After years of being off limits, Cuba is open to American travelers. But questions still remain about planning a trip.
The idea of traveling to Cuba can be overwhelming. It’s different than anywhere else in the Caribbean. It’s confusing, but it’s doable. There are just some things you need to know.
Travel to Cuba for strictly tourist activities isn’t permitted, but there are a dozen allowed categories for travel to Cuba including family visits, religious activities, humanitarian and projects, to name a few. Most Americans comply with the People-to-People US travel requirement, which essentially requires educational interactions between groups of travelers and Cuban people.
One of the easiest and more popular ways to visit Cuba right now is on a cruise, and many shore excursions offered by cruise lines take care of everything you need. I sailed to Havana with Carnival Cruise Lines, took part in an excursion and was in full compliance. In port a little shy of 24 hours, I also had time to wander on my own.
I think the hardest for most American’s is understanding money needs when headed to Cuba. American credit cards and debit cards don’t work in Cuba. You need to come armed with cash. Complicating it even more, Cuba has two forms of currency. The CUP is for residents, and the CUC is for tourists. It sounds like a recipe for tourism disaster, but it works. When you change money, you’ll lose 13 percent. $100 US becomes 87 CUC.
You’ll need cash for everything, including when you want to take a ride in one of Havana’s many colorful vintage cars. You’ve seen all the photos – Havana’s taxis could be the most photographed in the world. Convertibles and hard tops, they come in just about every color imaginable. They’re plentiful and for the most part easy to hail down in Havana’s more popular haunts. They also line-up in high traffic spots throughout Havana. You can use them to simply get from point A to point B, but it’s also common to book them by the hour. Many drivers also play the role of tour guide. (It should cost $50 per person, per hour.)
If you book a tour in a vintage car, the first place you should have your driver take you is Fusterlandia. About a half-hour outside of central Havana, this community art project was started by Jose Fuster, but in more than 20 years it’s spread through the community. Along with an assortment of colorful ceramic creatures, what would be ordinary surfaces like walls, gates and fences have been turned into works of art. Entrance is free. Neighbors and local artisans sell their handiwork. Sales help keep the project going.
If you’re a rum drinker, Cuba is the place for you. Same goes for cigars. That said, even if you’re not a cigar smoker or rum drinker, it’s fun to watch the shopping frenzy that whips up when visitors arrive.
When it comes to souvenirs, many Americans are bringing their fair share home with them. Anyone 18 or older can bring home up to 100 cigars without duty fees and one liter of alcohol is allowed for those 21 and older. If bringing home rum is part of the plan, just remember you’ll have to pack it in your checked luggage, so plan accordingly.
Dana’s trip to Cuba was sponsored by Carnival Cruise Line. As always, her thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos by Dana Rebmann.