Live jazz coming from the school next door in the morning, (very) strong coffee brewing, loud motors running, coconut ice cream, and a hot sun are a few of the sights, smells, and sounds that come to my mind when I think of my trip to Cuba. Havana is a city a buzz with live bands popping up in the most unlikely places, sexy classic cars, rum, and dancing.
So when my cousin asked me to join her in Cuba I figured HELL YES! Girl time plus a great opportunity to learn some new culinary skills and learn about the culture of a place I have studied and taught about, but had no first-hand experience with whatsoever. We did little to no planning, but I had sooooo much experience in this realm it was going to be a walk in the park, especially since I speak Spanish. No phone? No easy wifi access? All cash? No problem. I’ve traveled in Southern Africa and isolated areas of Indonesia for weeks and it worked out just fine. No accommodation, no phone service and though maybe stressful at times, it all worked out without a hitch.
Cuba was a different story. I was thrown a major curveball. We ended up bringing way too little cash, were surprised by the constant Cuban hustle and the expense of things like taxis & food. So we put our heads together on how to best enjoy our time in Havana on a budget. We were able to get by spending $30/day and did make it to the beach, enjoyed mojitos, danced,
So I am putting together a list of how to prepare so you can enjoy your time in this electric city without feeling cash strapped.
Book accommodation far in advance.
There are 2 budget options for accommodation in Havana. My top recommendation is staying in one of the casas particulares, rooms and flats rented out by residents. This was one of my top experiences in Havana. We stayed with a father and his pre-teen daughter and spent evenings chatting, painting nails, and listening to music together. Every morning we got a typical breakfast and were even asked if we wanted to eat dinner at the house as well. It was indispensable having someone be able to explain to me how things work with the currencies, what is an expected charge for a taxi ride or dinner, and about the history of Cuba. He was also able to point us in the right direction and help us plan our day. He even gave us rides if we were heading to a place nearby.
Good to know info: The casas particulares generally range from $25-$35/night (cash only) and often have a private bathroom. They can also provide transportation to & from the airport, act as a conduit between you and other services or often find you what you’re looking for. E-mail far in advance, think at least 6 weeks, since access to Wifi isn’t readily available it can take several days to a week for someone to respond and you might find out that they are already full.
AirBnb is also available in Havana. The advantage to this is that you often get your own apartment and pay via credit card so you don’t need to worry about the cash. The disadvantage is that you get your own apartment, are not staying with a family who can help you out, and are not paying the family directly.
Bring cash in Euros. Americans DO NOT have access to ATMs or use of credit cards in Cuba. Exchanging U.S. dollars in Cuba will get you a nice 10% fee. Call your bank before you travel to see if they carry the Euro and if not, ask them to order some for you. The exchange rate will be much better than exchanging the USD for Euro at the airport. Please make sure that they are clean bills. One couple I met had a large Euro bill that had a tear and they could not exchange anywhere, and it caused them unnecessary stress. Once you get to the airport in Cuba you can exchange at one of the counters and there will most likely be a line. Stash your cash when you go out in a safe spot in your accommodation and bring reserves! Busses on Viaazul to places like Viñales or Varadero can cost up to $50 round trip and you’ll have to take a taxi to purchase the tickets at the station. Your other option is to take a Viazul bus, but they fill up quickly and the station is out of the way, so you’ll have to make an extra trip there to purchase your tickets.
Tip: There are TWO currencies in Cuba. One is the C.U.C., which you will be given at the exchange counter and the other is the Cuban peso. Tourists cannot get the Cuban peso at the exchange counter, but you might end up with some in your pocket when getting back change after a purchase. Be careful to check that you’re getting the right amount of Cuban pesos back. Also, be sure that you get a 10 C.U.C. ($10) bill back, and not a 10 Cuban peso (40 cents) bill when receiving change. At the time of this post 1 USD=1 C.U.C. and 24(sometimes 25) Cuban pesos=1 C.U.C.
Set yourself a budget that fits your travel style.
My ideal travel is wandering the streets of a new city without a map. I love exploring parks where I can sit on a bench and people watch and chat with the locals. I am not one to splurge on crazy $100 cab rides or overpriced cocktails. When I travel I like to feel comfortable, but not like I’m constantly being worked. I have a serious problem with feeling manipulated. My cousin and I were able to get by on $60/day including accommodation, but this is tight and we felt that we couldn’t take advantage of trips to Varadero or Viñales. So think about what type of trip you are looking for. Are you someone who wants to sip piña coladas and mojitos all day? Wants to explore all the museums? Head to the small towns outside of Havana in a classic car? Bring a reserve of cash that you can leave in a safe place when out exploring.
Set a price BEFORE you get in. We did not do this as we left the airport and had a guy help us find our accommodation and drive for a long time, getting lost. What was his charge you ask? $100 smackers. I refused and gave him $60, which was still more than I had expected. Before leaving I read that private taxis between Vedado and Old Havana, about 3 km, should cost about $5. Most taxis wanted to charge us between $10-$15, so we often hoofed it or hopped on a bus. This goes for the Cocotaxis, too. They run on a meter, but generally have an idea of how much it will cost from A to B, so ask before you hop in. This was one time I did not care about price and wanted to ride in these fun little yellow bubble taxis.
Good to know info.: Or better yet, learn the local bus system, called guaguas, or shared taxi system called taxis colectivos. The guagua, aka the bus, costs 1 Cuban peso/2 people, about 4 cents. They were often busy and felt very safe, though sometimes crowded. Rides to the airport should cost about $25 or between $50-$60 if you opt for a classic car. Gas is expensive and those classics are gas guzzlers. A taxi colectivo is usually an old car that drives on a set route throughout Havana, and is therefore much more economic. A ride within the city will cost about 1 C.U.C./2 people within Havana. You need to find out where the stops are by either asking a local, or watching when only 1-2 people are hopping out of a car and the rest continue on. Always ask where they are going before you get in.
Brush up on your Spanish.
Generally, it’s a good idea to brush up on the language of whichever country you are traveling to, but I think in Cuba it was even more valuable. I can’t count the amount of conversations I had with my host family, people in the street, vendors, and taxis that helped me to learn the culture, politics, history, help find my way around and negotiate. Most people don’t speak fluent English and communicating will obviously be more difficult. Get comfortable with your numbers, asking for directions, and saying no thank you!
Print out all your documents beforehand. It’s easy to bring up all your travel info. on your phone when in the U.S. or other easily connected countries, but Cuba is a bit different. Not to mention you don’t want everything on your phone in case you lose it or it breaks. Bring copies of your passport and printed out itineraries. Tip: If you do forget to print something out and need to look it up, remember that you can search your mail app on an iPhone even when offline.
Get your visa. You can do this at the check-in counter at the airport and will cost between $50-$100 depending on the airline you take or which airport you fly from. Contact your particular airline to see what it will cost to purchase as you check in or if you’re better off getting it online before you go.
Note: Americans are still not able to travel to Cuba for tourism. You will be required to fill out an affidavit that your airline should send you after you purchase a ticket. These visas and affidavits do not require approval beforehand. The following are 12 reasons why Americans can travel to Cuba:
1. Family visits
2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
3. Journalistic activity
4. Professional research and professional meetings
5. Educational activities
6. Religious activities
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
8. Support for the Cuban people
9. Humanitarian projects
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
Stay in Vedado.
When I was looking at places to stay I knew that I wanted to be centrally located, but not necessarily in the midst of the expensive hotels and restaurants. While Old Havana is beautiful and lovely to visit during the day, there is more of a residential feed in Vedado with old houses reminiscent of New Orleans and tons of night life. I loved strolling El Malecón and Calle 23 to just be and enjoy the sights and sounds. I always felt very safe in this neighborhood. There are loads of restaurants and cafeterías to enjoy.
Tip: Looking for food whenever you’re hungry can get exhausting & old. Bring a few bars or some trail mix to munch on in between meals, especially if you do tons of walking.
When in Cuba
Check out a cafetería for either breakfast or lunch. They’re more casual dining spots and you may even find yourself ordering coffee, juice, and breakfast sandwiches from a small window while listening to reggaeton and dancing while you grub. You then might go there every day and become friendly with the window clerk and send emails to each other when you go home. Oh, and this meal might cost you 75 cents/person. Just maybe.
El Callejón de Hamel.
This small alleyway has been turned into a work of art by artist Salvador Gonzalez. It is something reminiscent of Philly Magic Gardens on South Street. Every Sunday there is a rumba concert with traditional Afro-cubano dancing. It’s energizing, free, cultural, and you will probably end up sipping rum out of a cardboard box!
Ah, yes. What every girl wants in Cuba. Mojitos generally cost between $2-$4, but you will also see them at the more touristy and famous spots of Havana Vieja, such as El Floridita y Bodeguita del Medio for as much as $8 a pop, and there you’ll be surrounded my other overpaying tourists. Stick to local joints and see if they can whip one up for you. And FYI, they are not stingy on the rum in these drinks.
Playa Santa María (Las Playas del Este)
Las playas del Este were beautiful. White sand, clear blue waters, and vendors walking up and down selling coconuts, fruit, and hats. A few kilometers outside of Havana, this beach is popular amongst tourists and Cubans.
The cost to Varadero ended up being too pricey for our budget, so we hopped in a shared taxi thanks to a fellow Cuban friend. The cost? 1 C.U.C. per 2 people. You can also catch the bust back to Old Havana for 1 Cuban peso. I did speak to tourists that said they successfully took a tourist bus from the central plaza for 2 CUC each way, however, they did say they were never able to catch it back into town and ended up taking taxis in.
A note on the Cuban hustle, or jineterismo.
With the average monthly income of 20-30 C.U.C. in Havana, people are looking for ways to make some extra cash. This term was originally dubbed Jineteras, referring to female sex workers and then has evolved to essentially mean hustlers. Aside from the obvious taxi price increase I touched on above, people will offer to find you a casa particular, take you for a tour, find you cigars, rum, or really any other service you’re willing to ask and pay for. And sometimes a lot. Though persistent I never felt I was in danger. Yes, these guys will get a cut or ask you for money, but think about when you booked your latest AirBnB, did they not also receive a cut? So decide what you are okay supporting and paying for goods & services. And engage with them and ask them questions about how they are doing. Once many of them learned I spoke Spanish, the conversations went in a completely different direction.
Havana is a city with surprises around every corner. There are beautiful buildings, bands popping up on every corner to play, & gorgeous pharmacies (pictured above) to discover as you wander. My overall advice is to go with the flow and see where the days lead you.