Last week I traveled to Cuba to celebrate my best friend Brittany’s birthday, and to say that it was amazing would be an understatement. As most of us already know, thanks to President Barack Obama (yup, still my president) we are now able to travel to Cuba and the relationship between the U.S. is steadily being repaired. SO, of course we decided to capitalize on that and go see our Cuban brothers and sisters!
Before traveling to Cuba I did extensive research — I mean everyday during the weeks leading up I was scouring the internet for details on what to expect while there. I got a lot of great feedback from a number of different websites, but no one had everything I needed in one place. So I decided to break it down myself for you all here–get out your notepads!
Where to Stay
My first piece of advice is that you should absolutely book an Airbnb. Going all the way to Cuba to stay at a resort or in a hotel is honestly a waste and won’t truly immerse you in the experience of it all. Also, the prices for hotels there are ridiculously higher per night than the rate of Airbnb’s. We booked an amazing house with a water front view and pool in Santa Fe, which is just 20 minutes outside of Havana and ended up only paying $258 per person total (between 6 of us). If you’re traveling with a large group, I’d definitely recommend it — our host Yojan was great! Prior to arriving, we inquired with him about being picked up at the airport and he set us up with two lovely drivers, who brought us to / from every location we went to, which was very helpful. Yojan also had two sweet housekeepers who straightened up while we were out each day and if we wanted made breakfast in the morning.
(View the listing here for the Airbnb we stayed in)
How to Get There
Flights to Cuba are also ridiculously cheap. We booked through Delta and for a direct flight there, with a quick 3-hour layover in Miami on the way back, I paid only $337! When traveling to Cuba you are also required to have travel insurance, which is another $25 to your ticket if you get it through Delta.
In addition, everyone who travels to Cuba–whether they are a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident with a green card, must have a travel visa / travel card. Delta also allows you to purchase this either by phone or at the airport once you check-in for your flight. I believe this is similar for JetBlue, which was my other choice of airline to fly to Cuba.
With that said, the U.S. government also requires that in order to get this travel card individuals need to file for it using one of the general license categories, which are listed here. Everyone who’s already been to Cuba suggested we put down “Educational Activities,” since you can’t simply put “to relax and chill.” Nevertheless you should of course be going there to learn a little something anyways! The process for the Visa is SUPER simple and very transactional. You just pay, check off your category and fill out a slip with all of your passport details etc..
Money, Money, Money
First off, let me just say that Cuba is ridiculously inexpensive — lawd, I was in heaven. My friends and I really felt like we were Rick Ross the entire trip, ballin’ the hell out!
No U.S. credit cards work in Cuba, so that means you have to pull out all of the cash you plan to spend beforehand. The local currencies in Cuba are CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and CUP (Cuban Peso). To put it simply, CUC’s are what the tourists use and they are equivalent to the USD, i.e. 1CUC = 1USD. Now, you can wait to convert your USD once you arrive in Cuba OR you can do what we did and convert your USD to Euros in the U.S. and then convert those Euros to CUC in Cuba. I know, it sounds so extra, but this apparently is the best way to get a good exchange rate due to the hefty fee that applies when you convert from USD to CUC in Cuba. It seems annoying, but you’ll thank me later when you have a bit more money to spend.
Overall everything was pretty affordable. The most expensive aspects of the trip were the Old Car Tour and Viñales tour (which I’ll talk more about soon).
Food and Drinks
We ate at restaurants everyday about twice a day (lunch and dinner) — and prices were so low it was amazing. Entrees ranged from about 6 – 12 CUC in most places, then around 1 – 5 CUC for sides. Drinks were also very affordable with most cocktails and glasses of wine being about 5 CUC and I’m talking top shelf. I’m not a rum drinker, but please believe the hype when people say that Cuba has the best rum. I had the most amazing mojitos and piña coladas I’ve ever had — I even drank Cuba Libré’s (basically a rum and coke), which I literally hated before the trip.
Now, one glaring inaccuracy of a lot of the articles I read was that the food in Cuba isn’t very good. This was a shocker since Cuban food in South Florida (where I’m from originally) and in most restaurants I’ve been to, is very good. What I read is that due to particular government restrictions on trade they don’t have all the ingredients needed and therefore a lot of the food is pretty bland. I honestly did not experience this throughout my trip. Of course along the way some of my friends ordered an item that may not have been the best choice on the menu, but overall we were pleased. Also, no one got sick, amen!
Restaurants to Try:
Things to Do
- Old Car Tour: We booked two beautiful old school convertibles that drove us around Havana City for two hours. It was a great way to see a bulk of the city in style. We also paid a little extra to have english tour guides, Nacho and Tony — who were amazing! It was only 80 CUC each car.
- Havana Club Rum Factory: As mentioned, the rum in Cuba is fantastic. So a tour of the factory is a must– I also snagged a bottle to take home since their rum isn’t available in the U.S. Tickets to get in are 7 CUC.
- Santa Maria Del Mar: This is the largest beach in Havana and most well known. It’s about 20 minutes outside of Havana and very beautiful. There are seats and umbrellas available as well for a small fee if it’s super hot out. There is also a nearby restaurant in which you can order food to be brought to you directly on the beach. Another beach that we heard is beautiful, but much farther out is Varadero. It’s 2-hours away, so we couldn’t fit it in, but I’ll definitely go the next time I’m there.
- Viñales Tour: Viñales Valley is a must-see. It’s super green and lush with tremendous mountains and farms. We were able to see how cigars are made and learn the process of farming tobacco. We also saw the Cueva del Indio, El Jardin de Caridad and more. I saw photos, but believe it or not, it was even more stunning in person.
Nightlife to Try
- Don Cangrejo
- Fabrica de Artes Cubano (Lounge / Art Gallery With Music)
- Gato Tuerto (Great Jazz Club)
- La Esencia
Other Things To Know
- The sewage system in Cuba is really bad, and there will be times in which the toilets simply don’t flush. So that was probably one of the hardest things to deal with. Also, a lot of the establishments we went to did not have enough toilet paper, or lids on the seat. So I’d advise bringing your own toilet paper while out and about.
- Cuba is very safe. Due to the high penalty for crime, people just don’t try it. We felt really at ease wherever we were at any hour. The only thing to call out is that there are of course people in Havana City that will try to con you in to paying them for little things like directions, but we didn’t experience that.
- Definitely travel with someone who knows a decent amount of Spanish. Two of our friends know a good amount and were able to communicate with our drivers and others that we met along the way. We did not meet anyone that was fluent in English, so it may be difficult to get by without some knowledge or a Google translate.
- The word Papaya means Vagina — lol, not kidding!
- I tried googling the reception of black people and darker skinned Cubans before going but didn’t really find much information. So we asked our guides and they each had pretty much the same response that Cubans view themselves as “one people.” Being black ourselves, we were of course a bit skeptical of this, but they insisted that though of course they are aware of the difference in skin tone, colorism isn’t prominent.
- Cuban people also love President Barack Obama. It’s no secret that Cuba is a very impoverished country, so a lot of the people love that he has made it possible for us to travel there again. Tourism over the past few years has brought a tremendous amount of money to the country that has been needed for quite some time.
I know it seems like everyone is going to Cuba these days, but I don’t think it should ever be played out. It’s a must-see, must-experience country and I for one cannot wait to go back. Hope this helps! Also, here’s a fun video from one of my other best friends who also happens to be this blog’s photographer / videographer / graphic designer, Charles Trahan II.