Tipping: 10% at restaurants
Taxi: Agree to a price before getting in
Cuba is the forbidden fruit for most Americans, making travel there particularly sexy. Now that the US embargo has ended, travel restriction have been reduced and Americans are (mostly) free to come and go from Cuba as they please. Since my return, many many many people have asked about my experience flying a US airline into Cuba so here is a quick list of the most common questions and answers!
1. SO HOW DID YOU….GET IN?
For the Americans in the room, you can go to Cuba.
You will not get arrested or fined for going to Cuba, you do not need to apply for a visa to go to Cuba, and you do not need to fly to Mexico or Canada first to go to Cuba.
JetBlue now offers a REALLY REALLY cheap direct flight out of Ft. Lauderdale into Cuba’s capital, Havana.
When you buy your ticket, you will be asked to select your reason for traveling to Cuba from a list of approved reasons. This is because, though you no longer need to apply for a physical visa, there’s still a self-appointed visa that you decide in your heart that you deserve. It’s basically on the honor system.
I chose journalistic activities, which I believe extends to blogging, and my travel buddy chose educational activities. I was never asked about it again nor did I ever have to provide proof to support my claim.
You do need a Cuban Visa which cost $25 and can be purchased at JetBlue’s Cuba travel desk, you’ll only need your passport and a US credit card.
2. WHERE DID YOU GET CUBAN MONEY?
As of now, banks, currency exchanges, and travel agencies do not have CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos).
Trust me, I asked.
So, you will need to exchange your money in the Havana airport or at a local Cuban bank (I recommend the airport). Along with a surcharge for the exchange, they will also charge you a 10% tax if you are exchanging US dollars. I don’t know the actual reason for this tax but I’d like to think of it as a big middle finger to the US government. Touché.
With that in mind, most people exchange their money in the US to a non-taxed currency. I recommend Euros or Canadian dollars as they had the best exchange rates. However, any currency from a country that didn’t give Cuba the cold shoulder for 60 years should be fine.
I traded USD for Canadian dollars at the ft. Lauderdale airport. They have a currency exchange outside of Terminal 2. I then waited in an extremely long line in the un-air conditioned Havana airport (the currency exchange is on the second floor by check in) to switch to CUC.
CUC is the tourist Currency and locals use CUP (Cuban Pesos). The exchange is approx 1 CUC: 24 CUP so if you see an outrageous price on a personal pizza it’s probably in CUP.
3. WHERE DID YOU EAT?
I’m a huge proponent of finding local grocery stores in the cities I stay in. Especially if you have access to a kitchen and can cook your own meals. This will save you a lot of $$$$.
However, typical Western grocery stores don’t really exist in Havana. Or maybe they do and I just couldn’t find one. Cubans get monthly government rations of beans and eggs and other goods so traditional grocery stores aren’t necessary. There are a couple of meat/vegetable markets and some markets that sell soap, toothbrushes, and liquor behind counters if you’re feeling brave!
Fortunately food and drink is relatively cheap in Cuba so eating in mostly restaurants did not kill our budgets. The food is nothing to write home about though.
The restaurants are limited because of trade restrictions so no matter what restaurant you go to you will get pretty much the same menu of seafood, pasta, pizza, and ham sandwiches.
4. WAS THERE AMERICAN STUFF?
You will be hard pressed for imported brand name stuff here. Especially American brands. Communism and the embargo resulted in almost everything being Republico de Cuba brand.
Coca-cola and Pepsi do exist here (imported from Mexico). Some street carts sell it and the occasional restaurant will have it, though it will certainly be at an upcharge (2-4 CUC)
The Cuban cola brand you will see most commonly is called Ciergo Montenegro. They have all the major soda flavors (cola, lemon lime, orange) but the most common are tukola and tukola light which are their cola and diet colas and they are not bad at all. Especially if you’re used to drinking generic sodas. They go for around .50-1.50 CUC.
On the subject, the beers you will see most often are Bucanero (mostly ‘fuerte’ meaning “strong” at 5.4%…), Heineken, and Christal. And of course, there will be Republica de Cuba brand Havana Club rum.
Most likely, you will probably not see any other recognizable brands. No lays, no oreos, no kinder eggs, no nothin’. Take this fact in stride though and use the absence of pringles as encouragement to eat the cheap and delicious street food available like cones of churros and mini pizzas.
5. DID YOU GO TO THAT PLACE WHERE HEMINGWAY HUNG OUT?
If it’s not about Castro or Che Guevara in Cuba, it’s probably about Hemingway. The man ate, drank, and felt forlorn all over Havana.
One of the most famous places is La Floridita, known as the home of Hemingway’s fav Daquiri. Which tastes pretty much like any other daiquiri, is served in a little martini glass, and costs twice as much as any other drink in Havana.
I’m usually the first person to advise against pricey tourist traps but this one…. wasn’t bad.
It was totally packed with people all drinking daiquiris. Mostly older folks. But there was live music, air conditioning, and the drinks were only 6-7 pesos (most drinks are 2-3 pesos).
It is located on a pretty central street in Old Havana just two blocks from Central Park. So, if you pass by and think “hey I can tell people I went to Floridita” I say go for it.
Other Hemingway spots include any Havana Club location and a bar called “Dos Hermanos” which makes good albeit pricey mojitos.
6. HOW DID YOU GET AROUND?
A couple of different ways.
Taxis in Havana come in several flavors.
There are your normal yellow cabs which can get you as far as the airport and anywhere in between. Taxi drivers don’t run the meter and prefer to agree upon a fee before you start the drive. It shouldn’t cost you more than 10 CUC to get anywhere in Havana and 15-25 CUC to the airport.
Then, of course you have the beautiful 1950’s cars that drive around the city. Some of them do act as normal-ish taxi’s and will negotiate a fair rate with you. We took one to the airport for 15 CUC (the door flew open on the highway, it was great).
1950’s cars also sell flat rate tours around the city which are more for the experience than actually going anywhere.
I did not take a single bus in my time in Cuba.
Many of the local buses in Havana are known to turn away tourists. I’ve heard that this happens less and less now that tourism is picking up but I wasn’t about to risk it. If you would like to though, they are ridiculously cheap (10 cents cheap) and are easy to understand.
The only fall back is that with congested traffic in Havana you will probably be on that bus for a while.
There is also a hop on hop off style bus that goes around Havana and costs 5 CUC for the whole day. This is a good option if you’re looking to see it all without your feet falling off.
Horse drawn carriage (for real tho)
When I saw my first horse drawn carriage on the streets of Havana (driven by a man wearing an Adidas shirt and cargo shorts) I thought it was a one-time silly thing. But there are dozens of these carriages around the city and they can get you where you need to go for a pretty fair price if you are so inclined. They also offer tours of the city.
These are also everywhere. They are extremely cheap and offer tours and quick rides.
From our favorite spots in old Havana we could see that across the bay there was a giant fort and a large white statue of Jesus (a la Christo Blanco). We found out that there is a little old ferry that runs across the bay for only .50 cents. It departs from a small glass building near Dos Hermanos at constant if not random intervals. There are two ferries that come and go, one that goes to the industrial side of the city and one that goes to Casa Blanca which is the one you want.
7. WERE THE BATHROOMS….OKAY?
Public restrooms are uncommon in Cuba. So, if you find one you like, treasure it.
The women’s public bathrooms were generally clean, in questionable working order, and lacking toilet paper and toilet seats. I’d recommend keeping napkins in your purse for emergencies.
They are often managed by a “bathroom attendant” who is usually an older lady sitting outside of the bathroom giving you side eye.
This is a communist country so most of the public bathrooms are regulated by the state. Most bathroom attendants literally ask the government for permission to oversee specific bathrooms and they live solely off the tips. So, while paying a lady 1 CUC to hand me toilet paper is not something I’m super used to, it is how this person makes a living so be kind to them!
My preferred restroom was at La Floriditia which has a clean bathroom, with free toilet paper, and you don’t have to prove a purchase to use it. I went there many times.
8. WAS IT SAFE?
As the locals will tell you “3 policia to 1 Cubano and no mafia”. Though that does sounds like something someone in the mafia would say.
Despite this, Cuba is extremely safe, in fact it’s safer than most American cities. Obviously, do be careful as you would on any trip. Like in any city, there are scammers and pickpockets so be smart but don’t be scared
Havana, specifically, is a winding, old city that’s currently in a seemingly endless state of construction so you will most definitely find yourself navigating back roads and run down areas. Be smart but know that most Cubans are lovely and helpful.
9. YOU WEREN’T ON THE INTERNET FOR A WEEK, I THOUGHT YOU DIED. WHAT WAS UP WITH THAT?
Internet just isn’t a thing in Cuba.
It’s best to go to Cuba with the expectation that you will never be able to get on the internet. Kiss your loved ones goodbye and make peace.
To attempt to access the internet you first need to buy an internet card which ranges from 3-5 CUC. These can be tricky to get but are sold in most hotels and airbnbs. These cards give you one hour of internet access but you must first find a wifi zone to use it.
Any time you spot a wifi zone on your phone, know that it is never a free wifi zone. It is just an internet access spot that allows you to login with your internet card. There are not many of these wifi spots and they are unreliable. If you stay in a really really reeeaaaallly nice hotel you may be guaranteed internet for a few hours a day.
It’s easy to know when the wifi is working because a crowd of people with gather around with computers and tablets in the streets.
To use the cards just hop onto the wifi signal and open the internet. A login screen will pop up and you can enter login information off your card. The timer only runs when you’re logged in so you can use over the course of a couple hours or days. But only one person can be logged in at a time.
Be patient when logging in, it takes time.
Traveling to Cuba was slightly nerve wracking but totally rewarding and it’s only going to get smoother and more traveler friendly to make your way out to this beautiful island.
If you’re considering a trip to Havana I hope I answered some of your basic but lingering questions and if not, let me know and I’ll be happy to provide what knowledge I have.
Thanks for reading!