Trips to Cuba have been pretty popular amongst my group of international teaching friends, but quite a few people have asked me several questions about going to Cuba as a US citizen. There was definitely a lot of research done on my part so I thought I would share a little background info before I start posting about the places I visited. I’ll be posting about Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey, Cienfuegos, and Varadero in the next several blog posts.
The first question people have asked me is, “Is it legal for US Citizens to go to Cuba?” Yes! All you have to do is check that you must choose one of 12 categories for your visit and then you just click that box when you are making your flight reservations. Many people end up selecting the “People to People” option. I have no law background whatsoever but I’ve read several times that nobody in the US has been charged for traveling to Cuba in the past couple of decades. Beyonce and Jay-Z visited Cuba, so why not you?
As a US Citizen without access to ATMs and working credit cards, you will have to bring ALL of your cash with you for the whole trip! This was the biggest hurdle for me. I don’t like carrying such large sums of cash on me, especially when traveling from Venezuela, but I didn’t have any problems. I budgeted about $100 a day just to be safe since I knew that I would take many hours of private salsa lessons and go out dancing whenever possible. If you don’t plan on doing private salsa lessons, drinking much, or going on any tours you could probably get by fine on $60 a day. In three weeks I actually spent $2300 (not including lodging and flights).
Another horrible part of dealing with money is exchanging it in Cuba- it takes forever! I spent 3 hours exchanging money one day in Havana. Bring a book, your passport, the address of the hotel/casa where you are staying, and plenty of patience. I recommend exchanging enough cash for a week so you can avoid wasting time exchanging. Also, be sure to exchange at the airport because there is no guarantee that a bank or exchange house will be open if you arrive at night (one time in Havana the Cadeca exchange place I was waiting at closed because the power went out).
It is also important to note that there is a dual currency situation in Cuba; CUP and CUCs. 25 CUP equals 1 CUC. Most tourists will get by entirely with CUCs, but it is good to have $5-10 in CUP (often referred to as pesos or MN) just in case. Often I would see signs charging foreigners one amount in CUC and the same amount for locals in CUP.
Also, US dollars have a 10% commission, so try to bring Canadian Dollars, Euros or Mexican Pesos to exchange at a better rate.
Where to Sleep
To help avoid carrying, even more, cash with me I booked all of my lodgings ahead of time using Airbnb (get $35 when you use my link). I’m told that it is about 5CUC more because I did this, but it meant that I never had to search for hours for my lodging during the high season like some travelers I saw and it meant that I didn’t have to worry about carrying around an extra $700. I really loved staying in the casa particulares that I booked through AirBnB. It was just like staying with a host family and getting to know a bit more about the Cuban way of life.
I’ve been in places where most people go online in internet cafes (Azerbaijan 10 years ago), but Cuba was entirely different. The internet situation in Cuba is probably one of the strangest things I’ve ever encountered in my travels. Most people use wifi in public parks and main plazas and not at home. A few of the really big hotels have a wifi hotspot (I never encountered a free one though), but not a single one of my casa particulares had wifi at home.
To get online the proper way you are supposed to bring your passport to the local ETECSA office and buy a scratch off internet card with a disposable username and password. The morning after I arrived in Cuba I went through this process in Havana and it was painless and relatively cheap. I got a card for 10 CUC that gave me 5 hours of access.
That card lasted me about 2 weeks because the internet in those plazas could be excruciatingly slow and sometimes nonfunctioning. After it ran out I started buying 1-hour cards from small shops for 2CUC an hour. I didn’t show my passport for those, though.
If it is after ETECSA business hours and you want to get online and the shops are closed, you can buy from one of the guys in the park. They might try to sell it to you for 2.50 or 3CUC an hour. When I heard such quotes I was thankful that I had planned ahead, but I’m told that it used to be nearly double the price just a few years ago!
People that I talked to were absolutely shocked that I was able to book my buses before I even arrived in Cuba. It was lucky that I did, because many of the buses and flights around the Christmas holiday were completed booked up once I arrived on Dec 17th! So save yourself some time and hassle and just book your Viazul buses on their easy to use website. All you need is a credit card and a passport and a good idea of where you want to go. I also loved this option because it saved me from having to carry around an extra couple hundred dollars!
I have worldwide insurance so I didn’t think about it until I read around online, but apparently, you need travelers insurance to travel in Cuba. I’ve been told that they spot check tourists arriving AND leaving the airport. If your school or work doesn’t provide worldwide insurance, I would look around online. Many travelers I meet suggest World Nomads.
I departed from Caracas where I tried to buy my tourist visa but their debit card machines weren’t working at the time so I bought my visa at the Panama airport. It was $20 and I just had to ask my airline for it. You might need to be proactive though because nobody TOLD me that I needed one in Panama. You need to keep this card in your passport and make sure you fill it out correctly the first time or they will charge you for another card (or so I’ve been told). I just taped my visa into my passport so it wouldn’t get lost.