There are plenty of other websites out there giving you advice on traveling to Cuba. I’ll share my own two bits:
Traveling from the United States
We found traveling to Cuba to be very easy. It wasn’t noticeably different than any other international flight. We checked into our flight at the computer kiosk at JFK. There was only one additional screen so that we could pay an extra $50.00 per person fee that goes to the Cuba government (and also gives you health insurance in Cuba). Some people may find it surprising that according to the World Health Organization, Cuba has one of the better healthcare systems in world. Out of 119 countries that were ranked, Cuba stands at 39. To put this in perspective, the United States ranks at 37. http://www.who.int/healthinfo/paper30.pdf . This is measuring overall health system performance.
As far as I can tell, nobody checks to see if you went to Cuba for approved reasons. When I bought the tickets, there were 12 reasons (I chose journalism as our reason). Just for good measure, I applied for a license directly through OFAC, but they said that my reason fit within the categories. By the time we went down there, the approved reasons was down to 5 (journalism was still approved). The week before I called OFAC and said that I was concerned about being denied at JFK, that we are going down there as journalist, but it’s not like I work for the New York Times or something, and that I didn’t know if it was too much of a stretch to call my 11 year old daughter a journalism. Her tone alone completely reassured me that nobody cared. She said that we were fine and that I could even say that my daughter was going down there for education. The point is that nobody interviewed us, check my credentials (which I had ready), nobody cared in customs in either country, etc. I’m also pretty confident that nobody is going to follow up with me to make sure we do journalism (though that’s what these blogs are).
One unnerving thing is that you get your Cuban travel visa at the gate to board the plane leaving from the U.S. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I imagined someone from OFAC would be screening us – nope, just Delta Airline employees. The airplane was only ¼ full and my daughter and I were the only white people on it – which technically makes it 1 ½ since her mother is Hispanic. I felt a sense of surprise and relief when the wheels left the ground. Coming back, the plane was 100% full.
Cuba and Money
Cuban has two currencies, one for tourists and one for Cubans. People have written about this elsewhere, but you’ll be exchanging US dollars for CUCs (the Cuban Convertible Peso). The exchange rate is 87%, but Cubans can get a discount. I read somewhere they get it for 95%, but our B&B host would only give us 90%. I’m pretty sure our B&B host was making money off every little thing we did (arranging taxis, exchanging money, even selling us internet access cards). I knew this was going, but that’s okay. I saw it as my fee to my American guilt. I’ve heard of the trick of exchanging US dollars for Euros in America and traveling with Euros and then exchanging them. If you do this, be sure to do it through your bank and not those stupid exchange kiosks at shopping malls. Banks usually have to order the Euros 72 hours in advanced. Personally I didn’t do this.
One thing to look out for is that sometimes merchants will take your CUCs and give you change in the Cuban currency. You may buy something for 3.00 CUC with a 20 CUC bill and they give you 17.00 pesos back which are really worth about 75 cents. This never happened to us though – the currencies look very different from one another.
Our reputation as Americans is that we like to spend money and that we tip well. My fellow countrymen (and women) please keep up the good work. Money goes very far as a tourist and it goes multiples further for the Cubans. I think there’s a lot to be said for cash diplomacy. Shrug off being cheated.
As far as the cost to travel there, we paid $350 for round trip tickets from Denver to Havana. For lodging we used AirBnB which was a dream. Our first place was $55 per night and the second place was $72 per night. Lunch is usually around $20 and dinner less than $30. It’s a very affordable place to travel. For souvenirs, they have beautiful wood sculptures and art, but spend a day just walking around. You’ll notice that they have the same kinds of things all over Cuba and after a day or so you’ll be able to know when you see something that’s unique.
I don’t want this to deter you from going because it’s really not a big deal if you don’t know Spanish. But, it wasn’t as common to find fluent English speakers. About 10 years ago they started teaching English in schools, so people under the age of 25 are more likely to know some English (a lot of waiters and waitresses). I only met two older people who had strong English fluency. But again, don’t let this deter you.
Once upon a time I was near fluent. I took five years of Spanish, but that was 20 years ago and it has settled deep into my brain. Whenever I’ve traveled to a Spanish speaking country, it just takes some time to wake it up again. After about two days it started coming back and by the end of the week I was on my way back to my linguistic fightin’ weight. I bought a phrase book to help me get back on my linguistic feet, but found it fell short. What I wished I had was a good dictionary and a quick grammar guide. A quick tip is that when I’ve traveled, I’ve always found taxi drivers are great to get Spanish on its feet. I just chit chat away and ask them questions. While quite far from fluent, I’m comfortable speaking Spanish and conversing for hours about nuanced things. I’ve learned to not be afraid of poor grammar (verb conjugations are a doozy in Spanish) and how to actively learn it by simply going for it and being humble and asking people how to say things.
I’m not a foodie, so I’m probably not the best one to ask. You can get a really good meal for a very good price.
We should probably talk about meat. My wife is a vegetarian and like Samuel L. Jackson on Pulp Fiction, this kind of makes me one too. I like meat, burgers, hot wings, pepperoni pizza. I don’t usually eat sea food. If I were to go there again, I would eat any red meat, pork, or chicken. I would stick only to sea food. After a few days Fyetka and I started craving American food and ordered two cheeseburgers. I took one bite and told Fyetka not to eat it, paid the full price of the meal, tipped well and left to a different restaurant (where we ate shrimp). Call it papabear’s instinct. We attempted chicken once, but it as a little off though cooked with love and passion. I was quite happy that a feral dog made good use of my pickiness and spared me the embarrassing moment of turning back over a plate full of food. Stick to seafood. The shrimp and lobster are likely caught off the shores. We had fish which was good, but I’m not huge on fish.
Based on our week there, a Cuban breakfast is: a glass of mango juice, coffee, a plate of four fruits (banana, papaya, guava, and pineapple … sometimes a bitter citrus like grapefruit … there is usually a dish of honey to drizzle on the guava), an egg dish, and bread. We had this same breakfast every morning. They offered bacon and ham too.
Vegetables were similar. The avocados are amazing and a deep green color. We saw a lot of cabbage and carrots together (sometimes steamed, sometimes just raw). Green beans were common, along with cucumber, and different kinds of potato. Different rice dishes with black beans. Also plantains (a type of banana are often served as we would French fries (this is common in many places in the world).
Other than Cuban food, I’d say the second most common is Italian food. I heard that there were Mexican restaurants, but I never saw any.
Ah, and alcohol … the best pina coladas and strawberry daiquiri’s in the world. Absolutely delicious. If you go to Cuba, you may want to bring along two strong friends to help carry you back to your hotel. Another weird Cuba-ism is that it was not an assumed reality to make Fyetka’s drinks alcohol free. I would say “no alcohol for the niña” and they nonchalantly act like it was just a preference. Once I forgot to order hers alcohol free and they served her up a full octane strawberry daiquiri. When he brought it, I said, “This doesn’t have alcohol right?” and he got a little pissy at me saying that I just ordered two daiquiris and didn’t say.
Here are some food pictures:
Ah my love in life. There’s live music in almost every restaurant and bar at night. This was an endless delight for me. A funny thing I always forget is that English speaking artist sing their songs in Spanish for the Latin market. I got a kick of hearing Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” or Ed Sheran’s “Shape of You”, sung by them in Spanish.
Havana is the most genuinely artistic city I’ve been to. There are entire blocks of Havana painted in bright colors. Every street has shops with original pieces (often selling for $30-80). We went into multiple high end galleries and you’d see incredible pieces selling for $500-1,000. If you like art, bring lots of cash. There was a piece that I fell in love with that was $800 and looked like it would be $10,000 in the U.S. I have no idea how you’d get it home (it’s make me nervous rolling it up).
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Havana is incredibly safe. I’ve been in other places in Latin America where you really can’t wander far from the touristy areas and I’ve been in other places where 10 year old kids are trying to sell you cocaine. Havana does have a mild amount of petty swindling, people trying to rope you into stuff, or simply asking for money. It’s not really a big deal. If you say no or chose to ignore them, they leave you alone. Again, a (perhaps only) benefit of a communist militaristic dictatorship is that there were military and police everywhere.