Now that I’m living in Havana studying dance, I’m getting A LOT of questions from Americans who want to travel here. I’ve put together some advice that I think will help you if you’re considering a visit to Cuba.
1. Do your research before: 1) booking your trip and 2) asking friends who live in Havana for advice. There is a LOT to do here – think of it like New York or London. Buy a guidebook (I just discovered that Amazon Prime members can download Lonely Planet guidebooks for free) and read online articles and forums to get a sense of the possibilities.
Think about what you like to do when you travel: wander through museums, relax with drinks and listen to live music, go dancing and hit the best nightspots, explore beautiful natural settings, study music, dance or Spanish, go to the beach? You can do all of this from Havana, so if you only have a week, figure out your priorities for the time you have.
2. AMERICANS CANNOT ACCESS MONEY IN CUBA. That means no credit cards, no debit cards, no traveler’s cheques. You must bring the money you will need in cash. Most Americans either bring USD (but be prepared to get charged 10% when exchanging) or Euros (no 10% fee, but you lose money when you change from US to Euros in the US). For a short trip, I’d recommend USD. You’ll be exchanging for one of the Cuban currencies, called CUCs.
3. Prepare to be off the grid. You will likely not find up-to-date information on many websites anyway – it’s better to ask around or call to get current info – and wifi is only available in hotspots. Hotspots are located in parks and plazas throughout the city, and inside and outside many hotels. Parque Central is a good place to go online – either in the park or in one of the surrounding hotels. Once you get to Havana, you’ll need to buy a wifi card. You can purchase them at Etecsa offices or kiosks or in hotels. You'll likely have to wait on line at Etecsa, but you'll get the standard 1CUC/hour price. Hotels will be quicker, but will cost you 3-5 times more. Make sure to ask at the hotel if the wifi card only works there or at any wifi spot.
4. Understand the difference between your tourist visa and your licensed travel category. There are two main requirements for traveling to Cuba that people often get confused about. Cuba requires that you purchase a 30-day tourist visa. Most airlines offer you the option to buy this at a kiosk at the airport where you’re flying out – you’ll need to check with your airline. From the US, it costs between $75-100.
The other requirement is from the US side and has nothing to do with Cuban policy – it is to identify which category of licensed travel you fit under. In starting to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama opened up these categories to individuals – so you can just state which category you fit into, without being part of a tour group. Most US tourists used the educational category (also known as “people-to-people”) - this was the category that was primarily affected by Obama's changes. You simply select this category when you purchase your flight. **
** March 2018 UPDATE: New regulations from the Trump administration were released in fall of 2017. They reverted the people-to-people category to the previous restrictions, in which Americans must be a part of a US tour group at all times. This is more expensive and more restrictive. It still remains unclear how or if it will be enforced. You can still travel to Cuba as an American, and you still must choose a category of licensed travel. However, now "people-to-people" does not apply to individual travel, only travel with a US-based tour group. [2019 UPDATE - "people to people" has been eliminated entirely, even for tour groups.] Many Americans I've talked to are either still selecting educational despite the restrictions, or are opting for “support for the Cuban people”. I highly recommend reading the actual code to determine which licensed category your trip would fall under.
(Note: this article does not constitute legal advice. Research your options and travel at your own risk.)
Now that we have that out of the way ... !
Some ideas for your time in Havana:
Once you’ve researched and prepared yourself a bit for a trip to Cuba, start asking more specific questions based on what you’d like to do. Here’s what I recommend in Havana when friends ask me for general advice (not dance-related – that’s another post!):
Splurge on a classic car tour – 35-40 CUC per car – you get a tour of the city in a convertible, hitting some of the most famous spots. Yes, it’s touristy and a bit cheesy, but it’s a great way to get a visual tour of the city. So bust out that selfie stick and have fun!
Spend some time on the Malecón – take a walk in the early morning or around sunset when it’s cooler. If you’re feeling social, buy a bottle of rum and refresco (soda) and find a spot to hang out at night (try where Galiano or 23rd intersect at Malecón) and be ready to make friends.
Give yourself time to wander Habana Vieja to take pictures, stop for a mojito or limonada, and catch some live music in the afternoons or evenings. Obispo or Plaza Vieja are good spots to start from.
Pick one or two museums that sound the most interesting to you, and definitely go to Plaza de la Revolucion.
I’m the worst at buying souvenirs for friends and family on my trips; I’m lucky they keep me around. If you’re better at that type of thoughtful stuff, you’ll like San Jose artisan market as a one-stop shop. Don’t get excited about it as a cultural spot though – just buy your T-shirts, claves, and bottles of rum and get on with your life.
The terraza on the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra has horrible mojitos, but a great ambiance, lovely view and live music.
You can also easily do a day trip to nearby beaches or spend a day or two in Viñales or Trinidad. Both are interesting and beautiful, which is why they’re so popular with tourists.
Buy combination luggage locks for all bags – especially anything that will be checked. If it is not locked, expect to have a much lighter bag when you pick it up at baggage claim.
Keep your money on you in all transportation – airports, taxis, buses, etc. Lock it up in your suitcase in you’re room when you’re out.
Take a picture of your passport. You’ll need it for buying wifi cards and exchanging money.
Download an offline map before you get here – I like “Map of Cuba offline”.
Generally speaking you should avoid drinking the tap water, but you can brush your teeth with it. For a short trip, you can buy bottled water. I have a Lifestraw water bottle with a filter that I use with tap water, and haven’t had any problems.
Stay in a casa particular – you can find them on sites like Airbnb – either renting a room in an apartment or house, or renting your own apartment.
You will usually have a phone in your casa that you can make local calls from, just ask the landlord.
Bring comfortable shoes. Havana is a very walkable city, so you’ll likely walk a lot. You can wear heels, but stick with wedges over stilettos. The streets and sidewalks are not even, and I don’t want you to break an ankle.
Bring a hand fan. It’s hot here for most of the year. Really. Hot. Here. (Cubans and foreigners use umbrellas as shade from the sun – that’s an option too.)
When you get on line for anything – changing money, for example – ask, “who is the last?” by saying “Quien es el ultimo?”. Remember that person. People do not queue up in perfect formation here, so you need to remember where you are in line and let the next person know you’re last when they ask.
This should go without saying, but: learn the Spanish words for hello, how are you, please, thank you, bathroom, the check, water, and the United States (people will ask where you’re from) – and use them as appropriate with all of the Cubans you meet.
Of course, there is much more to share about enjoying Havana, but this should get you started! Let me know if you have any questions!
Ready to go salsa dancing? Check out my guide to salsa dancing in Havana every night of the week!