Ultimate Guidebook: To Cuba
Cuba is a country of contrast that embodies rich history. A lot of times one may feel like they are back in the 20th century with the archaic buildings & disconnectedness. The colors will captivate you, the classic cars will bring you nostalgia but the greatest gift Cuba really will give you is a new appreciation for life. Sure, it might be harder to travel to this country in the future but please don’t let this discourage you. There are always caveats & I wanted to share this guide for anyone who plans to visit this amazing country soon or later.
Visa and Health Insurance
Super easy and stress free. I had to pay $50 for the visa. I had to sign a form to check the reason why I was there (Educational Reasons – 5B). After signing this form, no one asked me or questioned me about my reasons or asked me to produce evidence of my reasons. I didn’t see anyone else being asked to provide evidence either.
The health insurance that is required for Cuba was included in my Jet Blue ticket price, but if it is not, then it is an extra $25. If that health insurance is not included in your ticket price, then you would have to pay $75 when you check in. This may be the case if you take another airline (Delta, Spirit, Frontier, etc.)
Leaving the Airport
I suggest pre-arranging transportation with your Airbnb host or hotel. If they suggest that you take a taxi, then DO NOT use the classic car taxis (the old cars from the 1950’s). These classic car taxis are very expensive (even though you will see many people riding in them) and the city is NOT close to the airport. You will have to pay a grip (like 70 CUC maybe) to get to the city of Havana if you take a classic car. I’ve also heard the yellow taxis are expensive too, but I didn’t take one. As always, make sure they are running their meters. Use your discretion with the taxis. The cost should be no more than 30 CUC to get to the city.
Getting around the City
Taxi: Depending on your negotiation skills, this might be of reasonable price.
For short distance, use the bicycle taxis.
Getting around Old Havana and Centro Havana should be between 10 CUC & 20 CUC.
– if you love walking, you will love Habana Vieja & The Malecon area.
Havana (the city)
I walked most places as the city is not very big. The Hop-on, Hop-off bus was cool, although it was narrated in some indecipherable Spanish, but good for getting a general overview of the city and seeing many sites at once.
I spent most of my time in the city but took a day trip to Vinales where we used a private driver hired by our Airbnb Host. The cost was $150/roundtrip which was split amongst 3 people. Pretty good deal as Vinales is about 2.5 hours away. The trip included seeing a cave, cigar farm, coffee farm, optional horse-back riding, lunch and buying cigars. You can also take a day trip to the many beaches that are outside of the city, which you will have to take a taxi to. There is a cheaper way to get to the beach rather than paying $25-30 CUC though. Our Airbnb host showed us a way that cost us only $3 CUC by way of public bus. It will be packed but it is cheap! Santa Maria beach is a great local beach as well but I would dedicate at least two or three days to tour Havana itself.
PRO-TIP: The beauty of Cuba is its people and laidback attitude. You’ll want to see the sites, but definitely take some time to sit back, kick it with the locals, and drink a bunch of mojitos!
New Havana (Habana Nuevo) is like what it says, the newer part of town. Old Havana (Habana Viejo) is the older part of town and they both have their pros and cons. Old Havana has most of the museums and sites, some pretty good food options, as well as salsa lessons & entertainment on Obipso Street.
I stayed at an Airbnb in Central Havana which was perfect because I could easily walk (or take a cheap bicycle cab) to Old Havana or New Havana. My host, Mario, was absolutely amazing & even introduced me to another woman who was traveling solo as well. I highly recommend any three of his properties. Here is the link to the Airbnb https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16689251. Although this place was nice for Cuba, it was not 5 stars. So assess your level of comfortability & find out which place is right for you. I found hotels for pretty reasonable prices but I wanted to stay with the locals to get the full Cuban experience. Do Not Regret it at all.
In general, I found all the hyped-up restaurants that everyone recommended to me to be a huge disappointment. The best food I found was outside of major tourist areas. I got a full-course meal right around the corner from my Airbnb for 3 CUC! 3 CUC! I left so full. The food was so good that we ended up going back 2 more times after that. If you prefer more of the touristy restaurants that are expensive but good, I would suggest going to Obispo Street where there are some hidden gems. They vary in price but none are really outrageous. Here are some spots to try:
Dos Pelotas– The food here was super cheap, super abundant & super good! It is a really small establishment & very popular amongst the locals so you might have to wait outside until seating is available but it is so worth it. A lot of time though some things that are on the menu, they might not have so make sure you ask before you fully commit.
Paladar La Familia –This was suggested to me by my local Cuban Friend. You will have to walk up 2 flights of stairs to get to the actual seating area. The food was good & they had a lot of variety on the menu. A tourist trap though is what I heard so be mindful.
La Guardia-People rave about this restaurant; however, I found it to be over-rated but they do have a nice rooftop where you can get very scenic pics of Havana. Suggest it for that purpose, alone.
Jazz Club La Zorra Y El Cuervo – has jazz 7 nights a week and their mojitos were cheap and decent. Get here around 10-10:30ish to ensure that you’ll get a seat if you come during the weekend.
Fabrica de la Arte Cubano – this spot was really dope with an art gallery, food, live DJ, and a dance floor. The food menu seemed limited so you may want to eat beforehand, but I enjoyed this spot thoroughly as I really love art. It is a younger crowd & there was a diverse mix of people there which was lovely. This place is popular so definitely get there early because there will be a line wrapped around the building. Around 9pm is a good time. Entrance is 2 CUC.
Visit Casa de la Musica – on a Friday or Saturday night when there’s a live band, and also the Tropicana show is not to miss.
Cabaret Show – at Hotel Nationale is a cheaper alternative to The Tropicana Show if you are on a budget.
I did not connect to Wi-Fi until the 4th day I was there. I bought a Wi-Fi card at a hotel when I was in Vinales for 1.50 CUC which is much cheaper compared to the 5 CUC you will pay in Havana. I did not have Wi-Fi in my Airbnb. I had to go to local hotels where it was a 50/50 chance that Wi-Fi would work. It was exhausting so I gave up at day 2 & decided to enjoy my time disconnected. But if you absolutely have to connect just ask anyone where to get a Wi-Fi card and they will tell you where to go. You don’t have to be a guest at their hotel to get a Wi-Fi card either.
· Download the Spanish language in Google Translate app so you can use it offline. I used mine a couple of times. You really need to know Spanish in Cuba and this app will save your life if your Spanish is like mine, needs work.
· I bought about 10 Cuban cigars for 30 CUC while in Vinales. My friend bought 10 cigars for $100 while in Havana from someone selling them out of his house. Our Cuban friend told us she for sure got ripped off as the cigars weren’t even authentic so please be cautious of this if you plan to buy cigars while there.
· CUBA IS VERY SAFE. It is poorly lit in some areas at night, but even in these areas you have nothing to worry about. I stayed in an area that a local told me was known to be a big drug user spot. Which may have been true because at least 2 times I got approached inquiring about buying marijuana. I still felt safe in the neighborhood though. Exercise reasonable caution, but rest assured that crime in Cuba is rare.
· AN ABSOLUTE MUST DO: Afro-Cubano Sundays! Callejon de Hammel (Centro) – weekly rumba on Sundays from 11am-3pm. Afro-Cuban music, dancing, and religious celebrations. A place where you get to engage with Afro-Cubans, learn the history, see traditional Afro-Cuban dance & even buy some of the dopest art you will ever see. This was one of the highlights of my time there. Amazing space!
· VERY IMPORTANT: Make sure you save all of the places you want to go to on MAPS.ME so that you can see where they are while you are offline. This was a lifesaver for me. Google Maps is another option but it didn’t seem to work for me while I was there. You can give it a try though.
· Take a pic with the popular grandma with the cigar. She’s on one of the side streets by the Cathedral in Old Havana. She is very sweet & even gave me a cigar as a gift so make sure you tip her.
· Convert USD to Euro and Euro to CUC. Make sure it’s CUC. DO NOT BY ANY MEANS BRING AMERICAN MONEY TO CONVERT! They charge Americans a 15% tax on top of the regular conversion fee. It is so not worth it. You can also try to use Canadian Money to Convert too. Canada Dollars or Euros will do.
· Do Not Drink The Water. I know someone who got sick who drank lemonade forgetting it was made out of local water. I slipped up & drank the water a couple times as well. I was okay though, it built character. 😊 However, I did bring a 12 pack of 12-ounce waters in my checked bag that I rationed through the week. I advise everyone to do the same. If you drink coffee or tea ask that they use a sealed bottle of water to make it. No big deal but if you have a weak stomach, be on the safer side.
· Pack toilet tissue. A lot of places did not have tissue and will charge you for tissue or to use the restroom.
· Cuba makes delicious honey. Plan to bring some back in your checked luggage.
· If you only have a carry on. Only buy alcohol at the airport. It must have a seal in order to get through TSA.
· Make sure you bring enough money for your trip & then some. ATMs that accept American cards are hard to come by & Cash is King in Cuba. I only ended up spending 50 CUC a day because this was a budget trip for me but I had extra money on hand just in case.
· My Airbnb host informed me that Cubans are humble & appreciate modest dress especially amongst tourists. So keep that in mind when you pack.
· LAST BUT NOT LEAST: Do not come to Cuba empty-handed. Bring simple gifts & necessities like candy, gum, shampoo, toilet tissue, sheets, & kids toys. I brought candy for my host & toys for the kids in the neighborhood. Everyone was so grateful! One girl even cried as I gave her a 100-pack of scrunchies. Life-Changing!