Traveling to Cuba
I've received many messages about my travels to Cuba. I've been to Cuba about 4 times already, so let me share with you a bit of what I learned. Getting into Cuba is surprisingly quite simple, so I hope you feel more at ease by the end of this post.
I feel a very deep and personal connection to Cuba-- Spanish-speaking black and brown people everywhere, late nights, lots of salsa, disco music, unique sense of humor, kindness, cooking, and so much more that words cannot capture. I've never felt more like myself in a country before... and I've been to many!! Perhaps looking back my biggest mistake was traveling to mostly European countries. Perhaps my biggest mistake was buying into the hype of visiting countries like England, France and Italy that I forgot about visiting the countries that my roots belong to. Don't get me wrong, I do not one bit regret visiting those countries. I just immediately gain something much stronger, personal and powerful by visiting countries like Cuba and Puerto Rico (which I visited for the first time in a long time earlier this year, you can check out my post about it here!). Europe is beautiful as heck, but is my culture there? No. And because I realized that I want and need to feel a deep connection to the country in order to fully enjoy the experience, I've made it a goal for my next travel destinations to be throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
Back to the point of the post!! If you plan on taking a trip to Cuba soon, here are my suggestions on how to do it and what to bring!
1. Decide what license you're going under. With Trump's new restrictions you cannot go on educational people-to-people trips alone and must go with a tour group and have an official tour guide with you at all times. However, there are still 11 other categories you can go under. You can read about them here. When I went the first time (in April, before Trump laid out restrictions) I went on a salsa tour under education--I had a full-blown itinerary detailing where I would be at all times. The second time I went was with my mom and we also went under education. I didn't have a full-blown itinerary this time around, but I had my teacher ID along with some documents that would have proven that I was going for research purposes--you can ask me more about that via email if you're interested in what I prepared-- email@example.com. My mom did not have any documents prepared but if immigration were to stop her, she had a speech prepared (she literally went over it with me at least a dozen times) for what her educational purpose was. We weren't sure if her speech would work, but luckily she was not questioned at immigration... we're continously living life on the edge!
Each time I returned back to the US from Cuba I was not stopped at immigration. I was never asked to show any documents, never asked about my reasons, instead I was greeted with a "Welcome back" and "Have a good day." One time I came back and was met by the same immigration officer as the previous time. Did he recognize me? Of course not! But still, I was greeted with a "Welcome back!" and no questioning.
2. Buy a visa on CubaTravelServices.com. They're $85 online. Some airlines sell them at the airport. The last time I went I was able to buy mine at JetBlue the second I arrived to the airport for $50 (debit/credit only). If you choose to buy at the airport, call your airline to find out if they sell it at the airport a few weeks before your flight. If they do not, order through CubaTravelServices and it will take about a week to arrive.
3. Exchange your money to Euro before going to Cuba. From my experience, literally anything between Cuba and the U.S is expensive. You will be charged more if you exchange US dollars to CUC when you get to Cuba. Go prepared. I always go to A&S Foreign Exchange right near Penn Station to exchange my money.
4. Don't go empty handed! Especially now that hurricane Irma has destroyed many parts of the country and many people are rebuilding their homes, some even for a second time (Hurricane Matthew destroyed many parts of Eastern Cuba in October 2016). I highly recommend going with a few extra basic necessities in your bag to leave at the Casa you're staying in, or to leave with the amazingly nice people you will meet. When I visit, I visit people who already feel like family to me, so I always bring whatever I can (pens, pencils, t-shirts, shoes, book bags). I've seen book bags in Cuba cost about 20 CUC, however the average person in Cuba makes about 12-15 CUC a month. So really, a gift will go a long way.
On my first trip, I remember being on a big tour bus and getting off for a coffee stop--the bus suddenly became surrounded by local women who were almost climbing onto the tour bus and asking us for things like pens, toilet paper, etc. This definitely was not a common experience... but it was an experience that made me realize a lot about how much it takes for Cubans to provide for themselves and for their families. (Conditions aren't the same for every one in Cuba, some people live better off than others, however this is just an example of something I witnessed).
5. Visit Eastern Cuba! Many people visit Havana when they go to Cuba. When I first visited I went on a salsa tour of Eastern Cuba. Due to a flight delay I missed out on Santiago de Cuba and Guardalavaca, but I was able to meet up with the group in Guantanamo and Baracoa. When I visited again over this past summer, I finally made it out to the west and visited the ever famous Havana and another city a few hours away, Cienfuegos. In the east you don't really see too many tourists, at least not many American tourists-- I did see a handful of Europeans though. You really get a raw sense of the culture and lifestyle when you're in the east, it's more like the countryside. The people of Cuba in general are, from my experience, very raw and pure. People in the west, in particular, from what I have seen and learned from my Cuban friends, have more ways to earn money. Havana is filled with tourists, thousands of them. It's filled with beautiful old-fashioned cars, transportation on just about every corner, many restaurants, shops and souvenir shops and even big houses in certain locations (in Miramar you'll find a street of many embassies, it is very reminiscent of some parts of Puerto Rico). In the east I got the sense that the people lived more humbly, some in very poor conditions, but some more comfortable than others.
6. Don't drink the tap water. Our stomachs aren't strong enough for their tap water. Their water doesn't undergo the filtering or purification process that we're used to. Cubans are used to it though, and for the most part it's the only water they drink. I tried drinking it once and I loved it... it tasted just like the water I'm used to. BUT, my stomach regretted it the entire night! Brushing your teeth with tap water is fine though.
6. Cuba is safe!! I remember walking through the streets of Baracoa at 8pm just about every night I was there. I kid you not, every single person had their door open and every single person had their television volume raised to probably it's highest capacity. For blocks all I heard was the same novela being played by each house I walked by. All of this to say, Cubans are not afraid to keep their doors open. I've heard countless of times from Cubans and from tourists just how safe they feel living in Cuba. Of course, like in any city, crime does happen, but for the most part they do not involve tourists.
7. Sun block! This is pretty self-explanatory, but when I say the sun is REAL in Cuba, the sun is REAL. Protect yo' skin.
8. A bit of make-up! On nights out Cubans go ALL out. "Nails done, hair done, everything did" as Mary J. Blige says; this applies to every night out you will experience in Cuba, I promise. Don't fall behind!
And finally, please understand that while you may see Cuba as the country that is cool and old-looking and you may believe that you need to visit before the country starts to undergo changes-- Cuba is much more than its aesthetic appeal. Get to know the people and the culture!
And most of all, HAVE FUN, LIKEEEEEE!!!
Have any more questions?? Ask below!!