Welcome to Cuba. If you’re thinking of a great destination for a summer vacation then there’s no better time to head to Cuba. It’s like taking a trip back in time, which is no easy feat but Cuba is a place suspended in time from its 1950’s cars to its Spanish architecture. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, it’s known for its communist rule, 1950’s cars, tasty rum, and of course their legendary Cuban cigars. Havana, the capital, encompasses Spanish-colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century and those old time cars are out and about on full display for your enjoyment or for taking a ride.
Now that Americans are allowed to visit Cuba there is still a bit of confusion about money, visas, where to stay, etc. Having now experienced Cuba for myself, I will let you in on my knowledge and clarify some questions about Cuba. Let’s get started on my guide to Cuba and maybe by the end you will be booking a flight to this historic country.
First things first, getting a visa to Cuba. There are many outlets for which Americans can now obtain a visa for Cuba. Airlines like Delta, Southwest, Alaska, American all offer Cuba visas if you fly with them. The average price through the airlines is $50 and it can be obtained at the airport or ordered online (be sure to call the airline beforehand to make sure). If you decide to go through Mexico to get to Cuba, visas are available in Mexico City airport and Cancun airport. I obtained my visa in Cancun for $22, score!
Once you obtain a visa for Cuba be sure to not make any mistakes while filling out your information on it because any write overs or scratching out of letters or numbers will not be excepted and you will have to purchase a new visa. So, technically Americans still can’t visit Cuba for tourism but there are 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba. There is form called Declaration for Travel to Cuba that Americans must fill out. If you know you’re just visiting for tourism just mark Educational Activities. No worries, no one checks on the American side or Cuban side at customs to make sure you went for “educational” reasons but if you’re paranoid (like my BFF) about getting questioned then just have an itinerary on hand.
When you arrive at immigration in Cuba, they’ll only stamp your visa and give it back to you. Hold on to the visa till you leave the country. They will ask for it back at the airport and that’s your only way out of the country so don’t lose it.
There are 2 types of currency used in Cuba, the Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) and Cuban pesos (CUP). The CUP is used by the locals and the CUC is the currency used by the tourist. When you pay in CUC you are suppose to receive CUC back and the same goes for CUP. The conversion of USD to CUP is between 24-28 CUP. for $1. Technically the conversion of the USD to CUC is 1:1 but Cuba, along with it’s 3% conversion fee, charges a 10% fee for converting USD. The totally fee deducted is 13% for converting USD. For example: if you convert $100 then you will only get 87 CUC. Keep in mind that Cuba is a third world country with first world prices so 87 CUC will not go far.
How some Americans chose to get around the 13% fee is to either convert USD to the Euro or the Canadian dollar. It may or may not be worth it, depending on where you convert your USD for Euro or Canadian dollar to obtain the CUC. For myself I wouldn’t have saved that much money converting my USD to the Euro. I would suggest you do some calculations before converting your money to see if it’s worth your time and if it saves you money. Whichever currency you decide to use once you get the Havana airport there are cadeca’s there where you can exchange your money for CUC. A cadeca is a government ran money exchange place where it’s safe to convert you money or you can go to the Cuban BFI Bank.
When it comes to getting around Cuba there are no Uber’s and the local bus system is confusing so taking a taxi is your best option; especially from the airport. There is a government run taxi service which are the yellow taxi’s and there are the private taxi’s which are the 1950’s cars. The going rate from the airport to Old Town Havana is 30 CUC, if you’re lucky like me you can get a ride for 25 CUC. You also have the option of renting a car and driving yourself…more power to you if you can get around without a navigation system.
If you’re staying in Old Town Havana or near it the best mode of transportation are your feet. It’s the most convenient way of see what the city has to offer. There is a hop on hop off tour bus, drivers for hire to take you around the city, as well as taxi’s located near the capital building. If you are interested in having one of the locals take you around the city for an hour, they will try to charge you 30 CUC but you can get them down to 10 CUC.
Viazul is a major bus company in Cuba that goes from city to city. If you would like to visit other cities in Cuba besides Havana (which I recommend) this is the bus company you need to take. They are located in Havana but if you are staying in Old Town, you will need to take a taxi to get there for 5-10 CUC. Others ways of exploring Cuba is to join a tour which I highly recommend.
Having a place to lay your head while visiting Cuba will not be a problem. Aside from the many hotels available, I would advise you to try to stay in a hostal. Hostal’s in Cuba are usually family run establishments that offer private or shared rooms for travelers at a cheaper rate than hotels. Plus you get to experience leaving amongst the locals and get a first hand glimpse at the culture. The hostal rates can vary from $5 per night to $50 per night depending on the location and if you want shared or private room. Some hostal’s offer breakfast at an additional cost but this is a great opportunity to spend time with the family and experience an authentic Cuban meal.
Things To Do
Stroll along the Malecon
Take a Vinales tour
Visit Old Town Havana
Plaza de la Cathedral
Plaza de Armas
Free walking tour
Varadero tour or hangout at the beach
Have a drink at El Floridita
Visit Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Visit Palacio de los Capitanes museum
Goto a bar/club and listen to some Cuban beats
Visit the art galleries (they are free)
Visit Parque Central
Take stroll down Obispo street
Ride in a 1950’s car
Smoke a Cuban cigar
Drink some rum
Visit Info Tur to get a city map
I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way