CUBA. This travel guide is a lot but Cuba is unlike anywhere I’ve ever visited, so I wanted to make sure it was really comprehensive and covered everything you could possibly need to know. Last week I shared a photo diary from my trip which I’d encourage you to check out before planning a trip… it’s such a special place. I’m about to give you a lot of information and some of it (currency, WiFi, obtaining a Visa etc) may feel intimidating but I really hope that won’t discourage you from going – this was one of the best trips I’ve taken. It inspired me, it challenged me, it broke my heart at times, and it was also a lot of fun. Really though, I learned SO much.
I really over-prepared. Also, I talked to so many people before I left and I have two friends who live in Cuba so I asked them about a million questions. In addition, I watched several documentaries. I’d highly recommend Cuba and The Cameraman, which shows the story of three families over forty years after the revolution and Give Me Future, a documentary about the Diplo concert which gave me a great idea of Cuban culture and what Havana would be like.
I also read up on the revolution + communism, and read a really amazing book – Waiting for Snow in Havana. For an easier read I loved Next Year in Havana. Of course you don’t have to, but (in my opinion) you will get more out of your trip if you’re prepared and have a little more of an understanding of Cuba.
BEFORE YOU GO //
- Download the Maps.me app and then download the Cuba map. This app was REALLY helpful. You won’t be able to download apps while in Cuba so you have to do it ahead of time. It was nice having a map I could look at that didn’t depend upon Wifi.
- There is also a restaurant app called A la mesa – it’s basically the Cuban yelp and is a great way to find the best food + drinks. Honestly, I didn’t use it as CET had an itinerary for us and I went out with my friends the other nights, but I could see it being helpful!
GETTING A VISA //
Okay keep in mind I’m sharing my experience and what we did/what my friends have done.
To visit Cuba you need a Visa with a reason to travel there. This seemed so complicated to me and one of the appealing things about this trip was that CET (Cuba Educational Travel) booked our Visas for us and mailed them to us ahead of time. There are twelve reasons/categories for travel to Cuba and our category was People-to-People. (Note: Trump eliminated this category for individuals so you can only use this category for a group. That being said, there are other ways to go as an individual – stay with me here!)
But at the airport, you can easily purchase a Visa for $50 when you check in (JFK has a separate check-in area at the opposite end (far right) of the terminal). Individuals can purchase a Visa under “supporting the people of Cuba” and book on their own… you just need to have a valid reason and an itinerary. The itinerary has to include things that involve interacting with the Cuban people (think museum tours, and salsa classes – NOT laying on the beach). And you have to document your trip! This Forbes article is a really good resource and explains the Visa process in great detail.
Basically, it’s not hard to go to Cuba IF you want to make it a cultural/educational experience, which is in my opinion the best reason to go. We (American citizens) can’t go to Cuba and just lie on a beach/be a tourist. Cuba is actually really popular as a beach destination with Canadians but having now been to Cuba I can say you’d be missing out on SO MUCH if you just went to the beach. Like, so much.
Packing for Cuba //
Pack like you won’t be able to buy anything while you are there as it’s really hard to find a lot of things, especially toiletries and medicine etc.! I brought a little kit with everything I could think of (stomach medicine, sunscreen, travel sized toilet paper and toilet seat covers, bug spray, hand sanitizer, advil, Neosporin, band-aids, a mini bottle of Lysol, tissues). I do wish I brought cough drops as I had a sore throat for most of the trip. They crank the AC indoors and there are a lot of gasoline fumes outdoors from all of the old cars!
Everyone warned me about toilet paper in particular – my Cuban friends told me there was a shortage a while ago and that’s why. Every restaurant and bar and public place I went to had plenty of toilet paper but I was glad I had it with me just in case, as you never know! Toilet seats are another issue! Apparently, they (toilet seats) are really hard to find… a lot of places just don’t have them.
I was also warned that I’d have diarrhea (sorry gross, I know) but I was fine the whole trip as was the rest of the group. I’ve never gotten so many (unsolicited!) emails and DMs warning me about the bad diarrhea I was about to have. I think you just have to be careful. Eat at reputable places, don’t eat street food or drink beverages that aren’t sealed, etc. Stay hydrated and drink a LOT of bottled water. A few readers DM’d me saying that they thought Cuban bottled water was gross; I didn’t think it was bad. All of the restaurants we ate at make their ice using bottled water. Just be careful… but also, bring lots of stomach meds just in case!
For clothing/accessories, just pack easy, casual things and comfortable shoes. Keep things simple and lightweight. It’s hot and humid! It rained quite a bit while we were there so I do wish I’d packed a small umbrella but I mostly stuck to cutoffs, tees, + birkenstocks during the day and casual dresses at night. I brought one pair of low heels but they got trashed in the rain which was sad. Keep things simple and don’t bring anything expensive. Cuba seems pretty safe but you’ll feel like an idiot carrying a designer bag when the people there have so little.
This is important: If you can, bring extra toiletries/beauty products to give away to the locals who don’t have easy access to them. It was really upsetting to see how little the Cuban people have. One of our guides visited the US and cried when she went to an American grocery store. They don’t have much and will really appreciate anything you can spare. All the women I met LOVE beauty but have so few options… it’s crazy how we take that for granted here. I’m planning to go back to Cuba on my own for my friend’s store opening and plan on bringing my big suitcase for this exact reason.
You probably won’t need to pack a convertor. Some places do not have outlets for three-prong cords but I didn’t have any issues.
Americans: your debit/credit cards will NOT work here. So bring cash. You can convert cash at a hotel or at the airport. Be sure to do it at a reputable place. Cuba has two currencies which is confusing. There’s the cuban peso and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). They’re both valued at different rates. The COC is the tourist currency and it’s basically (more or less depending on the rate; right now it’s .873) 1:1. The peso is far less valuable. I heard stories of black market currency converters ripping tourists off and giving them pesos instead of CUC, so be really careful!
The average government salary is about $20 a month. So tipping is greatly appreciated. If you’re treated well, tip well – as well as possible! Leave a few dollars per day for your maids, 10% on meals, and always tip your drivers + tour guides.
WHERE TO STAY //
I LOVED, LOVED our Casa Particular, Casa Bonita 23. Casa Particulares are basically Cuban Air BnBs and the quality can be all over the place. They’re Cuban homes that have been renovated and transformed into boutique style bed and breakfasts. In some cases you will be literally renting a room inside someone’s house (you’ll always have your own bathroom) but in other cases (like ours) it’s more like a true bed & breakfast. It was really really clean and the service was great. We had a team of maids who cooked us a big fresh breakfast for us every day, and our rooms had a mini bar with bottled water. There was also security at night – it felt very safe and very clean. There was a wifi hotspot in the house, though it didn’t work very well.
In talking to my friends, I would definitely recommend staying at a casa over a hotel. I’m more of a boutique hotel person and I like the idea of supporting a local Cuban family, and most of the hotels haven’t been renovated since the fifties. The Hotel Capri was really cool and there are a few new spots that have opened up but Americans actually aren’t allowed to stay at several Cuban hotels as they are government owned/have ties to the military. You can read more about the ban and the full list of blacklisted hotels in this article!
Basically, you should plan on being off the grid if you can.
Mobile data plans don’t work here so if you have something like Verizon TravelPass IT WILL NOT WORK. You can get on data but it is so so expensive – just don’t do it! A friend of a friend racked up a thousand dollar bill from his mobile data so I was warned in advance. There is no consistent WiFi in Cuba and you have to buy WiFi cards to access it. (a card with one hour of WiFi is about $2/hour) The hot spots are so funny, – all over the city in parks, street corners, etc. It will look like people are waiting for the bus or something; they’re actually accessing hot spots.
The best wifi that I found was at hotels. Honestly I did most of my work in advance of the trip and just planned to be offline for the trip. But if you need good wifi, grab a coffee at the hotel and get online. Just make sure you’ve bought a WiFI card first.
When you get out of the aiport, walk across the street and buy a bunch of wireless cards. You can also buy them at hotels… just be careful, a lot of hotels jack up the price.. they should only be 1 or 2 CUC.
It’s spotty though – literally, if it rains, sometimes the WiFi stops working. On the upside, all carriers now do offer roaming service. Phone calls are $2.99 a minute and texts are $.50 to send and $.05 to receive.
WHAT TO DO //
Explore Habana Vieja (Old Havana). You could also stay here – I fell in love with this part of Havana, though I really loved our Casa Particular in the Vedado neighborhood. We wandered through Plaza Vieja (the oldest plaza in Havana, which dates back to the 16th century!). Also, We saw the Plaza del San Francisco, Plaza de la Catedral and the Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana. Moreover, we visited the Plaza de Armas which is a gorgeous tree-lined plaza formerly at the center of influence in Cuba. In addition, we saw quite a few historic structures and important monuments.
Taller Experimental de Gráfica. If you love art, this is the place for you! (And it’s right near Doña Eutimia.) It’s Havana’s printmaking and lithographic workshop. Cuba has a lot of really amazing art and this is a great place to go and buy some.
Take a salsa lesson at Altamira.
Visit Habana Compás Dance for a musical dance performance. This was really, really amazing. The dancers/musicians used such basic items (chairs, drumsticks) to create a performance that was totally awe-inspiring.
Visit the Fuster home. My Cuban friends were a little meh on this one when I mentioned it was a part of our itinerary but I loved it! He is a plastic artist and has converted his neighborhood into an art project with murals and plastic art. Everything is mosaic. It was pretty crazy to see… and really cool and different!
Visit Finca La Vigia – Hemingway’s house! It’s ten miles outside Havana in a small town called San Francisco de Paula. It’s where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and The Sea, and A Moveable Feast. He bought the house in 1940 (for just $12,500) and lived there until 1960, just before he died. I’ve always found Hemingway as a person to be so fascinating. He lived such a colorful life and I love how much he loved cats! It was actually at his Cuba home that he began breeding cats. Unlike his Key West home, the cats are all gone (lots of cute pups though!!) Besides my obviously weird fascination with Hemingway and his cats I loved seeing where he wrote and exploring his gardens and backyard… the views (swipe to see more) are spectacular.
Walk the Malecón. It’s a five mile sea wall running along the coast and it’s BEAUTIFUL. (If you’re a runner, pack your sneakers – this is a great place to go running!)
The most important part! 😉 I was warned that the food in Cuba wasn’t very good but I actually really loved most of the restaurants we ate at. As I write this I’m drooling thinking about ropa vieja, Cuba’s national dish. It’s this delicious shredded beef with veggies.. it’s absolutely amazing over rice. Out of everywhere we went, Mediterraneo Havana, Doña Eutima, La Guarida, and San Cristobal are probably my favorite/no-miss places. In doing some research I found out that the Cuban government owns most street food operations in Havana. You want to eat at the privately owned places… most of my favorite meals were at paladars… little private restaurants in residential neighborhoods.
Mediterraneo Havana // We had our welcome dinner here. This was (maybe, I’m not sure!) my favorite meal of the trip. It’s the only farm to table restaurant in Havana; mostly everything they serve is produced at a nearby farm in Guanabacoa, Cuba. We had fresh cheeses, the best flatbread, amazing fresh fish ceviche, and lots of fresh veggies. It was just down the street from our casa, in the Vedado neighborhood. The mojitos were delicious.
San Cristobal // This was probably our fanciest meal of the trip. Holy moly lobster! My lobster dish was 3 gigantic lobster tails – I couldn’t eat it all! It’s in Central Havana and has a reputation for excellence. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to the 1940s and 50s. Also: The Obamas ate here!
Doña Eutimia // This was some amazing traditional Cuban food in the old city. We had lunch and it was delicious. It’s very busy so you need to make a reservation – it’s famous for it’s ropa vieja (shredded beef) and frozen mojitos, and it’s even made Newsweek’s list of the top restaurants in the world. I had the chicken and it was amazing. We also shared a bunch of yummy appetizers – ham croquettes, fried taro root, beef in a little plantain cup… YUM.
La Guarida // This is one of the most famous restaurants in Cuba. You definitely need a reservation to go here. It’s on the third floor of a large, old townhouse and not to be missed. Usher got married here and apparently Madonna and Kanye are also big fans. Besides being famous for their food (I loved the fresh ceviche I had and might have had more than one piña colada) it was the location for the film Strawberry and Chocolate.
Marea Terrace // We sat outside right on the water and had some really good seafood. The food wasn’t anything special or amazing but the views were great and the daiquiris were so good!
La Moraleja Paladar // This is a very yummy family restaurant in the Vedado neighborhood. We drank lots of Cuba Libres (a Cuba Libre is just a rum and coke!) and enjoyed ropa vieja, more croquettes, and lots of fresh veggies.
Jama // I had a free night and my friends brought me here. It’s my friend Joey’s friend’s restaurant and it’s Asian inspired Cuban food. We had really good chicken yakitore, lots of ceviche, and (of course) super yummy cocktails.
El Cafe // This is a really cute cafe just down the street from where my friend Lauren’s store is going to be when it opens up (I got to visit the construction site which was cool!) We had great coffees + juices and shared an amazing pulled pork sandwich. Like amazing… I am still thinking about that sandwich!
You guys, I was wild in Cuba! Okay not really, but besides doing yoga twice a day, I also went out every.single.night, which is definitely not the norm for me these days! Part of it was the energy of being with a new group in a new city, and part of it was wanting to see my friends! I rarely stayed out past midnight or 1am but it was still so much fun to dance, let loose, and have a few mojitos!
El del Frente – this is a rooftop bar and it’s some of the BEST COCKTAILS I’ve had, ever. I have a weakness for all things passionfruit and I loved the passionfruit daiquiris and mojitos. I loved it so much. My friends brought me at night before dinner and then we went back the next day for afternoon cocktails.
Efe – Everyone on the trip made fun of me for liking this bar so much. I went three nights. It’s right in between our casa + where my friends live, so it was convenient, but it’s just a super fun spot – you can be casual and chill, or you can dance. I like that sort of mix. They have great music and there’s a patio where you can sit and chill.
Zero Havana – Really fun dancing/club. It’s very dark and all red lights inside. We only had a couple drinks here but if I didn’t have to get up for yoga the next day I totally could have stayed longer.
THINGS I WISH I DID //
The Beach – it looked beautiful. We had a free day and I went to the old city with my friends but the rest of our group did the beach. The Alamar beaches were recommended to me the most.
Fabrica del artes – closed – have to go back!!!
Artelier Restaurant — I heard really good things about this place.
WHEW. Such a long post but I really wanted to be thorough and do Cuba justice. Like I said before – this is a lot of information but traveling to Cuba is not as hard as it seems. I was really intimidated before my trip but realized how easy it was after spending more time there. It was one of my favorite trips of all time.