Want to visit Cuba? It’s complicated.
In 2016 everyone’s favorite communist island nation got its day in the sun when then president, Barack Obama, eased restrictions for U.S. travelers – meaning Americans were no longer required to visit Cuba through a licensed travel group. They could go as individuals, or what’s known as people-to-people travel.
Not only did these updated travel guidelines open a whole new world of tourism in Cuba it also made my trip there this past March incredibly easy. All I had to do was pick one of 12 legal reasons for the trip, book a plane ticket, snag a tourist visa and head off to 50s era taxis and endless mojitos. (Thanks Obama!)
Then in June of this year, President Donald Trump ruined everything reversed Obama’s travel policy. And in the coming months, it will once again no longer be legal for Americans to travel to Cuba solo.
But, never fear! If you’ve always wanted to go, it’s still possible. And the good news is, if you already had a ticket booked before Trump reversed the policy you can still go to Cuba as an individual traveler. For those of you not as lucky, the only way to get to Cuba in the future will be via a cruise line or a licensed organization like Cuba Educational Travel.
No matter how you get there though, it’s worth the trip. So get out your passport and start practicing your Spanish. Here are a few things to know before you go!
I know this picture looks like I’m a hypochondriac, but I used almost everything in it. That’s because in Cuba, when stores or restaurants run out of something, no one knows when supplies will be restocked. Convenience stores are few and far between.
Based on this supply shortage, the five most important items to take to Cuba (IMO) would be: Wet wipes (you have to pay for toilet paper most places you go), Pepto Bismal AND Immodium (we all know not to drink the water, but sh*t happens), Tylenol for mojito-induced hangovers, and snacks. Hanger is real and roadside stands mostly just stock rum and cigarettes.
Take more than you think you’ll need. There are no ATMs in Cuba and you won’t be able to use your credit or debit cards anywhere. Americans can’t exchange their money before going to Cuba either. Once you land, head straight for the nearest money exchange kiosk and be sure to grab a Cristal while you wait.
The exchange in Cuba is complicated, even more so for people who are bad at math (like me) and also because there are two different currencies:
The Cuban convertible peso (CUC)
The Cuban Peso (CUP)
1 dollar=1 CUC= 24 CUP
American travelers typically exchange dollars for CUCs because it is a 1:1 exchange, but since Cuban-American relations aren’t exactly rosy, when you exchange your dollars for CUCs the Cuban government levies a 13% tax. Which means for every $100 you exchange, you’re really only getting 87 CUCs. One solution to this tax is to exchange your dollars for euros before you leave for Cuba since there is no tax on euros in Cuba.
Like most things on this island nation, getting Internet is complicated. While there is Wi-Fi in Cuba, it’s not freely accessible and it’s tightly restricted by the government. Still, if you’re in a tight spot, here’s how you can connect to the outside world, just be prepared to wait in line:
- Find a Wi-Fi park: You’ll be able to easily find it by the number of people sitting in a park with their heads down staring at their phones. Usually there will be someone close by selling cards for one hour of Internet access. Cost =1.50 CUC.
- Head to a ETECSA Telecommunications Center: Dead giveaway will be the long line of locals waiting to get a Wi-Fi card.
- Find a hotel: Many hotels in Cuba have Wi-Fi, but you still have to pay, and some even require that you purchase a drink with your card.
Like in any foreign country it pays to be alert and keep track of your belongings and surroundings. In my particular experience I found the Cuban people I spoke with to be friendly, but not particularly eager to talk about their political situation or government unless copious amounts of rum were involved. Cuban men can be fairly aggressive and it helped to travel in a group, and to always say I had a boyfriend or husband. As a woman, I would also not recommend riding in a cab alone. (Side note: always negotiate your price before you go somewhere. See taxi info below).
The 50s era cars in Havana are a sight to behold. And Cubans take great pride in their cars. They also know they can usually charge unwitting Americans extra money for a ride. Riding around in Havana you should never pay more than $5 (5 CUCs) for a trip around town. This was information given to us straight from the mouth of our AirBnb host. Also, make sure you’re getting into a taxi and not just an old car. After one too many drinks on the Malecon we hopped in one that was being driven by a drunk teenager who was street racing his friends. Needless to say, we did not pay him.
And there you have it fellow wanderers! Cuba is a wild ride, but I can assure you it is just as alluring and interesting as the hype has led you to believe it to be. Before I go, I leave you with two final pieces of advice: Stock up on bottled water and try as many mojitos as you can. ¡Buena suerte!
Brittany Smith is a copywriter by day, and by night can usually be found biking around her neighborhood in Charlotte, NC looking for good beer, good stories and a pet raccoon. Not necessarily in that order. Sometimes she travel blogs here.