Before reading you must know I am citing my experience and what I did and recommend. I most certainly didn’t get a chance to do everything I wanted to do or go everywhere in Cuba.
Buying airline tickets:
My departure city was Kansas City so I knew I would have to connect to another city before arriving to Cuba. I scoured the web for cheap tickets, but for me the cheapest way was to fly to Grand Cayman island and catch a flight to Cuba from there. My tickets all together round-trip cost me $650. I got my tourist visa at the airport in Grand Cayman. It cost $25 and you need to make sure that you keep one half of the visa on departure from Cuba. You can mark down one of the 12 reasons you are going to Cuba and the airport clerk will take the paper and you won’t ever see it again. I talked to other tourists that had went through Cancun and they said they spent $110 on a ticket to Havana. This might be cheaper for you so I suggest trying to see all options. In September this might change since all major airlines will be flying to Cuba.
What to do before going to Cuba:
- Buy the Moon Guidebook to Cuba by Christopher P. Baker http://moon.com/books/moon-cuba/ Read the history of Cuba section and educate yourself on the dynamics of this country. Also, familiarize yourself with the regions of the Cuba. This book was indispensable on my trip. The advice, maps, recommendations and background information on Cuba added the value to my Cuban experience.
- Watch Dick Jordan’s documentary Cuba Libre? https://vimeo.com/151719656. The movie really does a good job of describing the transformation that Cuba went through during the revolution and how it continues to change even now.
- Take a Spanish course. I recommend having a subscription to www.baselang.com. You can take as many one on one lessons you want for $90 a month and it’s $1 for the first week. I was fortunate enough to speak Spanish fluently, but I can imagine no knowledge of the language would be difficult. English is not widely spoken.
- Listen to my podcasts with Christopher P. Baker and Vivien Lougheed at www.thelocales.com under the Caribbean and Oceania tab.
- Watch Rick Steve’s Travel Talk on Cuba. Here is a link to the video https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/video/travel-talks/travel-guide-to-cuba. He also does a podcast on his show with Christopher P. Baker.
- Check out Airbnb for housing in Cuba.
Where to stay in Havana:
I stayed in Central Havana or Centro Havana. I found this to be more authentic Cuba. The other places had a tourist atmosphere or more of a modern day feel. I could walk around Centro Havana without being asked if I wanted to do anything touristy. I used Airbnb to find Alvio and Irina (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/9106029) and Ernesto and Mary (Ernesto’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Both of these Casas were close to the Malecon and walkable distances to Old Havana and $5 CUC taxi ride to Vedado or Old Havana.
How to get around Havana:
I walked everywhere, but for those that want to save on paying for a taxi to drive you around Havana go to Parque Central in Old Havana and hop on the tour bus for $5 CUC. I found that the taxis and coco taxis were the same price. I felt a lot safer in old antique tanks than I did in the coco taxi.
What to do in Havana:
Here is my ranking of things I did and saw and recommendations:
- Malecon. Walk in the morning, afternoon and night. This seafront walkway is the heartbeat of Havana in my opinion. People dance, fish and socialize at all hours.
- Live Salsa Music/Dancing. I walked down Calle Obispo and saw a lot of open bars with live music and dancing. I recommend La Casa del Son for a Salsa Dancing school. There classes are $25 CUC for 2 hours and the instructors are great. We all went out to dance at Hotel Florida. I highly recommend it.
- Havana Centro. I felt like this place felt the most like actual Cuba. Most places will accept the moneda nacional, or Cuban peso that Cuban citizens use. I had plates full of food for $2.50 CUC.
- Old Havana. This was my second favorite region of Havana. The architecture made you feel like you were back in time. Also, you can access a lot of museums and it’s close to the La Plaza Vieja and La Plaza de la Catedral.
- La Plaza de la Revolución. The Che and Cienfuegos sculptures are a must see and a symbol of the revolution, which is referenced throughout Cuba.
Honorable Mention: Museo de la Revolución, Vedado, La Rambla, Capitolio.
I exchanged money at the airport. If you can get Euros you get a better rate. I brought a lot of money because I had heard that ATM’s don’t work and I found that to be true. Also, make sure you bring nice crisp clean bills. One of my $20 bills had a small microscopic tear in it and they wouldn’t accept it.
Transportation around the island:
I found this to be easy. You can get a private taxi, which is the most expensive, but also the most comfortable. I used the colectivos, which are vans or trucks which haul about 11–12 people. It was somewhat uncomfortable, but fairly cheap. I traveled to Viñales via colectivo and paid $12 CUC.
Where to stay in Viñales:
Green House (La Casa Verde) Yamila y Nedel are the owners of the home that is located on Calle Septima. Email is email@example.com This place was by far my favorite. Yamila and Nedel were very accommodating and Yamila made the best food that I had in Cuba. I felt like a part of their family, throwing the baseball around with their son and taking a ride from Yamila’s father in his 1951 Chevy. I won’t stay anywhere different when I return to Viñales. It cost me $30 CUC and that included breakfast and dinner.
How to get around Viñales:
I rented a bike $10CUC per day or walked. Viñales is not a big town (10,000) so it was easy to navigate, although my excursions to the tobacco farms were easier with a bike.
What to do in Viñales:
Here is my ranking of things I did and saw and recommendations:
- Tobacco farms. Go to the ones that have signs that say Parque Nacional. I walked right up to these farms and got a tour of the farms and information about what they are growing and how. One farmer hiked me up a mogote to some caves. These farms will roll you cigars and provide a coffee and conversation. These were some of my favorite times. These farms are also where I bought the cigars I brought back. They hand rolled them for me.
- Cuevas del Indio. Touristy, but any time you can take a boat on a river in a cave I mark that as a worthwhile experience.
- Mural de la Prehistoria. A vast painting on the side of a rock wall. It is impressive and eery seeing it at a distance.
- The Cave Bar at Palenque. Having a beer in a cave bar is an experience worth doing.
- Salsa and Bachata Dancing Lessons from Paradiso. On the main strip Paradiso offers salsa and bachata lessons $10CUC for 2 hours. My teacher Yazmin was fantastic. You can dance in the main square or the bars close to the plaza every night.
Honorable Mention: Drinking Guarapo in rural Vinales, La Cueva de la Vaca, Horseback Riding, Hiking in La Cueva de la Vaca.