vinales valley cuba

Traveling to Cuba as an American citizen was nearly impossible from 1960 to 2015, but with relations between the two countries easing, traveling there is now feasible (and legal)! I recently spent six days traveling throughout the western part of the country with two friends. Here are my travel tips for Americans heading to the island.

 

Do your research ahead of time

You don’t need to go with a tour group or stay in a tourist-only all-inclusive resort, as long as you spend a small amount of time and effort doing some research and planning ahead of time. There are quite a few Americans now sharing their experiences and tips on traveling to the island, so make sure to read up on these before you go.

I watched The Cuba Libre Story, a documentary on Cuban history before my trip, and I recommend anyone traveling there do the same. It really helped me understand the history of the country and context of Cuban-American relations. The Lonely Planet’s Cuba guidebook was an essential pre-trip research tool, as well as vital to have on-hand while our group traveled throughout the island.

havana cuba

I strongly recommend learning some traveler’s Spanish and keeping a phrasebook with you as well—the Cubans we met who interact with tourists frequently were pretty fluent in English, but my high school Spanish knowledge came in handy several times!

It’s also important to understand some of the political issues and context of traveling in a socialist country – don’t ask Cubans for their political opinions, for example. Be discreet about photographing state propaganda (which is everywhere) and never take photos of military or police personnel. Cuba is not a free and democratic society, and Americans need to keep that in mind while traveling there.

cuba souvenirs

You can legally bring back up to $400 worth of Cuban goods, including up to $100 worth of cigars, so souvenirs are permitted. I brought back a liter of rum, 30 cigars, a pound of coffee, a CD, and tourist souvenirs like magnets and a classic Cuban straw hat.

 

Plan and book your travel wisely

Booking airline tickets to Cuba is now as easy as with any other destination, although you need to obtain a visa, which is good for a maximum of 30 days. If you purchase your flight well in advance of your trip, you will be contacted by an authorized Travel Service Provider and can pre-purchase a visa to be shipped to you before departure. I purchased my visa at my last point of departure in the U.S. which is required to get a ‘Cuba Ready’ stamp on your boarding pass pre-flight. You must keep your visa with you at all times and it must be turned over as part of the customs process leaving the country – you will not be permitted to leave the country without it!

beth rubins cuba trip

As there are only 12 categories of travel to Cuba that are authorized by the U.S. State Department, you can’t legally travel as a tourist just yet. Our group picked “Education/People-to-people exchanges” as our reason for traveling, which we selected while checking in at the airport. After that, nobody asked us our reasons for being in-country, but you technically could be asked at customs coming back into the U.S., or after your trip.

Flight and visa costs vary by airline and provider, however my roundtrip flight was less than $350 and visa was $100 at the airport, so it’s an inexpensive foreign trip for most Americans. (If I had purchased my visa in advance, it would have cost only $50!)

 

Bring cash – but not US dollars

American-issued credit and debit cards do not work at all in Cuba, and the economy is overwhelmingly cash-driven. Bring Euros, Canadian dollars, or British pounds to exchange and save the 10% extra exchange fee that is tacked on to American currency. I budgeted roughly $135 per day, which allowed me to cover all of my costs, including transportation, room and board, activities, and souvenirs. I recommend bringing more cash than you think you need, as once you’re in the country you have no options to get more money. The currency there (Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC) is tied to the American dollar, which makes figuring out your spending habits much easier: $1 USD = 1 CUC.

 

Stay in Casas Particulares

There are some hotels in Cuba, but by far the better and cheaper mode of accommodation is to stay in casas particulares. These are private homes licensed by the government that offer a bed and breakfast-style stay. They run anywhere from 15-50 CUC per night, depending on occupancy, location, and amenities. Many include breakfast at an additional cost (5 CUC per day). Our group relied on casa particular recommendations that were listed in the Lonely Planet’s Cuba guidebook and had wonderful experiences everywhere we stayed!

 

Decide on your mode of transportation

As our group had three people traveling together, taking private taxis and/or colectivo taxis (filling up a car with joint fares all going in generally the same direction) was a good option for us most of the trip. The flashy 1950’s cars in Havana are the most expensive taxis, with colectivos, cocotaxis and foot taxis being cheaper options. Discuss rates for your destination ahead of time.

taxi cuba

All taxis to and from the airport will cost a flat 25 CUC. Your casa particular host(s) can arrange taxis for you (another reason they are a great option for accommodations). There are also bus options for transportation between cities, and trains, although these take the longest and are the least recommended form of travel. Rental cars are extremely expensive and only a good option if you are traveling very long distances.

Be aware that you may have to ask around and/or be flexible to catch taxis from different locations if you want to get the lowest price. For example, when we first arrived at the airport, we were quoted between 170-250 CUC total for a private taxi from Havana to Viñales Valley. After traveling from the airport into the city to the bus station, we were able to negotiate the same trip by private taxi for 60 CUC total.

 

Unplug

Internet is available in Cuba, but it is restricted and expensive, and only available in certain public locations. We took the opportunity to completely disconnect, and that was one of the best parts of the trip! We informed our families and friends we would be off the grid for the duration of the trip and to contact us only in case of emergency. Once per day we would turn our cell phones off airplane mode for a few minutes to see if any voicemails or texts had been sent—and then got right back to the business of vacationing! I downloaded some offline maps and guide apps (I recommend Maps.me and Triposo Cuba) prior to leaving the U.S., which all came in handy.

horseback riding cuba

 

Explore beyond Havana

We arrived in Havana and immediately struck out west to Piñar del Rio province, to the Viñales Valley. In Viñales, we spent a day touring the valley via horseback, stopping to visit a tobacco farm and learn about cigar production, a coffee farm where liquor is also produced from small guavas, and hiked through one of the valley’s many limestone caves.

beth rubins cuba trip

We enjoyed the spectacular sunsets over the area’s mogotes (mountains) from restaurants overlooking the sweeping valley, sipped delicious rum drinks at touristy bars, and danced the night away at Centro Cultural Polo Montañez. One day we took a harrowing 2-hour taxi ride on a crumbling and pothole-filled road (interrupted by a stop for a short ziplining adventure), which brought us further west to Cayo Jutías, where we spent the day lazing on the stunning tropical white sand beach and snorkeling on the offshore coral reef.

beach cuba

Experiencing life in the rural, smaller towns and provinces of Cuba is an essential part of understanding the country, so don’t miss out on an opportunity to strike out beyond the urban and touristy heart of Havana.

making cigars cuba

 

In Havana

Havana is the country’s most populated city, with over 2 million residents. Its three distinct central neighborhoods make up the heart of the city: La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Centro Habana (Central Havana), and Vedado. There are thousands of Casas Particulares in these three neighborhoods, and all are walkable. A tour of the city via private guided taxi, open-top bus, or walking group can be a great way to familiarize yourself with the city’s layout and history.

classic cars in cuba havana

Our group stuck to exploring on foot, spending a little over two days simply wandering around. Havana offers a huge range of tourist-friendly activities, restaurants, bars & nightclubs, but my can’t-miss recommendations include:

-Tour the four historic plazas that make up the core of Habana Vieja

-Observe the crowds (at least from a distance) at two of Hemingway’s favorite drinking spots: La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita

-Catch an ocean sunset from anywhere along the 8km stretch of the Malecón

-Grab a drink and enjoy live music at night in Plaza Vieja, or anywhere it’s offered

-Experience Havana’s living room: walk along the Malecón at night (preferably a Friday or Saturday night). Cubans hang out and socialize along the seawall, and that is truly a “you had to be there” experience!