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It’s still easier than ever to travel to Cuba, even with revised restrictions in 2018. Already most U.S. citizen may visit under the educational activities license although significant restrictions apply. And now multiple U.S. airlines have been approved to schedule flights from twelve American cities to ten Cuban destinations. Here’s what you need to know to plan legal and cheap travel to Cuba.
History Is Made: Travel To Cuba Opens Up
On March 22, 2016 President Obama addressed a packed house at the Gran Teatro de la Havana in Havana, Cuba. It was the first time in nearly 90 years that a sitting US president stepped on Cuban soil, and he was there to announce plans to lift the United States’ 50-year embargo on Cuba. I stood outside the theater with my son, Alex, grateful that we were able to be there and thrilled that now more Americans could have this opportunity.
As a journalist, I already qualified to visit Cuba under one of 12 General Licenses, although I was only allowed to bring one companion. But with thawing relations, it would be easier to qualify under the educational activities license, where a “people to people” exchange includes direct personal contact with Cubans, promoting relationships and understanding. Now the rest of my family can fulfill dreams of exploring Cuba; and in fact, my daughter followed me there shortly.
Book a Flight to Cuba
In upcoming months, it will be possible to search any online booking site for flights from U.S. cities to various Cuban destinations. In the meantime, you can use Skyscanner.com to locate flights on international carriers or you can check directly with these U.S. airlines: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Spirit Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and Sun Country Airlines.
From the Northeast, you can find direct flights to Cuba from Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. With a favorable Canadian exchange rate, it’s also well worth looking at flights from Montreal or Toronto. I was able to get a round trip flight from Montreal to Havana for a little over $300 USD, and the reasonable park and ride option at Aloft Montreal Airport was much cheaper than anything comparable at NYC airports.
Cuba Visa – Tourist Card Requirement
Visitors are required to present a visa, commonly referred to as a Tourist Card, when entering Cuba. Currently, visitors on flights originating in the U.S. should plan to spend about $50 USD to purchase the visa at their airport. Expect to pay $25-30 USD to buy the visa in the Mexico City airport, while passengers flying direct from Canada receive the free Tourist Card on the flight.
Returning to the U.S. is fairly easy and seems to run on an honor system. But it is recommended to keep a record of your itinerary for five years so that you can prove that you fulfilled the terms of the license used to visit Cuba. But why not have fun with this? A photo album with photos of new Cuban friends and interesting attractions should more than satisfy any requirements.
Mandatory Travel Insurance for Travel to Cuba
All foreign nationals must have travel health insurance to enter Cuba. You may not be asked to show proof upon entry, but why risk it? At about $3/day (a little more if you plan risky activities such as scuba diving or rock climbing) it’s a bargain for a little peace of mind. Get it before you go from Asistur S.A. online at Cuban Adventures.
Accommodations In Cuba
Booking a hotel in Cuba can be an adventure in itself. Online hotel booking sites don’t carry the listings, and hotel websites (and often the physical location) leave a lot to be desired.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts was the first to sign a deal allowing a U.S. hospitality management of two properties: Hotel Inglaterra, a landmark in Old Havana, and Hotel Quinta Avenida, soon to become a Four Points by Sheraton hotel.
If price is no object, Havana offers a number of high-end luxury hotels including: Parque Central, an Iberostar property; Hotel Nacional de Cuba, well worth touring even if not staying onsite; and Hotel Saratoga, popular with celebrities.
For those of us on a tight budget, AirBnB.com lists an extensive selection of rooms and even full apartments, often with breakfast and helpful host included. My first stay at an AirBnB.com property was at a lovely colonial home in the quiet Vendado neighborhood of Havana. Jose, our host, came out to greet our taxi and helped us with our luggage before offering Cuba Libres on the rooftop garden. Over the next few days, we shared many delightful conversations as he helped us plan our stay while offering insight into what it’s really like to live in Cuba. I consider this one of the top “people to people” exchanges of our entire visit.
Probably the most challenging aspect of touring Cuba as a U.S. citizen is that it’s cash only. You can’t withdraw money at ATMs and U.S.-based credit cards are not accepted anywhere. Plus, there is a penalty for exchanging U.S. currency (we requested Euros from our bank at home to avoid the extra fee.)
Experts recommend bringing $100 USD/per person/per day, but that number will vary according to what you want to do on the island. I brought a little less than that, and had already paid for accommodations. I had more than enough for food, excursions, and taxis (airport to Vendado was about $30 USD, while most local trips averaged $5 USD.) But I had to choose between activities (scuba diving, although relatively cheap at about $60 for 2 dives, was a budget buster toward the end of our trip) and we didn’t buy any souvenirs.
WiFi in Cuba
If you want to get off the grid, then Cuba is the place to go. Wifi access is hard to find, expensive when available, and slow as molasses regardless of price. I found that a mojito went a long way toward sweetening what was a true annoyance as I had to walk several blocks to reach a hotel with WiFi access, and then it was only available in a crowded, windowless room at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
Since then, I learned that the ETECSA Wifi card can be purchased at a number of hotels and ETECSA centers. (Find Wifi on the island on this list published by Tripadvisor, current as of December 2015.) Scratch off the card to reveal a passcode that can be used to get online wherever there is Wifi access (with more available since Cuba opened up 35 new Wifi spots this summer.)
Finding educational activities and “people to people” exchanges can be as easy as taking a walk in Old Havana. For a good overview of what to do, check out my list of best Cuban excursions. Many destinations in Cuba can be easily and cheaply reached on your own via Viazul bus. But for greater insight and a little hand holding, consider a guided experience. Both short day tours and overnight excursions from the following providers:
- Cuban Adventures | Urban Adventures (I used this service to buy medical insurance online and to book a walking tour in Havana.)
- Cubatur – (I used this agency to arrange an excursion to Trinidad, Cuba.)
- Authentic Cuba
- Classic Journeys
- Cuba Nature Travel
- Cuba Unbound
Havana Photo Tour
Havana is a very walkable city; on the first day, I logged in 12 miles just because I lost track of time and distance photographing vintage cars, lovely architecture, and about a gazillion fascinating Cuban portraits. Here are a few must-see stops in Havana:
Stretching for 5 miles along the coast of Havana, the Malecón seawall buzzes with activity day and night.
Vintage taxis can be hired for about $30USD for a two-hour tour of Havana, including photo opps like this one in front of Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Look for taxis offering tours in front of major hotels and other touristic stops.
Circle Plaza de la Revolución where, in addition to a central tower, you will find large murals of heroic guerilleros Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on government building facades.
In Old Havana, you’ll want to see El Capitolio. Once Cuba’s seat of government, the National Capitol Building is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. It sits next to a lovely park where, interestingly enough, you’ll find a statue of Abraham Lincoln, and the tree-lined Paseo del Prado, a promenade extending from the Capitolio to the Morro fort.
Located at the end of the Paseo del Prado, where it intersects the Malecón, Morro Castle guards Havana Bay. Every night, at 9pm, you can view the reenactment of the firing of the canon. Note that this is a popular activity; get there early (as early as 7pm) to pick up tickets before crossing the bridge into the fort and to get a good spot close to the action.
Tucked in a hidden corner of Old Havana, Callejón de Hamel (Hamel’s Alley) brings Afro-Cuban to colorful life. Walk through anytime to see mosaics, murals, and sculptures inspired by the Santeria religion that grew out of Cuba’s slave trade. If you can, drop by on Sundays at noon for lively rumba performances or schedule a guided tour that also includes a visit to sculptor Salvador Gonzales Escalona’s studio in addition to the dance exhibition.
Some of the most stunning architecture you’ll see in all of Havana is found at Colon Cemetery. Covering more than 140 acres with over 2.5 million burials, you could spend an entire day trying to see it all or just a short stroll to get the gist of it.
If you only have time to see one burial site, make it to that of Amelia Goyri, “La Milagrosa.” The legend goes that after she died in childbirth, her husband visited every day. When the remains were eventually exhumed, it is said that the bodies were intact, with mother embracing son, symbolizing maternal love. Today, the tomb is easy to spot because there’s a steady stream of patrons lining up to offer prayers for safe births at the site.
The Beatles live on in Cuba. In Havana, you can have your picture taken with one of the rock stars at Parque John Theodore Lennon in Vedado. The park is located next to the Submarino Yellow (Yellow Submarine) Club where you can hear live concerts, Monday-Saturday 9pm-2am for only $5USD.
Mojitos sipped on the lawn overlooking the Malecon at Hotel Nacional de Cuba is one of those sublime, iconic experiences that you must do when in Havana. For those of us with a sweet tooth, however, Coppelia Ice Cream is THE not-to-be-missed treat.
Varadero Photo Tour
Hop on a Viazul bus to make the 2+ hour drive to Varadero, the popular beach town. Multiple buses are available daily for about $10 USD one way. Keep in mind, however, that as a U.S. citizen you can’t just lay out on the beach with a daiquiri. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to add educational activities in Varadero to your sun-soaked days.
Our Varadero accommodations were adequate, but not great. March is high season in the popular beach town, and most listings on AirBnb.com were taken by the time I made the booking. I was able to get a 1-bedroom apartment, with kitchenette and small balcony, for about $35 USD in easy walking distance from the main street and the beach.
While our immediate surrounding weren’t great, we were only a block from the Viazul bus station.
And on Saturday morning, we were were right next to the bustling Farmer’s Market.
There’s plenty to see and do right on the main strip in Varadero. Lots of little shops sell straw hats, leather goods, and the usual souvenirs. We found a relatively well-stocked grocery store where we bought water in bulk and breakfast cereals.
We also found a couple of cheap “fast food” stands where items were priced in “MN,” meaning Cuban pesos (each CUC converts to about 25 MN.) Note that even this fast food was served on a washable, reusable ceramic plate. I think this helps explain why you see so little trash on Cuban streets.
Our only real dining splurge in Varadero was at La Bodeguita del Medio, now found around the world, it’s known for creating the mojito at the original restaurant in Havana. I can attest that they make a mean mojito and the paella is pretty good too. Plus, we got a kick out of being encouraged to add to the graffiti adorning the building.
One of our favorite spots in town was at Josone Park. My son ran there every evening when temperatures cooled, and it happens to be right next to the Beatles Bar.
Of course, we dropped in for photos with the band, but it’s also a great place to hear live music. The stage is outdoors, overlooking Josone Park, and they serve a delicious mojito.
Across from the Beatles Bar, we found the Barracuda International Dive Center where we reserved a snorkeling trip to Playa Coral, the only nearby beach with good coral reefs, for about $35 USD per person. The beach is just far enough away that it would cost almost as much to hire a taxi out there as it does for the guided trip, and if you’re not an experienced snorkeler, it’s well worth the expense for both personal and environmental safety reasons. The center offers a number of dive trips as well as kite surfing and jet ski rentals.
The “tour bus” to Playa Coral was this beautiful blue vintage vehicle, which remained parked by the beach while we snorkeled.
The reef held several lovely coral formations and numerous fish, and I could see why they might insist on guided tours to protect the fragile ecosystem.
On the way back, they took us to Saturno Cave for an invigorating dip in a freshwater pool.
For $5 USD you can hop on and off a double-decker Varadero Beach Tour bus making stops on the main street, several attractions, and at all the resorts, with the entire trip taking about 45 minutes each way.
We took the bus out to the Varadero Iberostar resort to get a Wifi card, and ended up spending several hours exploring the beach and lounging by the pool. Employees seemed to think that we were staying at the all-inclusive because they insisted on handing us free drinks.
Trinidad Excursion Photo Tour
I booked one overnight excursion because I was told that the one place I shouldn’t miss in Cuba is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trinidad. It was a last minute relatively expensive decision–a little over $200 per person–but it was worth every penny as we saw a lot in a very short time. (My only regret was not booking it before traveling to Cuba as I had to use my dwindling reserve of cash to pay for it.)
Cuba boasts several protected environments, including the largest Caribbean wetland, the Zapata Swamp Biosphere. It’s a little cheesy for my taste and I don’t know how I feel about kids feeding the crocodiles (see above) but there’s no denying the attraction’s success. Once nearly extinct, native crocodiles are so plentiful that they now sell crocodile steaks at the Boca de Guamà restaurant next door.
We made a very brief stop to take photos at the Bay of Pigs. Definitely, the drawback to traveling with a tour group was that we couldn’t just stay for a swim as we had to stay on schedule.
Lunch at the Marinero Restaurant in Cienfuegos, Cuba was an all-you-can-eat buffet deal, but the building where the restaurant was located was magnificent. This was just one of several buildings we saw in the once wealthy city with over the top architecture.
As Cienfuegos was also home to Benny Moré, our guide introduced us to one of his best known songs, a tribute to the city, before dropping us off to see a plaza dedicated to the celebrated musician.
One of the things I most appreciated about the excursion was that there was a real effort to make it fun. When we arrived in Trinidad, even before touring the historic town square, we started with refreshments and a live band at La Canchanchara.
The remarkably well-preserved colonial town of Trinidad, whose wealth was built on the backs of slavery and the sugar industry, is perhaps a little too well maintained. My son likened it to a Disney set in that it doesn’t seem real. And as it happens, even a short stroll past the perfectly painted town square, brings you to dilapidated alleys where you might find locals making items to sell to tourists.
We spent the night at a private home in the nearby town of Boca. This small fishing community seemed to be thriving with new industry, but I suspect this had much to do with folks renting out rooms to tourits. Alex and I shared a simple but clean air-conditioned room at the home of a young mom who provided dinner and breakfast. I got to chat with both mother and daughter, commiserating over how to keep kids from spending too much time on electronic screens.
In Sancti Spiritus, I broke off from the tour group. While the others viewed historic buildings and Cuba’s oldest bridge in one the island’s first European settlements, I wandered off and found a much quirkier attraction. The Guayabera Museum exhibits nearly 200 of what is considered Cuba’s official shirt (legend suggests that a local seamstress invented the garment when she sewed patches on her husband’s shirt so that he could carry home guavas) and it boasts the world’s largest.
Probably the best part of the tour was that we covered a lot of history in a very short period of time. From Cuba’s oldest settlements and a discussion of slavery and the sugar industry, we turned to Cuba’s ongoing revolution. In Santa Clara we began at the Che Gueverra Monument and Museum where troops of soldiers were preparing for a major presentation.
Then we hustled over to the Tren Blindado, a memorial to a major turning point in the Cuban Revolution that I had never heard of before. But that’s the beauty of travel to Cuba. You get to see and experience perspectives that may be new and unfamiliar, but worthy of consideration.
I missed some of the luxuries that I am accustomed to in the U.S.–unlimited and easily accessible Wifi topping the list–but I also appreciated the break from constantly being online. Generally, as a privileged American visitor, I kept finding that for anything missing, there was something gained. Cuba is definitely worth visiting right now, but I think that ten days isn’t enough. I’ll just have to return to fully appreciate all that this fascinating island has to offer.