10 Travel Tips for Solo Females in Cuba

Solo female travelers face a challenge when choosing their next travel destination.  Is the country relatively safe? Are the locals friendly? Will I be okay to travel around by myself?

Cuba not only checks off all of those concerns, but offers solo female adventures an experience they will never get anywhere else.

There is nowhere else in the world you can dance with locals until dawn and feel completely safe doing so.

And I can guarantee you there’s nowhere else in the world you can truly experience all of that without being constantly distracted with modern technology.

As someone who frequently travels around the country by myself, I have some tips for my fellow independent ladies!

  1. Go-With-The-Flow

This isn’t exclusive to female travelers, but anyone traveling here. Cuba doesn’t have internet accessible to you at all times of the day. There is wifi at the parksbut not around town.

This means you have to be open to new experiences and change of plans.  It’s okay to have a basic itinerary, but in a country where locals are always willing to invite you to places or direct you to a different spot, you have to be willing to change courses.

This is particularly true if you travel around the country.  Conception of time is not the same in Cuba as it is in western countries.  We wait in hour long lines to get nowhere or nothing. The driver doesn’t feel like driving, so you wait. Or the bus isn’t working (again) so you’ll have to take a taxi or other way of getting around.

Point is: just be open to an adventure!

  1. Machismo Culture

Cuban men are NOT shy when it comes to approaching you. And even more so when you’re a Yuma (a foreigner).

You are noticeable from the moment you get out of the airport until the minute you get back in a taxi to leave to the airport.

You’ll be stared at, cat-called, and woo’d.

Here’s my tip:  Most of the time, ignore the unwanted cat-calls.  We get them DAILY and CONSTANTLY and it’s just something you get over after a while.

  1. Be Careful of Jineteros

This is a taboo topic in Cuban culture.  Jineteros are Cubans, both male and female, that try to get money or other services from foreigners.

Jineteros in Cuban culture are associated with prostitution, but this is not always the case.  They tend to hang around tourist areas and have foreigners pay for their meals or drinks.

Jineteros sometimes like to make a romantic connections with their foreigner girl in order to get money and/or products from them when they leave back to their countries.

I’ll write more on Cuban love later, but given this, I want to say: its important not to think every local or man willing to dance with you is a jinetero.  Cubans are naturally warm and inviting people. Just be careful if they expect you to pay for everything.

  1. Stay in a casa particular

Cuba doesn’t have hostels (well, not that many) but it has the next best thing: Casa Particulares.

Casa Particulares are rooms/apartments rented by local families.  Many can be found on Airbnb or if you want my recommendations, you can email me.

Many times, if not all the time, casa owners are a great way to befriend locals. It is custom in Cuba to offer meals and coffee to your guest. They can recommend places and even sometimes offer to join you.  It’s a great way to get introduced to Cuban culture.

  1. Don’t dress like a tourist: Yes, no straw fedora hats.

As I mentioned before, its obvious you aren’t Cuban. I don’t care if you have darker complexion. Everyone knows.

But, if you want to try to blend in a bit more and not get hassled (especially in tourist areas), tone down the tourist look.

Some things that AUTOMATICALLY recognize you as the following

  1. Fedora Hats: No one wears these. No one. And Cuba isn’t the set of the godfather
  2. Off-the-shoulder ruffle dresses: Women in cuba don’t really wear flowy dresses….. at all.
  3. Travel Backpacks: Probably the most recognizable “look at me im a foreinger with lots of money” look. I never understood why travelers lug things around on their back when the invention of the wheel was over 5000 years ago
  1. Bring all your essential beauty/medical items with you

There’s no CVS in Cuba.  There’s no Sephora. There’s no Walmart.

Bring that hairspray. Bring that brush. Bring that makeup.  Bring some backup.

Beauty items, feminine products, and other essential things you can most likely pick up anywhere else in the world is not found here.  Yes, Havana has more items but to make sure you aren’t running around market to market, bring your own things and a backup just in case.

  1. Travel outside Havana

Transportation is an issue for most Cubans. We wait in lines, have to hitch-hike or plan days in ahead to get from one place to another.

Luckily, you wont have that problem.  Companies like Viazul  or Transtur  offer buses in between major tourist cities like Vinales, Varadero, Trinidad or Cienfuegos.

Book a ticket there (or at any major hotel in Havana) and go! Cuba is an entirely different country outside Havana.

I really advise anyone to use tourist transportation, especially if you are a solo female traveler.

Vinales is a beautiful picturesque country town where most of the nation’s tobacco comes from.

Cienfuegos, nicknamed the pearl of the Caribbean, is exactly that. It’s a beautioful town set on the side of a bay.

Trinidad is a UNECO world heritage site. Its combled streets and old-spanish backdrop makes it a beautiful place to visit.

And, of course, tourist favorite…Varadero.  But, there’s better beaches.

  1. Learn a bit of Cubano

You might know Spanish or you might not, but heres a few terms in Cubano (yes, Cuban Spanish) that you should know to stay safe and understand a bit of what people are telling you:

Yuma: a foreigner aka YOU.

Chavito or Fula: CUC – Convertible pesos (not moneda nacional)

Que Bola: Hey, whats up!!

Acere: friend, amigo, pal

Por la izquierda: Under the table.  You might want to indicate money exchange by using this term

Jevita: Female girl or “girlfriend”

Dale: Not only pitbull’s term, but ours too. It means goodbye or “come on, hurry up!”

  1. Knowing the Art of Negotiation

Cubans are infamous for making petty scams like charging more to foreigners. I hate this! But I only justify it for the necessities we have economically.

Given this, you HAVE to negotioate! If you are not in a taxi collective (fixed route shared taxis, these are routes that pick up other passengers on the way to the destination.. it cost 10 CUP per person or  50 cents!), you have to negotiate the rate with the driver!

If they tell you $10 to go from Habana Vieja to Vedado (neighborhoods) they are overcharging you. Always try to negotiate down. Cubans will always try to hustle, but you have to too.  Be safe with your money, many times you can’t get more of it.

  1. Do Not Over Drink

This is by far the most obvious tip for being safe in Cuba. But its also not customary for women to get extremely drunk.  It’s just not something you really see in Cuban culture.

Yes, women drink, but not to the point of no control.

And in Cuba when a drink costs around $2-$3, it can get tempting to have another one.

It’s okay to enjoy yourself, but if traveling alone always be careful of your surroundings.

Want to  see Cuba like a local? Or go on a tour with other solo female travelers? Check my tour schedule! 

Apps For Cuba – The Top 5 You Need to Download Now

5 Essential Apps For Cuba

best apps fo cuba

Millenial Cubans on their phones

In an island nation where dial-up is just starting to be introduced, your 2018 digitally dependent self has to know what essential apps for Cuba.

As you might know, data really doesn’t exist in Cuba yet but WiFi does exist in public parks and hotels. See my guide to learn how to get on the internet in Cuba.

That doesn’t really help when you’re walking around La Habana or going to Trinidad or on the beach in Varadero now does it?

You’ll need to download applications that run while being offline. Luckily for you, there are a few essential apps for Cuba and even some developed in Cuba by Cubans (years! tech start-ups are a thing in Havana!).

Maps.Me

If there is any app you need to download for your trip to Cuba, its this one. Maps.me allows users GPS without being connected to the Internet.

Maps.me isn’t just your normal offline map, its pretty accurate with up-to-date information on where bars, restaurants and attractions are.

To get the map of Cuba, after you download the app you must go in, zoom into Cuba and download the map of Cuba.

You’ll thank me later.

Apple. Android.

apps for cuba - offline map

Maps.me best offline map of cuba

A La Mesa

A La Mesa is yelp a lo Cubano, kind-of. It lists all the restaurants in specific cities, their prices, and their contact information.

Developed in Havana, a La Mesa is one of the first Cuban made apps.

Apple. Android.

app for cuba - food app for cuba

ALaMesa, Cuban made app

IMO

IMO is Cuba’s Skype. Seriously, if you’ve been to Miami or know any Cuban-Americans you probably know its ringtone. I swear, it haunts me.

But IMO is awesome to have to video chat your friends and family back home. Its much more reliable than Facebook Messenger video or WhatsApp.

To use IMO, make sure your loved ones also have it. Once you enter their numbers in your contact list, they should pop up. That easy!

Apple. Android.

best apps for cuba - video chat in cuba

Cubans using IMO to see their loved ones

Google Translate

I think this is a pretty much no-brainer if you don’t speak fluent Spanish just make sure you download the Spanish dictionary before your flight to Cuba.

But don’t rely to heavily on Google Translate for everything. Cubans have our own unique way of speaking eloquently.

Apple. Android.

Zapya

Want to share a photo with your new Cuban friend? Or perhaps get that cool reggaeton song they have? Alas, Zapya. Cuba’s version of hacking the capabilities of sharing the internet without being on it.

Zapya allows you to connect remotely and internet-freely other devices around you using Bluetooth system. Its like Airdrop for Apple but works between any system! It’s a great way to share anything from device to device.

Apple. Android.

My 2 Cents

As the internet is slowly penetrating Cuba, change is happening both socially and politically. More Cubans can see how people live outside. With apps like IMO, we can now connect with your family members everyday if we wanted to.

The emotional farewells at Jose Marti are softened now knowing you can see your loved one in just a few hours.

All this being said, apps bring the once isolated nation a little closer to 2018.

Travel Inside Cuba: The Non-Confusing Guide

How to Travel Inside Cuba: The Non-Confusing Guide to Cuban Transportation

When it comes to travel inside Cuba, the island isn’t your typical get-a-way to the Bahamas.  It isn’t even your typical eco-adventure to Costa Rica. Cuba, is unlike any place in the world in EVERY aspect, including even the most basic: getting around.

One of the biggest questions I get is how to travel while inside Cuba. How can you get from one city to another? Should you rent a car or hire a driver? Or is there public transportation?

With the lack of information out there on transportation, making plans to go around the country can seem really daunting.

Before I get into the different ways, it’s important to know why Cuba doesn’t have an easy transportation system.  Gas is expensive and well, so are cars.  Transportation is a HUGE “lio” (problem) for EVERYONE. Tourists are no exception to that.

There is silver lining, though.  You, unlike the majority of Cubans, have more money to get around. So let’s see what the options are:

how to get to city to city inside cuba

Guide To Travel Inside Cuba

 

Travel Inside Cuba by Renting a car – The most flexible option but can be the most expensive

Renting a car allows flexibility, plain and simple. You can get in your car and drive to the next city, then the next without a schedule or itinerary to follow. With that kind of freedom, you’re now open to see parts of the country the tourist route doesn’t go to.

Be aware that depending on where you’re going, roads can be pretty tough. Some roads, especially in Oriente and far west Pinar del Rio haven’t seen new pavement since Castro came along.  But between Pinar del Rio (city) to Camaguey, its pretty solid and clean.

How to reserve a rental car: There are a few companies (all government owned) where you can get your car from. Here are some

Price: Depends on what you prefer, when and how many days.   Economical cars are the cheapest and renting in low seasons (summer) is cheaper than during high (winter). Also, car companies will charge you less per day if you rent more days.

You have to rent at a minimum 3 days.  

If you rent more than 7, the price per day drops. Same with 10 and so on. Check the websites to see the price

Travel Inside Cuba Rental Car

Rental Car in Cuba

 

Hiring a Driver in Cuba- Ride around without the worry of where you’re going

Hiring a driver is an excellent option for those who really don’t want to drive or figure out the roads of Cuba.  Drivers can either stay with you during your trip (usually if you do a one day trip like to Vinales) or can take you to the next city.

If you want to hire a driver to take you on a round trip (meaning Havana to Vinales back to Havana), you can contact me here.

hire driver in cuba

Hiring a Driver in Cuba

Cuban Collectivo – cheap and fast way but not always the most comfortable

If you are planning on going to the next city and don’t mind sharing the car with other tourists or locals, here’s what you can do:

  1. Go to Omnibus terminal
  2. Outside on a side street are various cars parked outside – ask the drivers how much
  3. Don’t be afraid to barter! Make sure you want a collective car (collectivo) and be prepared to pay a bit more than your Cuban counterpart in the same car. Sorry, that’s just how it goes for tourists in Cuba!
shared taxi in Cuba

collectivo rides in Cuba

Bus in Cuba- for tourists only

Going on a bus like Viazul is your last option you have as a tourist in Cuba to see different sites.  The downfall to this is that many times bus departure times, like everything in Cuba, is not always accurate.

If you want to travel by bus, it is the cheapest option you have as a tourist for city-to-city, especially long distances. You can check out times and fares at Viazul’s website.

Note: Cuban nationals can ride with you on the tourist buses!

public transportation in cuba

Tourist Bus can take you around

Public Transportation in Cuba- inner cities only

Public busses are for everyone in Cuba but only in inner cities.  Riding the “guagua (bus)” with other locals is totally fine and you should definitely do it to get a better experience!

However, if you’re wondering if you can take a bus from city to city with other locals the short answer is “no”.

Cubans ask anyone going on a public bus for their carnet (ID) and because you don’t have one you most likely won’t be able to get on, that is, if you don’t know how to pay the chauffer off.  If you can manage to do that, you can score a bus ticket anywhere from $5 – $10 per person depending on how much you’re willing to give.

 

Just have a good time!

When in Cuba, you have to remember you’re in a totally different society with different cultural norms. It may not be easy to accept that you have to wait a couple hours to get going, but that’s just how it Is in Cuba! If you except to have an amazing time from city to city, just be sure you are flexible and have a “go-woth-the-flow” type of attitude. Anything can happen in Cuba, ANYTHING!

 

If you want to see Cuba like I do and experience it culturally (or however you want) and don’t want to plan all the confusing details, you can book a tour with me here.

Travel Cuba Legally in 2017: Here’s How

Malecon in Habana

View from Hotel Nacional, Tourist Hotel.

Despite Travel Warnings and Trump Reversals, You can Still Travel to Cuba Legally in 2017

Here is How:

After a significant change in US-Cuban relations under President Obama in 2015, Cuba experienced a wave of fresh Americans willing to see their closest Caribbean neighbor.

It was a new era.  People whispered quietly passed the ears of the CDR their hope Cuba’s economy would change for the better with the influx of tourism.  We waited and waited hopeful that Obama would officially end the 60 year (ridiculous) embargo.

We waited. Then waited some more.

Then Obama came. Here is comes!!!!! Finally!

…….Nope.

It’s okay, we thought. People are still coming, one day. One day.

Then November 2016 happened. President Trump months later reversed everything we had hoped for.

As if we clung on to the little hope we could finally see our families without diplomatic problems, send money to them without ridiculous fees, and call them to hear their voices only 90 miles away without being one of the most expensive places to call in the world.

President Trump, with one speech and one signature later, removed the essential visa category that made traveling to the island much easier. The individual “people-to-people” category.   This category was extremely vague in its description and did not require American citizens to officially sign up with a tour group.

Regardless of the removal of this category, going to Cuba is STILL LEGAL using different visa categories.

Legal visa to travel to Cuba

Cuban tourist visa

Let me break it down for you if you plan to come to Cuba from point of entry inside the United States or US territories.

Before we start, it is important to note that Cuba does NOT have an embargo against the United States. Regardless of what passport you carry or what country (if you come from a third country i.e. Cancun to Havana) in from, Cuba will welcome you with open arms, café, and most likely dance lessons.

Under current 31 CFR 515.560 law, Americans can use one of 12 reasons to enter the Cuba.  Here are the three most Americans can apply for:

  1. Support the Cuban-People visa

Provision found in § 515.574 of the CACR, US government.

It defines the visa as activities are recognized human rights organization, independent organizations designed to promote democracy or individual’s organization that promote independent activity intendent to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Provision § 515.574(A) to this means the traveler must have a log of their itinerary for up to 5 years.

In English?

It means this visa has to record that you kept a full schedule seeing individuals or organization that directly help or show Cuban society.

You can’t you use your bank card to it, as that evidence against “supporting the Cuban people”).

But this visa category is extremely vague.  The OFAC does not or will have a list of such organizations or individuals that promote “democracy” or “civil society” in Cuba.  Nor can the OFAC track your cash money on the island.

What you need to do to fall under this category?

Like all categories, you must have a log of your itinerary for up to 5 years (501.601).  It also means that itinerary has to show at least 8 hours of cultural experience.

Itineraries of such activities can include several tourist experiences. Curating a local tour with a local guide can be considered a “support of a Cuban” person.

Going to local paladar (restaurant) can be considered “support of the Cuban people”

Will you get caught?

There is a EXTREMELY rare chance that American customs will care that you went to Cuba. In fact, the last person who got fined was over 10 years ago.

Unless you caused extreme disturbance while on the island, you will be fine.

 

  1. Educational Activities Visa

Provision § 515.565.  This one is a bit trickier since most of you will not be enrolling in a college class in Habana or a university sponsoring a class in Cuba.

But there is a provision to the law under § 515.590( B) that states:

General license for people-to-people travel. The travel-related transactions  not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program are authorized, provided that:

(1) Travel-related transactions pursuant to this authorization must be for the purpose of engaging, while in Cuba, in a full-time schedule of activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities

(2) Each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba;

(3) The predominant portion of the activities engaged in by individual travelers is not with a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba, or a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party,

(4) For travel conducted under the auspices of an organization that is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact, an employee, paid consultant, or agent of the sponsoring organization must accompany each group traveling to Cuba to ensure that each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities;

 

En Ingles?

Visa requirements include, like the Support of the Cuban-People, to obey the record keeping laws and record activities that engage Cuban people and have educational elements to it.

For example, if an individual plans to travel to Cuba to engage with local artists and have extended dialogue with farmers in Cuba and can demonstrate those activities in a log for up to 5 years, you fall under the visa category.

 

  1. Family Visa

This is probably the weirdest way to enter the country, but also the least recordkeeping needed.  Now, I know you’re thinking…wait, I’m not Cuban! I don’t have Cuban family in Cuba.

Well, you don’t. But that’s okay.

Under this general license, §  515.560 the US government states: “Persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and persons traveling with them who share a common dwelling as a family with them are authorized to engage in the travel-related transactions.”

You and those accompanying you can travel to a “close relative located in Cuba”

What’s a close relative?

According to § 515.339 a close relative is defined :

“as any person… who is no more than three generations removed from that person or from a common ancestor with that person”

Yes, you still don’t have anyone in Cuba.

But what is the likihood the US is going to commission a non-american to a DNA test? US has no jurisdiction to Cuban nationals.

This isn’t the “legal” way, but it is a way to get you out of logging things.

Tourists in Cuba

Americans enjoying La Habana!

 

 

Traveling to Cuba can be tricky, but we assure you that its possible and LEGAL. It can be even easier if you book a tour that provides you itineraries. I will be having set tour dates in 2018 that fall under these categories.  If you are interested, please reach out here:

And remember, you will only need the tourist visa to enter Cuba. The affidavit (where you put what category you are traveling on) will be provided to you at the embarkation point in the United States or abroad.  It’s a piece of paper you fill out and check what category. They keep the paper, you get the visa.  That is it.

 

When coming back to the US, customs MIGHT ask you where you came from and you say Cuba. They stamp your passport, and you go on your merry way.

 

For cultural and educational trips that go beyond tourist areas, check out my tours in 2018 here.

 

I can assure you, like yourself, Cubans are desperate to engage with Americans without this political nonsense.  It does nothing for either side when two nations cannot engage diplomatically.

In the end, it hurts relations for everyone.

 

But you don’t need to add to it. Come to Cuba worry free and enjoy your time in the most unique place in the world!

 

Nos vemos.

Mari.

Critical Items to Gift or Donate to Cubans

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!

 

Cuba 101: Intro Guide to Traveling to Cuba

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.

 

The Yuma’s Guide to Getting a Visa To Cuba

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).

Insider Tips to Exchanging Cuban Currency

Insider Tips to Exchanging Cuban Currency

In my Cuba 101 post, I gave a crash course on Cuban currency. We have two. Yes two. Go ahead and take it. It will take you 2 minutes to read.

Currency is a tricky thing in Cuba and as many of your know (or some that don’t), your credit card wont work here. I don’t care if you are Canadian, European or Asian. Credit card machines aren’t very common. Your ATM card will work (not for Americans) but you’ll be standing in line at a cadeca (bank) in Havana forever to get some money.

You need cash… and, lots of it. Most guides will say if you have USD to change to Euros. And then do some sort of mini forex (currency) market exchange all in your head.

You will loose more time and/or money if you do change from USD to EURO to CUC back to EURO to USD.

And its confusing… also, its not common sense.

Here are two ways to exchange currency to maximize your vacation money. Keep in mind, this is mainly for those using USD as any other currency is easily exchangeable (again, if you’re willing to wait in line if outside the airport).

Exchange with fellow foreigners at the airport

This seems the most common- sense to me and a tip I never see from fellow bloggers. It’s the way I always change to CUC and its honestly, pretty easy. Here’s how you do it: When you get to Havana, from arrivals go to departures (upstairs… there is an escalator in the international terminal). You will see your fellow yuma’s (Cuban for foreigners) at the cadeca terminal. Go up to the line and ask, descreetly, how many CUC’s they have left over to exchange with you. Do this until you have enough (or all). Bam, 1:1, no loss, and EASY AF

Change in Havana on the Streets

I guarantee you any owner of a casa particular in Havana knows 1-1000 people who make money from exchanging with tourists. The exchange rate for most tourists I have asked is between 90-95 for every $100. This is MUCH better than the exchange rate at the cadeca that will hit you hard at $87 for every $100.

MARI TIP: Bring your cash is $100 as $100 will exchange easier and for more than $20s or any other denomination.

If you do decide to go through government banks/hotels to exchange your money, the same currency rate is applied everywhere at every cadeca.

 

Cuba- the only place where the CUC is valued considerably lower than the USD (in the free market) and the government will still give you less for it. ☺