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 traveled 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 (U.S. citizen). 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!
What Places Should You Visit in Havana?
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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!
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