Five things to know before traveling to Cuba

Dating this past year has brought new experiences, new joy—and this month, a new place to explore. With all the ‘do’s and don’ts’ around travel to Cuba, it hasn’t been anywhere near my short list.

Bahamas? Lovely. Jamaica? You bet.

But that fascinating country with the rich history in between? Not on my radar.

Thankfully, it was on his.

Eight nights made for a wonderful introduction to a country that is gracious, proud and strong. We stayed in Havana and Viñales, opting to skip a planned two-night stay in Trinidad (we loved Viñales and didn’t’ want to leave!).

I was surprised at the lack of clear information in planning this trip. Even after all the visa planning and making sure we were following the US rules, I was secretly wondering if we’d end up staying 8-nights stuck in Miami! If you’re in the planning stages and feeling the same way, here’s some info that might help:

It’s worth figuring out. Wading through the ‘Can US citizens travel to Cuba?’ question is vague—intentionally, I imagine, given our current administration. Yes, you can (and should) do it.

Traveling under ‘support of the Cuban people’ does the trick. The only requirement is that you actually support the people—this includes staying with them. Airbnb makes it incredibly easy and it was wonderful to have hosts to chat with about the day’s plans, and enjoy a homemade breakfast with them (typically an additional $5 CUCs – nearly equivalent to US Dollars).

You do need to pay for a VISA travel card. We booked through American Airlines (Seattle to Miami, Miami to Havana) and they make it easy. You also need to hold on to your boarding pass throughout the trip as it serves as proof of health insurance if you need it. We explored buying additional insurance (which many companies offer at some fairly steep prices, and decided against it).

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Make a point of meeting locals. Airbnb makes it easy to book experiences with locals. We coordinated one ‘experience’ each day—much more than I would normally do, but I was glad we did. We started with a walking tour in Havana with an economist. It was the perfect way to get acclimated to the city and have some context to how things work (spoiler alert: health care for all, free education, but the economy is a mess).  We also did an in-home cooking class which was an incredible way to spend the afternoon with locals and experience the local cuisine. We also hiked with a guide, enjoyed a bike ride through Havana and took a few salsa dancing lessons.  There are oodles to choose from. They’re affordable and make living in Cuba an affordable thing for the people that run them.

Bring what you need. Cuba is not the place where you can easily pop in to a market to buy more Advil or shampoo when you need it. Part of the ailing economy means that stores are often out of the basics (think: people selling 4-packs of toilet paper on the street). We stayed at four casa particulars—and not one of them had the ‘left behind’ lotions/soaps/etc. that many Airbnb’s have. On the plus side—this did not turn into a shopping vacation. Just the mandatory refrigerator magnet (which I had to seek out), nothing else. Refreshing.

And you’ll need to bring all the cash you’ll need. This is important: US debit and credit cards do not work. Best to transfer US dollars to Euro while you’re at home as exchanging US Dollars in Cuba equals a 13% fee. You can exchange your Euro in the Havana airport when you arrive (which I recommend) – and also at select banks throughout town.

Take time to be in the moment. This seems obvious—and if you’re reading this, travel is likely more about appreciation than selfies—but it seems important to call out. Lingering at the corner café, taking a meandering bike ride through town, and experiencing salsa dancing in the town square where locals enjoy live music nightly were some of the highlights.

Unplug. Yes, you can get internet access, but it is slow, not secure and will try your patience. There are often long queues to buy access cards and service is spotty at best. Why not take the opportunity to enjoy the lack of access—and post all your photos when you return? If you’re not convinced, here’s how it works:

1) Bring your passport along to buy a 1 hour access card for $2 CUC at a designated ETECSA location (some hotels also sell them) and then find a local park that connect to this service. These parks aren’t marked, but it’s obvious when you see people glued to their phones as you walk by.

2) Some of the casa particulars allow you to use their access. This typically looks like limited access (i.e. 1 hour per day when the host grants you access) or access so that you can use your ETECSA card without having to go to a park.

Already been to Cuba? Let me know what you would add to the list!

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