If you haven't been living under a rock, you probably know that Americans are now permitted to enter Cuba. It still is not officially for tourism purposes but there are 12 categories under which Americans can now visit this time capsuled island nation. Here in this post we are going to clarify all your doubts and give you tips to help to prepare for your amazing vacation to Cuba.
UPDATE: As of June 2017, these policies have changed and as per President Trump's new rules, please check the latest updates here.
It is legal for Americans to travel to Cuba?
As I mentioned before Americans are still not permitted to travel to Cuba for tourism purposes. But there are 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba.
- Family visit
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings;
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people;
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
Most people who wish to visit Cuba for tourism purposes choose Support for Cuban People. Vik and I visited Cuba in March 2017 and we choose this category and did not have any trouble getting in and out of the country. If you do fit into any of the other categories go ahead and choose the one that best suits your purpose of travel. So yes, you can visit Cuba legally!
How do I get a Visa to visit Cuba?
For Americans wishing to visit Cuba, if you are flying out of the United States directly into Cuba, the airlines will arrange your visa for a fee which is usually $ 50 or so. You can buy the travel card or license at the airport check in counter, like we did with JetBlue, or you can buy it online, depending on the airlines.
Now which airlines fly to Cuba?
The following are the airlines that are operating to Cuba from the USA as of March 2017 and the price for tourist card is different for each airline. I highly recommend calling the airline in advance and reconfirming how to buy the travel card and the insurance.
- American Airlines
We flew JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale to Havana. It was a short 45 min flight and we did not have any issues entering or leaving Cuba. Although since I still hold an Indian Passport, I almost couldn't go! Yes, the lady at the check in desk was a little confused to see an Indian passport. Indians do require to apply for a Visa in advance that needs to be stamped on your passport. Luckily the rule is different for Permanent Residents or Green Card holders. We have the same rules as a US Citizen would. So we paid the $50 fee for the Travel card for the whole trip, it is not per day as I read in some places online, and JetBlue included the insurance in the ticket price.
Do I need Travel Health Insurance?
Yes, starting in May, 2010, the government of Cuba requires that all travelers visiting from abroad purchase travel health insurance. The rule applies to all visitors from overseas as well as Cubans living abroad. But, most airlines flying from the US include it in your ticket for a fee which is usually added to your ticket price. Usually $25. The only question the immigration officer asked me while entering Cuba was where is your travel insurance. He was again confused as I had an Indian Passport. But when I clarified that I am a Permanent Resident of the US and that I flew JetBlue which includes insurance, he was satisfied. Make sure you carry a copy from the airline you travel on documenting that insurance is included in your ticket.
Currency and how much do I need?
Here is the tricky part. Cuba has two currencies. One for the local people and one mainly used for tourists. It is important that you are aware of this and know the conversion rate. The two currencies are
- CUC - Cuban Convertible Peso
- CUP - Cuban Peso
The CUC is pegged to the US Dollar. Well almost. One CUC = 25 CUP . Most consumer goods are sold in CUC but Cubans are paid in CUP. Since the CUC is pegged with the US Dollar, things are not necessarily cheap by any means. Daily costs are comparable to major US cities. And the other tricky part is that US Credit Cards and Debit Cards don't work in Cuba. If you do have a Credit Card from another country, please check with your bank. So, carry cash, lots of it. On an average you would require $50 per person per day, excluding accommodation, if you are not indulging yourself .
The other important thing to remember is to carry Euros or Pound Sterling instead of US Dollar. This is because you get a better exchange rate and they also charge a 10% fee to convert US dollar to CUC in some places.
Where to get Cuban currency?
Remember that you cannot convert to Cuban money outside of Cuba. Once you land at the airport, there are counters or Casa de Cambios where you can convert your foreign currency to Cuban Currency. I highly recommend converting your money at the airport even though there may be a long line. Mainly because, no matter where you go in the town, there is always going to be a line. Secondly, you may not find a Casa de Cambio near you.
Tip: If you are travelling with a toddler or baby, you don't have to wait in line to exchange your currency. Also what you could do is, if you are a couple, instead of both of you waiting for your luggage, one could go outside and wait in line for the currency exchange.
Where to stay in Havana?
We visited Havana and that's the only first hand information I can give you. If you want an authentic Cuban experience, make sure you stay in a Casa Particular. AirBnB might as well be a brainchild of Casas in Cuba. Casas existed way before Airbnb came into existence. "Casas" mean Private Home. Usually you get a private room with a bathroom inside a traditional Cuban house. What's more? You get an amazing breakfast for a small fee in most Casas. They even serve you a nice home cooked dinner for a few dollars.
If sharing a house with other travelers and a Cuban family is not your thing, we got you covered. AirBnB to the rescue. There are a few very nice "entire home" listings in Havana. Remember that tourism is still developing in Cuba and there are not many Casas to meet the demand. The good Casas are usually sold out months in advance. So, if you want an authentic experience make sure you book your Casa months in advance. Internet is not widely available to locals and it can be very expensive. So, many casa owners don't list their homes online which makes it a tad bit difficult for us to reserve our stay. There are however many listings on Mycasaparticular.com. In case you don't really like what you see, just book your room for a night or two and once you get there you can figure it out.
What and where do I eat in Havana?
If you are planning your trip to Cuba and have been reading a bit, you probably read somewhere that the food is not that great. Well, they probably did not go the restaurants we did, because we had some of the best tasting dishes in Havana. Vik and I usually like to do a lot of research on food before we go to any place. We find out where to eat and what to eat. Where do the locals go and what do they get. But sadly for Cuba we did not have the time nor was there much information about good food. So, we just talked to some locals, got recommendations from them and they did not disappoint. Here are some of our recommendations
- Paladar Dona Eutimia - We didn't have a chance to dine here as they were fully booked for the next few days. But we have heard great things about it. Make sure to make a reservation well in advance. We have heard great things about the Ropa Vieja dish from here.
- El Trofeo - Paseo del Prado No. 563 e/ Dragones y Teniente Rey Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba
This is a building that houses 4 different restaurants and is right opposite the Capitol. Each really good. There is usually a long line outside this building, an indication that the food is awesome. Lucky for us we had our two-year old daughter with us, which means we don't have to wait in line. Seriously, travelling with a baby in Cuba meant not having to wait in any line. Right from immigration to restaurants to changing currency, we literally went straight up front. (we were told to do so by the people in line) Vik got the Lamb Ragout and I got the Stewed Lamb Chilindron. OMG both were so good. I would go back to Havana just to eat here. Portions are huge and our daughter enjoyed the Chicken Soup.
- Restaurante El Cochinito - Calle 23 entre H e I, El Vedado
This place was recently renovated and was packed with locals. It is always a good thing when you are the only tourist in a restaurant filled with local people. You know for sure that the food is going to be good. The prices are very reasonable compared to the touristy restaurants in Old Habana. However they may try to convince you that it is 9 CUC per person for a set menu. Don't go with the set menu, instead choose what you want from the menu that has so much to offer. We had a hard time reading the menu because they had it only in Spanish. Carry your Spanish to English dictionary. Vik got the Pork Steak with rice and veggies and I got the shredded pork with rice and veggies. Both were beyond amazing. The meat was so tender and juicy. Highly recommend this place and it is not going to break the bank.
How do I travel within Havana?
You have a few options when it comes to transportation within Havana
- Taxi - frankly this is going to be the cheapest mode of transport if you want to go the Centro Habana or Vedado from Old Havana. The taxis have a meter but they are never used. Make sure to negotiate a price before you get inside your taxi and make sure you clarify if it's per person or for the whole ride. To give you an idea, we took a ride from Vedado to Old Havana for 5 CUC.
- Coco Taxi - This was out daughter's favorite part of Cuba. Riding in the Coco Taxi on the Malecon with the wind in your hair and a slight splash of the waves on our skin. From our experience we figured out that the Coco Taxi was quite a bit more expensive (double) than the regular taxis. Again negotiate your price before you get in.
- Buses - Havana has a great public transportation system and it is the cheapest was to travel within the city. A ride between two stops costs 1 CUP which is roughly 25 cents. I would recommend this option only if you are fluent in Spanish and don't mind overcrowded buses.
- Cyclos - These are cycle taxis. If you are tired from walking all over old Havana and want some rest for your legs to get back to your Casa this is a great option.
How to I go the Beach from Havana?
- Transtur bus - Transtur buses operate all over Cuba mainly for tourists. They even go between the major cities like Havana, Varadero, Trinidad. But we used this clean, air-conditioned coach bus to get us to the beach from Havana. There are no sandy beaches in Havana itself, but they have amazing beaches 20 minutes away. You could get there by taxi which would be 25 CUC each way or you could take the cheaper option like us. The Transtur bus departs to the beaches every 40 min or so from Parque Centrale, right opposite the statue. The cost of a return ticket is 5 CUC. They stop at 4 different beaches, the first one being Tarara and the last one being Santa Maria. We heard great things about the Santa Maria beach so we got off there and there is a restaurant right where the bus drops you off. Had some amazing Mojitos and listened to live music and enjoyed out day at the beach with our daughter.
- Taxi - You could take a taxi to the beach with would cost you around 50 CUC roundtrip. But you will have to tell your taxi driver to come back at a certain time to get you as there may not be taxis you can catch on your way back.
- Drive - Driving in Cuba was not as bad I thought it would be, as long you know how to handle a stick shift and a 1950's car! They do follow most traffic rules and lane rules. If you are up for it then don't miss this opportunity to drive a classic car and go back in time. You do need an international drivers license to be able to drive in Cuba.
Is there Internet in Cuba?
We live in a world that is dominated by the internet. Any question we have we run to google. We base our lives on what is available online. Like reading this article for example. Don't get me wrong, that is what has made our lives so much easier. But sometimes I wonder how life was back in the day when we had to go to the library to research about our destinations and use printed maps to figure our way around. Well Cuba gave us this opportunity, whether you like it or not. Internet is not available as widely in Cuba. You will have to buy an internet card which you can then use in the few Wi-Fi hotspots around Havana. It costs about 1.5-2 CUC per hour and can be slow. We did not use one and it actually felt nice being disconnected and actually being in the moment. I was a little skeptical with regard to not having google maps to guide us but you can download the offline map from many apps like OffMaps if you really need to. We did fine without one.
I hope we have answered most of your questions regarding your vacation to Cuba. If you have any other questions don't hesitate to contact us. Hope you have a fabulous time in Cuba.
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