If you’re here, you’re probably considering going to Cuba. As of December 2014, it’s super easy for Americans to travel there legally. You just…go (making sure of course that your travel fits into one of the 12 approved OFAC categories). But you can google plenty of references on that.
I decided to go to this once-forbidden island for one week in August 2015. I wanted to go before too much…changed. As of August 2015, there was little to no internet in Havana so I was unable to blog live. Instead, it was all pen to paper in my ever-present travel journal. So later, I’ll be posting archive entries of my day-to-day experiences on the island. Here though, is a summary of what you may expect, practically speaking, on your travels to Cuba. At least, this is what I experienced. Everything here is as of 8/31/2015…
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about currency. For Americans, we have to take cash only into the country and there is no way to obtain more once we’re there. That’s scary. And requires a bit of planning. First rule of currency conversion in Cuba: Do not take dollars! If you takes USD to convert once inside Cuba, you’ll lose money in the conversion rate plus you’ll be hit with an extra 10% fee. So take euros, Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos. I chose euros.
I read a blog where a couple spent 13 days in Cuba, traveled all over the island, and their average spending was about $44 per person per day, including food, lodging and transportation. So I planned a budget of 40 euros a day (approx. $44 USD at the time) as well, plus a little cushion. I figured that would be plenty since my lodging was already paid for (more on that later). It ended up being more than enough. My trip was eight days (arrived at 1PM on Aug 24, departed 2PM on Aug 31), I took 400 euros and I brought back 100 euros, which I’ll be keeping. No need to change them back; I’m sure I’ll be back in Europe soon. I also took $100 USD as a last resort emergency fund.
There are two currencies in Cuba: The convertible pesos (CUC) which is what us foreigners/tourists use the most. The CUC have pictures on monuments on the bills. And then there’s CUP, the local pesos, which is what the local nationals use most. CUP have pictures of people on the bills. Tourists can use both currencies so pay attention to which one you’re using. 1 CUC = 24 CUP. CUP is best used for street food and taxis.
Money can be converted at the banks and at cadecas (change houses). My lodging was in Old Havana near the large Metropolitan bank on O’Reilly Street so I only changed there. My first day, I changed 120 euros in 134 CUC and then changed 5 CUC into 120 CUP. It sounds more complicated than it is LOL. I lasted off of that until Day 5. Then I changed 40 more euros into CUC. I did not obtain any additional CUP. After my trip, I had the following currency leftover:
- 100 euros
- 3 CUC (worth $3 USD)
- 45 CUP (worth about $1.70 USD)
- $80 USD (I did end up having to use dollars at the airport upon exit, more on that later)
What I spent money on:
- Food: 65.55 CUC, 40 CUP – I don’t drink alcohol so factor that in if you drink. Most drinks I saw were about 4-7 CUC.
- Taxis: 9 CUC, 30 CUP
- Souvenirs: 67.75 CUC, 115 euro (artists/vendors will take euros if you negotiate w/ them)
- Wifi: 17.50 CUC
- This list is not exhaustive. There was a small amount spent on misc stuff like museums or a club or a CUC or 2 to use a public bathroom.
I highly recommend downloading the xe.com app for use during the trip. It keeps up with currency conversions even while offline.
The process for changing money at Metro Bank: Go over to the waiting area towards the left and yell “Ultimo?” This will prompt whoever is last in “line” to raise their hand and then you’re after that person. Then you just wait your turn wherever you’d like to sit. There is no actual line. This was a bit frustrating for me the first time I did it. Particularly since I went at 4ish which was the WORST time to go. Only the two windows closest to the exit change euros and the first window RAN OUT OF MONEY and in the second window, the cashier decided to take a 20 minute smoke and coca cola break in the bank, in her booth. Like. Seriously. She sat there and just smoked leisurely while shuffling through the money. Cuba, man. So it took 45 minutes to change money that first day. The second time I went, I went at 2ish and was in and out in 5 minutes. So avoid the bank between 2:30 and 5. The Metro Bank closes at 6:30 or 7 and opens at 8:30am.
There are still no direct flights from the States to Cuba. So you can either book a charter flight or fly through another country (Mexico, Canada, Panama, Bahamas, Cayman Islands or Jamaica). I booked my travel through ABC Charters, straight from Miami to Havana, Cuba. The flight was $479 RT and the visa/required medical insurance was an extra $75. ABC handled everything. I checked in at the ABC desk in Terminal D at MIA airport. They’re just next to American and use American flights for their charters. ABC will give you all your boarding passes and the required tourist card needed to enter Cuba. The flight to Cuba from MIA was 45 mins.
In Havana, Jose Marti airport is small and simple. When you land, you’ll deplane and walk from the plane into the airport and into a room with a wall of booths. This is customs. Pick a booth (I didn’t see any signs differentiating booths for foreigners vs. locals). Inside the booth, the customs official asked me if I had recently visited Africa, took my photo (no smiling) and then sent me on my way out the other side of the booth. While waiting for my bag (usually I’m #TeamCarryOn but I needed to check two silverware sets I was bringing to donate), another official approached me and took me to the side for more questions. She wanted to know where I was staying, why I was in Cuba, who is my employer…things like that. Let’s just say I now understand it when I encounter folks here in the US for whom English is not their first language and I KNOW they know what I’m saying to them but they pretend not to understand.
FYI, the officials did stamp my passport but I traveled to Cuba legally (education and people-to-people) so I wasn’t worried about that. They will also stamp and keep half of the tourist card. Keep up with the other half. Or lose it and enjoy your involuntary extended stay in Cuba? IDK.
After getting my bag, there’s one more point of interaction with an airport official right as you exit the airport. I recall it being a brief check of my passport. Then welcome to Cuba.
On the way home from Cuba, the process is similar. At the airport, you’ll have to go through customs first to even get to the security checkpoint. That’s a little different. This time, they’ll keep the other half of that tourist card I just mentioned. There is no exit tax to pay so don’t worry about saving money for that. I did end up having to pay $3 USD for each of two rolls of art protruding from my backpack. I had much more that fit completely in my luggage and didn’t have to pay for that, could have been the size of the pieces sticking out of my bag. Or, if you buy art that’s too big to fit completely inside, you may be able to circumvent this “export tax” by asking the vendor you brought it from for an export receipt (?). I snapped a photo of what the airport lady kept asking me for (and for what she charged me the $6 since I couldn’t produce it). I was able to pay in US dollars for this export tax. And actually, the duty free shop in the airport also accepts USD. There are also three souvenir shops and a snack bar. I didn’t shop at any of those but if you forget some souvenirs, never fear, the airport has you. Americans can take up to $400 of [declared] tobacco and alcohol products back to the states. Prices for alcohol/trinkets in the airport were comparable to buying in Old Havana.
Tip: Get global entry (GE). I have it and once back in the States, I just breezed through customs at the kiosks with no problems, as is usual. If there’s not a GE interview location near you but you have an upcoming flight somewhere, apply and schedule the interview to occur during the layover where GE interviews are offered. The interview takes 5 minutes, just long enough to take your photo and fingerprints. My GE application took about 10 days from application until I was notified to go ahead and schedule my interview.
Most people will tell you to stay at a Casa Particulares to get the authentic Cuba experience. I agree. I didn’t pick my lodging because it was included in the education program that I used so I don’t have much to say about lodging. So here’s a video of my casa and brief walk.
Street food should be no more than about $1 or $2 USD. In Old Habana be sure to try:
- the coco glase’ (coconut ice cream in the chell) at Soda Obispo, corner of Obispo and Villegas. Cost: 10 CUP
- congrejitas (fried guava paste) at a street mart on Paseo de Marti’. Cost : 1 CUP per piece
- tonkatsu at Crepe Sayu (the only Japanese place in all of Habana), corner of Aguacate and Muralla. Cost: 1-2 CUC
- People swear by Los Nardos on Paseo de Marti’. It was good but ambiance is better. Also inexpensive.
- 157 Compestela in Old Habana (address 157 Compestela). The ropa vieja is awesome.
- Esquina at the corner of Espada and Habana. Decent Italian food.
- 304 O’Reilly (address 304 O’Reilly). Local cuisine. BEST FOOD EVER! And such a cute little space.
Not spending much space here on food because I’m gonna do a separate food post.
Havana (or Habana, once you’re in country) is pretty walkable. At least Old Habana is. Otherwise, you’ll use cabs which are cheap. No more than 5 CUC per car for regular taxis and 10 CUP for the collective taxis. The regular taxis are yellow and look like….well, taxis. The collective taxis (collectivos) look like old classic cars and will likely already have people in them. You tell the driver where you wanna go and if he’s going that way, you get in. With everyone else. The collectivos run on certain routes. Easiest place to catch all cabs is from Parque Central which is walkable from pretty much anywhere in old Habana. If you’re staying in the more touristy Hotel Plaza, Saratoga, Ingleterra, Iberostarr or Hotel Sevilla, all of those hotels basically surround Parque Central. I didn’t ride the bicicyle taxes (aka BC taxis) or the weird little Mario Kart taxis (see below) so I don’t know the scoop on those.
And last but not least….
Cuba has wifi now! And you can easily identify the wifi spots by the dozens of people huddled around, face to screen. There is one hotel, the Saratoga, that has free wifi in the actual hotel rooms. The Hotel Plaza has a computer lab and the Iberostarr has wifi available in the lobby. The Floridita bar in Old Habana allegedly also has wifi but I was never able to connect there.
To access wifi, you’ll need to buy a wifi card. In Old Habana, the cards are available the telephone company on Obispo Street. Sorry, don’t recall the exact location but it won’t matter. There’s always a long line and they always run out of cards. It’s most frequented by the locals because cards there cost 2 CUC for one hour of internet.
Next option, go to the Hotel Plaza and veer to the right once you walk in. Straight at the back, there’s a window and you can purchase a wifi card there. It should cost 4.50 CUC for an hour of internet. They may also have 30 minute cards but I never purchased one. You can either use the card there at the computer lab or go across the street to Iberostarr hotel and use wifi in the comfort of their lobby.
Iberostarr has wifi cards for sale downstairs in the cafe. They’re 6 CUC. I bought two cards there before discovering the cheaper cards at Hotel Plaza. Wifi use in the lobby or Iberostarr is closed for non-guests at 8 PM.
If you skimmed most that above, here’s a brief take-away. Though, if you’re really considering going to Cuba, the above info should be really helpful.
- Download the xe.com app for offline currency conversion and the Triposo Cuba app for offline map and to-do suggestions. Note: the Triposo map GPS works on satellite, not network, so you can find yourself on the map and get directions offline.
- Take enough money and change a little at a time, not all at once. You don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of Cuban pesos at the end of your trip. And don’t take US dollars to convert.
- Roll with the punches. Cuba is not like any other destination really, even other
third worlddeveloping countries. This is because Cuba has been so very isolated from the rest of the world and especially from Americans. Sometimes water, electricity or internet (what little there is) just stop working. It’s business as usual in Cuba.
- Cuba is safe. Locals are technically forbidden from interacting with foreigners/tourists so most will just leave you alone. Unless you’re a woman and then you may get annoyed by the kissy noises and constant “beautiful laaaaady” cat-calling from men. Otherwise, no issues.
- Access wifi at the Hotel Plaza or Iberostarr.
What did I miss? What questions do you still have? Comment!
Upcoming posts coming soon…
…food, the Jakera educational program, photo gallery, daily journals….