Visiting Cuba: Highlights & Lessons
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Cuba has been on my bucket list for a long time, but as a US citizen I was never entirely sure if I could go legally. But one day in 2018 I found a bargain fare and decided to just go for it-- and I'm so happy I did!
I visited Cuba with my mom in June 2018 and we absolutely loved our experience. We both speak Spanish, which was enormously helpful and made our experience more meaningful-- we had so many good conversations.
We chose to visit on a Support for the Cuban People visa, which regulates how US citizens spend their time and money in Cuba. It was challenging to make sure we met all the requirements, but it was honestly not too different from how we'd normally travel: the main idea is to spend your money directly with small independent businesses-owners, engaging directly with Cuban locals. We planned most of our trip using AirBnb for lodging and experiences and we also used ViaHero for some help meeting the visa requirements.
Read on for some of our favorite experiences, or scroll down to the list of things to know before visiting Cuba.
One of the absolute highlights of our trip was a cooking class we booked through AirBnb: Cuban Homemade Recipes with Orialis. We learned how to properly make mojitos, Cuban rice & beans, ropa vieja, and tostones. The B&B owned by Orialis' family is beautiful (I would go back to Havana just to stay there!), the cooking class was really entertaining, and after we finished learning we all sat down and enjoyed a big, delicious meal together. I have food allergies and they customized the recipes so that I could try everything!
To fulfill some of the requirements of our visa, we went on several educational walking tours in Havana, including learning about different religions in Cuba, touring Old Habana, an enlightening tour about consumerism & shopping in Cuba, and visiting art communities. I definitely recommend making the trip to Fusterlandia.
We had one hilarious misadventure. My mom thought she signed us up for a historic walking tour of Old Habana, so we showed up, tired and sweaty from walking around in the tropical heat, not dressed particularly nicely because we just expected a walking tour... so we were pretty confused when our guide pulled out a nice camera and started taking photos of us-- only to discover my mother had in fact signed us up for a professional photoshoot through Old Habana! The photographer, Sergio, was great and got some nice photos of us despite the fact that we didn't quite look our best.
Sergio's tour also took us to a shop that wound up being one of my favorite places in Havana: Habana 1791. It's a perfume lab & shop that sells traditional handcrafted scents, perfumes, and soaps-- the building is beautiful. It's a lovely, unique place to take photos and the prices are reasonable.
I am really glad we also took the time to visit Viñales, a town in rural Cuba. This was the view from our casa particular (bed & breakfast):
I had a great time riding horses around Viñales with a local guide named Marcello.
We stopped at a tobacco farm where I learned about cigar production and got a little lesson in how to properly roll & smoke Cuban cigars. This tour was arranged through our B&B host in Viñales and cost about $15 USD. Similar tours are listed on AirBnb for much higher prices ($45+ USD), so I'd recommend arranging horse riding directly in Viñales.
Some lessons learned from my first visit to Cuba:
1. It is legal for US citizens to travel to Cuba. As of 2019, regulations bar US citizens from visiting Cuba strictly as tourists, so independent travelers need another justification for going. There are currently 12 visa categories; we went on a Support for the Cuban People visa. If you're planning a trip, check the State Department regulations for current information.
2. Bring cash! Due to the embargo, US credit and debit cards won't work in Cuba (there may be some exceptions, but don't count on it), so bring enough cash to cover your entire trip. We took extra precautions to keep our cash secure, but we never felt unsafe.
3. We would have been better off exchanging USD in Cuba. You can't get Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) in the US, and we saw so many websites that said we should not bring USD to Cuba, so we exchanged our money for Canadian dollars (CAD) before we left the US, which was a mistake. The exchange rate from CAD to CUC was awful, and at every bank they told us it would have been better to pay the 10% penalty for converting USD rather than losing money by exchanging USD to CAD, then to CUC. Oops.
4. The visa was more expensive than I expected. I read that I would purchase a visa through my airline before departing the US and that it would cost $15 to $30, so I was shocked when I went to purchase my visa in Miami and it cost $85! Apparently some other expenses were included in that price-- such as a $25 fee for health insurance and a processing fee-- but it was still more than I expected. I'd recommend calling your airline in advance to find out the price.
5. We didn't have to pay for our checked luggage on the way back to the US. Verify this with your airline before you leave for Cuba because it's important to know if you need to set aside cash to pay to check your bags. We didn't have to pay an exit tax. In the past, Cuba charged US travelers an exit tax, but I guess they stopped because US citizens were running out of cash by the end of their trips and then had no easy way to pay the fee.
6. Phone coverage was good but WiFi was expensive and complicated to access. Normally when I travel I buy a local SIM card, but we kept our US SIMs in our phones and had good coverage for calls and texts. There's no data access through cell phone networks in Cuba. The internet is expensive and it was a hassle for us to access. You have to buy WiFi cards that are only useable in certain areas, plus they're relatively expensive and expire quickly.
7. If you want to stay on a budget, use the bus system in Havana. I was surprised by how expensive taxis were-- drivers constantly tried to charge us $15+ to go one mile in Havana. You can haggle the price down, or just take the busses, which cost only a few cents to go the same distance.
8. People warned us that the food would be bad, but we enjoyed it. If you are flexible, polite, and understanding about the limitations on the food available, you will find delicious things to eat! We enjoyed El Biky. We ate at restaurants serving local Cuban dishes, had pizza, good cocktails, sandwiches, and tons of amazing local produce like pineapples and mangoes.
We had an amazing experience in Cuba and I would love to go back someday. Our time was full of meaningful conversations and thought-provoking experiences, but it was also a very fun and relaxing vacation in a beautiful place.