In February I had the opportunity to fulfill a long-time dream of visiting Cuba and getting to know more about the people and the culture. A lot of you probably don't know this but in my former life I was a Spanish teacher for 12 years and have a Master's in Latin American Studies. Travel and photography have always been my two passions outside of my family life. Before kids I used to travel internationally regularly, but that's pretty much stopped since we've grown our family. We did take a trip to Costa Rica when we just had 2 little ones, but it has been over 5 years since our last trip abroad! This opportunity came up to travel with the amazing globetrotter Allison Irby and I'm beyond grateful to my husband who supports me, takes on life alone with the kids, homeschool and a full-time job so I can dedicate some time to my passions. This was an incredible week of spending time with locals to learn about the economic and political situation as well as strengthening my street photography skills. I thought I'd share more about my experience and answer some questions I know I stressed over as I prepared for my trip.
Are Americans still allowed to visit Cuba legally?
While the travel rules have changed under the Trump administration, it is still legal to travel to Cuba under 12 different categories. I travelled in support of the Cuban people, which was a really interesting way to travel. It means that we are conscious in our spending to be putting money directly into the hands of Cuban people and you’re not spending your days on a state-owned beach resort. When traveling under this category you need to stay at private Airbnb homes and keep track of your spending while you are there for your records.
Do you need a visa to get into Cuba?
Yes, you will need to purchase a tourist vida card for entrance into Cuba. I was able to purchase mine right at the United ticket counter in Newark. Not all airports offer this service so you may have to order in advance online from a third party. I paid $75 from United.
Is the Cuban airport scary going through customs and immigration?
Not at all! They took a picture of each traveller, and then collected the forms we filled out on the airplane. Grabbed my luggage and continued outside to find the money exchange (la cadeca).
About money: The first thing to know is you need to bring more than enough cash with you than you might possibly need since once you are in Cuba you cannot withdraw money from an ATM. Worst case scenario you could have funds sent through Western Union but just be prepared and bring enough $$$.
What about exchanging currency?
The CUC is the currency used for tourists and it is pegged to the US dollar. I read various blogs that suggested changing your USD to CAN or EUR before leaving the states since you will be hit with a 13% fee to change US dollars at the Cuban cadecas. But, I wasn't convinced it would be worth the effort to save a couple dollars dong a double exchange. I am glad I followed my gut. I exchanged a few hundred dollars at the airport into CUC (the Cuban denomination for tourists) at the 87 to 100 exchange rate that is the standard. Beware of the ladies in the airport office next to the cadeca trying to call you over for a private exchange claiming to save you some money. I didn’t trust that so stuck with the official counter. Later on in my trip as we met AirBnB hosts and got more comfortable, I saved money by doing private exchanges at a much better rate usually around 92: 100)
I will address a few more common questions in Part II but for now, some images of our first days in Havana.