Since the Obama Administration opened up diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2017, U.S. citizens have flocked to visit the island and soak up its rich culture and history, which had been off limits for decades. In June of 2019, the Trump Administration "reversed the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban Regime." This does not, however, mean you cannot visit Cuba. Rather, you do have to follow some specific guidelines. This guide details everything you need to know about traveling to Cuba.
Visas & Entry Requirements
As of June 2019, the United States Office of Foreign Assets and Control (OFAC) authorizes travel to Cuba under 12 different circumstances, which are:
- Family visits
- Official government business or visits related to foreign governments and intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations, research institutes, and educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Authorized export transactions
You can apply for your Cuban visa through the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., or pay for your Cuban Tourist Card on arrival. Cuba also requires you to carry health insurance during your stay, but you can also buy inexpensive Cuban insurance on arrival.
Spanish Isn't Essential, but it Is Helpful
You might find the occasional tour operator, taxi driver, or host who speaks English, but most of the people you encounter in Cuba do not speak any English. You don't have to be fluent in Spanish to visit Cuba, but you should spend some time learning basic conversational Spanish before you visit. A basic understanding of Spanish can help you order from a menu, negotiate taxi prices, book accommodations, and ask for directions, as well as avoid frustration with the language barrier.
Money & Purchases
Visa is the only credit card accepted in Cuba, but only in certain places, so cash is your best option. You can exchange U.S. dollars to Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) that are artificially valued to match the U.S. dollar, but you will pay a 10 percent penalty each time.
Your best bet is to order British Pounds or Euros from your bank before your trip. You will get a much better exchange rate this way. Like other countries, you will get the best rate by exchanging your money in town, instead of at the airport. Just make sure to change your money back before you leave Cuba, since you will not be able to change it in the U.S.
For the most part, Cuba's public transportation isn't tourist-friendly, so you will find taxis to be your best option in most cases. If you have ever read anything about Cuba or seen depictions on television, you might know the island is filled with Chevys from the 1950s. The vast of majority of these nostalgic beauties serve as taxis, called "taxi particulars," which will take you anywhere in Havana for about five dollars. At some tourist locations, or late at night, expect to pay higher rates. You can also take Cuba's official government taxis for a higher rate, if you don't have the time to wave down a taxi particular.
If you want to leave Havana and travel around the island, you can rent a car, but they are pretty expensive and often require a large security deposit. The trains that travel the island are slow and run-down, so your best bet when traveling from city-to-city is to use Cuba's bus service for tourists, Viazul. Also, when you are in Havana or Cuba's other main cities, consider taking a bicycle tour or a horse-drawn carriage ride.
When you visit Cuba, you can stay in one of two different types of accommodations: private residences or state-run hotels. Keep in mind that with the tightening of sanctions, you won't likely be able to stay at a hotel. As of the date of this blog post, the most recent Cuba Restricted List was issued in April 2019. On this list you will find most, if not all, of the state-run hotels in Havana, Old Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Varadero, Pinar del Rio, Baracoa, Cayos de Villa Clara, Holguín, Jardines del Rey, and Topes de Collantes.
Most visitors to Cuba from the United States stay in private homes, called casa particulares in Spanish. These may be houses, rooms for rent, and apartments, with Airbnb offering the largest inventory. When you choose a place to stay, make sure to do as much research as you can ahead of time. First of all, internet service in Cuba is rare, and not great when you do find it. Secondly, the quality of residence varies greatly among casa particulares, so do your homework.
Places of Interest
Cuba is full of rich culture, history, beaches, and activities. Here are some of the highlights of places you should check out during your visit to Cuba:
Old Havana — This part of Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and comprises much of the original city of Havana founded by the Spanish in the early 1500s. You will find small cafes, castles, and museums as you wander along Old Havana's cobblestone streets. This is the heart of the city where you will find the famous Buena Vista Social Club, Museo de la Revolucion, and where you can walk along the Malecón, the avenue which runs in unison with the seawall on the north side of the city, to enjoy sunset views.
Varadero Beach — With more than 12 miles of white sand beach getting pounded by the gentle turquoise waves of the Caribbean, Varadero Beach is the place you want to go in Cuba to worship the sun. You won't find anything authentically Cuban here, but the beach is tourist-friendly and offers entertainment, water sports, and all the things you expect of a Caribbean resort area.
Trinidad — Visiting Trinidad is like entering a time warp to take you back to the mid 1800s. This Spanish colonial settlement serves as an outdoor museum which gives travelers the opportunity to view stunning colonial mansions all within a short distance of the hiking and waterfalls found in the Escambray Mountains.