To join in on the trending topic that is Cuba’s tourism, I recently paid Havana a visit in pursuit of experiencing the country before “everything changes.” Understandably, traveling to Cuba is a sensitive subject to begin with. The political climate and the censorship that locals face is a harsh reality in contrast to the reel of vintage cars and sandy beaches that social media’s perspective offers. The concerns and conflicting opinions of traveling to Cuba are all valid. But in defense for those who have gone and those with the desire to go, visiting Cuba has provided a richer perspective to local life than any second hand account can provide. Experience not only forces you to see their world in context, but understand it on a deeper level. This diary is not an attempt to glamorize Havana. It is an honest effort to document what I saw through my perspective.
TRAVEL: There are two ways to travel to Cuba. The first is through an agency, which organizes a tour and issues you a VISA to enter the country but may take up to several months to process. The second option is to fly into Cuba through a connecting country and purchase a tourist card/visa in that country. I opted for the second route. I flew into Mexico City for three nights before departing for Cuba. Other popular connecting destinations are: Cancun, Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. You can buy a Cuban visa at the airport for $20, no application processing time necessary. If you are traveling with an American passport in Cuba, you can request to not get your passport stamped. I’m a dual passport holder and entered Cuba with my Phillipinnes passport.
CURRENCY: There are two currencies in Cuba. CUC is the tourist currency that you are only allowed to use as a visitor; the other is the Cuban peso. Most shops we visited in Havana had two price tags to separate the tourist and local economy. You also need to carry cash on hand. The majority of places do not accept credit cards, and the cheapest place to exchange money is at the airport. When you are converting money, my suggestion is to withdraw in Euro in your departing city, because American dollars are penalized with a 10% fee.
With the travel bans actively being mended, there is an air of optimism among entrepreneurial Cubans who see the embargo lifting as an opportunity to tap into the growing demand of tourism experiences. At the city center is an infamous row of topless convertibles that take you around Havana for $20 (always negotiable). These tours are an hour long and take you to different points all throughout the city.
INTERNET: Wi-fi connection is at a lull here, and I learned early on that most Cubans are actually forbidden to have private Internet connection in their homes. Internet cafes charge a high fee to use by the hour. Due to this, I strongly recommend planning your entire itinerary in advance-there’s not a lot of room to create a flexible schedule. Plan your flights and accommodation in advance. We did not do this and we spent hours struggling with connectivity and navigating websites that were dated from the 90’s.
SAFETY: Walking around Havana feels like most South American cities. It is chaotic, colorful, and full of wild characters. But much like the favelas in Rio, you need to be mindful of your surroundings and what you carry onto the streets.
FOOD: Before my visit, restaurants in Cuba are regulated by the government and often tend to be bland, not leaving much to be desired. Luckily we discovered a tastier alternative. Paladares is a new trend on the rise in Cuba, where private homes are converted into restaurants. Food and drinks here are significantly cheaper here, and most of these restaurants take place in exotic locations. We had dinner in a mansion one night, and a converted, colonial courtyard at another. Our favorite paladares is a place called El Viaje in the city center, where cocktails started at 1 CUC and ceviche at 3 CUCs. The Guardian has also compiled a great list of paladares in Havana here.
Photos by Olivia Lopez and John Price.