For this grand voyage I was lucky to have two friends brave enough to travel with me. They’d both mentioned to me that they wanted to go to Cuba so we figured out a time we could all go (taking into consideration Cuba has a rainy season, a hurricane season, and a tourist season) and we booked our flights accordingly. It worked out that we could go Memorial Day weekend, thereby using one fewer vacation day. Nifty thrifty! I was also able to use miles and points to book the flights so I didn’t spend much at all, but my two travel buddies Daniel and Andrew both did not spend too much (less than $350) coming from Chicago and Newark, respectively. Plenty of airlines have routes into Cuba (Havana and other cities).
Much like my time studying abroad, I was quick to take on the role of planner and dive into the details. I created a map using My Maps on Google, which I’d highly recommend (I’ve made maps for Vienna, Austin, Frankfurt, wherever I go where I need some guidance). Unfortunately, you cannot use My Maps offline, nor does Google Maps allow for saving the Cuba area offline, so I exported the map to MAPS.ME and downloaded their offline Cuba map. This was superbly useful; not only did we have a complete street map, we also had all the spots I found through my research on hand while we were walking around.
My research mostly entailed sifting through Lonely Planet and asking those who had already visited for their recommendations. Even just scrolling around on Google Maps and reading their short blurbs on landmarks was enough to give you a sense of what’s around and what might interest us. I pinned a lot of things on my map and added notes to some (e.g., popular dishes at restaurants, historical significance of landmarks, whatever my friend recommended about the place), and as we strolled around we’d know what we were close to and whatnot. I’ll be mentioning some of the spots we visited in the following blog posts.
Besides actual places to visit, which you’ll gather from the aforementioned following blog posts, here’s my list of know-before-you-go:
- CUC vs CUP
- Cash only. American credit cards apparently don’t work down there, and we didn’t encounter many places that accepted credit cards at all. I brought around $740 worth of Euro, and 23 CUC my friend had left over from his trip (consider one CUC one USD, cocktails were usually 3-4 CUC, dinner entrees were from 5-12 CUC, you can def eat on a budget), and left with nothing except a 10-er I just found in the laundry.
- Reason I brought Euro is there’s a 10% surcharge when converting USD to CUC, and less surcharge from other currencies to CUC. I just withdrew from my checkings at Chase, and although the conversion rate they used was less favorable than spot rate, I seem to have lost less money. Ultimately, you’re gonna lose money upon conversion so you could just call it a wash.
- I only mention how much I bring to be helpful, and a lot of people have been asking, but it somehow feels rude to me anyway. My sincerest apologies.
- Bottled water only. Not all but definitely some Cubans boil their tap water before consumption, so definitely do not drink tap. I think some people travel and avoid even ice in their drinks but I never experienced any discomfort and definitely drank a lot of melted ice water in my drinks (read: it was hot hot hot). I like to think I have a stronger stomach, so I ate things like beef carpaccio and ceviche and was totally fine. You do you though. Una botella de agua was usually 1 CUC.
- 12 Reasons Why – If you’ve noticed your social media feeds being flooded with people going to Cuba, it’s because you no longer need to apply for a visa and only need to fall within one of 12 categories to purchase a simple tourist card/visa. We put people-to-people interaction and I legitimately don’t even remember being asked at the airport, only when booking the flights. (I didn’t as diligently as my buddies but) we all journaled and took notes on the occasions of human interaction so that we could provide documentation if ever asked and say we weren’t just touristing. I thought of this trip as more of a cultural immersion anyway so I think we were true to the spirit of the rule. (Better hop to, though.)
- “Cuba is definitely NOT luxurious” – …was what my friend warned before I left. I would call myself a seasoned traveler but I’m truly, truly not one to rough it. This trip was challenging at times in that respect but it’s not as bad as I’d make it seem. The worst part was that a lot of women’s bathrooms didn’t have toilet seats, but that’s why there’s leg day.
More posts to come on how all the prep and planning unfolded into a phenomenal week.