Cuba was the 29th country I visited.
Prior to visiting, I’d spent months of my life traveling to 11 other Latin American nations, and living in two (Brazil and then Mexico) for over nearly 4 years. I speak passable Spanish. I’m a pretty savvy traveler, if I do say so myself.
And yet, none of my prior travel experiences really prepared me for visiting Cuba. Landing in Cuba was like stepping into an entirely different world. It was the most difficult and mind-blowing travel experience of my life.
I made a LOT of mistakes (which I’ll be sharing next week) and had a lot of uncomfortable moments, but today, I’ll be talking about the (few) things I actually did right in Cuba, and would recommend to future Cuba-bound travelers.
What I Did Right in Cuba:
Suggestions for Preparing for a Trip to Cuba
1. I talked to Cubans and educated myself before arriving.
Before traveling to Cuba, I read up on the country’s history (even if you hate reading, this book is super short).
I read opinions and pieces from Cuban bloggers (if you can’t read Spanish, Google Chrome has a handy Translate option that will at least help you get the idea).
I had conversations (in person when possible but also via messages) with immigrants from Cuba to the US, mainly with people in my own age demographic. I wanted to know, what did they know or had they heard about the homeland? Where would they want to go and what would they want to do?
2. I could communicate in Spanish before going to Cuba.
Knowing Spanish was beyond essential for my time in Cuba. I met five Cuban people in Cuba that spoke English: the receptionist at the hotel we stayed at for two nights, the guy who scammed us into buying souvenirs (after telling us it was a gift to us for visiting… and then writing our names on it and telling us we had to pay), the guy who sold me our day trip to Vinales, the guide on our day trip to Vinales, and the attendant at the Interjet flight counter upon our departure.
In talking to one Cuban around my age, he explained that English wasn’t offered in schools and was pretty frowned upon. He taught himself his nearly-perfect English by watching American TV shows (which were not allowed)… how? Some enterprising dude set up a shop where anyone paying a few bucks could bring a hard drive and download all the latest American TV. He offered new episodes on a weekly basis.
This is a respect thing. You’re in Cuba. Do. Not. Expect. People. To. Speak. English. To. You.
Speaking Spanish allowed me to chat with my taxi driver (I feel blasphemous saying the car pictured above is a TAXI! The thing is a beaut), my Airbnb host, and random people we came across. It deepened my experience so much.
Beyond that, Spanish helps you just get around in Cuba. I absolutely cannot imagine how we would have navigated the city not knowing Spanish. Learn Spanish before you go, or bring a Spanish phrasebook with you (this one is Cuba-specific, which would be perfect because there are a lot of slang and colloquial pronunciation differences), or preferably: DO BOTH.
3. I stayed in an Airbnb versus a hotel in Havana.
Our Havana Airbnb was simple, a small two-story, two bed (one upstairs, one in the living room downstairs) dwelling with no windows but with a kicking AC in the upstairs room. We paid just over $30 a night, total (around $11 per person per night).
Airbnb has two benefits in Havana. One, you get SO much more for your money. From what we saw (and were told by other tourists), aside from the very top 5 star international hotels, even the “nice” hotels have a lot of mold, are unclean, and have bug problems (flies, mosquitos, cockroaches).
The second reason, and the MOST important reason, is that with Airbnb you are supporting locals. Money goes directly to the people who need and deserve it, instead of to the government or large corporations.
Haven’t used Airbnb before? Use this link to get $37 in travel credit for your first stay!
4. I stayed in the neighborhood of Havana I planned on spending the most time in.
We planned on walking a lot (as I like to do anywhere I travel), so we booked an Airbnb in Old Havana, a ten-minute walk to pretty much all the sights we were interested in.
This ended up being the perfect choice. Taxis are relatively expensive in Havana, and tend to charge extra to tourists. Relying on your own two feet to get around will save you money and hassle.
5. I planned time outside of Havana – to Vinales and Varadero.
I could EASILY spend a week in any of my favorite Latin American capitals: Mexico City, Quito, Lima, San Juan (Puerto Rico), or Panama City. I read online that many bloggers and posters were suggesting the same about Havana.
After experiencing Havana, I am SO glad I planned side excursions to Vinales and Varadero (where we spent a few nights). Havana is incredible, beautiful, and complex. But for me, 5 nights was even too much, as it felt pretty intense, partly due to the pressure of everyone asking for tips and unabating apprehension about being scammed/robbed.
‘. I bought cigars direct from farmers in Vinales.
From what I learned, most farmers in Cuba operate under a sort of partnership with the government, even after complete communism has been lifted. This arrangement means that the government can purchase 90% (or more) of the farmer’s crops at a price the government chooses, in exchange for providing the farmer with land, or equipment, or a loan.
The cigars you buy in shops and abroad are sold by the government or related/in-pocket companies.
Instead, if you visit Vinales, you can buy cigars direct from the farmer, who will produce these cigars in the same way his family has done for decades. They are cheap (I bought mine in a roll 10 for $20), and the money goes directly to the guy who has raised, dried, and rolled the cigars.
As stated by the two cigar aficionados I gifted them to, they were the best cigars they ever had.
*Make sure you know the restrictions of the country you’re bringing the cigars into. I had no trouble bringing 10 cigars into Mexico, or into the United States.
7. I booked our Varadero hotel through a travel agent.
I almost always try to book my hotels directly through the property, or through Agoda (my favorite – you earn points that give you free hotel stays) or Booking, as I find this provides the best price BY FAR and more direct customer service.
But Cuban hotels are not currently available on Agoda or Booking, and I was warned off booking directly through the hotel (frequently lost reservations, problems with customer service, etc), so I went through Umbrella.
This ended up being a great bet, as I was given a full refund after a nightmare stay at “Hotel Sunbeach” in Varadero (our 3 beds included one each of dirt-encrusted, blood-spattered, and fresh pen-doodled sheets, a broken AC, no plates or silverware – eat with your hands, off of your hands – for meals, and no towels for showering).
8. I booked bus tickets in advance.
Apparently, Via Azul buses fill up fast. While most of the blogs I read recommended buying bus tickets in person, I’m an overplanner (especially when traveling with others), and bought our tickets months in advance.
This turned out to be 100% the best choice EVER, as even when I was buying our tickets months in advance, certain times were already sold out.
On the day of our bus from Varadero to Havana, we arrived a few hours early (we needed to check out of the hotel and were a bit anxious about the bus going smoothly), and I watched 6 different people get turned away from not only traveling that day, but for the next 3 days. If we had waited to buy our tickets, we would have been stranded in Varadero for 3 extra days, at least.
9. I went carry-on only.
I cannot remember the last time I checked a bag, and in Cuba, it was such a good call. There was a lot of walking with luggage involved (to the bus station, from the bus drop-off, to the restaurant after check-out, etc), and trying to haul a big checked, wheeled bag across the rocky mostly-dirt or crumbling roads would have been a nightmare.
I’d definitely recommend bringing a backpack or even a duffel (with wheels, if you must). Carrying a few combo locks to keep everything secure – lock your zippers together to deter opportunistic theft – is always a good choice, no matter where you are.
10. I planned on walking as much as possible.
We walked SO much. We walked for hours trying to find a grocery store with something more than pre-cooked pasta or super expensive canned sauces (no luck), we walked for hours admiring the sights, we walked for hours trying to find a restaurant willing to work with me and serve something sans-meat.
I’d recommend something close-toed yet light and comfy, like Toms.
11. I brought ALL my toiletries to Cuba.
In most places I visit, I can plan to buy anything at the local supermarket or convenience store that I might have forgot.
Not so in Cuba. It’s hard to find almost anything on a consistent basis. While whatever you’re looking for probably exists, somewhere, in the city, why waste hours of time (and money in taxis) trying to find it, searching multiple different stores?
We brought surplus amounts of every single toiletry, including TONS of eco-friendly sunscreen (very needed – these ones are carry-on, travel-size), solid shampoo and solid conditioner, and lotion. Soap is easier to find.
Also bring extra toilet paper and always have it on hand.
12. I used a water purifier.
As you can see from my sweaty sweaty selfie, it is hot AF in Havana. You’re going to be drinking a LOT of water… which used to mean a lot of money spent and plastic wasted on single-serve water bottles (or those big jugs if you want to save some cash and have somebody strong enough to tote them around).
I’m getting more and more into sustainability, and nothing is easier to avoid – while also being terrible for the environment – like plastic water bottles. My handheld, USB-charged SteriPen was the #1 undisputed VIP of the Cuba trip, as we saved SO much money by not needing bottled water and so much plastic from going into the landfill (and so much time not needing to find it as it seemed to run out in the stores we checked).
13. I brought hot sauce.
While Sarah and Austin laughed at me, I brought 15 or so little packets of hot sauce from Mexico to Cuba. For me, this was the best travel hack of the trip (aside from the water purifier).
The rumors are true: if you’re not eating seafood or spending the big bucks, it is HARD to find tasty food in Havana. I don’t eat meat, or fish, or even a little bit of chicken (I’ve been asked, still no). This meant I was eating mostly plain rice or plain potatoes with plain boiled vegetables. As someone who likes tasty, flavorful food, this wilted my soul. I nearly ran out of hot sauce and had to begin rationing myself near the end of the trip, as I was using one or two packets per each meal.
Food in Havana is not seasoned, in general. After seeing the bare shelves of the supermarket, I totally get this. Seasoning can be HARD to find and sometimes just isn’t available – and when it is, it can be expensive – even salt and pepper.
14. I erred on the side of modesty.
I heard Cuba was bad for street harassment, which worried me. I don’t think anybody really likes catcalling, but I get anxiety about it after living in Rio de Janeiro and experiencing intense harassment – that sometimes crossed the line from verbal to physical – every time I ventured into public alone. I get sweaty and panicky just thinking about it. Trust me, I know it’s not the victim’s fault, but I feel better when I know I’ve done everything in my power to possibly prevent it (from not wearing makeup to keeping my hair tied up).
Because of this, I planned my outfits to mostly involve long, modest skirts (I bought them all sustainably secondhand from ThredUp for ridiculous cheap).
It was a total win. If I can be super basic here for a minute, the skirts looked good in photos, and also kept me surprisingly cool (I guess that light, loose fabric swishing around is kinda like a leg fan). I didn’t experience any of the harassment that girlfriends had reported (probably helped that I had my 6’3″ brother with me, but whatevs).
15. I planned for NO internet.
I told all my friends and fam that we’d be offline for a week.
While this wasn’t the case (I could get internet here and there at government hotspots), it was actually nice to have a digital detox. That was, by far, my favorite part of Cuba: the forced situation of disconnect from the internet. My travel companions and I had to spend actual meals laughing and discussing, no one wasted time posting photos on social media, we couldn’t spend evenings watching Netflix and instead just had to straight CHILL and talk, and we had to fly by the seat of our pants sans-Google a bit more.
16. I went with the right travel companions.
There were so many majorly bummer situations (I spent a good half hour ugly-crying after being robbed in Havana), but I totally went with the right group, where we could [eventually] find humor and fun in any situation.
We paid up the nose for this hotel “all-inclusive” and there aren’t plates, silverware, even spoons? That’s cool, we’ll do as the Romans do, and serve ourselves butter with our hands.
17. I took the bus to the beach from Havana.
One of the best random happenings while in Havana was learning about the bus from Parque Central to the local beaches for 5 CUC roundtrip, which we definitely took advantage of. The bus leaves and comes back regularly, and it took less than an hour to get from old town Havana to white sand and turquoise waters. More info here
18. I took the Hop-on Hop-off Bus in Havana.
Taking this bus was SUCH a great idea for only 10CUC! Yes, it is super touristy and not adventurous, I guess. But you can see some much from the top of a bus! Prime people watching and you get so many great ideas for things you’d want to see later (and how to get to them).
If you decide to hop off and then hop back on at an attraction, it also saves you a ton of money by not needing to take a cab there/back.
19. I took the classic car tour on the last day, to the airport.
You have to get to the airport anyway, why not go in style (and save some money by combining the tour+transportation)?
We negotiated with a classic car owner to take us on a one-hour tour of the city, ending at the airport. It was the perfect, relaxing, low-key way to end our time in Havana.
I’d definitely recommend NOT booking a tour online and walking around Parque Central, talking to drivers and negotiating prices. That way, you can choose a car you like and discuss exactly what you want (and the cost is significantly less).
20. I planned a comfortable return.
Cuba was a tough trip for all 3 of us. Actually, after Cuba, my brother even wanted to cancel the rest of his trip to Mexico and fly straight home.
Upon landing at the Mexico City airport, we had planned for my husband to pick us up and take us straight home to Puebla.
Now, I have to admit that this bit going beyond right was 100% my husband. He picked us up at the airport with a cooler full of drinks (wine, beer, and water), and bags of burgers (for the guys) and Subway (for me)… which we devoured, after a week of boiled, unseasoned veggies. The car was stocked with pillows and blankets for us to pass out. So. Very. Appreciated.
I appreciated home so much more, especially our grocery stores with stocked shelves and a variety of fruits and veggies, but I struggled with (and continue to struggle with) how to accurately express the truth of my experience and my emotions about our trip, while still being respectful of Cuba and the Cuban people, and the difficult realities that they face every day… that I can escape with a simple plane ride back to overplentiful choices and conveniences.
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