Welcome to Cuba
When I booked my trip to Cuba I really didn’t have any expectations. I just know I wanted to go before some authority figure in the United States decided to make it impossible to go again or before there was a Starbucks on every corner and a theme park. Basically before it becomes Americanized and whored out specially for tourists. My main goal was to bring back a box of Cuban cigars and some Rum. I managed to do 1 out of 2. I’ll explain about that later down in the article. Overall, Cuba was a cool place to visit and there were tons of tourists there. American, European, Asian…you name it. If you think this is some forbidden place where non Cubans are scarce, then you’ve got the wrong idea.
What You Need to Go to Cuba
Technically it’s still illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba as of 2017 from what I’m told, unless you are traveling for tourism purposes. The rules around this seem to change from year to year so make sure you have everything required to fly there as noted by the airline you choose. They will (or should) list everything required to go. I flew through Delta from Atlanta roundtrip for about $350 and had a direct flight.
Obviously you need your passport. Make sure it’s not about to expire or will expire while you’re in Cuba.
You will also need a Cuban Visa. At the time I went (February 2017) it is good for thirty days. This is something you will purchase at the airport though. It costs anywhere from $20 to $50. It’s weird because the agent who was helping me fill out my paperwork forgot to charge me anything. Oh well.
They will have you fill out a form that asks you why you’re going to Cuba. This is for immigration. None of this seems to be enforced. I filled out on the form I was going for media/journalism purposes as well as educational purpose. Other people I chatted with in line just said they were either going for educational purposes or tourism purposes. Again, I think this only comes into play if you get to Cuba and do something stupid like get arrested or kicked out.
Cuban Currency and Money Exchange
So, there are little to no places that accept American debit cards and credit cards. You will need cash. Which means you really need to plan what activities you think you’re going to do before you go so that you take enough cash. Cuba has two different kinds of currency. They use CUC and CUP. You have to do your money exchange once in Cuba. At the time of me writing this, no banks in the US will have this currency to exchange before you get there. On average you can get by on $100 per day, but I took enough that allowed me $150-$200 per day. Being as I didn’t do as much as I thought (tours, hiking, etc), I ended up bringing a few hundred Euros back and switched it back for USD at my local bank.
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency, pegged to the American dollar. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use, and worth a lot less. So when you exchange money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC.
You can exchange US dollars for CUC, but there is a special 15% penalty fee for this service. So it’s cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos for CUC instead.
Personally, I went to the bank beforehand and bought Euros. There was a one to one ratio pretty much in Cuba for Euros so I really didn’t need to exchange money once I got there for their currency, however every time I spent money my change came in CUC (their currency).
Internet and Wifi
It’s pretty much non existent or weaker than what you’re probably used to. You have to use wifi from some of the hotels and must be a guest to do so. You can also buy some cards that give you a certain amount of minutes and data, but there are certain areas you need to be in order to get access. In my district there was a little park outside where everyone sat and you could see them all on their mobile devices using wifi.
I kept my phone off the entire time, I really didn’t want to deal with the hassle. All the tourists I spoke with complained about it (or lack thereof) so I just didn’t want to be bothered with it. I guess if you’re an Instagram or Facebook or whatever addict you will probably feel like you’re in hell. If this is the case where you lose your sanity if you can’t tag your location and take selfies every three minutes while on vacation then you may want to choose another place…or stay in a hotel and talk to them about it beforehand.
Where I Stayed
I stayed in a district called Vedado. It is a central business district and urban neighborhood in the city of Havana, Cuba. From what I was told and what I experienced — it was one of the safest districts that was close to Havana as well as a lot of other places like hotels, grocery store, restaurants, etc. It’s about 10 minutes away from Havana in a cab…maybe 30 minutes walking if that’s your thing.
I stayed in an apartment I rented through an Airbnb type of website. It ran me about $75USD per day for a two bedroom, two bathroom spot. Keep in mind everything in Cuba including housing is pretty old so don’t expect luxury in residential areas, but if you’ve ever traveled outside of the country and are cool with that then you will be just fine. To get hot water I had to light the pilot ten minutes before taking a shower and remember to turn it off after I was done. The most important thing to me was the area was safe and it was. Old people were literally outside walking around at 2am. Nobody seemed to be concerned about danger or drama. All the neighbors were cool and people were friendly when walking up and down the street. If you spoke or smiled they spoke or smiled back. It’s the opposite of how people are in most American cities pretty much :/
Cuban Locals & Cuban Cigars
Despite what you’ve heard, the locals were cool as hell. Keep in mind a majority of everyone down there speaks Spanish so it helps to at least know some basic words or phrases. The amount of words I knew I could count on one hand and the phrases I tried to remember before I left — I forgot by the time I got there. I still did okay. Like anywhere else, the locals all have a lot of different hustles and everyone will try to sell you something, or get you to come in their bar, or buy their cigars, or whatever. You literally can be talking to someone who drives a taxi and ask about anything and he will either say he sells it or take you to his homeboy who does.
If you are looking for Cuban cigars DO NOT buy them from random people on the street no matter what line of bullshit they try to sell you. I made the mistake of asking one guy where I could get some Cuban cigars and he mentioned he had some of the best. After saying “show me” he proceeds to say “follow me!”….if you decide to buy anything from the street this will be the line you will hear the most…”FOLLOW ME”.
Proceed with caution.
I ended up following this dude in what seemed like a public building (we were in the middle of Old Havana in the midst of dozens of tourists), but as we got further inside it was obviously some type of housing apartment complex. Suddenly there was a lot less lighting. No windows. Next thing I know, there’s another guy behind me as I walk up the stairs and two more dudes that take notice and trail along as well. My buddy was with me and gave me the look like “WTF have we just walked into?”. The main guy opens his apartment door and says “Entrar…”…I nodded and stood at the door and said “Nah I can see from here.” My buddy took one step inside. Two guys stand behind us and the third guy walks inside the apartment and reaches under a dirty mattress. He pulls out a box of cigars (that’s already been opened) and says “You give me $100 USD”. I examined the box like I was halfway interested and then smelled them. They were stale and hard. I smiled and said “Wow amigo this smells like heaven!”. They all started laughing. I start to laugh with them. All of us laughing for different reasons. I’m laughing like “No got damn way I’m buying this crap” and them probably laughing like “We got us a sucker.” Long story short, I made up something about wanting to eat dinner before I buy cigars and smoke. They haggled us for five minutes more and we managed to bullshit our way out. On the way out they tried to sell us more stuff, everything from Rum to some random girls they said knew. I was tuned out at this point.
As we walked down the streets of Havana at least ten more people tried to sell us Cuban cigars. They prey on tourists. Keep in mind the average monthly salary in Cuba is about $30 USD so common sense will tell you everybody and their mommas will not have the authentic cigars.
Here’s a few tips on how to spot fake Cuban Cigars
- The box has no government stamp or “Habanos S.A.” seal on the right top-hand corner or a warranty seal on the left side.
- The wrapper looks crappy. The wrapper determines much of the cigar’s character and flavor, and it should be smooth, like a piece of typing paper.
- If the color of the cigar doesn’t match the rest of the cigars in teh box then something’s off.
- The smell. If it stinks then you’re probably about to get screwed. A classic Cuban smells like a barnyard with hay, earth and grass. There’s a very natural smell to it.
There was a moderate to heavy police presence in Havana and Vedado, the district I was in. Sometimes they would be in random places at odd times. At 2am I saw a single cop just standing on the corner. Then at 11pm there were two cops across the street from each other with a police dog. They all looked like they didn’t want to be f*cked with. Just FYI – marijuana is highly illegal there and from what I read somewhere you can get a maximum of life in prison. Leave it and don’t mess with it while you’re there.
They are all throughout Havana so you will be safe. Again, it is very tourist heavy as well. But if you’re the type who gets sh*tface drunk in public or typically gets involved in drama in public…this isn’t the place to do all that. Especially if you don’t speak Spanish!
You can ride in regular taxis or you can ride in the vintage cars for taxi service as well. The price is more or less the same depending on where you’re going. I was about 15 minutes from Havana and paid anywhere from $10 to $15 Euros back and forth depending on who I was dealing with.
The buses are about 1 CUP/CUC but since the bus routes are kind of hard to understand I stayed away from it and just caught a taxi where ever I wanted to go. Either one is safe, just depends on your preference.
The Food in Cuba
Due to its trade restrictions, Cuba lacks in its culinary tasty delights; so don’t expect outstanding meals. Yea, you can find some good food here and there but it is definitely not the norm. None of the other tourists we spoke with had anything good to say about the food overall. I found myself going to the expensive hotels and eating at their restaurants…it was hit or miss. Stay away from the smaller local restaurants. My friend got sick on the last day after eating at one of the places and complained about the “chicken” having a very bad taste. I wonder if he actually had chicken or if it was something else LOL…
Oh yea, don’t drink the water either. It’s not safe. Buy all your water. Bottled.
Bringing Souvenirs Back
At the time of this writing you can bring back $400 worth of souvenirs and $100 worth of Cuban Cigars. It was stressed to me by one of the locals to make sure my Cuban Cigar box has the official stamp on it to get through customs. I’m assuming this is to make sure you bought from an authorized dealer and not one of the locals in case you laced it with cocaine or something, who knows.
One observation — coming back through customs and the airport just before getting to my gate, I had a bottle of Rum I purchased in a bag that I was holding in my hand. My camera bag and carry on bag were completely full. As my bottle of Rum went through the final scanner (it was still in a box and the bag I purchased it in) a cute Cuban customs woman grabbed it firmly, raised it in the air, grilled me and said firmly “NOT POSSIBLE!” in broken english…then SLAMMED it in a nearby bright yellow trash can. Since I don’t speak Spanish I had no idea what the issue was. She walked away while I stood there and a few people looked at me like WTF. At this point, I was ready to get on the plane and I didn’t want any drama over in Cuba. The bottle was $20 Euros. I moved on. Whatever. Ironically…ten feet away was a big ass sign in the airport that said “Buy RUM” and the store sold all types of liquor :/
A few people who took notice mentioned they had rum in their bags, but I noticed the common denominator with them is that they all had it inside their bags and concealed. I guess the “NOT POSSIBLE” woman was basically saying “You can’t have this out like this”…who knows. I chalked it up as a loss and got on the plane. Make sure you keep your stuff in your bag. It just so happened I traveled light and didn’t have enough room.
Here’s a list of places you should try to visit when going to old Havana. I only went to a few of these places because personally I don’t like having a punch list of things to do when I’m on vacation, however it helps to have some sense of direction when you’re in a new country and want to get your tourism on.
- El Gran Teatro De La Habana
- Museo De La Revolucion
- Plaza De Armas
- Plaza De Sanfrancisco
- Museo Del Chocolate
- Feria De Artezania
- Museo Del Ron
- Bodeguita Del Medio
- Plaza Vieja
- La Catedral
- La Casa Del Abanico
- Museo Nacional De Bellas Artes
- Fabrica De Cerveza
Here is a list of some popular spots to go to in Cuba after dark. I hit a few of these places and enjoyed myself. However, I will say during the weekday several bars and clubs were almost empty. Maybe it was the week we went, I have no idea, but it was a Wednesday and Thursday. In contrast, Friday, Saturday and Sunday seemed to be the best times to enjoy the nightlife.
- El Gato Tuerto (This is in Vedado district)
- Parisien (Hotel Nacional)
- El Turquino (Hotel Habana Libre En L Y 23)
- Fabrica De Arte (Calle 26)
- Pico Blanco (Hotel St. John)
- Salon Rojo (If you’re a single heterosexual male make sure you go here Saturday and Sunday…trust me on this and make it a priority)
- Tropicana (Turismo Hotel Vedado)
- La Zorra Y El Cuervo
- Casa De La Musica
- Club Cocodrilo