If you think you want to jump on the Cuba bandwagon, get this Cuba travel checklist to help you be fully prepared for your Cuban adventure. This place is somewhat different from other Carribean destinations, so a checklist will definitely be helpful. (Shout out to Jason of the Butler Journal for writing his post about his recent trip to Cuba. It totally inspired me to go!)
Before you get your checklist, I’ll tell you about my recent experience there so you know what to expect. Hopefully, this will get you super stoked about setting up your own Cuban getaway.
Since President Obama’s recent Cuba visit and changes to policies around Cuban-American relations, Americans have flooded the island in hopes of experiencing this mysterious Caribbean oasis. I actually went to Cuba as a college student in 2001 and didn’t want to leave. The Carribean atmosphere, the laid-back living and genuine spirit of the people was just so appealing to me.
However, so many things have changed since I first visited. I remember rolling electrical and cooking gas outages, poor customer service and difficult living conditions. No one could start a business or own property. There was no hot water in my ‘casa particular’ and pretty much all the cars were ‘Almendrones’ or the classic 50s era cars.
Every other Cuban I met lamented that they could not leave the island to see the world due to a travel ban (lifted as of 2012.) However, the island had seen even more difficult times when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s. Conditions on the island have greatly improved since then, but I will not deny that I left Cuba in 2001 with a variety of emotions after what I encountered and saw.
I recently finished up a trip with a friend earlier this month (March 2017.) Cuba had changed so much and definitely for the better.
Here’s what has changed since the last time I visited:
- The travel ban restricting Cubans from traveling abroad has been lifted. (Though it’s still difficult for the average Cuban to travel abroad.)
- The U.S. eliminated the Wet Foot, Dry Foot immigration policy towards Cubans.
- People can now own businesses in up to 200 different categories.
- Cuban citizens can now sell their homes.
- Infrastructure has improved due to an increase in private investment and ownership.
- Hospitality and related customer service is much better.
- Americans can now travel freely to the island without special permission from the U.S. Department of State.
Not only did we have a blast on our trip to Cuba, I will admit that it was pretty inspiring to see that some of the change Cubans have been earnestly waiting for finally taking shape. Though there is still a long way until the quality of life is improved to that of a developed country, I was pleasantly surprised at the positive things going on in Cuba.
Travel Hacking My Way to Cuba
Another big plus of this trip was the affordability factor. I used points from my Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards card and my Southwest companion pass to cover my friend’s flight. We both only had to pay taxes. You can only get a companion pass from Southwest when you accrue 110,000 Southwest miles (points) in one year. You’d have to fly a heck of a lot to make this mileage requirement.
So, I actually did a small credit card hack to make this trip possible: signed up for both a business and personal Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards. Once, I met the spending limit for both, I was awarded 100,000 points. Then, I believe the extra 10,000 points came from the spending limit I met. Upon hitting the 110,000 miles, I received a companion pass good for two calendar years! And boy, have we used this companion pass. From our family trip to the Dominican Republic to 3 trips to California and now Cuba, it has been a great asset to our family.
You can change your companion pass partner up to 3 times each calendar year. If you are responsible with credit and think this travel hack would be beneficial to you, then apply for the Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards card here: Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards.
WARNING: DO NOT GET A CREDIT CARD IF YOU ARE IN DEBT AND CANNOT PAY OFF YOUR BALANCE AT THE END OF EVERY MONTH.
If you ever pay interest or begin to carry a balance on a credit card, you are NOT winning this game or getting a discount. YOU ARE LOSING.
Did I make it clear enough?
The next thing that made our trip so affordable was AirBnb. Hotels are pretty expensive in Cuba. The good news is that you’ve got some great options when it comes to housing. A ‘casa particular’ will start at about $10 per night while nicer apartments will start at $25 per night.
We found a lovely place in the Play/Miramar area of Havana. This spot was newly renovated, clean and quite comfortable. We REALLY loved it! Alberto was our host and he was great. He was super attentive, literally got us everything we needed from tons of water to cab rides to the beach and airport. He even made us breakfast for 5 CUC/person each morning! Check out photos of our Cuban apartment and tell Alberto that Aja & Michelle sent you if you decide to book it!
Cuba Budget Breakdown
Plane Ticket Tax: $76
Cuban Visa: $50
AirBnb for 5 Days: $57
Breakfast at our Cuban apartment for 5 days: $20
Spending Money: $300 (I could have totally been comfortable with only $200 but wanted to be safe.)
*Previously I stated the total amount was $453, I forgot to add the price of the visa!
I might also add that we spent very little for food because I packed tons of snacks. Why? Because 1) I felt like hunting for food would make me frustrated and irritable and 2) I am on a weight training regimen that requires me to eat quite a bit of protein each day. I thought “better safe than hungry” so I packed packets of tuna, protein bars, protein oatmeal, nuts, nutbutter packets, plus protein powder. We ate every.single.snack. I was even mixing protein powder in my juice on the plane! It was genius and I didn’t even know it. Being hungry on vacation, to me, is a recipe for disaster.
I can’t tell you how happy I was having these snacks. Not only did I make my protein goals, I also stayed really full for our daily walks in the city. Reducing the number of times you need to eat out also reduces your chance of getting food poisoning. I’m not saying that this will happen to you in Cuba, but I generally try to avoiding eating out too much while traveling or at home.
We usually only had to eat out in the evening. The portions were always big enough that we could take the food back and have it as a snack the next day. This kept our food spending extremely low.
Location & Amenities
Our location. Playa/Miramar was nice, as we were in a residential zone, rather than the main touristy area in Vedado, Old/Central Havana. It was about a 15-minute cab ride to the tourist spots of Havana (Note: You should get charged no more than 10 CUC to and from Vedado/Havana when coming from Miramar.)
Many times, we took the bus and then took a cab back to the apartment at night. We took the P4 into Vedado and the P5 into old Havana. Cubans are really nice and many speak enough English to help you get around.
Warning: the buses are EXTREMELY crowded and wiggly- like you will always be moving around as more and more people board the bus. When you think no one else could possible fit on the bus, the driver will stop and literally let 50 more people on. Seriously, the bus can never be too full! It’s not comfortable at all but it’s cheap (like less than a penny for two people.) So that’s what we did to have a budget for the beach, souvenirs, etc.
The other nice things about the Playa/Miramar location was that we were close to a gym where there was CrossFit training and pilates. It’s called Charlotte Gym and it’s located on Calle 13 between 70 & 72 street. The cost is 1 CUC each day for a guest pass. They may try to charge you 1 CUC extra for pilates, but I imagine you could negotiate as the prices don’t seem to be set.
Finally, our apartment was located close to a Wi-Fi park. It was about a 3-5 minute walk. Cubans pronounce Wi-Fi ‘WEE-FEE.‘ Cubans, with few rare exceptions, do not have internet or Wi-Fi in their homes. You have to trek to a hot spot and either buy an hourly access code or create an account you must pay to recharge for continual internet access.
At the park close to us, there were some sketchy looking guys offering to sell us Wi-Fi codes for 3 CUC for about 120 minutes of access. Turns out, these guys were legit. Many people will direct you to a house across the street where 2 sweet elderly ladies will recharge your account, but we learned that it would be better to get the hourly access because we’d only be there a few days. Also, once you get to the touristy area, hotels will typically have Wi-Fi but it will be a tad more expensive.
If you decide to walk around residential areas, you’ll find a lot of stores and pharmacy-like places that sell trinkets, souvenirs and food items. This is where your knowledge of the money system will be helpful, as these small places had a hard time giving change for the CUC or convertible pesos we had. CUC bills are more brightly colored than the brownish looking Cuban peso bills. The CUC money unit is pegged to the U.S. dollar and is equal to the U.S. dollar. For example, something that costs 10 CUC is the same as 10 USD. Sometimes the person will tell you it costs ’10 cuc.’ They pronounce it “cook.”
Then, there is the Cuban peso or ‘moneda nacional’ also known as CUP (but commonly referred to as the Cuban peso.) This is the Cuban money that converts at 25 CUP = 1 USD. When you are in the non-touristy areas, most of the items are priced in the Cuban peso (CUP.) So, something like dish soap might be 50 CUP. If you try to buy that with a 20 CUC bill, you will have an extremely difficult time. It’s kind of like walking into a small bodega in New York to buy dish soap and then asking them if they have change for a $2,000 bill. I suggest you convert at least $20-$30 into Cuban pesos and the rest into CUCs.
Using CUPs we enjoyed a lot of cheap food. It’s worth it to get a few CUPs, though the ‘cadeca’ or currency exchange might discourage you from doing so. TIP: when exchanging dollars for CUCs, you will incur a 13% tax. So your 100 USD will only be 87 CUC. You can convert your dollars to euros and the tax can be less. For more information, check out this guide on Cuban money. Also, you should know that credit cards do NOT work in Cuba at this time, so it’s best to bring all the money you think you’ll need for your trip.
Tourist Attractions & Eating
I’m all about that food life, not gonna lie. What I remembered about Cuban food was pretty accurate. Mostly everything is served with congri (black beans and rice) some type of root vegetable and a cabbage salad. Your main dish will likely be something made of pork or chicken (sometimes fish.) We mostly ate tourist food with a splash of Cuban style and that combination worked for us.
To me, finding good, local cuisine can be hit or miss in Cuba. But I think the reason is mainly because of access to good ingredients.I don’t know this for certain, but I can imagine that Cuban food in Miami would be pretty good simply because of more access to fresh, varied ingredients.
That being said, we actually stumbled upon some great places in the touristy areas, so we enjoyed ourselves foodwise. In my opinion, the options food were much better than when I first visited. Here are a few places we enjoyed:
- Kilometro Zero– Located in Old Havana. At first, it looked like a chain restaurant and I was not interested. Once it started raining, however, our quick bathroom stop turned into lunch. We were totally impressed! We had huge portions of grilled snapper, shrimp and salad along with bread and butter. I ordered an extra side of ‘vianda con mojo’ (a type of root with mojo sauce) plus my friend had a virgin daiquiri. Total bill- 23 CUC. Plus, there was a nice band there that entertained us for about 2 hours. This was one of our most memorable times in Cuba- simple, fun and tasty.
- Restaurante Polinesio– Located smack dab in the middle of the touristy zone of Vedado. I was more than concerned when we got here. It looked like a dated fondue place from the 60s. Again, we were pleasantly surprised because the fried rice and smoked chicken came out really good. Again, the portions were huge and we were able carry out the rest for snacks the next day.
- Fonda La Paila Restaurant Paladar– Located in Vedado, this place had a nice menu. You can also be entertained by the roosters and cats walking around in this open-air restaurant. I enjoyed 1/2 grilled chicken here and my travel mate had a huge steak and a virgin daiquiri. I think the bill was around 25 CUC.
- Coppelia– This is a state-run ice cream place that has been famous for truly delicious and addicting ice cream since the 60s. I don’t know why this is true- but Caribbean ice cream is the best ice cream on the planet, in my opinion. Many Cubans seem to think this place isn’t that good anymore since there are more ice cream options nowadays. We found it to be wonderful. The lines are long, the flavors are few and it seems a little unorganized, but it’s worth a visit. Note: you can get really good ice cream from carts around the neighborhood as well. If you pay in CUPs you will pay the equivalent of $.12-.$25 for a nice size cone.
- Helad’Oro– Another ice cream spot in Old Havana. This place was spectacular but tasted less like the buttery ice cream of Coppelia. The plus was that they had a wide variety of flavors. Everything tasted fresh and thoughtfully planned, flavorwise. The staff was friendly and spoke English well. Here, CUCs are accepted but 3 scoops still set you back only 3 CUC -4CUC. It’s a deal in my opinion.
In terms of tourist attractions, there are so many! Vedado is the modern, more upscale part of the city, while Old Havana or ‘Havana Vieja’ is the more historic part of the city. There are many plazas to hit up and museums here. When I visited in 2001, I had three weeks to spend in Cuba so I saw 2 Cubans ballets! The building where these performances are held is gorgeous. The Spanish architecture in Cuba is so beautiful that the sight-seeing alone is fascinating.
Here’s what we did:
- Malecon– This is the ‘sea wall’ where many people gather when the weather is nice- young and old alike. I’m a big people watcher so being here was entertaining. People gather to dance, sing and just have fun- especially on weekends. There happened to be a festival close to the Hotel Nacional and the Malecon when we came, so we had access to a really fun, outdoor dance party. There were vendors selling food and snacks with loud music blasting while people danced.
- Hotel Nacional– This is a nice spot where you can walk into the lobby area and into a beautiful courtyard for drinks and music. They also have a live dance show you can pay for, but you don’t have to. Spending time in the courtyard is nice with the quiet backdrop of soothing music. I’m not a drinker but I imagine it would be the perfect place to chill and have a drink as well.
- Santa Maria del Mar– This is one of the eastern beaches in Cuba and it was really beautiful. Even though it was unseasonably cold, the sun was out and we even managed to get sunburn! The restaurant where we camped had tasty fare of fried and grilled seafood and items like pizza. We paid 60 CUC round trip to get there by taxi, but I hear there is a bus for 5 CUC round trip. The beach was pristine and not crowded at all. Chairs cost 2 CUC to rent.
- Plaza de Armas, Catedral, Vieja and San Francisco- Havana is very walkable so you can hit up these places pretty easily. These are nice town square locations where you will find a variety of people doing all types of things: playing soccer, posing in colonial dress for pictures and tips, playing music and just living life. These vibrant areas are the heart of Cuban tourism so have your camera ready to catch some interesting sites!
- El Morro– This is a fort guarding the entrance to the Havana bay. The views are spectacular and I hear if you go around sunset it’s even prettier. You can walk through the fort area to see the rooms of the castle-like structure and gift shops. Every evening at 9pm sharp, there is a reenactment of the historical “canonanzo” ceremony which would announce the closing of the port. You’d have to arrive around 8:30pm to be there on time. It’s best to arrive by taxi and tickets are 8 CUC. I believe there is a restaurant in the Morro as well.
I was also told that Cuban nightlife can be really electric and fun. I am not a night owl by any means and left my clubbing days alone a long time ago (plus the cigarette smoke is a big bother to me.) We actually tried to hit up a few places, but once we found that the sets started at 10:30pm and later, we were out! But if you are down and have the energy, a nice salsa club might be worth checking out.
So, you can’t talk about Cuba without talking politics. If you don’t know, Cuba considers itself a socialist regime rather than a democratic republic like the United States. So there are some differences you’ll notice or be informed about:
- The Cuban government owns everything even from land to homes to businesses. (Recently people have been able to own some small businesses.)
- The average salary of a state worker is $20 or less.
- Most Cubans cannot travel abroad due to cost and the inability to obtain Visas from other countries.
- No commercial billboards or adverts are allowed anywhere, only political propaganda.
- Cubans confess that they might not have the best of everything, but they do have great resources in terms of free education and health care.
- Cubans actually love Americans and treat us very well!
Even though there’s political tension that exists between the U.S. and the Cuban government, I can say that the Cuban people are really kind to Americans and pretty much all of the tourists that come there. People were nice enough to help us find places and give us directions. One guy even gave me a coin so my friend and I could get on the bus. I tried to give him a CUC bill as a thank you and he refused to take it!
Cuba is one of the safest places in Latin America and quite possibly the world, but just like any place, you want to be safe and wise about what you engage in.
All in all, Cuba is probably my favorite Spanish Caribbean island because of the beautiful mix of real-life, tourism and resort-like living you can enjoy.
Cuba Travel Checklist
- Passport- Expiration cannot be less than six months before the last date of travel you have planned in Cuba)
- Cuban Visa- Available through your airline or at the international gate of your airport
- Cash- Credit cards don’t work here
- Snacks- The stores are weird and don’t have a lot of things, so load up before you get to Cuba
- Sunscreen- Even if you are darker-skinned, you can get burned in the intense Cuban sun!
- Toilet tissue- Most public places don’t have it or expect a tip for a tiny sheet of paper. I still tipped, but I brought my own toilet paper
- Antibacterial- Helpful if you are not close to a bathroom with soap
- Good walking shoes
- Shower shoes- Flip flops should work
- Water- We didn’t drink the tap water, but you could pack some in your checked bag or ask your host to buy water for your place before you come. A large 1.5-liter bottle should be 1 CUC. Over five days we drank about 8-10 of these (I am very thirsty.)
- Storage containers- This sounds weird, but many places we went did not have containers for us to take our leftover food in. It happened a few times. But if you don’t plan to take leftovers out, you wouldn’t need them.
- Plastic bags- just like the food containers, these seem scarce.
- IMO app– This is what Cubans use to talk to people over wi-fi via audio or video. Both people have to have the app to communicate
- Map.me app– Offline maps. This will be helpful getting around since your GPS won’t work without wi-fi
- Giveaways- We brought over things to give away like toiletries, toys and old iPhones. If you have room in your luggage, it’s not a bad idea to bring things that you’d like to give away to people in Cuba that need it. Lines at stores are really long and some things aren’t readily available in Cuba, so it would be a blessing for someone to receive pretty much anything you could spare (nice things, not your old raggedy stuff!)
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