Tips for Traveling to Cuba

Cuba has been on my bucket list for a very long time and I finally had the opportunity to visit in May. Being there is like stepping back in time, colorful vintage cars, salsa music, Cuban cigars, Havana Club Rum, colonial architecture, cobble stoned streets and Che Guevara image everywhere. It was everything I imagined. The beautiful island of Cuba area wise it’s roughly similar in size to the state of Virginia, hence it’s the largest island in the Caribbean and its neighbor Jamaica is only 1/10th its size.  I spent one week traveling around Cuba visiting Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba and I felt very safe there.

How to get there:
There are currently only a limited number of airlines that fly into Havana: Delta, Southwest and JetBlue are the main ones. Delta has their own Cuban department now so you can get your tourist visa over the phone with them or at the departure counter. Jetblue has direct flights from Orlando, Ft Lauderdale and New York JFK. This year a few cruise lines started going there including Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, however the port only has room for one ship at a time. The harbor was oddly empty of boats, unlike any other seaside town you'd visit.

As an American citizen you are required to get a visa saying you will participate in people-to-people cultural exchanges, it’s the only legal way to go. I got a certificate when I left saying I completed my people-to-people cultural exchange. You are also required to keep a log while you are there of what you did. The US government may audit you on this for up to 5 years later. Keep your Cuban visa (separate from above, given at entry) with you during the trip as you need it to exit, it’s a separate piece of paper.

American credit cards and ATM cards do not work in Cuba. You must bring cash, enough for your entire trip. However there is a 10% penalty charged when exchanging American dollars so you may want to bring Euros, Canadian or Mexican pesos instead. 1.00 Cuban Convertible Peso = $1.00 USD but you will only receive 87cents on the dollar. If you plan to use the bathroom anywhere (even museums) expect to tip the bathroom attendant for that privilege so keep coins on you. There are two different currencies in Cuba: CUC and CUP. The CUC is the Cuban Convertible peso that tourists use. The CUP is the Cuban peso that the locals use. The conversation rate is 1 CUC = 25 CUP. Don’t get scammed and understand the difference between the two currencies.

Is only available at 35 hotspots in public parks, universities, and high priced hotels. (The average hotel costs around $350 a night, so look into airbnb and casa particulars.) Only 5% of Cubans have access to the internet. No one has it in their home unless they have specific permission from the government and then it’s dial-up. The wifi access is monitored by the government. To use it you must first purchase a wifi card from an ETECSA store which have very long lines or from an illegal internet "dealer" you can find on the street. lol So save a google map of Cuban cities offline for directions when you're walking around. I saw people using pay phones everywhere which are extinct in our country. The few people who had an iphone got one from a relative abroad. 

The classic car are primarily used as taxis and charge about $40 to be driven around for an hour and all of those drivers speak English. The cheapest way to get around is shared taxis. In Santiago de Cuba I saw they have a motorcycle taxi, a person would flag the driver down, tell him where they wanted to go, the driver gave the passenger a helmet and off they went, a 1 seat ride!  A cheaper alternative is the coco taxi which is a 3 wheeled yellow egg with 2 seats glued onto a moped. There was also the bicitaxi otherwise known as a pedicab or bicycle taxi, that's great to get around Old Havana where cars aren't allowed. The bicitaxi drivers are friendly and will chat you up. Another cheap way to get around Havana is to take the Hop on Hop off double decker tour bus which only cost $10.

The week I was there in May didn't rain but it was so hot and humid. Officially the temperature was in the high 80s but the humidity made it unbearable. Bring a fan and expect to wear your hair in a ponytail the whole time. The sun was so strong I always wore a hat and only took it off for pictures.

The famous restaurants like the one Beyonce and Obama went to require reservations in advance. As a vegetarian my experience will be different from yours so I won't go into that.  Bring snacks with you because there really aren't supermarkets around to just pop in and grab something. Cuban Rum is cheap and popular cocktails you'll find on menus are Cuba Libre (rum and coke), mojitos, and daiquiris. The word for papaya in Cuban Spanish is "frutabomba", the word "papaya" in Cuba is a vulgar slang term for a woman's privates, so you don't want to ask for that anywhere. lol Download AlaMesa app, it lists restaurants and bars in Cuba and works offline.

Papier-mâché car models were seen everywhere.

Cuban cigars are expensive even in Cuba. Farmers are required to sell 90 percent of their tobacco crop to the government for a set price. There are 9000 tobacco farms which is the most important crop of the island, not sugar which makes rum. Since Fidel Castro was always seen smoking, he made the cigar the symbol of the revolution. He founded the Cohiba brand which is considered the best brand. Cigars are hand rolled and the factories have strict product quality control in place to ensure that every cigar leaving the factory is well made, properly rolled, and does not contain flaws or imperfections. The paper ring around the cigar is called a vitola and is a piece of art to distinguish the brands. Cigars come in 200 sizes and shapes, the bigger the habano the richer the taste and cooler the smoke. The average cigar takes half an hour to smoke. Don't buy them on the street, you won't know what you're getting, could be banana leaves inside. Last year the US lifted the embargo against Americans bringing home Cuban cigars, but you are limited to $100 worth. 

My next post will shows more photos from Havana. Cuba was one of my favorite trips of all time and I can't wait to go back and see more of it!


  1. Wow I had no idea about the money or Wifi issues. Thanks for the tips!

  2. It's really good to know that American money and credit cards don't work. I rely on my card for everything.

  3. Very interesting I've had a few friends go and heard about the wi-fi...crazy!

  4. Thank you for the tip on the money. I've been looking into going to Cuba and this is some great information.

  5. Wow. Thank you so much for this information on traveling to Cuba. Just this weekend my daughter said she was planning a trip to Cuba with some friends from law school. I was telling her that she and her friends will need to prove that they are traveling to Cuba for volunteer work or a cultural exchange. I'm sending her the link to this post right now. :-)

  6. Looks like the place is nice but it's not good that credit cards don't work. If you run out of cash, you will be in trouble.

    -Analie from Get A Happy Date

  7. thanks for these tips! My husband and I are looking into going, but I haven't even starting researching! This is SO helpful! Looks like you had a wonderful trip!

  8. Cuba is definitely on the bucket list! I look forward to your next post.

  9. woah, I never knew the cards and money don't work their , Thanks for these useful tips, am gonna save this for future

  10. these are excellent tips, especially the cash bit! i've always wanted to go!

  11. How beautiful and unique! I've never visted but would love to some time!