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.
I arrived in Havana in the afternoon on a direct flight from Newark and it took a while to get through immigration and exchange money at the cadeca in the airport. Next I found the taxi driver I had pre-arranged to pick me up and it took us about a half an hour to get to Havana Vieja to the Airbnb. Expect to pay around $25 CUC for a taxi into town.
Our Airbnb in Plaza Vieja was so beautiful and we loved this location most to be really in the center of everything you need in Havana. Yummy fresh breakfast included in our unit. I checked in to our place and then was picked up for a vintage car tour of Havana. I chose the 1955 Chevy BelAir and was not disappointed! I had an amazing guide who taught me so much about the history and the current situation. It was a great start to my week!
Later that night I wandered the narrow streets surrounding la Plaza Vieja and followed the sounds of the traditional salsa and sol that was being played outside many restaurants. I ended up sitting down next to these brothers who were all listening to one of their other brother'‘s playing in a band outside of Cafe Paris. I asked to share the bench and we sat and ended up chatting about life, revolution, culture for THREE HOURS. They all had fascinating stories to tell of being music historians and their brother’s (pictured below) tour with Buena Vista Social Club. I loved how they all shared a bottle of rum out of their backpack and when that ran out someone ran to a market for a juice-box of rum to share. I politely declined the offer to take a few swigs and they bought me a mojito instead despite my insistence on paying. People are good and kind, and I felt very safe at all times as a female traveller.
I head back to the Airbnb before my friend starts to worry about me and snap one last picture for the night. I love the mural of the people peeping in on the barbershop. It's been a great first day in Havana and I need to catch some sleep.
Day 2: Havana Vieja and Vedado Neighborhoods
The next morning I got up and walked around the Plaza Vieja neighborhood before we had breakfast at our Airbnb. Bread is included in the cuban’s rations every day so you’ll notice the busy bakery in the early morning. What I love most about Havana is just how many people are in the street, walking about, hanging out, socializing. You just see so much movement where as here a quick drive through our neighborhood and you’ll find only an occasional dog walker or kids at the playground. We are just so used to being in our own cars and homes that we don’t get the same kind of human interaction that you will find in Cuba.
School children have gym class right in the Plaza Vieja which made mornings perfect for people watching and learning about everyday life.
Next we moved Airbnbs to another neighborhood in Havana for a few nights to have a different experience. While this Airbnb was beautiful with lots of light and space, we felt pretty isolated in Vedado from the bustle of Havana Vieja. If we go back we’d spend more time in Havana Vieja and maybe just a few hours wandering Vedado. The architecture is a bit different- you see beautiful larger mansions that are decaying and many divided up into apartments as well as some Soviet-period inspired buildings. It is not a touristy neighborhood so we definitely got some strange looks as we explored this new area. We walked around to see some vintage theaters, the famous Coppelia ice cream shop with it’s huge line wrapping around the building of locals waiting for their spot at the counter, checked out the arts and crafts market at La Rampa, and finished the day walking El Malecon at sunset. While we still preferred Havana Vieja for the ease of restaurants and activities, we still soaked up the authenticity of this quiet city neighborhood.