The name alone invokes images of music, dancing and revolution. Images of exuberance, of destruction, and of daily life toiling on despite the hardships. Cuba means a myriad of things to a myriad of people. But what is Cuba, really?
Cuba is a dichotomy. One moment you’re looking at bright, colorful buildings, invoking tropical vibes and vacation memories. Then the next moment there’s a crumbling, abandoned building in front of you, its shell a sad memory of Cuba’s glory days.
Visiting Cuba is hard. It’s an eye-opening experience, to be sure, but it in no way resembles a relaxing vacation. It’s hard to get around, it’s hard to find decent food, and even things that seem basic, like electricity, are often not working, to the point where, when telling one of our hosts the electricity was out, he responded with a shrug and an “it happens” attitude. In fact, Cuba is the only western country I’ve been to that’s reminded me of Africa.
Where to go
As hard as it is to travel around Cuba, it’s necessary. You won’t get a full picture of the country if you just stay in Havana. So here’s where I recommend going:
Varadero is one of the most strikingly-beautiful places in Cuba. And while you can’t visit Cuba as a tourist (I’ll talk more about this below) and thus lay out on the beach, it doesn’t hurt to have a nice backdrop while you’re engaging in your people-to-people activities.
Viñales is my favorite spot in Cuba. It feels the most authentically Cuban, with an agricultural economy and simple, brightly-painted houses filled with welcoming hosts. Plus I’ve never been anywhere that has scenery as unique as that in Viñales, with rolling mountains and lush greenery that make you feel as if you’ve stepped into Jurassic Park.
As much as you need to get out of Havana, you do also need to experience it. It’s a vibrant place, filled with music and conversation moving a mile a minute. It’s also a place where it’s obvious, despite the communist government, that there are still haves and have nots, with many people successfully having at least one side hustle to increase their income above the $20 monthly salary mandated by the government (yes, people are expected to live off of $20 a month)!
Where to eat
The food in Cuba is terrible. As much as people may argue that Cuban food is currently experiencing a revolution, that’s just not the case (or the food used to be even worse, which is really difficult to imagine)! It’s hard for Cubans to find quality ingredients, let alone extras like spices, so at best you hope for a bland meal. At worst, you eat a few bites and just resign yourself to the fact that you’ll be hungry for the whole trip.
That being said, I do recommend two places to eat in Havana where, despite the food being nothing to write home about, the atmospheres were worth experiencing at least.
San Cristóbal has been visited by everyone who’s anyone, from Barack Obama to the Kardashians, and the waiters are quite proud of that, showing off pictures to any diner who at all appears interested. The walls are covered in kitschy decorations that look like the owner scrounged for anything of value and hung it on the wall wherever there was room. The place isn’t glamorous, and my dinner was weird (cheese-covered lobster in a pineapple) but the restaurant feels like an eccentric Cuban grandmother’s home, which makes it fun.
How to travel to Cuba legally
This is the big question. The U.S. government does not allow Americans to travel to Cuba for tourist activities, hence my comment above about not being able to lay out on the beach. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 travel categories. This essentially means if you travel to Cuba for one of these 12 reasons, you can travel to Cuba legally without taking any further steps and do not need to apply for an additional license (i.e. apply for permission) from OFAC.
The most common general license Americans use when traveling to Cuba is the support for the Cuban people category, generally referred to as “people-to-people.” When I traveled to Cuba, Americans were allowed to plan their own travel under this category, provided they had a full-time itinerary of targeted interactions with the Cuban people. However, I got back from Cuba on a Tuesday and the next day Trump announced changes to this policy. Now Americans traveling under this category must travel with an organization approved by the U.S. government (of which there are many), and can no longer plan their own individual visits. Further, Americans cannot engage in direct financial transactions with entities on the Cuba Restricted List, because too much of the profits will go towards supporting the Cuban military.
The question that’s always asked, after “how can I travel to Cuba legally?” is “how strict is the U.S. government in reviewing my travel?” In practice it’s not a priority. If you travel under a general license, you are taking it upon yourself to travel legally, and no one in the government reviews your trip. When booking your flight you must certify which license you are traveling under and that’s basically it. No one asks you about your trip or activities, either when leaving the U.S., while in Cuba, or even at the U.S. border when returning home. The OFAC does have the power to enforce the Cuban travel rules via audit, so keep your travel itinerary for five years just in case.
Travel permissions to Cuba can change quickly, as this last year has seen. So before you book your trip make sure to visit the websites for the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of State.
What to know when visiting Cuba
There are a significant number of things that shocked me about Cuba, and set it apart from any other country I’ve visited. The most important things you need to know are these:
- Cuban people hate the American government. And while it’s hard to believe any country in the world right now is particularly impressed with our government, the feelings Cubans have are significantly stronger. They’re brought up watching anti-American programs on the state-run TV, which go so far as to accuse the U.S. government of orchestrating the 9/11 terrorist attacks against its own citizens. A Cuban man stated this to me with such conviction he flat out didn’t believe me when I told him this wasn’t a widespread belief in America. Cubans blame the U.S. for its difficult economy, citing the trade embargo as the source of essentially all of its problems. Their feelings aren’t limited to certain presidents, as they are in other parts of the world, and instead the Cubans apply their distain equally both to Barack Obama as well as Donald Trump.
- Many Cuban people want to move to the U.S. for a better life. So despite their loathing of America, they still recognize that it offers more economic opportunities. Which begs the question: if living in America means you have a better life, then isn’t the U.S. better than Cuba? Or at least a country worth hating a little less?
- The Cubans do not believe their government is responsible for the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana. Again they blame the U.S. government and say the government did it to their own people. While these allegations of attacks on our own citizens is alarming, I also view it as a sad reflection of Cuban’s lives. Because to grow up thinking it’s common and very likely a government would orchestrate attacks on its own citizens only reflects the state of affairs in Cuba, and the relationship between the Cuban government and its people.
- Cubans are still nice to Americans. One man told us the Cuban people were very suspicious of Americans, due to the indoctrination the Cubans grow up with. But once more Americans started coming to Cuba, most Cubans realized we didn’t reflect the horrible things they were taught. So the Cuban people will generally treat you warmly, and maybe eventually, as they’re given more access to outside news and media, their distain for the U.S. government will fade… to the level the rest of the world is currently experiencing!
Keeping these things in mind will help make what is a difficult trip a little bit easier:
- Few places in Cuba take credit cards and even if they do, your U.S. credit cards likely won’t work. Similarly, your bank likely will not allow you to use your debit card an ATM to take out money. So make sure you bring enough U.S. dollars with you when you travel to Cuba to last you your entire trip. You can exchange money right when you arrive at the Havana airport, and there are locations throughout Cuba to exchange more money if you need it. I brought $1,000 for a 6-day trip and ended up coming home with $400. But I preferred to have extra money, just in case, than to be in a predicament where I ran out and had no way of getting more.
- You need special medical insurance to travel to Cuba. Some airlines incorporate this into the price of your airline ticket, like Delta. Delta stamped our ticket indicating it covered the required medical insurance, and we carried our ticket everywhere we went in Cuba as proof.
- You also need to buy a $50 tourist card and present it upon entry into Cuba. Delta let me buy it online when I checked into my flight, and gave it to me at the gate prior to boarding the plane. I highly recommend Delta when flying to Cuba because they made the process of acquiring both the medical insurance and the tourist card very easy.
- Cuba has two currencies. The Cuban peso (CUP) is what most Cubans are paid in, and you need 25 CUP to equal one U.S. dollar. You probably won’t even see any CUP during your trip, and instead will use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) which has a one to one ratio to a U.S. dollar. Nearly all consumer goods, as well as activities, are purchased with CUC, so it’s not a “tourist” currency, as many refer to it, because both locals and tourists need CUC to purchase these items. However, in practice, it’s easier for tourists to buy things in Cuba since to us $20 CUC is just $20, whereas to Cubans $20 CUC is all that they earn in a month. And while things are slightly cheaper in Cuba (alcoholic drinks are only a few dollars each), the price disparity isn’t enough to make up for only earning $20 a month, hence the side hustles I referenced above.
- Always carry kleenex or toilet paper with you. More often than not the bathrooms won’t have any, even at upscale locations.
- Don’t drink the water. Ever. Don’t even look at the water. (Ok I’m exaggerating with that last one, but seriously, don’t even brush your teeth with Cuban water)!
- Always buy water whenever you can, and keep extra with you. One night we stayed at an all-inclusive resort. The last time I stayed at an all-inclusive resort was in Jamaica and our room had its own butler! In comparison, Cuban all-inclusive resorts, simply put, are garbage. Run by the state, they’re often without basic necessities. When we were there the entire hotel ran out of bottled water. Since there were no stores in the vicinity, we went hours without any water, as did the hundreds of other people staying at the resort. And based on the staff reactions, it seemed like a fairly common occurrence. So definitely stock up on bottled water whenever you can!
- At restaurants, always make sure your bottled water is brought to the table sealed. According to our hosts it’s a common scam in Cuba, even at nice restaurants, to refill bottles with tap water and present them to customers as if they had just been opened.
- If you absolutely need wifi, you can find it in many public parks in Havana. For a few dollars you can buy a card that will give you an hour of internet access. I wouldn’t necessarily trust the network, or the Cuban government which likely controls and closely monitors the network, so give logging onto the internet a miss if at all possible.
- There are several busses that travel between Cuban cities. Skip them. The line to board the bus is madness, it’s not clear where they go, or when, and the entire process is incredibly stressful, especially if your Spanish isn’t that great. Hire a driver to take you where you need to go. It’s expensive, even by American standards, but omitting the stressful bus situation is worth the cost. And if you agree on a fixed price for a ride, it’s not customary to tip unless the driver goes above and beyond.
- Cubans use the same outlets as the U.S., so you don’t need to bring any outlet converters with you. But be careful when plugging things in, because most hotel rooms will have dual voltages. Some outlets will be labeled 120 volts, and it’s safe to plug in your items. Others will say 230 or 240 volts, and you can’t use those outlets unless your appliances are dual voltage or you have a voltage converter.
The allure of Cuba is that it’s forbidden. I believe that if the country is ever opened up to tourism, few Americans would choose to vacation there over another Caribbean country. There are a few aspects of my time in Cuba that I enjoyed, but only a few. As I said earlier, it was a very difficult trip, and I’ve never longed to be back in the comforts of America so much, and that includes the summer I spent in Rwanda! But I am glad I went. It was an eye-opening experience that made me grateful for growing up in the U.S.
I wanted to visit Cuba before it became more commercialized, and while I have no interest in seeing a Starbucks on every corner, Cuba can really benefit from capitalism and steps, albeit small steps, are being taken in that direction. So if you want to see Cuba before it becomes more developed, visit now. If you want to enjoy your experience in Cuba, then I would wait.
Because if you visit now, and your trip was anything like mine, you won’t ever want to go back.