I have been waiting to write this guide for a long, long time. There is something about the Cuban culture I adore, from the festive salsa blasting in the streets to the delicious taste of some of the country’s finest treats, I knew when my vacation came to an end, it would be hard to leave. The Cuban people may not have connections to the world around them but they live happily, full of life and a strong sense of pride for their heritage.
First, let’s get some things cleared up. Any negative things you may have heard about traveling to Cuba are not true. Yes it is a culture unlike most others for their lack of connection to the rest of the world and yes it is a third world country. No it is not dangerous, I felt safer than I have in many nearby countries and no it is not difficult at all to visit this exclusive piece of the Caribbean. Do keep in mind that Cuba is not in the best economic state, so many of the citizens live simply and do not flash the little that they have. With that being said, do not overdress, wear lots of jewelry or show off your designer. Just like in any impoverished nation, this can attract the wrong attention.
Now that U.S. citizens are able to travel to Cuba, the airlines that do offer flights directly to Havana from Miami will issue your Cuban Visa directly at the airport. Do allow yourself ample time to get in line for your visa in addition to the check-in and security line. The price for your visa will vary depending on the airline you choose to fly with. Some of the main airlines visa prices are as follows:
JET BLUE- $50 DELTA- $50 AMERICAN AIRLINES- $100
This price includes your fees for your Cuba arrival and departure. The airlines have made it very easy to get there smoothly and quickly. Departing from Miami instead of flying directly from Chicago was best for me because I saved money and got a few nights in Miami added onto the trip, which is always, always a good idea. There are many other major cities in the U.S. offering direct flights to Havana as well.
Cuba is set back in terms of their connection to the web and what seems like the rest of the world since the Internet and social media plays such a big role in the rest of the globe’s everyday routine. For this reason, it is very important that you have a thorough itinerary set up before your arrival. I highly suggest getting a tour guide. Our guide was able to set up all our reservations and transportation for the 5 day, 4 night trip.
In Cuba the majority of the restaurants and businesses are government owned. Because of this, there is a large portion of restaurants that have similar food that can almost give you a sense of disappointment if you eat the same food and taste the same flavors for the entire trip. This is where you’ll need a tour guide or some help getting reservations to some of Cuba’s finest Paladars.
Paladars are privately owned restaurants in Cuba that have been around for a long time and will embody all the expectations you have for fine Cuban cuisine. Because of their exclusivity, YOU NEED RESERVATIONS. There is no way you’ll get to enjoy any of these heaven sent Havana spots without a reservation which is hard when you can’t necessarily reserve online or over the phone. That tour guide is almost necessary.
Tipping in Cuba is similar to the United States, an average of 15% is normal but of course can be less or more depending on the service that you have received. Many tour guides may even accept USD or Euros if you ask them before hand because they can get a better exchange rate than tourists can. Don’t be afraid to ask, it doesn’t hurt to try.
As far as money goes, it is very very important that you travel to Cuba with ALL the money you’ll be needing for the duration of the trip. The ATMS will only accept national bank cards so any debit or credit cards you bring with you will not work. Once you arrive in Havana, all money exchanges can be made right outside of the airport. Beware of people in the airport bathrooms or standing near arrivals offering to exchange money. Even though they may be offering a better rate, this is illegal and not guaranteed as they can easily take off with your money. This would be the worst way to state your trip, better safe than sorry.
Do not pay mind to the two different Cuban currencies because that can be confusing. The only currency that is used by tourists is CUC. The other currency that you will see and hear of is CUP and is used solely by the Cuban people. Again, you’ll only need to worry about converting your money to CUC; that is what you’ll use to pay for everything.
If you do decide not to go with a tour guide, it is going to take a lot more effort to get where you need to go. Beware of unlicensed taxis as they can overcharge or get you into trouble because it is illegal for them to run without government permission. For all other taxis, be sure to discuss a rate before you get in. You can always bargain for a better rate and if you are happy with your driver, do not hesitate to ask if they are available to pick you up on another day and take you sight seeing or on a car tour. It is fairly easy to hire a taxi and work out a deal once you’ve found one. The small yellow coco taxis like the one in the picture below are an awesome and quick way to get around Havana and can be a lot cheaper than a regular taxi.
One very important thing to avoid in Cuba is government talk. If someone is asking about your own government, you are entitled to your opinion of course. However, bringing up Fidel and expressing any negative opinions of their government or the time he spent as the leader of Cuba is not appropriate. We have a very different view of Fidel and what he has done for the country as outsiders but you have to respect the fact that many of the Cuban people loved him and respected him, as you will see in the murals, billboards and quotes of him around the city. Be careful not to offend anyone.