Having recently spent a week in Cuba I’ve decided to put together a travel guide because the interest in traveling to the island from friends, family and readers has been overwhelming. This post will focus on booking your trip, since I’ve fielded tons of questions on how to go about doing so. We’ve also written a second part that focuses on our itinerary to Havana and, our fashion guide of what to wear in Cuba.
First, the practical tips for booking a trip. We had a lot of anxiety booking this trip since Cuba is technically off limits to U.S. travelers looking to explore the island for tourism. But, don’t let that deter you as the Visa process is extremely easy. As American citizens you will need to have one of twelve approved reasons to visit Cuba in order to get a visa. These include a work visa, journalism, etc. If you’re going for tourism purposes, choose the “People to people/education” option on all of your documentation, from when you are booking airfare, to when you are buying your visa to get into the country. You don’t need to actually get the Visa until the morning of your flight and it’s easy peasy.
The morning of your flight, get to the airport a little earlier than you normally would and follow the signs for your airline’s Cuban visa entry. You will wait in a small line, fill out a form, pay $50 and voila, you’re good to go, no questions asked. It is literally as simple as that. Just don’t lose the visas, since you need one to get on the airplane, and you need one to leave Cuba. On your return into the U.S. customs is super easy. They hardly ask any questions about the reason for your travel and I even got my passport stamped when we were in Cuba.
In terms of where to stay and where to go, be aware that booking things in Cuba is much more difficult than other places, so give yourself a longer lead time. For one, there is hardly any internet on the island, so communicating with people there is much more complicated. We stayed in a hotel only because it was a last minute trip. When I go back, I will be using Airbnb or staying at a casa particular– a very common way to stay in Cuba. You essentially stay in a local person’s home and they will either rent it out to you in full or stay with you and cook you breakfast. It is the best way to learn about their culture. Plus, hotel stays aid the Cuban government which has oppressed its people. We liked the idea of staying with locals or doing Airbnb and helping the Cuban people. Also, both options are super cheap at between $20 and $60 each night. (Hotels are much, much more expensive. Hotel Nacional, which is the nicest, could be $400+/night. Mid-range hotels are more than $100/night)
Be aware that communicating with Airbnbs and casa particulars while trying to book takes a lot longer time than it would in the U.S. And, you’ll have the frustrating experience of finding great Airbnbs which show up as available on the website, only to contact the owner and learn they have already been booked. Because of lack of internet, it takes the owners longer to mark the homes as booked. Even so, I suggest doing all of your booking yourself. Travel agents will make life easier, but what could be a really inexpensive trip will balloon into a $5,000 trip (seriously. They even charge more than $100 for the visas above)
Getting around Cuba can be challenging, especially without the aid of Google Maps, which won’t work on your phone. I highly suggest coming up with a rough itinerary of museums, restaurants, hotels and other sights you want to see while in Cuba and dropping pins on your Google Maps prior to leaving the U.S. Pre-dropping pins will allow you to navigate where you need to go while you are there. I’d suggest pinning anything you may consider doing just to be safe.
Pack anything you may need while on your trip, since shopping while there isn’t really an option. We packed Tylenol, bug spray, stomach medicine, sunscreen, etc.
Take out money in advance because U.S. Credit cards don’t work in Cuba at all. When you take out your money, take out Euros as there is a 10% tax to convert U.S. dollars into Cuba’s local currency. Take out as much as you think you need and more because you can’t access ATMs. If you book an Airbnb, tours and other activities in advance, you will likely pay by credit card ahead of time, which is great. But some places require cash the day of, so keep that in mind. For a frame of reference for how much things cost, our most expensive dinner which had a ton of food and booze in Havana’s best restaurant only came to $40/head with a tip. Cab rides within Havana are around $5. Cabs to and from the airport will cost you around $20 each way.
Now, here are our suggestions for Havana. We didn’t make it to the countryside, but Vinales (two hours away from Havana and doable in a day trip. Havana Journeys tour group came highly recommended) and Trinidad (four hours away from Havana and more of a night or two trip) are supposed to be great. If you plan on doing either trip, spend three to four nights in Havana first.
Havana is wonderful and colorful and full of life and music. There are a few main sections of it: Old Havana, Centro Habana, Vedado and Mirimar. Old Havana (or Habana Viejo) is where we spent most of our time as it is the most iconic part of town, packed with restaurants, bars, live music and historic monuments and museums. It is also the most walkable part. (You can visit the other parts of Havana mentioned during a car tour, which we highly suggest and get into in our next guide)
Centro Habana is where the locals live. It is more gritty and spread out. There are fewer monuments and museums and such to visit. My favorite restaurant — La Guarida — is here, so it is definitely worth visiting.
Vedado is an upper class part of town that is green and leafy and full of mansions that must have been beautiful in their day before the city went into disrepair. It is an interesting blend of grand architecture and crumbling disarray. There are beautiful restaurants in palatial manors in this area, we will suggest them below.
Mirimar is the Beverly Hills of Havana. It is where the local celebrities, friends of Fidel and the like live. It is beautiful and spacious. It’s a good spot for dinner, but you likely won’t want to spend all your time here.
Before you go, I highly suggest reading Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” It’s a short read and Hemingway is such a fixture in Havana. You get a great feel for Havana’s culture and people through the book. Netflix also has a documentary that was a good primer called “The Forgotten Revolution” that is worth watching.
Stay tuned later this week for our Day by Day itineraries!