Havana, Cuba is a stunning city, full of culture and pride, beauty and complexity. Though many gravitate toward Cuba for vintage cars and Hemingway, Havana is very much a city that is happening today. It is filled with art and music, trendy restaurants and fashion designers and a rich history that still shapes so much of life in Cuba. It is also filled with contradictions as the country changes, and a visit will not only enrich your life but expand your mind as it forces you to come face-to-face with politics, philosophy and your own preconceived notions.
You will be captivated by the Spanish architecture, the beautiful buildings and the peeling paint, the music floating through the air all hours of the day, the streets brimming with life. Cuba is the type of place that quickly captures your heart and imagination. It’s a place unlike any other, a place full of its own kind of magic.
Cuba is also a complex place to travel, due in part to the still thawing relations between Havana and the United States and in part to the political and economic situation in Cuba. Havana is safe and easy to navigate once you arrive, but it does require a different level of due diligence to make sure your trip is legal (if you are coming from the U.S.) and preparation to ensure you’ll have everything you need while in Cuba.
This guide will help you cut through the confusion and discover everything you need to know about travel to Cuba. Get the scoop on the logistics such as visas, money and communication; discover Havana’s neighborhoods and where to stay; and plan your perfect (and legal) trip with recommendations on restaurants, sights and things to do in Havana. I’ve even included a sample itinerary and a breakdown of things you should understand about Cuba before you go.
So what are you waiting for? Start making your plans and find out for yourself why so many are leaving half of their heart in Havana.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Visas, Money, Safety, Transportation and Communication
Contrary to popular belief, travel to Cuba is NOT illegal for U.S. citizens. Though travel purely for tourism is still banned, you can travel independently as long as you have a visa that falls under one of 12 approved categories to go. These include categories such as family visits, journalism and humanitarian visits. There are also two categories that allow for cultural travel with certain restrictions, which are the most common ways for average citizens to visit Cuba. These are Support for the Cuban People (individuals) and People-to-People (group travel only). There is more on how to travel under Support for the Cuban People below.
You no longer have to apply for a visa as long as your travel falls into one of these pre-approved categories, so you can self-select and purchase your visa when you book your flight. Southwest Airlines had a partner, Cuba Visa Services, that I purchased my visa through. My visa was $50 through Southwest; I’ve heard prices vary depending on your airline and how you purchase. At the airport, you will pick up a pink tourist card that you must keep with you to enter and exit Cuba.
Traveling Under Support for the Cuban People
The main way to travel to Cuba as an individual is under the Support for the Cuban People visa category. This visa requires that you keep a full-time schedule of activities (about 6 hours a day) that support local entrepreneurs and contribute to a freer society. This looks like staying in an Airbnb or casa particular (a bed and breakfast type arrangement where you rent a room in someone's house) and eating at paladars (privately owned restaurants). In addition to staying and eating local, you need to fill the majority of your day with activities that support local entrepreneurs...in other words, not just sitting at the beach sipping mojitos. In such a culturally rich city as Havana, this is not hard to do. I had more trouble finding enough days for all the things I wanted to do than trouble keeping a full-time schedule!
I booked all of our tours and experiences through Airbnb, where I could make sure they were hosted by trusted local Cubans and family-owned businesses. There are car tours, walking tours, cooking classes, mixology classes, salsa classes, visits to local farms, visits to cigar factories, even opportunities to sit down with local professors and discuss all the -isms. Not only do I think following the regulations of this visa is the most ethical way to travel, it's also the most fun way to travel! Connecting and engaging with new Cuban friends was the most meaningful part of my trip, hands down.
In addition to spending the majority of your time and money at private businesses, the United States has a restricted entities list at which you are not supposed to spend any money. This list contains a lot of hotels, some government tourism companies and other government companies that directly fund the military.
I had no issues or questions leaving or re-entering the U.S. as these regulations are set by the treasury department and not customs and immigration. It's all about where your money is being spent, not about what you're personally up to. You'll want to keep an itinerary and any receipts you have for up to five years in case you're ever asked about your trip to Cuba and need to prove it legally fit the requirements of the Support for the Cuban People visa.
Cuba is primarily a cash economy, and if you're traveling from the U.S., none of your bank or credit cards will work in Cuba. This is due to the U.S. embargo, so there is no way around it.
You will have to bring all the cash you need for your time there. Bring more than you think you can spend as well as an emergency fund that you don't plan to exchange unless necessary. Havana is definitely cheaper than many major U.S. cities, but it's not as cheap as some other countries in Latin America. I spent about $150 a day (per person) for food, drinks, water, transportation, tips and souvenirs (lodging and tours were pre-paid). This budget allowed me to go to nice restaurants, and I did not feel limited in what I could do. You could certainly do it cheaper.
It can be intimidating carrying a lot of cash when you're not used to it. I got a travel lockbox that I used to store money in my Airbnb, and I only carried what I needed for each part of the day.
If you plan well and are diligent while you're there, you should not run out of money. However, loss or theft of cash is possible and could put you in a serious bind. It's a good idea to know where the Western Union offices and the U.S. Embassy are in case you find yourself in trouble.
CUCs vs CUPs
Cuba has two currencies, which can be a bit confusing for visitors. The CUC, or the Cuban convertible peso, is what you'll be using as a visitor. This has a one-to-one ratio with the U.S. dollar, and the majority of prices you'll see in popular tourist spots will be in CUC.
The CUP is the currency used by most locals. Twenty-five CUPs are equal to one U.S. dollar, so the value is much lower. Make sure you know the difference in the appearance of the two currencies. One possible scam is having you pay in CUC and then giving you your change in CUP.
The standard exchange fee is about 3 percent. There is a 10 percent tax on the U.S. dollar, so you'll end up getting about .87 CUC for every U.S. dollar you exchange. Keep this in mind when building your budget and figuring out how much cash to bring. Some people suggest exchanging USD into Canadian dollars or Euros before you go to avoid the tax. This is a great tip if you can find a good exchange rate in the U.S.
You can exchange your money in the airport when you arrive or at an exchange house (CADECA) in the city. Personally, I was very glad I exchanged all of my money at the airport so I didn't have to worry about it throughout the trip. Sure, I lost a little bit of money in fees by exchanging more money than I needed, but who really wants to spend their trip hunting down an exchange house and waiting in line (sometimes for hours!) so they can pay for tonight's dinner? You will have the opportunity to exchange any leftover CUCs back to USD (or currency of your choice) at the airport when you leave.
If I can give you one tip about exchanging money, it's ASK FOR SMALL DENOMINATIONS. Small CUC denominations are 1s and 3s (1s might be a coin or a bill). The person who exchanged my money didn't give me any small bills, and I spent the rest of my trip hunting them down. You'll want these for tipping and other small items, and it was hard to find someone who would give change in small bills in the city.
Bottle of water: 1-2 CUC
Cocktails: 6 CUC
Beer: 2-3 CUC
Entree: 6-15 CUC, depending on the item and the restaurant. 6 was common for a sandwich, 8 for a chicken dish, 12-15 for seafood. Portion sizes were very generous and many dishes could be split.
Cab fare in the city: 10-20 CUC
Cab fare to/from airport: 20-30 CUC
The standard for tipping at restaurants and bars is 10 percent. Many will add the service charge to the check; it is always ok to tip more for good service.
A standard tip for a taxi ride is 1-3 CUC. I also tipped our Airbnb experience guides/instructors about 20 CUC each. I don't know what is standard for this, but I was hosted by wonderful people and this is something I was glad to do.
You'll also find bands, artists, street performers and people dressed in traditional outfits in the streets. If you want photos or if you stay and enjoy the music, tipping a few cents to 1 CUC is appreciated. Most public restrooms also have an attendant, and she will give you toilet paper in exchange for a couple of cents to 1 CUC. It's important to have some coins or small bills around for these moments.
The most common way to get around Havana is through a good old taxi...and if you're lucky, one that happens to be a classic car. Bicycle taxi are also everywhere in Old Havana and a good option if you're just going down the street. Most cabs will cost you 10-20 CUC within the city, and the bicycle taxis should be just a couple of CUC for a short trip.
There is a large queue of official taxis waiting at the airport. You should have no trouble catching a ride once you land. Some Airbnb/casa particular hosts will also arrange transportation for you (read the reviews or ask to see if this is an option). Our host did this for us, and while it was not a necessity, it was really nice to know we had someone waiting for us after a long day of travel. This also allowed us to go through a private company instead of the government taxis, which we preferred.
You'll also have no problem getting a taxi in Old Havana. There's a taxi stand at El Floridita, and if you're walking somewhere, you'll probably be flagged down by every driver that passes you seeing if you need a ride (don't even try to go for a run on the Malecón without 10 cabbies trying to stop you from burning off last night's ropa vieja). One thing I was unsure about was getting taxis in other parts of the city, especially more local areas like Centro Habana and Vedado. I found that most nice restaurants had a door man who would call a taxi and most popular clubs had a group of taxis waiting outside. You can also work with your Airbnb host to arrange transportation or arrange a return trip with your driver on the way there.
Always negotiate your fare with the driver before you get in the taxi. Ten to 20 CUC is a common fare within the main parts of the city.
Cuba is a very safe country with low rates of violent crime or robbery and very little gang or drug problems. It's safe to walk around the city, even at night, and there is a strong police presence with a vested interest in keeping tourists safe. In Havana, some buildings can look run down and people tend to hang out and socialize in the street. This does not mean its unsafe; just be wise and aware of your surroundings like you would anywhere.
The hustle in Cuba is real, so do be smart and watch out for pickpocketing and scams. In the touristy areas, you'll be approached by people unsolicited, often asking what you're looking for, inviting you to something or giving you helpful "information". They're usually trying to take you a business they're being paid by, sell you a ride on a bicitaxi or help you in exchange for a tip. Just say "no, thanks", and they'll move on. We found that as soon as we got onto side streets, the solicitation totally stopped. Cubans are friendly and you should be open to meeting people; just know that if someone approaches you, they probably have an agenda.
Phone and Internet
Some U.S. carriers offer international calling and data plans for travelers in Cuba. Others, even major ones like AT&T, do not. These are often expensive to add.
If you want to avoid these fees or if you carrier does not offer plans, you can rent or buy a basic international phone before you go from carriers such as Cellular Abroad and Mobal. You can also rent a phone when you arrive in Cuba from Cubacel. I ended up purchasing a very basic international phone from Mobal for $29. Unlike rentals, this phone is mine to keep and I can use it on any future international trips. You just pay for usage, which is tracked on your online account and billed to your credit card. This phone was not data enabled, which helped avoid any charges in the background (and it was nice to disconnect for a few days!).
Keep in mind that calls and data are very expensive, even with an international phone (think $2+ a minute to call the U.S.). If you bring your smart phone, be sure to put it in airplane mode when you arrive to avoid accidental data charges from apps in the background. You can download offline versions of certain apps for use while there.
Though I didn't end up using my phone, I was very glad to have one. Not only was it comforting to know I could call the U.S. in case of emergency, but it can be necessary to find Airbnb or tour hosts, to call restaurants or taxis or for other local needs.
Internet access is quickly expanding in Cuba, but it’s still limited. There are designated wifi spots throughout the city, often in parks and hotels (look for the large crowds of people congregating and staring at their phones).
You’ll have to pay for an access card before you can connect. The lines for these cards can be very long, and they often run out. Personally, I did not want to spend precious hours on vacation waiting to buy a card and check Facebook, but it is an option if necessary.
There are several helpful apps that will work offline in Cuba. Download these before you leave.
Download the Havana map before you leave. While it’s a good idea to print directions to places you know you want to go, it can still be helpful to have a map of the city for exploring.
Download Spanish before you go. Though most servers and tour guides we interacted with spoke English, you will need a little bit of Spanish to get around.
This app is a restaurant directory and will allow you find places near you in the city.
Arriving at José Martí International Airport
You will likely arrive at Terminal 2 or Terminal 3 at the airport in Havana. Terminal 3 is the large international terminal that most international flights go through. I was on Southwest and went through Terminal 2, which is smaller terminal designed for charter flights. I was actually glad for this, as it was much less busy, and immigration moved fast. The airport might or might not be air conditioned, so dress in layers, especially if you're coming from a colder area.
On the plane, you'll be given a health form and a customs declaration form to fill out. The declaration form can be a bit confusing, and I was glad I read up on it online before going. You don't need to declare anything you're bringing in for yourself unless you're bringing more than $5,000 or if you're bringing in meat, plants, etc. You'll see some questions about electronic devices or miscellaneous items, and you don't need to worry about these unless you're bringing items to leave in Cuba. Don't worry about declaring your phone, your personal toiletries, etc.
The entry process was very easy. On arrival, you'll stand in an immigration queue to have your passport and tourist card checked. They'll take a picture of you, stamp your documents and send you into the next hall, where you'll go through a metal detector and send your carry ons through the x-ray machine.
If you checked bags, you'll pick them up here. Once you have all of your belongings, you'll hand your health form to an official at one kiosk, and if you have nothing to declare, pass through the "no declaration" doors and hand your declaration form to the official on the way out.
I've heard stories about baggage claim in customs taking hours, so if you are going for a short time and can carry on your luggage, it can save you a lot of time in the immigration process. It took me about 30 minutes to go through the whole process, and the checked bags hadn't even made it onto the carousel yet as I was leaving.
Tip: If you do carry on, bring a small tote bag or duffel. You can check your bag on the way back and use the empty duffel to bring back souvenirs or anything you buy in Cuba.
Get to the airport about three hours before your flight when leaving Cuba. Our host recommended this, and although it sounded crazy, I was glad I did. You'll wait in a long line to check in, a long line to exchange money and a long line to pass back through immigration and security (similar process to arriving).
Other Important Tips
Don't drink the water. Drink bottled water only. This is also the case for brushing your teeth. All of the restaurants I went to sold both still and sparkling bottled water for 1-2 CUC. I also found it easy to find bottled water for sale in the touristy areas of Old Havana, though standard shops/groceries don't exist like they do in the States. I highly recommend buying 2-3 bottles of water in your last U.S. airport so you have some on arrival. It does take a bit of hunting to figure out where to buy water near you and that's the last thing you want to do after a long day of travel. You can also bring water purification tablets or bottles in case of emergency.
Print out everything you will need before you go. Think itineraries, confirmation numbers, contact information, maps, etc. – all of the things you’d normally look up on your phone or the internet. It's also a good idea to take screen shots of these documents as backup. If you know of places you'll be visiting, print out the addresses as well. Cab drivers know the most popular spots, but I did have to give addresses for a few restaurants.
Pack everything you need. Due to the embargo and the Cuban economy, there are a lot of shortages on the island and basic products like toilet paper, soap and deodorant can be difficult to find. Don't expect to be able to buy anything there. If you pack extra toiletries or medicines, consider leaving them with your host or a church at the end of your trip, as these items can be very much needed on the island.
Bring some packs of tissues in case you find yourself in a situation without toilet paper. Due to the shortages, sometimes restaurants, the airport, etc. can be out of paper.
Don't buy cigars off the street. Most of these are fake. Ask someone you trust like your Airbnb host or tour guide where to buy legitimate cigars. You can bring back up to 100 cigars and 1 liter of rum, as long as they are for personal consumption and don’t exceed $800 in value.
WHERE TO STAY
Though Havana has many beautiful neighborhoods, there are three central neighborhoods where many tourists stay and where you’ll find a lot of major attractions.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, Old Havana (Habana Vieja) is a beautiful part of the city filled with historic sites, restaurants, bars and attractions. This part of the city is better maintained and caters more to tourists, though many Cubans do live in Old Havana. It is also relatively small and very walkable. I stayed here and was glad I did. It was nice being able to walk to major sights I wanted to see, and it was a bit easier to find resources like bottled water, money exchange and restaurants.
Known as a more local part of the city, staying in Centro Habana will allow you to get away from some of the tourist traps and see more of daily life in Havana. It is also centrally located and would be an easy stroll down the Malecón to Old Havana or other neighborhoods.
Considered “new Havana,” here you’ll find more high-rise apartment buildings, trendy paladars and popular night life spots. The residential streets are quiet and peaceful, with a hint of ocean breeze. This is a great place to stay if you want to retreat from the hustle and bustle of Old Havana while still being close to great bars and restaurants.
No matter where you stay, it’s worth exploring each neighborhood, as they all have something unique to offer. If you have a chance, it’s also worth venturing into the Playa district of the city, which contains neighborhoods like Miramar and Buena Vista. Miramar is where many wealthy families lived before the revolution, and you’ll find beautiful colonial mansions and embassies from all over the world.
Choosing an Airbnb/Casa Particular
There are a wide range of options when it comes to lodging in Cuba. You can find a simple room at a casa particular for as little as $15-$30 a night, or you can find an entire apartment to yourself.
The easiest way to search and book a casa particular is through Airbnb. This is a great way to see photos, read reviews and pre-pay for your stay. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also look for a casa particular after you arrive in Havana. All casa particulars are marked with a blue anchor sign; you can simply walk up to one and ask about a room. This is probably where you’ll find the best deals, and there are places ALL over the city.
Many casa particulars offer other services for additional fees. Breakfast is very common and usually costs 3-5 CUC per person. Some will also offer lunch and dinner, airport transfer, a stocked fridge on arrival, a mobile phone to use while in Cuba, etc. If these perks are important to you, you can often find them in the Airbnb description or reviews.
I stayed at this Airbnb in Old Havana and absolutely loved it: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/10796429?guests=1&adults=1. It was very spacious, very well run and the perfect location. They offered airport transfer for 30 CUC; breakfast, lunch and dinner in the casa; and had water, soft drinks and rum in the fridge on arrival. The manager, Martha, is fantastic and the stay couldn’t have been any smoother.
Tip: I “splurged” on this place because I loved the architecture and really wanted a place with a terrace/balcony. After visiting Cuba and experiencing the life of the city, I can’t imagine staying anywhere without a balcony. I LOVED opening the windows or sitting out on the balcony and taking in all of Havana without even leaving the casa.
If you’ve never used Airbnb before, sign up using this link to get $40 off a home stay and $15 off an experience! https://www.airbnb.com/c/kpope10?currency=USD
THINGS TO DO
Food, nightlife, sightseeing and experiences
The best restaurants you’ll find in Cuba are paladars, or privately-owned restaurants. These tend to be higher quality (and more expensive) than the government restaurants. If you’re traveling under Support for the Cuban People, eating most of your meals at paladares is an excellent way to maintain your full-time schedule of activities that support local entrepreneurs.
It can be difficult to tell which restaurants are private and which ones are government run. All the restaurants in the list below are private paladars.
Make reservations before you go through the Alamesa website. You’ll pay $2 for the reservation, which is well worth it; most places are small and the popular ones can be very busy. Alamesa will give you a 2-hour time range in which you can make the reservation, but if you have a specific time you need to be there, you can note that in the special instructions for the restaurant.
For La Guarida, make reservations through the paladar’s website: http://www.laguarida.com/en/. You’ll want to make reservations weeks in advance, as this is a very popular place and fills up quickly – especially for weekend dinners.
O'Reilly 404 (Old Havana)
Calle O’Reilly 304
A very hip restaurant and gin bar, right in the heart of Old Havana. The food was fresh, flavorful and modern; the mojitos with fresh fruit are a MUST.
El Del Frente (Old Havana)
Sister restaurant to O’Reilly 404, located right across the street. A bit more spacious and brighter, and my personal favorite of the two. The menus are very similar.
El Café (Old Havana)
#358, La, Amargura
Perfect breakfast or lunch spot. Trendy coffee shop and café in a beautiful building in Old Havana.
Doña Eutimia (Old Havana)
#60-C, Callejon del Chorro
Located right off the Plaza de la Catedral. A lot of traditional Cuban recipes at affordable prices, in a cozy space that feels like home.
La Guarida (Centro)
Concordia No. 418/Gervasio y Escobar
Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Havana. The name means “the hideaway” and you’ll see why when you visit. Located in an old Colonial mansion turned multi-family apartment building, the entire vibe and experience of this place is unforgettable.
Calle 5th # 511 entre Paseo y 2
A cozy fine-dining restaurant in Vedado. Atelier hosted the Obamas when they were in Cuba and is a lovely place for a comfortable and delicious dinner.
Other Popular Paladares
Paladar Los Mercaderes (Old Havana)
Habana 61 (Old Havana)
San Cristobal (Centro)
Café Archangel (Centro)
Belview Art Café (Vedado)
Casa Mia Paladar (Vedado)
El Cocinero (Vedado). This is attached to the Fábrica del Arte Cubano if you want a convenient dinner/drinks option.
Cafe Laurent (Vedado)
Castas y Tal (Vedado)
Los Naranjos (Vedado)
Bars & Nightlife
El Floridita (Old Havana)
One of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars and “the cradle of the daquiri”. I expected this place to be super touristy…and it is, but in a historic kind of way, not in a Margaritaville kind of way. This was a block from my Airbnb and a last stop on more than one night.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Vedado)
Calle 26, Corner 11
An old cigar factory turned multi-media art space and club. This hip hangout contains art galleries, cinematic art space, a music venue, dance clubs, bars and restaurants. The cover is 2 CUC and you’ll get a card at the entrance that you can use to buy snacks and drinks at any of the sprawling space’s bars. Be sure not to lose the card, as you pay on your way out. A must visit.
Other Popular Spots
La Bodeguito Del Medio (Old Havana). Another popular Hemingway Bar, where he drank his mojitos.
Bar La Lluvia de Oro (Old Havana)
Tabarish (Old Havana)
Buena Vista Social Club (Old Havana). Popular for live music. You can also purchase dinner with your show tickets.
Casa de la Musica (Centro and Miramar). Popular for dancing and live music
Corner Café (Vedado)
Jardines del 1830 (Vedado). Popular for dancing and live music.
A beautifully restored old Spanish square, lined with restaurants and cafes. Grab a cup of Cuban espresso at Café El Escorial and sit in the square, enjoying the music and people watching.
Plaza de la Catedral
Another beautiful old square surrounding a historical cathedral built in the 1770s. There are also several restaurants, museums and art galleries inhabiting old homes in the plaza.
One of the most beautiful streets in Old Havana, filled with shops, restaurants and performers. Calle Mercaderes runs from Plaza Vieja to the Plaza de la Catedral.
A five-mile seawall and promenade that stretches along the edge of the city and the Caribbean Sea. The wide sidewalk makes it a perfect place for a walk or run with amazing views. It’s also a popular place for the community to hang out, jokingly referred to “the nation’s couch.”
Located in the fishing village of Jaimanitas, Fusterlandia is a community art project started by José Fuster. This whimsical installment of mosaic art covers a massive home and gallery filled with fantastical outdoor structures, and the art has spread to the surrounding homes in the community. It really is something you must see for yourself.
Other Popular Sights
Plaza de Armas. The oldest square in the city.
Plaza de la Revolución
Museums. There are several popular museums in Old Havana, including the Museo de la Revolución and several art museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts and Museo Nacional de Belles Artes de Cuba.
La Cabaña. An 18th century Spanish fort, later used as a prison and now a museum and site for many fairs and festivals.
Whether or not you’re traveling under Support for the Cuban People, it is worth finding time in your itinerary for cultural tours or experiences. These experiences give you an opportunity to get outside of the resorts, bars and restaurants and explore Cuban culture, from food tours to dance classes. If you can book these experiences with a family or local entrepreneur, they will be even more enriching as you get to meet local Cubans, engage in meaningful conversation and learn about the country’s past and present.
Though there were so many experiences I would have loved, I ultimately decided on a vintage car tour and a salsa dancing class. I can’t recommend them enough!
There are a lot of vintage car tours in Havana, but I chose this one because it primarily focused on the western part of the city. This was a great way to see neighborhoods like Miramar and Buena Vista (where the owner grew up). Run by a wonderful Cuban family, the guides are full of interesting information about the city and will quickly feel like old friends. This tour stops at Fusterlandia and a local coffee shop, as well as some great spots for photo ops with the car.
Salsa Dancing Class: https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/130984
This class takes place on a rooftop in Playa, creating an amazing environment to learn as you look out over the buildings of the city and feel the sea breeze in the air. Each guest is paired with a personal teacher, so you get one-on-one instruction, and the teachers are fun and patient. I was surprised how much I was able to learn in just a few hours and how much fun I had despite being a total beginner.
THINGS TO UNDERSTAND BEFORE YOU GO
Research travel to Cuba, and you’ll find a host of ranging opinions and narratives about the topic. On one end of the spectrum, you’ll find bloggers posting luxe vacation pictures and tourists partying with daiquiris; on the other, you’ll find stories about sadness, poverty and oppression.
In my opinion, both of these views are short-sighted.
There are elements of life in Cuba that are very difficult due to a number of complex political and economic factors, but it’s also a beautiful country with a rich culture and proud, resilient people who deserve dignity and respect. Cuba should be celebrated and seen, not glossed over, isolated or saved. I believe it is the responsibility of every traveler to try to understand the country and the implications of tourism before visiting.
Here are some things you need to know about life in Cuba and tourism in Cuba as you plan your trip.
Life in Cuba
Cuba’s political and economic system is very different from that of many other Western countries. The political situation in Cuba, along with the embargo in the United States, has led to a different lifestyle than what you might be used to. Understand that opinions vary widely on what is the best system and what Cuba needs, and Cubans don’t need your pity or your salvation. However, you can be a more responsible traveler when you understand the hardships, injustices, achievements, culture and beauty that shapes daily life in Cuba.
The average salary for Cubans in government jobs is around $25 per month. Some make a little less, some a little more, but more or less, everyone is paid the same regardless of experience, education or industry.
There are a lot of shortages on the island due to embargoes and economic factors. Finding basic items like deodorant and cough drops can be difficult, and empty shops are not uncommon. These items can also be very expensive compared to monthly salaries, making it difficult to meet basic needs.
Every Cuban is given a monthly food ration determined by their age and the government’s nutrition guidelines. This covers staples like rice, sugar, beans, eggs, cooking oil, chicken and bread. The rations typically cover about 40 percent of someone’s nutritional needs, and most diets must be supplemented by the monthly salary.
Though salaries are low, Cubans are given housing, education up through college and free healthcare. The literacy rate is one of the best in the world and the doctors are very skilled, though there are some stories of long wait times at hospitals or shortages on medicine. Most houses are owned by individual families and are passed down through generations. It’s not uncommon to see three generations of family living together, as it can be extremely expensive to try to buy another house or rent an apartment. Housing conditions vary throughout the city as the infrastructure in Havana ages.
Over the last 10 years, many restrictions have eased and personal freedoms have increased. The private sector was expanded around 2009, giving people more opportunity to start their own businesses, though limitations exist. Bans on personal electronics were lifted around the same time. The restrictions on leaving the island were loosened in 2012, and internet on cell phones was just made available in December 2018. It’s important to remember, though, that the freedoms still aren’t as wide as what we’re used to in the United States. Opposition to the government can still be punished harshly, and though asking questions is ok, don’t criticize the government or push people for their opinion.
Cuba has experienced more than one revolution. Understanding Cuba’s history will greatly increase your understanding of Cuba’s current climate. A great resource is the Cuba Libre Story documentary on Netflix, for a detailed overview of Cuba’s fight for independence.
Travel To Cuba
For every raving fan of Cuba, you will find someone who is very much opposed to leisure travel there. Many opponents are Cuban Americans themselves and have a first-hand understanding of the harsh realities of the regime. Their feelings are understandable, and it is true that the implications of travel in Cuba are complex.
But Cuba is changing, and most of the people I talked with before and after my trip agree that responsible travel to Cuba is a good thing. Many of my Cuban American friends feel that the exchange of ideas and openness to the world will ultimately be of benefit to Cuba. The Cuban business owners I talked with all reiterated the essential nature of tourism to their livelihoods. Not only does it bring hard cash into the economy, but private tourism businesses create well-paying jobs for millions of Cubans. For example, the Airbnb where I stayed employs drivers, housekeepers, cooks and managers, and they’re all paid very well. Other entrepreneurs we talked with shared that the Cuban people want to feel connected to the world, move forward and improve the economy.
After many conversations and my own experience in Cuba, I am an advocate for travel to Cuba. But here are some of the factors you must weigh yourself as you make your plans:
Opponents of tourism argue that all of the money you spend in Cuba ultimately goes to the government and props up an oppressive system. While it’s true that businesses are heavily taxed and the money paid to employees will ultimately be spent in government businesses, you must weigh this against the fact that your money first passes through an actual person’s hands and allows them to buy necessities, support their families and improve their quality of life.
Many of the island’s limited resources are given to tourists, as tourism is an important source of revenue for the country. Though you’ll see beef and seafood on every menu in the restaurants you visit, it’s not uncommon for Cubans to rarely see these items in their rations (and they can be difficult to find or expensive to buy outside of the rations). Understand that while you are there, you will be consuming precious resources that the Cuban people themselves might not have access to.
You will get a curated view of Cuba while you’re there, and it’s important to understand that you won’t see all of the realities and complexities of life. Read a lot before you go, have conversations while you’re there and seek to learn. Your love and appreciation for Cuba will be far greater as you understand everything that makes it what it is, not just the glamorized version.
Below is a sample itinerary for a long weekend in Havana. This was similar to my itinerary and is perfect if you’re staying in Old Havana. You can use this as a starting point and customize this for the places you want to see most!
8pm: Dinner at O’Reilly 304
10pm: Drinks at El Floridita
10am: Walk on Malecón
Noon: Walk to Plaza De Armas/Explore Obispo andO’Reilly
1pm: Lunch at El Del Frente
2:30pm-5:30pm: Car Tour
8pm: Dinner at La Guarida
10pm: After-Dinner Drinks. Some options:
La Guarida Rooftop bar
La Bodeguita del Medio
10am: Breakfast at Airbnb
11am: Walk to Plaza Vieja, Calle Mercaderes and Plaza del la Catedral
Noon: Lunch at Doña Eutimia
1:30-3:30pm: Salsa Class
6:30pm: Dinner at Atelier
8pm: Fábrica de Arte Cubano
10pm: Drinks and Dancing. Some options:
Casa de la Musica
10am: Brunch at El Café
11am: Leave for airport