Travel Tips: Cuba
In December 2016, my best friend, Rashaun, and I traveled to Cuba for a week to explore what this low-key paradise had to offer! Unfortunately for us, we booked our trip prior to the embargo being lifted so we ended up paying a crapload to get there (via Panama instead of those 199USD roundtrip flights that JetBlue had). Moving along...here’s how you’ll make the best of your time in Cuba.
Make sure to exchange money at official locations only. I’d recommend changing your U.S. currency at a major hotel (there aren’t many so you’ll spot them easily). Though Google will say that the exchange rate is 1USD to 1 CUC [Cuban Convertible Peso], when you exchange 100USD, you’ll only get 87CUC because there’s a 10% penalty charge for USD and a 3% currency exchange fee. Make sure you bring enough cash to accommodate all those extra fees.
Take a trip to Santa Maria del Mar. It’s a beach that’s only about 15 minutes away from Centro Habana. From our airbnb, which was located directly on the Malecon (the highway that connects Old and New Havana), we were able to walk to the bus stop in 20 minutes and then take the bus to the beach. The bus is only 5 CUC, which is valid for the full day (9am to 6:30pm). Make sure you don’t get left behind!
Wifi hardly works on the island. I’m sure you’ve heard this from someone by now, but do believe it! The only way you’ll have internet access is if you buy cards from Cuba’s phone company, ETECSA. It should only cost you between 1.5 and 2 CUC for 1 hr usage. However, locals know how desperate we are for some connectivity so they’ll sell inflate the price from anywhere between 5 and 8 CUC. Few hotels in Havana might provide wifi, but my experience with that it depended on the time of day. Keep in mind Cuba is still a communist country so the internet is restricted and controlled by government. If wifi is a necessity, do what you gotta do. If not, unplugging for a few days doesn’t sound too bad either!
You came to Cuba for the cigars...I know! However, there’ll be a dozen people on each street that’ll be trying to sell you cigars for “a good price.” I don’t think there’ll be anything wrong with the cigars if you buy them from someone’s Tia that you met outside a restaurant, however, I’m a fan of buying from the source, so my friend Rashaun and I decided to take a trip to Vinales to visit the tobacco plantations and bought directly from there. The guy who gave us our tour even treated us to coffee and a cigar on the house before we made our purchase. Talk about the real-deal hospitality!
Book a trip to another city outside of Havana. I understand, there’s not enough time and Havana is all you really know about from the movies, but there’s so much richness of culture and beauty outside of Havana, too. I wish I were able to say I went to a few others, but Vinales was as far as we made it. That was a 3.5 hour drive from Havana, but what a great day trip! We had a tour of coffee and tobacco plantations, went horseback riding, went on a boat ride through a cave, and had farm-to-table lunch with enough food to feed 6 people for just 15 USD total! Don’t limit yourself when you make the trip! I hear Cienfuegos and Trinidad are also two amazing cities to see when in Cuba.
SALSA!!! You cannot visit Cuba without indulging in the dance scene. It’s everywhere...whether you like it or not! In Habana Vieja (New Havana), there was a little plaza with a bunch of boutique shops and restaurants, but the highlight of that location was the open area in the center where there was live music being played and people just danced with spouses or perfect strangers! It was the coolest thing. One evening while taking a stroll, Rashaun and I witnessed a middle-aged woman dancing with her Dachshund. I’d highly recommend going to the town of Miramar to Casa de la Musica--a very popular nightclub. I’ve seen salsa like I’ve never seen it before. Raw, live, sweat-dripping salsa. You won’t be able to fight the feeling!
I could go on for another 50 pages about how to have the best time in Cuba, but I think you get the gist. Now book that flight and get there :-)