Cuba Travel: Everything Americans Need To Know
Close your eyes and imagine it.
Retro cars racing through palm trees at sunset, street carts loaded with fruits at dawn, hitchhikers hopping in and out of horse-drawn carriages – all to the constant beat of salsa, which seeps from every crevice of the country.
This is Cuba.
I spent 24 never-boring days there in the peak season of December and although I would return in a heartbeat for a longer trip, I can't say Cuba was always on its best behavior with me.
In fact, I quickly realized the Caribbean island – with a history as diverse as it is unbelievable – can't really be tamed at all, so there's no point in trying.
If you go there with the expectation that things will work logically, methodically and practically, you'll only be left disappointed. So don't.
Instead, go there with an open mind and the expectation that there will be (some) madness. Expect mind-bending situations that leave your mouth agape and your camera memory completely full.
Expect to feel as if you've traveled back in time – not just 200 miles from Miami.
Expect to meet a rainbow of impossibly friendly people from a culture infused with French, African, Spanish and Chinese influence. And expect to have a uniquely memorable travel experience like no other.
Travel to Cuba has got easier for Americans recently, but before booking your envy-inducing trip there, you'll need a lot of tips. This is how to do Cuba the right way.
What you need to know
There are two currencies in Cuba and getting hold of both will make your trip easier and cheaper.
CUP (the Cuban convertible peso) is pinned to the dollar and you'll use this to pay for accommodation, restaurant food and most other items.
The second currency is CUC (known as "moneda nacional"). It's used mainly by Cubans for local buses, street food and smaller purchases.
One CUP, or dollar, is worth 25 CUC. Despite persistent rumors, tourists can spend both currencies without difficulty, and obtaining some CUC (either from the airport or from the "cambios") will enable you to live a little bit like a Cuban.
If you're coming from the US, know that changing American dollars still incurs a 10% charge in Cuba due to government restrictions. Sometimes, bringing Euros, Mexican Pesos or Canadian dollars can work out to better value. (Remember though, you'll end up changing money twice, so always do the math first.)
Most American citizens also won't be able to access their online banking in Cuba, so plan ahead to avoid getting stuck.
Internet is expensive and not easily accessed in Cuba.
Although things are changing, you'll need to purchase a WiFi card ($1.50 for an hour) from the national internet provider, ETEC, or from street hustlers and other shops who will charge you up to $7 for one hour. Then you have to find a designated WiFi spot which is usually outside, on the street.
Some hotels have their own private WiFi networks, but cards are usually needed to access this, too.
Hostels in Cuba are few and far between, so it's either hotels or homestays, known as "casa particulars."
I opted for the latter, which was a fantastic insight into Cuban life and, when I traveled with a friend, proved to be great value.
Cuban families charge per room, not per occupant, and as there are often two or three beds per room, splitting the nightly price of $25-35 with a travel buddy works out to be more economical than a fancy hotel.
(Note: They receive commission for this, so don't be afraid to do your own research if it doesn't feel right).
Cuba can be complex, so I relied on global travel company Urban Adventures to help with my tourist activities.
As well as arranging millennial travel experiences all over the world, they work with local Cubans to create Insta-worthy tours and package vacations.
In Havana I enjoyed a super interesting walking tour of Havana Vieja (the old city), a seriously envy-inducing retro car tour and an educational Afro-Cuban cultural tour.
Urban Adventures' local guides also helped me plan the rest of my trip with useful tips I would never have obtained elsewhere, so I also saved some serious pesos.
Where To Go
You've seen it on Instagram, but nothing prepared you for the reality. Eclectic, confusing and majestic, it's anything but boring in Havana.
Be sure to stay in time-warped Havana Vieja, where you can meander through crumbling, colorful architecture, check out the spectacular El Murro fortress or wander around the famous Museo de la Revolución.
The city is constantly pulsating with great music, too. Live salsa blasts from the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra each night (a spot that also provides great views of the city), and everything from local Cuban music to house and R&B can be heard at the impossibly trendy Arte de Fabrique club, all within a converted art-warehouse space.
Havana's beach shouldn't be skipped either; the breathtaking Mar Azul can be reached for one peso on the A40 local bus, which leaves from Havana Vieja (ask around for the bus stop).
Known as the "Paris of Cuba," Cienfuegos is quaint with stunningly beautiful French architecture.
Be sure to take a stroll to the stunning Palacio De Valle in the Punta Gorda neighborhood and don't leave Cienfuegos without visiting the beautiful Guanaroca Lagoon.
For the bargain price of 10 CUC, a private rowing boat will take you out on the water to spot actual flamingos. (They're best seen at 8 am when the park opens).
Time travel is possible in Cuba – just head to Trinidad and walk around.
This soporific, colonial town will have you thinking you've teleported back to 1845 when it was built, due to the cobblestone streets, colonial houses, horse-drawn carriages and guitar-playing street musicians.
Wandering around is activity enough here, and you should check out panoramic views of the area from Museo de Historia ($2 well-spent) or take a horse and cart around the city to spot the iconic churches and the ceramic museum.
When you want to party, head to La Cueva (the cave) for a taste of Cuban nightlife underground or to the town's epic Casa De La Musica for live, open-air salsa and an infectious vibe.
I nearly skipped out on Viñales, the rural heart of Cuba.
The area is so far west I didn't know if it would be worth my time, but Viñales really is the rustic jewel in Cuba's crown.
I also had the best homestay of my trip at Chino and Ernesto's gorgeous house (the couple are a mine of useful information about Cuba and the home-cooked food was the best I tasted).
Viñales boasts a lot to see; rent a bike and cycle through the towering red cliffs to the Mural de la Prehistoria or arrange a horseback riding trek in the mountains (don't pay more than $25 per person) to see first-hand how Cuban cigars and cigarettes are made.
Cuba is calling you – go now before it changes forever.