You ever long for a foreign place like it was home? That’s how I currently feel about Cuba. Since my very last day that I spent there, I’ve missed it. Besides a few bumps in the road, Cuba was definitely one of my top, unforgettable travel experiences. The people, the environment, the energy, everything. I woke up this morning missing Cuba. And of the last mornings, I’ve missed Cuba. Unfortunately, the recent announcement of the modifications that 45 plans to implement to the policy Obama put in place for Americans to travel to Cuba more freely puts future trips in jeopardy. Even so, I want to provide a more detailed guide in case you are planning to get to Cuba before things change.
How to Book a Flight
To travel to Cuba, you will need a passport, a visa, health insurance, and you will need to fall within one of the 12 categories put in place. Most people fall within the “Support for the Cuban People” category. This is the one I chose. With 45’s new policy, it will be much harder, and most likely much more expensive, to travel within this category. He is proposing to restrict travel individually but will allow for travel with an organized travel group. These can get really, really expensive.
I booked separate flights from New Orleans to Fort Lauderdale and then from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba. It wasn’t necessary for me to book my flights like this, but it was cheaper for me to do so. You are allowed to book a direct flight if that’s the most cost efficient. I booked a flight directly through Southwest. Southwest, along with other airlines, will include the mandatory health insurance you’ll need while in Cuba. Just make sure that you keep your boarding pass as that serves as your health insurance card.
Many airlines also give you the option to purchase your visa before arriving at the airport. I purchased a visa through a site suggested by Southwest because I didn’t want to do anything that would possibly delay me. I received my confirmation and picked up my visa from the counter, filled it out, and that was that.
What to Pack
Personally, I don’t believe that you need anything extra that you would normally pack for a trip. However, I would definitely recommend packing additional snacks, toilet paper, and towels. I’ve read that toilet paper was scarce, and that is quite true if you’re choosing the Airbnb and Casaparticular route. You should also make sure you include sunscreen and mosquito repellent. My trip to Cuba was in the winter time, which meant 80 degree weather and gusts of wind with the strength of 1000 winds.
I created a packing list a while back and it’s something that I follow for every trip that I take. I tailor it based on the length of the trip and the time of year that I’m going. But for the most part, it comes in handy when it’s time for me to pack.
Surviving the Airport
I really thought I hated Panama’s airport the most because they make you throw away your drinks even if you purchase them while within the airport.. However, Cuba has made it to the top of my list. But again, keep an open mind.
The airport is really small and as a result, it is extremely crowded. It took nearly an hour before our checked bags were on the belt and then maybe another hour to exchange our money. Exchanging money is totally necessary at this point simply because you have to have cash to get a taxi. But, I would totally recommend packing light with a carry on item. It will definitely save you time.
So there is so much advice going around about how to properly exchange your money so that you get the best bang for your buck. I was told that it really isn’t that much of a difference between exchanging US currency versus something like Canadian dollars or Euros. Personally, I found the difference to be significant. I brought US currency and for every $100 converted, I only received $87. My friend had Canadian dollars and for every $100, I think she got like $94. While a few may believe that isn’t a big difference, that difference equates to taxi fare or food, etc. Every dollar counts, especially since there is no ATM that you could just run to nor are you able to use your credit cards.
There is a place to exchange money right after you grab your bags off the belt. Since I stayed so close to the Hotel Melia, I used their cadeca to exchange the rest of my money. I felt that this helped me manage my money. Cash burns as soon as it touches my hand so this was necessary for me.
I would personally recommend bringing about $110 for every day that you plan on spending there. $100 for the day and that extra $10 should cover what you may lose for exchanging your money so you’ll at least have $100 for the day.
Where to Stay
To get the most authentic Cuban experience possible, it’s best to go with a Casa Particular or an Airbnb. I choose the Airbnb route and booked this one, located in the heart of Vedado and right around the corner from the Hotel Melia. The neighborhood was amazing with the best part being able to start my mornings after my Cuban alarm clock went off. And by Cuban alarm clock, I mean my neighbors blasting reggaeton. Mind you, there is absolutely no better way to wake up while in Cuba.
I felt my apartment was perfect, as it wasn’t too close to the tourists of Havana, but also not too far away to be a tourist. I felt safe in the neighborhood and really, really enjoyed my stay. (Almost too much.) My apartment/casa also offered breakfast as a lot of lodging does. My advice is to pay the cost for an authentic Cuban meal. You definitely won’t regret it.
Renting a car was not an option. Taxis are generally pretty cheap, but should be used with caution. The fare is generally negotiable and should be agreed upon before entering the cab, especially since meters aren’t present in a lot of the taxis. To be honest, if I can recall accurately, I do not remember seeing any meters at all.
You can generally get around Havana for about $5-10. It shouldn’t even cost more than that. We were able to catch a cab for as little as $3 from Vedado to Havana. Unfortunately it was our last day in Cuba before we realized that we were being overcharged.
There is also an option to take a Coco taxi. These are cute motorized vehicles ideal for two people. These taxis cost a bit more, but the experience is an interesting one.
Another method is to just walk around the neighborhood if you’re in an area that’s close to restaurants, business, etc. I used an offline map to navigate as I walked around Vedado. The street signs are a bit different. They are actually stone structures on the corner of the street and they are easily recognizable.
Where to Eat
Everything that you’ve heard about Cuban food is probably true. Well, at least to me it was. I did not particularly love anything, but there were a few spots that were ok.
La Guarida — We had reservations for this place late in the evening. The restaurant is really, really lovely and I enjoyed the atmosphere. The food is pretty decent and it’s more on the pricier side. I would recommend early reservations because there is such a thing as Cuban time. We had reservations for around 8ish. We were seated about 15-20 minutes later and we didn’t get our main course until close to 10PM.
Café Mamainé — This place is perfect for breakfast. I hadn’t done any research about this restaurant as I did with La Guarida so I didn’t quite know what to expect. I happened across it since it was the meeting spot for an Afro-Cuban Religion Tour.
I absolutely LOVED the atmosphere here as well and the breakfast was pretty decent. The pretty cool part is the loft area upstairs. I ordered a signature morning coffee beverage that was absolutely delicious. It’s the Cuban version of a cappuccino. I’m not typically a coffee drinker when I’m in the states, but international coffee is a must.
The outdoor seating in the front of the restaurant is pretty nice as well. We stopped by after our tour to grab lunch. I wasn’t too impressed with the lunch, but the service was still wonderful. Just don’t order a burger — you’ll get chewy meat and cucumbers. The bread is pretty tasty however. And also, try the banana chips. It’s the closest thing to fries.
Habana Mia 7 — A little pricey, but the food was amazing. It’s located right across from Hotel Melia. I would recommend the ceviche and guava margarita. And the bread is pretty amazing as well.
Things to Do
There’s a lot to do in Cuba, but the real fun in my opinion is outside Central Havana. Sure, walking around Centro Habana taking in the sights and sounds of Cuba is amazing, but venturing out to the areas with less tourists is pretty rewarding. There are several different ways to book activities. A simple Google search can help with that. However, I would personally like to recommend the following:
Visit Guanabacoa. Afro-Cuban Religion Experience offered through Airbnb Experiences. This was my first time ever trying an Airbnb Experience and I loved it.
For a complete recap of this experience, click here.
Go to the countryside – Soroa, Vinales, and Las Terrazas. Not too far away from Havana, is Soroa and Vinales. I had every intention on visiting this place that I drooled over via IG. Due to improper planning and poor budgeting, I didn’t get a chance to make it. I do plan on returning around September so I hope to be able to provide an update at that time. For information on tours, click here.
Visit Trinidad. I’ve heard soooo many good things about this place, but since I was only in Cuba for a short amount of time, it wasn’t reasonable to try and make the trip. Especially since it’s about 4 hours away from Cuba. But if you have enough time, click here for a guide.
Hang out by the Malecon. This has to be one of the top spots for locals. Cubans usually gather along this area in the evening and late into the night to hang out with friends, listen to music, and enjoy the live entertainment. My apartment was literally about two blocks from the Malecon and it was really peaceful to end a lot of my evenings here.
Go on a Classic Car Tour. Can I confess something? I’ve never been in a convertible. And I’ve never been in a classic car. So of course I had to take the touristy route and go on a classic car tour. There are are a few sites that you can find online, but to get the best price, you can just walk up to the driver and ask for a tour. Just make sure you agree on a the price before getting in the car.
Since we stayed in Vedado, we hopped in a cab by the Malecon. If you are in Havana, they are just as easy to find. In Havana, you will most likely be approached. This was much more common in Havana than in Vedado. You can also reserve a tour by clicking here.
Sight See in Centro Havana. If you’re staying outside of Havana or right in the center of it, it is an absolute must that you get out and get lost. When we made it to Centro Havana, I couldn’t help but to whip my camera out and become that typical American tourist.
Take pictures, purchase an item from a stand, grab a bite to eat, get a questionable reading from a questionable babalawo and just get lost while you wander around and take in all of Havana.
Visit Callejon de Hamel on a Sunday and enjoy the live performances. HOWEVER, be mindful of the individuals that want you to purchase a DVD of the performance. It’s best to just tip the performers while you are there because I’ve heard of a few instances where a few tourists indulged and received a blank disc.
Side note: Make sure you go upstairs and try their signature lemonade drink. Drink it fast because they water it down a bit, but it’s still pretty delicious.
I wanted to save this part for last because it’s the least important. Cuba is a place that you are really able to disconnect and enjoy a simpler life. Now, I know you may need to check in from time to time, and that’s possible when you purchase an internet card, but don’t let that be what you do your entire time in Cuba.
We purchased wifi cards at the Melia Hotel. You have the option to purchase internet access to use inside the hotel and outside. If you’re going to use the service in this area, it’s best to purchase the card for usage inside the hotel. Trying to connect while you’re outside is not worth the time you’ll waste.
If you aren’t around any hotels that offer wifi service, there are wifi parks that you can visit and they are really easy to find. Just look for a big open area where kids are playing, where there are a few adults socializing, but where most of the people in the area are glued to their screen.
Overall, Cuba is a very, very peaceful place. I always find amazement in experiencing different countries and their culture. Cuba is definitely a place that you should add to your Wanderlust list.
What did you love most about your visit?
Have more questions about planning your trip? Leave them in the comments.