Earlier this month I traveled to Havana, Cuba, and absolutely LOVED it!! I enjoyed eating great food, having the best mojitos in my life, learning about Cuba’s history, and having impromptu conversations with everyone I met along the way. My Instagram (LKETravels) has a weeks-worth of photos from my trip, and I created an album on Facebook containing over 60 pictures from my trip (I’ve also uploaded a few below), so feel free to check out either. But I also thought I could come up with some helpful tips in case you’re planning to get Havana stamped on your passport sometime soon!
- You can’t just book an airline ticket and say “Hasta Luego”. Remember, U.S. Citizens can only visit Cuba under 12 categories of travel (Check out OFAC’s website for the full list: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/pages/cuba.aspx). Similar to most visitors, I visited Havana under the “people to people” designation. In order to qualify under this category, one must maintain “ a full schedule of educational exchange activities”. This means no side trips to the beach or mall – we both know you don’t need to learn how to shop! But seriously, we still can’t travel to Cuba for fun/touristy reasons – you need to learn something when you go. Most importantly, you need to keep proof of your schedule of activities and receipts for at least 5 years upon your return. Once President Trump’s proposed regulations take effect, it is believed that these rules will be strictly enforced (right now the customs folks just smile and welcome you back upon your return).
- Consider a cruise. I know, cruises are bad for the environment, can be considered cesspools, and are full of folks who either hate/love cruising (no middle ground). But I LOVE cruising – I’ll make sure to write a post as to why, but for now, I do encourage a cruise to Havana. I traveled onboard the NCL Sky. Now, I can’t vouch for the ship per se. It’s an older ship (launched 1999), food/service is meh + (meaning its not great, but you won’t be upset either), and lacks some of the amenities we have all gotten used to (bionic bars anyone?). And yes, you even hear a little bit of rattling when the ship picks up steam at night (gotta be honest)…BUT, there are 2 things that make up for all of this. First, it is currently the ONLY ship that does an overnight in Cuba. The other major cruise companies visit Havana as well, but leave port on the same day. The NCL Sky arrived in Cuba at 8am on day 1, and didn’t leave until 5pm on day 2. This enabled us to stay on the island overnight via Airbnb apartment rental, and really partake in various activities. Secondly, it is an all you can drink cruise. I don’t feel like an explanation is necessary here.
- Try not to bring U.S. cash. You purse will take a beating at the exchanges if you bring American dollars. Try to bring euros or Canadian dollars, and you will be rewarded with better rates. If you must bring U.S. dollars, exchange at a government facility – you may not realize it, but they are all around you. For example, when you buy Cuban cigars, go to a government shop, and downstairs, they will exchange your cash for Cuban pesos – just ask them. And your U.S.-issued credit card won’t work – please be mindful of that.
- Eating in Havana can be inexpensive, but not necessarily – depends on where you go. On both days, we ate at Paladars, which are privately-owned restaurants. On day 1, we tried Habana 61, which I highly recommend. I had 2 lobster tails which cost $14 U.S., and enjoyed a few alcoholic drinks (frozen margaritas, daiquiris, and mojitos [had to diversify for the sake of my blog after all]) which was a treat for only $3.50 each – and were the best version of that drink I’ve ever had…literally. The next day, we tried a different Paladar – Paladar Los Mercaderes Here, we saw pricing much more in line with NYC or Miami ($18 dishes, $9 drinks). Again, not absurd, but there is a difference in pricing. As an FYI, I looked up some menus for the government—owned restaurants and the pricing was more in line with that of Habana 61 (generally).
- Cigars and Rum – you’ll need to stick with the government shops here unless you really know what you’re doing (admittedly, I don’t). When we spoke with Cuban citizens they confirmed something that we read online – that there is a sort of black market when it comes to both cigars and rum. Many private shops sell fake cigars and rum that they make themselves and sell to unsuspecting tourists looking for a bargain (I mean, I guess it’s still technically Cuban-made rum and cigars, right?)…but ultimately, I wanted the real stuff. To that end, visit either the government owned places, the distilleries, or the airport/cruise port shops, and you should be ok.
- Try an Airbnb. If you either fly into Havana or do an overnight, look into Airbnb. You can even rent out entire apts for $50/night. Just make sure they have running water, as this is apparently a problem for some. But the hotels in Havana are seriously high priced, and don’t provide the typical value you are accustomed to for that price. For $200/$300 a night, I expect a bit more, but in Cuba, you will get only the basics. For that price, I’d much rather support the local economy and get the same value.
- When it comes to bringing back souvenirs (ie: rum and cigars), you must abide by rules set out by BOTH the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and U.S. Customs. OFAC’s rules regarding Cuban souvenirs are pretty lax, and no longer place limitations on the amount of rum or number of cigars you return with, provided they are for personal consumption. However, U.S. Customs does place limitations on these 2 popular Cuban souvenirs – 100 cigars, and 1L of rum, per person (must be over the age of 21 to bring back rum). Looks like the rum lobbyists had a small victory here.
- My fave activities included: the classic car tour, the Afro-Cuban tour, and visiting Revolutionary Square. Not sure you can really go wrong with spending a couple of days in Havana, as the people are gregarious, the food is delish, and the town squares are all beautiful. Bring your camera, and sense of adventure, and have a great time!!