EVERYTHING TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING TO CUBA

Havana, Cuba
TRAVEL
  /  
June 8, 2017

If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, this might be the most helpful bit of advice you will read before you go. It’s always been on our bucket list to visit, and since it’s now possible to take a direct flight from JFK, we knew it was time. But I had so many logistical questions about visas, places to stay, food, wifi and currency, so I spent a few weeks digging in and getting down to the nitty-gritty so that I could share my Cuba travel guide and all of our experiences with you.

While I discovered a lot of articles online that gave me the typical tourist guide on Cuba, I wanted to share a few lesser known tips in addition to the more obvious ones. These points truly transformed our time into one of the most memorable trips of a lifetime.

HOTEL OR AIRBNB

I couldn’t have been happier about our decision to stay in an Airbnb. The hotels are offensively overpriced, and often the rooms are small, dingy and outdated. Since tourism is new in Cuba, Airbnb is an amazing way for families to generate additional income. Their reviews and reputation on the site are gold, so they treat you like family! Our host cooked for us every morning and cleaned up the apartment every day. It was nice having them there; it made the experience feel so much more authentic. When booking, make sure you read reviews and don’t ever book an Airbnb that has less than five reviews.

PARTS OF TOWN

There are two main parts of town: Habana Vieja and Vedado. Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, is a great place to stay if you don’t mind a lot of noise and tourists. It’s the central part of town that everyone visits because of its 19th-century style, and everything is within walking distance. We opted to stay in Vedado which is made up of more houses, and there are fantastic Airbnb options! You’ll need to cab it into Old Havana but I really loved staying there because it felt more authentic. In my opinion, Old Havana is already starting to feel too touristy.

PACKING FOR CUBA

When it comes to packing, bring a carry-on only. I heard nightmares from friends that luggage often doesn’t arrive or arrives days later. I managed to fit five days into one roller carry on and one large “personal item.” Don’t forget to pack bug spray! Products like this are not sold in Cuba, so pack any toiletries you can’t live without. I also brought pocket Kleenex with me because most bathrooms do not have toilet paper. Be sure to pack a bunch of snacks like nuts and Cliff bars because depending on where you are staying, food is harder to come by than you think, and there’s lots of walking involved, so you need to fuel up. If I didn’t have these snacks with me, I would have been extremely hangry the entire trip.

ZIKA

A lot of you wrote me asking about Zika. While I am not a doctor, I can share with you what my doctor shared with me. Since Freddie and I do want to have babies in the next year or two, I was concerned about getting bitten. From what my doctor said, if you get Zika, it stays in your system for six months and you can test for it before you start trying.  If you start to see side effects; rash, fever or yellow eyes, you can get tested sooner. However, your body should naturally try to fight it off. So if you’re “trying” at the moment, it’s probably not the best idea – is what my doctor told me.  I covered myself in bug spray every day but I was surprised there weren’t as many mosquitos as I thought there would be.

CUBAN VISAS

When flying from JFK, you can fly direct on JetBlue. When you get to the airport, there is a special check-in downstairs near the baggage claim where you can buy your visa for $50 at the same time that you get your boarding pass. They give you two visas; customs takes one when you depart for Cuba and one when you leave Cuba. It’s crucial not to lose the second half or you will have to go through hoops to get authorities in Cuba to sell you a new one. A friend of mind flew from Los Angeles and used this website to buy hers – it took five days to receive in the mail so be sure to order in advance. When stating the reason for visiting Cuba, select the “People To People” option, which means you’re there to experience the culture.

6/16 UPDATE: Due to recent political developments, there are new, stricter policies and restrictions in place since this article was published. The most informative article I found on the new regulations is this NY Times piece which states that US residents may no longer travel on people-to-people visas. These are now permitted solely for groups and must be organized by a licensed tour operator.

CUBAN CURRENCY

There are two currencies in Cuba, the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). As a tourist, you are only allowed to use the CUC. If you’re getting change, make sure you’re receiving CUC’s back, not pesos. Unknowing tourists often get ripped off this way.

CUBAN CURRENCY EXCHANGE

There’s a lot of talk about this coming from the states. Many sites and people will advise you to exchange your dollars into Euros or Canadian Dollars first, then when you get to Cuba, the exchange rate will be lower than it would for the dollar. After each exchange rate, it’s not really saving you that much at all, so we didn’t bother to do this. We brought American Dollars with us (which some restaurants accepted) and exchanged at the airport. When you arrive in Cuba, there are five different Currency Exchange stations. If one line is long, go upstairs to Arrivals where there are more Currency Exchange stations with shorter lines. You can also change money in hotels, but the exchange rate often isn’t that good.

HOW MUCH MONEY TO BRING

I think this was everyone’s biggest bit of advice to me when we were planning our trip, “Bring more money than you think you will need.”  No one accepts credit cards, and because we’re so used to using a card, it’s easy to underestimate how much cash flow you actually spend. We brought $1,300 cash with us for five days for two people and exchanged $500 at the airport. One nice dinner, four taxis and six mojitos later, we’d run through that in just two short days. It was then we realized we needed to budget ourselves each day. By budgeting, we made it last but we did end up using it all.

GETTING INTO HAVANA

One will notice the old cars off the bat, but they’re rarer to come by than expected. From the airport, legal transportation is a yellow checkered cab – the 1950’s independent cabs are not allowed to pick up or drop off, so your best bet is to wait until you get into Old Havana to ride in one. For the yellow cab, it’s $25 CUC to get into central Havana and about 20 minutes. Don’t let anyone charge you more than that.

GETTING AROUND IN HAVANA

Probably the best piece of advice I received was to download the Galileo App. It’s an offline vector map that you can download before your trip. It’s pre-programmed with everything you can imagine, want or need. You can search offline, find results instantly and it will seriously be your saving grace when there. There were a slew of restaurants and spots that we wanted to visit, and while Verizon said we’d have data, we didn’t. Unless you enjoy using a paper map to get yourself around, definitely download Galileo. It pin-points where you are and tells you which direction to go while in airplane mode. Mind blown.

TAXIS

Most of the old cars you see are indeed taxis! They congregate in the center of Old Havana in front of the Capitol Building. Great for photos! It makes it easy to select which color you want for the day. Practice your negotiating skills here; they definitely try and up-sell you.

FOOD SCENE IN CUBA

When you’re not in Old Havana, there are little to no signs indicating that something is a restaurant or that they sell food. You will see a lot of open doors that look like someone’s cooking out of their home, but these are called paladares. Most of the time, you can go in and purchase food and water or sit down for a meal. The food there is usually sold by carts. Men and women sell fruit, vegetables, churros and tamales by food carts around the city. It was our best bet for food a lot of the time, and the fruit is perfectly OK to eat – some of the most delicious mangoes I’ve ever had!

WHERE TO EAT IN HAVANA

As for the restaurant scene, it’s noticeably up and coming so there aren’t a lot of options – which means the restaurants book up fast. I would highly recommend making reservations a week or two in advance. They traditionally have two sittings; one at 7 and one at 9. We opted for 9 most of the time, so we didn’t miss sunsets. Here are a few places we ate at and loved!:

La Guarida | A dinner must! Definitely need a reservation.

Sia Kara Cafe | After dinner, head here and grab a table in the back. Best for live music and delicious cocktails.

La Terraza | Best BBQ in town

El Dandy | For breakfast or drinks after dinner.

Restaurant Floridita | Hemmingway made this place famous for saying they had the world’s best daiquiri.

Sloppy Joes | Another Havana must, as classic as they come for an afternoon spritz.

Casa Migles | A cute hole in the wall known for their Swedish meatballs. Weird, I know, but super delicious.

Bar Monserrate | Consider this another bar to stop at for a refreshing Mojito.

Fabrica de Arte | A fantastic night scene full of live music, art, and dancing. They are open Thursday to Sunday, 8PM – 3AM and it’s $5 CUC per person which includes two drinks.

THE PEOPLE

One of the friendliest and most kind cultures I’ve ever encountered and also super helpful! Not a lot of English speakers so make sure to brush up on your Spanish.

WIFI + DATA IN CUBA

Before leaving, I called Verizon, and they promised service and data in Cuba. Upon arriving, however, this was not the case. I had no data but could call out; texts would not send either. If you want wifi, you have to buy a wifi card from a hotel lobby for $5 – $10. Most of the parks have wifi  – notice all the people at the parks sitting on their phones. Or just sit in the hotel lobby if you need to use it.

DAY TRIPS

Viñales | We didn’t have a chance to visit but heard it’s an amazing day trip to the rural countryside known for its tobacco farms and limestone hillsides. It’s about two and a half hours and a $200 round trip.

Megano Beach | About 30 minutes from Havana, this beach-side escape is the perfect place to enjoy a cerveza in knee-deep, crystal blue waters as far as the eye can see.

Vedado Beach | Another spot we heard was a must but didn’t have the time to visit. About two and a half hours from Havana, the beaches are supposed to be breathtaking!

Partagas Cigar Factory | For the cigar aficionado, this is a tour that’s worth taking, and it’s just in the center of town so no need to go to the countryside to see how they make cigars.

SURPRISES

When you’re walking the streets, there was something a bit “off” that took me a few days to identify. There are no cars! The only cars on the road are taxis so when you walk the streets, you can just walk down the center. When you’re not directly in Old Havana, there are no cars parked on the side of the road or driving. It’s incredible!

How dilapidated and rundown everything is. Buildings are falling apart in front of you and locals chose to talk in the center of the street instead of under buildings because they’re known to fall on people.

If done right, it’s a very romantic city.

I didn’t expect the air quality to be so bad. At times it was a little hard to breathe. I think because the old cars omit so many fumes and there aren’t regulations on things like there are elsewhere in the world.

Some restaurants take American dollars if you’re in a cash crunch, just ask.

Photos by Fred Cipoletti

Shop the post

| The JetSet Diaries Top | Tanya Taylor Skirt | Cult Gaia Bag | Elizabeth and James Sunglasses | Schutz Shoes | Cult Gaia Head Wrap |

VIEW & ADD COMMENTS +

Lovely ensemble. You look like you could have been there in 1956!

Thank you, Jenny! You have made the last few steps of my trip planning so much easier. I used the link you provided to purchase my visa. Easy & fast.

Another random question I had – How did you reserve your airbnb? Dd you do it prior to your arrival? or (like most other travel blogs) walk around to find the right fit & price?

Do you have any suggestions on planning a taxi/bus/car ride to another city like Varadero or Trinidad? Is there a way to reserve ahead of time?

Thank you so much again for all the help!
xo, Andrea Rockwood

This is exceptional advice!

Thanks for sharing!

Tiffany
http://simplybeinggreat.ent

Thanks so much Tiffany. Glad you found it so helpful!

xo,
Jenny

Thanks for sharing all your amazing tips and advice! Love the photography in this post too, that pink car is amazing!

VioletDaffodils
xx

It was such a special trip!

xo,
Jenny

Now, Cuba will be on my list of the destinations I want to visit. Thank you so much for all the info.
leoneldsmith.com

Can’t wait until you have a chance to go there!

xo,
Jenny

Natalie Ann Redman

Urgh in love with that skirt! Gorgeous.

Thank you so much for writing this! You basically answered all the questions I’ve been mulling over when I think about traveling to Cuba. The photos are gorgeous, too:-)

Amazing! So glad you found it so helpful!

xo,
Jenny

Great tips! I would love to visit Cuba. And by the way, your outfit is fabulous. It matches that classic car so beautifully!
Xo, janea
http://www.thestyletti.com

Thanks so much Janea – and you MUST carve out some time to travel to Havana. It was truly the trip of a lifetime.

xo,
Jenny

These tips were definitely very helpful! Thank you!! <3

http://www.thealmachronicle.com

My pleasure, Alma!

xo,
Jenny

It is helpful Cuba is on my bucket list. What about the music scene? All the jazz etc.

There’s always live music if you go in search of it, that’s one of my favorite things about this culture!

xo,
Jenny

Wow, I thought I knew a lot about Cuba, but this post was so informative! I definitely want to make it there before it really becomes overrun with tourists, I’m afraid I’m already too late! x

Zohra | http://www.yourealreadyinvited.com

It’s not too late yet! But definitely go sooner rather than later!

xo,
Jenny

This is super informative, especially with all the candid facts about Havana. I have also heard the people are full of heart, and can only imagine walking around the Malecon. Do you think this is a one-time destination, or do you and Freddie see yourselves coming back to explore more? xx – Jes Ryzenberg

Hi Jes! I would love nothing more than to go back. I know there are a ton of places on our bucket list that we know we want to travel to at least once, but I would love to go back again sometime down the line!

xo,
Jenny

Thank you so much for such detailed post! I am traveling to Cuba in a couple of weeks and your post is by far the easiest & to the point. I am curious to know if I will need a wall adapter for my electronics? How is fashion/shopping in Cuba? Are there any stores or places to visit?

Thank you so much again!
xo, Andrea

Hi Andrea! The plugs are US adaptors so no need. At least where we stayed! Maybe bring one as a backup? As for shopping, it’s definitely not a fashion capitol but if you’re looking for cool mementos to pickup along the way, there are definitely stores that have some unique items.

Thank you, Jenny! You have made the last few steps of my trip planning so much easier. I used the link you provided to purchase my visa. Easy & fast.

Another random question I had – How did you reserve your airbnb? Dd you do it prior to your arrival? or (like most other travel blogs) walk around to find the right fit & price?

Do you have any suggestions on planning a taxi/bus/car ride to another city like Varadero or Trinidad? Is there a way to reserve ahead of time?

Thank you so much again for all the help!
xo, Andrea Rockwood

Laureen Velazquez

Love of your pictures! Thanks for sharing such amazing and honest travel tips. You look fantastic!

Love
http://lakeoflilies.com

Thanks so much love! SO appreciate that!

xo,
Jenny

That pink car is so cute and everything looks so vintage
xo
http://www.laurajaneatelier.com

This was such an a great post. So informative! Do you think it would be ok to travel to Cuba as a female solo traveler?

Thanks so much! And yes, I do! As long as you do your research and consult people who have travelled there before for firsthand experience, I think you’ll be 100% fine.

xo,
Jenny

Such an interesting post! Cuba is definitely something on my bucket list (all the photos you see just look so beautiful!), but I had no idea it can be this tricky to navigate. xx

http://www.shakespeareandsparkle.com/

cuba is up there on my bucket list, thanks for all the info!
http://www.thestyletune.com

The pictures are awesome. Cuba is such a beautiful country. Thank you for the travel guide.
Greets, Bianca
http://ladyandmum.blogspot.de

Rebecca Swindale | www.rebeccaswindale.com

Love this guide on Cuba; it was very in depth and thoughtfully curated. I love the photos as well! Thanks for taking the time to write everything out, Jenny.

My pleasure, Rebecca. Glad you found it so informative!

xo,
Jenny

exceptional guide and gorgeous images.
xoxo
https://closettostreet.com/

So glad you enjoyed reading love.

xo,
Jenny

Katelyn Calautti

WOW I love love LOVED your info about ZIKA … we just booked our Honeymoon to Tulum, Mexico and was a tad concerned but this all put me at so much ease. Dr. Jenny to the rescue. Haha thanks for passing along the advice. XO

Anytime girl.

XO,
Jenny

Another reason why I love reading your blog. You have such honest views. I don’t think I’ve read any other blog post so far about Cuba that even spoke about the condition of the buildings, everything is usually glamorized (if that’s even a word lol) Keep up the great work Jenny!
– JaMeka
http://www.gotthetravelbugtoo.com/

Thanks so much love, glad you found this super authentic and informative!!

xo,
Jenny

I already traveled to Cuba but loved this guide – and think it’s super helpful for those who haven’t. The pictures were amazing – the colors and your outfit are gorgeous!! Also so happy you went to La Guarida – it’s SO beautiful, right?!

xoxo
Lourdes
http://plsdotell.com/2017/06/08/my-day-at-the-united-nations/

It was GORGEOUS!

xo,
Jenny

So informative, a lot of usefull info. Love the “surprise” part very good to know. Looking fabulous as always darling!

Thanks so much Molly, glad you loved those little surprises!

xo,
Jenny

Thank you for the actually helpful tips! I love your blog for its quality content, not just amazing photos.

This made my day — Thank you so much for being such a loyal follower. I love sharing my travels and it’s readers like you that make my job easy. Your support means the world!

xo,
Jenny

Sounds like a great trip; I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba! And while I’m not planning a trip there anytime soon, these are really great tips!

xo, Carey
https://thedaintydetails.wordpress.com

Whenever you make it down there, you’ll be prepared!

xo,
Jenny

This is SO interesting! I noticed the dilapidated buildings when you were sharing on Instagram and although pretty it took me by surprise. It’s definitely not a place I would have thought about visiting but the scenes look so magical and like you’re stepping back in time. Thanks for sharing! I love seeing all the different cultures!

The Emerald Girl

It’s a very special place and so rich in history and culture.

xo,
Jenny

Always love your posts <3

http://www.evdaily.blogspot.com

Thanks so much Ewa!

xo,
Jenny

I think it’s one of my lifelong dream to visit this country. Such amazing pictures !

http://www.pardonmyobsession.com/

You’ve got to add it to your list of places to go!

xo,
Jenny

I’m so glad you wrote this post because I’ve been planning a trip and have questions. I’ve read that one of the requirements for entry is a health form – Did you have to get one and if so where did you find it? My internet searches are coming up with nothing. My husband takes a bi weekly injection so the last thing I want is not to declare something or fill out the proper paperwork only to have this medications taken. Thanks for the post!!

Cristina - Memories of the Pacific

Going around Havana in a pink car must feel like a dream! 🙂

http://www.memoriesofthepacific.com

It really was!

xo,
Jenny

Beautiful photos!! Looks so amazing!

xx, Elise
http://www.sparkleandslippers.blogspot.com

Thanks so much Elise

xo,
Jenny

Yay for fun trips and babies in the near future!! We are hoping to start our family here in NYC in the next couple of years too! Such a fun season in life!
http://beyondblessedblog.com/

Absolutely, the best is yet to come!

xo,
Jenny

The Girl From Connecticut

Great travel guide! It seemed like you had an amazing experience!

http://thegirlfromconnecticut.com/

It was definitely one for the books!

xo,
Jenny

La Bijoux Bella | by mia

Absolutely beautiful … simply gorgeous vintage structures and eye candy classic cars! Love ❤️ lovely post! 🙂

❤LA BIJOUX BELLA❤ | BY MIA | A Creative Lifestyle Blog

Thanks so much lovely, glad you enjoyed!

xo,
Jenny

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