My friends and I took a trip to Cuba in April 2017, just after Obama opened up tourism to Cuba and just before Trump shut it down. This is going to be a short & sweet post about traveling to Cuba from the US. I’ll leave some of the tips that will help make your trip easier. As always, please check updated info, as things may have changed. For one, a lot of borders are still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the state of US-Cuba tourism remains up in the air. I’ll update with photos from Viñales and Isla de la Juventud in later a post. (Editing photos is such a pain!)
First, Here’s Where We Went
We landed in Havana and then flew to Isla de la Juventud. We flew back to Havana and rented a car to Viñales. On the way back from Vinales, we stayed on night in Baracoa.
How Much Cash Should You Bring to Cuba?
Well, if you’re American, bring more than you think you’ll need. There were four of us and we each brought about $300-$500 for 1 week. We ended up ran out of cash when we got to Viñales. Where did our money go? A combination of local tours, transportation and food. If you rent a car, you have to pay cash. Our homestay in Isla de la Juventud was also paid in cash because it wasn’t an Airbnb. We got a referral from calling around the island looking for a place to stay.
Remember the embargo? Yeah. None of your bankcards work in Cuba. Also, be mindful of bank holidays. When we ran out of money in Viñales, not only could we not use an ATM, we also couldn’t exchange the last of our cash. We ended up asking some Swedish guys if we could give them USD for cash they they pulled out of the ATM. It was super shady on our part. We got lucky that they trusted us.
Where Should I Exchange Cash in Cuba?
I was able to exchange up to $100 USD at the airport in Cuba, but the line is super long. Otherwise, there are tons of exchange places in town. The fees are fairly comparable, so it’s fine to do either.
How Did You Get Around Cuba?
Havana is super easy to get around in if you stay in the city center. We were New Yorkers, so walking everywhere was par for the course. The flight from Havana to Isla de la Juventud is short — about 20 minutes. Once you get there, you can get taxis to get around. Renting a car and driving around Cuba is amazing and terrifying. Here are a few tips if you decide to go this route.
- Bring enough cash. Our rental cost us about $150 for four days (don’t quote me). We forgot to incorporate that into our budget, so we messed that up.
- You need to drive stick. I was the only one who knew how to drive a stick shift, which would have been fine except that the reservation was in my friend Danielle’s name. (Remember, we were low on cash, so we didn’t pay to add an extra driver.) And they watch you as you drive away, so on that day, at José Martí International Airport, I taught Danielle how to drive a stick shift while the car rental guys were hanging out watching. She made it out of the airport far enough to pull over and let me drive.
- Don’t trust Google Maps and use the main road. First of all, the internet and phone connection in Cuba is spotty at best, even with an international data plan from back home. Second of all, even if it looks like a road on Google Maps, sometimes it’s a dirt road in the countryside. We took a wild ride after a night of rain that was punctuated by everyone jumping out of the car because we were stuck in the mud, and I had to hit the gas hard to get out. And a horse jumped out at me from nowhere!
What Kind of Tours Should I Take in Cuba?
In Havana, we took a classic cars tour that included stops at tourist spots at the famed mosaic town Fusterlandia and Parque Almendares, where the locals are known to practice Santeria. And they brought us to Plaza de la Revolución, which was amazing to see. I would highly advise this tour.
While on Isla de la Juventud, we took a snorkeling tour that was the most amazing thing ever. First, we got lucky because the only big hotel on the island cancelled all their reservations, essentially slowing tourism to the island. Because of our luck, we got a double-decker boat to ourselves and an awesome lobster dinner that our tour guides literally dove for.
In Viñales, we took a horseback riding tour that included a stop at a cigar farm. We sat with a cigar man that literally rolled a cigar for us to smoke while he sat to talk to us. Viñales is one of the most beautiful place on Earth, so take it slow and absorb it all.
Is Cuba Safe?
From my experience, yes. Not only did I personally feel safe, but Cubans love Americans — particularly Obama — because they love the new wave of tourism. I never felt like there were shady looks or weird vibes. Everyone was so great to us. And, FYI, Cuba has amazing infrastructure (aside from the internet).
Any Final Tips?
Trinkets. There aren’t many souvenirs around, so if you see something you like, jump on it. Otherwise, you can grab a few things at the airport on the way out – including cigars!
Iced Coffee? Never heard of it. I got some crazy looks when I asked for iced coffee. They brought me my coffee and then an additional glass of ice.
My one regret was not paying the money to see the Buena Vista Social Club. It was $60 that no one else was down to drop — not to mention our low cash flow problem. But if I had the chance to go back, I would check it out.