Halfway between the U.S. in the north and Latin America in the south lies Cuba, an isle of intrigue, romance and politics unlike any other. Earlier this year the United States government began to steadily ease travel restrictions to Cuba. Despite the relaxed travel stipulations, Americans still face many challenges, requiring more detailed and strategic planning. While it is still technically illegal to travel to the Caribbean country, Americans are able to visit under 12 categories of authorized trips, including family visits, religious or educational activities, professional research and participation in public performances or sports competitions. Organizing a professional event or competition, or filming and producing television shows and movies there are additionally covered by the 12 categories. The ground-breaking new rules also allow Americans to travel independently on what are called “people-to-people” trips — one of the most popular and affordable types of trips. Anybody can take part in the educational people-to-people trips, as long as their trip features a full-schedule of activities that generate “meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba”. What constitutes this educational experience has never been officially defined, but basically your holiday to Cuba can’t just involve you sitting on a beach.
WHAT SHOULD I KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING TO CUBA?
There are two ways to travel to Cuba. The first is through an agency, which organizes a tour and issues you a visa to enter the country. The second option is to fly through a connecting country. Mexico City, Cancun, Cayman Islands and the Bahamas are all popular connecting destinations. However, in June, the Obama administration authorized eight American airlines to begin direct flights as soon as fall 2016. This decision gives 10 U.S. airports at least one weekly non-stop flight to Havana, the Cuban capital.
Most foreign visitors to Cuba need a tourist card to enter. Independent travelers can purchase a tourist card at the check-in counter of their connecting country. A 30 day Cuban tourist card costs around $20 – $30 USD and no application processing time is necessary. If you are traveling with an American passport in Cuba, you can request to have your tourist card stamped instead of your passport. This card may be obtain in person in the at The Cuban Embassy in Washington, or by mail.
For more information visit www.cubadiplomatica.cu
There are two currencies in Cuba. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency, pegged to the American dollar, and the Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use. Currently, $1 U.S. dollar equates to about $1 Cuban Convertible Peso or $26.50 Cuban Pesos. Many vendors, restaurants and cab drivers don’t accept American credit cards and ATMs are rare and don’t accept U.S. debit cards, so cash is a must. You can exchange US dollars for CUC, but there is a special 10% penalty fee for this service. So it is cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos for CUC instead.
Airbnb is now operating in Cuba and offers over 4,000 homes for vacation rentals online. However, it is important to know that you can book listings on Airbnb only before going to Cuba. Once in Cuba, you’ll be blocked from actually booking rooms through the site.
For more information, visit airbnb.com
WHY SHOULD I GO TO CUBA RIGHT NOW?
As a U.S. citizen, the possibility of finally being able to travel to Cuba is exciting. Here are three reasons why we think you should take the plunge and travel to Cuba right now
1. TIME TRAVEL
When Castro pressed pause on economic progress in the 60s, he also pressed pause on the development of Cuba. Visiting today is like stepping back in time — vintage cars rumble down cobblestone streets, ration shops sit beside colonial palaces, and salsa dancers twirl against a backdrop of crumbling pastel facades.
2. PERFECT SEASON
The best time to visit the country is between November and April when the weather is relatively cool and dry – but still sunny and warm enough to spend a few hours by your hotel pool.
3. DIGITAL DETOX
Wifi signal will be sparse at best – Cuba does currently have Internet access, but it is very limited and slow. Visitors to the country can get connected through Cuba’s state run ETECSA telecom company. You can buy ETECSA prepaid wifi cards at special kiosks for $2-$3 per hour of service. However, it is best to go into your trip knowing that you will be on a digital detox.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
HOTEL AMBOS MUNDOS
Whether you are an Ernest Hemmingway fan or not (in room 511 is where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls), this eclectic, boutique hotel is a gem in the heart of Old Havana.
Calle Obispo 153, Old Havana, Havana
HOTEL SANTA ISABEL
Originally a palace built for Havana aristocracy, this chic hotel is located in one of the most beautiful squares in Old Havana. All of its 27 large rooms have balconies overlooking either the square or the harbor, and the palace itself has a palm-filled courtyard, blue shutters, and Cuban art.
Baratillo 9, Arm Square, Old Havana, Havana
While the rest of the city may be frozen in time, Havana’s first boutique hotel is certainly up-to-date with the most current of five-star comforts. Positioned opposite El Capitolio (the National Capitol Building), Hotel Saratoga offers guests spacious rooms, tasty eats, spa services, a fitness center and a dazzling rooftop terrace and pool.
Prado 603, by Dragones, Havana
A National Monument due to its sophisticated and antique grandeur, the Hotel Nacional has been situated overlooking the Havana Harbor for over 85 years. The hotel is vast, with 457 rooms, a cabaret room, two pools and (on display) the remaining two coastal guns from the Santa Clara Battery. Let’s just say, it was good enough for Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Naomi Campbell.
Calles 0 and 21, Vedado, Havana
WHO SHOULD I GO WITH?
If planning your own people-to-people trip doesn’t sound like much fun, then let these professionals do the work for you.
One of the few tour operators in the world that solely focus on Cuba, the Insight Cuba team are pioneers of the people-to-people trip. With half-a dozen signature Cuba tours, varying from 4-12 days, and four specialty Cuba tours (including a 4-day Havana getaway), these itinerary offerings have something for everyone.
The Access Trip to Cuba focuses on the culinary landscape of the country. On this small tour — a maximum of 10 people — you will learn to make various Cuban dishes and drinks. In Havana you will meet with farmers, chefs and artists, take a look inside the kitchen of a paladar, learn to salsa and mix daiquiris the way Hemmingway liked them. The tour also takes you to the Viñales Valley where you will meet with a third-generation tobacco farmer.
WHAT SHOULD I SEE?
MUSEO DE LA REVOLUCIÓN
In order to learn about the country’s fascinating history from the 1950s onwards, visit this museum which is housed in an ornate, dome-topped building that was once the presidential palace.
Avenida Bélgica, La Habana, Cuba
PARTAGAS CIGAR FACTORY
One of Havana’s oldest and most famous cigar factories, the national treasure that sits behind the Capitolio in Havana’s main square is well worth a visit.
Calle Industria 520, Havana, Cub
Havana’s 8km-long sea drive is a must when visiting Cuba. The sea-wall stretches four miles from Havana Harbor in Old Havana to modern downtown El Verado. Originally built to protect the city, now it is a favorite spot for swooning lovers taking nighttime walks. Wander down there around sunset for the most ethereal experience.
TALLER-ESTUDIO JOSÉ FUSTER
Cuba’s answer to Gaudí and Picasso is José Fuster. Over the past 20 years the Cuban artist has transformed the area unofficially known as Fusterlandia into a masterpiece of tiles, turrets and Barcelona-worthy beauty.
FORTALEZA DE SAN CARLOS DE LA CABAÑA
Covering 10 hectares and stretching 700 meters in length, this is the largest Spanish colonial fortress in the Americas. Built in the 18th century by the Spanish King Carlos III, the fort was so colossal that no invader ever attacked it. Nowadays it is a traveler favorite, especially the nightly 9pm cañonazo ceremony in which actors dressed in full 18th-century military regalia reenact the firing of a cannon over the harbor.
WHERE SHOULD I DRINK?
DRINK: LA BODEGUITA
First things first, mojitos are most definitely cheaper (and often times better) at other joints around the city. But, if you don’t have at least one drink in a Hemmingway-frequented establishment, did you really go to Havana?
Calle Empedrado 207, Habana Vieja, Havana
DRINK: EL FLORIDITA
Another Hemmingway favorite, El Floridita (which means ‘Little Florida’) is where the Nobel Prize-winning American writer often meandered to for his daiquiri fix. It was here that bartender Constante Ribalaigua is credited with inventing the frozen daiquiri after World War I. Since then, many generations of both Cuban and foreign intellectuals have visited this establishment. Follow their lead and try a daiquiri, but skip the overpriced, mediocre food menu
WHERE SHOULD I EAT?
Paladares are a new trend on the rise in Cuba, where private homes are converted into restaurants.
Varying from mom and pop operations to slick, global restaurants, the opening of these paladares has
vastly changed the once boring food scene in Havana. Here are our four favorite paladares
1. SAN CRISTÓBAL
Serving Cuban-Creole cuisine (malanga, yucca, cerdo asado, lobster, fresh fish), this particular paladar is located on the bottom floor of an early 20th century mansion. Make sure to try their pudding San Cristóbal (eggs, fruit, milk and almonds).
Calle San Rafael No 469, Central Havana
2. CAFÉ LAURENT
If you are looking for a Spanish Basque-based meal, then make your way up to the stylish Café Laurent. Situated in the penthouse of an apartment building, this paladar allows you to step back in time. Old 1950’s newspapers and adverts cover the walls, while the white awnings may just remind you of a restaurant in Miami. Our recommendation? Try the red snapper with clams and shrimp in green sauce (pargo con almejas y gambas en salsa verde).
Calle M No 257, between Calles 19 and 21, Vedado
3. DOÑA EUTEMIA
With a Cuban menu based on her mother’s recipes, Doña Eutemia is the paladar to visit for authentic Cuban cuisine. Leticia, the elderly owner, doesn’t feel the need to invent new dishes or greatly change any of the classics, so expect to eat tamal, ropa vieja, or pork, rice and beans.
Callejón del Chorro No 60C, Plaza de la Catedral
4. EL CHANCHULLERO
If you are looking to get off-the-beaten-path, then this is the paladar for you. A little hole in the wall place, El Chanchullero is a small bar with wooden tables, graffiti-covered walls, and a Spanish style tapas menu. While it is a little bit of a hassle to reach by car, the amazing value and quality of food more than make up for it.
Calle Teniente Rey #457a, Habana Vieja
WHERE SHOULD I SHOP & WHAT SHOULD I BUY?
SHOP: FOTOTECA DE CUBA
This excellent shop is attached to one of the city’s best photography galleries. All the photos for sale are by Cuban photographers and the subject matter ranges from social commentary to artistic shots to captivating landscapes.
The classic Cuban men’s shirt that is distinguished by two vertical rows of closely sewn pleats that run the length of the front and the back of the shirt. This store has sold it’s wares to the likes of Hugo Chavez, Jay Z and Sting.
BUY: CUBAN SYMBOLS
In the harbourside warehouse that now houses Almacenes de San José, Havana’s artisans have an ideal place in which to exhibit and sell their handicrafts. Leather items are predominant here, but you can also find ceramics, toys & masks, clothes, paintings & sculptures, and tobacco accessories.