I knew on my first day in Havana last spring that I would be back to Cuba as soon as I could. The classic cars, the crumbling colonial buildings, the Malecon…it’s photographer nirvana. But it was the people that got to me the most. Cubans are funny, thoughtful, and incredibly resilient. And given the US embargo, which has had a devastating effect on Cuba, it amazes me how uniformly nice Cubans are to visitors from the States. I’ll leave it to others to parse blame for the economic conditions in Cuba and what percentage of responsibility goes to the Castros and what should be assigned the United States. What I am certain of is that we have as much to learn from Cubans as they do from us.
Cuba requires a little more thought than most trips where you can grab your passport and a credit card and you’ll be fine. Do that in Cuba and you’re not going to eat because USA credit cards don’t work there.
Even though I could have flown directly from the US, I opted to go through Cancun because it was cheaper than the over-priced charter flights from the States. $800 for a RT ticket from Miami to Havana?! I’ll be glad when regular airlines are flying to Havana from the States. Flights will be about half what they are with the charter flights. I also went through Cancun because I love spending at least a few days on Isla Mujeres on the way back.
Entry into Cuba this time was easy. Short immigration line. As a courtesy to the thousands of US citizens visiting Cuba on the sly, Cuban Immigration either won’t stamp a US passport or, like in my case this time, they ask if you’d like a Cuban stamp. “Yes, please.” I’m on a general license and I want that stamp!
Money is a bit of pain in Cuba if you’re a US citizen. US credit cards don’t work in Cuba so your only option is cash. I brought $2000 in cash and ended up spending $1500 for the two weeks. Two people can easily travel in Cuba on $100 a day for food, lodging and misc expenses like taxis and tips. Meals at your casa particular will run you $3-$5 for breakfast and dinner is $7-$12. I ended up spending anywhere from $1 for a tasty meal of ham and rice and beans from a food cart to $20 for a meal at a restaurant on the Malecon with killer views and tasty mojitos. I have seen a number of travelers comment online that the food sucks in Cuba. This hasn’t been true for me. Just ask other travelers or your casa particular host for recommendations. Or check out TripAdvisor. I’ve had some mediocre and one truly horrible meal in Cuba but for the most part when I’ve relied on recommendations, I’ve had good luck finding tasty food.
Tourists exchanging US dollars will take a 10% hit (The 10% penalty should go away once the embargo is lifted) and also an official 3% handling fee so it works out to $100 for 87 CUC’s. I opted to exchange most of my money on the street for a much better .95 CUCs to the US dollar. Slightly less legal but easier on the wallet. Bring $100 bills as you will get a better rate on the street for large bills. I’d be careful exchanging money on the street if you aren’t a seasoned traveler, though. It would be pretty easy for the dude to grab your money and run off.
I recommend staying in a casa particular instead of the hotels. They are much cheaper, friendlier, and a more authentic experience than a hotel. I highly recommend the casa particular I stayed in, Consulado 106. Fran was a great host and the location was perfect for exploring Havana.
We didn’t run into any other folks from the States on this trip. My guess is because USA travelers are mostly coming over in tour groups so I wouldn’t see them because they’re on a controlled itinerary so they’re not someone I’d bump into at a coffeeshop or walking along the Malecon. And I generally veer off if I’m about to run into a huge tour group. I mostly met Europeans, a lot of folks from France and Spain. Cuba was a lot busier than it was in April. Partly because January is busier in general in the Caribbean. But part of it has to do with the easing of USA restrictions on travel. And not just because more folks from the States are visiting Cuba now. The comment I heard the most from other travelers is that people want to see Cuba before folks from the States arrive en masse. Seems we have a reputation.
If you’re thinking about going to Cuba, just go. And Havana travel is amazing. Especially if you’re from the States. It always amazes me when I travel to iconic places, how quickly commonly held myths are dispelled.
- Keep an eye on my blog for upcoming posts on my visit to Trinidad and Cienfuegos in Cuba.