Cuba: Travel Back, then Stand Still in Time
Updated: Jun 14, 2019
Story and photos by Chelsea Kim, @talesofmissadventure
The idea of traveling the world can be exhilarating, but too often understanding visas and laws for various countries exhausts me before I even buy the plane tickets. Take Cuba as an example. Travel as a U.S. Citizen is difficult and highly regulated, making most of us question if it’s worth the effort – check the last paragraph for more information on the recent changes to the restrictions – but I’ll tell you, it is.
I loved all of Cuba – the people, the landscape…the food. I learned that there is amazing rum, aged and delicious, and ate my fill of plantains in all forms. When the Casa Particulars are actual homes versus Airbnb businesses, the owners tend to cook better than the restaurants. Bring your appetite because the food and drinks are so delicious and plentiful. If you have one take away from anything you read, eat at the casas.
My Top Highlights
Cuban food. Don’t plan to lose weight, take those one-piece bathing suits and embrace every bite of food. You may think you’ve had good Cuban food, but you’ll rethink your stance after a trip to the island.
The rum is life-changing. I didn’t know there were ages and styles – I pretty much returned a rum snob who only drinks rums that can’t be purchased in the U.S. Thankfully, I travel enough to keep my cabinet full from other country’s duty free stores.
The plantains in every form will pack in the starch, but every inch was worth the savory salty or sweet bite.
The seafood in Playa Larga. Cuba is not wealthy, the people eat what they can grow, catch, or raise. All the seafood is fresh and caught that morning, then simply prepared with salt and a few spices on a grill as a whole fish or lobster. If seeing intact seafood isn’t appetizing to you, skip it because that’s the best and only preparation.
Havana’s Malecon at sunset, the main walkway and road along the ocean. The vintage cars, the ocean, the people. There’s nothing like strolling down the promenade with the cool ocean breezes.
Playa Larga and the Bay of Pigs, the infamous location of the failed U.S. invasion in Cuba. I ended up there instead of Playa Giron. The Casa on the beach was fantastic despite my being bedridden for two days with fevers and a stomach bug - I was the only one sick even though everyone ate the same food so it’s a mystery to me - but curled up on a lounge chair watching a sunset while sipping fresh mint tea and running fever is still magical.
My Casa in Vinales. Vinales is beautiful, set in an inland valley of Cuba, where there are farms and beautiful hikes. The owners of the Casa Particular where I stayed helped arrange a hiking tour of the tobacco fields, mojitos with honey on a mountain top, and made me scrumptious buffet breakfasts and dinners including the best ropa vieja I have ever tasted. I brought back many cigars to share direct from those farms.
Cuban Travel Tips
Change currency at the airport, even if it takes forever, finding cash exchanges can be difficult in Havana and smaller towns, often with long waits and short hours. The government regulates the rates so you don’t need to worry about finding the best spot to exchange. You’ll be glad you’ve got enough for at least your first night and taxi rides.
Ask your taxi drivers about “Casa Particulars”, family homes with rooms for rent, when you get to a location or book with Airbnb (just be sure they are income properties still owned by locals) before you leave. I preferred staying in the new town of Havana versus old town because it’s easier to navigate. It’s a quick walk down the Malecon. At Playa Larga, the taxi driver found a room at a beautiful beach front house where I ended up extending my time and staying for 3 days (partially on purpose, partially by circumstance - keep reading😉).
Stop by the bus station in Havana on your way from the airport and book a communal taxi for travel to your next location. The yellow taxis at the airport are government run and violate your visa – see “Necessary Preparation” below. Communal taxis are bought by the seat, not the car. They are regular cars so don’t be afraid, you aren’t being kidnapped! You can negotiate some but it’s fairly priced. Pack light because it’s only one trunk or items are tied to the roof. IF you luck out, you may be riding in a 1960's American car, which I have to say is my preferred method. Cars today are far less comfortable without the thick, springy bench seats.
Brush up on your Spanish – or miming. Many people do not speak other languages so communication will be tough if you don’t have at least a little understanding.
Who’s heard the term “island time”? Cuba runs on island time. Schedules are a suggestion and areas can be remote. I had to check my type-A personality at the airport and settle in to embracing adventure. When you go, say “yes” to whatever comes your way, you won’t regret it - within reason, I’m not telling you to go solo into a dark alley because someone said they want to show you something cool - but talking to a man who wanted to practice English in daylight led me to Calle Jon de Hamel, an art street hidden in a neighborhood, and buying cigars out of an apartment from a family of factory workers.
I plan to go back to explore more, but I got a great taste of the history, beauty, and culture in my short visit – not to mention reacquainting myself with Spanish from my poor attempts to communicate.
Going into my trip, the plan was to stick to the west side of the island: a day or two in Havana to get my bearings, then head to Playa Giron – not where I stayed (see below) because research can be wrong and the town that’s supposed to be on the water may not have any beaches or businesses – and finish out in Vinales before ending back in Havana to fly out. I had 8 days for the trip and I didn’t want to be racing from one place to the next. Many travelers I met along the way were traversing the island over the course of a month or two, reiterating why you should check your detailed itinerary at the door. Have an outline but embrace the adventure and let go.
Get your tourist visa. Everyone needs this, but the U.S. puts deep restrictions on your visit, so you need to be able to fit your visit into one of the twelve approved categories. The U.S. can audit you up to five years post visit, just like the IRS can audit your tax returns, so be sure to keep tabs on why you’re there and what you’re doing. Learn more from the State Department or this easier to understand site (no need to purchase services from the site, they just break it down clearly). You can buy your visa from the airline. The airline doesn’t check compliance, so be sure you plan accordingly. You can also go with a curated trip or cruise and the company will cross t’s and dot i’s for you.
Bring and budget your cash. There’s poor infrastructure to support WiFi and cellular, let alone credit card or bank card machines. Pre-plan your activities and spending to ensure you have cash. Exchange a little at a time to only pay fees on what you will need. Adding another layer to the cash, U.S. dollars receive a lovely 10 percent fee for exchange. If you have the time to order other currencies from your bank, I recommend doing so. It will save you some money in the long run and it is worth the advance planning. I ordered Euros since I know I’ll spend those abroad even if it wasn’t on this trip.
Once you’ve gotten your flights, visas, and cash, you’re ready to go! If you’re traveling with 1-3 people, hopping from city to city or region to region is pretty easy on your own.
Also, if you have a family and want to go to a single location, it’s fairly easy to arrange.
Personally, I love driving in other countries and generally rent a car to do so anywhere I travel, including the Middle East as a single woman – it only became legal a couple years ago – but I refuse to do so in Cuba. Police are strict and one wrong move can land you with steep fines or worse in jail with no extradition. If you’re from outside the U.S. and want to read up, Frommer’s summarizes well but as an American you cannot rent from a state run agency (violates those pesky visas), so just pay for the taxi.
Though I thrive on adventure travel, I wouldn’t recommend that for a family. If you want to visit various areas of Cuba with kids, especially small children under 6, I would use a tour company or other service. Though I appreciate the spontaneous escapades more, I don’t have to keep track of more than myself. Using the service will give you peace of mind and fun activities with others in a contained group - just be sure to talk to the locals and engage with the culture. You won’t regret it. If you’re bringing small children, BYOCS – bring your own car seat. The taxis will not have items like this.
(Editor's note: BYOCS sounds intimidating with 25-30-pound seats you won't want to lug all over Cuba, or even the airport for that matter. Check out this model from Cosco that only weighs 6 pounds and is travel-friendly.)
The U.S. has released additional travel restrictions as of June 5, 2019, so it won’t be as easy to get flights, and trip services need extra vetting. Though it’s a bit tougher now that the new restrictions are in place preventing cruises and the “People to People” visas, it’s not impossible.
If you’re using a service company, check to ensure your choice of company is focused on education and you’ll still fall under one of the twelve acceptable visas. There will probably be fewer flights direct from the US, but you can go through Canada or Mexico since they have more frequent options.
Learn more about the restrictions and how to travel while still complying through a these resources:
Born on O‘ahu, Chelsea is a self-professed travel junkie based in Manhattan. When she's not trotting the globe, Chelsea serves as a technical account manager, consultant and corporate trainer. She is additionally the co-founder of the Messy Bun Empire, a consultuing business launching soon. Chelsea's wanderlust passion has taken her to 36 countries, 42 states, 4/7 man-made world wonders and one natural world wonder. Her favorite destinations thus far have been Cuba and Jordan; her dream destinations include completing her list of world wonders, Antartica, Bolivia, Patagonia, the Brazilian rainforest and Lebanon. Follow her on IG @talesofmissadventure.