9 Thoughts On Visiting Cuba As An American

On Saturday I returned from a two day trip to Cuba, and boy was it interesting. I apologize for the lack of posts on Friday and Saturday, as I’ve never been in a place where internet was so non-existent (and I’ve been to a lot of places).

I figured I’d share my initial thoughts about visiting Havana. Let me start by saying that I planned this very last minute and was only in Cuba for two days, so I largely went into this trip blind. That was by design, as I wanted to see what it was like to come in without expectations and without many plans.

So I’m not claiming to be an expert on Cuba based on my two days there, and also admit that I could have done a much better job planning this trip. But that won’t stop me from sharing my opinions, since I know a lot of people are considering travel to Cuba.

Here are my initial thoughts, in no particular order:

The people were incredibly friendly

The aspect of traveling to Havana that impressed me most were the people. I expected that people would be friendly, but they were friendlier than I ever imagined. People would come up to us on the street and ask where we were from. When we told them from the US, their faces lit up and they said “welcome, my country is your country.” They provided free advice on things to do, wanted to talk about Trump, etc.

In most countries you should be cautious when strangers come up to you on the street and start a conversation, while in Havana it seems that most people were just genuinely excited to meet Americans to a degree I’ve never seen before.

Furthermore, the general atmosphere on the streets of Havana was so fun. Just about every major restaurant had a five person band, and you’d see people randomly dancing in the streets to the music. For example, at one of the restaurants we had lunch, there was a guy dancing alone in the streets to the music the entire time. Amazing!

Prices are higher than you’d expect, and negotiating is necessary

Before traveling to Cuba, a lot of people told me that everyone in Havana is trying to rip you off. I don’t think that’s true or fair. Yes, prices for tourists are in most cases very high. You can negotiate prices down, but ultimately they can get away with these prices, since there’s a limited supply of taxis, etc.

So I don’t really think they were ripping us off, as much as just maximizing their profits, which I think is different.

To give some examples, a taxi from the airport to the city cost $25, and we had to split the taxi with someone else (and they paid the same), since there’s a shortage of taxis. On the return flight we got dropped off at the wrong terminal, and it’s a three minute taxi drive between terminals. The taxi driver tried to charge us $10 (which is ridiculous), and we negotiated it down to $5 (which is still ridiculous, but…)

Even with negotiating, tourist-oriented businesses are charging high prices.

My experience with the food wasn’t great

I’ve heard mixed reports of food in Cuba. Most said food wasn’t good, except at some top places, where a nice food scene is emerging. We planned last minute so couldn’t secure a reservation at one of the top restaurants. Ultimately the food was perfectly edible, though we didn’t have a single meal that I’d objectively call good (and that was based on eating places that locals recommended).

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The pollution in Havana is horrible

I’m not someone who is especially sensitive to pollution. I’ve been to Beijing many times, and have never had an issue. However, the pollution in Havana was horrible. Horrible, like, the worst I’ve ever experienced, to the point that it made me feel unwell. Be prepared.

Those old-timer cars are charming, but the amount of pollution they emit is insane.

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Havana reminded me of…

I was trying to think of what city Havana reminded me of most. It’s a unique city, though I think the closest parallel I can come up with is Cartagena, Colombia. Old Havana reminded me a lot of the walled area of Cartagena, except Havana felt much more stuck in the past.

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Of course there’s charm to all the old-timer cars, etc., but the crumbling buildings, trash and animal feces all over the streets, pollution, etc., was less charming to me.

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Expect to be disconnected in Cuba

We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton (more on that later — I wouldn’t recommend it, but as a points-focused blog, I felt like it was only reasonable for me to stay at the only and first US-points property in Cuba).

Wifi at the hotel cost $110 per 24 hours (you read that right), and even so, was completely unusable. Like, loading a webpage took 10 minutes.

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In theory we should have probably gotten a SIM card, but we were only there for a short period, and usually you can still find a wifi network somewhere. Havana is different. I’ve never been anywhere that had wifi networks as slow or non-existent as in Cuba. So be prepared.

Havana Airport is a mess

This airport is the most dysfunctional I’ve ever been to. Our arrival experience was actually super-smooth, as we were through immigration in just a few minutes and didn’t have checked bags.

However, on our flight out we had to wait at the check-in counter for 90 minutes, and then had to wait another 60 minutes for immigration. Then our flight was delayed several hours. In the end, we spent well over six hours at Havana Airport.

Apparently delays are also common due to ATC and general incompetence, so be prepared for the airport experience to be the worst of your life.

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Traveling to Cuba requires more planning than just about anywhere else

If you’re like me and are someone who casually plans travel, Cuba isn’t for you. Or at least you need to approach a trip to Cuba differently. If you’re going to Havana, you need to do research in advance, get a SIM card, have plans, etc. I’ve shown up in some remote places and had an amazing time and managed to get everything together, but Havana isn’t as easy.

Because I didn’t have a local SIM card, we couldn’t Google anything, weren’t able to map things out on our phones, etc.

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I’m happy to have seen Havana, but wouldn’t return soon

I’m really happy to have had the opportunity to visit Havana. I only went briefly, and didn’t plan well, given that my trip was last minute and around New Years. The people were incredibly friendly, and I have so many fond memories of my interactions with them (which I’ll talk more about in future posts).

However, I think it’s going to be a while before I return. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are incredible experiences to be had in Cuba, though I’m happy waiting until some modernizing is done before returning. I’m fortunate to be able to travel constantly, though also need to be connected everyday.

Between the lack of decent hotels, the high prices for hotels, taxis, etc., the largely not-great food, the pollution, the lack of wifi, and how overcrowded it was, I think I’m good for now.

However, if you’ve always been interested in visiting Cuba I’d encourage you to go.

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Based on talking to people on my flight out of Havana, it seemed most others had a similar impression of Havana. Almost everyone said it was “interesting,” and the guy behind me said “I’m leaving with more questions than I had before I arrived.”

I’m not meaning to be negative at all, but rather just feel like some balance is useful rather than just saying “you have to drop everything and visit Cuba right away.”

If you’ve visited Cuba, what did you think? If you haven’t been, are you thinking of going?

Comments

  1. The hotel wifi is really expensive! The best and fastest connection is on the street, though prepaid hourly cards that cost 2 Cuc per hour. You can buy the cards from government booths/shops that sell them. I think they only sell these cards. Kind of like an internet shop.

  2. Wait, this hotel doesn’t provide internet for Starwood-booked reservations, or even Platinum members, despite the hotel’s website saying otherwise??

  3. Getting a SIM card is next to impossible and even if you manage to get a local phone, there is no data network in Cuba so even with a local SIM and phone, you wouldn’t be able to Google anything. You definitely need to do your homework before leaving for Cuba since organizing things in Cuba itself is very difficult as you experienced!

  4. Also, the WiFi packages offered at the hotel are most likely the government-issued WiFi cards, which means that you can log-out when you are done browsing and log-in again at a later time, so a 5 hour card for 23 CUC should be more than enough for most people

  5. I have said that I wasn’t interested in visiting for about 5 years from now, this sounds about right to me unless I can go there on a cruise ship before then and have the accommodations, etc. and just spend the days walking in Havana. Thanks for the review.

  6. Other than the lack of internet, our stay in Cuba several years ago was fantastic. We stayed at beautiful hotels and had great food in many restaurants and lover the show at the Tropicana. We booked everything through a Canadian tour operator as US laws were different then, and had to enter through Mexico. We had no problems at the airport and everything we did went without a hitch while we were there. My daughter and her husband returned there around two years ago and also had absolutely no problems and had a lovely time there. I would highly recommend booking through a tour operator in Canada that has been doing this for years as they seem to have everything under control. Our hotel in Havana was the Parque Central and at the time was voted the best hotel in Cuba.

  7. How did your arrival into Havana go? Where did you come from? If it was a US airport, where there any issues?

  8. I loved Havana. I stayed at hotel nacionale and hotel plaza over Christmas, both of which were very $$ but the holidays are the high season in Cuba. I planned my trip a week before I went; spending about 3 hours googling and reading forums on Trip advisor was very helpful in setting expectations. I downloaded a rough guide to cuba my Kindle and took a hard copy of the rough guide to Havana as well (both are great, highly recommend). You can’t download offline Google maps prior to travel so print a map. Havana is on a grid so it’s very easy to navigate. There are a TON of very inexpensive museums and churches and monuments in old Havana and you will not be bored. Both my hotels had internet for purchase and I’d thought it would be spotty but it was no problem at all. (As it was vacation getting online was not a priority for me anyway). Euros have been vacationing in Cuba for decades so talk to them!, Before you go and while there, they have great tips and their how-to-travel philosophy is enviable. (Also this airport was no less crazy than other developing countries, or even other carribean airports.) The Cartagena comp is good here — but far more Cubans speak English so it’s even easier to communicate there. Plus, the rum in Cuba gives it an edge (& I didn’t even think I liked rum!). This country is certainly for the slightly more adventurous but with LITERALLY 3 hours of research you’ll know if it’s for you or not.

  9. I went to Cuba years ago (Canadian) and loved every second. I found the hotel absolutely fine (can’t remember which one it was as it was booked for us) and thought Havana was great. It’s true the food isn’t great, but it’s a communist country, what do you expect? People are not very well off, but happy, and no one starves. Maybe Lucky hasn’t been to many poor countries (e.g. Africa) if he thinks that garbage on the streets is bad…What’s the point travelling to a country just to stay in luxury hotels and pristine areas? You don’t get a real feel for the place.

  10. The way to go with Cuba is with a local tour guide. Going there and expecting it to be just another Latin American country where you just go with the flow and figure out what to do is an incredible waste, since Cuba is none of that.

    When my gf and I went in May we had a private tour guide that was able to take us to places and also help plan the time where we had for ourselves, so we were able to go to local restaurants (some are on rooftops in new Havana, phenomenal food), an oil factory converted into a bar/art space, and for me the most important, skip the hotels all together and stay at a casa particular: hotel run by a local family. I am really not a tour person, I like to have the liberty of planning what I’d like to see, but Cuba is just different like that, you need to do it right by accepting that it’s really unlike any other place you have ever visited. Can’t wait to go back!

  11. I did Cuba during low season a few years ago and had a wonderful experience except for the food but I was prepared for that. I knew there wasn´t any internet and had planed most of the trip in advance. We did not experience the polution you are talking about.

  12. RE: Beijing – You must not have gone on a bad day. I went at the end of November 2016, and I will tell you, it was horrible some days. Like, my throat hurt for a day after 20 mins exposure. In fact, the BBC recently reported on how record breakingly bad it was. I seriously doubt you could realistically compare the two given how underdeveloped Cuba is.

  13. @Lucky: As far as not being able “to map things out on our phones”, there are plenty of solutions available that don’t require constant internet access, but of course you have to download the maps for the respective state/country in advance (while probably far from the best App, I’m using “here Maps” out of habit)

  14. Agree with the author. I went on a motorcycle tour lead by a local in February 2016. Cuba is not ready for an influx of American tourists. If you have even modest requirements wait until the initial rush is over..3-5 years. I stayed in one lousy hotel..a government park cabin and the Sheraton..I can rough it so no problems. Count your change. The lousy hotel tried to short change me. It was exactly what I expected. The trip was well worthwhile but….

  15. @ Uri

    How did you find and choose your guide? Anyone in particular you would recommend? Do you recall what you were charged for his/her services? Thanks

  16. The food is probably bad because Cubans don’t have access to decent food themselves. Those old cars are beautiful to look at but the only reason they exist is because there are no other options, and Cubans have had to do anything possible to keep them running. Taxis are expensive because having dollars equals survival in Cuba. A taxi driver in Havana maks way more than a professionally trained doctor. This is why for decades Cubans have risked their lives at sea in homemade rafts instead of living in that hell hole.

  17. @Ron

    Did some research and came across a small company that custom fits tours, not sure what the policy here about advertising them but if it’s ok I’ll gladly share.
    We paid about $2k/person but it included flights from NYC, 4 nights of b&b, and 3 full day private tours including lunch and traveling to the country side. It also included educational content as this is what the Cuban govt requires in order to obtain a visa.
    Though I’m sure the price would be different now as flights are no longer chartered so it’s waster and cheaper to book and I assume lodging is more expansive.

  18. Having just been there a few weeks ago, I’d advise other Americans not to plan to go in the coking months until we find out how the new administration will react to Cuba travel. The Bush Administration was fining ordinary people for going so it’s possible we may see a return to that.

    In any event, I hope you didn’t really pay $110 for 24 hours. You can buy a 3 or 5 hour card and then login and out as needed.

    There is no reason to stay in a pricey hotel. You can get a good casa particular for $30-$40 or even less so your money will be going directly to the people and you’ll get far better service and food than at a hotel.

  19. Did you go under the ’12’ official legal routes or did you just get a ticket and go? What was your return experience like thru US immigration?

  20. I just went to Havana for a three-day trip during Labor Day, thanks to Air China’s cheap ticket from Montreal. I didn’t have any problem entering and coming back to the US, probably because I was traveling with my Chinese passport. The experience in Havana was fun and interesting. The locals were friendly but sometimes they will try to take advantage of u like asking “u want cigars” or something else, and get u something that’s not worth it. The option for foods and drinks other than a restaurant is limited as I found that there was a lot of empty shelfs in a lot of grocery stores, and the soft drinks sell out easily. The food wasn’t great but it was edible and fine in my opinion. Transportation was limited in the sense that u cannot easily access anywhere without speaking Spanish, which I barely could. Trash on the street and those unpleasant smell would definitely be a problem except around the main touristy places. Internet was something that definitely bothers me, but I found out it was perfectly usable in Hotel Parque Center and around the university of Havana. I’ll say I would like to visit somewhere else in Cuba in the near future with a better Spanish skill but will probably not spend too much time in Havana.

  21. We flew on Air China’s inaugural to Cuba out of Montreal at the end of 2015. We loved Cuba but Havana definitely wasn’t the highlight (we still did like it). We loved Trinidad and Cienfuegos was nice too. Getting from city to city (town) was slow but the scenery could be interesting etc. You definitely need to go back, see other areas and stay in Casa Particulars.

    As for the internet, you need to use it outdoors. If you see crowds on computers and phones, they’re online. Unless things have changed, you’ll need to buy the hourly cards from one of the resellers (scalpers lol). Here is my post about using wifi in Cuba: http://michaelwtravels.boardingarea.com/2016/02/wifi-in-cuba/#sthash.i1Tro3RF.dpbs

    Here is a link to my post 14 Things We Learned From Visiting Cuba: http://michaelwtravels.boardingarea.com/2016/01/things-we-learned-from-visiting-cuba/#sthash.oZhYXaNk.dpbs

  22. With all due respect Lucky, you don’t go to Cuba and stay in the Four Seasons! I mean, why go to Cuba if you are going to put yourself away from the people??? After all, you said the best part of Cuba was the people and I totally agree with that premise. The Casa Particulares were the most financially reasonable item in a very expensive Cuba. And, they are run by local Cubans who depend on them for financial survival. We drove over 2000 km from Havana to Santiago, and back. The Casa Particulares were almost all universally priced at $30 for two beds, or a queen. Plus for $5 each, you get a respectable breakfast. The Casa Particulares all have AC which I found to be the most important thing for me. And I had many a wonderful conversation with the proprietors!

  23. We spent a week in Cuba last July and had a great time. It was more hassle planning as US-bank credit cards weren’t accepted, so it’s the first place I’ve gone where I had to carry all the cash I’d need. We were on a nonstop LAX-Havana American charter, which worked out great. Stayed at the Hotel Saratoga where wifi was really good (a big surprise to us – almost disappointing as I’d hoped to disconnect for a week!). Went to the Viñales region for a few days, then down to Trinidad (fantastic- must see!). Used Taxi Viñales for all transfers around the country and they were fantastic. The story on food/restaurants: up until a few years ago all restaurants were state owned, so you can imagine the quality of food. This also prevented a bench of top flight chefs from developing, so today there are only a handful of great restaurants. The Mediterranean in Havana is one of them. We self-certified as business research and had no problems arriving back in the US. The Global Entry desk didn’t look twice. Again, disappointing, as I had written up several pages of business research notes while on the plane home in anticipation of having to defend the trip!

    Overall we loved it – probably in the top 15 of the 65 countries we’ve visited.

  24. Your right @GaryLeff! Starwood really needs to update their website regarding the free wifi for direct bookings!

  25. We went to cuba for a week in november. Yes, the prices are high. The food is horrible. All the old cars have diesel engines and the pollution on the streets of havana is bad but nothing compared to Beijing. The people are great in spite of the poverty imposed by the government. I wouldn’t go back to havana but cienfuegos is nice. The old city of trinidad is fun. The only good food we had was at a Roadside shack. They actually had pulled pork and MOJO which has didn’t exist at ant restaurants. All pork and beef is cooked to death and tough as leather. The so called swordfish was the worst. It didn’t look like, taste like, or cut like fish. A rental car is $400 per week. The only nice hotel was a resort on Veradero. I won’t go back. Been there, done that. The week cost us $3000 each. He’ll, you can get a 10 day tour to China including air for far less than that. Tours to Europe are even less. We were not on an organized tour in cuba, which probably have cost even more! Cuba is not ready to be a great destination yet. Save your money and go somewhere worth the visit.

  26. “So I don’t really think they were ripping us off, as much as just maximizing their profits, which I think is different….To give some examples, a taxi from the airport to the city cost $25, and we had to split the taxi with someone else (and they paid the same), since there’s a shortage of taxis.”

    Oh come on, the government mandated wage in Cuba is @ $20 a month. So the $50 US that taxi driver was charging is what an average person earns in 10 weeks. To apply totally unregulated “free market” reasoning to a taxi in an impoverished Communist nation is absurd.

    Yes, they are ripping tourists off, just because they can. If a taxi driver at JFK told you it would cost $1,000 for a ride to Manhattan because it was New Years Eve, and there was a major lack of taxis available at the moment compared to the demand, you would absolutely know you were being ripped off. And the same thing applies here.

    The government is happy for helpless tourists to be ripped off, as the country basically produces nothing of value other than Havana Club Rum (very good, I must say, based on what I’ve purchased in Mexico) and cigars. So you are basically spending a relative fortune in tourist rip off prices for cabs, wifi, and hotels, which gives the country much needed hard currency to prop up a horrible dictatorship.

    As with most places, if you want to go, that is just how things are there, which many affluent Americans will be willing to put up with to have the experience of being there. Just don’t say you “aren’t being ripped off”, because you are absolutely being ripped off.

  27. The wifi was really poor but you still decided to buy a 24h pass for 110 bucks? Can you really not spend any time without internet?!?! You were there for only 2 days

  28. @Ben, Same question as the seemingly unanswered question as GLeff. How can Starwood get away with charging Platinums (and I assume you are) anything for internet. I appreciate the review as I’m going next month.

    Only nine thoughts though?

  29. Appreciate the frankness! I will wait a bit, although certainly understandable people can find it very interesting.

  30. I’m so sorry you didn’t have a great experience. I went about 15 years ago and it was one of my most memorable (in a good way) travel experiences (although Wi-Fi was obviously not an issue). The people, the music, the food (yes – I ate at some fantastic paladars) and the friendships I made that continue to this day all convince me that I must go back. Besides Havana, I also traveled to Varadero, which was, even at that time, a very popular beach resort town for Europeans.

    I realize that things have changed since my visit, but Cuba has always been a tourist destination for non-Americans, primarily Europeans. If traveling now, I think it’s important to be prepared for the realities, do some research in advance and possibly get in touch with a local if you know someone so you can avoid getting ripped off/paying American prices. (When I was there, the currency was in USD but paying in Cuban pesos in certain areas was unbelievably cheaper if you knew where to go and how to do it. Hotels were still expensive than private homes – like $300 USD v $10/night. I also figured out how to ask around and get a driver for the day, which was incredibly cheap- and safe).

    I really don’t understand the need to stay in a US hotel chain in Cuba? There are local hotels if you don’t want to rent a private home/apt; some are good and some aren’t, and yes even local hotels are expensive. But obviously US hotels in Cuba will be nothing comparable to a US hotel experience and overpriced.

    Cuba is not for everyone but it’s a different kind of travel and one that can and should be a tremendous and beautiful journey, unlike your typical trip. I have German-American friends who just took their kids there for spring break in 2015 and LOVED it. If you’d like to see the real Cuba before it is ruined by American tourism there is still a way…

    XX

  31. A big inconvenience I noticed was in handling money in general. My US credit cards were worthless (I think they still are), and I was not staying at an expensive hotel that might do currency exchange for you. To get cash meant standing in a long, slow moving line. Indeed after I was standing in line for 30 minutes and had barely moved forward at all, a taxi driver came up to me and told me he could get me to a place in a part of the city where there weren’t tourists and I’d move right in and out. We negotiated a fare and that’s what I did. I agree with the author that a more tourist-friendly infrastructure will be necessary in order to accommodate future larger numbers of visiting Americans. Today (among Americans) I think it’s mostly the adventurers and curiosity seekers that are willing to put up with hassle for an unusual experience. To appeal to the general traveling public, they’ll need to make changes. Beautiful people, beautiful things to see, awful government.

    I visited with another taxi driver / guide who explained to me that he used to be a university professor, but switched to taxi driving. He is now paying seven times in taxes what he earned as salary as a professor.

    Leave yourself plenty of time to leave the Havana airport. My experience wasn’t nearly as bad as Lucky’s, but it was by far the slowest process I’ve had in a while.

  32. We as Americans need to know we are monitored at all time by immigration and the State Security. I just came back yesterday for a trip to Santiago de Cuba. I stayed at Hostal Parque Cespedes and while I was having breakfast December 30th around 9.30 am somebody called from immigration and asked for guests names and passports numbers. The very next day the same thing happened but this time was a Captain from State Security asking more questions specifically for Americans citizens and asking the owner of the Hostal about our behavior and visitors if any. It was a concerning experience for me. The owner of the place apologized to me and told me they have to provide the Cuban State with any information asked about the guests. Would I ever come back to Cuba?…I do not think so.

  33. @Michael W Travels, Thank You for the two links you provided. They were very informative and will help me with my trip in March. I also signed up for your Blog. 😉

    Also, if any of you have applied for the Avianca Lifemiles Credit Card, I have read that the card can be used in Cuba, since it is from a Latin American bank. It is the only card I plan to take with me.

  34. I literally returned yesterday from a five-day visit to Havana. I only spent $150 there, including accommodation. I stayed at a charming B&B for $20/night and everything (except the airport) was walkable. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of B&Bs in Havana. Don’t stay in a hotel!

    Your experience will be best if you speak Spanish since interacting with Cubans is what makes the experience so enriching (plus they give the insider tips). Cubans are incredibly friendly.

    I lived abroad for six years and have been to about 30 countries, and this was one of my best experiences abroad. I found Havana to actually be a lot nicer than many developing countries – the author’s complaints didn’t make much sense to me. Also, the author could have solved a lot of problems with a basic travel guide for Havana.

    Finally, the Havana airport was actually pretty nice and was SOOOO much better than the nightmarish Fort Lauderdale airport where I landed (and better than my layover in Miami, for that matter).

  35. Thanks Lucky for starting an interesting discussion and to others for what you’ve written. Lucky, I hope you get to go back with a better experience.

    I haven’t been to Cuba but am definitely planning on going soon. I’ve been reading about Cuba for the last 6 months, a few tourist guides but mostly books written by people who have visited repeatedly or have spent considerable time visiting Cuba and visiting with Cubans. Most of my friends and relatives who travel have visited Cuba (I’m in Canada, we have no restrictions on visiting as tourists or doing business with Cuba).

    Cuba has long been a tourist destination, the top 4 sources of tourists to Cuba are Canada, the UK, Italy and Spain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tourism_in_Cuba). Most of my friends and relatives are travellers rather than tourists, as such immerse themselves to the extent they can into local culture, talking to locals, staying in casa particulars and trying to see things from the point of view of locals. The few friends who are tourists tend to stay in a Veradero resort and will do a day trip to Havana but they focus on a resort vacation with beach, sunning, and buffets. So there are different ways to experience Cuba. Other friends organize months in advance and arrange to bring supplies to pre-arranged contacts in Cuba, mostly off-the shelf drugstore items that are in short supply there.

    Based on my reading, I have a rough idea of expectations and will prepare. As for connectedness and using Google maps for navigation, it’s the same when I visit the US. Data roaming rates are expensive so I turn off my data once south of the 49th and use offline navigation apps and pre-download the maps. I also bring paper maps of the US states I’m visiting. Will do the same for Cuba. As for the food in Cuba, I’ll largely eat as Cubans eat and won’t expect a lot of meat. Actually there isn’t a lot of meat or variety of vegetables given the embargo curtailing imports of fertilizers, farm equipment and low emission fuel. What little beef there is reserved exclusively for tourists.

    For accommodations I’ll search out what is local, maybe historical, or casa particulars. It’s the same when visiting the US I avoid the chain hotels and instead search out more interesting one-off hotels away from Interstates. Waking up in a cookie cutter room in a another country takes away from the experience.

    From what I’ve read and and what friends have told me everyone in Cuba is under scrutiny, not just American visitors. It’s the nature of the society. But then the US government has my finger prints, scan of my retinas, and my entire history of entry, exit, where I am staying and destinations in the US (for my Nexus card). Cuba will probably be similar, maybe just lower tech. As when visiting the US, I’ll be careful and respectful if broaching politics in Cuba.

    Cuba is complicated and I’m looking forward to better understanding the situation. Any economic solutions and the consequences need to be well thought out so as to not have adverse effects. Even tourism is starting to create income inequality between Cubans who interact with tourists and receive tips and gifts and those that don’t. There can be consequences with teachers, professors, scientists, and doctors leaving to work in tourism to the detriment of Cuba’s universal education, post-secondary education, and heath system. Tourism is a needed source of foreign revenue but I don’t want to a contributor to the negative effects.

  36. Very funny and interesting how addicted we all are to this little thing called internet. How we can’t cope with a lack of credit card acceptance and so on.

    Traveling to Cuba is like traveling in forgotten times (at least for all of you born in 1990 or later). That means lots of pros and some cons. And by the way – there are many more countries with similar limitations, be it cashless spending, immigration issues like 100 years ago or the lack of internet. And it’s so much fun to travel these countries, especially because it is so “different”.

    I do of course see the point that a spontaneous 2-day-trip doesn’t allow for lots of planning. A friend of mine backpacked through Cuba a few years ago and had the trip of his life – without any planning in advance (except the flights) – but with 3 weeks of time.

    Point is: Cuba is different – and I hope it will stay different at least for a few years. Traveling to Cuba is difficult and challenging and sometimes even chaotic. But still almost everytime very rewarding too. It about people and hospitality – two very strong pros of the country.

    So please feel strongly encouraged to travel to Cuba. It will be the most exotic place to visit for an American with such a short time of flying.

  37. I have been to Cuba 4 times between 2000-2006 – direct flights from Portugal and Spanish ‘luxury’ chain hotels were all the rage then (and from Portugal we couldn’t fly direct to almost anywhere else), so you will find Many who have been. It was a different time – but I loved not having access to news. We stayed at Melia Havana and Cohiba (who were the top places then), and I remember some great nights out at Casa de La Música (the original one) til 5am. We went mostly to the beach and only stayed in Havana for a couple nights and obviously Paradisus Varadero was the place to go to. The food there was actually quite decent – I do remember paying around €400/night back then but it was all inclusive and in their case it was all a la Carte. I remember keeping a driver’s telephone number and email actually and we always used him. Airport was horrible then – I remember having a 6 hour delay and it was horrible. But glad we went before all the crowds did. It was fun. But no desire to go back after 4 times! Can’t believe it has been 10 years now since my last visit.

  38. Cuba sucks everybody. As a former resident of a third world country where the poor people are supposedly so happy, I assure you if you actually live there and know them you find out they are in fact not happy!

  39. @Eduardo, NEWS FLASH, you are being monitored by your own USA government too! We just do it in a more elegant way like warehousing meta-data of email, etc

  40. Matt
    It is not the same at all. In USA I am in my country, protected by the Constitution and respected by the Law. Cuba is a communist country where citizens are taught Americans are the enemy; they monitor us as potential enemies. In my experience, they only want our US Dollars because of the economic situation in the country and they are not receiving much help from their allied. Do you think it is acceptable, you are on vacation and while you are having your breakfast a Captain from the State Security calls to ask questions about you and what you are doing etc. I speak Spanish, therefore, I understood what was happening. It was an uncomfortable and concerning situation for me. Mr. Manuel, the owner of the Hostal was so embarrassed he apologized to me several times through the day. I am only sharing my experience so any future traveler to Cuba knows what is going on there; not to discourage anybody’s vacation to Cuba. Good luck.
    Stayed at Hostal Parque Cespedes: Calle San Pedro % San Basilio and Heredia, between December 23 and Januray 1.

  41. @Eduardo I am sure your experience was very real for you. It sounds like it was a distressing moment. It reminds me of the stories of how the American supported Batista would do the same to his own people. Some things never change I guess…

  42. How did you not eat at the paladar made famous by one of Cuba’s most famous films, a gay film called Strawberry and Chocolate (“Fresa y Chocolate”)? The food there is amazing.

  43. why do u need a cell phone on the trip to havana? why do u need google? can’t you use an old-fashioned map??? read a map

  44. We are going to Cuba in two weeks. Looking for a reasonably priced tour company to take us within Havana and to beach cities. Please advice.

  45. This was one of your most disappointing stories ever. You did not research what to expect in Cuba and came away unhappy. It’s not a country with much internet access for locals yet you complained that you did not have much luck either. The locals have trouble finding daily meals and you complained about your food. This report really makes you look like a novice traveler and is not up to your usual standard.

  46. @Marsha Havana Journeys! This is the one I did and loved. Tripadvisor likes them too. Contact: Ricardo
    havanajourneys@gmail.com . 535 264 1180 or 1 786 740 5221 Given email is sparse. It may take them a day or two to reply. Plus you are cutting it close in the booking reservation given its is prime time.

    I hear Cuba Tours is good too.

  47. @Dania…While I am sure Communist Cuba is a bureaucratic government nightmare that uses tyranny at times to maintain its self-serving interest, let us not forget what was before. Batista was a thug for the mafia and US corporate interests, where most Cubans lived in abject poverty and tyranny was used against dissent.

  48. I just back from 5 days there and would say I agree with most of what was said, although I have some tips that you missed. I spent more hours than I could even count planning this trip because everything was extremely booked up for new years. First off I would say that if you are going to Cuba to experience it, definitely stay at a Casa Particular. We left the points behind after booking the flights, although you could use your Chase Reserves credit to book an Airbnb, which is how we handled all bookings.
    As for Wifi, it is nationalized and a card must be purchased, but you can buy it through hotels. It only works in parks (spottily) and in hotels. Verizon has data service here but it is not cheap. I probably paid $30 for mistakenly turning on my phone and recieving some new years wishes and pictures :/
    Local SIMs areonly available through ETESCA and I think you would have to be very motivated to accomplish this, we didn’t even try. One of the best things was that my GPS still worked, so it was easy to navigate to the places id saved on google maps. The streets of old Havana can get a bit confusing!
    I think the beat tip I read before leaving was to exchange money in the departures area of the airport upon arriving. Make sure to bring euros, and if you plan on leaving Havana a few CUPs (‘moneda nacional’) can be helpful but not necessary as it seemed most of the country takes CUCs.
    Finally, the food was horrible. I am biased becuase I’m a vegetarian but my meat-eating companions shared the sentiment. By the end of the trip many of them were eating vegetarian as well, which basically meant cheese sandwiches and pizza. I am not usually sensitive and used a LifeStraw for the water, but still had a terrible stomach ache for the first few days of the trip.
    A lot of that sounded negative, but I definitely did not regret the trip. We avoided all things touristy and felt
    like we really saw the ‘real Cuba’ which to me felt like a giant barrio or even the shacks you see lining border towns in Mexico. The beaches were beuatiful and the people were friendly. Despite outward appearances, we did not have any issues with safety. It is worth a visit for adventure and a greater understanding of the continuing debate between capitalism and communism.

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