When asked, “How was Cuba?” I have two answers. First, it’s a beautiful country! This Caribbean nation offers it all from quaint seaside towns to lush, verdant valleys. Second, this country needs a tremendous amount of work. The roads are in poor condition, buildings everywhere are crumbling, and potable water is still delivered by truck to most homes. While I enjoyed my trip immensely, I was also saddened by the conditions under which most Cubans live.
I want to encourage people to visit Cuba and have a great time once they arrive. I truly hope that our tourism dollars will contribute to a better living for locals, but I believe it helps to set realistic expectations for travelers. So here’s some background information and suggestions for preparation.
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Americans Traveling to Cuba
Can Americans travel to Cuba? The short answer is yes. I am writing this article just one week after the newest restrictions were announced by the U.S. in April of 2019, and Americans can still legally travel to Cuba.
Americans traveling to Cuba must do so according to one of 12 authorized categories. For many years a license had to be obtained listing one of these categories prior to the trip. The license is no longer required, but the intent of a trip must still be clear. Probably the most popular category has been “People-to-People.” While organized tours may still claim this intent, independent travelers may no longer do so.
I chose to travel to Cuba with a tour company, and quite frankly, that’s what I recommend for anyone’s first trip. Let the tour company satisfy all the government guidelines and you can just show up and appreciate the experience. The company I selected was Quantum Travel Services and they have extensive experience organizing trips all over Cuba.
Where additional restrictions have been added are for independent travel. For anyone not associated with a tour group, your trip must qualify under one of 12 categories, you must use the services of locally owned businesses (not those owned by the government), keep records of your trip for five years to prove adherence to the first two requirements. Since the people-to-people category is no longer an option for independent travelers, many now select “Support for the Cuban people.”
Obtaining a Cuban Visa
Americans traveling to Cuba will require a Visa, but the process is very simple. For anyone traveling from the U.S. directly to Cuba, the airline at your departing airport will facilitate this process for you. Prices vary from $50-$100 per person.
If transiting through a foreign country, then you can obtain your Visa during the layover. We had a four hour layover in Mexico City and were able to get a Visa for about $25 from the AeroMexico information desk.
The Visa is valid for 30 days, for a single entry into Cuba.
Cash is King
It breaks my heart to miss out on travel credit card rewards points and use cash instead, but that’s what American tourists need to do in Cuba. Credit cards are being accepted at more places, but not if they are issued by American banks. Be prepared with cash for everything you’ll need.
Also keep in mind, that while ATM machines exist in Cuba, they are not likely to accept a debit card from a bank in the U.S. So all the cash you will need for your stay must be brought with you from home. If you are visiting from another country, check with your bank before leaving home.
Two Types of currency
Cuba is the first country I’ve ever visited with two types of currency; Cuban Peso Nacional (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The first is used primarily by locals and the second by tourists. The CUC is about a 1:1 exchange.
As a tourist, especially if traveling with a tour group, it will be easy to always use CUC. But if you are on your own, be sure to identify the two currencies and keep them straight when you pay and receive change.
Where to stay in Cuba
The U.S. government encourages Americans to stay in Casa Particulares, which is what I experienced while in Cuba. These are private homes that rent out one or more rooms for tourists. Essentially, it’s the Cuban version of AirBnB. In fact the AirBnB website lists thousands of Casa Particulares for rent. Most Casas will include a full breakfast in the room rate and may have other meals available as well.
An additional benefit of a Casa is getting to know a local family. Depending on your Spanish language skills and the family’s English, chatting about life in Cuba with a local is a great way to learn about the culture.
Don't leave home without the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba.
The downside of a Casa--similar to an AirBnB rental--is the lack of hotel amenities that many American travelers like myself enjoy. Be sure to travel with toiletries like shampoo, conditioner, lotion and soap, as well as a hair dryer. But I went to Cuba knowing that his would be a different experience and I enjoyed staying in Casas.
Unlike an AirBnB, many Casa guests bring gifts for their hosts. These may be towels, kitchen utensils, and other practical housewares that hosts can use in their business. Household goods can be difficult for Cubans to obtain. These gifts are a nice way to directly benefit a local family.
If you do opt for a hotel, be sure it is not one banned by the U.S. State Department (see the list of banned businesses here)
Infrastructure throughout all of Cuba needs significant improvement. Road conditions are often poor and sidewalks are frequently cracked. We experienced occasional blackouts, but fortunately these were brief. Casa Particulares are allotted more water than regular homes, so we never ran out of water for showers, but I do understand this is an issue for many locals.
I was saddened by the fact that millions of Cubans live with these challenges every single day. As a tourist, these issues were annoying, but temporary. For anyone that has traveled to developing countries, some of these issues will be similar. What was different in Cuba was the lack of visible road work or construction projects. The budget for major infrastructure improvements appears to be lacking.
Choosing whether or not to travel to Cuba then depends on each person’s willingness to accept and tolerate the current situation. Now is the time to visit a beautiful country unspoilt by chain restaurants, shopping malls and endless advertising, but it does come at the cost of some comforts.
Is Cuba Safe?
Cuba is a reasonably safe country for visitors, and that’s according to the U.S. government, not just me. According to the U.S. Department of State, “For American citizens, most crime in Cuba can be associated with pickpocketing, purse snatching, and thefts from unoccupied cars, hotel rooms and other dwellings.” In other words, it’s obvious that you are a tourist, and that can make you a target.
So the usual advice to travelers around the world applies. Don’t wear expensive looking jewelry or watches, keep your money and important documents close to you at all times, and always be aware of your surroundings. Violent crime is very low in Cuba, but don’t tempt fate. Don’t walk alone after dark, and if you’re female, exercise the same cautions you do at home.
While researching this part of the article, I discovered frequent complaints of sexual harassment from women traveling solo in Cuba. These include small annoyances like catcalls and suggestive language, but also include women being followed by strange men. Women who normally enjoy solo travel may find the company of a few friends, or even a tour group, a more protected way to travel.
I love shopping for souvenirs that don’t come from China--unless, of course, I’m in China--and fortunately Cuba is all about selling goods made on the island. So if you think you’ll be tempted to shop in Cuba, bring enough cash.
With the long-standing embargo on Cuban rum and cigars, these are the two obvious gifts to bring home which I most certainly did. The current rules allow Americans to bring home no more than 100 cigars and three bottles of rum.
But I was surprised to find so many other items to purchase either for myself or as gifts. First, the Cubans grow great coffee. Not a surprise when you realize how important coffee is to the culture. While visiting a tobacco farm that also grows its own coffee beans, I purchased a pound and its delicious! Some places on the island offer tours of coffee plantations, which will also sell beans.
As I mentioned in Things To Do In Havana, there are several places to view and purchase art in Cuba. I purchased a print of the Havana Harbor at Taller Experimental de Grafica, and wish I had bought more. If you have a spot in your home that could use a colorful, original piece of art, consider purchasing something while in Cuba. Not only will it be a lovely reminder of your trip, but it also supports a local artist.
While in Trinidad we admired dozens of stores selling handmade lace items like tablecloths, aprons and dresses. Typically, the lace maker is also the store owner, which makes a gift like this even better.
I could go on for a while, but suffice it to say that Cuba offers plenty of great shopping options beyond cigars and rum. Take the time to stroll through art galleries and the myriad small stores, and you’ll find treasures to take home.
Americans are advised not to drink the water from the tap in Cuba. So that will leave you with the option to drink bottled water, or travel with a reusable water bottle that includes a filter. I’d also advise using bottled/filtered water for brushing your teeth.
Vaccinations and medications
There are no vaccinations required for travelers to Cuba, however, according to the Center for Disease Control’s website, its recommended to have typhoid and Hepatitis A vaccines. For anyone with serious health conditions, a visit to your physician is recommended prior to your trip.
Be sure to bring all of your prescription medications with you to Cuba, as well as any over-the- counter medications that you may need. This isn’t a country where you can run to the nearest CVS or Walgreens for some ibuprofen.
One of the most common illnesses for travelers in any country is upset stomach and diarrhea. The food and water in any foreign destination will be different from what we are used to at home, and this can lead to problems. During my recent trip to Cuba, several of my companions had variations of stomach related ailments. I recommend traveling with immodium and at least one other stomach medication like Pepto Bismol.
Since most visitors arrive in the capital, let me start with getting around Havana.
There are plenty of taxis available in Havana, but the term “taxi” may mean a variety of things. First, there are the classic yellow taxis which are state run. However, many people also operate taxis with their personal cars and therefore may be any color or condition. Sometimes these are restored classic cars, but others time they are just really old cars. Yellow Coco Taxis (small, round vehicles that look a bit like coconuts) are also an option. Technically the state run taxis are metered, but we found that it’s always wise to negotiate the fare prior to entering any vehicle. Taxi drivers in Cuba do not expect tips.
A few cautions about taxis in Havana. If you don’t speak Spanish, you may need someone’s help describing the destination to the driver. This might be a Casa host, restaurant host, or just a friendly, English speaking local. If your destination is not a typical tourist site, also ask for assistance providing directions to the driver. Cuban taxi drivers are at a disadvantage without GPS.
Finally, let me warn you about the condition of some of the privately owned taxis. Some are pretty old, and poorly maintained. I personally preferred the state owned ones whenever possible.
Options for traveling to other parts of Cuba include flying, buses or transport by private car.
The bus company available to tourists is called Viazul. These buses offer air conditioning, are typically clean and can be reserved in advance. In fact advanced reservations are highly recommended since this bus line is popular with visitors. The prices are based on length of the journey, but are definitely reasonable.
If your time in Cuba is short, or a long bus ride isn’t for you, flights are available to eleven regional airports.
Private car service between cities in Cuba can be arranged in advance, or booked with the help of your hotel or Casa host. This is a nice option if you’d like to enjoy stops of your choosing along the way. Just a caution; sometimes these cars do break down which can make the journey last longer than expected. When traveling in Cuba, remain flexible.
Travel to Cuba
The American government has made recent changes to its Cuban policies, but don’t let this scare you. Most of these changes don’t impact travelers, and the ones that do are intended to increase the money going directly to locals. Trips to Cuba are still very much possible, and the local people are eager to show you their beautiful country!