This article was first published in print in LA Travel Magazine, Spring 2017.
It seems like everyone these days is posting themselves on social media in some fancy colorful dress in Havana, Cuba perfectly sweat-free and even in heels. After spending time in Cuba this seems almost outrageous, and not really a good reason to venture to the “Pearl of the Antilles”. Perhaps people want to bring back the Golden Age of Havana, but the city feels more like a dystopia, raw, gritty, and timeworn, although surprisingly safe. Perhaps it was my first three nights in Centro Habana, but closed-toed comfy shoes seemed like the only sensible option on the city streets.
After spending time at three different Cuban homes (casa particulares), the reason to visit Cuba is to get to know the people and the culture. Americans, curious and fascinated, head to Cuba to see a country that has remained unchanged with its squeaky preserved 50’s cars, lack of internet, crumbling buildings, devastating or maybe not so devastating effects of a crippling dictatorship, and long time embargo. But Cuba is not a museum and the people deserve a future, one where they can own an iPhone and work at a job they enjoy for more than $20 a month. Now that Americans can travel freely to Cuba, plan your trip carefully in this dilapidated and dignified city.
Tourism is booming, expensive not-so-great hotels are full, and Airbnb is now providing rental options. Paladares or family-run restaurants are popping up with locally sourced ingredients changing the dilemma that all one can find to eat is rice and beans.
How does one prepare for a trip to Cuba?
1. Rest up before your trip because the country may leave you maddeningly exhausted.
Old beds and busted cars will break your back and leave you sleepless. The transportation or streets alone can make you sick or sore, from potholes, fumes, and dust.
2. Skip the shared taxis called collectivos and take the Viazul bus for long distances.
The Viazul is an air-conditioned bus we later learned was cheaper and more comfortable, about $12 from Havana to Viazul. Show up early and more than likely there will be a seat for purchase. We made the mistake of taking a collectivo from Havana to Vinales, as well as from Vinales to the beach tip Cayo Jutias near Santa Lucia. The lady we were staying with called and booked it for us so we didn’t think twice. After feeling a bit sick the night before, taking a crumbling stuck together by a thread automobile with 4 other couples squished in back jolting over potholes may be charming and feel authentic at first, but for over two hours with fumes and dust twirling in your hair and lungs (and no bathroom in sight), it is not glamorous to say the least.
3. Download the app Maps.Me (MapswithMe) and remember to download the map of Cuba before you leave.
Since you won’t have WIFI, we could map each place we researched ahead of time (including restaurants and bars) and flag them on the map even while in Cuba. This was so helpful when exploring areas on foot for hours. Since the internet is impossible, except for at a couple of hotels ($7 for 20 minutes), research ahead of time everywhere you want to go, especially the paladares, restaurants with great cuisine that are really for the tourists. Most Cuban people can’t afford to eat at these locales but you will want a break from the grit to eat a good meal at a decent restaurant.
4. Download the offline translator App called Translate before you leave or it will not work in Cuba.
This is helpful if you need to converse or ask a question in Spanish because it will translate English into Spanish and speak it aloud from your phone.
5. Book the first few nights and your last night before leaving to save yourself the pressure of finding somewhere to stay.
This is important especially if you come in at night. Make sure to print everything out (like the addresses and phone numbers) or write it down since you won’t be able to access emails. It may take a while to get an email response since the Cuban people have to go to a shared Wi-Fi park to get internet or rely on someone from the states to make the connection. I highly recommend using Airbnb to book a room, otherwise known as a Casa Particular. The rooms are often $25 to $35 a night and many other people may be staying in the other rooms in the home. A big breakfast with eggs, fruit, coffee, and fruit shakes is cooked for you for $5 per person. If you desperately need WiFi, we saw one apartment pop up in Havana that had internet since it was owned by a diplomat.
6. Convert your dollars to euros before you go.
Since you can’t use ATMs or credit card machines and a 10 percent surcharge is typically applied to U.S. dollars at the exchange counter, convert your dollars to euros before you go, and when you get to the airport, convert your euros to CUC’s, the Cuban money really just for tourists. Cuban people use Cuban pesos, their own money system. 25 Cuban pesos equal one CUC. Take an extra $1000 in cash on top of your budget or an extra $100 a day, just to be safe.
7. Read ahead to find out what it costs to get to and from places.
If you plan to travel to the beach areas of Varadero, or other places like Vinales, Trinidad, Cien Fuegos, etc. you want to know the going rate for locals or tourists. For example, before I left I read up on the amount it would cost to take a taxi from the airport to the city where we were staying. I learned we should not pay any more than 20-25 CUC total (about $20).
8. Get the correct travel visa card.
Ours cost $85 each on Visitcuba.com although the rest of the world pays about $15. Check to see if this special travel card with health insurance comes with your plane ticket. There are many check boxes to explain why you are going to Cuba. We said we were going for the Cuban people.
9. Bring plenty of probiotic pills, sunscreen, extra contacts, toilet paper, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, tissues, band-aids, and a good hat.
All will be impossible to find unless you want to pay a hefty price. When you are sick and bathrooms are so basic, you will be so happy you have wet wipes and toilet paper. I made it to day 4 without getting sick. Also, bring a good backup battery, especially if you’re using your phone as your camera.
10. Select small gifts for the people to leave behind as thanks.
We learned how badly they wanted T-shirts with rock bands, music and movies on flash drives, cool sneakers (they can be used), beauty supplies, and just everyday items.
11. Getting rid of items as you go lightens your load and will put a smile on someone’s face.
Toss old t-shirts and socks or leave them for the Cuban people. Bring tiny toiletries (soap, shampoo, disposable toothbrushes) because many Casas will not have them, and you can leave them behind or toss them out as you use them. The best clothing decision I made was to bring one warm wrap shawl that I ended up using every single night because at night the temperatures drop. I could easily fold the thin shawl and stick it in my backpack for the daytime.
12. Research types of souvenirs you may want to bring back – cigars, rum, coffee, honey.
A lot of what we purchased could be bought in the airport after security, we were not thrilled when we learned we had way overpaid for sweet and dry rum in Vinales.
13. Pack light and make sure to include one comfortable pair of sneakers and flip-flops
Flip flops are great for the bathrooms, or if you decide to venture to the beach. We regret not bringing a good hat, like a baseball cap to protect us from the sun since we assumed it would be easy to buy a cool Cuban hat. No such luck!
14. Pack a carry-on, especially if you don’t want to wait hours for your luggage or never receive your luggage.
These were the stories we heard from friends in LA. However, we had no issues but realized it would have made no sense to carry bigger luggage, especially with all of the moving around we were doing. Budget several hours ahead of time for your return flight, especially if you need to exchange your money back to dollars.
15. Stuff extra plastic bags in your suitcase to wrap dirty shoes or store dirty clothes because they will be hard to come by once in Cuba.
Buy snacks and water in the airport before leaving so you have some treats and water on you the first few days because even those can be hard to find. If you are not used to traveling outside your comfort zone, then a tour may be a better option.
16. Keep an open, compassionate mind.
Cuba has an almost 100% literacy rate. We stayed with two men, one a former banker and the other a former meteorologist. Both made $20 or less a month until they started renting out their 3 rooms. We spent time with a 35-year-old guy trained as a Navy captain, but since Cuba doesn’t have a boat, he works 18 hours a day in a food factory where he makes $20 a month as well. A 25-year-old girl and her mom housed us in Vinales. Their two rooms are solidly booked (thanks to Airbnb), so they are building a third room. A high level of education doesn’t mean you earn more money, but we constantly saw the desire to work, make more money, and enjoy music and movies from the states (often sent to Cubans on flash drives).
Enjoy the rich culture of Cuba by being prepared; just remember to leave your expectations at home and pack accordingly.