It's still a little complicated, but I'm here to help.
It's still a little complicated, but I'm here to help.
After decades of harsh political rhetoric, assassination attempts, international crises, violent incidents, and economic sanctions, the American and Cuban governments have taken the first step towards making nice. The first direct international flight from the U.S. to Cuba touched down in August of 2016 so, for Americans, Cuba is now open for business!
Er, well, sort of.
We’re in sort of a limbo period with regard to travel to Cuba. The easing tensions and restrictions have simultaneously made travel between the U.S. and Cuba easier and more difficult in different ways. Edit: In his June 17, 2017 speech, Trump announced that the U.S. government would begin to tighten restrictions on travel to Cuba again. More on this below in Part 1.
The good news is that a weekend in Havana is now a possibility for any American with a passport and a few hundred dollars to spend.
The bad news is that the logistics of actually getting to Havana are only marginally better than they were 10 years ago. Americans going to Cuba face an uphill battle, but it's one that many believe is worth it because Cuba is changing fast. It's only a matter of time before the age of globalization is fully realized for this island nation, so Americans are rushing to catch a glimpse of Cuba "as it was."
The thing is, there's really no telling how long this current set of rules and regulations is going to last. Especially now that we've elected Trump to be President. It's possible that the legal information outlined in the article could change tomorrow! If it does, I'll be scrambling to write an update. For now though, my fellow Americans, this should be all you need to know to go to Cuba.
You'll be a tourist in disguise.
You'll be a tourist in disguise.
The first thing you need to know about getting a visa into Cuba as an American is that tourism is still not *technically* legal. Americans can go to Cuba on the understanding that they are going there with some sort of higher purpose. Our lovely government has outlined 12 acceptable purposes that they feel would justify a trip to Cuba. The visa categories corresponding to these purposes are as follows…
Many Cuban-Americans regularly travel back and forth from the U.S. to Cuba to visit their families. So, if you don’t have family in Cuba—an abuela or a distant prima—this isn’t for you.
You can travel from the U.S. to Cuba as an agent of American government or a foreign government… but if you’re reading this article, this probably isn’t you. So let's move right along...
I had actually thought about trying to get this kind of visa (for purposes of this blog, I am a travel writer after all) until I learned that I would need to be writing on behalf of a more established organization to do this. I’m no New York Times writer… yet.
If your company or employer has business in Cuba (which is unlikely if you work in America) then this is your all-purpose “business visa.” Again, if you're reading this article, you probably don't fit into this category.
This includes work with educational institutions within Cuba, as well as something called “People-to-People.” This is your ticket into the country. We'll expand on that later. For now, just remember the words “People-to-People.”
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. If you feel called to take some sort of weird Santería pilgrimage to Cuba, the U.S. government is willing to give you a special visa to facilitate that. Thanks a lot Obama.
This would include public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic competitions, competitions of any other sort, and exhibitions of all kinds. It's a pretty broad category, focused mostly on arts and sports.
This category is often confused with the umbrella of "People-to-People" trips, but this category of visa requires you to go through a human rights organization or an organization that is "designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy." Lol.
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Cuba is a very poor country, so if you want to jump on board a service trip, you could probably do some real good. However, this article will be focused on travel that is more akin to tourism.
This would probably be either research done for social, economic, or scientific purposes, or activities done on the behalf of an educational institution of some sort.
The importation, exportation, transmission of information, or information materials are covered under this category. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
You will need to fit yourself into one of these categories. The U.S. government actually requires all U.S. citizens to keep their receipts from their trips to Cuba for up to 5 years after they return. This is a pretty ridiculous and unrealistic rule, and we’ll address it soon, but first, let’s talk more about these visa categories.
Your task is to choose one of these visa categories, and then live up to your stated purpose for travel. So, which one do you pick?
If you want to go to Cuba (and you don’t already have a concrete reason beyond your sense of adventure), your visa category is “People-to-People.” That's our sketchy equivalent to your basic tourist visa.
There was a time when you would need to shell out upwards of $4,000 for an “official” People–to–People trip, but those days are over. As of now, there is no reason that you can’t organize your own People–to–People trip and make it happen on the budget of your choosing. You’re probably not that much less qualified than whatever organization would have set your trip up for you.
Officially, People–to–People trips are defined as follows:
Travelers utilizing this general license must ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.
Or, to put this in layman’s terms, going on a “People–to–People trip” just requires you to make an active effort to learn about Cuban people and their culture.
So, clearly what would be considered “up-to-par” for one of these trips is going to be a little bit subjective. I would make the argument that all travel, especially to places like Cuba, is educational to some degree. I would furthermore contend that it is difficult to spend any time in any place without learning about it. But to get your ducks in a row, you’ll need to be quite a bit more methodical than what would be convenient.
If you want to be as thorough as possible in covering your ass, you should plan an hour-by-hour itinerary of your entire trip. This is certainly not necessary, but it can provide peace of mind when you get to customs. For the sake of this article, I prepared a visa itinerary that I took with me through customs. The officer never asked me to produce it, but if you're feeling worried, here's my version of a travel itinerary as an example. Honestly, I typed this thing up in like an hour; most of it was off-the-cuff.
I didn't end up following this itinerary very closely, but it was somewhat comforting to have in my back pocket. If you'd like to create your own itinerary, you can download mine as a template. Here's a basic skeleton of the itinerary in Microsoft Word to get you started...
Also, can we just take a moment to appreciate the phrases "promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities" and "independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy"? WOW! These are quotes from the Department of the Treasury. I'm surprised Cuba is letting Americans visit at all when our visas basically includes "overthrowing the Cuban government" as a subcategory of their qualifying criteria. That, folks, is a rare glimpse of the REAL America. 🇺🇸 😬
What if you enter Cuba on a "People-to-People" visa, claiming that you have an itinerary of educational and culturally enriching things planned... but then you spend your whole trip drinking and smoking cigars? Will you get in any sort of trouble? What will happen?
The answer is that you *probably* don't have anything to worry about.
Although senior officials at the U.S. Department of State and Treasury have repeatedly claimed to take this issue seriously, their actions would suggest otherwise. From this perspective, the government has made it pretty clear that enforcing these restrictions is not a priority for them. And while the government has mandated that all receipts from travel in Cuba be kept for the 5 years following, this has proven to be completely unrealistic, as pretty much everything in Cuba operates in cash.
Before flying to Cuba myself, I did some sleuthing but couldn't find much evidence of any effort being made to "catch" Americans who just went to Cuba to relax. And if you don't trust me, then you should know that The New York Times, in a recent exploration of law enforcement's role in U.S.-Cuban visas, quoted the head of Cuba Educational Travel as saying "Nobody's really watching."
My experience would definitely support this.
I flew directly from the U.S. to Cuba within a year of the first direct commercial flight between the 2 countries, so it was still pretty new. When I landed back in the U.S. after my trip, I breezed through customs fairly easily. The officer asked me what I was doing in Cuba, and I responded that I was on a "People-to-People" trip. Without a second thought, my passport was stamped and I was ushered through. Easy.
On Saturday, June 17, Trump announced that he was going to undo the progress that had been made towards the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba. You can read the CNN article on it here. And here are links from the New York Times on the political fallout of this political reversal, as well as the effect it will have on travel to Cuba. But the only piece of reading that REALLY matters is this one from the Treasury. Feel free to read through all of these sources to get a better idea of what's going on, but don't feel disheartened if you end up with more questions than answers. Trump is a lunatic, and not even his own government has a clue what he's talking about. But here's what we know so far...
At the moment, nothing has changed.
Customs agents are likely to be tougher on Americans who are returning from Cuba, but so long as you make an itinerary (I gave you a template earlier in this article to make things easy for you), you should be fine.
HOWEVER, there are plans to end people-to-people trips to Cuba in the future. We don't know when, but government generally moves slowly enough that, if you bought a plane ticket today, you would still be fine. If this happens, then you would be forced to go with a tour group, via a cruise line, or just get a connecting flight through Canada or Mexico. But we're not there yet.
As soon as there are any developments, I will scramble to make the relevant changes to this article. In the mean time, feel free to contact me if you have any questions!
It's possible to get a visa on arrival, but I think the best way to get a visa into Cuba is to let your airline take care of it for you. Pretty much every American airline offering flights to Cuba will also offer to arrange your visa for you. I flew Southwest to get to Cuba, so their process is the only one that I have first-hand experience with, but other airlines such as Jet Blue and Alaska Air offer the same services. All of the costs I'm going to mention should be the same no matter what airline you fly with.
For Americans, the fee for a visa into Cuba is $50.00, and Southwest will automatically connect you with their visa vendor/service provider when you book your ticket. Their vendor is called Cuba Travel Services, and they were a pleasure to work with. My visa forms were waiting for me at the airport, where a gorgeous Cuban man walked me through how to fill out each document. He told me that if I screwed one of them up, I would have to pay an additional $50.00 for a new form when I landed in Havana.
The Cuban government requires that all foreigners purchase a standard government health insurance package before entering the country. Cuban healthcare costs $10 per day, and can be purchased in conjunction with your visa through most airlines. Southwest actually includes this cost into your fare, so if you book with them you won't need to worry about it.
Cuba's extreme strain of communism has many short-comings, but healthcare is not one of them. It's a poor country, but their healthcare is actually quite good, so you should feel 100% comfortable going to a Cuban hospital. Cuba is a very safe country in many ways so it's unlikely that you'll need to cash in on your insurance policy, but it should at least serve as some peace of mind.
This section is important.
This section is important.
It's crazy, but it's reality. If you are American, you need to bring enough cash with you to get you through your entire trip to Cuba. If you run out of money, it will be extremely difficult to get more. Western Union operates in Cuba, but good luck finding Internet to contact your friends and family back home to ask them to wire you money. Internet is tough to find in Cuba—we'll talk about that soon.
Traveling with a wad of cash in your pocket can be the cause of some anxiety, but thankfully, Cuba is an extremely safe country. So long as you keep your wits about you, everything should be fine. In Cuba, you don't need to worry much about theft.
However, one thing that you DO need to worry about is getting ripped off when you go to exchange your money. In a lingering vestige of economic tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, Cuban currency exchange officials are known to change USD at unfavorable rates. They will actually take a 10% fee of whatever you change. When you land at the airport in Havana, there's even a separate currency exchange booth for USD, which is a bit sketchy.
To work around this, it is highly advisable that you change your USD to Canadian Dollars (CAD) or Euros (EUR) before getting on the plane to Cuba. Then, when you arrive in Cuba, you can get the normal exchange rate. Changing your money twice is a hassle, but it will save you money in the long run. It did for me at least. Normally, exchanging money has a fee no matter what, but we exchanged such an abnormally high volume of cash in the Fort Lauderdale airport that we actually exceeded the final threshold of the exchange service and it was done for free. They told us that if we brought our receipts back at the end of our trip, they would change the rest of it back for free as well... and they did! This was total luck though.
This detail caused me some real anxiety as I prepared for my travels through Cuba. I was afraid that I would run out of cash, so I grossly over-budgeted. I'll break down the costs involved in my trip in our next section so you don't have to freak out and over-budget like I did.
One country, two different currencies. It's a weird set-up, but it's not overly complicated once you get into the swing of things. One currency is used by the locals, and the other is used by foreigners who are traveling in Cuba.
Normal Cuban Pesos (CUP) are the local money. They are commonly referred to as "moneda nacionale" or, more colloquially, "koop." Here's a picture of what the currency looks like so you can compare it to CUC...
"Pesos Convertible" (CUC) are just for foreigners who are traveling in Cuba. In conversation, it's universally pronounced "kook." Here's a picture of what the currency looks like so you can compare it to CUP...
CUP and CUC look very similar, but their values are very different. Look at the pictures above, and commit them to memory. You need to be careful that, when your taxi driver gives you change back, he is giving you the correct currency. It's okay for Cubans to give you change in CUP, but you will need to do the math for the exchange rate to make sure that you are receiving the right amount of change. The exchange rate is as follows...
Yes, the exchange rate between CUC and USD is basically 1:1, so that makes things easy. However, you should do your math carefully when converting between CUC and CUP. In all situations, try to have exact change if you can. Most Cuban people will not even be able to break a 20 CUC note, and if they can, they will often need to do so with CUP.
So, for example, if your taxi ride across Havana costs 10 CUC, and you give the taxi drive a note for 20 CUC, what should your change be?
The answer is 10 CUC or 250 CUP. Understand?
If you ask me, you should pretty much plan on not being able to access the Internet while you are in Cuba. It's not impossible, but it's a huge pain in the ass. Here's how it works...
The only Internet access for civilians in Cuba is in the lobbies of the biggest, most luxurious hotels in Cuba, or in ETECSA telecommunication centers. In these places, you will find tiny Internet cafés where 10 worried-looking white people are standing in line to use 2 computers. You will need to pay to use these computers, and once you are using them, you should expect the Internet to be painfully slow. Oh, and keep in mind that the government will be monitoring what you are doing online.
In order to access the Internet once you are on these computers, you will need to purchase a card from one of these hotels or ETECSA telecommunication centers. It should cost 1.50 CUC (which is roughly the same as $1.50) for 1 hour of Internet access.
In the past couple of years more and more WiFi hotspots have been popping up around Cuba, but you will still need the card to use them. Here's a long list of all the hotspots in Cuba as of now. So if you NEED to get on the Internet, it's possible, but it's a pain in the ass. My suggestion is that you take Cuba for what it is: a step back in time. However, that doesn't mean you can't find a work-around for the Internet problem...
With no Internet, it's much harder to figure things out "on-the-go," so I would suggest that you download the following 3 applications to your smart phone or tablet...
Where has this app been all my life? Maps.me will allow you to download comprehensive maps of any city in the world for offline use. It includes landmarks, restaurants, and stores like a normal map app, and even when your phone is in airplane mode, it will be able to show you your location as you move around, which is beyond useful.
This app is actually affiliated with Maps.me. With no Internet, you won't have the option to Google the things you want to do tomorrow from your hotel room. Once you enter Cuba, your only source of information is basically word-of-mouth, which isn't a great option if you don't speak Spanish. This will give you offline travel guides to read instead.
You are probably already familiar with Google Translate, but did you know that there are many languages that the app can translate while off-line? The above link will redirect you to a detailed set of instructions from Google on how to do this. Another app, which isn't as good but will also work is Skycode. You can get it on Google Play or the Apple Store.
During my time in Cuba, I only met a handful of people who knew more than 2 words of English. We booked our trip mostly through Airbnb (which I'll get to soon), and in our booking process, we made a point only to book rooms in places where the hosts had stated that they spoke English. Of the 4 places that we stayed, only 1 of ours hosts turned out to actually be able to speak English. The other 3 were all wonderful people anyway, but be warned!
Thankfully, I speak decent Spanish, which enabled me to get around Cuba and communicate relatively easily. But, without a working knowledge of the language, Cuba would have been much more difficult to travel through. If you don't speak Spanish, I'd still encourage you to travel to Cuba, but I want you to be aware of what you're getting yourself into. Be ready to play some charades.
Before my trip, I had a couple people suggest that I lie and tell everybody in Cuba I'm Canadian. It's not the first time I've been told this, and it won't be the last. It's not an unfounded suggestion either; Cuba and the United States do still have some bad blood. But America has had issues with just about everybody at some point in history, so I hear this sort of thing all the time.
Well, you should be happy to know that, regardless of what the old-guard of Cuba's government have to say, no actual Cuban people have issues with American people, just like no actual American people have issues with Cuban people. (And if they do, fuck 'em.)
During my time in Cuba, people often asked me where I was from, and I always told the truth. I was met with nothing but smiles and kindness. Cuban people really seemed to be enamored with the concept of America! They pretty much all hate Trump, but even our bigoted president doesn't seem to have dissuaded them from liking America. I'd wager a guess that 8 out of 10 taxi drivers in Havana have American flags hanging from their rearview mirror. These, I'm told, are a sign of goodwill towards the flood of incoming American tourists.
SO DON'T WORRY!
"You went to CUBA?? Is that, like, safe?"
Since returning from Cuba, I've gotten this question a lot. The answer is a strong, resounding YES! Cuba is a very safe country. It's true that Latin America has a well-deserved reputation for being a dangerous part of the world. Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela—these are countries that are going through some problems right now (and those are just the outliers), but Cuba is an entirely different story. It's hard to envision a safer travel experience than Cuba. Even in Havana, a city that is both massive and impoverished, stories involving even petty theft are few and far between. Even if you are a single, blonde female, you should have no hesitation about visiting Cuba.
So, Cuba is super safe, but it goes beyond just that. There are lots of safe countries where you'll be harassed by beggars and street merchants for money non-stop just because you are a westerner—in fact, most places are like that—but not Cuba. To my surprise, this happened very few times, and when it did happen, the person asking for money always seemed a little bit ashamed to be asking at all. Furthermore, I needed to do very little haggling to get fair prices for things around Cuba. I've gotten pretty heated and vicious with taxi drivers and street merchants who have tried to rip me off in other parts of the world—*cough* India *cough*—but this was never an issue in Cuba. The Cubans are a proud, dignified, friendly, and honest people.
Cuba can be tricky, especially for Americans.
Cuba can be tricky, especially for Americans.
In my research on Cuba, prior to actually going there, I read article after article discussing how Cuba is ~scrambling~ to develop infrastructure to accommodate large amounts of tourists, and that hotels, through no fault of their own, may not even be able to honor your reservation. Cuba is well-known to be a pretty impoverished country... but this painted a particularly bleak picture, which I don't think is entirely accurate. It's not hard to find a good place to stay, your reservations will be honored, and you probably won't be staying in a shabby place. It won't be the MGM Grand, but it definitely won't have a tin roof either.
In general, accommodations in Cuba fall into pretty much 2 categories: hotels and home-stays. Hotels are cool and all, but if you want to get to know the Cuban people (which, I think that every American should), then you should opt for a home-stay.
These home-stays are called "casas particulares," and they are, quite literally, the homes of normal Cuban citizens. Staying in a casa particular, your hosts will happily serve you home-cooked meals for breakfast and dinner. You can expect these breakfasts to cost 5.00 CUC (5.00 USD), and if dinner is offered, it might be more like 8.00 CUC (8.00 USD). These prices are very reasonable for more developed areas like Havana, Viñales, and Trinidad. Also, because your hosts are actual members of the local community, they can help you set up pretty much anything you need, from tours to transportation. In a country with little to no Internet, you need somebody on your side who can pick up the phone and make things happen.
I'd recommend going through Airbnb. They entered Cuba less than a year ago, but have amassed a truly incredible amount of beautiful home-stays, especially considering that this is a country with little to no Internet. Honestly, the mere fact that a casa particular is on Airbnb at all says a lot. It means the owner is a person of some means. Cuba is packed with spare rooms for rent, but (again), with little to no Internet, most of them have no online presence. This makes it easy to roll into any given city with no reservation and find a place to stay. It also makes the task of finding a good place to stay on Airbnb fairly simple because the barrier of getting on the Internet will naturally "weed out" the lower tier of accomodations.
Once your reservation has been accepted, you should be prompt in messaging your host to get their address and ask them any questions you may have. For example, you might want to ask them if they can help you set up whatever activity you were hoping to do in your destination. If they don't respond to you fast enough, cancel on them. Once you're in the air, flying to Cuba, it's basically too late to get their address, so this really isn't an area where you can afford to be cutting your hosts any slack.
Also, just because your host's Airbnb profile says that they speak English, that doesn't necessarily make it true. All that should indicate to you is that they know 10 or 15 words of English and are committed to playing charades with you until each of you has been understood. In a sense, this is false advertising, but even our non-bilingual hosts were just so kind and accommodating that I really didn't mind. Of course, I can speak Spanish, so take that with a grain of salt.
On another note, if you are looking for alternative routes to finding accommodations around Cuba, I would also encourage you to check out Hostelworld. The hostel scene in Cuba isn't on the same level as other, more tourist-ready countries in the region like Belize or Costa Rica, but there are beginning to be some really cool places popping up.
This section is going to be mostly focused on long-distance travel. When planning your trip, there's really not much you can do to lock down transportation ahead of time, so the best advice I can give you here is to be realistic about how far you can really get in one day. The longest trip that is commonly done by travelers in one day is the 6 hour haul from Havana to Trinidad. Beyond that, it's best to (a) fly, (b) take the Viazul even though it sucks, or (c) choose a stop-over destination to break up the drive. Remember that most taxis and camiones are operated by locals. They want to get home in time for dinner, so they won't be down to drive you across the country on 24 hours notice. We'll get into all your different options for transportation now...
It should be no surprise that hiring a private car is an expensive option. If this is something you're interested in, you're looking at 80-90 CUC (80-90 USD) for a 2-hour trip. During my time in Cuba, we only took one private taxi. It was out of Havana to our first destination of our trip, and we did purely because we didn't know how else to get where we needed to go. However, we would never have had to do that if we had known exactly what I'm about to tell you, so you'd better take some notes!
Of course, flying is always an option. The leading domestic airlines operating in Cuba are Aerogaviota and Cubana de Aviacion. Cuba is a big country, so there are small airports all over the place. This gives you options, but unless you are flying REALLY far, like from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, flying is not the most efficient use of your time. Remember that there are direct flights to more cities in Cuba than just Havana. Flying into or out of a different airport might help you use your time better.
Viazul is Cuba's tourist bus. It's relatively cheap, so you'll find a lot of other blogs telling you that Viazul is awesome, but this genuinely puzzles me because everybody that I've ever talked to that has actually used Vizaul has given it terrible reviews. Before I knew that there were going to be other transit options at my disposal, I had a moment of panic on their website when I discovered that Viazul had ZERO tickets left for any bus anywhere. I later learned that this is a known glitch on their site and that the best way to get a ticket was to show up to the Viazul station 2 or 3 days in advance. Needless to say, I never ended up traveling via Viazul. Such a hassle.
A "taxi collectivo" is the name given for a normal taxi that is driving 5 or 6 people at once. These taxi drivers normally charge by the seat and are willing to match whatever the Viazul price is. Unlike Viazul, the host at your casa particular (or the workers at your hotel) will be able to set this up for you on a few hours' notice (although, I'd recommend asking about it the night before you need to leave). It's pretty much a guarantee that your host will be able to set this up for you, but if they can't or you'd prefer to take care of it yourself for whatever reason, it's fairly easy to find one on your own. There are instructions on how to do this out of Havana below. It's easy—I promise.
The distinction between a "taxi collectivo" and a simple "shared taxi" is the source of some confusion. Taxi collectivos are organized by the drivers themselves. They'll do their best to pack the car to the brim with locals or travelers that all want to go to the same place, and when they feel like they've maximized their capacity, they're off! A shared taxi is something that YOU (or somebody in your group) organizes. Theoretically, because you control the number of passengers, and because you are making your driver's life slightly easier, this can be negotiated to be the cheapest option, but you'll need somebody who speaks Spanish.
If you feel like you're up to the challenge, camiones will allow you to travel through Cuba for next to nothing. Camiones are run-down local buses that poorer Cuban people use to get around. They are hot, loud, crowed, uncomfortable, and slow, but they will get you where you need to go, and it will cost 0.50 CUC (0.50 USD) to ride, no matter how far you go. Be forewarned that this will be hard to do if you don't speak decent Spanish.
If you've got Spanish good enough to pull this off, who am I to stop you? You can get around by hitchhiking in pretty much every country. In Cuba, most vehicles on the major highways are already filled to the brim with passengers, and those vehicles that DO stop for you are likely to be taxi collectivos, so that will make things a bit more challenging, but if you're committed to having a little adventure, this is definitely doable.
It's going to require some searching and asking around on your part. In general, if there is a big road that leads out of the city you are staying in, this is where you should start your search. It shouldn't take more than 5 minutes of walking down this road before you see a camione pop into view. If this happens, try your best to follow it and figure out where it stops.
Or, if you never see a camione drive by, you should look for a group of people standing at a seemingly random point on the side of the road. This is their version of a bus stop. It only takes elementary Spanish to ask a couple people where they are going to ensure this camione is, indeed, going to take you to the right place. Once you've confirmed that you are in the right place, all that's left is to just get on the camione with confidence. You might feel out of place, but that's what travel is all about. This is how real Cubans get around! But if that doesn't quite do it for you, then just think about how much money you're saving.
If you're not totally sure how to know when you're arriving at your destination, and you don't feel confident in your Spanish skills to help you figure it out, download an app called Maps.me. This is an offline maps app that does a great job of updating your position in real time. Keeping an eye on your location as your camione ride unfolds will help you make sure you don't miss your stop.
Remember that you can always ask the host of your casa particular to set this up for you. Doing it this way, you can get picked up at the door. However, if you want to get a long-distance taxi collectivo on your own, it's not hard to do. Every city has a place where the empty taxis congregate, looking for passengers to drive to the next city. Since most trips to Cuba start with Havana, I took the liberty of figuring out where that is in Havana.
The map below has the exact location where taxi collectivos gather in Havana. Zoom in and make a note of it. It's in a more residential / suburban part of the city, next to the Omnibus station. If you are traveling in a larger group, you can come here to arrange your own shared taxi. Or, if you're alone or in a group of 2, you can hop in a taxi collectivo with whatever people happen to be going to the same destination as you. They might be travelers or they might be Cubans. Whatever the case, you'll get where you need to go for a fair price.
You can't access your bank account in Cuba, so you need to get this right.
You can't access your bank account in Cuba, so you need to get this right.
This is the most important part of planning a trip to Cuba. Remember that, as an American, you won't be able to use credit cards, debit cards, or ATMs. That means that you need to bring the entire budget of your trip with you in cash. I'd recommend beginning the withdrawal process about a week ahead of time because trying to do it all in one day is sure to set of all sorts of alarm bells with your bank. It took me 3 days of phone calls with my bank and late-night trips to the ATM to get out all the cash that I needed.
So, what follows is a break-down of all the money I spent during my time in Cuba. I was pretty paranoid about not budgeting enough, so I ended up taking 1,700 USD out of my account before arriving in Cuba. Needless to say, this was WAY more than was necessary, but what can I say—better safe than sorry? At any rate, even as I'm writing this now, I'm still functioning off of my left-over cash.
Note that, out of our grand total, a lot of these expenses were taken care of before we ever set foot in Cuba, which relieved me of the burden of having to take all that cash with me. For this reason, you'll see some distinctions made about my *cash* budget vs. my total budget. To learn more about why so much of this was booked ahead of time, scroll back up and read about how there's pretty much no Internet in Cuba.
Disclaimer: Some of these numbers are bit higher than what I actually ended up paying. First of all, I was traveling with my girlfriend through most of this, which means that we booked all of our accommodations knowing that each of us would only need to pay half. This is also true for the majority of the costs grouped under the umbrella of transportation. If I had been alone, I would have booked much cheaper accommodations—probably in the $10/night ballpark—but my transportation costs would have stayed pretty much the same. Figuring out cheap transportation had kind of a learning curve for us—over the course of our trip, we took both private taxis and camiones, which skews the average a bit. Also, our daily food average is much higher than it needed to be because we made the choice to ball-out at the end of our trip and eat at fancy restaurants. Still, all things considered, this is a solid budget for one person to travel *comfortably* through Cuba. Bringing a friend along will only drive prices down from here.
In traveling to Cuba, I budgeted myself money to be comfortable. Unlike India, where I haggled and bargained my way across an entire subcontinent in order to save every penny possible, I was blessed with financial flexibility in Cuba. For this reason, the numbers above are not representative of the expenses that are likely to be incurred by the hardcore-budget traveler. If this is you, here are a few ways that you can save additional money. We've already covered some of this earlier, but it bears repeating.
In Cuba, you will hear the terms "shared taxi" and "taxi collectivo" fairly often. These are similar modes of transportation, both of which will save you some significant money... but there are some differences.
A taxi collectivo is a taxi that has been organized by a third party, and will be packed full of people whom you do not know. For a long-distance ride (between cities), you will probably need to pay around 20 CUC (20 USD) for your seat in the taxi, and for shorter rides within your city's limits, you can plan on it costing 5 CUC or less. It's like a ghetto version of uberPOOL. The most significant savings will be in long distance trips from city to city, but even for a short ride, it will save you a few dollars. Pretty much any casa particular will be able to set this up for you if you're going from one city to another, but you can also do it yourself. The easiest way to do this is to show up to Viazul bus station—there are sure to be taxi drivers waiting to offer you a seat in their car for the same price as a bus ticket. But, when you only need to take a short ride, you can go out into the street and catch one yourself. Warning: some Spanish may be required to do this by yourself.
A shared taxi is something you will need to take the initiative to set up. It has the theoretical potential to be even cheaper than a taxi collectivo because this something that YOU will be negotiating. Basically, you (or someone in your group) will need to assemble a group of people who want to go from A to B, and then negotiate a group rate with a taxi driver. The more people, the cheaper the ride. I took a couple different shared taxis during my time in Cuba, and with every seat in the car full, the average cost worked out to be about 15 CUC per seat (in a 5 seat car). To arrange this, somebody in your group will definitely need to speak some Spanish.
This one is not for the faint of heart. If you want to travel like the locals do (and take advantage of those rock-bottom local prices), then you will need to figure out how to catch a ride in what is called a "camione." Camiones usually take the form of old, beat-up buses, or big trucks with a few seats in the back. Plan on them being hot, uncomfortable, and SLOW! Seriously, taking a camione is going to turn a 2 hour drive into a 4 or 5 hour drive. This is because camiones stop pretty frequently for people to get off and on. I was on a camione once that stopped so a restaurant could put a few dozen cases of beer into the truck's storage compartment. It took them forever. Be warned that this will be hard to figure without some Spanish under your belt.
So far I may not have made this option sound very appealing, but I haven't told you the price tag yet. In riding a camione, no matter what the distance, it will cost a flat rate of 0.25 - 0.50 CUC (0.25 - 0.50 USD) for your whole ride. However, being thrifty isn't enough to make this worthwhile—you will need to have a sense of adventure with it too. To zoom back up to the section where we talk about how to catch one of these, click here.
I know—easier said than done, right?
Honestly though, if you're serious about getting to know the real Cuba and saving some money in the process, you won't be able to do it without some Spanish under your belt. The good news is, if you're American, there's about a 1 in 2 chance that you've already taken some Spanish in school. Regardless, 3 devoted months on Duolingo and a little self-confidence should be all you need to negotiate a taxi and get yourself on a camione. Study Spanish dot com also has a lot of great free resources that you can use. I'd recommend starting with numbers, times, and logistics.
It's a beautiful country—make the most of your time here!
It's a beautiful country—make the most of your time here!
I spent much longer than I should have deliberating over where I should go in Cuba. It's a really big country, and with limited time at our disposal, we had to make some trade-offs. I felt pretty good about our travel plans as we were leaving for the trip, but it was only once we were on-the-ground in Cuba that the actual best places to travel presented themselves. This list is basically an amalgamation of common sentiments that I heard from travelers that I crossed paths with during my time in Cuba...
This is an obvious one. Havana is the first (and sometimes only) stop on pretty much everybody's Cuba trip. It's the capital city of Cuba and the largest city in all of the Caribbean region. Havana is one of the most interesting and unique cities that you will ever have the pleasure of visiting. Every inch of this city is alive with history and culture, and even as the city continues its slow decay, the Cuban identity holds firm, colorful and proud. You should definitely visit Havana if you can.
Surely you're familiar with Cuba's legendary cigars. Well, this is where they come from! Viñales is perhaps the most popular travel destination in Cuba, second only to Havana. Because of its distinct prehistoric-esque landscape, Viñales is actually a protected national park in Cuba. It's an easy 2 and a half hour drive west from Havana, and there are plenty of accommodations available for travelers once you get into town. In Viñales, you can expect lots of cigars, horseback riding, and caves.
Trinidad has solidly clinched the #3 spot on the list of places to go within Cuba. Nearly everybody that I crossed paths with in Cuba was either on their way to Trinidad or had just come from Trinidad. It just didn't fit into my time frame so, unfortunately, I never got around to coming here. But that is a regret for me. You can expect this place to be touristy but very beautiful. It's actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so that should give it some additional street cred.
Santiago de Cuba is Cuba's second largest city after Havana. In the remote southern stretches of Cuba, it's really not close to much, and it's a commitment to get here. Flying might actually be your best option. This is another place that I never actually visited myself, but those that I know who have managed to come here have universally given it great reviews. It's supposed to be a very cool part of the country. Also, the Cuban revolution began over here (not in Havana), so there is some cool history.
This one is a bit of a curveball. At 1,974 m (6,476 ft) high, Pico Turquino is the highest mountain in Cuba. Surrounded by its own national park, it's located in the heart of the Sierra Maestra mountain range in the far-south of the country. It's actually not far from Santiago de Cuba. This part of the country is remote, rugged, and steeped in political history. This is one that doesn't show up on many guidebooks—I certainly haven't been here—but I wanted to give you a few off-the-beaten-path suggestions.
Just a few hours' drive east of Havana, Varadero is 10(ish) mile long peninsula protruding out towards Florida. The sand it clean and almost white. The water teal blue just like in the post cards. There's very little trash anywhere. It's a tropical paradise. Maybe it's not the most culturally relevant destination, but if you don't mind being surrounded by resorts and tourists, it could make for a beautiful few days at the beach. It's not Cuba's only beach, but it might be the longest and most well-developed.
This last one isn't going to show up on many touristy lists about places to go in Cuba, but I'm putting it on mine. This was one of my favorite places that I went in Cuba. It's a sea-side city situated on Cuba's northern coast between Havana and Varadero. Before coming here I was told that it was a small, inconsequential city, but make no mistake: Matanzas is bustling. It's also a center for Cuban music and art—with a little Spanish, you should be able to plug in pretty fast! Oh, and it's stupid cheap. You'll save money here.
And our official teaser for Cuba!
And our official teaser for Cuba!
That's all folks! This article will continue to be updated as the political climate develops and regulations change. If you have questions that this article didn't answer, feel free to reach out and ask me—I'll do my best to help you out! From here forward, we'll get into our regularly scheduled blog articles. As we progress, those articles will be indexed on our "official" Cuba page.
In the meantime though, here's the teaser for what's coming up next.
Cuba was extremely interesting to visit as an American. Politics aside, the Cuban people were some of the strongest and most vibrant that I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. I look forward to seeing what happens for them in the future. But for now, we'll finish with a song from Cuba's most iconic musical export.