Latest posts by Philip Santos Moreira (see all)
- Cuba: The Appeal of the Forbidden - August 15, 2019
- Guide to Lisbon, Portugal - June 10, 2019
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: One of Europe’s Underrated Treasures - February 11, 2017
The appeal of anything that is forbidden is always high. When you apply it to a destination 90 miles off the coast of Florida in Caribbean waters, with gorgeous pictures streaming in from Instagram and the internet of beautiful white sandy beaches, old vintage cars and colorful buildings; you have yourself a very desired location.
Only recently during the 2016 Obama era did travel open between the United States and Cuba; this has now since changed during the 2017 Trump administration era. Previously during the Obama March 2016 era this travel was technically restricted and you “must” be going only for the following select reasons:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, etc
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions etc
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exploration, importation, or transmission of information
- Certain authorized export transactions
With one or more of these reasons, you could have purchased a visit for your trip to Cuba, which you would have had to present in Cuba. The cost was typically around $75. At the airport they did not question my reasons at all nor did they do much if any probing when I returned from Cuba. The boarder agent asked “what was the reason for your trip to Cuba?” To which I replied, “education and journalistic.”
All he asked from this point was who I wrote for and my answer was as vague as “a travel website.” He did not ask anything further, welcomed me back to the U.S. and handed me my passport. The two friends I traveled back with said “educational” and they were also not questioned seriously. They stated that they stayed with Cuban families and “learned from them.” Honestly, this is all a very weak curtain for the fact Americans are basically allowed to travel to Cuba now for tourism.
Many other nationals have been traveling to Cuba since Americans have been restricted, so this article is primarily be aimed at Americans looking to now go as part of the Trump 2017 “Educational Tour” era or, perhaps you just want to read another personal experience that may or may not convince you to go.
Whatever your reason, I hope this helps in some way! Before I dive into the locations I’ll recommend, I’ll hit you with everything I learned. Perhaps I will be able to shed light on fact versus fiction as I was given some misinformation prior to leaving.
American credit cards do NOT work in Cuba so you must bring cash. My recommendation is to bring Euros for conversion. Euros are the primary currency to convert from as this gives you the best conversion rate. Lines for currency exchange will vary. I was told they are always a significant wait but I was at the counter in 15 minutes.
If you are converting from the dollar you will take an exchange hit of more than 10% after everything is done. Exchangers will give back about $86-87 Cuban Pesos for your $100 when the official equivalence is one to one. However, you can find some Cuban people willing to change their Cuban pesos for your dollars and will usually offer $90 to your $100.
I found myself in two exchanges like this; one by the security guard at the airport and another time while in Varadero. In both cases I asked why they were doing this and their responses were the same: it was advantageous for them to do business in Panama (which uses the American dollar). The Cuban that took care of us at one of our AirB&B confirmed to me this was common. I was nervous at first, thinking they may be counterfeit or I was being tricked somehow, but this did not turn out to be the case and I made out well. In fact, I enjoyed trading jokes with these people and trading information on life in Cuban and the USA.
Prior to traveling to Cuba, I was told a taxi might cost as high as $50 or as low as $25 to get to downtown, old Havana, from the airport. The same security guard I made the currency exchange with told me a normal taxi to the downtown should be $25. Since we were a group of four people, he said $30 would be a good price. Prior to getting into the taxi I confirmed this price with the driver and this is something you should always do since they rarely have a meter. Never pay anything over $25-30 otherwise you are clearly getting swindled.
Getting from town to town may be another point of interest for you if you are planning to leave Havana. Private taxis are much more reasonable than I was told they would be. A private ride from Havana to Trinidad (about 4-5-hour drive) cost us each $35 for a total of $140. Private taxi from Trinidad to Varadero (about 4-5-hour drive) was $30 each for a total of $120. Private taxi from Varadero to Havana (2-hour drive) was $22.50 each for a total of $90.
From speaking to other travelers and AirB&B hosts I learned that bus rides were typically 1-2 hours longer than private taxi and cost $25, $25, and $10-15 for trips to Havana-Trinidad, Trinidad-Varadero, and Varadero-Havana, respectively. Our situation was greatly aided by the fact we were a group of 4 people who could split an otherwise costly taxi so keep this in mind. Day trips and activities will cost proportionately more in relation to time and distance of city to city transport. For example, our 20-30-minute taxi ride (round trip) from the center of Trinidad to El Cubano Waterfall was $12.50 each for a total of $50.
Unfortunately, when eating out, we as a group did not find the food to be as amazing as we had hoped or imagined it would be. The quality seemed to be lacking in terms of spices, beef quality, and the amount of accompanying food with the main dish was little. This would change if you significantly increased the reputation of the restaurant you went to; in other words, the price and catering for tourism increased.
I was not impressed with many places we went to. This saddened me because either I had a misperception of what real Cuban food was like or we just so happen to go to places that we ended up not caring for. Average price of meals at the places we ate at were $6-10. The restaurants we happen to like were priced between $8-14 or a little more.
AirB&B breakfasts were fantastic; the variety of fruits and juice was to my taste-buds delight! You would normally receive fruit, fresh fruit juice, coffee, eggs, toast, cheese, and crackers. Eating breakfast out, which we did in Havana was also delicious and I would recommend exploring this option to try something different. AirB&B breakfasts are great, but they can become repetitive. Overall, the food was not impressive in my opinion, which was a disappointment.
AirB&B and/or a “Casa Particular” was definitely the way to stay in Cuba. Prices are very reasonable. We rented an entire home/apartment for between $30-40 each night with the exception of Varadero (tourist beach town with white sand and gorgeous aqua colored water) being $65 a night between 4 people.
All-in-all, for all seven days in Cuba we spent less than $100 each for accommodation. I found out that all-inclusive resort prices in Varadero were actually very reasonable; for around $80-120+ per night. If you do choose to go to hotels, be advised that negotiating price is always an option if you do not book in advance.
Cost of the Trip
The round-trip flight to Cuba in May of 2016 was between high $200s to low $300s for each of us. The visa to Cuba at the time cost $75. The entire week for accommodation costed us a little less than $100. Food for the entire week was around $170 each. Transport for the entire week cost us $115 each. Everything else is extra so you can estimate the cost of a similar, one-week trip to Cuba including the flight to be around $760. Again, bring cash to exchange in Cuba and I would advise bringing more than you need rather than less.
Where to Go
We only had time to effectively enjoy Havana, Trinidad and Varadero so that is all I can personally recommend and share information on. We did however speak with other travelers our age that highly recommended Vinales. If you look at a map of Cuba, you’ll find all these locations are roughly on the western side of the island of Cuba. Information is scarcer from a touristic perspective on the eastern Cuba and travel times have to be taken into account; with far more time or left to another traveler(s) it would be interesting to get perspective on these areas.
My entire recommendation for Havana is contained to [historic] Old Havana. El Capitolio and Plaza de Armas is a main attraction for its’ similarity to the United States Capitol Building. Gran Teatro de La Habana is a 19th century concert hall that is just beautiful to see for its architecture. Paseo del Prado is a long, historic tree lined boulevard offering a wonderful quaint walk through Havana.
Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro and Castillo San Salvador de La Punta are fortresses at the mouth of the harbor. Near this area you’ll also find the Castillo de la Real Fuerza which is a 16th century star shaped fort and museum. La Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Concepcion Inmaculada de La Habana is a Baroque-style catholic cathedral worth visiting on your walk through the historic sections.
Plaza de San Francisco de Asis is another notable historic plaza that you’ll discover on your walk. Iconic old styled American cars are plentiful in Cuba and it is something almost anyone can appreciate. There are notable beaches outside of Havana but I did not have the pleasure of traveling to them.
This town is best seen for its’ colonial architecture and cobbled streets. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 and is really a must visit while in Cuba. The main square, Plaza Mayor, has neo-baroque architecture; this area is flooded by everyone during the day either just meandering or sitting on the steps enjoying the square.
Personally, I simply recommend walking around this entire colonial historic area; go in as many churches and buildings as you can. The town is a place to walk through and enjoy. Convento de San Franciso has a beautiful yellow bell tower you can climb and sight see from; I recommend visiting.
A short 20-30 minute taxi cab ride from Trinidad offers a great hike to Parque El Cubano. This is a gorgeous watering hole complete with waterfall and high jump points, with the highest being roughly 15 meters (approximately 50ft). If visiting Trinidad this really a must do in my opinion (not jumping, that’s totally up to you because I understand the fear you might have).
I don’t have a whole to say on Varadero other than to say you absolutely have to go. It’s a pristine white sand, gorgeous, warm, clear blue water beach that stretches for miles and miles. The beach town that spans the strip offers plenty in terms of bars, restaurants and dancing. The beaches are relatively sparse with people and you can easily find yourself in very personal areas. At night, virtually no one was on the beaches so you could even go for a little skinny dipping if you feel so inclined.
Bonus if traveling from Varadero back to Havana or vise versa is that you will have the pleasure of crossing the Bacunayagua Bridge. It is the highest bridge in the country and offers some nice views over the forest below. This spot also just so happens to have some of the best piña coladas Cuba has to offer.
I have never thought myself to have a weak stomach. I had already traveled through some of Central and South America, Morocco and half of Europe prior to this without much issue (definitely some, but it would quickly pass). Keeping in mind this is probably a little taboo to share, but definitely worth knowing as a traveler, my stomach was very unwell in Cuba.
I am unsure if it was just due to my bacterial flora unaccustomed to whatever was encountered in Cuba, or the overwhelming diversity in fruit I had never even heard of, never mind eat, or maybe I was just unlucky; I’m not sure. For the entire weak I would have to make sudden unexpected trips to the bathroom. Fortunately, it did not ruin the trip for me or my friends at all. We still very much enjoyed everything but I want you to be aware in case this happens to you too!
Never did we feel threatened or at risk while in Cuba. In Trinidad, my friends were approached at a nightclub/bar by an equal number of guys that taught them how to dance; myself included! They were all friendly and polite. As the night proceeded, they were interested in my friends though, and after leaving the nightclub and spending harmless time at another bar, they were stopped by police when leaving that location. They had ID’s checked and were basically held up by police to prevent anything from occurring; I overheard the police saying to them “you cannot go home with those American girls.” I don’t know what internal policies they have in protecting tourists, if any, or if those policemen were just being extra protective, but I thought it was a funny story to share. If you use common traveling sense (alert, aware of where you are and your surroundings) you should be fine. With that said, anything can happen anywhere in the world so you should always be attentive.
I hope you have enjoyed this post.
Special thanks to all my AirB&B Hosts, especially Barbara, and my friends, Maryam, Alyssa and Hilary for making this an awesome trip!