My travel tips for one week in Cuba

Ever since Emily and I went to Cuba, I've gotten so many questions about getting visas, planning trips, and recommendations of where to go - so I thought it might be helpful to share all my tips publicly! I know I said it before, but traveling to Cuba was an absolute breeze. The process is more intimidating than it is actually cumbersome, and I'd say this was one of my less complicated trips because it was easy and almost preferable to wing everything instead of make detailed itineraries in advance. 

So keep on reading for tips on visa, money, lodging, transport, internet, and places to go!

FIRST THINGS FIRST.

I wanted to say a couple things about traveling to Cuba in general, that will be a good preface for everything to follow:

  1. Cuba has a lot of informal infrastructure for tourism – meaning that they’re used to tourists and there are lots of transportation and lodging option, but it’s hard to get a clear answer and book ahead. A lot of things don't have websites that allow you to purchase spots in advance.
  2. We did pretty much no planning or booking prior to the trip, and as a serious planner, usually, I was pleasantly surprised that Cuba is a place where you can totally wing it! It probably was better that we hadn't planned very much. We knew we would spend some days in Havana, and the rest in Trinidad or Cienfuegos, but that was the extent of our itinerary.
  3. Do not worry about the visa AT ALL. More to come in the next section.
  4. Unless you’re super assertive about bargaining, you’re probably going to get ripped off – but it’s still cheap even when you do. We ended up just going with most of the first quoted prices for everything because it didn’t feel worth the effort to bargain, and we felt guilty arguing over $2 extra dollars when they needed the money more than we did.
  5. Buy (or read online) the Lonely Planet guide – this was our bible (we carried it everywhere) and a lot of what I say is already in and/or elaborated on in the book

PLZ HALP: HOW DO I GET A VISA?

Short answer: Do not get yourself worked up about the visa. It will be okay. And easy.

(Note, all this pertains to U.S. travelers.) When you book your flight, you are asked to choose one of the 12 authorized travel reasons for going. This sounds super official and strict but it is not - the definitions of each reason is pretty broad. If you want to read them all, be my guest! (The transportation code details are here - keep clicking "next" to see the guidelines.) My recommendation would be to choose journalistic activities (which technically includes freelance blogging, so any social media post should qualify) or support for the Cuban people.

So - choose a travel reason when you book your ticket. When you get to the airport (or the last airport in the U.S. before going to Cuba, if you're taking a connecting flight), you'll buy your visa for $50 at check-in or at the gate. After this, you probably won’t be asked about the actual visa details again - you'll just have to show it at customs when you arrive in Cuba. Remember: Cuba wants the tourism; they're not going to question you. And you bought this flight through an established airline - you're not being sketchy!

WHAT SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT MONEY?

Short answer: Cash is your friend, and you will awkwardly be carrying an uncomfortable amount.

Plan on only using cash, which means you should bring a lot of cash on your person when traveling to Cuba. This feels weird, I know. You will exchange for local currency at the airport. There are technically two different currencies, but don’t think about it – you’ll only use one - the "convertibles" or CUCs. The other one is for locals, and unless you're really on a budget, it isn't worth the headache to think about.

There are a handful of ATMs at hotels and other places in major cities, but I would highly recommend not to count on these, as all transactions will happen in cash and you'll be out of luck if those ATMs don't work.

As for how much to bring, we spent ~$600 over 8 days, which included our lodging (we stayed at $30/night casas), cabs, food - literally everything. I don't feel that we were extravagant travelers, but we also weren't watching our spending.

OTHER TIPS WHEN I BOOK MY TRIP?

Short answer: Be flexible and embrace island time!

As for other tips, I'd just recognize that it'll take a couple hours from your arrival in Cuba to actually getting to the city (Havana or wherever you're going) due to lines getting through customs, exchanging money, and getting your bags. So let the island time kick-in as soon as you land! 

You also might want to consider flying out of a different airport than you started - we flew out of the Santa Clara airport, which was in the middle of the island, because we wanted to go to Trinidad. This allowed us to save ~4 hours of driving back to Havana to fly.

ALRIGHT, WHAT CITIES SHOULD I GO tO?

Short answer: If you’re only in Cuba for <1 week, I wouldn’t recommend going to more than 2 places and no place that’s 2+ hours away.

Our itinerary roughly was Havana (3 nights), Trinidad (3 nights), and Cienfuegos (only for a night). If we had more time, I would have loved to go to Vinales and further east on the island - but Trinidad, being four hours away, was the most distance we could afford in a week. I have heard that Varadero is over-rated unless you're all about the beach, because it's very resort-y and there isn't much else to do there - but we didn't go, so I can't say for sure.

I suggest doing a quick bit of research and Google Image searching before narrowing your list of cities. Havana and Cienfuegos are great places to find food and bars and city life; Trinidad and Vinales are beautiful for the scenery and photogenic shots; other places are known for their beaches, snorkeling/scuba diving, and other activities. So, depending on what you're interested in doing, you might land on a different set of cities to visit!

Note: We found out that Cienfuegos is better to get to the Santa Clara airport than Trinidad - so if you're thinking of flying out of that airport, keep that in mind when planning your itinerary!

HOW DO I GET FROM A TO B?

Short answer: Taxis are your friend, unless you're really on a budget.

We took taxis everywhere – this is probably the easiest. The local buses are way cheaper ($2-$5 for a day pass, versus $2-5 per taxi ride) but will require a bit more time to figure out and less efficient. For us, it was worth the time to spend a couple more dollars to get places faster. You just wave some old car down and negotiate a rate. Most of the time, we were able to get across town for $5. Going from Havana to Vedado might be $10 at most.

We also took taxi collectivos between cities, which were often shared with other tourists going to the same place (i.e., informal UberPOOL / Lyft Line). Our trip from Havana to Trinidad, which was 4 hours away, was ~$40 per person - but I would try to negotiate to $30 per person. You can ask your casa particulares host to call someone they know to arrange this (they usually pick up where you’re staying) and tell you the price. This will also make you less likely to get ripped off.

If they don’t know anyone, you can take a taxi to the tourist bus terminal (in Havana) where you can arrange a taxi collectivos in person, which is what we did. Remember this tourist bus terminal is not near anything you'd want to see in town - it's out of the way and NOT the same as the Viazul bus terminal. It’s a good idea to arrange taxi collectivos 1-2 days in advance of when you want to go, as they tend to fill up, especially around peak times.

Note that there is a decent bus system (Viazul) that has routes between cities and you can book these online in advance - they are super affordable. The downsides of doing this are they might be less comfortable and are not door-to-door service; however, these might allow you to make firmer plans.

WHAT'S MY SLEEPING SITCH?

Short answer: Stay in casas if you're not in a big group.

If you’re in a small group (less than three) I’d recommend staying in casa particulares (family’s homes that they rent out to tourists, i.e., informal Airbnb). These are hard to book online but if you ask your taxi from the airport to drop you off downtown, local Cubans will probably approach you asking if you need . There are a ton, so you can browse a couple before deciding. This is probably the most authentic experience.

If you don’t want to wing it, you can find some casas on Airbnb, but they might be more hostel-like and might be more expensive than they would be if you just showed up.

The casas we stayed at in each city we went were:

  1. This Airbnb in Havana: It was more hostel-like than home-stay, and in between two central neighborhoods (so not really immediately near anything). It was fine but you might want something more intimate (with a family) and more central. 
  2. Maricela's casa in Trinidad: This was SUCH a wonderful find in Trinidad - we stumbled upon her right after we arrived in our taxi in Trinidad. She has a beautiful home, only two blocks from the central Plaza Mayor. It was only 30 CUCs / night, with an additional 5 CUCs for breakfast every morning - which I highly recommend. Her nieces help prepare the food, and it was such a good array of fruit, breads, eggs, croquetas, and of course, Cuban coffee! She doesn't speak much English, but her kindness and warmth translate - she was so welcoming, and even invited us to her family's New Year's celebration!
    1. Address: Calle San Jose, 261
  3. Danay and Osmany's casa in Cienfuegos: We found Danay through Maricela - this is one of her friends! (The beauty of staying at casas - all the work is cut out for you!) Her home was also central (4 blocks from the central plaza) and magnificent. In the center, it had this lovely courtyard where we had breakfast. She made these wonderful arepas - yum! She hosts Americans often, so her English is quite good, and it was similarly affordable - 30 CUCs / night! 
    1. Telephone: +53(43)593655
    2. Email: danayvm77@nauta.cu
    3. Address: Calle 33, 6017 e/ Calle 60 y 62

I NEED TO POST DAILY INSTA UPDATES. WILL I HAVE ACCESS TO THE INTERWEBZ?

Short answer: You might not want to get your hopes up; we barely used internet and it was great.

Some major hotels have computer stations, but it’s not great or necessarily reliable - and you don't have access on your phone, which I'm guessing you want. We did get wireless access at one restaurant (Restaurant Mirador) in Trinidad, but other than that, we were happy and fine to be unplugged for the trip. There’s some wireless card you can buy and pay by the minute, but we didn’t do that so I can’t say much here!

WHERE DO I ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO GO?

Short answer: I honestly think you might be better off reading the Lonely Planet guide or reading other blogs :)

I can share some of my favorite places, but I highly recommend reading some blogs or the guidebook on your flight over to find those hidden gems and magical places, as the ones I'm listing are only a few and are definitely just my opinion! I also would say that walking around the towns are equally interesting and f

HAVANA:

  1. Fabrica de Arte Cubano is a really cool warehouse filled with local art and music and has a bar– like something super hipster you’d go to in Chelsea in New York. SUPER cool to go to in the evening
  2. La Guarida is this super famous restaurant – you should try to get a reservation. We tried but couldn’t and they were full every night, but we heard from friends that it was the best meal they ever ate
  3. It’s nice to walk in Old Havana and at the old fort (across the bay) – but pretty touristy. Probably worth half a day to a full day
  4. Vedado is a super trendy neighborhood with up and coming art scenes (and emerging gay culture) - we didn’t spend a ton of time there but there were lots of trendy-looking restaurants and shops. A few fun things in this neighborhood:
    1. There was a jazz club (La Zorro y el Cuervo) which looked super fun but the line was always too long when we tried to go...
    2. Heladeria Coppelia is their famous ice cream place – it’s in Vedado
    3.  If you want a pool day, you can pay $22 to go to Hotel Nacional Cubana (also in Vedado) and use their pool. You get $15 worth of food/drink credit (so really it’s $7 to use the place)

TRINIDAD

  1. El Nicho isn't technically in Trinidad, but it's in between Trinidad & Cienfuegos - it's an amazing natural reserve with tons of waterfalls and swimming pools, in the hills of Parque Natural Topes de Collantes. See my blog post on it!
  2. Disco Ayala is a dance club / disco tech on top of a hill on the outskirts of town - IN A CAVE! It's build inside a natural cave, and you have to walk down the stairs to actually get inside. It's about a 7 min walk up the hill and a $5 CUC entrance fee (which includes one drink) - all the locals will tell you to go, because when else do you party in a cave?
  3. Playa Ancon is the nearby beach - you can get on the bus for $5 roundtrip or get a $5 cab each way. It was crowded but a great place to relax and get a tan! There's a bar nearby where you can get cocktails, and people come around with little pizzas and coconut cocktails if you're unable to move from your horizontal position :)
  4. On the way to or back from the beach, stop by Grill Caribe, which is run by our casa mama Maricel's brother-in-law! It's right on the beach, so you actually get a bit more private beach time than if you go to Playa Ancon; and they have great food and strong drinks to keep you full and satisfied!

Anyway, that's pretty much all I can say about our trip planning and logistics, I think! If you have other questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to respond! :)