Traveling to Cuba had always been a dream of mine for a number of reasons. My father was Jamaican and had visited Cuba before marrying my mother and moving to the U.S. He always spoke highly of his visits. I also grew up in South Florida during the 1980s so I had Cuban neighbors and heard a lot of turmoil that Cuban immigrants dealt with in the country. Most of all those I wanted to see this beautiful country and meet its people. So once the United States opened up travel to the country more in 2016, I started planning a trip to Cuba.
My first visit to Cuba was with my mother, husband, and daughter, who at the time was 9 years old. And I had such an amazing few days there, when I got back I scheduled a girl’s trip for a weekend with a friend. A lot of people ask me if it was hard planning a trip to Cuba. Both times I flew into and stayed in Havana and found the process to be mostly easy and able to accomplish online.
Note: the rules about traveling to Cuba during Covid are changing. Please check with the website for the US Embassy in Cuba for up-to-date information.
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Can Americans Travel to Cuba?
Yes! And no. The no part is that Americans cannot travel to Cuba exclusively for tourist reasons. That means no going to the beaches if you’re a United States citizen (which was fine by us since we live in Florida). Categories listed as reasons to visit for US Citizens include journalism, professional research or meetings, religious activities, support of the Cuban people, educational purposes and humanitarian reasons. We selected educational purposes because our intent was to go to the museums and learn more about the country through the people who lived there.
Flights to Cuba
Booking the flight was simple. I live close to an international airport and direct flights to Havana on Southwest Airlines took less than one hour from Florida. To enter the country, you are required to have a passport is valid for six months. A valid visa is also required. The airline will tell you how to obtain your visa, but it can all be done online and picked up at the airport the day of your flight. There were also cruise ships going out of Florida that stopped in Cuba for a day, but with Covid those have been suspended until further notice.
Money in Cuba
American credit cards do not work in Cuba. There is still an embargo going on so American based banks can’t do business down there. The solution? Take cash for everything. If you live near a major city that has a currency exchange store, try to exchange money while planning your trip to Cuba and before you leave the United States. There is an exchange fee within Cuba to get their currency. And the fee is even higher for US dollars. So I found that converting my USD into Euros at the currency exchange store before I left helped saved me money.
Now about Cuba money. They have a two currency system. Cuban citizens are required to use currency called CUP. Visitors are required to use what’s called CUC or the Cuban Convertible Peso. The CUP stands for Cuban Peso or national peso. It’s not much you have to think about. Just keep an eye on how the bills look when you receive your exchange funds because CUCs do look different than CUPs.
The key though is to make sure you have enough money to last your entire trip. And you have a safe way to store it, such as in a money belt when out or a locked suitcase while at the place you’re staying.
Where to Stay in Havana
As part of the rules, it is illegal for US citizens to stay in Cuba hotels. Does that mean that planning a trip to Cuba just went out the window? Nope! Airbnb exists in Cuba and that’s the route we took. The architecture in Havana is beautiful and the house we found was too. Once you enter the doors of the house, there was a sitting area. Then you went into the open air courtyard (above) where the doors to the rooms were. Each room had a bed and its own bathroom. Then towards the back with the small dining area and kitchen. The price to stay was very low in comparison to hotels in the United States.
We also got the chance to pay for breakfast every morning, which we opted to do. Thank goodness we did! The food in Cuba wasn’t always the tastiest but breakfast was fresh eggs, bacon, fresh fruit, Cuban bread with fresh butter and Cuban coffee. I made sure to fill up extra each day because I couldn’t get enough.
One thing to note is that when you arrive at the place you’re staying, a government official will visit to take your passport and input it into their book. Don’t worry – they immediately give it back to you. But it’s good to always remember that while the residents are very friendly, it is a country that operates by different rules than you may be used to.
What to do in Havana
Part of the fun of planning a trip to Cuba is researching all the things there are to do. The Cuban people are beautiful artists and musicians and there are plenty of opportunities to be exposed. The National Museum of Fine Arts, Cuba has 24 rooms of art work to explore. There is also plenty of public art to enjoy, including the sculpture pictured above.
But it’s not all about art. There is also a pharmacy museum, a museum of contemporary ceramics, the palace where all the governors once lived, and the museum of the revolution. The last one was all about the Cuba Revolution and while hard to take, it was interesting to learn more about it from the viewpoint of those who carried it out.
One spot not to miss is Fusterandia. An artist took part of his neighborhood and brought it back to life by using mosaics to create larger than life art pieces. Starting with his own home and then expanding to neighbors and businesses near him, José Fuster made an amazing art exhibit that every visitor to Havana needs to see.
How to Get Around Havana
Getting around Havana is fairly easy. From the airport you can hire a taxi at the airport. Just be sure to ask how much they’ll charge you before you hop in. Walking to places is easy, but be careful fo the sidewalks because they’re not even everywhere. The host of the home you’re staying at can call you a car if you’d like to get around town. There are tours available in the well known, much talked about American cars from the mid-20th century. They’re all over and well kept. The are horse drawn carriages, but don’t expect the horses to look like the ones you’d see in America. They seemed smaller down there.
Other Tips When Planning a Trip to Cuba
- If you must use your phone, find one of the wifi hot spots around town, usually in a hotel. You’ll have to pay, but the American mobile carrier don’t offer international service to Cuba, no matter what they tell you.
- Cubans are very nice and like Americans. If you can learn a few words in Spanish to help the conversation, that will make it easier for you. I was lucky – my house’s host wanted to practice English as much as we wanted to practice Spanish!
- Where comfortable shoes. As previously mentioned, the sidewalks can be uneven and the roads are dusty. Leave the heels at home.
- I never felt unsafe in Havana but you still need to be cautious. Be aware of your surroundings, keep your money in your money belt and leave flashy jewelry at home.
- If you’re staying with a family with kids, bring them a treat. Not sure what they like – ask through Airbnb. Our host loved Nutella so the second time I went down I brought him individual packets. We also brought pencils, notebooks and crayons for the hosts to give to children they know.
- Be sure to tip whomever helps you throughout your visit. When you visit museums, there are people in the rooms overseeing visitors. They’ll take pictures for you so leave them a tip. There are also lady’s on the streets dressed in festive gear or musicians playing in the restaurants. Make sure to tip them for their time.
- Put any pre-conceived notions you have about Cuba and it’s residents to the side. Yes, some areas of Havana are crumbling. But there is also construction happening and residents have modern cell phones. Also there are name brand stores to shop in and some restaurants look like something you’d see in other countries. Going in with an open mind will help you see, enjoy and learn more than you ever expected.
Capital Cities Book and My Photos of Havana
My two trips to Havana have inspired me and continue to delight my memory. I can’t wait to return one day and visit some other parts of the country. I was so inspired in fact that I contributed some of my photos and a blurb about my adventure to a new coffee table book, Capital Cities Book: A Journey Around The World Through 118 Capital Cities. Showcasing capitals from every continent, over 60 fellow writers share their thoughts and photos on cities around the world that they love. I was selected to share Havana and am excited for everyone to see our results!
The book is available for pre-sale and will be shipped in April, 2022. It’s the perfect gift for travelers and lovers of beautiful photography as well. Pre-purchase yours today and use code mycornacopia for 10% off your purchase. Hope you love it and let me know what you think once you receive it. ¡Gracias! And happy travels!
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