Planning a Trip to Cuba? What You Need to Know From Someone Who’s Been
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, March 24, 2017
For years, visions of Cuba danced before my eyes like Shangri-La or El Dorado, the colorful, wonderful land that was very close, yet very far away. My partner and I have wanted to visit for ages. He loves Cuban music, Cuban cigars, Cuban history, and me…I had a powerful childhood crush on Ricky Ricardo. And I like rum.
So when President Obama (remember him?) lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba, I made plans, and last month we flew down to Havana, two friends in tow. We didn’t want to do a pre-packaged tour, or stay in a creaky Havana hotel, so with the help of some research and a local guide on the ground, we made our arrangements ourselves. Thinking of heading to “the land that time forgot”? Profit from my mistakes (thankfully, only a few), and my experience. And, most importantly, do it. It was one of the best vacations of my life.
Since travel to Cuba is new for Americans, some of the issues are still a little, well, fuzzy. Here are some basic things you need to know that will help you plan what I promise will be a wonderful travel experience.
Go now! Ten airlines have jumped into the Cuba business in the last year, which makes for lots of competition, and cheap flights. I paid $204 round trip from New York, a price that almost seems like a joke.
Drink lots of coffee. The first thing I noticed when we disembarked was that we had to pass through a scanner to exit the plane. Never done that before. Since we had to wait for our friends to arrive, we sat down for coffee in a tiny café in the arrivals terminal and here’s the second thing I noticed about Cuba: this coffee, this airport coffee, in a plastic cup for god’s sake, was delicious. It was a cortadito, our guide Alessandro said. A little coffee and sugar is mixed together to form a creamy paste, after which more coffee and some warm milk is added, probably powdered milk, he told me, because we were in an airport. If airport coffee was this good, I thought, how good is the coffee in the rest of the country going to be? Turns out it was the most delicious coffee I’ve ever had.
Plan on disconnection. The third thing I noticed about Cuba is that, unlike virtually any public space in the U.S., no one was looking at a cell phone. There were maybe a couple of hundred people milling around the terminal, and not one person was doing the zombie tech walk, texting while ambling vacantly along. No one was playing solitaire. I saw one guy talking on his phone, but every other person was talking to another real live person, eating, drinking coffee, watching a silent TV hanging in a corner, greeting people…it was more like the airport scene in Love Actually than anything I’ve ever seen in any other airport in the world.
I asked Alessandro about it, and he told me something unexpected: Except for some public spaces in parks that offer patchy prepaid wifi, or a hotel, where you can buy a card, or one of the rare internet cafés, there is no internet in Cuba.
Amazing coffee, x-ray machines to get off your flight, and no internet. I hadn’t even left the airport and Cuba was already one of the most surprising places I’ve ever been.
There are also no English-language newspapers. Our guesthouse had no television. So for a week—a blessed entire seven days—we had no news from America. Given how news-obsessed we’ve all been for the last couple of months, this turned out to be the greatest gift Cuba gave us. Except maybe the coffee.
Forego a hotel. With Airbnb now operating in Cuba, as well as Casa Particular, the local version, there’s no need to be limited to Cuba’s overpriced and often under-performing hotels. You’ll fine an enormous range of options at an equally enormous range of prices, so prepare to spend time shopping around. It helps to do research first on the neighborhood you want and go from there. Especially in high season (winter up north), start early.
On Airbnb, we booked a floor of a guesthouse in Old Havana, which consisted of a small parlor and two bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. “En suite” had an unusual meaning in this case. The bathrooms were not only attached to the bedrooms, they were pretty much part of the bedrooms. No doors. No doors between bedroom and bathroom, and no doors between the tub/shower/sink portion of the bathroom and the, ahem, other part of the bathroom. In addition, our bathroom area had our only closet in it. So, to sum up, toilet, bathroom, closet, bedroom…all one piece.
And that wasn’t the strangest part of these rooms. Our bedroom, which was large and comfortable, was filled—I mean filled—with stuffed dead animals. Floor to ceiling glass cases on two walls were packed with a collection of taxidermy birds, lizards, and a muskrat. A deer head rose from one wall, antlers from another. There was a lamp made from an ostrich egg (kind of beautiful) and other eggs of different sizes scattered about.
The room our friends took had some even stranger decorations. In one corner (between the bed and the highly en suite bathroom) stood a church pew, kneeling pads and all, surmounted by red velvet curtains. On the wall behind the curtains was a collection of very, very hard-core pornography, drawings and photos, all framed and handsomely arranged. Framed porn dotted the other walls, including one collection of what seemed to be the backs of a deck of x-rated playing cards (who would have thought there were 52 different positions?) and, atop the red curtains, we could see a mason jar with what appeared to be a large pickled penis.
Since there was no owner on site and Luis, the manager we rarely saw, spoke no English, we never did get to ask for an explanation of the interesting décor. But our downstairs neighbors, four young Americans, said their rooms were filled with antique medical instruments.
Cuba was already the most interesting place I’d ever visited, and I hadn’t seen anything more than the airport and my bedroom. How could I not love this land?
What came next? So much! But rather than take you through every single step, I want to encourage you to go there yourself. Flights are cheap, places to stay are easy to book, there’s so much to do, and the people, at least all the people we met, are warm and welcoming.
Get a visa. Some airlines let you buy a visa (called a “tourist card”) for $50 at your departure airport, right at the gate. We flew Delta, which provided this service. Check to make sure yours does. Also, note that you can only buy the visa at your last airport in the U.S., so if, for example, you are flying from D.C. to Havana with a stop in Miami (since D.C. does not yet have direct flights) you will need enough time in Miami to get the visa. If that is a concern, or you just want to have the visa in your hand before you leave home, you can purchase a visa from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. or via a third-party operator like Cuba Travel Services. This costs a bit more and takes a few weeks to process.
Pick your travel category. When you purchase your plane ticket you will need to choose one of the U.S. government’s 12 approved categories of travel as your reason for visiting Cuba. Unless you are traveling for a specific purpose, like humanitarian aid or journalism, you’ll choose the catchall “people-to-people” category. This basically covers tourist travel. You are supposed to keep a log of all the cultural activities you undertake, which shouldn’t be difficult, since you are planning to visit museums, listen to music, etc., right? This form is also available from some airlines, at the gate, or you can print it out online and bring it to the airport with you.
Some websites and travel experts will tell you to not only keep a diary of everything you do, but also hang on to receipts, tickets of admission, and make note of people you meet, in case either the U.S. or Cuban government audits your trip. But I could not find one instance of anyone ever being asked, ever, so the likelihood of this is right up there with encountering Sasquatch.
Hold on to your boarding pass. A $25 fee for medical insurance will be included in your fare and the boarding pass is evidence of that payment. Although, just like the rule mentioned above, this doesn’t seem to ever happen. But just in case…
Leave your credit cards at home. Credit cards and debit cards from an American bank will not be accepted in Cuba. You can’t even have money wired to you from an American bank. Once you’re out of cash, you’re out of money. Seriously. Bring cash (the maximum is $5,000) and exchange it.
You need to know that there are two types of currency in Cuba. There are Cuban pesos, called CUPS, which are rarely used by tourists. You don’t need to know much about them, but you should know they exist. Unless you’re going to some very off-the-beaten-path spots, you will be using the other form of currency, the Cuban Convertible Currency, known as CUCs (pronounced “kooks”).
Since Cuban currency is not traded internationally, you can’t exchange your money in advance. You can do it at the airport in Havana or at an exchange. Don’t bother shopping around, since unlike other countries, the rate of exchange will be the same everywhere.
For exchange purposes, one CUC equals one dollar, but there is a 3% exchange fee and a 10% exchange surcharge for American dollars, so you end up with about 87 centavos CUC for one American dollar. If you want to have some just-in-case CUPs as well, about 25 CUPs equals 1 CUC. One thing to be careful about—make sure if you pay in CUCs, you get your change in CUCs and not in the much less valuable CUPs.
Note: Only American dollars get charged that 10% exchange surcharge, so you can get Euros before you travel to alleviate the pain slightly.
Leave your phone home, too. Well, bring it, because you’ll want to take a zillion photos. But since no American carrier has coverage in Cuba yet, your roaming fees will add up pretty fast. And there’s no internet. So you won’t be playing Words with Friends and checking email every four minutes. Like I said, heaven.
And by the way, leave your bling home as well. Not because there’s an unusual level of crime, which there isn’t—Havana is a very safe city—but because Cuba is a poor country, and you don’t need to be a walking ad for rich, thoughtless American tourists.
Do consider hiring a local guide. It’s not something I normally do, but Cuba is a bit less tourist-friendly than most places. Not the people, who are remarkably friendly, but Havana, for example, is not totally ready for prime time. There’s little English spoken, the transit system is confusing, just finding out about hours of operation can be a challenge. Hiring a local guide, while a pricey addition to any trip, was, for us, totally worth it. We had a car and driver every day, so getting around was a snap. And he arranged local activities, like a walking tour of Old Havana with an architect, a morning at the Fine Arts Museum with an art historian, and a trip to the countryside to visit a tobacco farm.
Getting around. There are collective (shared) taxis, toy-like three-wheeled little Cocotaxis, public buses, bicycle rickshaws (in New York, we call them pedicabs), and regular old private taxis. If there is no meter, make sure to set the rate before you board. It’s best not to take a private taxi (those gorgeous vintage cars that everyone admires). Government licensed taxis are metered but these are not, and they are also illegal. You don’t want to get in trouble on your vacation.
Don’t drink the water. Use bottled water for drinking, as well as brushing your teeth. Even in the fancy resort we visited in Varadero, we were told that we could use the tap water for brushing teeth but not drinking. Many guides will tell you to avoid ice, salad, cut fruit, etc. But I didn’t (give up my Cuba Libre on the rocks? No way!) and I was fine.
Visit the paladars. Due to trade restrictions, and the fact that Cuba is a poor country, Cuban cuisine is somewhat limited. Although the food we had was good, and in a couple of cases great, it didn’t have the wow factor of some countries.
Cuba has two different types of restaurants: the state-run kind (bad) and the privately owned ones (good), called paladars. The food is much better at a paladar than at a state-run bistro because, after all, the state-owned facilities don’t have to worry about pleasing their customers—they’re subsidized. The private ones, on the other hand, have to build a customer base, so they try harder. In Havana, three personal favorites were La Guarida (a work of art and a restaurant all in one—and definitely visit the bathroom), Doña Eutemia (the lamb ropa vieja is incredible), and La Esperanza (located in a beautiful private home, the food is fine, but it’s the space, and the story, that make it special).
Take in the Art. There is plenty of remarkable art to see in Havana. Visit the Museum of Fine Arts (get an English guide to walk you through), the Wilfredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, and the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, which is conveniently located next door to the paladar Doña Eutemia (see above) in Old Havana.
Get out of Havana. One of the highlights of our Cuban trip was a day spent in Viñales, in the lush tobacco-growing region of Pinar Del Rio. About a two-hour drive west from Havana, it was well worth the trip. We saw the low mountain ranges of the area, walked through the charming town with its one-story wooden houses with friendly front porches, stopped in the cultural center and church, visited a tobacco farm where we learned about the growing, harvesting, curing, and rolling of those famous cigars (yes, we smoked, yes, we bought), and then went to my favorite stop: the Finca Paraiso, an organic farm and family-run restaurant.
We had a brief tour of the farm, tasting as we went (those habanero peppers were hot!) and then sat down to lunch at a long picnic table on the shady porch, overlooking the farm and the hills. The dishes come family style, and everything on the menu except for the fish comes from the farm. The dishes land fast and furious and fresh and delicious, and far more than plentiful. We started with a vegetable soup, then moved to raw, roasted, and fried vegetables in every color of the rainbow, to incredibly tender roast chicken, a savory beef stew, rice and black beans (called “Moors and Christians”), braised pork, tamales, fritters, grilled pineapple, and more.
The area around Viñales is beautiful, and you can go hiking and horseback riding, but we were too stuffed and happy to do anything but take a nap, walk around, and head back to Havana and our porn- and dead-animal-packed rooms.
Go to the beach. The beaches in Cuba are justifiably world famous: white, powdery sand and warm blue waters. We spent two days at a generic all-inclusive resort in Varadero but you don’t need to leave Havana to have a great day at the beach. There are several a 20-minute taxi ride away, from the closest, Playa Bacuranao, to the biggest and best known, Playas del Este, to Playa Guanabo, which has its own rustic village to explore.
Listen to music. The Buena Vista Social Club is gone, but there are successors, like the Sociedad Cultural Roasalia de Cuba, where you can mix with tourists and locals to hear the “classic Cuban music of the fifties” as they repeatedly call it. If you’re lucky, the 97-year-old grande dame Juana Bacallao, known as “Juana La Cubana,” will be performing. Now 97 years old, she still rocks (with a little help from her friends). There’s plenty of other music in Havana as well; you could vist Jazz Café or La Zorra y el Cuervo for jazz, or Casa de la Música for salsa, or La Fabrica for techno. Or go for the full Ricky Ricardo 1950s-style night club at the truly grand Tropicana.
Buy stuff. Not the tacky t-shirts or vintage license plates sold at the tourist markets but the trifecta of Cuban goods: the cigars, the rum, and the coffee. Americans can now import up to $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol from Cuba and my advice is, do it!
Be respectful. Of course, this goes for any travel anywhere, but given the fraught relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, it’s worth mentioning that respect for Cuban history, and especially the 1959 revolution, is important. Che Guevara is not a graphic for a t-shirt here, he’s a hero, as are Fidel and Raul Casto, Camilo Cienfuegos, and others who led the overthrow of the corrupt Fulgencio Batista. Cubans are proud of their history, although they are also surprisingly honest about the problems that half a century of authoritarian rule have created. You can have frank discussions of the issues as long as you are respectful of their country and their history.
And speaking of respect: one notable Cuban quirk to remember. In Cuba, blowing your nose in public is considered extremely rude, the equivalent of picking your nose. If you must blow, excuse yourself and do so in private.
Be prepared for paradox. Although cultural contradictions exist in every society, in Cuba they seem more apparent. Medical care and education are excellent and free for all. But food and basics can be hard to come by. We visited a supermarket that had shelves of mustard and mayonnaise but not a whole lot else. A corner market had one shelf of fruits, a shelf of open-air fly-covered meat, and a shelf of five or six vegetables. A basket of garlic rounded out the goods.
Walk through Old Havana and you’ll see some of the most beautifully restored homes next to crumbling facades next to ugly Stalinist cement heaps that hurt your heart to view. The meticulously maintained vintage cars that have become the symbol of Cuba are gorgeous, but they are also a potent reminder of the stagnation that has existed for decades. If they had access to new cars, they would have them. “There’s no construction,” one person told me. “Nothing new gets built.” When I pointed out a huge crane we could see in the distance, he said. “That’s been standing there for 15 years. Doing nothing.”
Cubans are justifiably proud of their nation. Yet they are also bitter and resentful about the many decades lacking progress and opportunity. Nearly everyone we talked to wanted to “visit” the United States. Getting a visa for them requires luck and the ability to prove (by owning property or having money in the bank) that they intend to return. For us, it involved paying $50 at an airport—and that seemed like a big hoop to jump through.
Don’t expect Cuba to be one thing or another. Be open-minded, respectful, and politely curious. Be prepared to accept the contradictions of Cuba. Most importantly, be prepared to love it.
Cover: Pinar del Rio province in western Cuba; All photos in this feature by Jil Picariello / ZEALnyc.