Traveling in Cuba as an American

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Photo from cubacasas.net

I haven’t posted for awhile as in addition to recently getting back from our 10 day honeymoon in Cuba (followed by a cousin’s wedding in the DR)- we are preparing to move to LA (my husband is starting his PhD program at USC soon)!  This past month has been a whirlwind- but all in all a good time and Cuba was certainly an adventure (complete with ups and downs!).

Cuba isn’t one of those places you go to just flop down on a beach chair and drink all you can drink piña coladas while you relax. In my opinion -Cuba is a place you go to understand and appreciate the culture, and to learn more about how a socialist society operates.

I’ll detail our trip in my next blog- but first here is some of my advice, How-tos, and insights on traveling in Cuba. 

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  1. You have to designate your travel under one of the 12 reasons for travel. 
    • We went under the “People to People” travel which falls under the ‘Educational activities and exchanges’ category I believe. We were required to keep a journal documenting our daily activities and exchanges with the Cuban people. We did things like teaching capoeira to Cuban children in Habana, Beach Cleanups (and talking to the locals about the trash on the beaches), and just talking with everyone that we possibly could (taxi drivers, airbnb owners, shop owners, musicians, folks walking on the street, etc. ) Note- travel is subject to change under the new rulings under thou who shall not be named, but you should be good to go in the next couple months still and see more details here if you plan to fly via Southwest like we did
  2. You should pre-budget everything and bring all cash with you (Euros or Canadian dollars are best). American credit cards/debit cards don’t work. Really.. I tried. I even called Navy Federal Credit union which allows for cards to be used in Cuba… but looks like Cuba still didn’t let my card go through regardless. Don’t bring US dollars because Cuba charges you 10-13% for exchanging Dollars for CUCs… Just bring EUROs and you will have an easier time. Also bring about 200 EUROs more than you think you will need… more on that later.
  3. If you want to travel around cheaply- reserve a Viazul Bus about 10 days ahead of time online. Or you should plan on getting lucky hitchhiking, taking a local taxi ‘collectivo’, or paying a ton of money out-of-pocket for a tourist taxi. (I’ll write more about this in my next blog …ugh).
  4. Practice your Spanish before going if you are not fluent already. I speak portuguese and had a decent enough vocabulary in “Portenol” to get around and have conversations with folks- and it helped us out a lot. I used DuoLingo to brush up before I left.
  5. Airbnb reservations are likely the best way to reserve places for Americans.  This and online reservations with anything really will help with lowering the amount of cash you carry on you while in Cuba. Many Cubans rent their “casa-particular” out with personal websites, in-person advertisements in Cuba, and on Airbnb. Typically the Airbnb rates are a bit more than what you would pay in-person, but again the online pre-pay feature of Airbnb is worth it.
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  6. There are two currencies in Cuba: Cuban Pesos (CUP) and CUC. Pesos are worth way less than CUCs (25 CUP is worth 1 CUC about). Don’t exchange money with people on the street- this is the easiest way to get scammed, as they can hand you back pesos instead of CUCs for your Euros. See photos below. Keep in mind there are coins also that differ between these currencies but look similar to a new tourist. 
  7. The down-low on food:
    • Do Not expect great food at hotels/resorts. Your best meals will likely be at the most random unexpected places, and not necessarily in your Cuba Guide Book. We stayed at the Maria la Gorda Hotel for three days to go scuba diving and have time at the beach, and the buffet breakfast was not good. They tried their best, but the unfortunate truth is that the government limits how much hotels and resorts can obtain/spend on food and facilities. We did find that the shrimp at their dinner restaurant was great!
    • The best food we had was:  eating fresh fruit from the local market (pineapples and large mangos are 10 pesos each (CUP) which is almost 1/3 of a CUC, avocados are 8 pesos and limes are 2 pesos), fresh bread from the bakery (price varies depending on size of bread- but about 10 pesos will get you enough bread for two people), and fresh eggs (10 pesos each) from the egg man (notice how there are little shops for everything). A full and large breakfast (eggs,bread, fresh fruit and coffee) for two people was less than 2 CUC. You can also just grab an egg and bread sandwich for 10 pesos from a street corner ‘cafeteria’.
    • And the best restaurant we ate at was actually someone’s house.  We ate on the footsteps of this woman’s (Cari) house in Habana Vieja. Beans, Rice, Fried Chicken and Salad for 30 pesos (about 1.10 CUC which is about 1.10$ Us dollar)… It was fantastic, not to mention the amazing sights and sounds of the neighborhood coming alive in the evening. The address for her restaurant/house is:  105 Santa Clara, Habana Vieja Cuba. Below is a picture of me and Cari in her house after a wonderful meal. She even wrote me out the recipe for the Cuban Beans and wouldn’t even accept a tip after we came back the second night. You have to go here and have a meal and tell her that Julie and Gerid recommended her restaurant. And no we did not get sick.

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      Cari and I at her restaurant: 105 Santa Clara Ave, Habana Vieja, Cuba
  8. Bring a water filter! We brought this gravity-operating water filter (gift from my cousins!) and hardly ever bought water. Although the water in Habana (Havana) is supposedly safe for tourists we did not try it and did not meet any other tourists that tried it either. However after seeing all the construction going on and pipes being worked on- I’m glad we did not try it. We saved a ton of money and did not get sick from the water we filtered (I did get sick however from eating an egg-sandwich at the Jose-Marti Airport.. ugh).
  9. Souvenirs: Make sure your artwork comes with a valid certificate (otherwise you will pay 40 CUC at the airport for it). We paid 45 CUC including the certificates each for two nice and large paintings. If you buy cigars on the street (not recommended, but if you have someone trustworthy then it is cheaper than the factory)- make sure that the cigars have a seal on the box so that you can take them home.
  10. Racism exists in Cuba… but most of the light-skinned Cubans will deny this. Not all  Cubans are racist by any means, but my husband (who is African-American) was treated miserably by our first Airbnb host lady, and was stared at on the street a lot by many Cubans (and no it wasn’t because they couldn’t believe how handsome he is). For example-our first airbnb lady made breakfast for us everyday and was super nice to me, but barely looked at my husband in his eyes and couldn’t reply hello or goodbye to him most of the mornings (and she spoke perfect English). My husband and I weren’t the only ones to notice the covert racism. We went to this amazing ARt/Music/Dance collective: Fabrica del Arte in Vedado, Habana (a must-see if you visit Habana!)- and were struck by the art piece below. We even had a conversation with a local Afro-Cuban that was so ecstatic that finally someone was conversing about the issue of racism in Cuba.

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    My husband and I mad about racism in Cuba.. this piece of art at the Fabrica del Arte Cubano (FAC) in Vedado, Habana, Cuba depicts this perfectly.
  11. Scams are everywhere and are incredibly annoying: Some of the scams that we encountered (and did not fall for) were: 1) overpriced taxis, 2) currency exchanges on the street –and giving you back pesos instead of CUC (see above note on the currency), 3) ‘The Cigar Festival’... People will tell you ‘its the last day for the cigar festival, you should go and get good prices on the cigars’.. we never went to check it out but we know it was a scam because four days later someone said “today is the last day for the cuban cigar festival”..ugh!, 4) overpriced paintings that are not certified (They try to sell these paintings for 130 CUC instead of 45-60, and then in addition to that they do not have the certificates and lie to you saying that the certificates are 40 CUC… The truth is that the certificates are only 2-3 CUC, and if you don’t get a certificate with your artwork, then you will have to pay 40 CUC at the airport. My husband and I had two main rules to avoid scams: Do not let anyone lead you anywhere, and do not agree to anything right away.  Just tell them thank you and that you will check it out later. That will give you time to research whatever it is they are trying to sell you and discuss the pros/cons.
  12. Online Cuban agencies will likely rip you off. We used the CubanTravelNetwork to book our Maria la Gorda hotel and scuba diving (to not have to bring as much cash with us once we were there)- and they majorly ripped us off on the scuba diving packages. We overpaid them for scuba diving compared to what the hotel charged in person, and then on top of it our scuba diving equipment was not even included (which they did not tell us during the online purchase)- so we had to pay for that in person which we did not budget for.. ugh.
  13. Segregation of tourists and locals exists everywhere from the taxis to the Coppelia ice cream place (Vedado, Havana, Cuba)They have security guards which actually force you to go to the tourist sections of the ice-cream parlor (where they charge you more money). No thank you. In the end, we got our ice-cream at a small spot in Vedado for < 1 CUC each elsewhere. I’m all for giving to the local Cuban economy, but I prefer to do it via tipping rather than segregation.
  14. Socialism: Yes it is a socialist country- and it is evident in the fact that even the poor people are well taken care of in terms of housing, food, water, health care and education. I only saw one homeless person the whole 10 days we were there, and even all of the stray dogs and cats were fed every night via food on cardboard paper (I’m not sure who went around feeding them at night). I think this is also why all of the strays were  very nice and well-behave. However, in my opinion- if you want anything aside from the basic necessities- it is hard to do so in Cuba (unless you have family sending you money, or an extra house you can rent out as an air-bnb/casa particular). We did meet some people who felt trapped by the system. The  government has a lot of control on everything- evident from the rationed food at hotels/resorts, and from the fact that if you are born in the east of Cuba you cannot immigrate to Havana unless you become a police officer (thus many folks seek out that job). Coincidentally (or not) eastern Cuba is also the more Afro-Cuban region… again.. racism is very apparent in this country. 

  15. The Environment: I was a bit surprised when I got to Cuba because I had heard so many good things about all of their marine and land preserves, and about their efforts to preserve the environment. I did in fact go scuba diving in one of the marine reserves in Maria La Gorda- which was spectacular (lots of live corals and fish while scuba diving), but I was disappointed by all of the trash on the beaches, and even one of the scuba diving instructors threw his cup overboard on the boat ;(. The snorkeling was only so-so however at Maria la Gorda (lots of dead coral), but had some fish, and new coral growth on the docks was apparent. There are lots of land and marine reserves in Cuba.. it is true and these reserves are beautiful from what I saw, but in my opinion littering is a huge problem for Cuba. There was trash everywhere we went– from the streets in Havana, to the Malecon (a strip along the ocean in Havana), and on the beaches. Not to mention the fumes from all of the old cars. However in contrast, I did see a public outreach center in Havana about preserving native species, and the negative effects of littering, fumes from cars, and invasive species. So one can only hope that more public outreach and education will preserve Cuba’s natural beauty. Speaking of invasive species – I did see water hyacinth in Pinar Del Rio, Cuba! I wasn’t surprised though since I knew that biological control using the weevils (Neochetina spp.) has been used in Cuba for controlling this invasive weed.

All in all, I still immensely enjoyed our trip in Cuba- and definitely saw some of the positive aspects of a socialist society. I fully recommend visiting Cuba, and experiencing it for yourself (Just bring enough money!).

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View of Havana, Cuba from ‘El Morro’ on our last night
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