10 Tips for Traveling to Cuba
Enchanted by the colorful wildness of Cuba, Christopher Columbus exclaimed, “Never have I seen anything so beautiful.” Years later, Ernest Hemingway made this evocative island his home and his muse. Today we’re charmed by the music, the lovely people, and the deep vibrancy of art and history around every corner.
Traveling to Cuba for Americans
Cuba is one of the hottest travel destinations for Americans and now is the time to go! It’s gotten easier than ever to fly or cruise to this once-forbidden island from the United States. If you’re reading this post, I’m assuming you’ve already made your travel plans and are looking for a few tips on how to make this holiday the absolute best it can be. We’ve returned from our second visit to this alluring island and wanted to share a few of the practical things we wished we’d known as Americans before we arrived.
1. How many Cuban cigars can I bring back to the US? Cuban cigars and rum are the most popular souvenirs purchased by Americans in Cuba. Just try telling your friends you’re going to Cuba and see how many requests for cigars you receive!
The US Treasury Department allows Americans to bring back $100 US (approximately $87.50 CUC) combined in cigars and rum.
GREAT NEWS! As of October 17, 2016, travelers can now bring back unlimited quantities of Cuban rum and cigars as long as they are for personal consumption. Don’t forget to bring an extra bag to fill up – your friends back home will thank you!
Rum and cigars are sold in government stores called LCDH (La Casa Del Habanos) and the fixed prices are regulated over the island. It’s possible to buy cigars on the streets, but there is no guarantee you’re getting an authentic product. Real Cuban cigars aren’t cheap, but you can purchase them individually. See below…
For Cuban rum, the prices are a bit better. Havana Club, the signature rum, prices go from ~ $7 CUC/liter (basic white) to $40 CUC/liter for triple barrel aged.
So for your $100, it’s possible to bring back around 4-5 Cuban cigars and 4-5 bottles of rum if you choose wisely. Mixing and matching also works well. See above – no longer any limits!
2. I would like to ride in a vintage car. How much will I pay? It’s an absolute must to take a ride in one of the gorgeous Frankenstein cars you see everywhere in Cuba. These beauties may be cobbled together from spare washing machine parts inside, but on the outside they gleam like new. Near the Old Town (La Habana Vieja) you’ll find a taxi stand to rival the finest antique car shows in the US. We found the going rate to be $25/hr (hardtop) to $50/hr in a convertible. Most drivers speak a little English, but if you’re comfortable negotiating in Spanish, you’ll find a better deal. Taxi drivers will take you to a specific destination or just for a joyride along the beautiful seaside Malecón to feel the wind in your hair.
UBER for Cuba?
While UBER doesn’t yet exist in Cuba, there is a new service idea started called YoTeLlevo.com (translated “I will take you”). Even though internet service is still in the newborn stages in Cuba, an organized community of drivers are available by e-mail to pick you up and take you to your destination. For each fare request, customers will get a quote from 3 different drivers. We haven’t tried this one yet, but plan to see how it works this trip.
3. It’s hot in Cuba! Where would I go to get out of the heat? Cuba is a tropical island and with it comes heat and humidity. Lots of humidity! Your clothes will feel damp and it’s difficult for them to dry quickly. To make it worse, few places you’ll be visiting will have the air conditioning we’ve become so used to. Most places do have fans, so it’s kept a comfortable temperature.
When the heat does become too much and you just want to duck in someplace cool, head for El Floridita Bar in the Old Town. The welcome cool AC and a refreshing daiquiri will have you back out exploring in no time. Across the street is the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana) another air-cooled sanctuary from the brutal heat. While you’re cooling off, enjoy the amazing Cuban art collections from the colonial times up to contemporary generations. Also, it’s not a bad idea to bring along a small collapsible umbrella because daily afternoon showers are more common than not in Cuba.
4. I’ve heard the exhaust fumes from the cars can make it difficult to breathe. How bad is it? If you suffer from asthma or have breathing problems, traveling to Cuba might present some problems. Remember, all of the many beautiful antique cars you see on the roads also have antique exhaust systems. There is often a distinct smell of diesel fumes in the air in the cities. If you use an inhaler or have any difficulty breathing, be sure to bring your prescription medicine from home. And bring a little extra in case you have any difficulty.
Also, if you suffer from allergies, bring plenty of your medication with you from home. While medicinal products for asthma and allergy can be purchased at the International Pharmacies, it is very expensive and may be difficult to determine what’s equivalent in Cuba to what you’re taking at home.
5. Toss in a pack of tissues (and a coin) for the bathroom. Most toilets we visited either had an attendant who would provide a square of rough toilet paper in exchange for a coin or no attendant and no toilet paper. This was almost universal in Havana – from nice hotels to restaurants. Having your own tissue can make bathroom stops much more pleasant. At the hotel, we were told this one roll should last us all week! For the ladies, feminine products can be hard to find, so bring your own. Also, a small pack of wet wipes will come in handy as many restaurants didn’t provide napkins with meals.
6. Where do I find Hemingway? This was my first concern when we arrived in Havana last year. I wanted to see the places where Papa hung out, drank, wrote, and fished. When arrived, however, I found that it’s hard NOT to find Hemingway in Cuba. He seems to be everywhere – on t-shirts, billboards, and even an all-too-real statue at the end of the bar in the El Floridita. Hemingway’s House (Finca Vigia) is about 9 miles from Havana in the town of San Francisco de Paula. The house has been turned into an “open-air” museum. You can’t actually go in the rooms, but they are open to the outside for viewing. Here you’ll see his boat Pilar, his studio in the sky, and the graveyard for many of his adored feline friends.
Also outside of Havana is the sleepy fishing village of Cojimar, the place Hemingway said inspired him to write The Old Man and the Sea. Of course you’ll have to go to La Terraza restaurant in town for a drink and to see the photos of Ernest and Fidel. Then out to the waterfront to take a picture of the smiling bust of Hemingway facing the sea (there isn’t much else to Cojimar, but it’s Cuba so everything is photo-worthy!).
In Havana city, his drinking is as legendary as are the bars he made famous. Stop in to El Floridita for a daiquiri, La Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito, and if you’re still standing, Dos Hermanos for a look at the oldest bar in Havana where Hemingway used to be seen arm-wrestling patrons after many mojitos. You can arrange a taxi to take you around, but a guided tour might be easier. There are several tours available that will take you in Hemingway’s Footsteps and if you’re a fan, this would be the best way to see all of “Hems Haunts”.
7. Is there beer here? We’ve already established that it’s pretty hot in Cuba. So what do you drink after walking around snapping gorgeous photos all day in the blazing sun? An ice cold beer, of course! Beer is inexpensive in Cuba, about $1 CUC each. There are two basic types of beer you’ll be offered at restaurants – Cristal or Bucanero. It was explained to us as Cristal is light beer and Bucanero is strong beer, but both taste like our typical lager-style beers. Cristal comes in a green can or bottle and has an alcohol content of 4.9%. Bucanero comes in a red and black can and has a stronger taste and an alcohol content of 5.4%.
We ordered the Bucanero and it is delicious, although our waiter seemed surprised that we would not want the “lighter” Cristal. We also tried a few wines as well – in the interest of fair reporting, of course – but weren’t overwhelmed by the quality. It could be that we just didn’t go to the right places. We’ll have a see if this trip can remedy the wine disappointment. 😉
8. Best places to eat? When traveling to Cuba, as with other holiday travel, a big part of the experience is the food. And as when we travel to other countries, we want to eat local as much as possible. Finding local eateries is much easier now in Cuba since the government started allowed private homes to open as restaurants, called paladares. The difference in quality of atmosphere and food service between a paladar and a government-owned restaurant is huge.
At a paladar you’ll find everything from a beautifully refurbished church to a rooftop terrace apartment converted into an intimate eating space. The food is top-notch with the chef/owners taking special care with extensive and colorful menus typical of the Cuban people. There are many paladares to choose from and most only take telephone reservations. So if there is a particular one you’d like to try, ask your hotel concierge to make a reservation. My advice is to do your research at home and make a list of paladar choices so you can provide it to the hotel when you arrive.
9. There are people wearing colorful Cuban period clothing and costumes who want to take a picture with me. Should I tip them? Our guide explained that YES, it’s expected to tip at least $1 CUC per person for a photo, although more is always welcome. You’ll have many, many, many photo opportunities as you walk through the squares of Old Town, so it’s a good idea to bring a few small bills along for the memories. We found most to be quite nice and once we firmly said NO, they did not persist and went on to find other tourists.
10. Money Matters. Traveling to Cuba is a new experience for most Americans and because (at this writing) US dollars or US credit cards can’t be used, the dual currency system is unfamiliar to most of us. Here’s a quick breakdown. Cuba has 2 currencies – one used exclusively by the Cuban people and the other used by tourists and travelers.
CUC (dollars) is the convertible peso used by tourists. The CUP (moneda nacional) in the cubano peso used by Cubans in the ration stores. Presently, the CUC in Cuba is set at a fixed rate of 1 CUC = US $1 . Effectively the value of the CUC is about US$1.03 because the Cuban banks always take a commission of around 3% when they give you CUC. You can exchange US dollars for CUC, but you will pay an additional 10%. Other currencies, like EUROS, will be exchanged for a 3% fee at the banks. So, if possible bring EUROS to exchange and save the 10% fee.
$1 CUC = $1.13 US (using US dollars to exchange)
$1 CUC = $1.03 US (using another currency)
Whew! That’s a lot of information!
I hope at least some of it will be helpful as you enjoy your trip to this island of discovery and intrigue. Talk to the people and listen to their stories, then let us know how you fared. Was it everything you expected? Are there even better TIPS you’d like to share with other travelers before they go to Cuba? Thanks for coming along!
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There is a third beer called “Mayabe,” which I found at a resort about 2 hours north of Santa Clara. It was my second trip to Cuba, but my first time actually coming across that beer. Also, I have been hearing that some craft breweries are starting to open up in Havana. Another sign of Cuba preparing for the influx of American tourism within the next few years.
There is a departure tax – $25 if I remember correctly. So make sure you to read up online about that before you leave as it is very easy to forget about it and not have exact change before you leave the country. You also have to fill out a tourism card, which is essential that you don’t lose as you need that upon departure. I believe it costs $20 to replace it as my friend unfortunately found out the last time I was there.
Finally, DO NOT CONSIDER RENTING A CAR! While it seems tempting to rent a car or scooter to drive around certain parts of Cuba, please keep in mind that if you get in a car accident – whether it was your fault or not – Cuba is known to keep foreign tourists in jail until their court date for the accident, which can sometimes take up to a year before they hear your case.
As a Canadian, we have seen these types of stories on the news in the past. So in the interest of my American friends just itching to explore Cuba, please consider using the express buses or taxis to get you around the country. I am sure these laws will change in time when more Americans do arrive. But for now, be aware of Cuban driving laws as they can seem draconian at times.
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Hey! Nice post! Thanks for these great tips!
Cuba is definitely worth it. If you go, I’m sure you’ll find it to be a fun and enlightening adventure. And, these tips will help me for plan a trip!