The Cuba tell-all: Visiting one of the world’s most isolated countries

@CobraEscobar here! Today I’m giving you a full run-through of everything you need to know before visiting Cuba.

This family vacation was unconventional. Cuba is beautiful and rich in culture, there’s no doubt about it. But I’ve soaked up the sun on spectacular beaches, danced salsa in the best clubs and eaten scrumptious Cuban food in Miami, so while those experiences were special in Cuba, they weren’t my key takeaways. What’s not so easy to see in a photo is the difficulty of daily life for Cubans.

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In talking with the locals  I learned that Cubans use ration books (“libretas”) for things like rice, bread and meat. I also learned that it isn’t enough to live off of. At one point, I saw 20-30 people waiting in line for fresh bread at their designated bodegas. I learned that while education is free from kindergarten to college, Cubans are required to work wherever the state places them for four years after graduating college, even if it’s in a town way across the island, where they have no family.
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I learned that a typical salary in Cuba is $25/month and that tip-based professions such as drivers or waiters can actually be more lucrative than being a lawyer or doctor. To compensate however, it’s common for people to offer doctors food or gifts depending on the depth of what the doctor did for them. I learned that insurance doesn’t exist. Not for homes, cars, health, nothing.

Most of all, I learned that change is good, education is vital and travel is essential. In my view, the people make the place, and nothing rang more true than in Cuba.

So let’s get down to business. (I was particularly inspired by music in writing this post, so extra points if you can identify the lyric in each section title!)

So PREPARE for a chance of a lifetime...

You’ll need to do some advance work before you depart.

Here are four prep tips to keep in mind:

  • Download the “Maps.me” app. You can download maps of the cities you’ll be visiting and save locations without the use of internet.
  • Book as much as you can in advance. Things like tours and dinner reservations fill up quickly even, at your all-inclusive resorts.
  • Make sure your passport doesn’t expire within 6 months of your trip.
  • Electrical outlets. They’re the same as in the U.S., don’t waste luggage space on converters.
  • Light, beachy clothing is key. Cuba is in the heart of the Caribbean, pack shorts/dresses, linen, flat comfortable shoes, and something a little dressier for balmy nights.

Come FLY with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

The ever-shifting regulatory panorama for Americans traveling to Cuba will surely leave you puzzled, if it hasn’t already. Don’t let it scare you. Not being let back into the US from Cuba is a long shot, and getting turned away from entering Cuba is slim to none. So pick your airline of choice and get moving!

Quick tip, airfare:

  • Opt for the Cuban medical insurance (included in airfare purchase with airlines like AA, Delta, Frontier & JetBlue).

Buscando VISA para un sueño…

As an American, traveling as a tourist is still banned. So for obtaining a visa, three words are key: People to people. You’ll get asked for your reasoning for visiting Cuba, and you’ll say people to people. This simply means you’ve stated the intention to go and to have meaningful interactions, learn, explore and to get to know the Cuban people. Easy enough, right? (BTW- the airline or your Airbnb may ask you this too)

Quick tips, Cuban visas:

  • You can order a visa before your trip Cuba Services or buy it at the gate before boarding your flight.
  • Fees range between $50-100 per visa.
  • The visa is perforated in the middle, and you’ll fill out both sides. When you arrive in Cuba the immigration officer will take half. Do not lose the other half, you need to submit it upon leaving the country. I don’t want to know what happens if you lose it and I don’t think you do either.
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SAFE and sound...

I felt totally safe at all times. Not to mention that it’s against the law for citizens to have weapons. You still shouldn’t walk around wearing your jewels and flashing your Benjamins, but the crime rate is very low and you can sense that quickly.

It’s all about the BENJAMINS baby…

Get ready to make it rain because in Cuba, cash is king! Cuba is one country with two currencies, one for tourists (the Convertible Peso, or CUC) and one for locals (the Cuban Peso, or CUP). Get to know what each note looks like.

Quick tips, $$

  • Don’t let anyone give you CUPs, the CUP is roughly 25 times less valuable than the CUC.
  • Exchange Euros instead of dollars. The Euro-CUC conversion is €1:$1 whereas the USD-CUC is roughly $1:$0.87 CUC.
  • Bring your European credit card, they are accepted in Cuba. Credit cards backed by US banks (Mastercard, Visa) are not.
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Me lo paro, el TAXI

For traveling within the cities: The 1950’s Chevrolets, Fords and Cadillacs aren’t just for Instagramming, they are a great way to get around. They act as shared shuttles (some are large enough for 5 people) and private taxis.

Quick tip, taxi:

  • Make sure to ask the price before you take off.

For traveling around the country: You have two options, rent a car or hire a transportation company to take you from city to city in a large van or a huahua, what the Cubans call busses.

Need a STARBUCKS and a WIFI

For me, life without coffee is no life at all. The Cubans agree; so I naturally blended in with the locals. However, I wouldn’t say life without internet is no life at all, getting off the grid is amazing. But, it is a reality in Cuba that a foreigner might have trouble getting used to.

Quick tips, coffee & wifi:

  • There’s enough sugar in a cup of coffee to sink a boat. Be warned.
  • The wifi is s-l-o-w, hard to come by, and rarely free.
  • For $2 you can purchase a wifi card for one hour of internet.

We at the HOTEL, motel, Holiday Inn

For accommodation, your way to go is Airbnbs or “Casas Particulares” over hotels. Though convenient, hotels are more expensive and don’t allow you to interact with many locals. You’re better off getting local hotspot recommendations from your Airbnb or Casa Particular hosts, plus their homes tend to be more modern than the commonplace dated hotels.

Looking for soul FOOD and a place to eat

Eat at the paradors, or private restaurants, as opposed to state-run restaurants. Make sure to try “arroz congri” and fried pork.

Yo ho ho and a bottle of RUM

In Cuba you can drink all the Mojitos and Pina Coladas your sugary, cocktail-loving heart desires. If you’re like me and can’t handle all that sugar (unless it’s an ice cream sundae), opt for Chilean or Spanish red wine which is good and inexpensive.

On the BEACH you’ll find them there, in the sun and salty air…

Varadero Beach is straight out of a dream, with some of the calmest, bluest, clearest waters I’ve ever seen. If you’re here, watch the sunset on the beach.

In da CLUB...

Don’t forget to pack your dancing shoes! Cali, Colombia may be the salsa capital of the World but the Cubans give it a run for its money. There are lots of salsa and jazz bars, just ask around. My personal favorite: dinner & a show at the Parisian Cabaret at the Hotel Nacional in Havana.

Queen of CITIES...

So I visited five cities in eight days. Here’s what I got:

  • Trinidad: (my favorite) a step back in time. Beautifully restored buildings and cobblestone streets.
  • Viñales: Characteristic for its mogotes, or steep limestone hills. Great for hiking, horseback riding & visiting tobacco fields.
  • Havana: Don’t miss the Malecon, Revolution Square, Hotel Nacional (for a great view or a show), Paseo del Prado and Bodeguita del Medio, a legendary restaurant & Hemingway hangout.
  • Varadero: Spectacular beach city (as I mentioned above).
  • Cienfuegos: Don’t miss Playa Giron. Thomas Terry Theater, and the Malecon for killer sunsets.

Bye, Bye, BUY…

Cigars, of course. Some of the best in the world are found here (max two boxes/person); Rum (max 6 bottles/person); high-quality crafts (musical instruments, paintings)

Quick tips, buying:

  • You may need an export permit (which you can probably get at the airport on your way out) for certain items, make sure to ask when buying.
  • Keep your receipts.

And that’s a wrap! Questions, comments, concerns? Reach out to me or comment below.

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