Cuba has always been on my list. However, with US regulations the country has always been off limits to Americans. In 2015 the restrictions have eased, specially you no longer need to apply for a license, more Americans are now able to travel to Cuba planning their own trips that meet the 12 OFAC qualifying categories.
When I saw a special to Havana, I didn’t even think about it and booked the flight. But now what? It’s trying to figure everything out. Where to stay, what to do, what to bring… all of that. I just wanted to go before McDonald’s, Starbucks and commercial advertising appear all over town. So here are all of the things I did to plan the trip:
I did lots of research on both the TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet forums and the best places to stay at are the casa particulars. These are places run by locals for both foreigners and locals alike, except casa particulars are licensed to only host either foreigners or locals, never both. You could book your stay directly with the casa for better prices, or with Airbnb like we did because we felt that the reservation was more secure.
As for where in town to stay, we picked La Habana Vieja as the old buildings and the history was what we wanted to see and learn. These buildings are disappearing one by one ans it’s important to see them now. Centro Habana is a bit more run-down (it’s all relative) and Vedado is a bit too new, so we didn’t select those areas.
What to do
Architecture and history are on our agenda. I had mapped out places of note, and the history of the buildings and marked them all over both a physical map and also on the Maps.me app. Note because data access on US cell phones is extremely expensive, I opted to download the app and then within the app downloaded an offline map for Cuba. Then when I turn on GPS on my phone (with data off) I can still easily navigate.
For food I had to get a general idea as to options. The casa offered breakfast for 5 CUCs (I’ll explain the currency in just a bit), and also dinner. You must tell them in advance as they need to source the ingredients. The availability of ingredients is still scarce, and locals are still using government rations. That said, we also looked up restaurants, and there are quite a few including paladars, which are privately run restaurants.
What to bring
This was not an easy list. We tried to figure out what’s readily available and came up with the following:
Soap, shampoo and conditioner
Oh yes… and cash. Cuba runs on a dual currency system, specifically the CUP (aka pesos cubano or Moneda Nacional) and CUC (pesos convertibiles but referred to as the “kook”). The CUC is pegged to the US dollar, and 1 CUC = 25 CUPs. Locals generally use CUP and foreigners use CUC.
But there’s more.
When you exchange US dollars into CUCs, there is a 10% penalty. Therefore it’s better to bring Euros and British Pounds. That said, do the math to make sure you don’t lose out when you factor in any commission charges.
You don’t want to exchange? Well for now you have to, as credit cards issued by US banks won’t work in Cuba due to the embargo. Also, there just aren’t that many POS units for you to charge, unless you’re at a major hotel or restaurant. I’m not even sure whether the exchange rate would be good either.
Lastly, there’s the tourist card situation. There is no official visa required to enter Cuba for US citizens, but you must buy a tourist card which serves as a de facto visa. If you’re not traveling direct from the US, you can buy them at airports like Cancún or Panama. At Panama City airport, Copa Airlines sold them for US$20, cash only. For passengers traveling on non-stops from the US, prices range from $80 to $120 depending on the airline.
We ended up buying them in advance for 25€ by mail from Cuba Visas as there were so many conflicting information on prices. Copa had told us between $50 to $100 each, so you could see why we chose to buy them in advance.
Now that all of the preparations are (somewhat) in place, we are ready to go.