Cuba: What you don't know...
Our featured writer for Cuban Jetsets is @DomSamone, CQ's Founder. You can connect with her via Instagram but feel free to drop any Cuba recs in the comments section too! We'd love to hear what you did!
Okay, short story- Cuba was great! I’d heard great things but was still nervous about showing up since the fake news about the travel ban & ambiguity around how to get in and out of the country. Here are some highlights, wish-you-knew’s & the long story of my week-long wandering around Havana:
You'll need a visa to get into Cuba, and the how-to's vary by airline. Be attentive to the instructions they give during booking. I used "Support for the Cuban people" for my visit purpose and had no issues.
The airport you use to fly directly into Cuba may have a desk designated for Cuban visas (this was the case with JetBlue). It was a $50 fee for me in Ft. Lauderdale; I just asked the airline staff where to go. They asked for my passport, return flight confirmation, and credit card. Easy peasy.
When I arrived to Cuba, they asked for the same (plus my new visa) and sent me on my way. “Bienvenidos a Cuba!”
Lodging, Schmoney & Transportation from the Airport:
I booked my stay through AirBnB for a little under $200 for 6 nights (yea I said it). I always opt for “Entire Place” when booking because privacy and safety concerns, but made sure to find a place with an accessible host should I need anything. If you are looking for more hands-on hosts for your stay, just skim their descriptions when searching through the site.
I stayed in the equivalent of an in-laws quarters (or guest house) behind a huge hostel-style house in Vedado. The part of the city is known for its safety relative to other places in Havana and its pretty residential. I had the flexibility to visit the big house (which I typically did for their 5CUC daily breakfast), meet other tourists, and still have my own space and private entrance. The home was maintained as a family business where three generations lived, worked & provided some part of the experience for their guests. The abuela (who was my fave of the crew) explained they’d been renting out the house since 1991!
Here's a link to the property: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/15820922
After booking my stay on AirBnB, I reached out to my host to ask if he could arrange pick up for me from the airport (which ranges from 20-30 CUC), and also what the rates were if he exchanged my money.
He exchanged my USD at .90 to their CUC, but I found out later that its better to exchange your USD to EUR in the States and then exchange from EUR to CUC upon arrival since you’ll get more bang for your buck that way. Research either way, stay in the know.
My mentor recommended a tourism company that offers a “Jump Start” package on arrival. I believe it covers pickup from the airport, money exchange, wifi cards (read on for more), and reservations for dinner when you arrive. Here’s the link for more info: www.hostedhavana.com
Take extra cash with you if you have the flexibility to, since US cards do not work in the stores or ATMs. My standard travel spend budget is a flat and consistent $300. I made out okay with that & changed my emergency funds only to buy cigars and pay for the taxi back to the airport.
Taxis/Public Transportation in and around Havana:
What I learned the hard way was that there’s a “collective taxi” in Havana, which costs 1CUC. Short story is you stand on the sidewalk until a driver stops to ask where you’re going. They'll either let you in or pull off, some more politely than others. They work like Uber Pools, except you’ll likely get dropped in general vicinity instead of at the door of your destination. It’s the cheapest way to get around if you’re travelling solo or in a small group. Great right?
I didn’t know this until the third or fourth day and would ask the drivers how much the trip cost before getting in. They quoted me anywhere from 5-10CUC (which I paid), obviously until I learned they cost about a dollar. I got got yall. The trick is to say less and have the 1CUC handy when you get close to where you're going.
The personal taxis to get around Havana typically cost 5CUC no matter where you go, just remember to haggle and be firm in your offering. What you don’t know will hurt your pockets.
Taxis to the nearby beaches, Playas del Este (which are about 25-30 minutes out of Havana), and Veradero (which is about 2 hours out) cost 25CUC each way. I visited in the middle of the winter (aka rainy season) so it wasn’t worth it for me to pay 50CUC RT to sit on the beach in the rain and wind.
The public buses are pretty smelly, overcrowded, and you best watch your purse and pockets. I’m all for immersion though, so I did use them a few times to get around the city. They cost 50cents each way- have exact change.
Most people know I’m picky as hell with food, so I don’t typically take away many restaurant recommendations while travelling. There were a few spots I did LOVE though; El Idilio and El Cimmaron- both are in Vedado. El Idilio was two blocks over from my place so I ate there three or four times over the course of the week. I recommend the Salmon Ravioli and their perfect Caipirinhas (they reminded me so much of late night drinking in Madrid).
I wrote about El Cimmaron in one of my lengthier IG posts, but short story is it’s an Afro-Cubano owned, community-based business. Its bigger than food for them. You’ll see when you stop by.
I didn’t plan appropriately for this the first go-round, but I did learn how to get to Viñales from the abuela at my house. It's a small countryside town known for handmade cigars and cave excursions. For a day trip you can purchase a ticket from the Borough de Turismo in Hotel Havana Libre. It covers round-trip bus transportation, a meal once in Viñales and the group guide for ~70CUC per person.
Taxis there cost 25CUC each way, but are scarce for the return trip to Havana. Most people recommended going and booking a room for a day or two, then hiring the same driver to return.
If I could redo my trip I would’ve worked this into my schedule better and bought my bus ticket earlier on in the week.
Theres apparently a cheaper public bus to Viñales, but Google is your best friend there since I know nothing else about it.
The one thing I would recommend as a must-do for the weekend is to visit Fabrica de Arte in Vedado. It’s an art-gallery turned nightclub open on the weekends. I went on a Sunday night with someone I’d met in my neighborhood earlier that day & had a blast. I browsed the galleries for a couple hours before they closed them and forced everyone into the first floor to party. There was live music, various stages, performances, vendors, food, drinks, a garden-style outdoors areas if you’re into Nicotine- it was perfect. The crowd was super mixed, the DJs were amazing, and I even ran into someone from Philly. Small world.
The guy I went with did ditch me (with no warning) after a while, so I walked around the corner to the bus stop after the let out & caught the P5 bus home. I had to wait maybe 5-10 minutes for the bus to my place, but was so happy that they ran so late!
There were a few other venue recommendations I never actually made it out to, but people consistently suggested Hotel Cohiba and Jazz Café for weekend nightlife as well.
I got "lost" (long story) one night, and ended up in Old Havana far far away from my destination. There were A LOT of clubs, bars, lounges, etc along the busier roads. Be open to wandering, you may stumble upon a dope spot. There was always something live to do at night.
Sprint has a pretty thorough international plan (which is free in most places), but their service was expensive in Cuba so I just shut my data off for the week. Like everyone else in the country, I went to the wifi parks and used FaceTime, Instagram and iMessage to connect with my folk back at home. The wifi cards were good for an hour and cost 2CUC. You can buy them from someone in the parks. Go during the day and ask around- you'll find them.
There were a few random mental notes I took while in Havana, they're still so fresh (and so random) in my mind:
a) They had barbershops and nail salons everywhere in Old Havana. It was kinda like Chinese stores and Delis in the hood!
b) We drove by a cemetery on one of those big bus tours and I noticed the graves seemed to be above ground. Think uniform caskets, all above ground. It was so odd to see!
c) The catcalling! I went solo and thankfully came home in one piece. The catcalling was uncomfortable. That is a vast understatement. I still haven't decided to what extent I felt unsafe, but it definitely had me peeking over my shoulders a little more than normal which kind of sucked. I was told the police are no-nonsense there, so the Cubanos will harass you to and through the ends of the earth but they won't touch you. My personal experience was just that, except another tourist thought to grab me inappropriately after jumping in a photo with me.
If you can go to Cuba together, I'd recommend doing that. I was okay wandering around aside from that one incident but I did feel significantly more comfortable when I wasn't alone.
(For women travelers: there's some macho misogynist juju in the air in Cuba. Please be cautious and mindful of your surroundings as with any other place).
Before I forget! I bought my flight for $250RT (it was priced lower because of the rainy season), spent around $200 for my housing for the week, plus my standard $300 spending budget, and the $50 extra I exchanged last minute for jewelry and souvenirs. That comes to ~$800 for the entire weeklong trip to Cuba.
If you dont know much about flight deals- GOOGLE. People post popular sites to use, new apps, etc etc etc. Just start looking! I check Google Flights like I check my email, subscribe to AirfareWatchDog, TravelPirates, etc and on occasion use the Hopper app to find great flight prices.
I'm determined to see 30 countries by my 30th and Cuba made for a sweet sixteenth. I'd definitely recommend going.
Have y'all been to Cuba? Is it on your bucket list? Have recommendations? Lets connect!