As I’ve mentioned before, Cuba is a funny place: they march to the beat of their own conga drum, for better or for worse. You can follow the death-defying narrative of this trip in Part 1 and Part 2. This can however be a little problematic for first time travelers going there, especially Americans who are now just getting to take advantage of the newfound Glasnost- or for however long that lasts. This post is for pure logistics of how to get here, what to bring, money, how to get around, and dealing with immigration matters (particularly for Americans and those on Green Cards). And just a heads up: I’m not receiving any affiliate or referral income for any of the below links, they’re just the one’s we used or were recommended to us.
We used Skyscanner to buy our tickets. The prices from the San Francisco in September were very reasonable: $350 per person roundtrip, with a layover in Mexico City. Bear in mind though that our tickets were purchased in the low season. There are (for now) direct flights to Havana from Miami, New York and Charlotte, among others. You will have to choose what category of Tourist Visa you’ll be visiting Cuba under. More on that later, but most people choose the rather vague “Support For The Cuban People”. Just select one and try to be consistent about it.
What To Bring:
This was probably the most challenging area you’ll have to deal with. Most products you’re used to easily obtaining in your own country just aren’t commonplace in Cuba. Hell, there’s hardly any stores at all on the street anyway. Do you really want to spend 3-4 hours of your vacation wandering around Havana in 95 degree heat trying to find this stuff? Me neither.
For me, I’m very a fair skinned, ginger freckle face: copious SPF 50+ sunscreen is a must for me in countries with strong sun. My wife has a long, thick mop of mixed/afro/curly hair: for her, quality shampoos and conditioners are just a daily part of life. So we just had to plan on the fact that these products wouldn’t be sold on normal store shelves during our trip, they had to be brought from home.
Ideally, we would have liked just to have brought only lighter carryons into the cabin of the plane and not dealt with baggage claims at all in Havana Airport. I can attest personally that it took 1.5 hours to get our bag in a dark, low-ceilinged, sweltering hot claim area. It was exhausting and would be even worse for someone older or with small children. Welcome to Revolutionary Communist efficiency!
I would say the lifesavers for us were the following items:
- Microfiber Towels (they dry easily)
- Skin Moisturizer
- Condoms/Birth Control
- Wet Wipes
- Antibacterial Hand Gel
- Kleenex (quite a few packs)
- Head Mounted Flashlight
- Color Photocopies Of Your Passports
- Money Belt
- Sun Hat
I would say specifically the Kleenex was highly important. Often, you’ll pay $1CUC simply to use the bathroom somewhere and they don’t even have toilet paper there (so what did you just pay for?!?) We seriously tried to buy toilet paper in Cuba. Not once, I’m not even kidding, did we ever see it anywhere for sale. So, you have been warned in advance.
The headlamp was also great for reading at night, particularly when we lost power for 4 days during Hurricane Irma: a lifesaver when there’s nothing else to do. Copies of your passports are highly important, especially if you lose them, and also Cuban’s may often ask you for ID when using a hotel pool or renting snorkel masks etc. The money belt was also a must as we were traveling with $3000 worth of cash. Losing it or having it stolen was not an option in a country where our American-based debit cards would not function. If you lose your cash, you’re up a creek without a paddle!
We kept reading and hearing about the need to buy traveller’s health insurance before going to Cuba. I have a few friends who go regularly, and they said it was never an issue. On their advice, we didn’t bother purchasing any. But when we arrived at the airport, there was a desk just after passport control with two rather tarty-looking nurses (black fishnet stockings and stiletto heels) stopping some tourists at random. I assumed this was an inquiry about if they had insurance or not. Apparently if you don’t have it, you have to buy the Cuban version there at the airport. I just pretended I didn’t see them and walked right past. If you want be safe, try World Nomads and print out a copy to bring with you.
This is another uniquely confusing aspect of Cuban life that took a bit of creative thinking to get used to. There are 2 forms of currency in Cuba: CUP’s are for the locals, though you can try to exchange it. It is very low in value, but you can use it to pay for small things like ice cream and local bus rides. CUC’s “Convertible Pesos” are for tourists. At this time of writing, its value was a little over the Dollar, but less than the Euro. As a tourist, you’ll probably only ever deal in CUC’s and you can exchange them just outside the front doors of the airport before you catch a taxi into Havana. On the streets, branches of “Cadeca” money exchanges are another option. I found them to be air conditioned, clean and professional.
Since we could not use our American based debit or credit cards nor Greenbacks in Cuba, we had to bring in foreign currency and then change it there. We opted for Canadian Dollars, but Euros and Pounds Sterling are also good. We had to bring it all in cash, which I did not like, all $3000 worth for 2 1/2 weeks. We converted the 1st half at the airport and the second half in Trinidad at a Cadeca branch. Plan on dividing some of the money between different places on your person and in your bags: in case you lose it, you don’t want to lose it all! All in all, we spent almost all of that money, and I didn’t feel we were going buck wild on the spending. A few fancy dinners, 4-5 drinks per day, taxi rides, 30-40 CUC per day for homestay accommodation. It adds up fast and is certainly far more expensive than Mexico.
Where to Stay:
You have to have an address for where you will first stay when you arrive. After that, its fair game. We chose AirBnB for a private apartment for our first 5 nights in Havana. It was pretty convenient and simple to arrange. Though I’ve had issues with AirBnB before in the States, I think Cuban’s reliance on these new platforms brings in a livelihood they have never had before. I wasn’t too worried about our Cuban hosts canceling on us at the last minute.
As our stay with our hosts came to an end, they inquired where we would be going to next. They were more than happy to call ahead to a friend’s casa particular (homestay) over in Varadero and reserve it for us. In fact, all of our hosts did this for us, so it simply became an ongoing chain of referrals. Honestly though, there are so many casa particulares in every Cuban town, you could just simply show up and find one within the first few minutes of walking down the street with a suitcase in your hand. The street touts will almost fight each other for your business.
I liked the aspect of the homestay accommodation in Cuba. So much is done differently there, that the hosts always went out of their way to call a taxi for us, arrange a tour, set up our next place to stay etc etc. They made things easy (though I realize they were all probably getting a small commission every time they did this). So, dust off your high school Espanol and bust out of the all inclusive resort my friends- you won’t regret it.
Getting Around Inside Cuba:
Cuba ain’t exactly the most efficient place in world, and public transport is no exception. Let’s take the example of the intercity bus company, ViaAzul. To simply get the ViaAzul bus from say Havana to Varadero (about 2 hours away), you’d have to buy the bus ticket at least 1 day in advance. There are no other offices in Havana where you can buy a ticket for these buses, you have to take a taxi to the bus station on the periphery of Havana, near the airport, and buy your ticket there. Then take a taxi back to your hotel. Then on the day of your journey, you need to take a taxi again to the bus station, travel, and then taxi again to wherever you are staying in the next city.
For all this hassle and rather pricey taxi rides (3x $10 taxi rides in Havana to accomplish your bus travel), you might just be better off taking private cars for the same price- especially if you are traveling in a group. Luckily we were in a group of three, but if you’re even remotely sociable, you should be able to meet other travelers going your way. There are sometimes even taxi drivers standing in front of the bus stations simply offering “Taxi Collectivo: Havana, Varadero, Cienfuegos etc” before you go in. If you can get four riders, negotiate with him for a fair price. It’ll save you both a crap load of time, as well as often money.
Immigration (Coming Home):
This is just for American travelers and Foreign Nationals with Green Card residency in the US. All other nationalities don’t have to worry about the below categories, though you may still have to purchase a travel visa to enter Cuba. Check your local Consulate or Travel agency to be sure.
For Yanks, you have to buy a “Tourist Card” before you board the plane for Havana. Honestly, this just seems like a bureaucratic formality at this point. We bought ours at the “I” information desk next our the departure gate at Mexico City airport. It cost $20 per person and was simple as cake. But try to be consistent in what you decide to select. Don’t say you’re coming in on a Mormon Mission and then spend your time dancing salsa and cavorting with the local talent (not that that’s wrong or anything). The categories are:
- Family visits
- Official business or the US government, foreign government and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain export transactions
When arriving in Havana, I heard that the immigration agents would simply stamp the Tourist Card and leave my American passport blank, but they quickly stamped it without asking. Oh well. Keep the Tourist Card with you for your whole trip, they’ll want it back before you board your flight home.
Upon returning back to the States, I got no guff from CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) agents. They did ask me if I was bringing in any alcohol or tobacco products. I did say I’d bought about $40 bucks worth of cigars. “Cuban’s?” he asked, arching an eyebrow inquisitively. “Yeah”, I said, “but I got ’em at Duty Free”. “Well, be careful: there’s a lot of fakes out there”, he replied. Seems like he knew where I’d gone, but I don’t even think he looked at the stamps in my passport. In any case, you are allowed to legally bring in up to $100 worth of rum and cigars now from Cuba.
In my wife’s case, she’s a Brazilian passport holder living in the US on a Green Card. So although there are no restrictions on Brazilians traveling to Cuba, the US government treats GC holders the same as a normal US Citizen who wants to go there. Upon returning, they definitely scrutinized her a lot more than me. We agreed the best policy was to have her category and justification worked out beforehand, and to simply be forthright regarding her travel history if asked. The agent did ask her where she’d been and when she replied Cuba, they asked her about 3-4 more questions about what she’d done there and why. That was all. Just don’t try to bullshit the CBP Officers: they don’t appreciate it and can certainly make trouble for you if you are not a citizen.
I Think That About Covers It. Let Me Know If You Have Any Other Questions!