I have wanted to go Cuba ever since the precise moment I first learned that I couldn’t. Yes, there’s a wider appeal—the growling vintage cars, their original parts replaced a dozen times over with whatever scraps their owners could get their hands on. The gorgeous, crumbling buildings, like intricately crafted birthday cakes dropped in the dirt and left to bake in the sun for decades. The tepid Caribbean waters bordered by white sand beaches, unencumbered by sun-blotting mega-resorts or cruise ships. Its layered, stranger-than-fiction history. But mostly? There’s nothing more alluring than a Keep Out sign.
When President Obama announced last December that U.S. relations with Cuba would finally be normalized, I was just one of many Americans whose pulses thumped in anticipation. But what did that really mean? Information to basic questions eluded me. Was travel to Cuba as easy as buying a ticket online, an option available since April?
What you’ll find below is a guide borne of my personal experience traveling to Cuba for a week at the end of May. I do not pretend to know how your trip will unfold, nor the hurdles you’ll encounter. But here are some answers to the many, many questions I had before I left.
Getting Your Ticket
I bought a roundtrip ticket ($890, total) on CheapAir.com, and from the moment I hit “confirm,” I was riddled with anxiety. Was that…it? Could that be it? For visiting a country that was, at the time, still officially listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, the process seemed too simple. A day or so later, I got an email from an employee at Cuba Travel Services, asking me to send over copies of my travel documents, along with $85 for my visa. For the purpose of my visit, I checked “journalistic activity,” though my visa ultimately identified me only as a tourist. I brought my NYPD-issued press credentials just in case, but was never asked to show it. Do with this information what you will.
I flew out of JFK on Sun Country, and touched down at José Martí International Airport three hours later. Sun Country operates direct flights from NYC to Cuba on Tuesdays only. As of next month, JetBlue began will begin operating direct flights on Fridays.
What To Expect When You Arrive at Check-In
I arrive at airports extremely early, for the simple reason that there’s no faster or more inane way to destroy a trip than missing a flight. My heart leapt out of my mouth and onto the floor only once during the check-in process, and that was when an airport employee seemed perplexed that I didn’t already have my ticket and visa. Turns out I was among the first travelers to book my ticket online, and the issue was cleared up in short order.
From there, I was funneled to another line, where I paid a $25 departure tax. I was given a receipt, and though I was careful to save it, I don’t recall it being checked upon my return.
Hold on to your visa like grim death, as you will need to provide it to the proprietors at each establishment you stay. I can’t tell you what happens if you lose it, but I imagine it will be on par with a lost passport, and probably require sacrificing half a day in the lobby of the U.S. Interests Section building.
What To Expect When You Arrive in Cuba
The only question asked of me when I arrived at Cuban customs was whether I had traveled to West Africa lately. After I said no, I was asked whether I wanted my passport stamped, to which I responded with a reluctant yes. Would I ever be allowed back on U.S. soil? Would I spend the rest of my life in exile, an enemy of the state? (The short and unromantic answers are yes and no, respectively.) It is at customs that you’ll also get your first taste of Cuba’s ideas of “appropriate business attire”: The uniform for female customs agents consists of skintight miniskirts the color of sand, paired with black floral net lace tights. Alarmingly, the uniform for school children is roughly the same.
Understanding Cuban Spanish
Cuban Spanish sounds just like normal Spanish, plus a mouth full of rocks. Cubans not only don’t bother with the “s’s” at the end of words, they also banish other letters and sometimes whole syllables as well. If you speak fluent Spanish, you’ll probably find their accent strange and garbled, but semi-intelligible. If your Spanish is middling, I’d start fine-tuning your hand gestures. Beware: Unlike most Latin American countries you’ve probably been to, Cubans will not switch to English after you’ve made your perfunctory attempt at butchering their language. The two of you will struggle, together, until someone either gets what the other is saying, or one of you dies. The phrase “más despacio, por favor” will come in handy.
Endear yourself to your new Cuban friends by saying “Que bolá?” for “What’s up?” If you’re impressed or amused by something, you can use “Que chévere!” which means, essentially, “Cool!” I picked this one up in Ecuador but was surprised to learn it works in Cuba, too.
The ease of your trip will be directly tied to two things: Your Spanish skills (for negotiating purposes) and your vigilance. Cubans are quick to tell you how safe their country is, likely because the penalty for harassing a foreigner is extremely harsh. But this is a country equipped with its own tourist currency (see below), which is only to say: If you try to pay a tab given to you in Cuban pesos using Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs, or kooks), you’re probably going to find the exchange rate does not work in your favor.
Expect to drastically overpay for some things (cabs) and make it back with others (a pile of food for less than a dollar.)
Learn the Difference between CUCs and Cuban Pesos
The short answer is that CUCs are roughly (but not quite) pegged to the dollar. As of this precise moment, one dollar is worth 26.5 Cuban pesos. CUCs can be used for most things: Your casa or hotel, food in restaurants, cab rides. You will, however, want some pesos on hand for buying things that actual Cubans buy, like street food, street beers (yes), street rum (yesss) and paying for colectivos (see below). Attempting to pay for such items in CUCs is usually possible, but will almost always result in you getting short-changed.
In addition to having a fistful of pesos, be sure to also get small CUC bills when changing money. Trying to break a 20 CUC on a side street in Vedado is not only difficult, it makes you feel like a bloated American fat cat idiot.
Bring All the Cash
Among the peskier aspects of the blockade is that none of your U.S.-based credit or debit cards will work in Cuba. This means that you have to bring all the cash you will need. I would recommend separating it, and carrying the bulk of it in a money belt. Is carrying that much money on your person terrifying? Yes. Do you have a choice? Not so much. (I have read that some hotels and banks take American traveler’s checks, but I did not try it, and probably would not be comfortable taking the risk.)
Cuba is equipped with three main transit options: Public buses, colectivos and cabs. Colectivos are essentially dollar vans like those seen on Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, but instead of being windowless utility vans, they are baller vintage cars. If you aren’t buoyed by a nostalgic wave of Americana every time you crawl into roomy backseat of a mutant 1957 Chevrolet Bel Aire, you have no soul. Colectivos zip up and down the main streets of Havana—just tell the driver when you want out. The price is generally 1 CUC.
Cabbies will gouge you—the times I crapped out and took a cab, I usually paid around 5 CUCs.
On Hand Sanitizer and Tissue
I am not abundantly germaphobic, and I am certainly not the type to whip out a bottle of hand sanitizer after riding a public bus or shaking someone’s hand. But I will tell you this: I was glad I had some on me. In some cases, tonier establishments will have a bathroom attendant on hand to give you a wad of toilet paper as you enter. In many cases, that attendant is absent or asleep or otherwise not really in the mood to help you out. (Leave a tip in the basket anyway.) Soap is something I came across maybe half the time.
Don’t Drink the Water (But If You Do, You’ll Probably Be OK)
An extension of being not terribly germaphobic is that I am also not very careful with what I ingest. This laissez fair attitude toward gastronomic safety has actually served me strangely well: I’ve had food poisoning only twice, and only in highly industrialized nations. (Germany and Holland.) When it came to drinking water in Cuba, I’d exercised my usual semi-vigilance for the duration of the trip, but on my second to last night there, I guess I got too comfortable and, forgetting myself, swallowed two gulps of water while brushing my teeth. I remained in a state of utter panic for around 30 minutes, until a Cuban friend arrived at our casa before heading out to drinks.
“IdrankthewaterhowmuchtimedoIhavebeforeIdie?” I rasped before he’d fully made it in the door. “You’ll be fine,” he spat. “This isn’t Mexico.” Perhaps it was the grapefruit seed extract I’d poured down my throat. Perhaps it’s because I have the stomach of a battle-hardened goat. But he was right. I was fine. Still, Cuban tap water has a different pH and microbial content than what you’re used to, so be careful.
Download Some Apps
You can find Internet in Cuba, but it is slow, crappy and will cost you a fortune. (For example, an hour on the creaky PCs in the Riviera Hotel lobby will set you back 8 CUCs.) Why not enjoy your time away from the shrill demands of Instagram and just unplug, maaan?
Your phone, however, can come in handy even absent wifi. Conoce Cuba provides an offline map. (You can also find maps in fancier Habana Vieja hotels.) Also consider downloading an offline Spanish-English dictionary.
Can I Charge My Phone?
Yes. Power outlets are the same.
Where Should I Stay?
Airbnb became available in April, though of course, getting hosts to respond is more time consuming than in other parts of the world, due to the absence of Internet. I used the site to book a place in Vedado near the Malecón for my first two nights, and it worked out just fine.
The city is also filled with casas particulares that usually run around 30 CUCs per night. Casas are denoted by a small white signs bearing a symbol that looks something like a blue anchor. I stayed in three—two in Vedado, one in Habana Vieja. Each was ancient but clean and delightful in their own ways.
As far as neighborhoods, two popular options are Habana Vieja, which is decrepit, bustling and beautiful, but also very touristy, and Vedado, which I prefer: Its streets are quieter and more verdant, but the hip late-night hang-outs and clubs tend to be there.
What Can I Bring Back?
You can bring back $100 worth of Cuban goods—I, like all sane people, blew that $100 on Havana Club rum and cigars. I was honest about my purchases on my declaration form, but no one checked my bags.
What Should I Expect Coming Back?
Despite checking a box indicating that I was traveling for journalistic activity, nobody batted an eye. At customs back on U.S. soil, the agent’s only question for me was, I shit you not, “Did you have fun?” Another agent collecting health forms asked where I had gone. “Cuba,” I said, girding for some form of protest. “Huh, he said, more to himself than me. “I didn’t know people were going there now.”
Click here to read last week’s coverage of our excursion to Cuba. We’ll have other vital information, like Where To Party In Havana, available in the coming weeks.