Yup, you read right. I know, I know… everything you read online about Cuba mentions Varadero (and Vinales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad… the typical tourist route). Let me tell you why you should probably skip over Varadero and go to beaches equally as amazing and accessible for tourists.

So why skip Varadero? Here are some reasons:

1. There’s nothing Cuban about Varadero

If you look up where Varadero is on the map, its literally a mini peninsula that jets out. Because of this, its exclusively owned by hotels. The entire peninsula is hotel after hotel after hotel. There is no “city” there and absolutely zero culture.

Why come to Cuba if you’re going to be enclosed in a hotel? Go to Cancun instead and save yourself the hassle of visa and money issues (for Americans).

2. Its overpriced (Not Budget Friendly for Budget Travelers)

Because every single blogger/adviser/guide book pushes Varadero (mainly because they don’t know about other amazing places in Cuba), Varadero is extremely overpriced. Sure, its all-inclusive but the prices for some hotels can range $200cuc-$400cuc PER PERSON PER NIGHT. You can get SO much more out of a Cuban vacation with a beach for much much less

3. There’s better beaches

I’m not going to say Varadero isn’t beautiful, because it is. Its pristine clear waters transforms the magic of this country but that magic isn’t just seen in Varadero. There’s nothing exclusive or special about the beach in Varadero (only that there’s hotels after hotels on it). There’s plenty of other beaches that are easily accessible to tourists traveling the island.

Here are my suggestions:

Cuba offers amazing beaches!

 

Caibarien – Cayo Santa Maria

If you’re dying to go to Cayo Santa Maria (another mini version of Varadero) I suggest you stay in Caibarien. Its a small fishing town right outside the entrance of Santa Maria and its absolutely charming and filled with Cuban culture. It even has its own Malecon that’s much bigger than Cienfuegos! For about $20cuc and a $10cuc ride (message me if you need transportation advise) to the beach, you can get culture and amazing beach experience.

 

Cayo Jutias

A Cuban Family enjoying the beach at Cayo Jutias

One hour from Vinales, stay an extra day and experience this breathtaking beach. With mangrove trees jetting from the crystal-clear ocean, we nickname it “starfish beach.” Its a big enough beach that you don’t feel like the entire Canadian spring break is at the beach with you unlike Varadero. There’s a store there and local cubans also playing in the ocean.

Maria La Gorda

Known for its amazing scuba diving, Maria La Gorda on the tip of western Cuba is less accessible but that means it’s more remote if you want that kind of adventure. It sits on its own, near nothing. It costs $20 to enter with $12 to consume (so only $8cuc) and you can spend the day out in the ocean snorkeling or other water activities. Its gorgeous and there’s an entire bay of beaches you can explore with practically NO ONE around.

If you want the all-inclusive getaway with no culture, no adventure, nothing special then go to Varadero. Nothing wrong with that.

But if you want to come to Cuba, I say shy away.

This blog post will help you know what you can donate to Cubans, how you can donate, and who you should donate to.

First and foremost, THANK YOU.

When it comes to tourists coming to on holiday to Cuba, a question I often get is “Can I bring anything?” “How can I help the Cuban people?”

There’s probably no better question I love answering than that one.

There’s several reasons why the economic situation in Cuba is the way it is. The combination of the economic embargo alongside the internal situation has stifled the country at low monthly wages at high cost of living.

Unfortunately, many items that are easy to find in other countries become extremely hard to find in Cuba.

But as I sit here trying to google “donations to Cubans” that search becomes just as hard to find as the items Cuba needs.

I’m shocked there isn’t more out there in form of blog posts given the almost 2 million Cubans living in the United States alone.

So that’s why I’m here.

Here is a list of essential items you can donate to Cubans –

Many of them you’ll likely be packing for your vacation anyways.

  1. Medicine

There is nothing more necessary in Cuba than medicine. Sure, there’s free health care but care is limited when vital medicine is in low quantity. And, its really no secret.

Over the counter medication is in high demand. Some of these include:

  • Tylenol
  • NSAIDs
  • Anti-inflammatory cream (Cubans love Bengay)
  • Cough syrup for children
  • Tums
  • Bayer
  • Eyedrops
  • Cough drops (!!!!!)
  • Sudafed
  • VITAMINS OF ANY TYPE!!
  • Other over-the-counter

 

  1. Bandaids

Bandaids, gauze, and medicine tape are very expensive. A roll of medicine tape costs around $2CUC (a huge expense if you’re making $20 a month).

Bandaids are extremely light and small to pack and probably the most important item to gift a Cuban household.

  1. Toilet paper

Outside your Cuban resort and/or Cuban casa particular, toilet paper is a huge luxury for a lot of Cuban families. Its 90 cents a roll an trust me, its no Charmin.   A few rolls goes a long way.

  1. Deodorant

If deodorant was a drug, it could kill. Sweat and Smell go hand in hand on that island. That $1 bar from the 99 cent store costs nearly quadruple.

  1. Soap/ Shampoo/ Conditioner

See above for explanation

  1. Shoes

Good quality shoes are essential, especially for kids. It’s not rare to see people outside barefoot or children running barefoot. Shoes are extremely expensive and very low quality.

Shoes break in 2 weeks if they aren’t an American recognizable brand. No joke. One time my shoes broke in the middle of the Olga Tanon concert in La Habana just by walking. No bueno.

  1. Brushes – Hair, Tooth

Here’s a story: It took me 3 days to find a hairbrush in Pinar. 3 days. Then it broke… 2 brushes later. #noesfacil

Toothbrushes and toothpaste are in huge demand as well. Children go nuts for the themed ones they sell outside the island.

  1. Sheet and Towels

Another two items that are in huge demand. You’ll likely see the same sheets in a Cuban home used for years.

  1. Other toiletries

Some items you’re likely already carrying are:

  • sun block
  • lotion
  • Wipes
  • Hair gel
  • Hairspray
  • Hair ties for the ladies!!!
  1. Feminine Products

Outside of high tourist areas like La Habana or Cienfuegos, many women have little to no access to choice within feminine products. Meaning, theres no tampons.

Tampons are light and small as well and will go a long way to helping any lady out.

  1. Toys

Children love toys and unfortunately toys are expensive in Cuba. The #1 item you can gift a girl of course is a Barbie. A boy? A soccer ball.   Move over baseball, soccer is HUGE in Cuba.

But most importantly are basic school supplies for Children: coloring books, pens, crayons, pencils, erasers.

 

How to Donate?

GOING OUTSIDE THE RESORTS- Tour Cuba Locally!

The biggest help you can give is is tourism.  Tourism helps the economy in so many different ways: From helping the taxi man earn more money, the the dancer on the street getting tips.  Its funnels through the economy.

There’s no better way to spend your time in Cuba than actually SEEING THE COUNTRY. Forget the cheap resorts you can find anywhere else in teh Caribbean. This is a unique island with unique culture and we’d love for you to see it as authentic as possible.

To get customized tours email me here. For small-group tours, you can see our itinerary. 

Cuba is tricky when it comes to donations. If you are bringing large quantities of 1 thing, Cuban government officials might get a bit suspicious you’re trying to supply black markets than donating.

Mari tip: If you are so kind enough to donate, please bring a variety of things. Do not bring 50 USB sticks or a luggage full of shoes.  

Who to Donate To?

Cubans are inventors, but you might not know there are different economic classes on the island like any other country. Most casa particulares owners are living very well off tourism and same goes with any tourist driven employee (that’s why its so hard to get a tourist license).

Mari Tip: I suggest if you want to give to please donate items to either a church in Havana or any family living in the countryside (not Vinales because, again, very touristy). Many Cubans are not as fortunate to have family on the outside that can send them remittances. Plus, you’ll get a very local and cultural experience doing it that way!

And as always,

GRACIAS!

 

Trust me: This is Everything you need to know about going to Cuba

It seems that all-of-the-sudden the world figured out the largest island in the Caribbean still exists. Maybe it was the cars, maybe it was the Kardashians.  Either way, Cuba has become a major hot spot for all the world’s coolest travel blogger Instagrams.

And now you want to go. You want the vintage picture. You want to say, “I went before it changes” (more on that later).

But, I know like many, you might not know a single thing about Cuba. Or you’re interested but you have no idea where to start.  Lonely Planet says one thing, that really awesome travel blogger says another.  Or you suddenly get caught reading  into a political battle.  

And now you’re here. But, don’t worry, like we say, “Tranquilo” (calm). Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Cuba before you jump onto that plane.

WHY CUBA?- CUBITA LINDA

Cuba is literally 35 minutes away to the closest major USA airport. From Cancun, 1 hour.   You take longer figuring out what outfit to wear for that club than it takes to get to Cuba.

Cuba’s rich history combined with its culture and of course, its disconnectivity to the world makes it alluring, mysterious and most-of-all, fun.

It’s the only place in the world where you’re immediately welcomed with a cup of coffee, a hug and reassurance that whatever you need is not a problem. It’s also one of the only places in the world where you hear music coming from all directions ALL THE TIME (yes, if you’re sensitive, bring ear plugs… ).

Plus there’s all the other amazing things like salsa dancing on the beach, drinking mojitos on the Malecon, and riding in antique cars.

THE VISA- YUMAS

If you’re American, you need one annnnddddd its complicated.  I wont get into the nitty gritty details (like I did here), but I will say:

 

YOU CAN STILL GO TO CUBA (as of September 2017)

I offer legal and hassle-free itineraries you need to make your trip legal in the eyes of Uncle Sam. But even more rewarding is that they will help the Cuban people and you’ll get to explore our culture much more than if you went to Cubano-Med (Club Med).

The visa costs around $100 and you can purchase it from Cuba Travel Services before or at check-in.  You’ll mark either “education” or “support the Cuban people” as one of the 11 categories.

Because the government of Cuba does not have an embargo on the United States, no one in Cuba cares why you’re there- they are just glad you are.  Immediately seeing your passport, they will ask you if you want it stamped. Up to you now but more on this in my other dedicated visa blog post.

MONEY –  FULA, DINERO

In case you didn’t already know, your credit card won’t work in Cuba. Sorry, no travel points for you.

You MUST bring cash. I don’t care if you’re Canadian, Spanish, German or Martian… bring it. And lots of it.

ATMs are only seen in major cities and the only place I know that accepts credit cards as a form of payment are in hotels.  SWIPE OR INSERT CHIP HERE does not translate in Cuban.  It just simply doesn’t exist.

And to complicate things even more, Cuba has not one but two currencies.  TWO.

Lets take the Cuba Currency 101 Course:

  1. CUC (pronounced “cuuk” or C-U-C) is peso convertible.  This is the currency banks and hotels will give you.  Its valued at 1 CUC = 1 USD.
  2. CUP (coup or peso cubano) is peso nacional.  This is the currency small business and people on the street use.   Its valued at 25 CUP = 1 CUC

SO HERE’S THE BREAKDOWN:

25 CUP= 1 CUC = 1 USD

Left: CUP (Peso Cubano, Nacional) Right: CUC (Convertible Peso)

How can you tell if something is in CUC or CUP? Well, if you’re ordering a pizza from a fast food stand and the menu says “12”, put your gringo hat on and think “$12 for one pizza?” Nope. That’s CUP. So 12 peso cubano which is about half a cuc is roughly 50 cents.  

MARI MUNDO TIP:  Most places in Havana will use CUC in restaurants. Anywhere outside will either charge in CUP (small places) or give you an option.

Now that you (hopefully) understand the valuation of currency, how do you get it?

SPECIAL BONUS MARI MUNDO TIP: Well, luckily for you I have amazing tips that you wont find anywhere else here that will save you a bunch of money when getting hit by the Cuban tax (especially if you’re American).

I will say that all banks will trade your currency. They are called cadecas.  The most common are: Canadian Dollar (CAD), Pound Sterling (GBP), Euro (EUR), Dollar (USD), Russian Ruble (RUB), and Swiss Franc (CHF).  Some places will also have the Mexican peso and the Japanese yen.

Be aware if you plan on going to a Cadeca, you will be waiting in line especially if in Havana (as with everything in Cuba… a line).

TRANSPORTATION

 

The biggest hurdle of daily life for Cubans is transportation.  As a tourist, it’s a bit easier, but you can easily join the Cuban club when it comes to moving around the island.

Transportation can be tricky but depending on where you are, you can still get around.

TAXIS- MAQUINAS, ALMENDRONS

Taxis come two ways in Cuba: colectivos (shared fixed routes) or pick-up style (traditional, private).  Like New York, just put your hand out and grab a taxi.

IMPORTANT: Always negotiate a price BEFORE you get into a taxi. Rides around La Habana Vieja- El Vedado shouldn’t cost more than $3cuc and to Miramar $10cuc.  

And like its own intuitive uber system, prices always raise at night due to fewer cars.

Collectivos are always fijo (fixed). They run certain routes and these taxi’s cost 20 peso cubano per person per ride (or like if you took my Cuban Currency class right above is almost $1 cuc).  You can usually find colectivos where you see Cubans lined up and cars picking them up (most common for tourists is in Plaza Central across the street from Hotel Inglatera or on the corner of Copelia Ice Cream and 23rd.  

The taxi driver will come up to you and you tell him where you’re going.  He will say yes or no.  You get in if obviously yes. Along the way he will pick up other people going the same direction. They come and go.

If you need a taxi from the airport to your destination (and most of you will) you can always contact me and for $30 CUC you can get yourself to your Airbnb.

BUS – LA GUAGUA

Viazul Bus – Tourism.

Cubans call buses GUAGUA for the noise it makes: waaa-waaaaaaa. There are plently of inner-city buses in La Habana but I really don’t recommend it unless you want to get extremely close to a random Cuban while sweating and not know where you’re going.  But if you’re in the mood to adventure or you’re a budget traveler, Cubans are always willing to help anyone get to where they are going. You just have to ask.

If you plan on taking a bus from city to city, tourists buses are run by Viazul. Viazul sells tickets either online or at certain stations.

A bit of caution: As with everything else in Cuba, Viazul is not reliable form of transportation. They are infamous for being late and/or breaking down.  I cant say its 100% guarantee this will happen, but something to keep in the back of your mind when going from one city to another- flexibility and a “go-with-the-flow” mentality.

RENTAL CARS

Tourist cars are marked by “T” on the license plate.

For the most flexibility and freedom, I always recommend travelers to rent a car especially if they want to see other parts of the country Viazul does not go through.

They are, though, expensive.  The most economic car during peak tourist season will run you almost $80 a day not including the very expensive gas.

You will also be required to get premium or special gas as all tourists cars (marked by a T on the license plate) is by law required to purchase that gas. Although, if you bat your eyes or give a little tip to the worker he might let you slide with normal gas.

You can rent cars here and prepay them with a credit card.  Please be aware that you need to rent a car for at least 3 days with a $150-$200 deposit (in cash).

MARI MUNDO TIP: If you decide to rent a car do not rent at the airport as you will have to pay a $20 airport fee and they will only give you back your deposit in your national currency with a penalty.  I suggest renting from Paseo y 3 in La Habana across the street from Hotel Melia Cohiba. They are 24 hours unlike other places.

 

THE MOST ASKED TOPIC: INTERNET

Ay, if I had a CUC for every time someone asked me how to get internet on the island I could fund my own internet company.

Yes, there’s Internet in Cuba.  Yes, you can get it. Yes, I get it.  And yes, it sucks.

For $1.50 an hour you can buy this ETESCA card and connect to the internet following the instructions:

Prepaid Internet Card

  1. Buy a ETECSA card from anywhere that says “recarga” or at hotels
  2. Go to a public park or inside hotel lobbies that offer wi-fi
  3. Jump on ETECSA wi-fi
  4. Wait (sometimes impatiently) for the log-in page to appear
  5. Enter the two codes
  6. Online! But this is Cuba not Starbucks. It isn’t fast. It isn’t reliable.  

Want to know what applications work and will make your life much easier? I list them here.

FOOD – JAMA

Cubans rely heavily on inventing new ways everyday to eat.  Ration cards leave much to be desired and hardly support anyone for a week much less an entire month.  

Cuba is infamously known for pork, lechon or puerco.  It’s the national dish and a staple along with white rice and beans.  Sweet potato (or bonito) and plantains are always always a side dish.

But what you know is this: Ropa Vieja.  How much I love ropa vieja.  But did you know, its illegal to kill a cow in Cuba? Yup.

La Habana has the best food by far in the island. It’s the capitol and surprisingly you can find many cuisines from around the world.   The combination of increased tourism with the uprising of private restaurants has paved the way for a new generation of Cuban cuisine.  Here are some of my recommendations in La Habana.

SAFETY

I am willing to put money that Cuba is by far the safest island in the Caribbean, the saftest country in Latin America and probably North and South America when it comes to violent crimes.

It is however not crime-free, of course.   The biggest thing as a tourist you must look out for is petty scams.  It happens and it happens all the time.

Tourists are EXTREMELY easy to spot.  Even if you are Cuban-American, your clothes, your attitude, your skin color, and everything about you is noticeable.  You aren’t from here.  

And Cubans know that.  Many times they will trick you into going into a restaurant and you will pay more than the normal price. Or taxi drivers will charge you much more. Worst offense is confusing you with the double currency.

But, as with every other country, it happens and you cannot let it affect your vacation.  After all you should be enjoying experiencing a new culture and understand many of this is due to necessity.

Cuba does redeem itself in all other terms when it comes to safety.  As long as you aren’t a drunk idiot (screaming wheres the marijuana in the middle of Habana vieja at 2 am…. Yes, I rescued an American girl doing this last year) you’ll be safe anywhere in the island you go to.

I cannot overstate enough of friendly, welcoming and helpful Cuban people are.  You are NEVER alone or lost on the island. Never.

Itinerary in Cuba

Throughout this blog, you’ll see many places to go.  Of course, I cannot make a website and not mention the most popular places in Havana

  • La Habana (La Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, El Vedado, Miramar, Playa)
  • Trinidad
  • Cienfuegos
  • Varadero
  • Vinales
  • Cayo Coco/Santa Maria

Those are the most common and tourist centric places in Cuba. Its where you’ll find most information on the internet and where all the other travel bloggers have mentioned in their “ultimate guide to cuba”

But, keep on the look out for some places you never knew existed. Those are the exciting ones.  And I’m so excited to show the world a Cuba its never seen before.

 

September 2017

You’re an American and you heard you couldn’t legally travel to Cuba. WRONG.
As of September 2017, you can still travel legally to Cuba.
In June 2017, U.S. President Trump signed an executive order that rolled back many of the advancements the Obama Administration made with Cuba including the individual people-to-visa visa category. Under this reason, travel to Cuba was very relaxed and pretty much anything could be categorized as “people-to-people”
Trump thought that was a bad idea (I however will remain comment-less on that for now) and will now reduce the 12 categories down to 11.
But don’t worry, tranquilo. You can still travel to Cuba legally and if you’re still worried, you can do it the old fashion way: Through a 3rd country.  Lets break it down.

Legal Travel Between US and Havana
As of now, you can still purchase a commercial flight to Cuba (thanks JetBlue, Alaska, American, Southwest etc) and a direct flight from Miami to Cuba runs now about $200 RT.  I know, not bad!!
When you are booking, under OFAC regulations you will be required to choose a category. If you’re not quite sure yet, pick any you believe best suits the trip. Many of you will go under “supporting the Cuban people” visa or “education.”   This is less important at this stage because this is only a requirement to purchase not to enter.

How to Apply for the Visa
Good News! There is no “application.” You quite simply check-in at your connecting gate to Havana and you can purchase the visa right there and then. It runs between $50-$100 depending on what airline you are traveling with.
This is where you’re the reason of your travel is really recorded.  When purchasing, you will be asked to fill an affidavit.   Here you will check in your reason for travel, your name, and the address of where you are staying.
Please remember that Cuba does not care why you’re entering Cuba. The United States does as the United States has placed a travel embargo on the island.
After you sign your affidavit, you will get your visa.  PLEASE FILL YOUR VISA CAREFULLY OR YOU WILL BE REQUIRED TO PURCHASE A NEW ONE.
The visa asks for your Last Name, First Name, Birthdate, Passport Number, and Nationality on two sides.  Again, please fill this out carefully.
After you do that, you’re on your way!! It’s THAT simple and seriously THAT easy.  No boogie man will come down, no secret spies…. Just a cup of coffee, hugs, and music waiting to greet you.

When you Get to Customs in Havana
You are required to give your passport and you’re your declaration to the officer.  They will ask you to stand in front of a camera and ask for our picture.
They will also ask you, upon seeing your visa, if you want it stamped.  That’s up to you (but if you’re direct from Havana to US on the way back, obviously you came from Cuba).
After Customs
Pick up your bags and get in a taxi for about $30 cuc to your destination! If you need arrangements, please contact me here.
PLEASE KEEP YOUR VISA WITH YOU THE ENTIRE TRIP. YOU WILL BE ASKED FOR IT WHEN COMING BACK
Coming back to the United States
In the Havana airport they will ask you for your boarding pass, your visa (again), and another photo.  They will then stamp either your passport or your boarding pass and you’ll be asked then to go through security.
After coming back to the US, the customs officer will ask you where you came from. This is how the dialogue goes: Officer: Where did you come from? American: Cuba Officer: Did you have fun?  American: Absolutely!  Officer: Have a good day.
Enough said.

COMING FROM MEXICO/3rd COUNTRY
This is a good option if you aren’t comfortable with the visa regulations and extremely traveled by Americans.
Cubans know this and they don’t care.
If traveling from a third country (most popular being Mexico), you can purchase your entrance visa at the connecting gate for $20 from most latin American countries.  Please look up visa requirements from others.
At Havana Airport
When going through customs, a Cuban officer will see your American passport. If they don’t already, while they are reviewing your paperwork ask them to please not stamp your passport. They won’t.
Going Back to 3rd country:
Repeat above.
When in the United States:
You were just on a week vacation in Mexico when asked and  should have no evidence (because of no stamp in your passport) that you were in Cuba. Ole!!
Yes, that might seem very weird and strange, but it is an EXTREMELY common form of American travel to Cuba and on very extremely rare cases does anyone get “caught” and “fined.”

The most important part is to not worry so much about getting to Cuba as much as having fun IN Cuba.  You won’t regret your trip, you little espionage.
And Cubans love love love Americans (and the American flag on their bodies, apparently).