He and She on Wine…and Cuba Libres!
Visiting Cuba takes a bit of work for Americans. We just got back from a long weekend, and these are the top 13 things you need to know if you would like to visit the "forbidden island":
- Make sure your passport is valid and has two blank pages. Book your flight using the People-to-People Education license and start practicing your Spanish.
- Find a guide who can help you arrange the tours you are most interested in. We used Cubaguia, a team of professionals (doctors, researchers, historians, geographers) who specialize in personalized tours in Old Havana, the suburbs and other regions of the country. They offer two day, full and half day tours, where they cover the most popular attractions, or they can personalize your trip to visit a hospital if you are in the medical profession, a school if you are in the teaching profession, etc. Keep a copy of your itinerary and any receipts to prove that you “maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people… that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”
- Book a place to stay through Airbnb, once you determine the neighborhood you are most interested in. We stayed at Casa Sanchana in Vedado where many embassies are. Hotels can be iffy, although the newly opened Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski is where we will stay next time - awesome rooftop bar!
- Get your visa/health insurance through your airline ahead of time. You will also need it to leave Cuba so keep track of it!
- Register with the State Department so they can find you in an emergency.
- Prepare to have no credit cards, no ATMs, no phones, and no internet. Bring enough Euros to last your trip, convert them to CUC before leaving the Havana airport. There is a 10% surcharge for converting from US dollars.
- Pack a daypack with hand sanitizer, toilet paper, sunscreen, snacks, sunglasses, hat, medicines, etc. Grocery stores and pharmacies are very hard to find, there are no convenience stores.
- Arrive at the airport at least two hours in advance when traveling to or from Cuba. Airlines always say that, but it's really true here!
- Take taxis but always agree on the price before getting in.
- Avoid government-run restaurants and tours and hotels. Poor quality, poor service, no creativity.
- Drink only bottled water with the cap sealed. Avoid ice and raw vegetables.
- Splurge on the Tropicana Club show, not the Buena Vista Social Club. Get your tickets ahead at Hotel Nacional.
- Take day trips out of Havana. We enjoyed the Vinales valley day trip (a UNESCO World Heritage site) – had some great rums and cigars. Buy cigars from the farm and bring them home to your friends!
For those who have been there, what tips did I miss? And if you're thinking of going, what questions do you have?