Is That Even Legal?
When I first told friends and family that I was going to Cuba last year, at least half asked, “Is that even legal?!?” The answer is technically no, but in reality…yes. Traveling to Cuba for “touristic purposes” is still prohibited for Americans. However, there are 12 categories of authorized travel and many of those with a more leisurely mindset - my friend, Matt, and I included - go under the category of “Support for the Cuban People” (more on this later).
When it comes to travel I generally have a very relaxed, “show-up-and-figure-it-out” attitude. After reading a few articles though, it seemed like there would be quite a bit of red tape involved and I felt intimidated. However, I’m happy to report that it’s really not scary at all!
First off, the idea that you will not be able to access the Internet in Cuba is a myth. No, it is not as readily available as it is in many countries and you will not be able to purchase a SIM card with data. However, you can purchase Internet access at pretty much any hotel in Havana’s city center (though you will only be able to access it within the hotel). Before we went I even wrote down a few hotel names that were identified by some blogs as having internet, but when we got there we ended up just walking into two random hotels and asking if internet access was available for purchase (we only went to the second one because the first had sold out of the access cards for the day already - ha!). You can purchase access cards that are sold in hour-long increments. Remember to turn your Wi-Fi connection off when you’re done surfing the web as whatever you don’t use you can go back and use at any time during your trip. I don’t remember the exact cost but it was pretty cheap and I spent less than $5 USD over four days. If you’re staying at an AirBnB or a casa particular (private homestay), you may also ask your host if Internet access is available. Our AirBnB hostess had a guy she could call with a portable hotspot, but by the time he came around we’d already gone to the hotel.
Secondly - I am speaking from my personal experience and this may not be the case for everyone - at no time was I questioned about my plans in Cuba. Not when we left the US, nor when we came back. That being said, for all intensive purposes please do make sure you are prepared. Also (and this is very important) if you’re splitting costs with anyone and paying through Venmo, do NOT write “Cuba” in the “What’s it for?” section. As my bank had better exchange rates than Matt’s I exchanged USD for Euros/GBP for the both of us and Matt Venmo-ed me for it and wrote “Cuba”. This resulted in the money being held by Venmo until they were able to get in touch with us to clear up the purposes for the charge.
Like I said (and hopefully somewhat convincingly so!) it’s really not a scary process. If you don’t remember anything else, please just keep these five ground rules in mind:
Bring CASH! (Euros or British Pounds will have a better exchange rate than USD. More on this later)
Write down the address of your residence (AirBnB, hotel, whatever it may be). You’ll most likely be taking a taxi from the airport and you won’t be able to check your email to see what the address is.
Print our your itinerary (if traveling under “Support for the Cuban People”)
Keep all records including itineraries and receipts (Don’t be surprised if you don’t get any receipts - the only ones I got were at the airport. Also just FYI you’re supposed to keep these records for five years.)
Avoid all transactions with a GAESA-owned (military-owned) business
There are actually two types of currency in Cuba: the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso Nacional). When you exchange money you will most likely get CUC and this is all you need. This is the “tourist currency” and you may receive CUP as change. Though having some CUP is sometimes recommended for street vendors etc, a lot of places actually only accept CUC. I only had CUC the entire time and didn’t have any problems.
When traveling internationally the best exchange rates are typically through credit cards or from ATM withdrawals at the destination. However, US cards will not work. I repeat, you will not be able to use US debit or credit cards. So bring enough cash for your entire trip. You don’t need to exchange it all at the beginning (and try not to exchange too much so you don’t have to lose more money to exchange it back), but definitely plan have some back-up just in case.
COUNT YOUR MONEY. We exchanged money at the airport (which is a good place to do it), and even there Matt was shortchanged by around $50USD. If you do need to exchange money during your trip (which we did not do), most people recommend doing so at hotels or cadecas (official currency exchange houses). The exchange rates will likely be worse though, so keep that in mind. Additionally, in addition to the standard 3% currency exchange fee, exchanging USD incurs an extra 10% tax cost. This means a total 13% cost, which is extremely high. As I mentioned before I exchanged money for Euros/GBP prior to my trip. This may or may not make sense for you depending on what your bank charges for currency exchange fees. Ideally, if I had planned my trip earlier I would’ve withdrawn extra money from the ATM when I was in Europe.
I believe I chose to exchange around $400USD for our five-day trip. This did not include lodging, as we already had our AirBnB, but I planned for all food as well as the cost for a roughly $180 day-trip to Viñales (definitely on the higher side, but we just wanted to have the plan set before we went). Also, I am someone who likes to buy souvenirs and little knick-knacks. This ended up being just enough for me.
What Else Should I Bring?
Needless to say, unlike in NYC there isn’t a Duane Reade or CVS on every street corner in Havana. I would strongly recommend bringing:
Toiletries (whatever it is you need - shampoo/conditioner, body wash, lotion, toothpaste, floss, etc.)
Basic medication (i.e. Tylenol/Advil/Pepto-Bismol)
A spare roll of toilet paper/packs of tissue
Your itinerary (if traveling in “Support of the Cuban People”)
While the AirBnB we stayed at provided us with body wash and shampoo, the bottles were extremely small (they seemed to be swiped from random hotels) and we did have to ask for them when we arrived. In regards to medication, at one point we had to look for Vaseline and tried a pharmacy and a few other stores but were not able to find it. We were able to find an alternative, but it was quite expensive and seemed of questionable origin.
Traveling in Support of the Cuban People
If you are traveling in “Support of the Cuban People”, you must keep a schedule that reflects the promotion of independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. What that really means is just that you must provide a full-time itinerary of activities (six hours per non-travel weekday) that fall under “Support for the Cuban People”. These include but are not limited to:
Meeting with local business people, artists, and tobacco manufacturers
Exploring independent museums (there are some very interesting ones in Havana), art shows or independent markets
Taking cultural classes (i.e. traditional dance, cooking, art)
Engaging with musicians at a show
Discussing Cuban society with locals
Before you get scared about providing ten-page fully outlined itinerary, let me just say that at no time when I left the US or returned from Cuba was I questioned at the airport. Not a single soul asked to see my itinerary (which I kind of wished they did, after all the work we put in you know). That being said, for all intensive purposes, please do make sure you are prepared and have your itinerary available if you are asked. Here’s my travel itinerary as an example. Feel free to use and repurpose as needed.
We pretty much just walked everywhere and took cabs when necessary. The cab ride to our AirBnB from the airport was about $25USD and our AirBnB was roughly a 35 minute walk from the city center, which was not very close but it was a nice walk that allowed us to wander through the colorful streets. At night we usually took cabs back to the apartment out of exhaustion and for safety reasons. Though I didn’t necessarily feel unsafe at any point in time, it’s always important to be alert while traveling especially when you stick out like a sore thumb (and as an Asian woman that happens rather frequently).
There are buses available and you can take shared taxis for $1. I’m sure they’re not difficult to access once you figure out the system but to be honest I didn’t particularly want to deal with figuring it out as private cabs were not too expensive. I believe we paid around $5-$9 for rides ranging from 15-30 minutes. If you’re not sure how much you should be paying ask your AirBnB host/your hotel how much a cab to your destination should cost. Don’t forget to bargain with your driver before you get in the car - it definitely helps if you’re able to do so in Spanish.
What Can I Bring Back?
As an American, there are actually surprisingly few restrictions on what you can bring back from Cuba. You can bring souvenirs like clothes, CDs, jewelry, coffee, etc; art (an unlimited amount); alcohol (I believe the official limit is 1L duty-free); and tobacco (this includes up to 100 cigars). The total value of everything you bring back should be less than $800 and for personal use only. I would highly recommend picking up a bottle or two of Havana Club rum after security check on your way back. My only regret was only getting one bottle. It’s so cheap and so good!
You cannot bring back (but honestly - for the most part you can’t really be bringing these back from anywhere anyways) animals or animal products; fruits and vegetables; chemicals; drugs or firearms.
Where Can I Buy Cigars?
Don't buy cigars on the street or in outdoor markets as they may not be authentic. Buy them in licensed cigar shops or directly from farmers. Fresh cigars from farms are great and definitely worth trying, but they typically do not last as long.
Other Interesting Things to Keep in Mind:
You should always tip in restaurants, bars, and taxis, but don’t overtip. 5% is sufficient and 10% is extremely generous. Any more is considered flaunting your wealth.
Don’t wear anything expensive or flashy, including jewelry. I was wearing a simple small gold necklace and tiny gold hoops, and my AirBnB hostess warned me to take them off. I did end up wearing a little bit of jewelry during the day when we were shooting, but in general I tried not to do this.
Don’t be afraid to ask people for help but do not accept help if a strange solicits you.
Don't throw toilet paper in the toilet but in the trash can if available.
Don't drink tap water or anything with ice.
Only exchange money at official cadecas, the airport, banks or hotels. COUNT what you get!!! Matt was short-changed at the airport exchange.
COUNT YOUR CHANGE!
Don't spit and try not to blow your nose in public as it’s considered offensive.