cuba. They used to not stamp American passports, but things are so lax now that they just go ahead and do it. This induced in me a slight panic, partly because I’m a total rule-abider and partly because I now have a massive bright pink Cuba stamp on the third page of my passport. It’s chill, guys – I’m writing this from my bed, not a prison cell. But it’s advisable that you still don’t treat customs like a heart-to-heart with your bestie, telling them how great the Cuban beaches were, even if Obama does have a sense of humor.
All Americans must purchase a visa when traveling to Cuba. This isn’t some scary visa residency process, or even a situation where you need to drop your passport off for a night. Cuba’s “visa” is a paper that you purchase for $20 USD at your airline’s ticket window just before boarding. Don’t worry, this paper doesn’t get permanently affixed to your passport. It does get stamped, though, and you’ll need to have it to get back out of the country too, so hold onto it.
What a joke. What a cruel joke. Despite everything I read about traveling to Cuba, about how the borders are loosening and pretty soon there will be a McDonald’s on every street corner, somehow the internet neglected to inform me that American ATM and credit cards still don’t work over there. (Once again, Obama could easily pull a fast one and make that happen, negating everything I’ve written, but for now it holds true.) I researched, I swear I did, but all I read was “ATMs now work on the island, albeit intermittently.” Turns out the Cuba Lonely Planet was written by two Europeans – go figure.
Everything you read will tell you to bring cash in the form of euros or Canadian dollars, which is sage advice, since American dollars are taxed an additional 10% to convert into Cuban CUC. But what I’m telling you in addition is to bring enough cash, not just some to tide you over until you get to the ATM, because there is no ATM that will accept your depressing little Charles Schwab or Wells Fargo cards. Remember when you specifically got a Charles Schwab account because they reimburse ATM fees worldwide? They are now dead to you.
Upon the happy realization that we now had 200 euros to last us eight days in Cuba, we berated ourselves for splurging on a $5 latte at the Cancún airport, and then resigned ourselves to visit not a single tourist attraction or sip a single mojito during our stay. But as luck would have it, we met a lovely Swiss couple our second day. We sucked up to them with our incredible charm so that they not only pitied us enough to lend us 200 CUC each, but actually wanted to hang out with us the rest of the trip. We love you Eliana and Danilo.
Not everyone will be so lucky, so BRING CASH. (“How do I know how much cash to bring?” you might ask. The answer is: More than you think. Cuba is not that cheap for tourists!)
Speaking of Money . . . Prices.
Honestly, I’ve taken trips in Eastern Europe that were more economical than Cuba. You’d think that since the average Cuban salary is the equivalent of 16 to 20 U.S. dollars a month, it’d be a steal to travel there. Wrong. Like most things that seem to good to be true, Cuba For Tourists is a different ballgame than Cuba for Cubans. If you stay at the resorts or high-end hotels and eat out at the nicest tourist restaurants, expect to spend as much as some European destinations.
However, luckily for us budget travelers, there are still some decent options. I traveled with one other person and spent about $12.50/night on a room (split with her), $5/breakfast, $5-10/dinner, and anywhere from $2-$20 on tourist activities like drum lessons, horseback rides, museum entrances, etc. Cocktails are about $2, and coffee is $1. Of course you can do Cuba very, VERY cheaply by living as the Cubans do, which normally I’d fully support. But may I remind you that until very recently, rations in Cuba were incredibly hard to come by, and the local restaurants still reflect this. Spaghetti with ketchup, anyone?
*Note: I’m listing these prices in $USD, but the Cuban currency, the CUC, is about 1:1 with the dollar.
The best option for budget travelers is to stay in casas particulares, or private homes. In a way, it’s like Cuba was the original AirBnB. Locals rent out extra rooms in their houses for around 25-30 CUC a night (regardless of how many people stay in the room). The rooms are nothing fancy but usually very comfortable, with mini fridges, private bathrooms, and air conditioning. Some even have two or three beds. We stayed at some really nice casas with the most wonderfully hospitable hosts, sunny terraces for afternoon reading, and decadent breakfasts. Staying in casas is not only economical but also a great way to get a taste for Cuban life. Not to mention, you’re putting money in the pockets of real, struggling Cubans, not the big hotels.
Booking casas from the U.S. or abroad can be a bit difficult because Cuba is very reliant on phones, not internet, and calling a Cuban house from abroad will probably cost more than the house itself. In a sign of truly changing times, AirBnB has now infiltrated Cuba, and Americans can book casas using the site. (Although, in an ironic twist, booking from some European countries is still not available.) Once you’re in the country, finding a house to take you in is as easy as asking around. Houses are clearly denoted with a little sign above the door marking it as a room for rent. Plus, one host can easily recommend to you the next.
Every house has a business card with the phone number and location; you can collect these and pass them along to fellow travelers who are looking for a room, if you wish. A few casas we loved:
- “Paraiso Rojo,” owners Vivian and Pedro. Telephone: (+53) 7873-14-06. Cell: (+53) 011181. Email: Vivian8805@nauta.cu Address: Márquez González #751 Apt #2. (Also listed on AirBnb)
- “Casa Yaneisy” owners Yaneisy and J. Manuel. Telephone: (+53) 0141998077. Cell: (01) 52617916. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Address: Rubén Martínez Villena (Real) #91A.
- “El Hermano Masón” owner Roberto. Telephone: (+53) 41 992047. Cell: (+53) 52 447821. Email: email@example.com Address: Vicente Zuyama (Encarnación) #25.
Getting from city to city within Cuba is relatively easy with the tourist bus network ViAzul. They are reliable, comfortable, and timely. However, we actually never took the bus because taxis collectivos, or shared taxis, are about the same price and take about half the time as the busses. These taxis are relatively modern (not the 1950’s cars you see everywhere) and they carry four people from door to door. Don’t worry if you don’t have a group of four; the taxi driver is in charge of filling it up. You agree on the rate beforehand, and not much bargaining is involved.
A trip from Havana to Trinidad costs between 25 and 30 CUC and lasts four hours, whereas the bus is 25 CUC and lasts nearly seven (and usually sells out a day or two in advance). The taxi rides can be a bit cramped, but are generally comfortable enough. We definitely preferred these, especially since our time on the island was limited and we didn’t want to lose full days to bus travel.
Don’t travel to Cuba if you care about having internet. But let’s turn this on its head and keep it positive: Traveling to Cuba is the perfect way to truly relax and unplug. Your boss legitimately can’t reach you.
Can you find internet? The short answer: Don’t count on it. The long answer: There are a couple of internet cafés in town where you can buy a card and connect to extremely slow dial-up for an hour, and most likely sign off before you’ve used it all because you’re tired of staring at a little loading icon. But it’s enough to email your loved ones to let them know you’re alive!
You’ll truly be at an advantage when traveling to Cuba if you know some Spanish. From what I saw, not many people spoke English there, and staying in a private home could be particularly challenging without any mutual understanding. But don’t let language be a deterrent – where there’s a will there’s always a way to visit a place you’re dying to see!
So there’s the breakdown! If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll do my best at answering. The laws for traveling to Cuba stayed the same for over half a century, but now they seem to be changing every couple months. Definitely dig around for the latest information before departing to Cuba!