I just came back from Cuba and I have so many thoughts! With the newly eased travel restrictions, there will be a lot more Americans traveling to Cuba and wanting to know what to expect. In lieu of me being able to summarize in a neat little bow what Cuba is like (beyond the words “fascinating” and “intriguing”), here are my raw observations and a few travel tips:
What everyone should know before traveling to Cuba
- You get your visa/travel card at the airport. I flew JetBlue and the visa cost $50 and was given to me upon checking into my flight. You don’t need to order a visa online or have one mailed to you beforehand. My Google search for visas to Cuba brought up less than straightforward results, but the simple answer is you can buy your visa at the airport from which you are departing to Cuba.
- Travel to Cuba is prohibited, but in practice, only kinda-not really. From the US Embassy to Cuba website: “Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel.” The general license I selected was people-to-people travel. It’s one of the 12 checkboxes you mark when you book your flight and when you check-in to your flight. But no one verifies if you’re actually traveling under the license you select. No one asks for proof of your travel itinerary.
- Bring a pen to fill out the immigration forms they give you on the plane.
- Bring all the money (in cash!!) with you that you plan on spending for the entire trip. Your American debit/credit card will NOT work with Cuba’s ATM machines (which are scarce) and hardly any shops allow card transactions. *This is the most important money tip!*
- Cuba uses a dual-currency. CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos, pronounced“kooks”) as well as CUP, the national money or “moneda nacional”). CUCs are what you get when you exchange your money at the airport (which is a must – US dollars aren’t generally accepted). CUC’s are 25 times more valuable than CUPs. It’s strange that there is both local money and tourist money. More facts from another blogger, Jouelzy, on Cuba’s money situation for tourists.
- You’ll be able to charge your American electronic devices with the outlets in Cuba. You won’t need and adapter.
- Public restrooms often times don’t have toilet paper or it is limited and rationed out, so you’ll want to keep a roll of toilet paper handy.
- There is no Uber, but the taxis, in my experience, pretty much know everywhere and they’re reasonably priced.
- There is no free Wifi. We bought Wifi in one of the hotels in Parque Central that cost 4.5 CUC (about the same in US dollars) for 1 hour.
- Cuba is extremely safe. All the locals say this (as does Google) but I felt it, too.
- Brush up on your Spanish. You’ll find it much easier to get around.
- Research Cuban history and Cuban-American relations. I really didn’t have much historical context for many of the things I observed during my trip besides the words “embargo” and “communism.” I’m now, post-trip, researching the “why” to many of my observations, but I would have loved to have this background knowledge beforehand.
What I observed
- The weather is glorious.
- The majority of cars are classic 1950’s cars which look super cool. They’re very loud, though.
- The air in Havana is smoky and smells like diesel fumes.
- Cubans are so racially diverse: from blonde hair and blue eyes to kinky-textured hair and very dark skin. Seeing the African diaspora in Cuba was fascinating and reminded me of the interconnectedness of black folks everywhere.
- There is no advertising which is the oddest thing coming from a place like NYC (think Times Square): No corporations emblazoning their logo with the push for you to buy something.
- There are lots of signs and paintings of Fidel and Cuban pride: “Cuba es nuestros” (Cuba is ours), “Fidel entre Nosotros,” “Revolución es construir,” “Yo soy Fidel” (I am Fidel). While there isn’t advertising by corporations, what you will see is Socialist propaganda billboards on the side of the road.
- There are lots of stray animals. They aren’t dangerous, but pretty dirty. They seem very friendly, though.
- The food I had wasn’t very good. This was really disappointing because Cuban food was the source of my biggest expectation since I’ve had AMAZING Cuban food in the States. The food was bland at best and didn’t taste all that fresh. I also expected way more from breakfast which was rather consistently ham & cheese sandwiches. The best food we had was Ropa Vieja on a couple occasions, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. Blogger Jouelzy provides more insight on why Americans sometimes struggle with the food in Cuba and provides some alternatives on how and where you can grab some good meals. (Wish I’d known this sooner)!
- The architecture is magnificent, but many of the buildings (especially in the urban areas just outside the Capital) are in serious need of repair (and fresh paint).
- Cuban people are lovers. There were so many couples – young and old – holding hands. This made me miss my beau.
- Verdadero Beach (about a 2 hour drive outside Havana) is BEAUTIFUL (but there isn’t as much of a beach culture as there is in other parts of the Caribbean).
On Being a Woman
- From whistles, hisses, smooching sounds, and a million and one ways to say “you’re beautiful,” you will be catcalled in Havana. I think I looked like a novelty with my afro out so there was A LOT of catcalling. I didn’t feel endangered, just a bit annoyed.
- The women and girls there wear what Americans would probably see as “inappropriately” short skirts and dresses. From school girls to airport security personnel, many of the skirts worn were way above the knee. What I loved is that it didn’t seem like women were overly-sexualized or shamed for their clothing length.