Major Key Alert: How to Make the Most Out of Your Trip to Cuba
Cuba is a time capsule filled with carefully preserved vintage cars zooming down paved streets and beautiful people. Fortunately, I was able to experience the country and bring in the New Year with my two best girlfriends. Here are some essential tips to help you make the most out of your trip to Cuba:
1. Getting to Cuba
As of early 2015, Americans no longer need to apply for a specific license or get approval to travel to Cuba as long as it fits within the twelve categories of authorized travel. My friends and I traveled to Cuba on our own and classified our visit under the “education category.” Since we did not travel through a tour agent, we had to book two sets of airline tickets to get to Havana. First, we flew from San Francisco to Cancun on Delta airlines. We then flew to Havana, from Cancun on Copa Airlines. We obtained our visa at the airport while in Mexico.
We really wanted to interact with the locals, so we used AirBnB to book our accommodations. AirBnB is different in Cuba. We stayed in five different Casa Particulars, three in Havana and two in Matanzas. For all of our accommodations, I am sure we selected entire home for housing type. However, this can mean you’re staying in a house along with your host family in a separate room. My friends and I were okay with this as it allowed for a richer experience of Cuba.
Prior to AirBnB, the Cuban government allowed for residents to rent rooms to tourists. This well networked system has been in place since the early 90’s and has flourished ever since. If you’re ever in Cuba and you can’t access Airbnb, look for a trademark casa sign outside of a residence and I am sure they will be willing to help you look for a place to stay. Here's the link to my favorite host family's accommodations.
Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the major level currency for which you exchange your money for and to make all purchases. Also, as of January 2016, American credit cards do not work in Cuba. Make sure to really budget your money and have a back-up budget as well. 1 CUC = $1 US dollar, but you’re charged a 10% penalty charge when exchanging in American dollars,
Cuban Peso (CUP): Lower level currency used by local residents and not really used by tourist. We always kept a few CUPs to pay for local buses, because they were so cheap. 1 CUC = 26.5 CUP
4. Wifi Connection
Traveling to Cuba was a time to disconnect from social media and work and to simply be present. Not having fast and free access to WiFi was surely the way to do so. However, WiFi is available, but it’s not free and it’s controlled by the government. To get access, you obtain a ETECSA wifi card (5 CUC for 1 hour). Wifi cards are a popular item and many locals sell them on the street, especially downtown and near hotels.
5. The Gift of Sharing
Friends who traveled to Cuba before us suggested we bring small trinkets to give to our host families and kids in the area. We stocked up on toys, chocolates, gift boxes and packed new and old clothes. After we were out of our items, we gave out some of our make-up items, which was a big hit. If you're willing to do this (I suggest so) I would bring make-up items and other cool products.
6. Things to Do
Our primary mode of transportation was by foot. Everyday we walked miles before hopping into a Taxi Colectivo (shared taxi system). During our walks we ventured along El Malecon, Havana’s ocean-side boulevard whose atmosphere is most potent after sunset. We also spent several days and nights “chilling” with the locals, eating and listening to old American music (Tupac, Keyshia Cole and Ashanti to name a few). One of my most memorable moments was attending a yoga class with our host “mom” and other local women in the neighborhood.
During our “tourist” days we visited Central and Old Havana and explored the Plaza de Catedral, Havana Rum museum, Plaza de la Revolución and Casa de la Música. We paid extra bucks one sunset to have a private ride and guided tour around Havana to learn more about the country’s history and rich traditions.
Varadero and Matanzas
After spending several days in Havana, it was time for the beach. Prior to traveling to Cuba we all fantasized about sun-bathing and dipping our bodies in the crystal blue waters of Cuba’s beaches. We chose Varadero beach, one of Cuba’s most popular beaches. We originally planned to take the local bus from Havana to to Varadero, but quickly learned buses fill-up quick. Instead we opted for a shared taxi which cost us about 20 CUC per person. Although our taxi was not an actual car, more so a cargo truck with open sides, we arrived safely to the beach just under two hours (bus travel time=3 hrs or longer).
Our Casa Particular for our time in Varadero turned out to be 30 minutes from the beach in Matanzas. Initially we perceived this as a set-back because our first taxi ride to our casa was 30 CUC and our driver presented the area as remote and a place where tourist don’t often travel. True, Matanzas was far from the beach, but it was a hidden gem. The town of Matanzas is historic and the streets are paved with horse drawn carriages, older yet active residents, jovial kids and street vendors. Yes, we were probably three of the few tourists in the area, but that didn’t bother us. We spent our first night sitting on concrete with the locals, drinking rum, riding mopeds and sharing life stories. That was the essence of our trip, experiencing Cuba with Cuban people.
But back to the beach. Sadly, it rained our first two days and traveling to the beach didn’t happen. On our third day, we woke up early hopped on the local bus (1 CUC per person) and ventured to Varadero. Our excitement was short-lived as it rained a majority of the day. We were able to escape to the beach for about 20 minutes, just enough time to literally place our feet in the blue water and take photos before we were drenching wet. We took a taxi back home to Matanzas ( about 15 CUC total, not 30 CUC) and prepared for our departure back to Havana and then to the airport.
Air-Travel to Cuba: SFO-Cancun $407, Cancun-Havana $294
Cuban Visa Bought in Mexico: $30
Bus Travel: 10-15 CUC depending on destination
Taxi: 7 CUC for local rides ( We spend about 40 CUC per person for our entire trip)
The average price of our Casa’s were about 20-30 CUC per night.
Breakfast prepared at your Casa Particular: 5 CUC or less per day
Average cost of meals: 5-10 CUC
Drinks: 3 CUC, 5-7 CUC for more expensive places
Coffee (because it’s just that good): 1-2 CUC
Museums and Other Things:
Rum Museum: 7 CUC, rum tasting included
House of Music: 15-20 CUC entry fee
Fabricia de Artre Cubano: 3 CUC entry fee
8. Explore Outside of Havana Cuba:
We only traveled to two towns outside of Havana. When I return to Cuba, my first stop will be Santiago de Cuba to explore more of the Afro-Cuban culture and more non-tourist locations.