Oh man, Cuba. A destination that many Americans have yet to travel to but one that is well worth it. And one that I hope will open to tourism in the near future. It is important to know travel to Cuba for tourism is still illegal if you are a United States citizen and requires you to meet the requirements for a license. If you meet 1 of 12 reason you can travel without first obtaining a license but rather it allows you to travel under a "general license" in which you will self certify your activities. You need to keep records of your itinerary for 5 years in the event the Office of Foreign assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury audits you or customs inquires about questions. Go to the Resource Center from the OFAC page here for the most updated info on the Cuban Sanctions and for travel clarification. The language can be vague and confusing law terms so so I did additional research and found Cornell's Law Schools interpretation for general licenses when ensuring we complied with the law. Here is the link to the general license under Support for the Cuban People which is now frequently used. Keep in mind you need to have a full time schedule if you plan to travel under Support for the Cuban People. Now that all the legal stuff covered here is a general break down of how much it cost:
Budget break down:
1 night (2 guests) Havana AirBnb $54.91
3 nights (2 guests) Vinales AirBnb $70.81
5 nights (3 guests) Havana AirBnb $419.53
Airfare Phoenix to Havana 12,616 SW points
Return Phoenix to Havana 9,620 SW Points plus
(Total 22,236 SW points plus $77.66 in taxes)
**Flights generally cost $450-$500 round trip without points.
Required Cuban Tourist Card $50 per person total: $100
Airport to Havana and vice versa $25 each way total $50
Independent Horseback tour 5 hours $25 per person
Taxi ride in classic convertible car $10
Shared taxi from Havana to Vinales $20 per person per way
Food and drink from non-government food vendors $40 dollars daily total $360
~The popular Mojitos range from $1-$3, anything more and you're over paying
~Large pizzas that will fill up a single person as cheap at 80 cents to 5 dollars
Cuban Cigars from farmer 10 cigars for $30
2 people 9 nights: $1,222.91
**Our last AirBnb was on the pricer side due to the need for 2 bedrooms since there was 3 of us. You could easily cut that down to the $250-$300 range
Important currency info
US credit card and debit cards do not work in Cuba. You are required to bring enough cash to cover your stay so be smart when budgeting. We conservatively budget $100-$130 for 2 people per day. We ended up spending about $70 dollars a day with having prepaid for our Airbnbs online.
If you are converting from USD to Convertible Pesos (CUC) there is a 3% transaction fee applied in the conversion rate and a 10% penalty for USD. Depending on how much you plan to exchange it can be advantageous to go to your bank to exchange USD to Euros to avoid the additional 10% penalty.
Cuban Peso (CUP) exchanges 25 for 1 Convertible Peso (CUC). CUP is used often by locals but can hold the best deal for food during your trip. It is important you make sure you are familiar with the differences so you don't pay someone the wrong currency or they provide you incorrect change! It could be the difference of 4 cents verse a dollar.
Havana and Vinales Popular To Dos
Below are a few popular activities to do in Havana and Vinales depending on your schedule and general license!
If you make the journey to Vinales, which I highly recommend it, it's about a 2 hour journey to experience the UNESCO site. Vinales is a valley that is surrounded by beautiful green rocky mountains that are unique to the Cuban landscape. It is a popular area where tobacco, coffee, sugar cane and guava are grown. This is where you can truly experience the country side and enjoy that Cuban cigar.
A great way to hit all of these farms is to do a 4-5 hour horseback journey that will stop at a Tobacco farm, Coffee & Guava farm and a lake for a refreshing dip. Be prepared to be worn out, sunburnt and sore the next day but it was a highlight of the trip. We used our highly recommended, best chef in all of Cuba, and owner of the casa we stayed at to help us coordinate our tour with her neighbor across the street!
The Horseback Experience
You will take off at 9 am destined to the tobacco farm. You'll ride for 20 minutes weaving through farms of different crops, climbing hills and enjoying the beautiful scenes of the mountains on the horizon.
Once you arrive you'll promptly be handed a fresh rolled cigar with honey on the end. As you enjoy it the local farmer will walk you through the process and explain how and why they use honey when rolling... rather than say.. chemicals. But this means the cigar will only be good for 6 months versus the cigars produced in the state owned factories that use those chemicals to make them last 1-2 years. The farmer will explain how 90% of the crop goes to the government and the remaining 10% is for the family to enjoy, trade or sell.
After purchasing a package of 10 cigars for 30 CUC you'll be off to the coffee farm.
Here the local family will walk you through how they dry the beans and produce the coffee. Fortunaley the government only has a 25% cut of the coffee and 75% remains for trade, use and sales. After a brief tour you can purchase and enjoy a cup of coffee while your guide disappears around the corner. A few minutes later he reappears with a bottle of rum produced from the guava grown on the farm. He will pour several tastes for your group of the golden rum as pit sat in the bottom of the bottle. This is when he explains 70% of the guava goes to the state and 30% is returned. After cherishing the final sips of the rum you'll be back on the horses to the lake. Did I mention these horses are automatic, you hop right on and they know exactly where the next stop is. The guide stays in the back, infrequently yelling commands to your horse but your sole purpose is to sit back and enjoy the country side.
After a brief stop at the lake you'll carry on to return to Yakelin's or your casa. At this point you'll most likely be worn out and hungry so we recommend you have the owner of your casa cook food. Especially if Yakelin is cooking!
A few other top things for you to do in Vinales include visiting:
Indian Cave- a popular destination for tourist who enjoy exploring caves. It is 2.5 miles long but only a quarter of it is accessible.
Mural de la Prehistoria - it is a 120m long mural painted on a mountain side that required 18 people to complete over 4 years.
Relaxing and enjoying the country
Journey to Havana
The journey back to Havana by shared taxi will take you anywhere between 2-3 hours depending on stops. A shared taxi typically can consist of a 1957 classic car with 8 people tucked in it with your bags tied to the roof. It is truly a unique experience that brings you back in time and worth being slightly cramped.
Once you settle back in at your AirBnb in Havana you'll have an endless amount of options to spend your time doing. It is a sprawling city that never sleeps and feels safe at all hours. As I always recommend find an AirBnb with a kitchen but it might not be the advice I provide for Cuba. After walking into what is a Cuban grocery store you quickly notice it is full of baby food, cooking oil, rum and some pasta. The selection is bare but not impossible to work with. Another option is you'll find street vendors all selling their specialty item such as fruits or veggies, and vendors selling meat but you'll have to search these out. The meat will be in the wide open and not stored the best, another alternative option is you eat at the local paladares or cafeterias. These places will be priced in the local currency of the Cuban Peso (CUP) rather than the Convertible Pesos (CUC), knowing this we converted $20 into CUP at the start of our trip. The food selection ranges from an egg sandwich for 40 USD cents, fruit juice for .04 USD, Pizza for .80 USD cents and delicious ham sandwiches for .75 USD cents so as you can see you can eat quite cheap. If you have more of a budget you can enjoy chicken and veggies for $4-$7 or lobster/fish for $7-$10 USD. Remember, just as any other hub that draws tourists from all over it means you can quickly pay 3-5x more than these prices.
**Interestingly, Cuba is often referred to as having terrible food but quite frankly you might have 1-2 meals that were merely okay. The rest will be full of flavor, large in portion and delicious.
Make sure to book yourself enough time in Havana, 4-5 nights will give you enough time to keep busy during your stay. Some people stay for 2 days others for 2 months, remember it is a LARGE city.
A few popular Havana spots that can be built into your evening or itineraries include:
Walk the El Malecon (Free) - the Malecon is a hot spot every night, it is lined with tourists and locals sitting on the wall enjoying cool breeze. It is 5 miles long and runs from Havana Harbor along Centro Habana and ends in Vedado.
Old Havana (Free) - is the downtown of Havana and is often full of tourists. Here you'll find lines of classic cars waiting to provide you a tour, theatres to watch Salsa, fancy hotels, and restaurants. You'll also find the Capitol building, which looks identical to the US Capitol but we were told its slightly larger.
Plaza Vieja (Free) - A popular plaza that has beautiful stained glass, several bars and cafes and a beautiful fountain
Plaza de la Catedral (Free) home to a beautiful 18th century cathedral. This plaza was the last of the main squares to be created and was originally muddy terrain in the 18th century before being drained. Wealthy families built mansions and moved in. Now it is one of the most popular spots in Old Havana.
Museum of the Revolution (8 CUC per person) - the museum is covers the events leading up to, during and after the Cuban Revolution. It tells the story of how Fidel Catstro came to power.
Plaza de la Revolucion (Free) - large square known for political rallies and Fidel Castro speaking to the Cuban population. The square hosts a large memorial of Jose Marti
Playa del Este (5 CUC bus ride) - a known beach area a short bus ride for Havana where Cubans often go to relax. The surround city provides a abandoned feel as you see the crumbling infrastructure and incomplete homes.
Colon Cemetery (5 CUC entrance fee) -140 acre cemetery known for its large and elaborate memorials. It ranges from single tombs to major mausoleums.
Enjoy your travels and be sure to comment below! Stay tuned for the next article on Colombia!