The Caribbean

Yes, Travel to Cuba is Legal!

Neesha and I wanted to do a post-birthday, pre-Valentine’s day mini-vacation and we were very interested in going to Cuba. I’ve read a bunch of travel blog posts describing the visa process for Americans, but we were still very hesitant to book our flights. After doing extensive research and ignoring our gnawing fear that the government will swoop down on us and throw us in jail, we bought our tickets!

Neesha walking down a street in Old Havana

Sexuality, Gender, and Race in Havana, Cuba

Cuba is very gay-friendly (Fidel’s daughter identifies as a lesbian and has been pushing for LGBT rights for years) and we felt safe there as a same-sex couple. As with any other countries, there was a high visibility of gay men and a lack of spaces dedicated to woman of color (what’s new?). Our first taxi driver made us a little bit uncomfortable because we thought he asked us if we were together (though we weren’t sure), but he wasn’t rude about it. We received plenty of stares while walking around  but most of the stares were directed towards me (most likely wondering what I was).

When we travel internationally, we do not show any public affection at all so we don’t know what reactions would’ve been like if we held hands.

How Do Americans Travel to Cuba?

Like us, you probably went to the Travel State Government site to get more information about Americans traveling into Cuba. The language on the website is unclear and deceitful, so I highly suggest not using this page as a resource. Trump did make some changes for American tourism in Cuba, but it is still legal to travel as a tourist. There are twelve categories of authorized travel to Cuba and prior to November 2017, many Americans used the People to People category to travel without a group. That option is no longer available but you are able to travel under the Support the People category.

So what do you do instead?

When purchasing a ticket for Cuba, buy directly from the airline since most third-party websites won’t allow the purchase. I recommend flying with Jetblue if you’re located in the New York City area.  The flight is direct, just over three hours, and not costly. We bought our tickets a couple of weeks prior to our departure date and they were only $300 round trip per person. We even traveled during peak season!

Buying a ticket to Cuba is just like buying a ticket to any other country. You will eventually reach a section that asks what category you are traveling under (Support the People) and pay for your tickets! Yes, it is that simple!

What does Support the People mean?  

If you’re traveling under Support the People, it means you are traveling to literally to support the Cuban people. You support the Cuban people by staying in Casa Particulares (a room in a local’s household) and eating at Paladares (restaurants owned by Cubans, sometimes located in their households). These restrictions will not affect you negatively because Americans are not legally allowed to stay at government-owned hotels anyways and the government owned restaurants aren’t known for their quality of food.  While neither Cuba or the United States asked for proof that we supported the people, it is important to note that the United States government is legally allowed to ask you for your Cuban itinerary for up to five years.

If you didn’t book accommodations in advanced (I HIGHLY recommend you do) or if you’re backpacking, these signs are ALL over Old Havana and you can easily walk into these households and rent a room

Visa and Health Insurance

Yes, you do need a tourist visa and health insurance to enter Cuba. You can purchase your visa when you check-in for your flight. The tourist visa costs $50.00 per person and can only be paid for by a credit/debit card (Jetblue). It is illegal to enter the country without health insurance but when you purchase a ticket, you are also purchasing health insurance. Jetblue e-mailed us the health insurance forms a couple of days after purchasing our flight; be sure to print out the forms in case you need it.

How much should you bring?

You have to be mindful of how much money you bring because there is no way to take money out at the Cuban ATMs (unless you have bank account that’s not American). We brought about 800 USD for 4 days. We knew that there was no way we would spend 800 USD (well, we could’ve if we drank more) but we wanted to be safe in case we had to buy something unexpectedly or if we lost money.

We ended up spending about 600 USD but we weren’t the smartest spenders – we overspent with food on some occasions and we also spent 100 USD on paintings (I’m a sucker). 100 USD per couple per day is a reasonable budget but I recommend bringing more money in case of emergencies.

If you’re looking to spend less than 500 USD, don’t buy tourist trinkets, use public transportation when necessary, drink meagerly and eat at cheap-ish spots. For lunch/dinner, we spent  on average  25 CUC for the two of us including drinks. For breakfast, there are plenty of spots that have 5 CUC breakfast specials that include coffee, fruit, bread, meat, and eggs.

Essential Travel Items

  • Toilet paper (there will some restaurants/bars with toilet papers, some do not; be prepared!)
  • All toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, body wash, face wash, tampons/pads, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, etc. These items in Cuba are highly coveted and not readily accessible)
  • Closed shoes (I recommend walking around Havana solely in sneakers. The streets/buildings are deteriorating and there are plenty of holes/dirt roads/etc.)
  • Sunscreen (similar to toiletries, sunscreen is highly coveted. It gets hot and sunny in Cuba though we didn’t use ours; we went while it was overcast and a bit chilly).
  • Wet wipes (some locations may not have running water or soap)

If you have an excess of toiletries, I highly recommend giving them to a Cuban local. Again, toiletries are highly coveted, and Cubans do not make enough money to be able to afford such items. Trust me, they’ll truly appreciate it! We gave left over toilet paper, pads, sunscreen, soap, etc. to a Cuban local selling tourist items and she was so appreciative.

  Check-in/Customs

 

Customs in Cuba

 

 Checking in for this flight was the EASIEST and shortest process I’ve ever been through. Because Jetblue’s check in station for Cuba is separated from other flights and there aren’t many people traveling to Cuba, the lines are super short. We got there three hours in advanced and we only took 20 minutes to check in. The immigration process when we arrived to Cuba was just as simple. Fun fact: when checking out of the Cuban airport, you must put your luggage through a scanner.

Currency

First and foremost, you cannot exchange your American dollars to Cuban currency in the United States.

In Cuba, there are two different currencies in use. There is the CUC and the CUP. The CUC is widely used by tourists and by locals as well. The CUP is the currency that locals receive monthly from the government. 24 CUPS = 1 CUC so the CUC is very valuable to local Cubans. Be sure to pay attention when buying items so you don’t get gipped and get your change back in CUP.

There is a 10% tax fee for exchanging USD to CUC so many travelers exchange their USD to EURO before heading off to Cuba. Neesha did not exchange her USD to EURO prior to departing while I did. There didn’t seem to be much of a difference when it came to us but we also brought different amounts of currency.

Exchanging Currency/Leaving the Airport

There will be an area in the departure area to exchange money (basically a row of ATM looking machines and  a long line) and I suggest staying on that line no matter how long it is! Other travel blogs shared that they went to the upstairs area to exchange money from the booths but when we did it, we ended up waiting on this line for about thirty minutes and then were told they do not have enough currency for us so we had to do the line on the bottom floor again so for your own sanity, stay on the bottom floor!

After exchanging your currency, you are free to leave the airport and to grab a taxi! Don’t worry, you don’t need to reserve a taxi prior to arriving – there are plenty yellow taxis who will take you into Havana. The average cost of a ride is 30 CUC and the same coming back. Be sure to print out the cross streets or download them onto your phone/tablet! Remember, there isn’t any WIFI.

Nancy & Neesha’s 3 day Itinerary

We decided to go for a long weekend so we arrived at Havana on Thursday morning and departed on Sunday morning. While I would’ve loved more to travel outside of Havana, I thought that the 2 ½ days was enough for the city.

We opted to stay at a private Airbnb right in the middle of Old Havana. We LOVED our Airbnb – our hosts were amazing and were so kind! I truly recommend staying at Tejadillo 1 – My Proud Havana for awesome hosting and a prime location! It was easy to hop onto a bici-taxi, find a taxi or walk to where we wanted to go! For three nights, we spent about $300 but there were plenty of Airbnb’s that can fit any budget! You can find accommodations for as low as $30 or as high as $500.

Day 1 (technically ½ day since we started late in the afternoon)

La Bodeguita del Medio

We stopped at La Bodeguita del Medio, one of the most famous Paladares in Havana, known for its mojitos. The mojitos in Cuba are NOT the same in the United States. While we’ve heard Cuba had the best mojitos, I didn’t enjoy them. There were plenty of travelers who LOVE Cuban mojitos though.  The bar spills out in the street where there are tourists and locals dancing. We went upstairs to sit down for lunch.  Unfortunately, the check wasn’t exactly what we were expected. We spent a total of 43 USD and I was caught off guard. We realized later that we spent WAY too much money for a sit-down meal and our check never went over 25 USD for any of our meals again (even though we ate pretty well). We did a rookie mistake – went to a touristy restaurant in a touristy area. Enjoy the mojitos there but go to a different restaurant for some food.

Drinks at Hotel Ambos

After walking around in circles for a couple of hours, we grabbed some drinks at Hotel Ambos. Go up the elevator to the rooftop, grab some drinks and look out into Havana or towards the ocean. We sat here during sunset and while it was a bit on the chilly side, it was a beautiful way to end our first day.

View from the roof of Hotel Ambos

Day Two

Callejon De Hamel

Entrance to Callejon de Hamel

We booked the Afro Religion tour with Havana Urban Adventures and it was definitely one of our highlights of the weekend. Callejon de Hamel is a street filled with murals by Salavaor Gonzales and focuses on the different Afro religions in Cuba. We walked through Salavador’s household and learned about different Afro-religions, culture and dances during our two hour tour. Our tour guide, Janet, was so knowledgeable and it was truly an amazing experience.

The Malecon

The Malecon is a strip by the ocean, filled with locals partying and drinking during the nighttime and fishermen during the daytime. It’s an approximately 8 km walk which ends at a beautiful salsa bar. We didn’t walk towards the end, but we walked the majority of the Malecon, enjoying the breeze and sprinkles of water before finding a bathroom (it’s not always easy). We stopped at the Hotel Nacional for a restroom and for mojitos.

 

Dinner

We had dinner at Esquinas, around the block from our Airbnb. It was a cute location on the second floor. As a heads up, Cuba is not a destination for a foodie. The food in Havana isn’t as terrible as I’ve read on multiple blogs but it’s not a location to visit to try out all the food. It’s great, filling, and cheap but that’s pretty much it.

Day 3

Playa De Este

If you have extra time to spend in Cuba, head over to Vedado (approximately two hours away from Havana) for the beach. If not, head over to Playa De Este! It’s only thirty minutes from Havana and accessible by public transportation and taxi. There’s a major bus stop by Parque Central and it costs 5 CUC for round trip transportation to Playa De Este. Since we didn’t wake up early enough and we had the extra money to pay for a cab, we found a taxi driver who gladly drove us to Playa de Este, Santa Maria de Mar for 25 CUC. He was SUCH a nice guy who got to know us while we drove us to the beach. We were even able to set up him picking us up in 2-3 hours and drop us off at the airport the next day. He was incredible and so helpful! There are plenty of cab drivers who will do this so if you strike up a conversation with your cab driver (you will), set up future plans with them if needed. They will most likely do it. As for transportation from Playa De Este, there are always plenty of taxi drivers at the beach.

Playa de Este

Salsa Dancing Class

Our absolute highlight of the trip was our salsa class, which we found on Airbnb Experiences. If you’re going to do anything we did, do THIS. We went to a Salsa Dancing Class with Milagros Caridad at her household. It was 55 USD each and absolutely worth it. We were a group of ten that started with a mini-lesson in her living room about rhythm and the different aspects of Cuban Salsa. We then went to her dance studio and had a two-hour salsa lesson and practiced with Milly and her two dancers who were FANTASTIC. Salsa was difficult for me but Milly and her team broke it down for us. It was a long Salsa lesson and by the end of it, we were exhausted! But after we learned Cuban Salsa, Milly called everyone a cab (cars from the 50’s) to head to a salsa bar at the end of the Malecon.

Salsa Bar
At Milly’s Dance Studio!

Once we arrived, Milly paid for our entrance and we sat at table while waiting for the salsa show to start.  Milly bought a bottom of Cuban Rum and Coke (hello Cuba Libre!), with appetizers. Neesha and I also got a sandwich which was 3 USD and that’s the only money we spent that night besides the taxi (and Milly will make sure you get in a taxi that will charge you a fair price). The salsa show started, and we had such a good time watching the show and dancing along with locals and tourists from all over the world! We practiced our moves that we learned with each other and other folks we met in our class. This is a guaranteed great time.

Day 4 – Heading Home

Our taxi driver picked us up right on time and we headed to the airport. We wanted to go to the airport early to ensure we would get in on time and we had a LOT of time left. Again, since there aren’t a lot of people traveling back and forth from Cuba and the United States, there was no line. What could stop you is the currency exchange line and the security line. We got through security seamlessly, exchanged our money and relaxed until we got on the plane. I wouldn’t bother getting your currency exchanged until you get through security and find a currency exchange booth – both of the booths on the 2nd floor didn’t have USD.

It was a seamless ride and while I was expecting some sort of confrontation while going through Customs on the American side, no one looked at us twice. It was a great trip and we were able to bring back home 250 USD.

 

Overall, we didn’t hit all of the spots we wanted. Below is a list of places we couldn’t get to but you should!

Let us know your experiences in Havana!What do you recommend?

 

 

 – Nancy

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