In just the short time since I posted this, some regulations affecting Americans have changed. Here's an update on US-Cuba travel.
Thinking of going to Cuba this year? You’re not alone. That small island nation is attracting huge attention as newly relaxed regulations make travel easier, especially for Americans. This is thrilling news for people like me, who never expected to set foot on Cuban soil (at least, not legally). But Cuba’s infrastructure for handling the rising flood of visitors isn’t firmly in place, and you’ll need to negotiate quirky regulations, the strange double-currency system, and more than a few pitfalls and rough edges. Is it worth the effort? You bet. Despite some tough years and an old-style Marxist-Leninist communist government, Cuba hasn’t lost its warm hospitality and the knack for showing visitors a good time.
10 things you’ll really enjoy in Cuba
10 things you need to know before you go
1. Entry Requirements
You’ll need a passport that’s valid for six moths beyond the duration of your stay plus a Cuban visa. Visas are still a bit tricky for Americans; we have to apply for one of 12 exemptions to the ban on visiting Cuba, such as cultural or business interests. Everyone else can obtain travel visas from a Cuban embassy or consular office, via various Internet services, or through a travel company.
2. Tours vs. Independent Travel
Regulations are complex and subject to change, especially for Americans, so most people go with a tour; Google lists thousands. My Cuban tour group experience was generally positive except for getting booted from our homeward bound plane, the airport, and the hotel so we wound up spending our last night in Cuba sleeping in a bus. Good times… Operating independently is an option, but bear in mind that if you’ve received a visa for a specific purpose, such as a cultural tour, it’s illegal to deviate substantially from your projected itinerary to, say, spend a week at the beach. Cuba takes these laws seriously. Our group had a government official watching our every move for days to make sure we kept on track.
3. Where to Stay
Hotel occupancy, especially in Havana, is near 100%. Try to book well in advance, directly with the hotel or via sites such as Cuba Hotels. Casas particulares are private guest houses where you can stay with a family, often with homemade meals and enough privacy (e.g., your own bathroom) to make it comfortable; find them via sites such as Hostels Club and Airbnb.
4. Getting Around
The Cuban government has invested in a fleet of modern motor coaches which are comfortable, air conditioned, and my least favorite way to see a country — sealed away behind tinted windows. Alternatives include the tourist bus, Viazul, local buses (slow and crowded), trains (very slow and very crowded), and various agencies providing cars with or without drivers/guides.
5. Currencies & Exchange Rates
Confusingly, there are two currencies, and to make matters worse, they’re both called pesos and look nearly identical. The Cuban peso (CUP) is used by locals to purchase everyday items at government-controlled prices; this peso features pictures of people. The convertible peso (CUC) is tied to the US dollar, is worth 25 times as much as the Cuban peso, and generally shows monuments. American dollars are subject to an extra 10% tax, so exchange euros or pounds if you have them. ATMs are rare, and American credit cards aren’t accepted.
6. Food & Water
I was surprised at how bland and repetitive the fare was in Cuba, although the paella and pulled pork were great. As to the coffee, I don’t agree with those who say that Cuban café con leche is as addictive as crack cocaine, but it’s close. Don’t drink the watery stuff at the hotel; head for a bodega or café. And speaking of water, Cuba’s isn’t all bad, but old lead pipes and unreliable supplies of chlorine for purification mean anything coming out of the tap could be hazardous. I adopted full safety protocols: bottled water, even for brushing teeth; no ice; only peeled or well-cooked produce. In our group, half of those who indulged in salads and iced drinks suffered serious stomach disorders. Pack meds for dealing with traveler’s tummy.
Sanitation has been modernized recently but is still disconcertingly below the standards you’re likely used to. Most public toilets don’t have seats, and if they flush at all, the pipes are far too fragile to handle loo paper, which you are strongly requested to deposit in a separate waste basket. Always carry packets of tissue, hand sanitizer, and small coins to pay the lady at the entrance.
8. WiFi & Phone Service
Communications systems are fragile, cumbersome, slow, and expensive — if you can get connected at all. I decided to stay disconnected the whole time and really enjoyed it.
Europeans can already get Cuban rum and cigars at their local markets, but Americans find it thrilling to know they can bring home $400 worth of goods including $100 worth of cigars and rum combined.
The Cubans I met were warm-hearted, hard-working, and smart; the country has a 99.7% literacy rate (well above the USA’s 86%). People somehow remain cheerful and resilient despite tremendous obstacles, including years of near starvation and the current average salary of $20 a month. They love their country and don’t want to be Americans or Europeans. I know you would never do this, but I actually saw some foreigners treating Cubans with disrespect bordering on contempt for not speaking English or doing something the American way. If the Cubans can be gracious about my pathetic attempts to do the rumba, the least I can do is cut them some slack about plumbing and wifi.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind. Any organizations mentioned in my posts are included because I thought you might find them interesting or helpful. Of course, you’ll want to do your own research. And remember, regulations about Cuba are changing with astonishing speed, so keep checking for updates, especially if you’re traveling independently.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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