If you feel like you've recently heard everyone you know mention wanting to go or having just gone to Cuba, you're not mistaken. Previously closed off to Americans, the travel ban has been lifted in Cuba last year, causing a surge of U.S. visitors to flock to its capital in the last six months. And for good reason. After experiencing Havana and its surrounding areas firsthand last December, I have to admit: It's a one-of-a-kind travel destination. And, yes, as everyone has probably already told you, you need to go right now, if only to experience the authentic Cuban experience before the tourist equivalent of gentrification happens (Anthony Bourdain said it first on the Cuba episode of No Reservations).
One of the things that makes Cuba a unique travel destination is that it feels like a piece of remote paradise that hasn't been affected by time, in the best way possible. Vintage cars are omnipresent, and you would be hard-pressed to find a single familiar franchise. You will quickly understand why writer Ernest Hemingway, whose traces are felt all over Havana, fell in love with the country and its people. In fact, it's rumored that after the writer was forced to leave his beloved home in Cuba after 20 years of living there, it increasingly added to the depression that he suffering from. The mishmash of eclectic and colorful architecture—borrowing from Colonial, Neo-Classical, and Art Deco periods—make it one of the most visually stunning cities you'll ever experience, and the domestic history, unknown to so many Americans due to previously strained relations, is one that begs to be told to visitors. Not least adding to the charm of this city are the people who try to make your visit a personal one, as well as the live music and dancing that take over every and any empty corner of space. (No exaggeration: We witnessed a full-on dance party break out in the middle of a market.)
Ahead, some things to know about to Cuba before you set off on your journey and all the best places to check out and things to do once you're there.
U.S. visitors are allowed to legally visit the country provided their trip falls into one of 12 categories—including family visits, educations activities, and support for the Cuban people—and they have the appropriate visa. "You need a visa to enter the country, and it’s a relatively straightforward process to travel under the 'educational activities' category on a people-to-people trip. Travelers can request to purchase a visa with Cuba Travel Network. You can also purchase your visa the day of departure at the airport, but double-check with your airline first as they may not be available at all airports," says Eddie Lubbers, founder of Cuba Travel Network, a travel agency dedicated to making travel arrangements and booking customized itineraries Cuba. "We usually recommend purchasing in advance from the Cuban consulate or Cuba Travel Network to avoid any last-minute issues."
This visa, also available for purchase online here if you prefer to go that route, allows visitors to stay in Cuba for 30 days and can be extended for another 30. Once you receive your visa, don't be surprised that it looks like a simple piece of paper with two identical sides that you will need to fill out by hand with your personal details; as someone who's used to seeing the fancy Schengen sticker visas, it was a bit jarring to see how "unofficial" the Cuban entry permit looks. "When you go to the immigration booth in Cuba, the immigration officer will stamp both halves of the card, keep one, and hand the other half back to you. You must hand in this other half when you clear Cuban immigration on your return home," warns Lubbers.
Most U.S. visitors go to Cuba under the support for the Cuban people or people-to-people category as tourism is still not an official reason for which you can travel to Cuba yet. "Many trips qualify as 'people-to-people' trips under the educational exchange category. Under people-to-people guidelines, travelers must pursue a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people. The emphasis is on visiting for cultural interactions with the Cuban people," says Lubbers.
Cuba has two different currencies: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban National Peso (CUP). "The official currency is the Cuban Peso, which you cannot import or export; this Peso Cubano is for use by Cuban nationals only. The so-called Convertible Peso is the only legal tender for foreign visitors," says Lubbers. You can exchange U.S. dollars for CUCs at the airport upon arrival and currency exchanges and bureaus in select hotels and around the city. Since you can't exchange money ahead of time in the U.S. (most banks and exchange centers don't carry Cuban currency), you will have to exchange it at the airport when you land, which can take anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours depending on how long the line is. You will most likely be paying in CUCs while in Cuba. "The CUC currency is applicable to cash purchases in shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, taxis, and car rental companies," says Lubbers. "The exchange rate of the CUC is measured by the value of the U.S. dollar: one U.S. dollar equals one Cuban Convertible Peso. And as part of Cuba Travel Network’s services, on arrival to the country, our experts can provide CUCs to our travelers."
Cuba doesn't accept credit cards issued by U.S. banks. It, therefore, is important to make sure that you have enough money to cover the duration of the entire trip. At any given point, you'll find U.S. tourists at the airport getting on an earlier flight because they ran out of money and had to rebook their return ticket. "Bring more cash than you anticipate needing while you’re there. You can’t pay with credit cards on the ground, but there are exchange booths at the airport and at most hotels," says Lubbers.
There is no readily available Wi-Fi in Cuba, so don't be expecting to be able to use Google Maps if you get lost; there are plenty of apps that offer offline maps for that purpose. You can buy scratch-off internet cards directly from ETSECA, the telecom company that provides Wi-Fi hotspots in Cuba, for around $2 for an hour, but expect to wait in a long line. More commonly, tourists either buy internet cards from hotel lobbies that have Wi-Fi or head to a Wi-Fi hotspot (which can be identified by crowds of young Cubans and tourists glued to their phones and tablets) and wait until locals approach them selling internet cards for a slight markup.
As with most things in Cuba, booking in advance and through a trusted source is always recommended. "For hotel rooms and rental cars, demand is outweighing inventory, and it can make navigating the country on the fly quite difficult. Sometimes travelers will arrive to find that though they booked rooms, there aren’t actually any available when they get there. Because of Cuba Travel Network’s relationships within the country and offices throughout Cuba’s provinces, this would never happen when booking through the company," says Lubbers. "Our experts are able to assist 24 hours a day with anything you might not even realize you may need once you’re there."