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Travel guide to Cuba (logistics)

Travel guide to Cuba (logistics)

Cuba has been at the top of my bucket list for awhile and I finally got the chance to visit this beautiful, interesting, full of classic car, and eye-opening country over Thanksgiving break this year.

I was floored by the beautiful Spanish-Colonial architecture, breathtaking nature, and vibrant classic cars abundant through the street. Due to the improved relationship between America and Cuba, there are more and more Americans traveling through Cuba. Locals have become accustomed to dealing with tourists, especially Americans. Most locals were extremely friendly to us, some even becoming our friends. With our basic to conversational Spanish, we are able to interact with locals and learn more about their daily lives and how living in Cuba is like.

A bit of background before you go

Of the almost 40 countries that I’ve been to, I can honestly say I’ve never been to a country like Cuba. Due to its political and economical state over the past 50+ years and the structure of its two currencies (one for locals, one for tourists), there is a very apparent economic divide between those who work in tourism and those who don’t (even doctors and lawyers).

A great article by Michael J. Totten from City Journal does a great job at explaining the current (2014) dynamic of Cuba. Although things have improved since then, the article helps depict what the Cuban people have been through over the past 50+ years. I read the article after coming back from Cuba and it brought to light what I experienced and why things seemed so different from other developing countries I’ve been to. You can read the article here.

A Cuban revolution in 1959 led by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed military dictatorship led by Batista, and secured Castro as the country’s Communist dictator. Cuba became dependent on the Soviet Union, which led to a tense and tough 90s for the Cuban due to the fall of the Soviet Union. From Food shortages, to power cuts, many fled the country and quality of life has fluctuated with shifting government policies.

For a bit more context, check out the BBC Timeline and Vox article.

Getting there

Flights

From the U.S., there are many connecting flights from Florida since it’s only ~45 minutes away so most of your flights from other parts of the U.S. will connect through Florida. You can find fairly cheap round trip flights if you fly during off-times. For example, my flights were ~$320 flying out on a Sunday and leaving on a Tuesday before and after Thanksgiving. I sacrificed a few extra vacation days but was able to score cheap flights.

Visa

Every American will need a Visa to get into Cuba. I originally thought the Visa process would be pretty difficult or annoying but it wasn’t at all. Here are the steps / different options:

  1. Have proof of return: You will need to show them a proof of a flight or way out of Cuba after your trip in order to get a tourist card (visa)

  2. Purchase a visa

    • Purchase Online: You can purchase a Visa before going online to ensure that you have it before you head to the airport. Americans need to get a pink visa card and it’s more expensive (~$90-100)

    • Purchase with your airline: this is the method that I went with when we checked into our flight. This would be the easiest and fastest way to attain a Visa into Cuba. *Prices may vary, double check with your airline.

      • Southwest: $50. Can be purchased online in advance (with added shipping) or at the airport upon departure.

      • Delta: $50. Purchase at the gate or order it by mail in advance (with added shipping).

      • JetBlue: $50. Purchase at your final airport before flying to Cuba.

      • United: $75. Purchase at the gate in Newark or Houston.

      • American: $85. Can be purchased online or at the airport in Charlotte or Miami the day of your departure.

  3. Health / travel insurance: American health insurance is not accepted in Cuba. You are required to have non-American health insurance before entering Cuba. If you do not purchase it in advance, you will be able to do so at the airport when you land, before you pass customs. Our insurance was included in our plane tickets through Delta so double check your flight itinerary before making any additional purchases.

Viahero has a great article explaining the process in more detail. You can read the article here.

Accommodation

The most common accommodation in Cuba are Casa Particulares, or homestays. This is one of the appealing aspects of deciding to travel in Cuba is that you get to live with locals in casas particulares. 

To find a casa, you can simply walk around a neighborhood, pop in and ask to see a room, and decide if you want to stay there. Most are easy to find because they’re marked with a special sign in front of the house. We booked most of our casas through Airbnb, which is a tab more expensive than if you were to book it while you are there but you get the security of having a place to stay every night beforehand, especially in a country where wifi is scarce.

Prices will vary depending on the region. A double room costs between $15 – 40 CUC. If staying with locals isn’t your thing, there are other options too. Just a lot more expensive.

  • Casas Particulares: $15 – $40 per night

  • Mid-Range Hotels: $90 – $150 per night

  • Resorts & Fancy Hotels: $200 – $400 per night

I would recommend staying in a room with a working AC and shower (hot water and strong water pressure is not as common, but always a plus). Cuba is so humid that the first thing you want to do when you get back to your room is blast the AC and cool down. Since it’s so hot and humid, you’ll be taking multiple showers a day to wash off the sticky feeling after a full day of sightseeing. Trust me, you’ll thank me!

Finances

Currency

As I mentioned earlier in the post, there are two currencies in Cuba, Cuban convertible peso (CUC) for foreigners, and Cuban peso (CUP) for locals. 1 USD = 1 CUC; 1 CUC = 24 CUP. It’s technically illegal for foreigners to use CUP so they will only exchange CUC for you at the airport or banks, but you can use CUC to exchange with locals for CUP.

It’s a bit more difficult for Americans to exchange money in Cuba because there is a 10% penalty for exchanging USD on top of the standard fees for money exchange. Some options are to bring Euros, Mexican Pesos, Canadian Dollars, or Pounds to Cuba and exchange to CUC. There are ATMs at the airport and some banks but don’t depend on them to work for American cards. It’s safer to bring enough in cash so that you don’t have to resort to rationing toward the end of your trip as I heard of others having to do.

Budget

We spent around 65 CUC ($65) a day, which includes accommodation, food, drinks, transportation, etc. This is a bit more than I think you’ll need to spend if you are a budget traveler. We didn’t always eat or stay at the cheapest places. We splurged on multiple meals and didn’t haggle as much as we could’ve. For a budget traveler, ~$50 a day is very doable.

  • Food: $0.50 - $20 / meal

    • If you are able to get some CUP, you can eat at local restaurants or fast food joints for only 50 cents! Most restaurants will have entrees from $5-20, which includes rice, beans, fried plantains, and other sides so you will not go hungry. Most casas will offer dinner for around 10-15 CUC, which you take advantage of as well.

    • The interesting thing we noticed was that the more popular, nicer restaurants that experienced more tourism were actually cheaper than the “hole-in-the-wall” places, which is the opposite from what I’ve never experienced anywhere else. This may be a mandate set by the government to ensure everyone makes relatively the same amount of money.

  • Drinks: ~$2-5 / mojito, $1-3 / beer, $5-10 / 750ml bottle

    • Alcohol is inexpensive in Cuba with most mojitos costing less than $5 and beers usually around $1. The best bang for your buck, especially if you’re pregaming for a night out, is to buy bottles from a shop for $5-10, depending on the type of rum you buy.

    • You can also buy a 750ml bottle of rum at a club for $10, so much more worth it than a drink if you’re in a group. This is why you’ll see every Cuban group in club have multiple bottles to share.

  • Transportation: $5+ for taxi; $20-30 for collectivo

    • Depending on how far you’re going and how many people in your group, Taxis within a city will cost $5-10, and collectivos from $20 to $30 to other cities. The next section will talk more about the logistics of transportation.

  • Tipping: ~10%

    • This is completely optional but is very much part of the Cuban culture. If the service fee isn’t already added, you’ll be expected to tip between 10-15%. I usually didn’t tip those that worked for the government, for example in some restaurants that are government run.

Transportation

  • Taxi: the cheapest taxi ride will be $5, since that’s their base but you’ll need to haggle to get the best rate. Never go with the first price they give you because that will be much higher than what they’ll except. We only used taxis to ride around the city so we never paid for than $10 for a group of 3.

    • We took a private taxi from Trinidad to El Nicho to Cienfuegos for $75 total

  • Collectivo: collectivos are shared taxis that will drive 4-6 people from one city to another. Depending on where you are going but a typical collectivo will cost $20-30 per person before tax. You can just ask your host to call a collectivo for you the day before. You will depart in the morning between 8-9am. For context, here are prices for collectivos (Nov. 2018):

    • Havana to Vinales = $20

    • Havana to Trinidad = $30

    • Cienfuegos to Havana = $20

  • Bus: You can travel between cities on buses but you must book this ahead of time because they will sell out. Bus prices will be between $12-25. We didn’t take buses because it was more of a hassle taking buses so I can’t provide more context on best practices but you can look at bus time and prices on the Viazul website.

Wifi

You might have heard that wifi is scarce in Cuba and you’ll be disconnected most of the time there. This is one of the beauties of the experience and one that I fully embraced! I didn’t log on one while I was on the island and it felt amazing to be completely disconnected and really immerse myself in the culture and vacation.

However, if you need to connect to the internet you can find a number of Wifi hotspots in most cities you visit. They are in most town plazas, squares, parks, hotels and in some restaurants and casas. If you see a lot of people on their phones or even laptops, you know that’s where a hotspot is. You’ll need to purchase a wifi card to access Wifi at any of these hotspots. The cards cost $1 for one hour. You can buy these are hotels, pharmacies, from locals on the street at an inflated rates, or receive them for free at bigger hotels.

Two Scots Abroad has a great article on the internet and wifi in Cuba, with the most updated (2019) details. You can access it here.

Packing (for girls)

Cuba is hot and humid so pack light, flowy outfits that you won’t care about sweating in. The temperature stays relatively the same at night as well, which means it’s pretty hot.

Clothes

  • Shorts (flowy cotton or jean shorts)

  • Dresses (make sure the material isn’t too thick or heavy)

  • V-necks / t-shirts / light blouses

  • Leggings (for hikes and adventurous activities)

  • Skirts (I’m a sucker for skirts since they’re so easy to wear and dress up)

  • Sandals / Birkenstocks (something comfortable for you to wander the streets in)

  • Tennis shoes (for hiking, horseback riding, or other adventurous activities)

  • Hat (I wore my wide brim hat from Amazon nonstop!)

  • Flip flops (for showers and the beach)

  • Socks & undergarments

Electronics

  • Camera (with extra batteries)

  • Chargers (phone, camera, etc.)

  • Go-Pro

  • Extra battery pack

  • Tripod (especially if you’re traveling alone)

Misc.

Misc. tips

  • Plan, plan, plan: more so than in any other countries, we planned every aspect of our trip because of the lack of internet. I like to plan some of the major aspects but be more flexible and go-with-the-flow while I’m in the country and plan a day or two before. However, this can only be done if you have easy access to the internet. Therefore, I definitely recommend planning most of your trips and knowing where and when you want to go to certain cities or do certain things.

  • Have restaurant options or buy a travel guidebook: I would usually not recommend using a guidebook but it would save time going to pricey and miss restaurants. During our trip, we would walk around and walk into any restaurant, which is usually fine but there are tons of hit and miss that I wish we either had curated a list of restaurants beforehand or had a guidebook to help us out during those moments.

  • Download offline maps: Maps.me works well in Cuba, and much better than Google Maps offline. It also shows different restaurants and attractions.

  • Download SpanishDict: this is hands down THE BEST spanish translation app / website ever. It also gives you all the conjugations for all verbs if you are trying to speak Spanish with locals beyond the basics. It provides lots of sentence examples for you to get a good sense of whether or not you’re translating it accurately.

  • Learn a bit of Spanish: most locals in Cuba do not speak any English so it’ll be useful and make your experience, especially connecting with locals, much better if you had a basic understanding of Spanish. I learned Spanish during my backpacking trip through South America but it had been 1.5 years since I used it. I remember so basic but I wanted to develop my speaking and become a bit more conversational. I took private video lessons with a native professional Spanish teacher using iTalki.com. It’s an amazing website to find language partners and teachers for very cheap. My teacher was $8/hour for a private lesson at the time that works best for me each week.

  • Download entertainment (podcast, Netflix, movies, etc.): I think this is a given for any travel destinations, especially for those that require some hours in a car or bus. I download podcasts on the Podcast app, offline music on Spotify, offline shows on Netflix, and offline books on Audible.

  • Have your itinerary accessible: since we planned most of our trip beforehand, we had a packed schedule of what were doing in each city (very different from other travel experiences) but we had it screenshots on our phone and also printed them out and handy to reference.

Must visit cities

  • Havana

  • Vinales

  • Cienfuegos

  • Trinidad

I will go into more details on these cities and how we planned our 10 day trip to Cuba in another post to come.


I hope this guide was helpful in your planning process for a great trip to Cuba! I would love to hear more about your experience and how similar or different it has been since I went.

See more photos from my trips: Cuba photos

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