Cuba is like a moment paused in time.
It went from being one of the most vibrant party places for wealthy Americans in the 1920’s to a place where Communist rule has led to decades of disagreements between America and Cuba.
This disagreement made it hard for Americans to travel to Cuba because of a commercial, economic and financial embargo that was placed in the 1950’s.
In 2016, President Obama started what appeared to be a slow unwinding of the embargo, but this seems to be changing under the new American Presidency.
Luckily, during the short window that Americans could travel freely to Cuba, I hopped on the bandwagon and went. Twice.
Here’s my experience traveling to Havana and Vinales with friends.
A 4 day weekend in Havana, Cuba
Getting to Cuba
We traveled on Frontier Airlines leaving from Miami, Florida. Total cost was $220 per person.
Every website I read made it sound like YOU MUST get the visa before you travel, but in reality, when we got to the check-in counter, the airlines were selling them for $100. So we paid an extra $10 for peace of mind.
I’ve heard if you enter Cuba from Mexico the visa is only $20 USD.
Cuba’s north shore is only 90 miles south of the southernmost point of the USA in Key West, so the plane ride from Miami was only 1 hour and 15 minutes.
On the plane they give you a visa card to fill out which explains your reason for traveling.
We chose the People2People exchange because we actually went there to learn about the Cuban Culture and immerse ourselves in it.
We arrived in Cuba, got off the plane and entered Cuba without a hitch. I don’t know if immigration even looked at our tourist cards.
What To Pack Traveling to Cuba
There is no reason to pack your high heels or favorite silk top. Seriously you would just be flaunting it around. I find it’s best to blend in and become a part of the culture.
I recommend light and comfortable clothing, walking shoes and a hat. (A hat is a must have if traveling in summer!)
These are the 2 backpacks that I use when traveling:
- Lightweight Day Pack – this backpack folds down into a little square so you can throw it in your big bag and use as a day pack when you need it.
- Marmot Aspen backpack – these backpacks are great for travel and fit everything perfectly if you roll your clothes.
Make sure to bring the essentials – toothpaste, deodorant, toothbrush, sunscreen, etc. You won’t be able to buy them there as they don’t have convenience stores.
Check out these posts to help you find the best luggage or suitcase for you:
Accommodation in Havana
We had booked an Airbnb in Vedado which is a few miles west of Old Havana.
We chose this area because the Airbnb was nice, had great reviews, accommodated 7 people and actually had air conditioning.
If you want to be in Old Havana, you could stay right in Central Park – one of the 5 main squares of the city.
There were quite a few nice hotel options in Havana’s Center:
There are NO credit card facilities so you must take cash.
We took about $800 USD cash for 2 people for 4 days. We didn’t exchange it all though – I just wanted to make sure I had enough cash in case.
They actually have 2 currencies – The CUC (Cuban Convertible) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). You’ll be using CUCs as this is the currency specifically for tourists.
Above is a picture of the two currencies. Tourists use the Pesos Convertibles (left).
There is a 10% tax to exchange USD + a 3% exchange fee. So for $100 USD you’ll get about $87 CUC.
You can exchange it at a bank with your passport, but we just exchanged with the owners of our AirBNB who had American dollars. So we saved the 3% currency fee and paid only the 10% tax. So $100 USD = $90 CUC.
$90 CUC is a lot of money there, but as with any place you travel, there are tourist traps and people will try to rip you off.
Things To Do in Havana, Cuba
We had 4 days in Havana over a long weekend. Here’s what we did.
The square is notable as being where many political rallies take place in Cuba.
You’ll see the famous faces of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos – important figures during the Revolution.
The above photo is taken from a huge obelisk with Jose Marti overlooking the square. I didn’t know a thing about Jose Marti, but the Cubans adore him.
He’s a writer, poet, journalist and essayist but he also lead the first Cuban Revolution and it’s said that Castro got his inspiration for his Revolution from Jose Marti.
Old Havana Walking Tour
This is a FREE walking tour put on by university students.
Havana is laid out by 5 main squares and they walk you around to each of them and give you a VERY in depth history (from their perspective) about Cuba and the Cuban People.
Bring cash to tip your guide for all of their hard work!
Day Trip to Vinales on a Cuban Classic Car Tour
We took a classic car tour to Vinales, a town on the western side of Cuba which has these beautiful steep-sided limestone hills, known as mogotes.
This tour will pick you up in an old classic car of your choice (we chose a convertible Bonneville) and will drive you about 2.5 hours to Vinales.
On the way we stopped at a traditional Cuban Coffee Stand and then went to a farm where they showed us how they made Cohiba Cigars.
To put it into perspective, Cigars there were about $10 USD for one. If you were to buy that same cigar here would be $20 USD. So you save about 50%.
Then we went up to the beautiful hotel to snap a photo of Vinales itself.
Since it was quite busy, rather than going on a Cave tour (which is typical with these tours), they took us to this amazing lake nearby (a place that reminded me of a summer camp).
We rented canoes and paddled around and went swimming in the freshwater lake – a big relief from the heat!
I highly recommend you check out the Revolution Museum. It’s about $8 CUC for the entry fee. You’ll learn about the Revolution from the Cuban perspective.
National Museum of Fine Arts
It’s quite a large museum with lots of beautiful artwork so I think you need about 3 hours to explore every floor. We only had one hour and it wasn’t enough.
Playas des Este
This is the closest beach to Havana. You can catch a bus near Central Park, or get a taxi to take you (about $15 CUC each way).
Food and Nightlife in Havana
You should only pay about $3CUCs for a mojito. Anything more and you are in a very expensive place that is catering for you, the tourist.
Main courses for food was about $7 CUC, but you could pay up to $22 CUC if you were getting Lobster (and that is expensive there).
Here are a few of my favorite places that we visited.
Hotel Ambos Mundos
Come up to Hotel Ambos Mundos for sunset and enjoy a Pina Colada while overlooking all of old Havana. They will bring it to you in a fresh pineapple and will pour the famous Havana Club Rum in there!
This hotel was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway (he spent a lot of time in Cuba and Key West) and there is actually a small museum dedicated to him in the hotel.
Apparently the lobster is actually quite good in Cuba and it is also no where near the price of lobster in Maine.
If you are looking for a nice place to eat after you tour the Revolution Museum, this is a good option. The food and atmosphere were great (try the pasta!)
This is a fun cantina off the beaten track, recommended to us by our local Cuban tour guide. It reminded me of a hip bar that you would stumble upon down the streets of Melbourne, Australia.
A paladar is a small family-run restaurant in a Cuban home so it’s the best way to taste traditional Cuban food. You’ll see Paladars everywhere.
They always have a good price and you get four courses and a drink.
It was about $12 CUC pp for lunch.
Salsa Club 1830
Come out to the best salsa club in Havana. Get those hips moving and try salsa, or enjoy a Havana Club and chill out on the patio under the stars.
Note: There was a $5CUC cover fee when we went.
More Cuba Travel Tips:
- Traveling to Cuba – 10 Changes You Should Know About
- 4 exciting places to visit in Cuba (and one to avoid)
- 27 Things to Know Before You Visit Cuba