Hi, everyone! Hope you are well and have been taking care of yourselves. I know I am!
After two years of not taking a vacation (ie: not a work trip), I FINALLY took some time off and completely disconnected on the beautiful island of Cuba.
A few of my girlfriends and I booked a trip to Cuba earlier this year during one of Jet Blue’s God-sent flash-sales. We stayed for about four days and explored the deep variety of history and culture the Caribbean nation has to offer– and there is A WHOLE LOT OF IT.
In short– during the early 1950’s and 60’s, Cuba experienced their history-making revolution as an army, led by Fidel Castro, rebelled against dictator Fulgencio Batista. It took many years but eventually, it was one of the only successful rebellions in history… ever, but the new regime came with its’ own faults and led to conflict within the island and with other countries like the U.S. In the 60s, America put its’ own trade embargo in place that hindered economic growth on the island and many of the terms are still held over 50 years later. (Read up on a more full version of Cuba’s riddled political history, here) Many believe that this is one of the main reasons Cuba seems to be “stuck in time.” When you go, it literally feels like you are on a movie set or time-traveling.
There aren’t many advertisements, no traffic, no digital billboards, or anything. Many of the buildings are ruins, but with the vibrant colors of the city and the weather on the island, I’d recommend going there anytime!
The best thing I did in Cuba was talk to the people there. The residents of Cuba are so welcoming, it’s alarming at first. As Americans, we immediately think that someone is trying to get over on us when they are too nice. In most of the cases, the people there really wanted to know where you were from and to have a conversation about life. They are in love with American culture and can’t wait to meet anyone who travels over there. So SPEAK when you go!
Just based on the numbers of DM’s I received, a lot of people have yet to travel to Cuba and want to go, but need to know more information about what you should prepare for as you make travel plans. I will make a separate post on where I stayed, what I did, and a video blog of my experience there. For now, let’s start with the basics.
I’ve listed several things you’ll need to know before you travel below. Hope this helps!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
1. You’ll need to research your reason for travel in order to be approved to get a flight/visa for entrance in to the country.
As we all know, 45 made undid Obama’s steps to normalize relations between the US and Cuba right after he entered in to office. BUT, you can travel to Cuba. You just gotta be woke. Basically, American citizens can no longer travel to the country for “People-to-people” trips without an organized group tour. The sanctions made in the 60s, and the ones we have now, are in place to deter independent travelers from going to the country and spending money with the government, who owns many of the hotels and tourist attractions in Cuba.
So it’s quiet for “People to People.”
Nevertheless, you can travel by selecting one of the following options when filling out the Visa application– humanitarian and religious travel; family visits; journalistic activity; professional research; and participation in public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions.
I am a journalist so I selected the obvious. The NYTimes has a great article explaining the restrictions more in-depth. Check it out, here. When I landed on the island, I was super nervous about going through customs, but it was a fairly smooth process. You will be given forms on your plane ride over to declare whatever you’re bringing or doing during your stay. Have those and your Visa, along with your Passport in hand when you get in line. It’s a fairly easy process.
I was stopped on my way out of the airport and it scared me, not even going to lie. I’m not sure why I was stopped but they searched through my bags and made me stand on a special machine I had never seen before to scan my body and clothing for who knows what. It was scary. I played it cool and got on my flight. But, CHILE– I PRAYED the WHOLE TIME!
2. Cuba’s currency exchange rate for USD to CUC (the Cuban currency) is horrible.
There are no national banks in Cuba, so make sure you budget your trip and bring cash with you. This is a cash-only island and you CAN run out of money. Do yourself a favor and bring some extra funds. I foolishly bought $420.00 USD for the whole trip (4 days) and exchanged it at the airport. I only for about 380 back in CUC’s.
I’ve heard that if you exchange your cash for the trip to Canadian dollars in the US before you go, you’ll get back more CUC’s as the rate is a little better. (**UPDATE: A few of my followers also told me that the exchange rate is even better if you do USD -> EUROS -> CUC’s) I made it off of about 100/day. BUT, if you like shopping, bring a little more because they have the cutest shops in Old Havana that I’m kicking myself about not having enough to buy what I saw!
With cabs (which can be about 10-20 each way, depending on where you are going), you should keep about 100 on you.
3. There is barely any Wifi in Cuba.
When I say Cuba is a step back in time, I am NOT joking. There are several national hotels that have Wifi you can pay to use by buying something in their cafes or paying for a Wifi card. Luckily, our Air Bnb got Wifi days before we landed and it worked pretty well. Try to look for Air Bnb’s with Wifi, if you can. There aren’t many of them, but this trip is about disconnecting so don’t plan to be too attached to your phone. You can turn on your international calling to check in with your family and friends once a day, but it is expensive! Just be aware.
4. Many of the 1950’s vintage cars are Taxi’s or tours.
One of the most exciting parts of my vacation was riding around in a vintage 1950’s convertible with my girls. [Warning: There’s no need to do your hair in Cuba with the humidity and the wind– especially when you are riding around and getting it. Don’t waste your time] Many of those cars are just taxi’s that you can hail a la New York City, but some of them are a part of different tour companies. We found our dope pink car right outside of the National Hotel, which is a major landmark in Cuba and a cute place to have a drink. They also have a cafeteria that is open late and it saved us one night when we were looking for food. They charged us about 60 CUC’s to take us to three different places, one of which included a restaurant that had a photo of Beyonce right at the front from her time there. We also saw the landmark statue of Jesus, “El Cristo de la Habana” that overlooks all of the city. It’s beautiful. Y’all know I got my life, in Jesus’ name.
5. If you aren’t fluent in Spanish, download a translation app that will work offline.
If you aren’t fluent in Spanish, do yourself a favor and download Google Translate or iTranslate from the App Store before you head to the airport. Many of the locals in hotels, restaurants, and in the actual city of Havana speak both English and Spanish, but we ran in to many situations that we needed to refer back to our grade school classes for small things, or use an app to save us from the language barrier. A lot of taxi driver’s don’t speak both, but they will try to get you to pay more than what’s needed if you don’t negotiate your ride.
I found these phrases helpful when I was there for negotiation purposes. “Cuanto cuesto” for “How Much?” and “Eses mucho,” if they charge you too much. Most cab rides should be 10 CUC’s per ride, unless you are going to the beach. We went to Santa Maria Del Mar and it was about 20 CUC’s per ride. The beach is really nice! I will tell y’all more about it in the places I went to post that’s coming soon.
6. There’s no need for stiletto heels in Cuba.
You’ll do a lot of walking in Cuba and a lot of the sidewalks are messed up, and there are cobblestone roads in many areas in Havana. Save your ankle the pain and wear wedges, flats, or cute sneakers!
7. The food… is average.
I KNOW! I KNOW! It’s hard to believe but the food in Cuba is not like Cuban food in America. I am not sure if seasoning is apart of trade restrictions with other countries but most of the food is bland. Nonetheless, it is VERY fresh. But they don’t cook their meats for a long time. I sent back bacon and couldn’t finish a meal of Oxtails I ordered at La Guarida. Bring hot sauce. They do have salt, pepper, oil and vinegar at most places. The best meal I had was the chicken with rice and beans. Pack snacks!
UPDATE: Many of my friends said the food they had was good. Guess we went to the wrong places. BUT my Tameika (@lovebird_monroe on IG) said she met an incredible tour guide named Randy. He has an iPhone and his number is +53 52442491.
PLUS: Make room on your phone or camera for BOMB pics! EVERYTHING is a MOMENT!
My friends and I had WAY too much fun taking photos. We had TOO much content. It was overwhelming. The streets of old Havana are lined with beauty. Take it all in and savor each moment. Not every moment needs a photo but just be ready for a REALLY good time!
***THE COFFEE THERE IS INCREDIBLE.*** It’s the BEST I’ve ever had, and YOU KNOW ME! Dare I say, it was better than Sta… Never mind.
***DO NOT DRINK THE WATER THERE.*** Be careful with even using it to brush your teeth, depending on how sensitive your stomach is, you could find yourself to be a little queasy. Buy extra water bottles.
Overall, my visit to Cuba was incredible. I would love to go back sometime soon!
If there are any questions you have that weren’t answered here, DM me or comment below and I will do my best to answer them.
Check my Instagram, @giapeppers, for more photos!
Here’s me and a fine Cuban man for the road!
If you like what you read, please share with your friends and please mention me! K? K.