How I Traveled to Cuba as a Gringa in 2017

The perks of having dual nationality is that one country’s passport may open up the doors for you to visit a place that the other may prohibit. I could have gone to Cuba as an Ecuadorian plenty of times when I lived there for almost 8 years. But when I was younger, I was broke. Now that I am almost an adult, I got the opportunity to go as a gringa. And yes, it was a long planning process. It has been the trip that I’ve had to plan the most for. But it was fun, I don’t regret it, and I would go again tomorrow. In order to help you find out more about the entire planning aspect, I based it on the questions I had leading up to and during my visit to the island.

How is the Online Booking Process?

Remember that if you’re a U.S. citizen, tourism to Cuba is still prohibited. That didn’t change under the Obama administration nor will it change under the Trump administration. When the previous U.S. administration started thawing relations with Cuba, they made certain changes and began allowing individual people-to-people travel. This meant you could finally just book a flight online and go by yourself without the struggle of a complicated visa process… like traveling to almost any other country. While tourism was technically still prohibited, you could travel by yourself to the island as long as it fell under the 12 authorized reasons of individual people-to-people travel. Even before this change, U.S. citizens could travel to the island by going on group people-to-people travel tours, but these are mostly authorized group tours that you can only book through cruises.

When I first tried to book a flight in March 2017, I couldn’t find anything on cheapoair.com, the site I usually use to book flights. But I went directly to JetBlue and was able to find cheap tickets. There are also other airlines that offer flights directly to Cuba from certain U.S. cities. I flew from JFK directly to Havana.

The only time anyone ever questioned why I was going to Cuba was when I purchased my ticket through JetBlue and then when I booked a rental place through AirBnb. These were both automated online-questions that appeared as I was booking, and I had to pick one of the 12 authorized reasons of individual people-to-people travel and decided on “Support for the Cuban people.” No one ever directly asked me this question after this. Not as I was leaving the U.S. or when I came back through immigration. How this might change in the future under the Trump administration is yet to be seen…

**UPDATE as of November 2017**

On November 9th 2017, The Department to Treasury finally followed through with President Trump’s request to limit U.S. visitors to the island. The changes focus on banning certain entities and hotels that Americans can visit. Plus, there are no longer 12 authorized reasons for people-to-people travel. Nonetheless, people-to-people travel is still allowed under the “auspices of an organization that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction.” Educational travel is also allowed under the “auspices of an organization that is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction.”

One of the most encompassing authorized reasons for people-to-people travel under the former rules was “Support for the Cuban People.” This is what I chose when I went in July 2017 and it somehow REMAINS as an authorized reason to travel. This pretty much means that you can visit Cuba without any issues if you follow the rules under said category, which are:

– Keep a schedule with “activities that result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba”

– Do not spend money on or enter hotels and entities that appear on the banned list.

– Rent a room or home from a private Cuban citizen (just like I explain down below)

– Eat at paladares which are family-owned restaurants (click here for my experience in La Guarida, a paladar in Havana)

– “Have contact with the Cuban people”

– “Support civil society in Cuba”

– “Promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities”

How do you prove the last three? I don’t know! But I hope that if you’re traveling anywhere in the world, your intent is to have contact with the people of the country that you’re visiting.

After the changes were announced, I went to the website where I got my plane tickets to and from Cuba, and everything still appears just as it did some months ago. You can still visit Cuba if you’re not deterred from following the above-mentioned rules!

How was I able to travel to Cuba when my flight was scheduled AFTER Trump’s recent announcement to limit U.S. travelers to the island?

Two weeks before my trip to Havana, on June 16, 2017, the current administration announced a change of stance towards relations with Cuba. I panicked. I first went to social media, where others were asking JetBlue’s Twitter account what they could do if their flights were cancelled. I called the airline, read news reports, and I continued to research until I read the U.S. Department of The Treasury’s FAQ sheet. My flight and most importantly, the ability to travel to the country, wouldn’t be affected.

**See above for updates regarding the June 16, 2017 and November 9, 2017 announcement.** If you booked your flight before June 16, 2017, you shouldn’t have any problems, but I would recommend reading the FAQ sheet and continue visiting the U.S. Department of Treasury website in the near future for any updates.

How Was the Departure Process Like at the Airport?

At JFK airport, there is a separate JetBlue counter for Cuba departures. This meant that I didn’t have to do a line with all the other JetBlue customers flying to different parts of the country (or world). The check-in counter is also the location in which you fill out the visa tourist form. It cost $50. I know that other airlines charge more, so I would take this into consideration when comparing airline prices. I’ve read that some airlines might charge $100 or more for the visa. The staff helps you out if you are confused when filling out the form, but it’s pretty straightforward. Even though they only asked to see my visa at the immigration checkpoint, make sure you never lose it and have it with you at all times.

How do I get Cuban Pesos?

This was one of the most annoying parts of traveling to Cuba as a U.S. citizen. No currency exchange location has Cuban currency in the U.S. so you have to do the exchange on the island. There is an additional 10% fee if you are exchanging U.S. dollars in Cuba. Therefore, based on the exchange rates, it’s usually more convenient to exchange the money from U.S. dollars to Canadian Dollars or Euros before you leave.

Also, be aware that Cuba has two different types of currency: the CUC and CUP. Remember the following:

1 CUC= 1 Dollar

1 CUC= 25 CUP

 

The CUC is the currency that the tourists use. This doesn’t mean that you can’t exchange into CUP and use the local currency, but even though I wanted to, the currency exchange location told me they had no CUP, only CUC. I’m not sure if they just ran out that day or if it’s never available there, but I had waited in the line so long already that I didn’t think of asking. I just wanted to get out of there and start exploring!

You can exchange right outside the airport once you arrive to Cuba, but have in mind that this will at minimum take an hour. It was annoying because I had NEVER had to wait so long to exchange money, but many people had mentioned that this is how long it would take, so I was mentally prepared to wait.

On the way back before the return flight, I was waiting to exchange back to Canadian dollars and when I got to the counter the lady informed me that she didn’t have any Canadian dollars that day. I wasted half an hour and had to go to another counter and make a line ALL OVER AGAIN. So did the people behind me. We were pissed. I recommend that you ask them before you make a line if they have the currency you need! So this is why you should always get to the airport to Cuba early if you are heading back to the U.S., like me, so you take into consideration the time it will take you to check-in and then exchange the money.

Where Can You Stay in Havana?

When you go to Cuba, you can either stay at a hotel or casa particular. A casa particular is basically someone’s home and this option is a lot cheaper than the hotels in Havana. I almost had a heart attack when I initially looked up the hotel prices. Renting out someone’s home doesn’t bother me because I have used AirBnb plenty of times, and it was through this app that I was able to book a place.

You can either stay in the central part of Havana, where there are many hotels and tourists or you can stay in the surrounding areas. I decided to stay in the Vedado neighborhood, away from a lot of the tourists but close to the Hotel Nacional. I always try to get to know a place and its people and if you’re always around all the tourists, do you really get to know how a place really is?

The apartment I booked has most definitely been the BEST AirBnb experience I have ever had. The host, Rafael, was great from the moment I booked until my last day in Havana. He and his mom greeted me, provided me with many tips, and answered all the questions I had. Look at the pictures below and feel free to book this amazing apartment by clicking here!

DON’T JUDGE MY MIRROR SELFIE. THIS IS THE ONLY SHOT I TOOK OF THE INSIDE BECAUSE I WAS BUSY WITH THE VIEW.

 

What Places Should You Visit in Havana?

Casas coloniales

A city’s architecture fascinates me. A lot of the colonial homes were built hundreds of years ago by the slaves that the Spaniards brought to the island. I went to my local library and brushed up on the homes’ significance: who owned the homes, the enslaved builders, what they were used for over the years and how they became an emblem of past history. I was truly excited to see these homes, but unfortunately, I made the mistake of having planned to see the colonial homes on a Monday. Apparently, the colonial homes are closed on Mondays and for some reason, even more touristy sites are closed on the first Monday of every month. Why? I have no idea. And when did I go? THE FIRST MONDAY OF JULY. I wasn’t able to enter into the colonial homes that I had initially planned to go, and I only enjoyed them from outside. The funny thing is that there was always a guard sitting at the entrance, but they just won’t let you in. This happened to me in at least 3 places. In the 4th home, the guard told me that the home was being remodeled and would be closed for the entire month. Being pretty damn bummed is an understatement. Take it from me, do not plan to see the colonial homes on a Monday or Tuesday.

Museums

I have been to disappointing museums, and then I have been to museums I consider another home because I don’t want to leave. I only went to one museum in Havana, remember that I went on the first Monday of the month… and it was quite an experience. I focused on the architecture of the building the most, as you can tell by the photos below! But the Museo de la Revolución provided me insight on Cuba’s history and how they view the revolution. It made me think a lot about how the media and the government controls a lot of what we think about our nation and the rest of the world… Don’t forget to get to the end and have a look at the Rincón de los Cretinos. As a gringa(o) you will either get very angry or have a laugh…

Nearby Beaches

This is the first thing I googled when I planned my trip because I’m a proud beach babe. I asked friends and researched blogs, and almost everyone told me to go to Santa Maria Beach and it did NOT disappoint. It’s about thirty minutes away from Havana, but getting to the beach is easy! There is a bus that departs at Parque Central, right in front of Hotel Inglaterra, every hour on the hour starting at 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. It costs 5 CUC ($5 per person) roundtrip and the bus is clean and air-conditioned. You can also take a cab if you want your privacy, but that will be around 40 CUC. Whatever floats your boat. DON’T EXPECT THERE TO BE FOOD OR A LOT OF RESTAURANTS NEARBY. There will be kiosks selling drinks full of liquor but not a lot of food. I had a bad sandwich and that was that!

El Capitolio

The capitol building in Havana is a replica of the U.S. capitol. It is currently being remodeled, and you shouldn’t leave before you take a stroll around the area.

 

Habana Vieja

There are cities you visit around the world to look at the landscapes or buildings. And then there is La Habana, where you can people watch all day and not get bored. I spent time with my brother walking miles and miles while taking pictures of the cars, streets and homes. But the best thing to see and meet are the people. They are warm and friendly, sometimes overly friendly, but I’ll discuss that a little further down…

I wanted to post this last picture so that you’re aware that you will see some streets in Habana Vieja full of dog shit, crumbling buildings, garbage, and ongoing construction. If you think all you’ll see are cute and colorful buildings… you haven’t done your research. This can be a huge culture shock for people that have never witnessed anything similar. I also saw some women trying to make their way around this with heels on. Not cute.

El malecón

If you want to watch the sunset, make sure you do so one day by the malecón.

Is Havana Safe?

From my experience, YES. We walked miles and miles with our phones, cameras and other belongings. Many residents of Havana came up to us and pointed out just that: that no one would come up to us and try and mug us. No matter where I go, I know anything can happen, so I remained alert the entire time. What I did notice is that no one will try and deliberately mug you, but many locals may come up to you and try to dupe you, plain and simple. Out of the 15 people that approached us in the streets during four days in Havana, only 2 didn’t try to sell us fake habanos. Anyone that comes up to you in the middle of the street and offers you real habanos is lying. Most of them will say they work rolling up the habanos and can get you a good discount. The people will seem genuine and extremely nice but don’t fall for it. If you want to buy habanos in Havana, you can go to the hotels. I bought some for family members back home because I don’t smoke.

Where can I find Wi-Fi?

The taxi driver that took us from and to the airport confessed that he was embarrassed that Cuba got Wi-Fi just last year. He noted that Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean and that they had access to the internet and Wi-Fi way before Cuba did. This should put things in perspective: Wi-Fi in Cuba is extremely shitty. I went to Hotel Nacional in the morning and at night to get access to the internet. You can do the same at most of the hotels in Havana. A Wi-Fi card costs 5 CUC for one hour. You can disconnect from it and then reconnect after as long it’s within 24 hours. Have very low, pre-Y2k expectations of internet speed and reliability.

Where Can I Eat?

Paladares are technically in-home restaurants or private restaurants that became legal in the 1990s. They are mostly… ok… almost entirely… frequented by tourists. These are usually not the places that the locals go and eat, but if you want to try to eat like a local, I recommend reading this article before doing so. I ate at a variety of paladares, and have a lot to say about my experience with food in Havana. But I decided to provide all the details in a following blog post, where I will focus on a well-known paladar: La Guarida.


Planning my trip to Cuba was definitely different from any other place I had visited to before. But it’s possible if you really want to go, and I hope that all the details here facilitate that process!

Pin it: A Traveling Translator

 

Victoria Alicia

41 comments

  1. I just came back a week ago and would love to go back, especially for just walking around, observing daily life (with camera, of course), and hanging out at the malecon. Nice photos :]

    1. Thanks so much! And yes, I just love that you can go and stare at the houses and cars. And then start a conversation with someone in the middle of the street. Hope you can go back soon. I want to go again too!

  2. Nice post, and gorgeous photos! I saw your post in the Viajeras FB group. I love Cuba, and it can definitely be a very different travel experience than other places. I have spent months at a time living in Habana over the past few years and thought I’d chime in 🙂

    A note about currency, yes! It can be confusing, even for Cubans! One of the biggest sources of confusion can be that they refer to both CUC and CUP as ‘pesos’ colloquially so it can often be a who’s-in-the-know as to which one they’re referring! Strictly speaking, CUC is not technically the ‘tourist currency’, however. It was implemented to counteract the negative effects the use of US dollar on the island was having on the Cuban economy, inflation, and the peso cubano (CUP). While yes, the CUC is normally the only currency that most tourist use, there are Cubans who actually get their salary paid in CUC depending on where they work. Cubans often operate with a mix of both currencies, although the majority of Cubans earn in CUP. Many of the Cadecas (colloquial term for the Casa de Cambio) in touristy areas, especially inside the hotels, do not carry CUP in general, as it is often assumed tourists don’t know how/where to use CUP or do not generally frequent establishments where CUP is used, or use local forms of transport (la guagua, las maquinas, etc.). Many places such as museums will have a price for foreigners in CUC and a price for Cubans in CUP. Cubans are often super quick to spot foreigners as well (if not by appearance/clothing, by accent and mannerisms, etc.), and will often charge accordingly or not correct you if you use the “wrong currency”. The learning curve in Cuba can be very steep, sometimes I feel like the more time I spend there, the less I know and understand.. As a Puerto Rican and linguist who often blends in as a cubana, I can attest that, even though Cuban and PR dialects are about 98% similar/identical, they are very quick to spot the 2% that makes you stand out, even when I’m doing a decent job at a Cuban accent!

    Another comment about wifi, yes it’s definitely a struggle! Normally hotels charge CUC$5/hour, but in wifi parks you can get a Nauta card from ETECSA for $1.50 (as of August 2017, I was just in Cuba 2 weeks ago), however they cannot be used in the hotels, and hotel wifi cards can’t be used at wifi parks. Where are the wifi parks? Just look for large groups people all sitting around on their phones, they have opened a ton in the past few years. Wifi cards can also be purchased by people walking around the wifi spots selling them for higher prices (generally anywhere from $2-$5, depending). The Melia Cohiba (located in el Vedado, el malecón y Paseo) often has very fast wifi (although you will pay hotel prices)… It is WAY better than it was even 5-6 years ago when it was almost $12/hour, and it was literally 1998 style dial up in the hotels, and no wifi parks. I would suggest getting a local calling card (in CUP) to use it to make local calls when necessary if you need to get in touch with people when you’re out and about, there are public pay phones everywhere which people still very much use (although cell phone usage I have noticed has definitely increased over the past few years as well).

    About safety, yes!!! Cuba is seriously one of the safest places I have visited, and most Cubans will say as much. Most of my habanera friends have no problem walking home by themselves in the dark at 4 in the morning after a night out!

    Looking forward to seeing more posts about Cuba 🙂 sorry for this novel of a comment!!

    1. Ashlee! WOW! Thanks so much for your comment. And yes, you’re right about the CUC. It’s not the sole currency that tourists use but I wanted to make it easier for gringo readers to know this will be the currency they would most likely deal with. And yes!! Locals are Super quick to spot foreigners. A lot of them would come up to me with the “I have discounted habanos” line! I had to tell them I don’t smoke, I already bought some, not taking them as souvenirs, etc. I always felt safe, but they were super pushy! One even screamed out from across the street: “Tù no eres cubana.”

      About the Wi-Fi, yes, I saw that the parks were full of locals and tourists logging onto the wifi. But since I stayed in Vedado and logged on only at night and in the morning, it was preferable for me to walk to the Hotel Nacional (and have a drink) as I contacted family members. In regards to local calls, the AirBnb I stayed at had a phone and the host told me I could call locally. That was perfect for confirming reservations!!

      It was great to read all the details of how I could save money next time I go. Thanks for the input!! Let me know if you have IG or a blog I could follow. I would love to support a fellow latina linguist!

      1. OMG, yes, the screaming across the street is intense jajaja!! Also IDK if you got the “leche para mi bebé” scam either (all Cuban children are entitled to free milk ‘por la libreta’ til 7 years old, although sometimes there are scams because tourists don’t know this haha)…that is one that can often happen as well..

        The Hotel Nacional is beautiful, I love the view! I ended up using calling cards when i was on the street or wanted to find out where someone was or what the plan was to meet up, I suppose for a short trip not super necessary hehe.. Sometimes the hotels can charge INSANE prices for local calls from inside!

        I used to blog, however since starting my PhD a few years ago I dropped it. Maybe I’ll pick it up again one day! I am on instagram and twitter @ashenpashen, and on Facebook!

        Seriously am in love with the photo of the pink building and car 🙂

  3. What a comprehensive guide! Packed full of useful information, thank you. I’ve heard lots of mixed reports about Cuba, some hated it, others love it…so I’ll just have to visit and find out for myself!

  4. This looks like an amazing trip! I can always count on JetBlue for some reasonable airfare. Sorry you missed getting to tour the colonial homes! At least you found some other great spots to explore though.

  5. What a great practical guide, especially for those visiting from USA, where you are still somewhat restricted from visiting Cuba, from the sounds of it. I am in the UK, so it’s easier for us to visit, but somehow I never managed to go yet. My sister went several years ago, and like most people I know who have been, she too loved the architecture, even though it was crumbling, and all the bright colours. Of course, the crumbling nature, and the scarcity of many items we take for granted at home may be cute for the visitor but must be hard for native Cubans, and an infrastructure that is struggling with the increased volume of visitors. I hope they are able to find ways to handle the increased tourism to the benefit of the Cuban people. Particularly loved your photos!

    1. Yes Kavey, you’re right. I had to acknowledge my privilege when I entered a supermarket and asked for milk, eggs & butter and they simply told me they didn’t have any that day. I was just there for some days, but I can’t imagine how it must feel like when you go to a market and none of that is available day in and day out. I value learning experiences when I go on trips and Cuba was no different.

  6. Such a detailed and honest post on traveling to Cuba. I love that you showed the good and the bad, so travelers are fully aware of everything to expect. Your photos of Santa Maria beach are incredible. Such blue waters!

    1. Thanks so much, Kate! I read a lot of blog posts that seem to make me believe everything is fine and dandy when you travel to a place, but we have to be honest about what really goes on when we travel!

  7. By putting Support for the Cuban people, could that be interpreted as volunteering with aid and support projects? It looks like you had a great trip! I’m really happy that I can just go as a tourist.

    1. There were 12 types of categories but I think they will be eliminated soon due to the new administration. But yes, you could have picked that one if you were volunteering! Lucky you. I could too, but I decided to go with my US passport.

  8. I really wish its less complicated to get to Cuba! I am European so I know I would be ok, but my husband is American so I don’t even know if we gonna ever be able to see this wonderful place! Your guide is fantastic. The Airbnb looks really good, lucky you! and the beaches … stunning !

    1. Yes, very complicated and it seems like even more so than when I went this summer. I hope you and your husband get the opportunity to go one day!

  9. In Portugal, there is a lot of people searching for Cuba medical centres, rehabilitation places in Cuba play an important role for us portugueses.
    Thanks for you great tips and great photos too.

  10. Someday I’ll be able to visit Cuba. I always associate it with classic cars and James Bond, which I’m sure most Cubans wouldn’t be too happy with, but someday I’ll be able to experience more than the Hollywood-like aspect. My BFF visited earlier this year, as she has dual citizenship with Mexico/USA. She had a great time and I know I will once I can go!

    1. I don’t blame you! I associated the Cliffs of Moher with The Princess Diaries. Sometimes we get just a tiny glimpse of a country from movies, but it’s important to venture out and see for ourselves!

  11. Had the chance to visit Havana & Varadero many years back and being Canadian this was easy peasy. But independently of the effort it can take to get there for Americans,it is definitely a great island to visit.The beaches are some of the best in the world

    1. I loved the beaches. And yes, it’s easy peasy for so many citizens of other countries to visit, and sometimes I feel like citizens from the US forget about this!

  12. I always enjoy photos of Havanna and I think I’d like to visit there one day! You are from Ecuador?! We are in Ecuador now and traveling the country by land with our kids. Dual Citzenship is nice..and is certainly an asset to those who claim it! I love it how you address the issues that so many Americans are concerned about with traveling these days. So proud of your for traveling on your own to Cuba! Go you!

    1. That’s amazing that you’re traveling with our kids in Ecuador. Will definitely check out your blog! And yes, I’m from Ecuador and lived some chunks of my life there. Hope you have the opportunity to go to Havana!

  13. Thank you for sharing! I would love to make it to Cuba, although it’s looking unlikely at the moment. Hopefully, it will be easier in the future. The museums and beaches look like the highlight of your trip. Interesting about the in home restaurants – its a little surprising that more tourists would be there over locals.

    1. You’re welcome! And yes, hopefully it will be easier in the future. Kate, have in mind that Cubans are provided rationed food every month. Many of them don’t have disposable income like people in other countries to go to paladares.

  14. Cuba for me always evokes images of classic cars and cigars. An exotic place with a mysterious allure, that is what Cuba is for me. Hope to get there some day. It was great that you were able to get to Cuba inspite of US restrictions. Your detailed explanation of the process is invaluable for anyone looking to travel to exotic Cuba.

    1. Thanks so much, Sandy! Hope it helps someone in the process as I don’t think I ever planned as much as when I went here!

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