Our Cuba story has been updated for 2020.
Good news, you can still go!
Read our story and see the updates.
March 2017, we returned from Cuba. Five days was not enough.
When we left we were not only intrigued by the history,
but the current condition of the country.
Infrastructure Architecture Water system
Not only are the cars in a time warp, well, you'll see.
Okay, here's our story.
Tours, mistakes, money, tobacco,
updates & what I brought back !
Our flight to Havana was via Fort Lauderdale on JetBlue airlines. We purchased our Tourist Card at the airport right at JetBlue's gate. Make sure you purchase travel insurance, they didn't check for ours, but it is supposedly still required.
Confirmation 2020: As of January 2020, you can still fly JetBlue airlines to Havana.
We had arranged to stay in a Casa Particular (a private home) in the neighborhood of Miramar.
We stayed in a upstairs apartment with a deck, bedroom, bath and kitchen. The cost was $45 CUC (Convertible Peso) a night. I will explain the Cuba Cash in a bit.
We actually stayed at friend of a friend's family. Check out Airbnb for Casa Particulars in Cuba. This is one way to visit and it supports Cuba families. Airbnb
The plan was to be picked up at the airport by one of the family members of the home, uncle Walfrido.
After we were "approved" to enter the land of Cuba (immigration & customs) we indeed saw a man holding up a sign with our name.
We smiled, waved, hugged and met Walfrido!
It took us about 20 minutes to get to our host's casa, her name is Araceli and she spoke English-yeah! Walfrido showed us to our room and we settled in a bit. Here is the Casa Particular and me.
First order of business--get water. I knew we were not to drink the water, so before anything else, we asked Walfrido to take us to a store (la tienda) and get a lot of bottled water. We suggest this to anyone visiting Cuba.
First mistake- not asking ahead if breakfast was included in our Casa Particular.
Many Casa's do provide breakfast and meals - so I assumed wrong. Make sure you ask.
Again, Casa Particulars and Airbnbs are legal accommodations.
There are some restricted accomodations and here is the list
via the U.S Department of State.
Restricted in Cuba.
Update 2020: So here are the changes and restrictions to Cuba travel since
Currently you cannot cruise to Cuba and the people to people category ( an educational trip ) has been eliminated.
As a tourist, if your activity supports Cuban people, you are in! This includes two easy ways! staying at a Casa Particular or eating at privately owned restaurants
( called a Paladare ).
For more information on Paladares and where to eat, follow this link:
Besides supporting Cuban people you can also travel for Humanitarian projects, journalistic activity, family visit, religious activities, public performances such as athletic or other competitions. Professional research, official government business and certain export transactions.
Here is the official press release: Cuba Changes Visitation
Havana for lunch.
We were starving so Walfrido took to Havana for lunch. This was about 20 minutes from the Miramar neighborhood.
Walfrido took us to a Gringo restaurant in the center of Havana, this means it had Gringo prices $$$. It was good, but not great. This opinion of Cuban food lingered throughout the trip.
Unfortunately when we were there, we did not know about the Paladares. Since that time, we have heard the chef's are creative, but only to the extent where ingredients and seasonings are available.
Besides, it was the beginning of our trip, so we needed cheaper alternatives.
More on money, ATM's and emergencies below.
There are two currencies--at least when we were there.
CUC ("kook") Convertible Peso- for tourists and CUP Cuban Peso-for Cubans.
You can get CUP, it's legal, it is just that most restaurants in tourist areas accept CUC. We just made it easy on ourselves and stayed with that.
At the time of our trip, the CUC was 1-to-1 fixed exchange rate with a 3% conversion charge AND if you are a US citizen you will pay 10% more for the conversion.
If you have other currencies, you will not have to pay the extra 10%. Just the way it is.
Some people choose to exchange money ( Euros, British Pounds or Canadian ) before heading to Cuba to save money. If you decide to wait, you might have some suggestions from you Casa Particular or hotel where to exchange upon arrival. The airport exchange booths can have very long lines.
Here is a website to follow for daily exchange rates: Currency Rates.
UPDATE 2020: You can no longer use CUC ( tourist money for Cuba ) at the Havana airport. They will take foreign currency at stores and snack bars. The lines are long at the airport, so if you are staying at Casa Particular, ask your host about exchanging money and where.
Charge cards are usually not accepted in Cuba with the exception of some hotels and high end restaurants. If you visiting from the USA don't count on it. Oh yeah, and if you have an American ATM card, it will not work.
That being said, we suggest you do take a credit card and make it a VISA. If there is an emergency and you do run out of cash contact the American Embassy in Cuba. They cannot dispense money, but they can help you conduct a wire.
Here is more information: Cuba US Embassy
**Before leaving let your bank and credit card company know you will be in Cuba**
Tours and our experience.
You can travel to Cuba with a tour group. They will often take care of all the stress of planning, but you will pay for that $$--your choice.
If you decide to head out and plan on your own, You can also check with TripAdvisor.
This was our first choice before we found out that the family members of the Casa Particular did private tours.
We chose this way and loved the "inside" tales, pictures and being able to visit a popular family hang-out and meet their friends!
Ask your Casa Particular about tours or check out Tripadvisor so you can see ratings, here is the link. Tripadvisor Cuba
Tours and nightlife with Alexander--keeping it in the family.
Alexander was a cousin of Araceli and spoke English quite well.
He would be our tour guide for the evening, and the following day.
He did not have a car, so Walfrido would be waiting in his car while Alexander conducted the tour. This "waiting" was a bit of a surprise also, because we ended up paying "for the wait".
We were happy to have Walfrido take us around, but we did not know he would be hanging out until we were done with our activities, we just assumed he would drop us off, go get other taxi gigs and then pick us up-NOPE!
Be aware of this! More on this below.
A Secret Gem! Incredible Art!
Alexander took us to the FAC (Fabrica De Arte Cubano). If you are even a bit interested in art, you need to go to FAC!
They are open from 8pm to 3am, Thursday to Sunday. It cost $2 CUC to get in and it is an amazing mix of abstract art, music, color, video and drinks! Get there early, as the lines can get long, I mean around the corner of the building LONG!
Don't miss it!
I wanted to add a small picture of the outside, so you could recognize it at night. Here is the Facebook page link, from there you can go to their website, link: FAC.
We stayed at FAC about an hour and half. We definitely could have stayed longer, but we had mentioned to Alexander that we wanted to hang out a bit with the "locals" and he suggested a dance club.
Walfrido took us to Palacio de la Rumba. Great fun! Of course Alexander knew everyone and we all danced until 3am. The website is in Spanish, so you can connect to the Facebook Page HERE. Jonathan had a bit too much Rum, but Walfrido took us home safely. The day and evening "Wait" charge for Walfrido was $110! Yeow!
Friday was our Havana city tour with Alexander.
10 am was meeting time, we rolled out of bed at 10:30 am, so that didn't happen.
A good morning for strong Cuban coffee!
We did find a breakfast place five blocks from our casa.
Before we headed out, we met Walfrido's son, Walfrido Jr.
We found out later that he was a lawyer; paid by the government, about $25 a week. Wow!
We really needed to talk to Araceli about the co$t of transportation, regarding Walfridos wait time charge, and to see if he could just drop us off and pick us up.
We were afraid we were going to run out of money.
She did straighten this out for us.
Third mistake. We didn't bring enough cash. Maybe bring a couple hundred more than you think you will spend, just in case you see something else you want to do.
The breakfast stop.
The building was old, the menus were new, but like much of Cuba, the food was in a "Time
I am sure there are varied opinions here, but don't go to Cuba for the food and we didn't, so that was fine. I was surprised by the lack of spices and the amount of oil on the eggs- No Chewing Required.
Here is the view from our table. It is one of many of Che Guevara, under the mural, the translations is: "Man of Action and Courage".
On the way to meet Alexander, Walfrido had a surprise.
He took us to the Plaza de la Revolution -another great stop! You will find some outstanding landmarks including the Jose Marti Memorial, Cuba's largest library, and the Government ministry offices (see below).
One building is bearing the image of Che Guevara, and the other is Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel's right hand man and confident.
This is a huge square and one of the areas where Fidel Castro addressed the Cuban people. Below is a picture of part of the square with Jose Marti Memorial in the background and a line of classic car taxi's lined up in the parking lot.
Above, I'm taking in the space (I'm in the hat and green shirt) while Che Guevara adorns the Ministry of Interior building. Below the steel sculpture of his face are the words "Hasta La Victoria Siempre", meaning Until Victory, one of his well known slogans.
Now...on to pick up Alexander.
Alexander gave us a walking tour starting with Plaza De Armas. This is oldest square in Havana, laid out in the early 1520's. The connecting park is beautiful and the square itself is filled with restaurants, art, bars, museums and hotels, all located in stunning historical buildings from the 16th to 20th century. Visit Museo de la Ciudad if you love history or just check out the lush courtyard.
Even though many of the buildings are deteriorating, Havana is teeming with color, energy and constant activity.
There are also a lot of taxi peddlers! Probably good, the roads & sidewalks can be a challenge. No heels ladies!
As we walked, I felt comfortable enough to ask Alexander if he had ever attempted to leave Cuba and how he sees his life here.
Without hesitation, but in a lower than normal tone, he said, "There are a lot of opinions, but I live in a society where my children are safe on the streets with no fear of rape or trafficking, there are no guns or drugs on the streets". "It's not perfect, and there are some bad people, but my children and I have free medical attention; education and Fidel has taken care us".
We continued down the road.....
We enjoyed the wonderful bronze statues throughout the city symbolizing prominent citizens, musicians or political figures.
On to Plaza Vieja (below) The Architecture is outstanding. You will find 20th century Art Nouveau buildings, to Art Deco, to Spanish influences. If you have time, check out the art galleries in the Casa de los condes De Jauco building, in fact there are galleries on most corners.
Time for a beer.
Jonathan's favorite type of corner! Sit outside and enjoy the live music at Factoria Plaza Vieja, (below) one of Cuba's microbreweries. They serve pints of light, medium and dark brews with a full menu of food. The beer is VERY good!
Just catty-corner from the beer garden, you will find Camera Obscura (see tiny hut outside for the tickets, $2 CUC).
It is the only Camera Obscura in Latin America, and is one of 74 worldwide.
Camera Obscura is latin for dark room and that's basically what you enter on the top level.
After being shuffled into the small dark room, the presenter entered and we gathered around a concave platform. There is a periscope above, that projects onto the concave screen, giving everyone a live 360 degree view of the city of Havana, very cool! The presentation was good and took about 10 minutes, then you can step out on the roof (picture below) and roam around seeing the rooftops of buildings, underwear flapping on clotheslines, balconies, Jonathan's beer stop below, churches, etc.
We continued the walking tour, visiting the Museum of the Revolution, which used to be Fulgencio Batista Palace before the revolution, Cathedral of Havana and Castillo de la Real Fuerza - a fortress which is considered to be the oldest stone fortress in the Americas (not pictured).
The Museum of the Revolution includes an inside area and outside area (above) .
This impressive display of military vehicles, boats and planes from the Bay of Pigs, and Fidel's Revolutionary attempts. Definitely worth a look!
There is so much to see & many people explore on their own!
We did too!
See the TIP area at the end of this post for a link to a Havana street map you can buy from Amazon and a link to a free Cuba travel guide.
**If you are interested in hearing some Cuban music, you will see and hear it all over the city. We did not visit Buena Vista Social club as it was out of our budget. No big deal, really, there is music everywhere. Feel free to dance in the streets, or alongside the open air restaurants with the bands- I did!**
Animal organizations in need. You can donate.
There is only one animal protection organization that is officially recognized by the Cuban government, however they have no monetary help from the government.
The name of the organization is TAP Project and it depends exclusively on donated funds in order to operate. Here is a link for Aniplant, Love the Animals. If you would like to donate items (on your visit) or money, it would be GREATLY appreciated.
We were not able to coordinate times to visit the facility, as it is not always open, however we were able to connect to another organization called the Spanky Project.
We left our donation, (new collars, leashes and canvas dog food bags) with the coordinator.
Many of the volunteers, both workers and vets are Cuban, American and Canadian. The Spanky Project is a not-for-profit Canadian organization.
Their services are free and they provide education, supplies and mass sterilization campaigns in Havana and rural areas.
You can get online in some of the major hotels in Havana, no one cares if you step in and connect, but you might want to buy a beer or cocktail, remember to forgo the ice! Many hotels sell internet cards, but they might be slightly higher than a ETECSA location. Here is the website for ETECSA
Look for name ETECSA on buildings or ask your taxi driver or hotel.
The prices still vary depending on where you buy it. The card is called a NAUTA.
One hour is around $2.75 CUC and you have 30 days to use it. On the back of the card there is a "scratch off" user and password for you.
Now find a hot spot. A hotel, most parks and outside the ETECSA offices. Connect through your Wifi area on your phone or tablet.
Just know Wifi connectivity with vary day to day and we were not able to use our US email.
Sunday had arrived- Vinales trip! Horses! Tobacco! Oily eggs!
Walfrido's brother, Tito, picked us up in his red 50's Chevy. The trip to Vinales took about 2 hours and 20 minutes. Many farmers and families still ride small horse drawn carriages along the side of the highway. I couldn't get a picture because of their speed AND ours, however, I was so happy to see healthy looking horses pulling skinny people or light loads, I'm sure this not always the case, but we saw at least 20 horses and they were in good condition.
We reserved the room in Vinales online and it turned out to be very nice. The cost for one night was $35 CUC and breakfast $5 CUC each.
Our tobacco tour/horseback ride started at 1pm, so we needed to grab some lunch. Tito showed us where the nearest lunch spot.
To the right is part of our lunch menu.
They had a wide variety of meat and veggies however we were told there was no fish (pescado) that day, but they had tuna ???
That was a bit puzzling, but not as much as the description for Aporreado de Atun "Beat the tuna" I usually love tuna, but decided to pass on the tortured tuna before the horseback ride.
Beans and rice was just fine.
Jose', the Cuban cowboy, met us at our Casa at 1pm sharp, and we went a-walkin down the road, right through the middle of a festival.
Jose' only knew a few words of English, so we never found out what the festival was for?!
Our answer was always "Festival"! "Festival"!
The "Festival"! had those kind of rides that screamed 80's music in your face as you waited in line, some English, some Spanish, we walked faster.......
We headed down a long path with a beautiful view of the hills and tobacco farms.
A bit further, we met our horses who were parked in the shade.
About 30 minutes down the road we arrived at the tobacco hut and met the farmer. He did not speak English. Thanks goodness for Google translate, it worked in the hut and we had a great conversation!
He showed us his tobacco fields, the drying hut and explained that the tobacco took a year to grow, dries for a month, then cures in the hut.
Next was the magic. He rolled up a cigar on the chair arm, put a tiny bit of honey on the end and it was ready to smoke!
I don't smoke, but I love the taste and smell, then he handed us each a small glass of rum as we chatted via Android. Jonathan bought 3o cigars for $60.
The next morning, the hosts served breakfast which consisted of a round cheese sandwich (with or without meat), toast with mango preserve, oily eggs, ( easy to swallow ) fresh mango juice fruit and coffee. It was nice.
Tito arrived at 9am sharp to take us back to Havana. We asked him if we could get an internet card, which was just 6 blocks away. No problem.
We arrived safely back in Havana.
I proceeded to eat leftovers in the fridge, which might have been my Fourth mistake.
Then, onto my Fifth mistake. I totally spaced, and brushed my teeth with the water.
Monday morning, I had a rush of internal activity and it wasn't from the coffee. Something was in me, causing a ruckus in the bathroom, I was sick.
Sooo, it was either brushing my teeth with the water OR the leftover fish.
Jonathan was fine, he did not eat fish or brush his teeth with the faucet water, so we'll never really know where I adopted the Cuban bacteria.
Here's what's weird, I grabbed some imodium and with the exception of being a little tired, we were able to walk around most of the afternoon and explore the streets of Havana on our own.
We ate light and the next day, was not too bad. Walfrido took us to the airport early as Aracelie told us we could eat there, Uh, No.
If you want ice cream, a can of Pringles, Or a nasty looking bread and meat sandwich, you are good to go, so it was a no for us.
Anyway, I felt a little floaty, but no sprints to the Bano (bathroom), I thought the "Cuban" had left my belly.
A day after I got back I realized I was still with Cuban.
I had brought back a Cuban "something". I looked 6 months pregnant and had a severe headache. I'm sure you don't need the details, but the headaches and stomach problems lasted for 13 days, hence the title of this article- with Cuban.
Now let's get to the tips about going to Cuba
having a new adventure!
TIPS TIPS CUBA TIPS!
**Check out our 10 tips below and then review our 5 highlighted mistakes above.**
1. We flew on Jet Blue out of Fort Lauderdale. You can purchase your Visa at a booth near your out-going gate, the cost is $50 for each person. The line was long, so make sure you have enough time between flights, it took about 40 minutes there, maybe you will get lucky.
2. We felt privileged to be able to visit Cuba! The Cuban people are extremely friendly, just smile and say "Buenos Dias"! We felt perfectly safe walking around with cameras and phones in sight, just use the same "common sense" security measures that you would on any trip.
3. Not all bars and restaurants have great Mojitos in Cuba. The Bar/Restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio is where the Mojito was born, our favorite for Mojitos And Daiquiris was Floriditas --oh my, so good. Easy to find, click here for their website: Great Drinks
4. If you are staying in a Casa Particular, ask your host about the distance and cost of the taxi. I will tell you from Miramar, which was a safe quiet neighborhood, the cost was $30 CUC to the airport and $20 CUC into the city for a drop off. We finally got that worked out with Walfrido. Our trip to Vinales was $200 CUC round trip, some tour companies charge $250.
5. Here is a great book, before, during and after your trip, answered most of my questions above. The Cuba Reader: Get it HERE
6. You can exchange your money at the airport before you leave Havana but... Departure lines can be long. After standing in line 40 minutes our clerk decided to go to lunch, OFFICE CLOSED, until he returned. Our flight was leaving in 35 minutes, we never exchanged our last $40 CUC's. So, please get in early and don't bother looking for food, eat before you go to the airport.
7. As mentioned above, take a little more money than you think you might need. We had scheduled a Havana City bike tour on our last full day and did not have enough $ for that~next time.
8. Best Cuba Street Map StreetSmart Havana--You can get it here *LINK*
9. Bring toilet paper and bottled water if your traveling outside Havana and need to stop before another major city, there is a good chance that you will either have to tip someone to get a handful of TP or it just ain't there! Don't expect water to be provided on tours and it can be hot. Always bring water.
10. BEST website for a free Cuba travel guide, is HERE from Wikitravel.org/Cuba. Tons of information including money exchange, transportation, places to see, history, fake cigars and much more!
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Have you visited Cuba lately? Would love hear your experiences!
Please comment below.