Oh Cuba. It’s unlike any other country I’ve traveled to especially since the ties b/w U.S. are still a bit shaky. It’s definitely a country you need to do your research on before just up and flying out. Nevertheless, it was such a great experience to enjoy the island with my big crazy family. There are certain things I wish I knew before going but some things you just have to learn first hand. But it’s always nice to pass along the knowledge so I wanted to include the places we visited and some tips on traveling to Cuba! Feel free to ask any questions in the comments!
GETTING A VISA: As a US citizen you need a Visa to enter Cuba. Getting a Visa is much easier than you think. We flew Jet Blue and you just pay for the Visa before you board the flight at the airport, it cost $50 USD. Just make sure you give yourself enough time before your flight to do so. Also make sure you keep the visa safe the whole time you are traveling because you will need it to get back to the US. Our airbnb had a safe in it sow we just kept ours in there the whole stay.
Day 1: THE LOGISTICS
HOW TO EXCHANGE MONEY: The first thing you need to do when arriving to Cuba is exchange your money. First of all never exchange money on the street. You can either go into a hotel, bank, or just do it right when you get to the airport. The airport usually has the worst exchange rate (the hotel is pretty bad too) but it’s the most convenient place to exchange your money with no hassle. Especially if you’ve never been to Cuba, your airbnb is hands off, and you don’t really speak Spanish. If that’s you, definitely exchange at the airport and save yourself the headache. Everyone says that if you’re coming from America it’s best to switch to Euros in the states and then to CUC when you get to Cuba because of the exchange rate but honestly it all evens out. Save yourself the double fee and just exchange your US dollars. I went to Cuba with 800 US which was about $570 euro then exchange for CUC at a hotel and it was about $605. Meaning I lost about $200 exchanging money. The CUC is Cuba’s money for tourist. It has a higher value than the US dollar . The dollar is about .83 to the CUC so your money does not go as far. I don’t know why more people don’t talk about this part but your dollar has less value in Cuba so be mindful when you decide how much to bring. Also they don’t accept ANY US credit cards outside the airport so make sure you come with enough money to last the whole trip. I say over estimate to be safe.
WHERE TO STAY:
As a US citizen we still are technically not allowed to visit Cuba for pure tourism (thanks to Trump) so you have to go under “Support for the Cuban People” when you book your tickets. (You’ll see the option when you try to book to Cuba). This means shopping and eating by local owners and especially means you need to stay in an airbnb and not a government owned hotel.
We flew in a red eye and because of the layover and with time difference it basically took us 24 hours to get to Cuba. (Traveling from the West Coast to the Caribbean is a nightmare) When we arrived we met our airbnb host Anabel who was amazingly helpful. She arranged for someone to pick up up at the airport to bring us to the airbnb and even walked us to exchange our money at a hotel since the bank was closed by the time we arrived. My parents had arrived the day before us and she really made them feel settled before we got there. That night we just ate locally cause we were exhausted. Our airbnb was located right near the Malecon about a block from the US embassy and right near the boardwalk. I loved this area, it wasn’t far from anything, had really affordable planes to eat nearby and was less touristy then other parts of Cuba we visits. Felt like our little sanctuary after long days of exploring. I highly recommend where we stayed. She even arranged tours for us outside of Havana to Vinales and Varadero beach! Anabel made our trip seamless. You can check availability HERE for where we stayed. Let her know I sent you!! If it’s your first time using Airbnb you can use my code to get $40 off your stay! https://www.airbnb.com/c/enochat1?currency=USD
HOW TO GET THE THE HAVANA AIRPORT TO YOUR HOTEL OR AIRBNB:
Our airbnb set up a driver to come get us at a set rate. If your airbnb can’t do that then I suggest asking them what it generally cost to get to their place from the airport so you can negotiate with the taxi driver. There are plenty of taxis outside the airport. Some are traditional yellow cabs and some just look like the classic cars driving all the around the city. Be sure your taxi says TAXI on it somewhere before getting in. Also always negotiate the price if you think it’s unfair. We are paying in CUC as tourist so for the locals it exchanges to a lot in pesos which is their currency.
Day 2: Old Havana
Our airbnb host set up a driving ands walking tour Havana and old Havana. We were picked up in vintage classic convertibles and drove all around the city. We then ended up in Old Havana where the tour guide walked us around and explained a lot of the history of Cuba. I’m not that big on tour guides, it honestly is really boring to me but we were traveling with a big group and some people were into it. If a tour guide is not your thing you can totally just take a taxi to Old Havana and just walk around yourself.
To be honest, Old Havana shocked me. It’s not what I expected at all. As far as how it looked I was not surprised, that met my expectations. It was the fact that it is a HUGE tourist trap that shocked me. To be fair we were in a big group and we screamed American tourist. The amount of people approaching my family on the street was overwhelming. So many people begging and asking for money. I noticed they were really targeting Americans and I think it’s because tipping is big in our culture so they know they have a higher chance of getting something. I’m all for giving but it just got a little out of control I think because my family kept giving and it became a little overbearing the amount of people that kept approaching them. Plus no matter where you visit you should NEVER pull out your money in public. This goes for every country! We had to keep schooling my family on this. Either way I’m glad we got to explore Old Havana and we even caught an Afro Cuban show on the streets put on by the cultural center in Havana. It is definitely bustling with energy and people but definitely a tourist trap. If you are traveling small and can blend in a bit more then my family did then I’m sure your experience in Old Havana might be a bit different.
Day 3: Vinales- Tobacco farms + Indian Caves
Day 3 was one of the best. Our airbnb arranged a trip to Vinales for us for 120 CUC per car and we were able to have a driver for the day and they brought us anywhere we wanted to go in Vinales.
Vinales is located 2.5 hours outside of Havana and is a more rural area of the country. It was so nice to get out of the city and see a different part of Cuba. Vinales is so beautiful with greenery everywhere and so many farms. Tobacco farms especially. We visited a tobacco far, Rancho Alegre, where we saw how they made Cuban cigars from start to finish and we even got to try one! This was cool because this farm only makes organic tobacco with no nicotine so I didn’t feel weird trying it out. When in Cuba!
We also got to visit the Indian Caves where you do a short walk through the caves and take a boat through them for only 5 CUC. Before you enter they serve you fresh sugar cane juice pressed right in front of you and you can even add pineapple or rum! It was so good and fresh.
We even stopped at a bar, Palenque de los Cimarrones, that was inside a cave to grab a drink. Their specialty drink is so good! We also went to a view point and to the famous mural and another view point overlooking Vinales. We basically did all the things.
But the best part of the day by far was a visit to a farm to table restaurant,Finca Agroecologica el paraiso. The views from the restaurant were absolutely gorgeous and even more amazing was the FOOD! By far the best food we had in ALL OF CUBA. To be honest, food in Cuba is not good. I had so many people tell me this but it was so hard for me to believe about a Caribbean island but it’s so true. I think unless you’re getting a home cooked meal, it’s not going to be that great. Especially if you’re an islander and used to island food. But this place held up. It was so so so good. I can’t rave enough about it. To be honest I ate my food so fast I didn’t even get a good picture lol. But it will be on the vlog. My dad even said he would fly back just to eat there. It was totally worth the 2+ hour drive. You have to go here if you have time when you visit Cuba!
Day 4: Capitolio & Fusterlandia
Day 4 we decided to hang around Havana.
HOW TO RENT A CLASSIC CAR
I went to Capitolio in the morning to rent a car cause you know, do it for the gram. It was my one chance to drive around in a car that I could choose. Capitolio is the best place to rent a car in the island as they are lined up all around the plaza. Don’t take your first deal make sure to ask around until to find the perfect car. You can also negotiate price. I wouldn’t pay more than 45 CUC for an hour especially if you just want to drive around and take pics and you don’t want a tour. If you do want a tour this would be a better way to do it than to go with an officially tour guide cause you will have more freedom on where you want to go. I dragged my mom and dad along for the ride. My dad loves vintage cars so we got to pretend it was his for a second. I thought you could also drive the cars but the laws are very strict so that didn’t happen. A girl can pretend though. I cant even drive stick so I don’t know what I thinking haha.
Afterwards we met back up with the rest of the family and went to Fusterlandia. Fusterlandia is an area and home designed by an artist Fuster. It’s really cool with a beautiful mosaic designs. It feels so out of place and so magical at the same time. The house he built for himself is unreal. It’s free to tour but the taxi from central Havana with cost you about 20 CUC one way (they really take advantage of the tourist here). And be sure to have your taxi wait for you and bring you back. It will be a nightmare finding a taxi back. We got left and had to ride with random cars back into the city. It’s very touristy but it is cool to see. Definitely not necessary though if you’re on budget.
Day 5: Varadero Beach
Day 5 was one of the funnest! We headed to Varadero beach. Our airbnb also set up the same drivers that brought us to Vinales to bring us to Varadero beach. There are many beaches closer to Havana then Varadero which is two hours away but it was hands down the most recommended place to visit by everyone!! So we had to go.
The beach is so beautiful with crystal clear water and beautiful almost white sand. Originally we were told to get a resort pass for the day but honestly its not necessary. You do get perks with a resort like being able to use the facilities (bathroom/restaurant) but it can be super pricy if you’re trying to go to a nice one. We opted out last minute (and because some people forgot their passports- something you need to get a resort pass) and our drivers told us we can just rent chairs and umbrellas at the beach. And so we did. For 5 CUC you can get a chair and umbrella all to yourself and they will bring it to wherever you would like to settle on the beach. We posted up close to a public bathroom at the most perfect spot. There’s even a man who will come around and bring you food and drinks. The food on the beach ended up being our 2nd favorite meal of the trip. He brought it to us in tupperware so I’m pretty sure it was home cooked cause it also took forever to get to us (we ordered for 8 people) but it was so good! And so we’re the drinks. Home cooked is the way to go in Cuba. Or even just eating outside the city. I doubt the food at the resort would have been as good to be honest. We stayed in the water for hours. It was so shallow we could go so far in and still stand comfortably, it was very cool. I think the beach day was most of our favorite day in Cuba. Definitely worth visiting. Our drivers met us 6 hours later when we were all kissed by the sun and happy.
Day 6: National Hotel, La Guarida, Tropicana Cabaret
This was our last full day in Cuba. During the day we did a tour of the National Hotel. We heard it had the best view of Havana and it was only 5 CUC and you get a free drink. To be honest I thought we would just go up and see the view but it’s an entire tour. And you already know how I feel about tour guides. For me it was torturous, but like I said if you like tours you won’t mind. The tour ended up being 2.5 hours! Run by a very cute small old lady who was not a fan of America. It was honestly the funniest thing ever. But honestly all I cared about was the view and it was beautiful.
Later we had lunch at La Guarida, another place everyone recommended and it’s super popular spot. The food was just ok to me though not that great, especially for the hefty price tag. (Hefty for Havana, not outrageous compared to fancy restaurants in the US). I would maybe just do drinks there if you wanna go for the pics and save your money. I did like that it was in a less touristy part of Havana though and you could really be immersed in the people.
That night we went to Tropicana which is a famous cabaret in Havana. All I’m going to say about this show is save your money. It was not worth it. We paid 85 CUC and they give you a glass of champagne, rum and coke and NO FOOD. We though we were going to have dinner and a show which is why we were ok with the price at first which is $105 in USD. On the website it said food was included but when they sat us down, they said dinner was not included. They even charge you money to take picture or video of the show on top of the ticket prices! The show is good but not worth 85CUC with no food. We were not blown away. If you can find a cheaper cabaret in Cuba it might be worth it for the experience but Tropicana is way over priced. Aside from that it was still and experience and you live and learn.
Overall we had the best time in Cuba and I’m so glad I was finally able to visit this forbidden island! Vlog will be coming up next week! Leave any questions you have about traveling in the comments below and I will answer as best as I can!