Cuba – The General Stuff
Not so long ago there was a time, pre-internet, when travelers actually bought books and lugged them around on our journeys. Well guess what, you will be traveling Cuba without the internet. Luckily the Lonely Planet Cuba book is available for FREE on the Kindle. You can download the Kindle App for free onto your smart phone then download the Lonely Planet book onto your device.
These Street Smart maps come in handy. They are laminated and fold down. I got both the Cuba and Havana maps to see if I needed both, it looked like the Havana information was in the Cuba map and since we were traveling outside of Havana I just took that one.
Clicking on the images will take you to the item on Amazon.com.
HOW TO GET THERE
Since we were all coming from Los Angeles and Alaska Air had these great rates for non-stop flights it was a no-brainer. Alaska flies once a day from LAX to Havana and once a day back to Los Angeles. If it’s your birthday (it was two of ours), Alaska will offer you 5% off your ticket plus one. Unfortunately we discovered this after we purchased our tickets but were offered a free bottle of prosecco during our flight instead.
There is a mandatory requirement for health insurance when traveling Cuba, thankfully Alaska (and most airlines) includes a $25 health insurance stipend within the price of your ticket.
VISA / TOURIST CARD
If you’re coming from the US, Britain, or Canada, you’ll need a tourist card in lieu of a visa which allows you up to 30 days of travel. You can get your tourist card through most airlines for $50 to $85. We opted to get ours through a Cuban tourist agency called ABC in Miami because Alaska worked through another agency that was a little pricier.
When applying for your tourist card you will be asked to complete an affidavit stating the reason of your travel. There are 12 categories of travel you must fit in and tourism is not one of them. We were a group of artists and musicians so we opted for categories from Education/People to People, Journalism, and Professional Research. Bring a copy of your affidavit with you, we had ours from ABC but were asked to fill one out again on an Alaska Airlines form at check in.
Your tourist card is pink and should not be ripped at the dotted line. Leave it whole for the officials.
JOSE MARTI AIRPORT – HAVANA
Five hours later we landed in Cuba and descended a portable staircase onto Cuban asphalt. It’s a small airport and customs was simple and hassle free. We read other people’s accounts of long waits for checked bags but ours came out right away. We packed light but I checked my bag since I carried a portable pharmacy and brought more than enough bug spray, sunblock, and wet wipes for the entire group. Yup, I was the mama.
Now here’s the important part – when you walk out of the terminal into the throng of taxi drivers wanting to transport you to your destination, tell them you’ll be back, make a right and walk down to the next set of terminal doors on your right. In there you will find the money exchange window.
ALL ABOUT MONEY
You’ve read it everywhere: BRING CASH. Your US credit and debit cards are no good here.
If you’re coming from the US, convert your USDs to Euros before arriving in Cuba. There is a 10% fee for changing US dollars to CUCs (pronounced kooks) so change your dollars to euros before you go. We considered Canadian dollars but once in Havana, found that euros were the way to go. In general the CUC and USD are about 1:1 however after converting to euros and CUCs, there was a slight loss of money due to fees. Still better than a 10% loss on USDs though.
Convert your money in the Havana airport. I’ve heard that hotels will change your currency but there is an additional 3% fee and I remember passing long lines of tourists at the very few money exchange places I saw throughout Havana. Do yourself a favor and do it all at the airport, just get it over with. We didn’t have too long of lines, we waited about 20 minutes and didn’t have to worry the rest of the trip.
Get small bills. The smallest bills they gave us were 10 CUC bills which were hard to break. We ended up tipping heavily just because we didn’t have lower denominations. I recall seeing a 1 CUC bill I think but there are also coins. We didn’t use our coins too much, there were .10, .25, .50, and 1 CUC coins. 1, 3, and 5 CUC bills were coveted.
CUCs vs. Pesos. CUCs are the currency that tourists use in Cuba–also called Convertible Pesos. You will know the difference because CUCs have pictures of monuments on them whereas the Pesos have pictures of people. Be careful you don’t get pesos as change instead of CUCs because the peso is valued at a fraction of the CUC. If it happens, it will most likely be at street stands.
How much to bring? Some sites say the budget traveler can live on 50 CUCs a day, otherwise factor 100 CUCs per day. We booked most of our lodging through AirBnB so those costs were out of the way and still spent about 100 CUCs per day. As you continue reading you will see that we were not especially thrifty and we all had very little money leftover at the end. One of our friends brought a lot more cash and probably spent around 200 CUCs per day, spending liberally on cigars and rum. There’s not a lot to buy as far as souvenirs. Most souvenir stands we saw sell similar items throughout Old Havana and the hotels: drums, trinkets, hats, bags, sandals, Che t-shirts. We’ll get into the price of rum and cigars later.
None of us used a money belt. Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world and luckily we experienced no issues. In conversations with native Cubanos, they advise not to be stupid, follow common sense and you should be ok.
WHAT TO BRING
Here’s the list of items we brought. What we didn’t use, we left. More on that later, see “gifts.”
Bathing suit – Cuba is a Caribbean island after all and hopefully you will get to the beach at some point. The water is warm, the sand is white, definitely worth it. We did not go to Varadera but did go to Cayo Jutia in Pinar. It was beautiful but kind of wish we had gone out to Cayo Levisa. More on that later.
Towels – we did not bring any. I read about microfiber towels and did bring a small one. I did use the small one, mostly because it was hot and humid. We emailed in advance about beach towels and were able to borrow them from our Casa Particular with the owner’s blessing. Note, they brought them for us from Havana so give your Casa owners a heads up.
Sarongs – better than towels. Rolled up smaller than microfiber towels, worked as blankets on the plane, the beach, and shawls at night.
Travel Pillow – I was glad I brought mine not just for the plane trip but also to use as padding on some of the car rides to the country. More info on butt or bum pillows for skinny butts on horseback later.
Umbrella – Miraculously we only encountered one rain storm and it passed quickly. Ladies, even if you have a hat, umbrellas work great as parasols in the hot sun. The hats can make your head very hot and sweaty. Bring a light, compact umbrella that doesn’t take a lot of space.
Hat – Umbrellas will block that hot sun but you’ll still want a hat. Had several very red necks in our group, even with sunscreen. You can buy brimmed straw hats in Cuba for about 3-5 CUCs.
Sunscreen – Must have if you’re there when it’s hot. Don’t think you can buy it there, bring your own.
Hand Fan – Pack an old school hand fan. It gets hot, luckily our bedrooms were air conditioned, but we were in many places where we were glad to have one. If you can’t get one for $1 in Chinatown, this one looks pretty good.
Shampoo & Conditioner – None of our Casa Particulars had shampoo, one had random bottles of conditioner that looked like leftovers from a previous guests. I will sometimes use a 2-in-1 to cut down on bottles.
Soap – Hotels will have soap but only one of the casas we stayed in had some and most were sealed full-sized bars that I didn’t want to open for a brief 1 or 2 night stay. Bring your own bar soap or liquid just in case.
Wet Wipes – Loved having these! Great for cleaning up after humid days in the sun or a whore’s bath when your shower doesn’t work the way you thought it would… more common than not.
Travel Tissue Packs – It’s true, a lot of the bathrooms outside of your Casa or Hotel will not have toilet paper. The airport bathroom does not.
Luggage Lock – I brought one to lock our valuables in our suitcase when the room did not have a safe. I actually forgot to use it as we became accustomed to having a key to our rooms and felt very safe overall. Probably not a bad idea but luckily we had no issues.
Bug Spray – Don’t mess around, get the Deet! I promise you, any thoughts of not wanting your skin to be in contact with this chemical will go out the window after you’ve been attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. Now I’m going to go into insect repellant because I am basically mosquito food and thus, I have tried it all: Sprays, lotions, soaps, oils, and wipes. I have not tried the bracelets however.
While we were close to the Malecon in Havana we did not get any bites. This was not true in other parts of the city and certain parts of the country. We had one spray bottle of Deet 40%. You might be reading this and saying to yourself, I’m not going to poison my body with Deet. Fair. But members of our group who thought the same thing were spraying themselves all over with it a few days in. It works. Also check out Sawyer products with Picaridin. I find the Lotion works extremely well on exposed skin then I sprayed my clothes with the Deet.
Bring an anti-itch hydrocortisone cream or gel. We really liked the Benadryl topical gel which also worked well for sunburns.
Water – It’s become a personal mission of mine to cut back on the amount of plastic water bottles I use. I began researching filtered bottles to bring along which led me to the ultralight GRAYL. Rayne had just come back from Africa where she used a GRAYL to drink from a river! As soon as she told me that I ordered one and it’s probably one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. A lifesaver when you find yourself without bottled water in the middle of the night or need to brush your teeth and forgot to buy a bottle the night before. It holds 16 ounces of water which doesn’t sound like a lot but I never found it to be a problem as it’s so easy to refill. I’ve never tried the Life Straw but the way the Grayl works is you pull out the middle cylinder with the lid, fill the container with water to the fill line then reinsert the cylinder and push down on the lid. Done. Clean water. Some reviewers on Amazon have a real problem pushing the cylinder down, the trick is to loosen the lid which relieves the pressure. This process takes less than 15 seconds when done correctly. One of our friends didn’t think $60 was worth it when you probably wouldn’t spend that much on bottles of water. Good point. But the personal satisfaction I felt in using less plastic and knowing I will have it for future travels made it well worth it.
Body/Face Lotion / Aloe
Immodium / Pepto
Antihistamine / Benadryl
What we didn’t bring and wish we had – Dramamine for long, gassy car rides
What we were glad we brought – A scented travel candle
WHAT TO WEAR
-The guys in our group wore shorts, t-shirts, tropical button down shirts, and guayaberas.
-A nice pair of long pants for going out at night. Linen if you have them.
-Really comfortable sneakers/walking shoes that go from day to night, flip flops.
-Long pants and socks for horseback riding.
*Note on wearing shorts in the humidity: Apparently the guys had pretty bad chafing issues which I found equally a problem in denim shorts.
Ladies… We did well with sundresses, skirts and leggings during the day.
-My most comfortable outfits were skirts with Thinstincts Spanx underneath. They’re thin and not hot. If you get black, they just look like shorts underneath your skirts. ;o)
SPANX Thinstincts Shorts
-We didn’t bring jeans although we saw people wearing them. I think it depends on what time of the year you’re there.
-Comfortable pair of sneakers for the day with good support.
-Flip Flops for the beach and inside your quarters.
-Nice pair of shoes for going out. I brought a really comfortable pair of ankle boots to dress up sundresses for night. A good pair of flats or appropriate sneakers would also work.
-We each brought a light jacket which I found very useful in Vinales where the temperature was cooler than the city.
If your flat-arched sneakers aren’t great for all day walking and you desire more support, try SuperFeet insoles. They’re expensive but will last a few years and are great for your feet. I also use poron inserts in shoes that need extra padding. They are thin and so incredibly comfortable.
Most webpages will advise you not to break in any new shoes. Luckily we had a lot of band-aids for one of our members who decided to try it anyway.
You can get light travel backpacks on Amazon for about $10 which I highly recommend. They fold down to nothing and are durable and water resistant. A couple people in our group used their regular shoulder strap day bags / purses with no issues. Because I carry a camera around with me, I use sling backpacks with padded straps. Years ago while traveling China, I carried my camera and personal items in a shoulder bag and after many hours of walking, day after day, I started to get shoulder and hip pains.
Toilet paper is to be discarded in trash bins only. You’ll be happy you brought those travel tissue packs when out and about, not all bathrooms have toilet paper.
Apparently paying higher prices in hotels doesn’t necessarily guarantee you quality plumbing and hot showers. A Conde Nast podcast we listened to said when staying in a hotel, test the toilets and shower right away and ask for a room transfer if there are any issues. In a Casa Particular you don’t necessarily have that option.
Plumbing is very inconsistent. The one hotel we stayed in Soroa had the best beds and the worst plumbing. Showers trickled and the toilets flushed… sometimes. We also experienced inconsistent water temps. I think in the 10 days we traveled, we only had a good warm shower on the last night. Some of our friends had an occasional hot shower, others mostly cold. Don’t expect the same level of conveniences as home.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotels – We’ve talked with people who have stayed at the nicest hotels and were not necessarily impressed. They are also extremely expensive.
Case Particulars – We opted for Casa Particulars, homes owned by private owners made available to travelers through AirBnB and the Cuba Junky App.
AirBnB – We tried to book rooms in advance whenever possible, mostly so we could use our credits cards in the States and not have to carry additional cash to cover lodging. If you’re looking for casas in Havana, AirBnB is the way to go. However, we wanted to visit Santiago de Cuba and Vinales which had limited options through AirBnB.
Cuba-Junky.com – There are casas listed here but you won’t be able to contact them through the site. You’ll have to download an app for $5 (iOS) and will then have access to email addresses for home owners. The casas in the app aren’t as well organized as AirBnB, since we were looking for lodging with 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms minimum, we had to scroll through every option in the list but were very happy with the choices we made.
If you’re staying in a Casa Particular, they will usually provide laundry services for about 5 CUC and breakfast for 5 CUC.
Havana Viejo – Old Havana. Kind of like the French Quarter in New Orleans. When you hear that this area is teeming with foreigners they’re not kidding. Wall to wall tourists. At first I was put off by this but when you look past the scores of people to the 17th century architecture, cobble-stoned streets, and massively tall, solid wood doors. It’s gorgeous but I’m glad we didn’t stay here.
A note for photographers, the Cubanos in traditional dress pay for a license to do so so they will expect to be paid 1 or 2 CUCs when you shoot them.
Centro – Centro looks like a bomb went off and the facade of the buildings just melted off. If you like that sort of thing it’s just beautiful! We loved this area, not too crowded, a fair amount of Cubans live here, and within walking distance to Old Havana.
Vedado – The favorite spot for Cubanos. This is the modern part of the city, the business district. The most bars, clubs, cafes, are here. You’ll see school children and get a sense of daily life for Cubans living in Havana.
Miramar – The upscale area with mansion size homes close to the beach. We didn’t spent too much time here. We did have two meals and landed in a club with bottle service by accident.
WHERE TO EAT
Government Run Restaurants – Mostly at hotels are not that great. We had a buffet at the Hotel Naccional which seemed amazing for 20 CUC but trust me, not that good. Except for the desserts. They were great.
Paladars – It’s strange. Paladars are private restaurants run by individuals who have converted their homes and are open to the public. There are tiny ones with just a handful of tables and there are modern beauties that transport you to St. Tropez when you sit by the pool with ocean view. We were warned that the food was just ok in Cuba. Wrong! We had excellent meals, all at paladars, with portions so large there was no way we could finish. Most paladars offer a simple menu of pork, chicken, and fish. Rice and beans are a staple (the beans in Cuba are outrageously delicious), sometimes you get a plate of sliced cucumber, tomatoes, and cabbage, then for dessert–flan, ice cream, and usually a yummy chocolate dish. If you want to take your leftovers with you, not so easy. Paladars are not equipped with take out containers. One night we tried to pour everything into a plastic bag. Messy.
It’s not as bad as you think, you just have to know what you’re doing. Sometimes your casa particular will offer WiFi for a fee, we purchased cards from hotels or ETECSA telecommunication centers for $1.50 to $2 per hour. Buy a few of them in the beginning of your trip for convenience. When lines are long it can sometimes take an hour just to buy a card!
Then you need to find a wifi hotspot. Look for crowds of people sitting and staring at their phones. Usually in a square, a hotel, or near certain public buildings.
The card will have a username and password–connect to your browser, sign in, and you’re on! We heard nightmare stories about dial up speeds but we found the wifi to be ok. We didn’t try to download anything but in general posting to FB, Instagram, texting, and checking email was effortless.
The nicer hotels are really expensive, Hotel Nacional sold cards for 7 CUCs for one hour! In Centro, Hotel Deauville sells them for 2 CUC.