Cuba: What You Should Know Before You Go
Ever since the travel embargo has been lifted (thank you my President Obama!), Cuba has been the hotspot to visit for Americans. Everyone and they mama are visiting Cuba, and as someone who just got back, for good reason. It's such a unique place with unique people and a unique culture. While Cuba has seemingly gained popularity in such a short amount of time, seeking information on this island is still limited, but bloggers are picking up steam on getting pertinent information out to the public. I've gathered my experiences and am sharing things you should know before you visit.
As a U.S. citizen you will need a visa to travel to Cuba and declare your visit under one of the 12 categories listed. Simply check a box (no explanation needed). How you obtain the visa will vary, based on your airline. First things first, if you must obtain your visa prior to getting to the airport, do not wait until the last minute. I flew on Alaska Air and according to their website, visas are not available for purchase at the airport. I ordered my visa (through Cuba Visa Services - the company the airline provided) 8 business days prior to my departure date. It sounds like plenty of time but even that was cutting it close. I placed my order on a Wednesday and it got delivered Friday via FedEx. If you don't know, FedEx routes all deliveries back to Tennessee. So even though my package was coming from Cypress, CA (about 30 minutes from my house), with it needing to go almost 2,000 miles away from me, then back, I increased my chances for delays and any accompanying issues that would not have allowed a lot of time for rectifying. Moral: order early.
Once I received my visa, they give explicit instructions for filling out the document (very simple information - name, passport number), advising that any errors will result in nullifying the document and an additional visa would need to be purchased. If my visa was not accepted at the airport, I would have to purchase a new one for $150. So while visas aren't technically available for purchase at the airport, I would be able to purchase one there if it was necessary. My visa cost $110 ($85 + $25 for shipping).
Researching the money situation was initially a daunting and confusing task because Cuba has two currencies: CUC and CUP. After a while I figured it out, and my rule of thumb was CUC is geared toward tourist activities and locations, i.e. hotels, bars, restaurants, tours, while CUP is more of the local currency. The locals want to receive CUC because the value is higher. Having a hard time distinguishing the two? As you begin researching things to do and signing up for tours, you will begin to remember the difference between the two, as you will see CUC more often. If you haven't started any research on traveling to Cuba or just haven't through the grapevine, debit and credit cards will not work in Cuba, and your American dollars can be exchanged but for a high penalty fee. I opted for exchanging my U.S. dollars into EURO's in America (exchanging into Canadian dollars is also an option). I then exchanged my EUROS into CUC's upon my arrival into Cuba. The currency exchange counter in the airport was very, very slow. We were towards the front of the line and it took about 40 minutes to exchange our money. And only one booth was open. Hopefully you have better luck, but be prepared to wait.
Booking your place to stay:
My initial thought without question was to book lodging via Airbnb. However, as I did more research I came across a site called cubaccommodation.com. They had cute, affordable places to stay that made me think twice about booking via Airbnb. Once we found a potential place, we submitted a booking request. Unfortunately, it was crickets after that. We never heard back. Taking into consideration the lack of, or slow internet service in Cuba, we gave them ample time to respond, to no avail. Therefore at the end of the day, we booked on Airbnb, taking advantage of the instant book option making life easy again. (Having trouble finding a place on Airbnb? Check out 'Choosing An Airbnb' to help!)
Things to do:
Sign up for tours. I would highly recommend contacting tour companies and making reservations prior to touching down in Cuba...because wifi is extremely limited! You don't want to be trying to get into contact with companies while in Cuba because you should be enjoying your time. We used Havana Journeys, which I would recommend. We signed up for the tour to Vinales and Matanzas. (I will be doing a separate post on that adventure.) They also have a Havana city tour but we opted out of that one because we had another tour scheduled with AfroLatino Travel. Another company that I would recommend. When researching tour companies, know in advance which areas of Cuba you are interested in visiting, and take into consideration the amount of time you have to spend there. There is so much to do and see, you will not get to see everything in one visit. I spent 9 days there and while I feel like I got to see a lot, there is still so much more of the island I will have to visit a few more times to see. Keep in mind that popular areas of tourism such as Vinales, Trinidad, and Varadero are between 2-5 hours away from Havana. While we didn't have a tour guide for Havana, we had a list of sites to see and borrowed from some of the tour itineraries we came across. Having a hard time finding tours? Use Trip Advisor for the top tours on the island and read the reviews to help in your selection.
A few other things to note:
Wifi is very limited in Cuba. If you have done research on Cuba, I'm sure you have come across that statement plenty of times. Make sure any hotel/lodging, taxi, tour itineraries, or other important reservation information is screenshot and saved in your phone prior to your visit. Download an offline map app and an offline Spanish dictionary or translation app as well (I recommend Spanish Dict). You have to purchase a wifi card if you wish to connect to the outside world (price can vary - I paid 1.50 in the airport, and 4.50 at a hotel - for one hour). If you see a group of people standing outside of a hotel or business on their phones, then you have reached the internet park. Here is where you can connect to wifi, check in with your family, post your fabulous travel photos to Instagram, and update your Twitter & Facebook status.
Bringing toilet paper is a must - I opted for flushable wipes because they are easy to carry. When I read that they charge to use the bathroom, I assumed you had to insert the coin to enter the bathroom. But from my experience you are essentially paying for toilet paper. Someone is standing outside to collect the money, then provide you with toilet paper - bring your own. Plus some places you stop at might not have any period. Hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes is another must, as most bathrooms I encountered didn't have soap, and because germs - yuck!
So there you have it. What you should know before you go to Cuba. Check out my Instagram (@aja_monae) for a look at Cuba through my eyes and experiences.
Have you been to Cuba? What else can you add to this list?
If you have any additional questions, feel free to reach out to me. And enjoy your trip!