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Cuba: Know Before You Go

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There are few hotter travel destinations for Americans right now than Cuba. The longtime forbidden fruit is no longer off limits to us, thanks to President Obama’s recent lift of travel restrictions. #thanksobama (umm, for EVERYTHING, not just Cuba). With a bit of planning, traveling to Cuba is relatively easy, affordable, and oh so close(!)–our direct flight from Newark was less than three hours. Although a mere ninety miles from Miami, Cuba is a world away–a true step back into time and an utterly fascinating country that will undoubtedly amaze and bewilder you all at the same time.

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We met so many good-natured and hospitable individuals who were thrilled that Americans are finally permitted to travel to Cuba.  Such a warm and welcoming culture.

 

Easy Does It: The Only Visa You’ll Actually Need (and other important information)

While Cuba is becoming easier and easier for Americans to travel to and is fairly simple to navigate, there are still some challenges that you don’t encounter in most other countries. For that reason, we chose the licensed tour company Cuba to Do to help us with our trip. I can’t recommend this organization enough. They arranged all of our travel necessities: flights, visas, accommodations, airport transfers, travel assistance insurance, travel certificates, and they even threw in a guide book and luggage cable ties.  Something to note: tourism is not allowed in Cuba. Travelers require a General License where they must select one of twelve existing categories of licensed travel. For reference, we selected the “Educational Activities” category for the purpose of “people-to-people travel.” Other than the obvious convenience of using a tour company, Cuba To Do is American-based so I was able to communicate easily and frequently with our travel specialist.  She was responsive, knowledgeable, and extremely helpful. They offer a range of packages and are reasonably priced. Highly recommend using them or another reputable licensed tour outfitter.

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Beautiful Habana Vieja (Old Havana)

Money Can’t Buy Happiness, But Cash Will Certainly Get You Far
Cuba is a total cash society and credit cards are rarely accepted–and when I say rarely, I really mean that hardly anyone, regardless of how well-established and/or high-end they are, accepts them. Even the fanciest of restaurants and hotels do not accept credit cards, so be prepared to solely rely on cash. Most accommodations have safes where you can stow your money, but you should confirm ahead of time. Cuba is a pretty affordable country in comparison to many part of the United States, but it’s not as cheap as some other places I’ve traveled to like Bangkok and Honduras. Havana has a hip and vibrant dining and nightlife scene (some rooftop restaurants/bars were so trendy that they reminded us of Miami), so if you choose these stylish spots (and I highly recommend that you do!), be prepared to spend accordingly.
Cuba has two currencies: the CUP and CUC (the latter pronounced kooks). Foreigners must exchange their money (unlike some other Caribbean destinations and tourist areas of Mexico, dollars are not accepted) for CUC and on average the exchange rate is 1 CUC = .87 USD. There is an exchange counter at the airport and a handful of banks around Havana where you can convert money. My advice: exchange a fair amount at the airport so you have more than enough and aren’t desperately searching for a bank in the city. Also ask for some small bills so that you can pay for taxis (taxis around the city typically cost between $5-10 CUC, depending on how far you’re going of course, and how good of a negotiator you are), purchase small things like bottles of water, and tip service industry guides and other individuals. One more thing (you probably already do this, but worth mentioning), always carry a copy (preferably colored) of your passport with you when traveling abroad (not just in Cuba, although some banks will ask for it, some won’t). Most banks will ask you for identification and carrying around your passport is never advisable. What if you get pick-pocketed? What if you lose it? What if you spill your mojito on it? So many what-ifs that are so not worth the risk. Who wants to spend their vacation time in an embassy? No-one, that’s who. Do yourself a favor: keep your passport secure in your safe and carry around a copy.
My final words of wisdom (ok, maybe not totally final, but important nonetheless) is expect to spend more money than you anticipate because 1.) Cuba is not as cheap as you probably think it is and 2.) Many of us are so used to using credit and debit cards that it’s easy to lose track of how much you spend on a daily basis, especially when you’re traveling. We brought more than we thought we would need and even ended up bringing some of our money back home (yay!). My dad didn’t listen to my (spot-on, I should add) advice and let’s just say that he was lucky that he had us to support his traveling needs 🙂
It’s better to have more than not enough…if you run out of money, the only viable option of getting more money is visiting the Western Union (and expect a longggg line) for a wire transfer from home. Who wants to spend their vacation begging for money and standing in a Western Union line? Again, no-one, that’s who. Don’t be like my dad.
Bring yo money, honey.
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Classic Car Tour of Havana
Spontaneous Travelers: Take Note
This is really a continuation of the section above, but it’s definitely worth reiterating. Book and pay for as many tours and activities in advance as you can.  This is a general rule of thumb for me when I travel, because well, I’m a planner and I don’t like to leave things to chance (in other words. I’m anal AF when it comes to planning trips). Even if you are more of an impulsive traveler (I salute you, dear friend, I really do), I beg you to change your stripes in Cuba and reconsider since 1.) everything is paid for in cash and 2.) you will likely have very limited, if any, internet access while you’re there (see below).  Prior to our trip, I made sure to book and pay for our Urban Adventures Havana walking tour, our cooking/family visit experience, our all-day Vinales (tobacco region) tour, and tickets to the infamous and spectacular Tropicana cabaret show. Print out all tickets/vouchers ahead of time since not only will you probably not have internet access but finding a hotel with a business center will likely be just as challenging.
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The verdant tobacco fields of Vinales 
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Cooking/Family Visit Experience: Feasting on Local Delicacies
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Glitz and Glamour: The over-the-top Tropicana Cabaret Show
Where’d Ya Go, Al Gore?
For those of you who like to disconnect from the world when you’re traveling, you’re in luck. Getting internet access in Cuba is very hard to come by. The majority of the country does not have internet. A few high-end hotels in Havana do offer internet, most for a fee. We bought Wifi Cards for 10 CUC each at the lovely Parque Central Hotel, which was good for five hours within thirty days.  It’s worth noting that even when you pay for a Wifi card, internet is still spotty at best. I was only able to get on here and there for about 10 minutes at a time. Even if you’re not interested in logging on, I still recommend visiting Parque Central to enjoy a mojito, Cuba Libre, or whatever cocktail you fancy on their
fabulous rooftop, which offers sweeping views of the city. Other top-tier Havana hotels like the Saratoga offer Wifi to hotel guests.
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Parque Central’s stunning rooftop views of Havana’s Gran Teatro and Capitol building (modeled after the U.S. Capitol!)
Oh the Things We Take For Granted: What to Bring
Bring tissue packs and travel-size hand sanitizer–even some upscale restaurants and museums don’t have toilet paper and/or soap…this was very much like my time China–but no holes in the ground in Cuba–all toilets! Hooray for small victories!
Most hotels/casas particulares use a 110-volt current (same as U.S.) but I’d suggest bringing an adapter and converter just in case, since some use 220 volts. Our little boutique hotel had dual voltage but not all do, so be prepared. This All-in-One Universal Adapter covers more than 150 countries and only costs around $6.00 on Amazon. A true Godsend that I bring on every international trip.
Bring all toiletries and medicines (Advil, cold medicines, Pepto tablets, band-aids, anything you think you will need!). Medicines are rarely available–even in Havana, things are very hard to come by and some pharmacies were nearly empty when we walked in.
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This grand “farmacia” is more like a museum than an actual pharmacy considering the majority of these canisters are empty and very few medicines are actually sold here. Just one of the many confusing aspects of Cuba!
Sunshine and Warmth: When To Go
The best time to visit Cuba is from December to May, when it’s dry and sunny. We visited in mid-April and couldn’t have asked for better weather: eighties during the day and low seventies at night. It lightly drizzled on our last day so we spent a few hours at the highly recommended Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana (National Museum of Fine Arts).
Safety
 
Cuba is one of the safest countries we’ve ever traveled to…comparable to the likes of gloriously safe Iceland and Singapore.  Of course it’s always advisable to be alert and mindful of your surroundings, regardless of where you’re traveling, but you can rest assured that you can walk around Havana, even at night, with confidence and peace of mind. The people of Cuba are welcoming, kind, and proud of their heritage. There is very little pan-handling and if you kindly decline an offer to buy something or visit a store, the majority of individuals will thank you and let you be. A truly lovely and congenial culture.
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The time to travel to Cuba is now! Go before it changes and becomes taken over by foreigners (ahem, Americans!). So much of Cuba’s charm and allure lies in its dynamic culture, time-warp atmosphere (obsessed with those vintage cars), and resistance and lack of outside influence–you won’t see any foreign chains or franchises and other than Coca-Cola, we saw very little trace of American products. Foreigners are still forbidden from owning any property (unless you’re married to someone who is Cuban), so all businesses are either owned by the government or private citizens. So nearly everything, from businesses, to cuisine, to museums reflect Cuban nationalism.  Of course, this also comes at a huge price and poverty and infrastructure decay permeate the country. It is truly a country of contradictions–we were constantly enamored by its beauty and exuberance while simultaneously perplexed by its pervasive oppression and totalitarian system. Cuba is somewhere everyone should visit and experience–there really is no other place like it.
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Havana and Vinales travel guides coming soon…

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