club-nautico-cienfuegos
The Club Nautico in Cienfuegos

Susan and I have been fascinated by Cuba for a long time, but I think we first got the bug to go there years ago after watching the movie “Havana” starring Robert Redford. Something about that movie captured our imaginations, and we’ve had Cuba on our radar to visit ever since.

If you read our blog you’ll know that we took three years off to travel on our sailboat, Compania, in the early 2000s. We had always planned a stopover in Cuba, but in 2004 things were a lot different. We were headed back to “dirt world,” as we call it, when the Bush administration decreed that all U.S.-flagged boats would be subject to confiscation if caught in Cuban waters. Not keen on jeopardizing our major investment, we reluctantly bypassed Cuba on our final passage from Mexico to Florida. As we sailed by Cuba over the course of a day and a night, we wondered – would we ever get a chance to visit that remarkable place?

What a difference 12 years makes. With relations between the U.S. and Cuba continuing to improve, it’s never been easier for U.S. citizens to go there. Finally, after careful planning, we were able to fulfill our dream to visit this incredible island!

Here’s our advice for folks who want to follow in our footsteps:

casas-sign
This is the country-wide symbol for a home that’s renting out rooms as a casa particular

START EARLY – CUBA ES MUY POPULAR!
We decided to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Cuba to take advantage of Susan’s holidays and enjoy the cooler temperatures in December. I started planning this trip last July – and it was barely soon enough. We picked the brains of friends who had recently made the trip and also bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba. I also read every online source I could get my hands on to get the most current information possible.

We knew from the start that we wanted to stay in casas particulares (home-stays), but they book up very early in the high season. Even six months ahead, I still had to scramble a bit to find our lodging. I started with the casas listed in the Lonely Planet and eventually found openings through Air B&B and a couple of other websites. I’d venture to say that as the island opens up more to U.S. tourists and begins to accept credit cards, it will get even harder to book casas.

On our first day in Havana we took an awesome bike tour that gave us a real lay of the land.Here’s the outfit we used: www.rutabikes.com. And here are another couple of helpful sites: www.cuba-junky.com and www.bestcubatravelguide.com.

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Lovely Parque Almendares, one of the stops on the bike tour.

BUT WHAT’S A CASA PARTICULAR?
Travelers to Cuba have many lodging options to choose from, ranging from high-end (and usually government-run) hotels to youth hostels. But one of the best ways to experience the real Cuba, and help real Cubans in the process, is to stay in a casa particular. Since 1997, the Cuban government has allowed private citizens to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists. Recent reforms by Raul Castro have greatly expanded this program and these home-stays are now as ubiquitous as rum, cigar smoke, and images of Fidel and Che.

On our recent visit, we stayed in four casas — two in Havana, and one each in Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Prices ranged from $35 a night for our first Havana homestay to $55 in Trinidad, in a fantastic place that was more like a small boutique hotel than a private residence. For booking the casas, try Airbnb, now active in Cuba, and Trip Advisor. We also used www.casaparticular.com and www.bbinnvinales.com/bedandbreakfastrentweb.

 

MONEY STUFF
The first thing to know here is that Cuba is operating with two separate currencies – Cuban convertible pesos, also known as CUCs, and regular Cuban pesos. You’ll be using CUCs for just about everything but it’s inevitable you’ll end up with a few regular pesos in your pocket, too. Just make sure you can tell the difference, since CUCs are on par with the U.S. dollar and regular pesos are only worth about a nickel.

cuban-currency
Cuban pesos on the top and CUCs on the bottom

If you’re starting out with U.S. dollars, don’t wait until you get to Cuba to change your money or the Cuban government will sock you with a 13-percent service charge. Instead, change your dollars to Euros before you leave your point of origin, since the Cuban fee for exchanging Euros to CUCs is only 3 percent.

When you land at Marti Airport in Havana, you’ll find a mob of people trying to exchange money at the CADECA on the ground floor. By accident, I went upstairs looking for the restroom and found another CADECA, almost completely deserted. Save some time and go upstairs, or better yet, wait until you get to town and go to a CADECA there – you might get a better rate.

One more comment about money: take more cash than you think you’ll possibly need. Since it’s so expensive to exchange dollars in Cuba, and also since it’s not possible to use U.S. credit cards or ATMs there, you will be “cash and carry” for most of your trip. This made us a lot more budget-conscious than usual when we travel, but the good news is that we didn’t have a big credit card bill when we got home!

GROUND TRANSPORTATION TIPS
We paid 30 CUC for the cab ride from Marti Airport to the Vedado district, where we stayed for our first four nights in Havana (our ride back from downtown Havana only cost 25 CUC but it was closer to the airport).
While in Havana, try to avoid the “tourist” taxis (basically anything yellow and shiny). They’ll cost you 6-7 CUC a trip wherever you go. We got lucky when the owner of our casa particular told us about the “collectivo” taxis that ferry locals on fixed routes. Collectivos cram in as many people as possible and only charge one CUC per person. They were a blast to ride and another cool way to connect with the locals. Altogether, we paid about $170 for taxis, bici-taxis (human-powered), collectivos, bus fare to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, and a guided bike tour that was well worth it. 

For our road trip from Havana to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, we took the Viazul bus. Our first casa owner got all of our tickets for us for a 10 CUC fee, well worth it for the time and hassle it saved us, and she explained the skinny on checking in. When you show up at the Viazul station, you need to find the check-in desk and get a seat assignment, which no one pays any attention to (it’s basically open seating on the bus). Viazul has a really helpful website – www.viazul com. And here’s another useful writeup about travel on Viazul: www.fivepointfive.org/travelling-by-viazul-bus-in-cubaWe paid Viazul $118 round-trip for both of us to travel from Havana to Cienfuegos, from Cienfuegos to Trinidad, and then from Trinidad back to Havana. 

viazul-bus-station-havana
Viazul bus station in Havana
TRUST US – THIS IS IMPORTANT
It’s rare to find toilet paper, paper towels, or even toilet seats in public restrooms. Instead, most restrooms have ladies standing outside to hand you a couple of paper napkins for a tip. So trust us on this – stash a couple of rolls of TP and some hand sanitizer in your backpack. And tip the ladies anyway.

12 Comments

  1. Excellent information and beautiful pictures! I’m so glad you got to take the trip.

  2. Thank you so much for all this info! We are planning a trip as we speak. Thanks for the heads up on things booking up too. I’ll be sure we have a place to stay before I buy the airline tickets.

  3. Cuba has always held a fascination for me (forbidden fruit?) and we’d hoped to visit it a couple of years ago when we were in the DR. Your information is great and I’ve bookmarked it for that time, hopefully not in the too far future, when we find ourselves heading to North America again. Can’t wait to read more about your experiences! P.S. I always loved the “toilet paper” ladies found throughout MX and Central America but it’s definitely good to be prepared! 🙂 Anita

  4. Excelente, mis amigos. Looks like we have about all the info we need right here if/when we decide to see Cuber. Thanks for another great post, and bienvenidos a Boquete!

  5. Thanks so much for the valuable information. Our flights are booked and we booked our first Airbnb in Havana for March. Now, we just need to buy EUROs to exchange. The nice thing about meeting the requirements is that Ron’s sister has family in Cuba, so we are going to meet them and get a real taste of Cuba.
    Looking forward to your next post.

  6. Thank you so much for the good advice and visual delights. I so can’t wait to visit there, but it will be awhile.

    PS – I could give you the same toilet paper advice here in SE Asia.

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