Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Havana
Since President Obama lifted a few travel restrictions to Cuba in December 2014, Americans have been scrambling to figure out how to get down to the elusive island. But despite the progress made towards establishing full diplomatic relations again, there's still quite a bit of confusion around how an ordinary US citizen can travel there without going through Canada first. How do you buy a flight? What visa do you need? And once you do make it through customs, where will you eat, sleep, and salsa??
Query no more! Everything you need to know before traveling to Havana is right in this guide. Flights from Miami to Jose Marti International are only 45 minutes, but down there, it's a whole other world.
You still can’t visit Cuba as a tourist
Because there must be an educational component to it. Any ordinary citizen can, however, visit so long as their reason for doing so falls under Cuban Assets Control Regulations 12 approved activity categories. They include: family visits, official government business, professional research, public performances, and religious, humanitarian, and educational activities. You can check out the full list here, but honestly, they’re not that strict.
One of the easiest ways to visit is on a people-to-people tour
You can figure out how to get down there by yourself, or you could go on one of these fully escorted cultural exchanges. Tour operators licensed for Cuba travel bring groups of about 20 people on thematic trips to learn about Cuba and its people. Here are five you can start with:
But if you do decide to go on your own...
You can just book a flight! Charters are operated by major airlines, like JetBlue and American Airlines, and CheapAir already allows people to book direct flights. There are now multiple daily flights direct from Miami.
Securing a visa is not as complicated as you might think
The US government does not issue visas for Cuba -- the US government has to authorize travel to Cuba, and then the Cuban government provides the entrance visa. The visa is either provided by the airline, or through the embassy. So if the person's reason for visiting falls safely under the 12 categories, he/she can just buy a flight through JetBlue or whatever it is, and the visa will automatically be issued with it. You can claim the visa at the airport when you check in!
Winter is peak tourist season
And the risk for hurricanes is highest from June-November. The sweet spot is in March or April.
Find hotels like you normally do on TripAdvisor
There are lots of hotels in various stages of modernity. Some are government-run, and some are “casa particulares,” which are private homes kind of like bed and breakfasts.
Or really learn the city and its people by booking through Airbnb
You’re more apt to stay in a lively, central part of the city if you stay with a local, plus Cuban people are incredibly inviting. Fifty years of austerity means Cubans are just as curious about Americans as we are about Cubans, and the exchanges you have with your host will likely be the best part of the trip. Also, it’s way better for your money go to a private citizen than the Cuban government, just saying.
Write down (with a pen!) all relevant information about where you’re staying
Phone numbers, address, everything. The very-limited-Wi-Fi thing is real.
Learn the main neighborhoods
Old Havana, or La Habana Vieja, is lively and historic with Colonial-era houses and restored plazas. Central Havana is a little quieter, and decaying terribly. People walk in the middle of the street to avoid the chunks of building that regularly smash to the ground. Vedado, where Hotel Nacional is located, is kind of the hip district with a large gay community. Residential Miramar is where you’ll find Batista-era mansions, modern hotels, and the Russian Embassy.
Havana is surprisingly walkable and safe, if not a little confusing. Google Maps hasn’t nailed down the street names just yet, so be sure to find a printed map. Walking is the only way to see Old Havana.
Take a taxi
Taxis in the form of vintage 1950s Cadillacs and Russian Ladas are centralized under the Ministry of Transport and are always cruising around. It shouldn't be hard to flag one.
Take a Coco taxi
They’re little motorized pods with two seats in the back. They’re entirely open so watch out for impending rainstorms.
A bus system exists, but the system is not particularly easy to navigate
Plus sitting in the back of a yank tank is just way more fun.
Visit the past
Museum of the Revolution, the capitol building, the Baroque Catedral de la Habana, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and Plaza Vieja -- the oldest plaza in Havana, dating from the 16th century -- are all there for your viewing.
But understand the desire for modernity
A completely fascinating aspect of contemporary Cuban society is the lack of adequate Wi-Fi. This is especially pronounced if you visit any of the various outdoor Internet hotspots around the city. There, hordes of people congregate to experience an hour of Internet connection. It’s worth checking out for educational purposes.
See the source of Cuba’s most famous exports
Check out the craft market
Most of the vendors all sell basically the same stuff -- wooden statues, jewelry, leather goods, T-shirts, art -- but it’s definitely a fun thing to walk through. Plus, 15CUC is enough cash to buy all your friends souvenirs.
Visit Hemingway’s beautiful old home, Finca Vigía
You’re not allowed in the house, but you can see his particular style of taxidermied decoration from the windows. Look closely on the bathroom wall and you’ll see where he compulsively tracked his weight.
See a baseball game
Teams play from November through May, and tickets can be bought right at Estadio Latinoamericano.
Understand that a lot of the food is pretty unremarkable
That's what years of austerity, food shortages, and government-run restaurants will do!
Find more creativity at a “paladar”
These privately owned restaurants often have way more exciting food options than the traditional, government-run ones that have been steadily falling out of favor.
But you shouldn't be turned off of restaurant dining
Know the local flavors
Ropa vieja is stewed beef with vegetables, vaca frita is fried and shredded skirt or flank steak, boliche is chorizo-stuffed pot roast, arroz con pollo is similar to paella, and Moros y Cristianos is rice and beans.
Forget about fresh fruits and vegetables
Because Cuba's farmland is mostly used for sugarcane, tobacco, and coffee and the water is undrinkable, fresh fruits and veggies are rarely on the menu.
Know that the “Cuban sandwich” is a Cuban-American construction
You’re 100% more likely to eat one of these in the Miami airport.
Drink the coffee
The espresso-size shot is silty, yet flavorful, and will keep you up all night. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Hang out on the Malecón
The long wall that runs the length of the north side of Havana is a popular local hangout. Different groups hang out along different stretches, and it’s particularly lively at night when young people congregate with bottles of rum.
Drink a cocktail the Hemingway way
The writer, as well as other famous Cuban and international intellectuals, spent time at El Floridita bar drinking its now-famous daiquiris.
Or just drink rum, generally
Lots of it. In any form you like.
See a salsa show at the famous Tropicana
Reserve a table -- shows fill up fast!
The salsa scene at the big jazz clubs is mostly tourists, to be honest. Young people these days prefer smaller bars with more contemporary, globalized music. They'll still be dancing though!
Get a taste of government-sponsored culture
Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is a giant Ministry of Culture-backed dance/art/film/food and drink forum, and THE place to be on a Saturday night if you’re one of Havana’s hip kids. Get there before 10pm though, lest you want to wait in line for an hour and a half. And that’s not an exaggeration.
See live music, duh
Don’t worry about how you’re dressed
Cuba is crazy hot and humid, so most people just dress for the weather. Shorts, tank tops, T-shirts, and sundresses are all totally acceptable.
Tipping is expected and appreciated
Since government salaries are super low, many people need tips to survive.
Don’t ever underestimate those in the service industry
Not that you would! But because of those aforementioned meager salaries, many Cubans turn to the tourist industry as they can make exponentially more money that way. It’s totally possible your restaurant server graduated at the top of her med-school class.
Become a hero to your friends back in America
You can legally bring $100 worth of cigars home.
Understand how the currency works
Cubans use the peso (CUP) for small everyday items like sandwiches. Visitors use the convertible peso (CUC), which has a much greater value than the CUP. 1 CUC = 1 USD, but you’ll be penalized 10% when you convert. The best place to exchange your money is at the CADECA (the official government exchange bureau), but you can also exchange money at airports, and many hotels such as Hotel Nacional.
You will not be able to use your bank card
Technically US credit card bans are being lifted under new regulations, but very, very few businesses are set up to support it. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find an ATM so you better bring down a bunch of cash. $100 for every day you’ll be there is a good place to start.
Internet exists if you look hard enough
You can buy an Internet card for 4.50CUC at ETESCA (the state telephone company) offices, or find Wi-Fi at various hotels like Hotel Habana Libre, Hotel Inglaterra, or Hotel Nacional.
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