Out of all the places we have visited, this trip to Cuba is the one generating the most excitement from everyone. The number one question we have received, after being asked to bring back cigars and rum, is “Is it easy for us (US citizens) to travel there?”.
Not terribly difficult, but, US citizens do have travel restrictions.
Even though President Obama lifted trade restrictions and gave US citizens ease to travel to Cuba in 2014, President Trump enforced some additional rules in 2017. These laws are enforced by the US not Cuba, and they aren’t difficult rules to follow. BUT they are laws that you have to adhere to if you want to travel with ease and not have your trip come up in five years to haunt you. (It’s a communist country, after all.)
Here are some of the US laws you will need to adhere to for a successful Cuba trip.
✓ You must acquire a travel visa/tourist card for yourself and anyone traveling with you to enter the country. It is a paper card that must be kept with your passport till you return home. This can be obtained through your airline as you physically check in for your flight or online. Prices vary airline to airline.
Our experience through JetBlue: We purchased the visas in person as we checked in for the flight. It took literally five minutes. As of February 2019, the cost of the visa through JetBlue is $50 per passenger.
✓ This coincides with the twelve acceptable categories to enter Cuba. You just have to declare your reason for your travel when you book your trip and any time someone asks you, which should fall under one of these categories
- Official business for the US government, foreign government and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Professional research
- Religious activities
- Public performances
- Support for the Cuban people (most people will fall under this)
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain export transactions
- Educational activities and people to people travel
(obtained this list from Viahero.com)
✓ Cuban health insurance.
Our experience through JetBlue. When we booked our tickets we had paid additionally for taxes, fees and other charges that assisted us with this option. The additional costs were as follows per passenger:
- Cuban Health Insurance $25.00
- Passenger Services Airport Tax $25.00
- US Transportation tax (international) $37.20
- US Customs User Fee $5.77
- US Immigration User Fee $7.00
- US APHIS User Fee $3.96 (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service)
- US September 11 Security Fee $5.60
- US Passenger Facility Charge $4.50
✓ You have to have an actual itinerary to travel to Cuba (roughly 6-8 hours daily of interaction with the Cuban people). We are allowed to go, but no matter what the reason, we have to travel to sort of stimulate their economy by visiting/spending money in privately owned business of culture or agriculture (like a casa particular-family run B&B, paladar- family run restaurant, or farm). We are not able to stay or dine in government/state-run businesses. You don’t want to anyway, trust me.
Other points to know about Cuba…
Cubans love Americans. We found that everyone we talked with were interested to find out we were from America. Most were even ecstatic to find out we were from Boston, home of the Red Sox! Cubans LOVE baseball, and try to follow their Cuban players when they make it to the big leagues of America.
Cuban Money: You cannot use American credit cards or debit cards in Cuba, cash only. Cuba has a two currency system, Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUP, is less valuable than the CUC. It is what the locals are paid by their government monthly; it has their government officials faces on them. The CUC is for tourist use and is printed with their national monuments on them. The best places to exchange your money are the airport when you land, or major hotels. All money has a tax to exchange it, but American money (USD) has an additional 10% tax added to the exchange. Which is high.
It’s a smart idea to exchange your money ahead of time from US Dollars to either Canadian Dollars or Euro before hopping on the airplane.
Not every Cuban hates their government. We had a few conversations that opened my eyes about how agreeable some Cuban people view their government. Even the younger generation.
WiFi: There is WiFi in Cuba, it was introduced years ago, but there are not many places to get it for free like there are in the States. There are three ways to get internet access: buy an ETECSA telecommunication card and stand in a park where they have access portals, in a casa particular or hotel. You will see a lot of people sitting or standing around the parks in Havana. It’s the only places you see the locals with their phones in their faces like home.
The internet is spotty and restricted, as it is controlled by the government, so try not to do anything that requires you to rely on its use. And remember they are a communist country and it’s their WiFi.
If you are lucky to have free WiFi at a casa particular or hotel, soak it up! We had it for the first three days of our trip, bought an ETESCA card for the rest of our time but it worked so horribly that we gave up and went off grid.
Which actually worked out great. I like disconnecting from the interwebs!
Cuban Food: Cuban food is typically simple and rustic. Its food roots are influenced by its Aboriginal, Spanish, African, and Caribbean inhabitants. At most restaurants you will find Cuban style sandwiches, entrees, drinks and cocktails. Most meals are still affected by the severe poverty that hit Cuba hard, and will consist of a protein like pork (cerdo), chicken (pollo), shrimp (camarones), fish (pescado), or beef (res); served with rice and beans or fried plantains or root vegetables. The rice and beans can be cooked separate or together (aka Moros y Cristianos- which are my personal favorite way to eat them!).
Here is an example of a menu we looked at in Varadero. You will notice a few things; this particular menu is written in Spanish and English, not always typical. The menu lists two prices (CUC/CUP). And there is a detail telling you what the dishes come with as a side (choice or rice with beans, or traditional rice and beans, and fried vegetable). And next to the menu is a photo of a typical dish (from a dfft restaurant).
We did eat at some pretty modern restaurants that offered nothing typical. I will share that in the coming posts.
Cuba is safe! A previous misconception that I had of Cuba was that I would have to be in fear for my family’s safety 24/7. I was wrong. Walking the streets, day or night, in the city, on the farm or at the beach , we never felt threatened. EVER. There is a lot of poverty throughout Cuba, especially in Havana, but even with the poverty, the people were wonderfully friendly, had pride and were immensely accommodating. Petty crimes, like pocket theft, do happen. But that happens everywhere across the globe.
FYI- be aware that the people in the city are trying hard to make money. This can come across as threatening to some tourists. They are in a constant state of what I called ‘the hustle’; meaning they will run up to tourists (friendly mannered) to convince them to dine, taxi or buy souvenirs at their or their friends’ places. If you turn them down politely they walk away.
Our Itinerary at a Glance
WHEN: February 2019; Cuba’s dry season and Winter.
The weather in Cuba’s Winter hovers around 75F-85F! Compared to Boston’s 30F-40F.
HOW LONG: 7 nights; Saturday to Saturday.
JetBlue has direct flights on Saturdays to Cuba from Boston; also, JetBlue has direct flights from most major US airports.
WHERE: We pulled together a list of what we wanted to do from all of the research (books, the internet, and travel shows).
- Take a ride in classic American cars, especially a pink convertible Cadillac!
- Visit Old Havana, the historic part of the city
- Check out the local cuisine in a paladar
- Stay in casa particulars
- Visit Revolution Square
- Bay of Pigs
- Visit the grand old hotels
- Shop the markets
- Drive to Hemingway’s house and/or bar hang out
- Go to a tobacco farm to learn how to roll cigars..and smoke’em 🙂
- Visit the Havana Club rum museum, and ..well, drink rum
- Take a horseback ride in the country
- Walk/drive the Malecon
- See the beach
Once we finalized this list, we looked at a map to figure out where to stay on the island. We chose to stay on the Western side, with hopes to go back to visit the Eastern side.
Day 1– Arrive in Havana
Day 2 – Habana Vieja (city)
Days 3 – Viñales (country)
Day 4 -Havana (city)
Day 5 -Havana (city)
Day 6 -Havana to Varadero (beach)
Day 7 – Varadero (beach)
Day 8- Varadero to Havana for departure