Taking a trip to Cuba had been on our “short list” for quite some time. We wanted to get there before there was a McDonald’s on every corner. So, once Southwest Airlines started offering flights into Havana, we began making our travel arrangements. The Internet was our friend – we watched every last YouTube video, read every blog, rented the movie “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” and leaned heavily on TripAdvisor to plan our 10-day stay.
We knew it wasn’t going to be a luxurious, relaxing vacation. We expected an educational experience. And we got that in spades!
Here are 13 morsels of wisdom we hope you find helpful as you prepare for your adventure to the “Pearl of the Antilles.”
1. PACK YOUR PATIENCE
Getting to Cuba isn’t difficult. But once you arrive, it’s a whole different story. Case in point: Our 45-minute Southwest Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale landed at 1:45 p.m. As you would expect, we crowded around a baggage carousel with travelers from our flight (and, lord knows, how many others). The bags dribbled out onto the conveyer belt one at a time. Literally. Fifteen minutes passed. Thirty. Sixty. We kept looking around the carousel for faces we recognized from our flight. We spotted some. Okay, all good. Finally, after about an hour and a half, the first of our four bags shot out. It wasn’t until 3:45 – a full two hours after landing – that our last bag mercifully appeared, and we were on the move. This was a foreshadowing of the 10 days ahead of us. Go ahead and grab a local beer, Crystal, from the airport lounge and be patient. Dig into your reserves. It will all be fine.
2. GET THE STONEGATE BANK MASTERCARD
Everything you’ll read will tell you American bank-issued credit cards WILL NOT BE ACCEPTED in Cuba. But they’re wrong. We found one. One. We’re not sure how they do it, but Stonegate Bank out of Miami issues the one and only credit card from the U.S. that’s accepted all around Cuba – and not just in Havana, but also in the smaller towns like Cienfuegos and Varadero. Basically, any establishment that accepts credit cards will take it. We even used it in a small cigar and rum shop in Cerro. The catch is, no one in Cuba will believe you. So, just insist they run it. Tell them it’s from Canada if you have to. The other kink is, often the credit card processing machines are down. The telecom situation in Cuba is very sketchy, so this happened to us on numerous occasions. Final note here: Make sure you fill out and submit Stonegate Bank’s Compliance Form and notify the bank (using the customer service number on the back of your credit card) that you’ll be traveling in Cuba.
3. IF YOU’RE A FOODIE, GO TO ITALY
Just don’t go to Cuba for the food. It’s really not that great. We had a few good meals – one at La Lun, off the main drag, Obispo, in Havana Viejo. The garbanzo beans with shredded pork were amazing. We had another fabulous meal at HM 7, a tiny little restaurant right across the street from Havana’s Melia Cohiba hotel. And, don’t order wine with your meals. For the most part it’s really expensive and just so-so. We drank the local beer, Crystal, and mojitos and pina coladas with Havana Club rum. Probably the best ones we drank were at Parque Almendar in Havana. They’re served as virgin drinks, then the waiter pours a rum floater on top at your picnic table. Also, Carlos, a 27-year employee at La Union in Cienfuegos, made a mean mojito.
4. BRUSH UP ON YOUR SPANISH
I was super impressed at the number of Cubans who spoke English. In fact, it made me feel like an arrogant Ugly American because my Spanish was so weak. But, it got better as the week went on (and with multiple mojitos on board). Most Cubans, though, speak very little English. So, before you go, download the app, SpanishDict. It’s brilliant, and it works even when there’s no Internet (which is most of the time). You can type in an English word or phrase and get the written Spanish translation, as well as an audio version. HUGELY helpful!
5. INVEST IN A FEW CUBA TRAVEL BOOKS AND TAKE THEM WITH YOU
6. BRING BACK CIGARS AND RUM
Okay, don’t laugh. We took our wine suitcase and filled it with rum bottles to bring home. We got a variety of Havana Club, as well as Santiago (made with the original Bacardi recipe the company left in Cuba when they fled following the revolution), and Ritual. We also brought back loads of cigars – Cohibas, Romeo y Julietas, and Montecristos. In addition, we bought a couple pieces of art in galleries in Cienfuegos. We were a little nervous about getting through customs in Fort Lauderdale, but because we were well under the $800 duty-free exemption, we sailed through. We’re not sure if it was because we’re Global Entry, or what, but it was a non-issue!
7. BE PREPARED TO BREATHE IN A LOT OF EXHAUST
They claim one-in-five cars on the road in Cuba is a vintage American car from the ‘50s. In Havana, particularly, it felt more like three-in-five. They were EVERYWHERE, and absolutely fabulous. Some even in mint condition. But most cars … and buses … and trucks … and tractors …. and motorcycles are barely making it from Point A to Point B. And pouring out of the tailpipes of most are plumes of black carbon dioxide. Just be prepared.
8. TRAVEL OUTSIDE OF HAVANA
We spent four nights in Havana, then took a taxi to Cienfuegos for two nights, then another to Varadero for two nights. I strongly encourage you to get out of Havana, see the lush countryside, the smaller towns, and the beautiful beaches. Someone suggested we rent a car to do this, but no rentals were available. Thank God! We would have never made it without navigational software. Taxis are the way to go.
9. PACK PLENTY OF COOL, LOOSE CLOTHES
Granted, we went to Cuba in June, which is the low season (high season runs from December through March), but it was HOT and HUMID! With all the walking and the convertible vintage cars, we were drenched in sweat on a daily basis, so repeating outfits was impossible. Either take enough clothes or pack some detergent to wash items in the sink or tub. Even then, it’s so humid, your clothing will likely not dry.
10. LOOK INTO STAYING AT A CASA PARTICULAR
In English, the term means private home. Since the late 1990s, the Cuban government has allowed residents to procure a special license to rent rooms in their houses to tourists. They’re like the original Airbnb! You can recognize them from the street by the blue anchors displayed on the outside of the homes. We, unfortunately, didn’t know about casa particulares until we traveled to Cuba, so we stayed in nice hotels (Melia Cohiba, La Union, Melia Las Americas and Melia Havana). In retrospect, we wish we’d have mixed it up a little, staying some nights in a casa particular and some in a hotel. Google the term, and you’ll find loads of information. However, don’t feel like you have to have your accommodations all buttoned up before you take off for Cuba. We met one British couple at the La Union rooftop bar in Cienfuegos, who just rolled out of a taxi and knocked on the nearest door displaying an anchor. They said it was a beautiful two-story home with a terrace, and cost $30 a night!!!
11. CONVERT YOUR AMERICAN DOLLARS TO EUROS BEFORE YOU GO
One euro equals one CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). Your American dollar, however, won’t get you as far, because all exchanges between CUC and USD are levied a 10 percent Cuban tax. We went to Wells Fargo in the states and converted about $3,000 USD to Euros. If you have any CUCs left at the end of your trip, you can exchange them back to Euros at the Havana airport. Word of warning: The exchange office inside the terminal doesn’t open until 9 a.m., so if you have an earlier flight, use the exchange window outside of security.
12. HAVE A PLAN B AND A PLAN C
According to its website, The Hemingway Museum at Finca Vigia is open on Sundays. So, our plan was to head over there on a Sunday. But the website’s wrong. It’s closed on Sundays. So, we had to pivot and make other plans. Similar scenarios played out like this the entire time we were in Cuba. Be flexible! There’s plenty to keep you busy.
13. TAKE YOUR AAACK!™ PACK
Whether our tummy’s were upset from something we ate, light was streaming through the hotel window, we were sightseeing in the pouring down rain, or we were at a public bathroom with no toilet paper, we were covered by our AAACK!™ Pack, which we carried everywhere we went. It was #aaackman to the rescue with Pepto, a sleep mask, ponchos, stall mates, and more. Don’t go to Cuba without yours! Customize your own travel pack here!