Updated: Aug 18, 2020
My husband and I just returned last week from Cuba, I cannot begin to explain how much we enjoyed ourselves. Cuba is a vastly interesting country, full of vibrant culture, kind & generous people and beautiful landscapes. Most of you may already know that there are 12 OFAC Categories to choose from when traveling to Cuba: We chose “Support the Cuban People” which is exactly what we did, we engaged in a full-time schedule of activities that resulted in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba, from sitting on the block and roaming the streets with the locals, cooking meals with Cuban residents in their private homes, Rented a private Cuban residence (casa particular), ate at privately owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopped at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas), we did all of this throughout Havana and Vinales. We planned on doing a day trip to Varadero Beach,but the two days we planned on going it rained ☹. If your time is limited go to Santa Maria del mar which is a local beach with beautiful clear waters , only 15-20 minutes from Havana, it's nice and not so touristy.
Anyhow, before you go, know some of Cuba’s history and know what daily life is like for its people. Understand that while Havana’s ability to transport visitors “back in time” is charming for you to experience for five days as a visitor (and you’ll have the opportunity to get some great photos), it means some very dismal things for the people living there.
Most importantly, educate yourself on how you can benefit the Cuban people while visiting the country. A few things I learned about the reality of life in Cuba, some of which I learned from some of the locals we met while we were there. You may have heard about Cuba’s remarkably low crime rate. That's pretty accurate, violent crime against tourists on the island is very rare and the country is very safe, we walked the streets of Havana and hung out with the locals until 2-3 a.m. every night, we never once felt unsafe (not that it means much, but I grew up in South Central Los Angeles and my husband is from Baltimore, Maryland, so it takes a whole lot to put fear in us LOL). But just like anywhere you go, always watch your surroundings. We were invited into the homes of some of the locals we met, this was a very humbling experience to see how most of them live.
The Cuban people are incredibly good natured, hospitable and friendly, but it is also because the punishment for committing a crime against a tourist outweighs the punishment for most other crimes (we were told that locals would get 2 years imprisonment time if caught selling internet cards on the street, sounds petty, right? 🤷🏾♀️). Of course, this is a great thing for tourism, but it does also hint at a twisted system that cares more about income from the tourism industry than its own people.
I also learned Medical and Education is free in Cuba, you can go to school to be a doctor and pay absolutely nothing, but the downfall is, whether they are a doctor, nurse, lawyer or engineer, the average monthly salary for a Cuban is $20. I was told that doctors wages were recently increased to $80 a month, still not much but better than before. This is set by the government as a standard. The exception to this rule are cab drivers. Cab drivers in Cuba make significantly more money than most doctors or engineers because they have private licenses provided to them by the government. Their salaries are not set by the state, meaning that they can charge tourists high prices (like the $25 to go from the airport to central Havana). If you’ll notice, that’s more than the average monthly salary. This means that highly skilled and trained Cuban people are forced to do remedial jobs like drive cabs and wait tables. (BTW, you must take a 2-year class for Tourism to be a server or bartender in Havana, per our tour guide).
While visiting Vinales, I learned that the farmers are forced to give 90% of the tobacco they grow to the government. The government then adds chemicals to the tobacco, seals the cigars with a harmful glue and sells them at an insane mark-up in government-run shops. If you have a chance to visit a cigar farm in Vinales, you will see that they remove the harsh chemicals (i.e. nicotine) before rolling them (they could just be telling tourists that as a selling tactic LOL), but I know I thoroughly enjoyed my Cohiba dipped in honey LOL and I am not a big cigar smoker. Be sure to take insect repellent, the mosquitoes 🐜🦗🐞will eat your ass up in Vinales. A day trip to Vinales with our driver cost $150 CUC round trip, we were picked up at 6:45am and returned to Havana around 5pm. Vinales is about a 2-2.5 hour drive from Havana . Our driver stayed with us the whole time, even had breakfast and lunch with us. We did some sightseeing, zip-lining, walked through the "slave caves", took a boat ride through a cave, had more cocktails, and a few other activities.
Cuba is definitely worth visiting – it is worth the money, your attention and your love. I only want to draw attention to the way Cubans truly live because for some reason, nobody is talking about it. If you ever plan to visit, try to bring product for the Cuban people (i.e. shampoo, soap, detergent, tampons, towels, pads, body soap, toothpaste, etc.), they even like simple snacks that can’t be found in Cuba or they are very expensive like Snickers candy, Hot Cheetos, etc. you can give them to your Airbnb host or tour guide, they will accept them with the utmost gratitude. One of the ladies I met there continued to compliment my backpack/purse, I dumped all my personal items in a bag and gave her my purse, some sunglasses, snacks, some unused accessories/jewelry, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, tampons and all the hats worn in my pictures. My husband gave one man most of his shirts. FYI, my husband don't typically wear the type of shirts shown in the pics, so giving them to someone who needed them was better than taking up luggage space that I needed to bring my bottles of rum back home 🤣🤣
Accomodations: When traveling to Cuba, try staying at a Casa Particular (private home), you’re supporting the Cuban people and will have a far more authentic experience. Please, please, please read reviews and try to book with an Airbnb Superhost. Casa Particulars are set up more like guesthouses, but the owners are there to make you feel like family. You can party with them, have dinner with them (or a cigar!), They are around if you need anything, or if you want to talk to them, but they also give you privacy and space. My husband and I were in a two-bedroom apartment (just the two of us), we were a 5-minute walk from El Malecon, keep in mind, that the buildings are very old in Havana, therefore most don’t have elevators, we were on the fourth floor (I’m lazy and would be tired before I hit the 2nd flight of stairs LOL). Our Airbnb host, Ana & Jean Pierre were amazing, they arranged our airport transfers to and from (both in classic cars), they came to the house each morning and made an amazing breakfast for us for only 5CUC per person, so much food that we had to tell them to scale down a bit on the next morning LOL, I just didnt want them to waste all of that food if I knew we wouldn't eat it all, breakfast every morning was amazing. This is the link to their listing on Airbnb
You can stay in a more luxurious hotel, which are state-run rather than owned by individual Cubans. Keep in mind that by staying at hotels, you are putting your money into the government, rather than into the pockets of hard-working and well-deserving Cuban business owners.
One of our tour guide, Manuel, is also a photographer. Here is his contact info you can also follow him on Instagram at @cubansoulpics
Two other tour guides I highly recommend are Mabel (send me a message for her info) and Holbert Cisneros, both these tours were also in classic cars, and both speak English pretty well, we never had any issues getting around in Cuba. You could always walk out to the street and just hail a cab, most places will arrange a cab for you too. We never used the yellow cabs, this was just personal preference, I'm in Cuba and I wanted to ride around every where in a classic car. I can take a yellow cab anywhere in the states.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is a must see, it's a Art Gallery and Night club, it reopened on October 4th 2018 (apparently they close for short periods of time to swap out the art and make other changes) if you plan on going here try getting there around 7-8pm, we arrived around 10pm and the line was wrapped around the block, if you do go late you may be standing in line for a long time. Ladies, I know we like to get dolled up, but I would probably opt for some cute flat sandals unless your comfortably being in heels for hours.
Internet/Phone -The Wi-Fi situation in Cuba is a bit frustrating and time-consuming, so be ready to just disconnect for a few days. If you have an idea of some things you may want to do during your trip, you can book a lot of these ahead of time, Airbnb Experiences is a great way to find excursions and pay ahead of time, also check trip advisor. You will find things like bike ride tours, walking tours, salsa classes, cooking classes, photo shoots, day trips to Vinales, classic car rides, etc.). Making phone calls outside of cuba is very "iffy" I would suggest checking with your mobile carrier about international calls or you could always try to make phone calls through Facebook Messenger when you do have a Wi-Fi connection, I didn't feel the need to have to make any phone calls to the states while I was there, but I did want to check on my kids from time to time, so I could easily send a quick message through Facebook or Instagram when I had a connection, but it may take some time before you get a response if the other person isn't constantly watching their notifications. Again, Wi-Fi is very limited in Cuba, there are only certain locations where you can get a connection, some Airbnb host may or may not have Wi-Fi in the home you rent, and a lot of times the locals will tell you where you can find the best connection, or just look around, if you ever see a crowd of people all sitting around together, and they're all looking down at their cell phones, it's probably a good connection where they are 😂. Luckily our Airbnb had Wi-Fi and a lan-line we could use to call our tour guides, the locals we met there, or any other local number. We were able to purchase internet cards from our host or from her aunt who lived on the first floor of the building. Internet cards typically cost $1.00-$2.00 CUC per hour, and you can burn through those things pretty quickly.
Currency Exchange- Everyone will have different opinions on this topic, so I'll just share what we did. Do what works for you. My husband and I exchanged USD to EUROS at our local Wells fargo bank, $1200 USD = approx $986.00 EUROS, when we arrived in Cuba we went to the Cadeca (Cuban bank) inside the airport and exchanged the Euros to CUC, $986 EUROS = approx $1,142 CUC. The Cadeca only allowed us to exchange $400 per day. Keep in mind that US currency, credit cards or debit cards can not be used in Cuba, we found only one restuatant that did except US credit cards. I know some travelers are a little hesistant on trading cash on the street, but we were able to have a local exchange cash for us at a better rate, $200 US for $190 CUC. (trust your gut with this one LOL). Please be sure to take more cash than you think is needed, because once you run out you're shit out of luck. There are no ATM's and the only option would be to have someone wire money to a local cuban, and you would have to trust you get your money from them. (I do not recommend this, unless you have family there and/or trust this person). Also, get at least $100-$150 CUC in $1.00 Bill's for tipping (for a 6 day trip).
Food/drinks: No complaints at all, everything I had was very delicious. I did not try any seafood, not all seafood sit well on my stomach (especially if it taste like they just snatched it out the ocean) and I didn't want to risk the chance of getting sick while on vacation. Although beef is not very popular in Cuba, one of the main dishes there Ropa vieja (shredded beef), very good 😋, typically served with Moros y Cristianos (rice and beans). Also try some some tostones (fried plaintains), guava paste, Arroz Con Pollo and a Cuban sandwich. There is this carton fruit juice (green carton, if anyone remember the name of it please let me know) my husband was in love with this juice, it came in different flavors like mango, peach , pineapple and a few more. We purchased about four cartons of this juice at the airport when we were returning at the duty-free in Cuba, after going through customs at the airport in Tampa, they asked us to throw it away, or they will ask if you want to go put it in your checked bag, we would have missed our flight if we did that, so we were a little disappointed that we had to discard it.
Cocktails you must try a Cuba libra, Mojitos and a Daiquiri from Floridita. FYI, we walked the streets of Cuba drinking with no problem. 😜😜. Cocktails were like $2.00-4.00 CUC each, a beer cost about $1.00CUC, you can even purchase these cartons of cuban rum (about the size of a hi-c juice box) for $1.00CUC, not the best tasting thing in the world LOL, but it will give you a nice little buzz.
Souvenirs- I don't purchase a whole lot of souvenirs, but I do like to collect magnets, shot glasses and I try to bring back bottles of liquor that we don't normally find here in the states. If you like to collect art, they have a lot of beautiful art that they sell in Central Park Havana, but there are several nice art galleries around and a few other places where you can pick up some knickknacks. I wanted to bring back a few bottles of Havana rum, I didn't purchase those until I got to the airport from the duty free, I paid about $5-7CUC per bottle, we also purchased a couple boxes of Cohiba's in Vinales. I believe you're only allowed to bring back 100 cigars per person.
I don't want to make this blog post too long, but if you have additional questions about my trip, please feel free to ask. Some other tips, don't be afraid to walk the streets of Havana, have an open-mind, don't be such an entitled spoiled American, engage with the Cuban people, sit on the block and play cards or dominoes with the locals, appreciate the culture, the arts, speak a little bit of spanish and give your tour guides, host, servers and any other service providers tips. All in all just have a great time.
**A Valid Passport and Visa is required to travel to Cuba.** I purchased our Visas through Cuba Travel Services, it cost $85 per person and that included a $35 processing fee per Visa. I've heard some people say they wait until they get to the airport to purchase theirs, because our layover going to Cuba was only 45 mins, I didn't want to risk missing our flight. I went online and purchased them that morning, and by that afternoon I had a tracking number that they were shipped out. Click here to purchase your Visa