Cuba is a world seemingly frozen in time. With cars from the ’50’s and ’60’s still in service and fully operational, bands you could imagine Hemingway listening to as he sipped on a daiquiri at the Buena Vista Social Club, an obsession with the greatest rock classics by The Beatles and the like, and eroding yet beautiful Spanish-colonial pastel buildings, you may think you stepped back in history. A coveted vacation spot to many, it’s always been a mystery to most in the U.S. though, in 2016, the U.S. and Cuba took a monumental step forward, advancing relations between the two countries, enabling citizens of the U.S. to visit the country. There is a focus on human rights and civil society as tourists flock to obtain their tourist cards, though Cuba is a country of many layers so if you’re planning a trip, we have a few tips to share.
Must sightsee – Havana
- Depending on your appetite for sightseeing, you can see as much or as little history in Havana as you feel necessary. Our recommendation is to download the Google Trips app, and follow one of their guides. You’ll get the history of each landmark, along with an ideal route without having to hire a guide.
- Take notice of the copious amounts of fisherman and musicians along the El Malecon (boardwalk along the water near Habana Vieja).
- Buena Vista Social Club*
- Floridita. This was one of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes, and home to the strawberry daiquiri. Often crowded with lively tourists, it can be hard to find a seat, but once you’re done with your daiquiri, you can just join in on the dancing with music from a live band!
Stroll through Callejón de Hamel. This is a pedestrian street filled with Afro Cuban street art. Colorful live performances take place daily in the outdoor space with rotating local performer groups, galleries and art installations sprinkle each side, and installations are scattered throughout as well. A feast for your eyes and a photographer’s paradise!
*We didn’t go to the Buena Vista Social Club, but have been told by others it’s worth visiting
- Go to La Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito. Havana invented the drink, but Hemingway made it famous via this bar as he was a regular here, and said to have adored the minty cocktail.
- Daiquiri. These are good everywhere, but as we said, they are the best at the place of their origin, the Floridita.
Must know – before you go
- Plan your itinerary before you go. There is much more to Cuba than Havana with each town offering something unique to the next. There are many resources available, but we found this site to be useful.
- If your itinerary requires bus travel, the best option is to book it directly at a travel office once you arrive in Cuba. Most hotels have a concierge service that will do this for you but if they can’t book for you, they should be able to point you to an office. The rates you’ll find online are significantly more expensive, and you won’t be able to book with an American-issued credit card.
- If going to volunteer is what you’re interested in, you can find reputable organizations online. Here are a few we looked into: Global Aware, United Planet, Cross Cultural Solutions. Though, do reach out to coordinate with them in advance as spots fill up quickly.
- Take out more money than you think you’ll need (before you board you get to Cuba). It is impossible to get cash out [right now] from any ATM in Cuba as an American, and as a result of [currently] forbidden relations between U.S. and Cuban banks, the currency exchange offices will charge 10% more than the posted rate as a service fee to exchange.
- Wifi is expensive and hard to find. Some hotels offer it but guests still have to pay. Before you go, read this article which details the Cuban wifi scene and how to navigate it.
- Be cautious of “friendly” locals who will approach you on the street. They will likely seem to be heading in your direction, thought they’ll They’ll likely try to ask you for money for sharing information about the area with you.
Must know – culture
- There are no drugs on the streets
- There are no problems with crime or organized crime organization
- Healthcare and school are free (all the way through university)
- Cubans can’t leave easily to visit other countries, and often travel primarily for education
- Private restaurants only started cropping up in 2011 as that’s when it was allowed to start your own business
- Most hotels are owned by the government
- Cuban people have a hard time staying at hotels (it’s almost impossible) no matter how much money you have as they’re reserved for tourists
- Police monitor local to tourist interaction as it’s not encouraged
- Wages are low and Cuba operates on a ration system. For context, doctors only make on average 54 CUC per month
- People often average of 2-3 jobs to make enough money for a good life