BEFORE YOU GO
I had SO MANY questions before my trip, so I am hoping you will find these all helpful! I'm going to answer ever possible question that ran through my head:
1) Carry-On or Checked Bag? Carry-on
2) How Early Should I Get to Airport? Friends told us three hours early, but two hours is totally fine.
3) No ATMs? Finding an ATM in Cuba can be difficult so bring cash. Exchange dollars into euros BEFORE your trip through your bank. Then, once you land in Havana, you can exchange euros into CUCs. For reference, we spent about 600 euros for 5 days.
4) Do I need a visa? Yes, you will need to purchase a Cuban visa ahead of time. It's $50 and we called our airline (Delta) three days before to purchase them over the phone. We got an email confirmation and picked up our visas at the departure gate. Super easy process! NOTE: Make sure to keep this visa for entering AND departing Havana!
5) Can I drink the water? No, you should avoid the ice and tap water. Our AirBNB had bottled water at the apartment for us to purchase for 1 CUC, which was helpful. Otherwise I would stock up on bottles whenever you find it!
6) Am I in trouble if I don't speak Spanish? No, I barely know Spanish and was totally fine! We downloaded Google Translate which helped us at times and I also practiced my numbers before the trip to help with negotiations.
7) Is it safe? Yes! At no point on the trip did I ever feel unsafe. Cubans are one of the friendliest and most kind cultures I’ve ever encountered and also super helpful! It's kind of an interesting feeling because we are in someways prenotioned to expect the worst, but I never felt unsafe, was catcalled or anything! Props to the Cuban mothers who raise their sons well!
8) Reason for Trip? You'll have to declare a reason for your trip when purchasing your flights. We put journalism and had no issues. People told us to print documents to back this up, which we did, but no one asked. The best option is "support the Cuban people" which you can prove with your AirBNB receipt!
9) Do you tip? Yes, tipping is 10%.
10) What do I pack? Pack your essentials like sunscreen and toiletries. Our AirBNB had soap but it wasn't the best so I was happy to have had my own soap and shampoo. Other recommendations to pack: gum, mints, small face towel, kleenex, make-up wipe..these are hard to find there!) I packed snacks because I was told it was hard to come by food but we had no issues with finding snacks and find, especially in Old Havana!
11) Is it a poor country? Cuban people most certainly make less money than we do. A doctor makes about 15 to 20 CUCs per month, which is crazy to think! So yes, it's a different financial situation than here in the States but it's something that they're used to. Cubans have access to free healthcare and are allocated a certain amount of food items per month, which helps their financial situations. A lot of the buildings are also extremely rundown and almost falling apart. It's a bummer and just makes you think how absolutely stunning everything would look if they properly fixed the building exteriors.
12) Would you recommend? 100% YES! I have never met a culture filled with such genuinely happy, kind and humble people. Their joie to vivre for the everyday is contagious and I came back home filled with tons of memories, a happy heart, a fresh outlook and a healthy reminder to disconnect as often as needed. Their slower pace of life is admirable and a great lesson to not sweat the small things in life. The internet doesn’t matter, your designer clothes don’t matter, social media and work emails are almost nonexistent, and how big your house is insignificant. It was truly a trip of a lifetime (plus, it's affordable!)
HOTEL VS. AIRBNB
I could not have been happier about our decision to stay in an AirBNB over a hotel! Just so you know, the hotels in Cuba are run by the government and are crazy overpriced. Tourism is fairly new in Cuba - and AirBNB is a great way for local families to generate additional income. The locals really respect tourists that book AirBNB over hotels because you are directly supporting the community. And for them, their online reviews are like gold so they truly treat guests like family! Every morning, our host cooked breakfast for us and cleaned our apartment every other day. As always, make sure you read AirBNB reviews before booking.
Here is the AirBNB we stayed at. It was a two bedroom, two bathroom situated in the heart of Old Havana. Our hosts were amazing and I highly recommend staying here!
WHERE TO STAY
There are two main parts of town: Habana Vieja and Vedado. We stayed in Habana Vieja, or Old Havana - and were so happy we did. It's the central part of town and is definitely the busiest so expect lots of noise, tourists, and restaurants. We felt that although lots of tourists were walking around, we were still able to get the authentic feel of the culture because we were surrounded by tons of Cubans in our AirBNB. Everything is within walking distance here so I highly recommend it!
There are two currencies in Cuba, the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). As a tourist, you are only allowed to use the CUC. 1 CUC = about 1 dollars, so it was easy conversions for us. As mentioned above, I recommend getting Euros ahead of time and then exchanging them for CUCs at the airport.
HOW MUCH MONEY TO BRING
We were there for 4 nights and had 600 euros for the trip. We had 9 CUCs left over at the end. You should plan for 25 to 30 CUCs for getting to and from the airport. Depending on what activities you do and what restaurants you choose to eat at, around 100 to 200 CUCs is what you'll spend per day. Some meals cost 60 CUCs while others cost 5 CUCs. We rented a vintage car three times (DUH!) which got a little pricey but I loved every minute of it.
GETTING INTO HAVANA
We chatted with our AirBNB host to arrange for our airport pick-up, which cost 30 CUCs. They were waiting at the airport with a sign of my name, which was super cute! If you can't arrange your pick-up ahead of time, legal transportation is a yellow checkered cab. For the yellow cab, it should cost around $25 CUC to 30 CUC to get into central Havana. Don’t let anyone charge you more than that. It takes around 25 minutes to get there.
I am a crazy planner so I printed maps of a majority of the destinations we were going to ahead of time. Being in Old Havana, our AirBNB was super centralized so it was fairly easy getting around time and remembering where our place was.
I read to download the Galileo App, which I did because it’s an offline vector map. My mistake was that I forgot to download it before my trip (WHOOPS!), so be sure to download a map of Havana BEFORE you leave so you can search offline!
As far as transportation, we walked TONS so bring comfortable walking shoes. We also rented vintage cars three times to get around town. There are rows and rows of vintage beauties to choose from, just head to the Capitol Building and you'll see them all. They will try to up-sell you, so we chatted with our AirBNB host to know good prices before venturing out. For reference, we paid 30CUC for a tour in a vintage pink convertible around town for 1 hour and up the Malecon. We also spent the day at Varadero Beach, which is about 2.5 hours each way - and paid 160 CUCs for a driver to take us there, wait for us for 3 hours and drive us back. Another day trip we took was a horseback riding excursion in Vinales which is about 3 hours away. We negotiated 130 CUCs for this drive both ways.
THINGS TO DO
My favorite thing to do was just to walk around Havana because every street is so beautiful and unique. There are colorful buildings on almost every corner and you can peak into the Cuban apartments to get a feel of the day-to-day. Here are a few of my favorite streets: Wander down Zanja and Avenue Simon Bolivar, two main streets that run through Central Havana, where you'll pass rainbow colored buildings and experience great people watching. Walk along Obispo to explore the main tourist area of Havana. There are restaurants and bars that line the street. The most popular colorful buildings are directly across from El Capitolio - you can't miss it! Another fun street is Paseo de Marti. There is a popular art park called Fusterlandia about 30 minutes away, which was highly recommended online but we did not have a chance to go. If you go, let me know how it is!
FOOD FOOD FOOD
Okay, I am not going to lie - the food is not very good in Cuba. As for the restaurant scene, it’s up and coming so there aren’t a lot of fancy options. This means that there are a select few that all tourists do and they book up fast. We made two reservations ahead of time, but I honestly recommend just eating like a local. Oftentimes these restaurants are crazy overpriced and the food is mediocre. We got tired of spending 60+ CUCs and opted for cheaper options for the 2nd half of our trip. Note: Cubans eat later than we do so I recommend eating around 8:30PM. Here are a few spots we loved:
La Guardia: We came here for our first night for dinner and it was AMAZING. It's in the most beautiful building with amazing architecture, plus they have a really cool rooftop bar. You definitely need to get reservations in advance!
La Terreza: For some good BBQ!
Restaurant Floridita: A bit of a tourist trap because Hemmingway made this place famous for saying they had the world’s best daiquiri, but is still fun to visit.
El Dandy: Great and affordable breakfast in Old Havana.
El Del Frente: We came here for lunch and mojitos. The door is a bit hard to find but definitely get a watermelon mojito here!
Fabrica de Arte: We unfortunately didn't get a chance to go here but have heard nothing but fantastic things. It's known for being a great nightlife spot full of live music, art, and dancing. They have a 5 CUC cover, but that includes two drinks.
And as mentioned, we had our AirBNB host cook us breakfast on a few occasions so if you have this options, definitely do it! It's super affordable and honestly was our best meal! It also gave us a chance to sit down with our host and chat with her about her background and Havana!
As you may know, finding WiFi is a challenge. I honestly recommend disconnecting from the Internet world while on this trip! However, if you are need of WiFi, you have to buy a wifi card from a hotel lobby for $1 to $5. Most of the public parks have WiFi but it was very hard to connect. We would just pretend like we were guests of the hotels and sit in the lobby to connect. It costs 1 CUC for 30 minutes.
Havana is pretty small, so I highly recommend taking one or two day trips.
Viñales: I booked a horseback riding trip ahead of time, which cost 5 CUC per hour (we did 3 hours because my brother had never been on a horse before!) + 130 CUC for transportation. It takes around two and a half hours but it totally worth it. This city is known for it's gorgeous rural countryside, tobacco farms and nature. My favorite part of the trip was seeing how cigars are made! I wish we could've spent more time here and would recommend spending the night if you can! There are also tons of colorful houses, which is fun to always look at :)
Vedado Beach: We had such a fan day renting a pink convertible and spending the day at Vedado Beach. It's known for being Cuba's most gorgeous beach and it did not disappoint! Other closer options are Santa Maria Beach and Megano Beach - both about 30 minutes away.