For decades, most Americans wouldn’t even think of visiting- especially not solo female travelers.
But thanks to President Obama, there are now looser travel restrictions for Americans visiting Cuba. We can legally visit the country without being attached to a U.S. based organization, as long as “the traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.” This requires, at its simplest, filling out a short form in whatever foreign airport you depart from to get to Cuba, stating your purpose for visiting Cuba.
Cuba was an inspiring, intriguing, frustrating, mind-opening, and heart-moving experience. It truly is as they say: a step back in time. From old cars, to pay phones, to shouting 5 floors up from the street to a balcony get a hold of someone, to constant cigarette smoking everywhere you go, to a vibrant, musical, interactive, and passionate street and night life, Cuba has not seen the same modernization that has transformed other cultures in the world. Please read a bit about the culture and the complex history of Cuba before you go, as it is particularly relevant to the day-to-day life of Cubans.
It is important also to recognize that Cuba is a country with minimal economy, which leaves most people with very little. The average salary there is $20/month. Tourism has opened up avenues for people to improve their economic situation, and because of this it can get frustrating with people trying to sell you things and occasionally try to scam you. Try to be compassionate. In recent history, many Cubans faced major food shortages and literally couldn’t feed their families. Try to keep your hearts, your minds, and your conversations open for the people who are genuinely trying to connect with you. It will be worth it.
I am not going to give you itinerary info, as I am a slow traveler and did not explore that much of Cuba, and there is plenty of info already like that already on the web. But I will say that when you arrive in Havana, at first it might feel overwhelming; it is dirty, deteriorated, loud, colorful, lively, and sweaty. I suggest surrendering any judgments and just letting the city absorb you for a few days or more. Walk up and down the streets, hang out on the Malecón, talk to random people on street corners, go out and dance salsa or attempt to learn, drink some mojitos or sip on some rum. Here we go.
Getting There and Getting In
Commercial flights directly from the U.S. are either very limited or still not available, but they’re expected to be by fall 2016.
The best way to get there is via a nearby country- I recommend Cancún, as flights between the U.S. and Cancún are really cheap. You can buy a Cuban visa for around $30 in the Cancún airport. You will need to fill out a form stating that you are going to Cuba for 1 of 12 purposes, as leisure travel is still not permitted. I checked the box stating I was there for educational reasons. You can also buy a visa once you land in Cuba.
Upon arrival in Cuba, they will stamp your visa, not your passport. Save this, as it will be required for you to exit.
Expect to pay $25 for a cab to the center. Old Havana is the main touristy area, but it’s a bid more budget friendly and interesting as well to stay in the more deteriorated ‘Centro.’ It can be between 5 and 20 minutes to walk to Old Havana. The town outside of the airport has a bus, but it requires a bit of walking and is apparently pretty complicated.
I didn’t read until afterwards, but apparently you need travelers insurance to travel in Cuba. They spot check tourists leaving the airport. I didn’t have it, but I highly recommend it, and I usually travel with it. I suggest World Nomads.
Where to Stay
There are lots of hotels, but I recommend a Casa Particular. These are home stays – Cubans are permitted to rent out rooms in their house, and to provide meals. They’re a great way to have more personal contact with Cuban people, and are much more budget friendly. Expect to pay between $20 and $25 for a private room with a.c. and a bathroom. I have info for a $5/night dorm style Casa in Havana (as of May 2016, email me for details). It is also possible to search around and find a Casa for $15 or even $10. Just expect to do a bit of walking, a bit of asking around, be able to speak some Spanish, and if it’s a super busy season be prepared to settle for higher.
You don’t need to plan Casas ahead of time, unless there’s some crazy event like a free Rolling Stones concert. There are many available; they are noted by a blue symbol somewhere near the door. Additionally, every Cuban either has a Casa or has a friend with a Casa that they want to hook up with business. I found my first Casa in Havana at the info booth at the airport. I found out about the dorm in Havana from a tourist I met in the street. In Viñales, I got dropped off in the center and asked around, about five Casas, before I found one with a price I liked.
Your first Casa Particular will probably also want to plan your whole trip for you, will have friends and contact info in every city for a Casa Particular, and will help you arrange the bus and taxi’s. This can be useful if you don’t want to have to plan too much on your own.
How to Get Around
The main bus for tourists is Viazul. Astro bus company is a second option. There is a second-class bus that Cubans use, and while normally I like to get around the way locals get around, Cuba is an exception. They are very tightly knit, and if you are a tourist, it’s going to be hard to penetrate into their local economy.
If you have your trip already planned, buy your bus ticket at least a day in advance. If you’re not a great planner, like me, show up at least an hour early and hope to get a ticket. If you don’t get a ticket, there will be plenty of Cubans offering collectivo (shared taxi) or van rides, and it should be fairly easy to find other tourists who also didn’t get a ticket to share a cab with. Sometimes, the collectivo/van is a better option because you can find it for cheaper than the bus, the times are more flexible, it is door to door, and sometimes more comfortable.
Here are some prices ideas, as of May 2016, so you know how to bargain and not get ripped off:
-To and from airport in Havana and the center, cab: $20-$25
-To and from bus station in Havana and center, cab: $5-$7
-Collectivo Havana to Viñales: $15 (see scam section)
-Collectivo Viñales to Trinidad: $35
-Bus from bus station in Havana to the center: $1
While I did not hitchhike, apparently it’s safe and legal.
I suggest buying an old-school map, or downloading a map of the area on to your smart phone that does not require connectivity to navigate.
It’s best to bring the money you will spend, as ATM’s are very unreliable, and most U.S. credit cards do not yet work in Cuba (although this is changing). U.S. dollars have a 10% commission, so try to bring Canadian Dollars or Euros. I brought Mexican Pesos, since I was travelling in Mexico beforehand, and it was a pretty favorable exchange rate.
Cuba has a dual currency system. There is the Peso Nacional, or CUP and the Peso Convertible, or CUC. The main currency you will use is the CUC. This is equal to $1 U.S.. 1 CUC/ 1 USD is equal to 23-24 pesos nacionales. You will have the opportunity to use pesos nacionales at ‘Peso’ places: cafeterias (coffee shops), pizza, pasta, and hamburger places, ice cream, and sweet counters. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you will find a peso restaurant that serves full meals for a fraction of the tourist places. Otherwise, expect to pay in CUC.
If you go to the bank to change money, expect to wait at least an hour. Ask when you arrive, “quien es el último?” (who is last?) to know who is in front of you, as there is usually no organized line. Some banks don’t allow tank tops, shorts, or sandals. Bring your passport.
If you want CUP, ask a “Peso place’ to give you change in pesos nacionales.
I spent an average of $35/day, plus about $115 extra for airport cabs, visa, Cuban cigars, and having my dreads worked on. I got lucky with really cheap accommodation, and I didn’t move around a lot so I saved lots on bus fare. I think it is safe to budget $45-65/ day for an individual backpacker.
*some general costs as of May 2016:
-Coffee from the street: 1-2 peso nacional or $.05 (don’t pay one CUC!)
-Meal at a tourist place: $5-$15 (easy enough to find in the $5-$6)
-Meal at Casa Particular: $3-$6
*Note: Vegetarian options will include lots of bread and cheese, beans (which are probably made with meat fat), eggs and fruit.
-Pizza/spaghetti at a peso place: $.50- $1.50
Internet and Phones
You can find Internet in specific ‘hot spot’ locations. You have to buy a card, and there’s usually a guy on the street selling them for $2-$3. It gives you an hour of Internet, which you can use in increments if you log off. It’s restricted. Remember, you’re in a communist country.
I had to ask an old Cuban man how to use a pay phone to ring my Casa Particular (haha).
Most people do not have working cell phones. Carry around a notebook and plan to write down the sister’s friend’s brother’s number of the person you want to get a hold of. Pick a place and a time to meet and be there. Like it used to be.
International calls cost around $5. Whoa.
Safety and Things to Watch out for
It is perfectly safe and fun to go by yourself, although it can be more expensive, and it might get lonely if you can’t find any tourists to link up with. Likely at times you’ll find people, and at other times you’ll be on your own. I had a lot of fun going by myself, but speaking Spanish definitely helped.
It is perfectly safe to walk around at night – Cuba has very low rates on theft and violent crimes.
-Understand the dual currency system and watch out to make sure you get the correct change in the correct currency
-Bathrooms: if they have a tip tray, you are not expected to pay more than 1 peso nacional. Oftentimes they will put CUC in the tray to try and get tourists to leave a full CUC (24 times more than you need leave!)
-The cab driver to the bus station may try and pretend like he knows the bus is full, and try to get you to pay a ridiculous amount to take a cab to your destination. He may even pull up around the corner from the bus station to tell you. Be firm; say you already have a ticket even if you don’t.
-A lot of people will stop you to talk or start walking with you and talking. They might try to take you to a destination, like a cool piece of art or a bar where a famous person has been. Often times, at least in Havana, they want to sell you something, or they want to invite you to a bar and expect you to pay, or want a donation for something (dance classes for the orphanage, milk for their kids, etc). You can go and give it a try, but if money comes up, politely step away unless you feel inclined to help them out or buy something. Just don’t feel obligated.
-Dancing: sometimes men want money or sex after teaching you to dance salsa or another Latin dance. Go ahead and give them a chance to try and teach you if you feel comfortable with them, but if they start asking right away to be your boyfriend while you are in town or for money or drinks, step away. Also, they might try to dance inappropriately with you and pretend like it is normal for their culture. Pay attention to how the local ladies are dancing. But, ladies, please do try and learn a bit of salsa and other dance if you find a good teacher (men take lessons first ;))- it’s really fun and a great cultural experience!
-Make sure the bottled water you buy is sealed
-Jineteros/Jineteras: This is a label for a person whose goal is to pick up tourists for economic gain and/or sex. They might try to develop a relationship with you and later ask for economic help. If you decide to hook up with a jinetero, sometimes the other jinateros will pretend to go home, really just hide behind another house, and follow the ‘successful’ jinetero to wherever they decide to hook up, and watch. I witnessed this in action from the rooftop of my Casa Particular. Just be careful and a little suspicious in general with the opposite sex if you are going someplace private, but don’t be afraid to interact. Interacting in public areas is perfectly safe and fun. There are lots of really nice Cuban people who are not like this. This is only a small category of people. Be cautious but not paranoid, and don’t make any sweeping judgments!
About the author:
Liz Tucker is a semi-nomadic writer who specializes in seasonal temporary work that allows her to travel. While her roots are in Minneapolis, MN and she can often be found in Northern California, it’s hard to pin her down. Liz has consciously dedicated her 20’s to “adventure and exploration.” In the U.S. she travels out of her car, and abroad a backpack. She hopes to connect with and inspire people on their own adventures. Mindfulness, healthy living, and feminism are themes often infused into her travel writing. You can check out more of her writing here: www.therollingflower.com