A Traveler's Guide to Cuba
Traveling to Cuba has been forbidden to US travelers for many years and now that we can get there, (kind of), there’s a large desire to do so. It’s possible to make it happen, but as US citizens, there are some rules we need to follow to make sure we travel to Cuba LEGALLY! I’ve taken the time to create some important Do’s for your trip!
1. Select the proper reason for your travel to Cuba. You will need to have the proper reason when applying for a Visa (Yes, you need a Visa and can apply for one here)
However, money goes in Cuba when traveling via taxi or trying to travel long distances. Although we booked in advance, we spent most of our money traveling through Havana and eating. 5 CUC here and there will add up (which leads me to my next DO)!
2. Do bring more money than you expect for taxis and tips. Your card will not work in Cuba and you will run out of money if you don’t make smart moves!
CUC is a Cuban Convertible Peso, which, right now, is worth slightly more than the US dollar. CUC are not to be confused with Cuban Pesos, which are far less than a CUC. One CUC is worth 25 Cuban Pesos. There is nowhere in the states to order or exchange Cuban money, so it is most convenient (and costly) to exchange money at the airport in Havana. I exchanged $290 USD and received 243 CUC. WHAT A RIP OFF!
The easiest way to keep track of a schedule and calculate receipts was to book experiences through Airbnb (and thank God we did). Had we not planned and scheduled in advance, we would not have found as much to do (due to lack of internet in Cuba) and we would have spent much more money driving around looking for adventures.
Beatriz, our Reglan tour guide, and her friend met us and an Irish couple promptly at 3:00. We said our introductions and walked across the street to catch the ferry to Regla, Beatriz’s home town. Regla is a small, old, Cuban town which truly represents the Cuban culture. The city of Regla was designed around the church, which was built close to the water to represent the sea. There were no other tourists in Regla. We walked through the streets with Beatriz and stopped to taste fruits from the market and Cuban cigars. The tour was only 20 CUC and everything was included.
As we walked, talked, and took pictures, we listened to the Afro Cuban music that was playing in nearby homes. When we reached Beatriz’s home, we stopped for snacks and drinks. She whipped up platanos fritas (fried plaintains) and another delicious snack. She had cold, filtered water, plates of mangoes, and fresh juice and mojitos that she made herself. Beatriz’s apartment was beautiful and so full of life. She is a photographer, jewelry maker, cook, tour guide, cultivator, student, etc. It is common for Cuban people (like in many other Caribbean cultures) to find multiple trades and sources of income because their monthly salaries are about 15 CUC and their monthly rations only cover small quantities of staple foods and a daily piece of bread.
We spoke and laughed with our new friends, asking questions and getting the information on what to do and where to go. Laura, like Beatriz had a giving soul.
5. Do find Cuban Pesos (not just CUC)!
After mis-communicating our needs to George, we went on a hunt to a small bodega which exchanges money. However, we only wanted to get Pesos for 5 CUC so that we could buy small things at the open market and have money to take the bus to the beach. When we finally realized that many local people (especially sellers) have CUC and Pesos, we ended our witch hunt. Laura walked with us to a bread merchant and got us change. He cheated us out of 5 pesos, but we let it rock. We understand convenience fees.
Since leaving Georgia at 5:00 the morning before, we had each eaten a Jamaican patty, an egg, some bread and fruit. It was way past time to eat a REAL meal. Lucky for us, Laura not only knew where to go, but she spoke Spanish, she was good at communicating with us, she lived the next street over from our apartment and she was a local mami. Everybody loves her! She brought us to a small cafeteria where we had Cristal beer, water, shrimp enchilada, roasted chicken, plaintains, rice and beans, yam, and veggies. It was GREAT and worth every bit of money! For three meals, complete with sides and drinks, we paid 25 CUC. Never could we ever in America.
6. Do speak with the locals. (Make friends. They will be helpful, have exclusive information and tips, and even go out with you, making your stay safer and more authentic).
By the time we were finished running the streets, the bus option for the beach was a no go. The only other option was a 30 CUC taxi both ways and that wasn't happening. We spent an evening exploring the town; sipping juice in a local bar, listening to live music learning a slight salsa dancing flex and talking with charming people that we met along the way. We bought bread from a late night deli for 10 CUP and finally called it a night after an “Exotic Mojito” from Hoy Como Ayer. We walked back to our apartment and got ready for the early morning adventure ahead of us.
7. Do drink TONS of water. It’s hot. Not Florida hot, but Caribbean hot. Stay hydrated. Be thirsty, my friend!
When we arose, we learned that the water had been shut off overnight. We aren’t exactly sure if this was a city problem or a bill problem, but we had to use our drinking water to make things happen. BE SURE TO GET YOURSELF GALLONS OF FRESH WATER! Please... even if you have to walk a while to find some like we did. You'll need fresh water to combat the heat and mojitos you'll be throwing back!
We got up and dressed early so that we had time to eat a light breakfast of leftovers and bread before we headed out. I tried to force myself to drink a couple of glasses of water to start my day! We were determined to take the city bus. An older woman the night before had told us what number bus to take to reach Zanja and Canpanario, so we hopped on and asked questions about when to get off. Finally, a man told us to GO!
8. Do visit local culture spots. The point of travel is to learn, not just to decorate your passport (which is quite enjoyable). Go out and learn about the city or country that you’re in. Share your culture too.
When we got off about 15 minutes later, we met Hugo, our “hermano.” He was very adamant about showing us a part of his city. Over and over again, he explained that we didn’t have to do anything for him except show him around if he ever made it to Georgia. “You are my sisters,” he said, “You are safe with me.” Hugo took us to a beautiful church and gave us rosaries. He showed us how to pray and leave our blessing candles. (We prayed to Jesus and asked Him for forgiveness). Learning the culture was a fun experience though. Be careful, even weary of people like Hugo.
When it was time for him to depart and leave us alone like we were trying to hint at (because we had plans at 9:00am) he finally began asking for money. I gave him 2 CUC and he scoffed (I was mind boggled at how he harassed us to give us things and then was ungrateful for what he received). I was so offended and couldn’t believe that he was working us (while bothering us) the entire time. However, my father is a giving man. He would have told me that this young man needs the money more than I do. I gave Hugo 5 CUC, very reluctantly, and had to re-center my energy. It was tour time.
9. Do tip when appropriate. The average wage in Cuba is 15 CUC per month. An extra 5 to a tour guide or helpful (not harassing friend) will go a long way. Your generosity is much appreciated. Understand that yes, people will help you because they are kind, but many Cubans are also in need.
After hours of heat, sweat and a great time, we finally decided to stop for lunch around 12:40. We went to a nice restaurant near the Capitoly. It wasn’t the best meal we had, but it did the job. We only had about 30 more minutes to ride afterwards, but getting back on the bike was torture. My coolo and my papaya were in extreme PAIN!
We sat with Miguel for almost an hour after the tour ended while we waited for our taxi. We shared pictures and laughs with our new friend. He was really a pleasure. When we finally said our goodbyes, we headed home to our apartment to shower and nap. There was little time to get ready for the pub crawl.
10. Do download a map of Havana (maps.me) before you arrive and print or screenshot necessary addresses and phone numbers.
The pub crawl was interesting to say the least. A night out at bars in Havana was exciting, but the experience wasn’t worth the price. We truly enjoyed the three bars we went to, including the drinks we had (one drink and one shot included in the price). We met other Americans and had a blast listening to Spanish music, but in reality, we could have bar hopped by ourselves and probably had just as much fun at a lower price. However, the people were cool and we were out of the house! We danced the night away, tried different drinks and enjoyed the company.
The most difficult part about traveling around Havana was not knowing how to get around. We wanted to take the bus, but directions, times, etc., were all so foreign. We spent a lot of time locating the places we wanted to get to, or get home from. We saved money on buses, but wasted money on taxis if we couldn’t figure out how to get back home. We noticed that many others had downloaded maps of the city that helped them as far as direction. We had a small printed map of the area by the apartment, and when looking at it, I could get anywhere, but once we left our small community, everything changed.
11. Do learn some Spanish. (I didn’t but I can understand some and Ziaa speaks more than I can). It will make little things easier like getting directions, taking the bus and saving money.
Had we been able to speak the language more fluently, I’m sure we would have been able to enjoy ourselves even more than we did. I don’t want to take away from the amazing moments and experiences that we had, but you’re always limited when you’re in a foreign country and are not able to effectively communicate. It stifles conversations, cuts interactions short and builds general frustration when you can’t understand. Short term, it doesn’t seem problematic, but to fully engage and emerge, you need to at the very least, know the basics.
12. Do apply sun block constantly throughout the day. Don’t forget your scalp, butt, feet, etc. (They will burn and you will hurt)!
This experience was worth every penny. We did something good for the environment, we made it to the beach, we stopped at a high point on a “mountain” to view all of Havana, I got Ziaa into the ocean and we ended the tour with fresh coconuts! That’s what I call living the life. I don’t love coconut, but fresh coconut water does something for my entire soul!
The only issue I had was the fact that my butt was stuck in the sun for hours. I hurt later on (for a couple of days might I add).
13. Do find authentic Cuban cuisine!
One of my favorite experiences (which I highly recommend) was a Cuban Cooking Class with my newest Tia, Muñeca! We caught a bus to a local hidden gem. The family house we went to was actually a mansion, right in the middle of a small street. We were greeted by Claudia, our translator and family friend.
We spoke with her as we were early, and as the other guests arrived, we moved into the dining hall. Our favorite guest was Anthony (aka Antoniooooooo), a very colorful and exciting man from Philly. Antonio was drunk, or at least on his way there! He interrupted Tia all night long, had the best stories to tell, invited us out to a gay bar (which was closed when we got there) and bought us drinks!
We started the cooking class by making our own, fresh mojitos with Havana Club rum. After mojitos, all the guests were split into cooking groups and test groups. Ziaa, Antonio, and myself were responsible for cooking the meat, but I was tested on how to cook the frijoles (black beans). The winner of the exam (me) won a special Cuban prize (authentic Cuban cigar)! The group voted on the winner and they chose me because I had the most questions to answer and also threw in bonus answers. Thanks y'all!
Making new friends and bonding over food is probably the best way to enjoy vacation. The meal consisted of white rice, black beans, sautéed pork, sweet plantains, fried green plantains, and salad. We drink fresh fruit juice made from guava, mango, pineapple, and papaya. We ate a caramelized flan and mango for desert. That meal was definitely the best we ate in Cuba, so go visit TT Muñeca (she answers to by the way. I’m not kidding. We became family)!
14. Do give yourself time to mess up and to find new things to add to your journey along the way. You’ll love yourself for the adventure!
Our last two days were really epic fails. Fails in that we had a hard time accomplishing things we wanted to do, but epic because we enjoyed ourselves while failing.
We were determined to go back to the beach so we got up early, put on bathing suits and got our beach vibes in order, packed a bag and headed to the bus depot. When we arrived, we sat for a while trying to figure out which bus to take, asking locals for help and speaking to the bus drivers. Finally, we decided the beach was a lost cause, but after snorkeling and getting a sun burn on my butt, it wasn’t a big deal. We got burgers at our sandwich spot (which happened to be made of pork), changed clothes and decided it was the perfect day to get a tattoo. We went to the WiFi park to call home and to talk to Laura. Between her and a friend, we got the information we thought we needed and we headed to the tattoo shop.
15. Do be free, inviting and accepting. Try everything!
After being sent across town, we started walking and realized that the walk may kill us. We caught a CoCo taxi for 5 CUC that brought us about five blocks down the road. What a waste of money, but the taxi was cute. After the driver pulled off and we began asking around again for the tattoo shop, we were turned away, AGAIN! Nobody seemed to know where this guy was. The only people who could potentially help us were clingy, obnoxious and were definitely trying to get money from us by “guiding” us in the wrong direction. One guy tried to bring us in three different directions that he swore would get us to the “casa de tatueja.” We finally got him to leave, but he crossed the street and watched us for a while as we sat at a bus stop. Then, he sent another man over to try to help us. He also wouldn’t leave for at least 10 minutes and it was trash that the bus we were waiting for never came.
We got into a bike taxi (against our better judgement) because we knew we didn’t have any more money to waste. When we arrived at Julio’s, his wife and daughter answered the door and the older man came in with us to assist.
We made it to the museum, paid to get in, and were disappointed to see that half of it was closed and under construction. 16 CUC would have gone a long way. The museum was informational and had tons of pictures and Spanish/ English descriptions. I was hoping for more art, but it wasn’t an art museum. The second piece of the museum housed airplanes and automobiles from the revolution. The tanks were cool to see.
We spent our last on a coco taxi home and a 7 CUC meal at the sandwich shop. I’m not sure how we managed to do it, but we ran out of money. We scraped up our last couple of bills and coins to make enough for Ziaa to eat the day that I would be gone (somehow our flights were on different days and American Airlines refused to fix the problem without one of us paying another $300). We went home, showered, played Phase 10, ate leftovers, made drinks and watched Law and Order. It was the perfect, peaceful end, to an extremely jam packed vacation.
Thanks for reading,
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