Americans in Cuba! A Crash Course

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I just spent a week in Havana, there for the Havana Triathlon (read my race report here). There’s still a lot that’s confusing about travel to Cuba for Americans, and there were quite a few little insights I wish I’d known before I traveled there.

This is by no means comprehensive; it’s simply tidbits that others might find helpful.

Getting There

You’ll unearth all sorts of disturbing requirements prior to your trip. It turns out that none of them were really a big deal.

An official reason to travel — When you book your flight, you’ll have to choose from one of 11 official reasons. I was doing a triathlon, which qualified as a sporting event. I printed my registration, but no aside from when I first booked my flight, no one ever asked me for any sort of proof. I met a bunch of Americans traveling on the “cultural exchange” reason. No one ever asked.

Visa — you need one, yes. But you simply get it at the airport at the airline ticket counter (check with your carrier). Mine from JetBlue cost $50, payable in cash or credit card.

Medical insurance — Your insurance won’t cover you in Cuba, and Cuba requires you to have coverage. With my JetBlue flight, this required health insurance was included in the cost of my ticket. They advised me that all I needed for proof was my boarding pass. No one in Cuba ever asked for this.

Money

There are two currencies in Cuba. Locals use Cuban pesos. Tourists use convertible pesos, called CUCs (“kooks”). CUCs track with the US dollar.

You can’t get Cuban currency outside of Cuba, so you will have to wait until you get there to change money. If you are changing US dollars, however, you’ll pay a 10% penalty. So $100 will get you something like 90 CUCs.

Tip: Before you travel, change your money at a bank at home to Euros or Canadian dollars. Then change those in Cuba to CUCs and you won’t pay the 10% penalty.

Bring all the cash you need — this is important. Your US credit cards and ATM card will NOT WORK in Cuba. I brought $100/day and that worked for me. Bring more if you want to buy cigars (see below).

Change money at the airport, after you clear customs. The lines may be long. If your hotel  offers a shuttle, take it. Major hotels all exchange currency and rates are similar to the airport.

A taxi from the airport to Vedado or central Havana should cost $25-$30. The only time I ever felt I was being ripped off were with taxis. It’s the only time I haggled. Ask at your lodging about how much taxis should cost to various parts of town and use that as your guide.

Once you have your CUCs, take every opportunity to break your big bills. 3 and 5 CUC notes, and 1 CUC coins are really helpful to have. Smaller shops, including pastry shops and small restaurants, will not have change for large bills.

You might also get change in the local currency. That’s not terrible–you can spend it in small establishments or use for tips.

Types of lodging

Casa particular — Cubans can lease out two rooms in their homes to tourists, called a “casa particular.” The government regulates the price at $35 for a single person, $45 for double. Check TripAdvisor for reviews. You can contact most by email, and you pay when you get there. Most include breakfast, too.

Hotels — There are plenty of hotels in Havana and elsewhere, and the prices are similar to the US: $100 – $250 per night. Normal Cubans are not allowed to stay in them at all.

Air BnB — has a big presence here. You can find $10 per night rooms in homes, or $80 – $100 for a two-bedroom flat all to yourself. Plus you can read reviews and pay online.

Where to stay: Location

There are three areas within walking distance to Habana Vieja, the old part of the city. You could stay in Habana Vieja itself, which will be in the center of action, but also full of tourists and more expensive bars and restaurants.

Habana Centro is next to Havana Vieja, and I found it roughly equivalent to Harlem here in NYC. Working people, lots of small shops, great street life. I found it very vibrant.

Vedado is a large area that’s about 5km from old Havana; walkable or a short cab ride. Vedado has a residential feel, with some pretty large homes. There are shops and such along Calle 23.

Miramar is further out, but suburban and quiet.

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Shopping

Try to spend some time understanding how actual Cubans get by. There are no large grocery stores. It’s all tiny shops that sell a few things, and they often aren’t marked. Buy bread, fruit, and pastries at these little shops. Bring a bag with you–they often are not provided.

Souvenirs — It’s the usual tourist crap of T-shirts and ashtrays. No actual Cubans wear Che Guevara t-shirts or wear the army-green cap that Castro wore. I didn’t buy any of that stuff.

Art — Cuban artists are amazing. Wander through Centro or Habana Viejo and you will stumble upon artists studios and small galleries. Expensive art requires a special permit to take out of the country, but the gallery will help you with that.

Cigars — Few Cubans smoke cigars; they’re simply too expensive. The Romeo and Juliet factory in Centro has tours and a good shop. The major hotels all have cigar shops and can educate you on what to buy. Prices range from $5 to $25 per cigar. You can legally bring 100 cigars back with you to the US. There is also a cigar shop at the airport, after security.

Rum — Rum is another good gift, and it’s so inexpensive. Prices are similar in most places, so I’d recommend buying at duty free at the airport. Otherwise, be sure to pack in your checked luggage or it will be confiscated.

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Museums and activities

Most museums charge about 5 CUC and are open Tuesday or Wednesday through Sunday. Most seemed closed on Mondays and sometimes also Tuesdays.

Theater –– good luck on this one. I really wanted to see a ballet or dance performance but could find ZERO info online about when performances were. Let me know if you have any tricks.

Food and drink

I heard a lot that the food was going to be terrible in Cuba. I didn’t find that to be true, although the choices were usually the same everywhere. Most food isn’t seasoned interestingly. Most sit-down restaurants have an English menu.

You’ll find mainly Cuban food, which is meat-heavy. You’ll also find some Italian food and pizza. I found no Thai, Indian, Mexican, or really any other ethnic food at all. Ask for recommendations for “paladars” which are private restaurants in people’s homes. Expect to pay $7 – $15 for dinner and a drink unless you’re dining in a hotel.

Drinks are cheap. There are three beers: Crystal is a light lager. I liked Bucadero, a darker beer similar to a Negro Modelo. El Presidente is another light lager. All cost about 1 CUC outside the main tourist areas, and about 2 CUC at more touristy places. Cocktails cost 2-4 CUC. Rum drinks are the best! Get mojitos!

You will want to stick to bottled water, easy to find at hotels, markets and liquor stores.

Classic cars

1950’s Chevy’s, Fords and Plymouths are everywhere. Some are in pristine condition, but most are not. It’s still cool to ride in them. You can hire them with a driver for an hour for a driving tour for 15-25 CUC. They also operate as regular taxis.

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