Cuba Travel: Everything You Need to Know

January 26, 2016
Cuba Travel: Everything You Need to Know

After planning my trip to Cuba for many months, I found it serendipitous that all of these new US/Cuba diplomatic changes began while I was in Havana. Now that it is easier than ever to travel to Cuba, I encourage you to visit.  Here’s what you’ll need to know for your Cuba travel adventure.

Cuba Travel: Everything You Need to Know

Getting to Cuba

I arrived in Havana on Thursday, January 15, and after the new Cuba/US relationship made the news on January 16, many asked me, “How did you get there so quickly?” The truth is, Americans have been able to visit Cuba for a few years now–if they traveled with an educational tour group. I booked my trip through Insight Cuba.

Now, with the embargo loosely lifted, there are twelve categories of travel that allow American to visit Cuba.

The Culture

Visiting Cuba is like going back in time. With the embargo in place for so many years, imports were largely hindered to the country. I was not alive in the 50s and 60s but it was so exciting to see the classic, vintage cars still driving around the island. While the bodies of the cars are probably the only original pieces, I enjoyed driving around Havana down the Malécon, the main street along the water, in a pink Cadillac convertible.

I had always thought that Communism and Socialism were dark, cold, monotonous ways of life. Yet, I found that the Cuban people are the exact opposite. Their music, food, and drinks are charming and everything about the city is bright, from the colorful buildings, to the cars, to the clothing. Many people were dressed in all white, which is part of the “initiation” of Santeria, one of main religions in Cuba. The graffiti painted on the buildings was also quite beautiful, with much of it dedicated to Che Guevara, the Cuban national hero.

One important thing to keep in mind: there are two currencies in Cuba, one for the local Cubans (Cuban Peso) and one for the visitors (Convertible Perso, also called the CUC).

The Music

At night, the streets of Havana come alive with live music. I didn’t get tickets to the Buena Vista Social Club, but I walked past the packed house and enjoyed some of their music from the street. I ended up at the Café de Paris in Old Havana where there was an unbelievable jazz band performing. The bar has great drinks, and lots of energy as the singer, band and saxophones played. Many people stopped on the street to look inside. Smoking cigarettes and cigars is allowed in many bars, so be prepared for that. But, if you’d like to stay away from the smoke, you’ll be able to find a few non-smoking bars in the city.

Food, Drinks & Mojitos

In Cuba, there are two types of restaurants: those that the government runs and privately-owned (paladars). Both serve incredible food, which included lots of meat and fish with great sauces, paired with rice, beans and mojitos.

Every restaurant in Havana claims to have the best mojito. I can’t really say which I enjoyed the most because they were all pretty epic—fresh mint and a hint of sugar sipped in the warm Cuban air.

While touristy, a must-see site is the Bodeguita del Media, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars for mojitos. During the day, it was a great place to take a break from the sun, sit, order a drink and eat lunch. At night, there was a small band performing in the corner of the bar. Don’t leave without leaving your mark! The bar is filled with notes and signatures of visitors from all over the world.

When visiting the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, let your mind wander. Walking through the hotel and onto the lawn, which overlooks the ocean, I can just image what it was like in the 30s with everyone wearing flapper dresses, dressed to the nines. Peacocks wander around the grounds, cigars are hand-rolled in the hotel, and a Cuban trio adds music to the atmosphere. Whether you go for lunch, dinner or just drinks, sitting outside on the lawn is a must. Overlooking the Malécon, you’ll be able to watch the people sitting on the wall, the waves, and all of the classic cars driving by.

The Tour

My tour group, Insight Cuba, allowed us to really understand Cuban culture and history. The group had a great speaker who came to discuss the economics and government of Cuba. We visited a restoration/construction school, which taught students how to restore old buildings, and a music school where an adult choir performed for us. We visited many art galleries, including one filled with African, Santeria, and spiritual art.

The trip really made history come alive for me. While I learned about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs Invasion in school, they never felt real to me. It was so great to learn about the history from both the American and Cuban sides, learn more about the Cuban government and the Cuban people, and to gain a sense of what the future holds.

U.S. Customs, Money and WIFI

Now that travel from the U.S. to Cuba is changing, it’s important to check regulations before your travels. While I was in Cuba, American credit cards and cell phones did not work so I needed to bring enough cash for my trip. WiFi is not common in Havana. You can buy Internet minutes at hotels, but there is no city-wide WiFi, WiFi in restaurants, or internet cafes.

When you leave Cuba, there is a 25 CUC fee, about $25, due at the airport, so be sure to put aside some money for that when you leave.

Because I was in Cuba when one of the first changes was made to the loosening of the embargo, we were able to bring back rum and cigars! It was like Black Friday down in Havana with everyone in the small cigar stores picking and choosing from the different brands and sizes. For such a new change, it was pretty seamless when coming back through U.S. Customs.

You are also allowed to bring back art or paintings, but you will have to get a “certified stamp,” which costs about $2 in order to prove that it is from a gallery or painter. If you forget to get this stamp at the store, you can also get it at the airport.

Overall, my Cuba travel experience was more than I could have asked for. How many times in your life are you able to be on the brink of a historical change? It was so great to see first-hand how the lifting of the embargo will affect the Cuban and American people.

About Elizabeth Raflowitz

Elizabeth Raflowitz grew up in Connecticut with a stint of three years in Tokyo, Japan, and now lives in Boston. She got her first passport when she was just six months old, and hasn’t stopped traveling since. Visiting all seven continents is her ultimate bucket list item, and is almost there — she has traveled to six of the seven continents. Some of her more memorable trips include skydiving in Cape Town, South Africa, spending a Christmas in the Malaysian rainforest, and her Semester at Sea. In Fall 2005, she studied abroad on Semester At Sea, visiting Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Myanmar, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Japan in 100 days.

Elizabeth has a Bachelor of Arts in Communication & Journalism from Suffolk University, a Certificate in Graphic Design from the New England School of Art and Design, and a Masters in Sports Leadership from Northeastern University.

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