So, it’s finally possible to buy direct tickets to Cuba from the U.S. However, your coming to realize it’s not as easy as other countries since it is so new to tourism. Cuba is an amazing country and is definitely worth checking out, however, it is also not for the faint of heart. If you are used to luxury hotels with room service, A/C, and free WIFI this may not be the place for you. On the flip side, if you love adventure and getting off the beaten path then this is absolutely a trip to add to your bucket list!
First things first, getting into the country. Even though the restrictions have been lifted and you can buy direct tickets from the US to Cuba, it is not fully open for a tourism visa. There are 12 different categories that you must fit into in order to legally travel there, these categories are:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
Don’t let this scare you though, because it is easier now than ever to fit into any of these categories! Previously, you had to apply with proof before your trip in order to be approved for a visa. Now, all you have to do is state your reason at the airport and pay the entry and exit fees. These fees are even sometimes covered by your airline, as they are with Jet Blue. In my experience I said I was a journalist. Another popular category for tourists is education activities. If you are going on any tours or learning anything on your trip, it counts as education. That’s what is so great about the new rules it is easy for anyone to find a category that will apply to you. Now that we know how to get into the country, it’s time for the fun stuff, what to do once your there!
Where to go
For an authentic Cuban experience, take a few days to stay in this unique city. Check out the nightlife, where you can find little “hole in the wall” in a narrow alley with the best mojitos and music to dance in the street. You can spend your day getting lost wandering the streets of old Havana or you can opt to take a ride in one of the many classic cars. This city is full of culture but is also struck with poverty so be prepared for the culture shock that is Cuba when you land!
I highly recommend branching out and exploring other cities. If you’re looking for a step back in time, head down to Trinidad. It’s cobble stone streets, and bright colors will draw you in. The history and character will fascinate you by day and the drinks and dancing in the square will entertain you at night.
If you’re looking for an escape into the rural part of Cuba, Vinales is the place for you. Set in the mountains surrounded by the rain forest, this is where the large majority of Cuban cigars and coffee come from. You can enjoy a horse back ride through the rainforest, check out the local plantations, maybe smoke a cigar, explore the depths of a cave and swim in a lake at sunset. Or for a more relaxed itinerary you can take a day trip to the beautiful beach of Cayo Jutia. For nightlife experience make sure you check out Casa de la Musica for the best salsa dancing experience!
If you are looking for the traditional Cuban beach vacation the Varadero peninsula is where you want to go. Lined with pretty much all of the hotels in Cuba and jam-packed with restaurants and tour opportunities, this is called the Cancun of Cuba. With crystal clear blue waters and miles of beaches that wont disappoint. Most of the people you will meet are fellow tourists and travelers and it is easy to get around.
If you’re trying to save a couple bucks I highly recommend taking a Viazul bus to your different locations. It’s slow going but will save you a good chunk of change especially if you’re a solo traveler. You can book tickets at the bus station the day of or a few days before you plan to leave. It also possible to book ahead of time online at the official Viazul website.
If the tough of 6-8 hour bus rides across the Cuban terrain makes your stomach churn, you may want to consider a private taxi. This is still feasible when you have a few people to split the cost with. The taxis are usually the classic cars, which are also a fun experience. Unfortunately most of the time they don’t have A/C or shocks so it can be quite a hot and bumpy ride, but it’s all about the experience right? However, you cannot book a taxi online before your trip. This is fine for the more spontaneous traveler who doesn’t have a strict itinerary in place. Simply go to the bus station the day of or the day before and there will be locals standing around literally begging you to let them take you to your next destination. Don’t forget to haggle a little to get the best price!
Try to avoid traveling anything like this unless you want to experience something similar to the turbulence of a rocket launch!
Where to stay
Most of Cuba is not equipped for normal tourism, meaning that there are very few major hotels to stay at and the few that do exist are extremely overpriced. Your best bet is homestays, or as it is called in Cuba, casa particulares. They are extremely easy to find and to book before your trip. They are also the best way to get to know some of the locals and to get the full Cuban experience. I used Airbnb for the convenience of reading reviews and booking. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, click this link to sign up for free and receive a $40 bonus just for signing up!
You can also use sights such as CasaHavanaParticular.com, Hostelsclub.com, Hostelworld.com, and even Tripadvisor.com.
I am all for spontaneous, however, I highly recommend booking accommodation before you fly out because Wifi hotspots are not as easy as they are in most other countries today.
How to Use wifi in Cuba
Unlike most of the rest of the world you can’t find a coffee shop down the street with free wifi. Chances are, wherever you do end up staying most likely will not have access to wifi either. The service is extremely limited and the most common way to use the wifi in Cuba is by purchasing a wifi card. You can purchase them at travel kiosks, which will sometimes also have access to the Internet via their own computers. However, most are literally just kiosks with a window. Once you get a card you will have to find a hotspot. These are relatively easy to find as you wander the city because you will come across an area where everyone will just be standing around on laptops or phones. It’s actually an interesting site to see. Once you are there you can use the code on your hotspot card to log in.
During my stay in Cuba, I was the most disconnected from the world than I had ever been before since it was so much harder for Internet access. It was definitely a relief in some ways and a struggle in others. Just be aware and try to plan accordingly knowing you can’t just pop online and make reservations on a whim.
One last thing you must know before you go is that the people are absolutely wonderful. Don’t shy away from experiencing Cuba with the locals, it is one of the best parts of the country and it is so easy to do! Staying in homestays is a great way to interact with the locals; howbeit, it is also easy to meet people everywhere you go. Most will be more than willing to strike up a conversation with you, and it is a great way to really learn about such an interesting culture. However, you will want to brush up on your Spanish because barely anyone speaks English.
There you have it, the basics on getting around and making the most out of your trip to Cuba. There are many other amazing places to visit in Cuba, however these were my favorites and I chose to feature them here. To learn more about the different destinations in Cuba check out The Lonely Planet, or Forbes guidebooks and websites. If you were on the fence about visiting, I hope this helped swing you in the direction of visiting the beautiful country. It really is a once in a lifetime experience and it will not be this way for very much longer! For a real life example of a trip to Cuba check out my post about my trip here!
It’s a big world out there and YOU are here to explore it, so what are you waiting for?!
As the first day of any journey, it starts with an early morning, a lot of sitting, and a whole lot of nothing. But once you’ve reached your destination your struck with that sense of newness. You can’t stress the things you don’t understand or that are out of your control. You simply have to take it all in and enjoy it. Which is exactly what we did on our first day.
As we walked to find a place to print tickets, (which we never did end up being able to do) we stumbled on a Chinese cemetery. We asked the cemetery guards if we could look around and they took us on the grand tour! This included taking us into the ancient tombs and showing us the piles of bones! One even kept picking up femur bones from various diseased and holding it like a baseball bat and saying “baseball!” With a huge grin. I’m not going to lie I had a slight fear of the ancient Chinese putting a curse on us after this, but it was still a very neat and an unexpected adventure!
The second day we spent in Cuba, we journeyed down to Trinidad, which was a four hour drive, However this beat the bus which would have taken six! At one point our car broke down and the driver got out of the car and said “no problemo” popped the hood and then screwed the gas pedal back in!
Once we arrived in Trinidad we decided to explore the town. We walked the cobblestone streets of this insanely preserved colonial town. We walked…
They hang their meet in windows all day in the heat!
Until we couldn’t walk anymore. On our way back to our casa we saw how the town comes alive in the evening. Neighbors sit out on their front steps and talk while the kids play in the streets.
We had dinner at our casa and then went out again to see if we could find some good drinks and dancing! We found good drinks (mojitos and piña coladas for $1.50) but sadly could not find the dancing. Instead we stumbled upon a show that consisted of flashy clothing, very little on the girls side, and honestly not so good of dancing!
Going into day three we were ready for a real adventure and set out to cubano falls. We hiked for about 40 minutes until we came to something I did not expect! The fall was nothing super spectacular as it was simply a decent stream of water falling down a big rock. But what surrounded it was magnificent. There were caves that you could literally swim right into. I climbed a rock and jumped off into the chilly but refreshing water and we swam into these huge caves that were on either side of the fall. There were even bats on the ceiling! I am so glad we decided to go there instead of el Nicho falls, not only was it easier but it was something I had never seen or even imagined to see and experience!
Once we finished our adventure it was time to endure the six hour bus ride back to Havana. The ride wouldn’t have been so bad if the a/c hadn’t been broken! Instead I sweat my little booty off the whole way! It wasn’t all bad though, I did get to sit next to a local from Havana named Dariel and we talked about local and American culture. It was nice getting to talk about Cuba with someone who lived there and could speak enough English to communicate!
On our fourth day we woke up in Havana in one of the most beautiful and extraordinary homes yet. Luckily our host spoke a little bit of English and she gave us the grand tour! Their were 3 different sets of stairs leading to different areas of the house. Including 3 kitchens at least, many bedrooms, bathrooms and sitting areas. Along with a beautiful courtyard full of plants including orchids and succulents. The casa owners were architects and so was the father of the wan. He designed and built the house over many years and their family of 14 lives there until recently. Now it is just the husband and wife and they rent out the rooms.
Our casa owners posing on the terrace after the tour.
Where we ate breakfast. The contrast between the antiques and the random modern touches such as the exercise ball and radio is exactly what all of Cuba is like. Old with hints of modern times.
The most beautiful bathroom and bathtub I’ve ever seen.
Upon arriving in viñales we noticed how almost every house was a place for visitors like us to stay and they all looked relatively the same. Our casa owner Juan picked us up from the bus stop and walked us back to his place, where we were greeted by his lovely wife. After getting settled a man that spoke very good English came to our house and offered a horse tour of the valley, we excitedly agreed and spent the afternoon riding to different attractions through the valley.
We visited a tobacco farm first where we watched a man roll a cigar and then got to smoke one!
Me smoking my first cigar!
After the tobacco farm we came to a coffee growing farm and tried some delicious rum.
The next stop was my favorite because we got to hike down in a cave all through the dark passage ways with flashlights!
Our last stop was a lake where we got to swim and even met some other travelers around my age from the states and from France. We all agreed to meet up to go salsa dancing later at Casa de la musíca.
After our swim we watched the sun set into the mountains and rode our horses back. This was the best part of the ride because my mom and I took off galloping!
After a delicious dinner that our casa owners cooked for us, I walked to city center with Juan to meet up with my friends. I found casa de la musica but never found my friends. Instead I met a face teacher originally from Kenya and we spent the night dancing under the stars.
The next morning we woke up and were off to the beach. What was supposed to be an hour ride through the mountains north turned into a 2 and a half hour journey in a “collective taxi” which was really just a truck from the 60s with a canvas roof and seats bolted in. The road was full of pot holes and the truck had no shocks so we drove 5 miles an hour bumping the entire way! These are the moments that most people don’t tell about their travels but they are there on every trip!
The collective taxi from hell!
Once we arrived at the beach the ride seemed worth it. The beach was nothing much but the water was Crystal clear and the prettiest blue I have ever seen. We walked down the beach for a while until we found some shade amongst the incredible drift wood. The best part of the day was when we walked all the way down the beach through a drift wood Forrest that we named dead Forrest until we reached a beautiful cove. It’s hard to believe but the water was even prettier and clearer here, like a swimming pool you could see strait to the bottom!
The incredible blue water. I must say I was kicking myself in the butt for not bringing my camera along!
After our beach adventure we went for dinner and some salsa dancing. Despite what my mom said about not dancing she ended up on the dance floor with one of the locals twirling her around. She even enjoyed it, that is, until the guy tried to make out with her!
The Salsa instructor from Kenya!
The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn to catch our bus to Havana and then another to Mantansas/ Varadero.
The beautiful sunrise from the rooftop of our casa.
During our stop in Havana I decided to take some pictures at a local market. At first I felt very nervous and out of place as the little tourist and her camera in the market, but then a bunch of the sellers started asking me to take there picture and we were laughing as they pined for the attention of my camera!
The last guy that called to me as I was leaving “Hey, what about me!”
Once we arrived to Mantansas we had to take a cab out to Varadero, we soon found out the one we took wasn’t a certified taxi and he had to pay the guard off at the check point to get on to the peninsula!
Our taxi driver paying off the guard.
After checking into our new casa we took a walk up the beach and then cut across to the street for some refreshments. We ended up at a famous restaurant that Earnest Hemmingway frequented back in the day. There were pictures of him on the wall and graffiti all over. We enjoyed some traditional cuban music, the local beer, Crystal, and a delicious olive snack.
For dinner we went to a rooftop restaurant in the site of our casa and had a wonderful seafood in tomato sauce dish. We also met some travelers from Canada that we ended up going out with after for some drinks. We took the horse drawn carriage to the most renowned tourist bar called The Beetles, which had a cover band who played only American classics from the 70s, 80s and some modern Red Hot Chile Peppers.
That nigh my curse hit me as I woke up multiple times throughout the night to run to the bathroom. Apparently all the seafood wasn’t so good after all! I spent my last full day in Cuba with Food Poisoning mostly sleeping, except for when my mom dragged me out to go eat or walk some shops. I mostly slept or sat in the corner of wherever we were. It all worked out however, because our beach day wasn’t much of a day for the beach as it was. Huge storms rolled in all day drenching the peninsula.
I look a lot better than I felt in this picture!
The contrast between the bright blue gulf and the intensely dark storm was magnificent!
Luckily our last day we got to squeeze a little extra exploration time by taking a taxi back to Havana instead of the bus. We walked the crowded streets of old Havana for the better part of two hours till it was time to catch our plane back to the states.
The taxi we took back to Havana, a 1957 Belair.
The Streets of Old Havana!
Overall I must say my experience in Cuba was very interesting! I loved how I felt transported to another time period all together. One thing I feel I search for when I travel is that feeling of visiting a far off and long ago place and that isn’t as common in the new world. This is why Cuba was so wonderful! I am so glad I got to go before things start to change and I cannot wait to go back in 15 or so years and see just how different, or the same, it becomes! So long for now Cuba!