Cuba has been such a forbidden fruit for Americans for a long time. Now that the gates are open Americans are going in droves. I LOVED the country and can not wait to return. It is a country that I did a lot of preplanning because our credit cards do not work there, the exchange rate is horrible for USD, and internet is extremely spotty. Making a phone call home, using data, or messaging adds up fast. Therefore being prepared is a necessity.
Here are a few highlights, tricks of the trade, and thoughts on how it all went down for my Cuba experience. Mine is mainly based off of Trinidad, Cuba, not Havana.
*Long but with Good Tips*
1. I spent on average $70/day when I added up my 5 day trip. Mainly on drinks, food, and transportation, but this number also includes gifts and excursions.
2. I flew American Airlines and obtained my visa from the consulate in DC. It cost $50 plus the money I spent on a passport photo and gas to go there twice. Otherwise you can order one in advance for $85 or pay $100 at the gate. With other airlines such as Southwest and Delta they sell their visas for much cheaper at the gate.
3. Upon arrival I signed two forms while on the plane. One for customs and one about my health. Once I got off the plane, going through customs and scanning my checked luggage only took about 35min. It was very fast for being Dec 30th in my opinion. I handed off those two papers at two different times and they were barely looked at.
4. When leaving the country, I did not have to pay any exit tax. I read somewhere that others did. Do give yourself 3 hours as it took a long time to go through security. Also continue to check the signs for your flight as gates change. Know the terminal so you can tell your taxi where to drop you off at the airport. The terminals are not right next to one another and are not easy to walk to.
5. Upon arrival in the US I filled out a declaration form and went through customs. I have global entry. All they asked is where I was coming from and what my job was. They then sent me on my way.
6. During my entire trip, no one asked to verify the categories of why I was in Cuba. I used people to people on the customs form, wrote down how my trip was a part of that for my own personal keeping, and brought toothbrushes, pens, pencils, and gum to give away. You will read many say, do not worry about the reasons, just put anything down. I agree with that, but in the case at some point in your life you have to explain yourself, writing down why you went and what you did and intended to do will then be easily accessible. You never know what security clearance or whatever, may come up in your life and you have to remember your story.
7. You can arrange transportation from the airport prior to going but I actually preferred doing it upon arrival as I had some problems with communication with setting up a taxi in advance. Wifi is spotty. Therefore it was harder to check in with anyone when they were not in a wifi zone. And upon arrival there is no way to be sure your taxi is there or to communicate if one of you are running late.
8. A half bottle of rum is $2-$5. A full bottle can start near $5 and go into the hundreds depending on the brand. The local Havana Club is about $7. I didn't think the rum was all that strong, but it is great for gifts and packs easily.
9. Drinks on the street were $1CUC - $2CUC. They were $3CUC or less in restaurants. Get Guarabo with rum. Sooo good!
10. Food in a sit down restaurant can average $5CUC-$15CUC. Share if you can. Portions are large and the food isn't amazing. I used meal time for nourishing my body and talking to people. I wasn't there for the food but for the connections. Also restaurants take a LONG time. Sometimes 3 hours between waiting to enter and getting food. Prepare yourself by looking at the menu and knowing exactly what you want when they come to order drinks. One night we just did appetizers and one entree to share between three people and the food came within less than 20minutes. Also note that they charge .60 more or less for a to go box.
11. Colectivos are your friend. Have your host, as soon as you check in, arrange for you to be in one when traveling between cities. (Trinidad, Vinales, etc) Ask them several times if they have called to organize one. Sometimes Cubans may be like "yes I did", and then they walk off to talk to a friend and forget. It's island culture. Just nicely roll with the flow and ask again, so you don't end up last minute without a taxi. During NYE it was beyond difficult to get one last minute. Price on average for a tourist is $30CUC to $40CUC. Between Trinidad and Havana.
12. Go. To. Trinidad. Smaller town that feels like a city with amazing music.
13. Colectivos are not at The Havana Airport, but at the Viazul bus station. Take a taxi there for $15CUC ( you can get this price or a little more by sharing with someone else). Negotiate your price for the colectivo which should be between $25-$40CUC depending on where you are going.
14. The exhaust from the cars is real. No matter what car you are in, new or old, there is a good chance you will experience it, lol. I wish I had a mask sometimes to block some of that air. I am guessing it is because of the age of the cars and all the work they have done to continue to restore them.
15. Check Casa de La Musica in Trinidad for great performances, dancing and live bands. Only $1CUC to enter. Drinks are $1.50 outside of it and about $2.80 inside.
16. Go to San Jose Restaurant in Trinidad at 5pm if you need tasty food. The line is long and be sure to stand near the hostesses eyeline so they don't forget about you. There will be a one hour to 2 hour wait. Be patient. If you are a foodie this is the one good meal you will have.
17. Cuba time is real. It's the Caribbean. People are chill and take their time with everything. Roll with it and you'll be just fine.
18. If you need to change accommodations don't be afraid to knock on some doors and ask to see the Casa. It's easy to find accommodations last minute. At the same time, don't be too picky. You aren't there to be in your room. Just be sure the door locks, you have AC, and it's clean. They only have so much so don't expect a 5 star experience for amenities. It will be 5 stars though because of the experience with the people.
19. It is common to arrive at a Casa and then taken to another one. It can feel like a bait and switch but the majority of the time that is not the case. As long as the place is equal in looks and amenities, I did not find this to be an issue. If you are paying for something nicer than what you are actually receiving, speaking up is necessary.
20. They really appreciate us bringing children's toothbrushes. My Airbnb host said they are hard to find and expensive.
21. Talk to the locals. I made so many friends just by asking for directions or buying a drink or standing up front near the band to dance. I was invited to three NYE house parties by beautiful locals who just appreciated the time I took to sit have a drink or talk to them about the US and Cuba. It was awesome.
22. Do book a tour one day before when arriving or in advance. It was hard trying to find English guides that would talk about the history of Cuba the day of.
23. I did horseback riding in Trinidad for $25CUC. This includes your horse, your guide, a ride in the country, a stop to get Guarabo and see how it's made, and a stop at a waterfall. This was arranged by my AirBnB host. The guide spoke decent English but didn't give much history as we were on our way. I usually can talk and ask questions to make it a history tour, but my horse decided it wanted to be the leader and kept a decent pace ahead of the group.
24. There is so much history and decrepit beauty in Havana. I was fortunate to be with a group of people cognitive enough to share in really great conversations about the state of Cuba and US relations with this country now.
25. The light skinned Cubans considered themselves black. Twice I was told or heard them say, we have Afro Caribbean blood in our veins. It gave me chills and I finally felt like I was in a place where the people loved blacks and everyone was equal when it came to race.
26. If you use Airbnb I was in an awesome Casa in Trinidad from a guy named Hektor who speaks English well, and the rooms were a step above Casas in Trinidad. Feel free to drop my name. I loved him and his family and he went above and beyond to help me with restaurant reservations, excursions, and taxis. He is about $31/night. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/13848681
27. The beach in Trinidad is gorgeous. Bring a beach towel in your bag. They have chairs on the beach for $2CUC each. Take whatever chair you want and eventually a man will come to collect money. Drinks are $3CUC each and guys walk around selling them. Have exact change to help you and them. They also sell sandwiches but I'd suggest bringing your own. There will be someone walking around selling pizza for $3CUC. It's just ok, and again, use it for body nourishment not an amazing meal. There is a bathroom for $1CUC and one single outdoor shower in front of the bathroom. Taxis are $3-$5CUC a person each way. Arrange a driver to be there for you or to call as they don't like to return once the sun goes down. You may have to walk back which is a long way.
28. Have breakfast at your casa. It's simple. Usually juice, coffee, eggs, bread, cheese, and ham. Usually $5CUC and on the terrace. Go ahead and get this before you leave for the day. You will be hungry and the price is just about the same on the street and saves you time as it can take FOREVER just to order food in a restaurant. Plus something about breakfast on a rooftop to start the day is always perfect.
29. Do your best not to ask the price beforehand. If you speak Spanish they will probably think you're Cuban and accept what you give. If you speak mainly English, find out from your hotel, casa, or host how much they usually pay to the place you want to go or the price of the food that you want to buy. If it is a taxi, have them get the taxi for you if possible. If they can not do that for you then hail a taxi, say where you need to go, don't speak English in the car, and pay at the end the amount your host said it should be. If it is street food, stay aware and watch what locals are paying or ask what someone paid after they have purchased an item to be sure you don't overpay.
30. 10% tip is usually included in restaurant bills. But not always. And note that the government takes 75% of a restaurant's gross earnings, so I heard, so support the people.
31. Change your money to euros! This has been said all over the internet for Americans. Google it further and do so. It will save you a 13% surcharge that is placed on USD.
32. We all travel differently, so I hope this is helpful when it comes to planning for your trip. Be open, talk to locals, and have fun. Cubans are really happy people who live rich lives. Yes, they may not have our modern lifestyle but many are content and have been living their lives just fine prior to us visiting. So try out their way of life. I know I can't wait to return to experience more. What I have shared is just a taste of the whole.