As our aircraft reached the island I listed back and forth in my seat, brimming with excitement about flying to Cuba, glued to the window, peering out from behind the tempered glass at the land below, so lusciously green and largely undeveloped below.
In the distance the sea shimmered in that crystal-aqua tone that you see on post cards of beautiful places – a shade of blue I failed to find yet once while living in Costa Rica. Excitement swelled with in me as we made our ascent and I thought back to the words the man at the airline check in counter had exclaimed to me just hours before – Everything is different in Cuba.
He made this statement with such bursting confidence laced with delight that in the moment I believed his words to be true, and in Havana, I found them to be true. Things are indeed different in Cuba, and it is largely these differences that make the country such a uniquely special place to visit.
Before my visit to Cuba I personally was brimming with questions, and if you are looking into traveling to Havana I know you may be as well. To that end, I thought I’d share some practical advice on what I learned during my visit to Havana. Here’s five things to know before you travel to Havana.
5 Things to Know Before You Travel to Havana
1. Yes, You Can Travel to Cuba
Can I travel to Cuba? Ever since the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with the United States and Cuba in December 2014, this is the question that has been on the mind of every curious traveler from our 50 states.
The answer is yes, you can travel to Cuba. However, your trip will need to fall into one of 12 approved categories. The range of approved categories includes educational activities, professional research, journalistic activities, humanitarian projects and visiting close relatives. When booking a flight from the United States, you will need to check a box or fill out a form declaring your trip falls under one of the approved categories.
To ensure your trip falls under the educational activities, include people-to-people activities that produce “meaningful interactions between the traveler and individuals in Cuba” in your itinerary. This could include anything from volunteering to teach Cubans English, taking a historical walking tour of Old Havana or visiting local schools to learn about Cuba’s educational system. Trust me, the best thing about Cuba is the warmth of its people, so you will want to include such activities in your trip anyway!
2. Cash Is the Way to Go
When traveling in Havana, and throughout Cuba, cash is the way to go.
There are ATMs in Cuba, but they are not common and do not accept cards from banks in the United States. While major hotels such as the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and some restaurants will take credit cards, cash is your best bet.
Bring enough cash with you to get you through your trip. There are currency exchanges at the airport in Havana as well as in the city itself. While the line to exchange money at the airport may be long, I’d recommend exchanging at least part of your currency as soon as you arrive so that you have enough local currency for the taxi downtown and to settle in.
There are two types of currency in Cuba. The Cuban peso (CUP) is used by locals and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is used by visitors. The CUC has a 1:1 exchange rate with the U.S. Dollar. The Cuban government imposes a 10 percent tax when exchanging the U.S. Dollar, so some travelers prefer to exchange euros or Canadian dollars instead. for me, the difference was not worth the trouble – I simply exchanged U.S. dollars.
3. Internet is Limited
While you are now able to access the web while in Cuba, internet access is still limited in the country. Most major hotels, offer Wifi to guests. You’ll also be able to access it in several restaurants in the city center.
There are also wi-fi hotspots located around Havana in parks. To access internet here you can purchase a phone card sold by vendors who will be roaming the area for a small fee and access the internet in 10-minute windows. This is the perfect option for those using their phone to go online.
Prepare for the limited internet in advance by printing out any documents, such as airline tickets and hotel reservations ahead of time. I personally found the lack of internet to be a welcome change. While in Cuba I was really able to disconnect from the normal pace of my every day life and be absorbed by my new surroundings!
4. For Accommodation, Think Outside Hotels
Havana has several exquisite, historical hotels such as the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, that are certainly worthy of a visit to tour the grounds, if not stay stay overnight. However, to experience Cuba the way I think Cuba is meant to be experienced, stay at a Casa Particular.
While AirBnB has made renting a room or a flat from a local more popular on an international scale, long before the advent of posting rooms on the internet, Cuba had this concept down pat with Casas Particulares. The city of Havana is full of private rooms or entire apartments that you can rent from a local family.
During my visit to Havana I spent two nights in a private room at a Casa Particular. I had my own set of keys and freedom to come and go as I pleased, but coming back to a house with a family enhanced my trip by helping me feel more integrated into a community, if just for a short time.
On my final evening in Havana I came back to the flat and prepared to say goodbye to Jose and Tami whose flat I was staying at. They invited me to have a seat and I felt so at peace and welcomed that I ended up spending the next three hours with them, playing with their baby Isabella, reading books to their ten-year-old daughter Tania and hearing their stories about life in Cuba.
5. Spend as Much Time with the People as Possible
This piece of advice goes along with my previous point, but in Havana plan to spend as much time with the people as possible. In all my travels I have never felt so cared for as a tourist by the locals as in Cuba. I received a few catcalls, yes, but mostly I received smiles, kind comments about the United States and California, and help.
Nearly every time I asked for directions, the people would not tell me where to go, but walk me to my destination, no creepiness involved. The people of Havana helped me find restaurants and accommodations, cigars and rum. The people of Havana spent time with me, hearing about my life and telling me about their own, teaching me about their history and sharing their feelings and predictions about Cuba’s future.
What I found very interesting about the Cuban people is that everyone I met had a different perspective about life. To be in the streets of Havana was like being in a poem, and each person I spoke with unveiled a new line of that poetic narrative. Find ways to spend time with locals in Cuba and your trip will have deeper meaning.
Cuba is designed for the curious. Bring your sense of curiosity and travel with an open heart.