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Everything You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba This Year
Consider these practicalities before exploring the country's iconic attractions.
Embracing the unexpected, carrying cash and relying on a trusted cultural travel agency are a few ways to get the most out of your trip.(Getty Images)
A land of contradictions, Cuba is as fascinating as it is confusing; as beautiful as it is heartbreaking; and as challenging as it is freeing. With restored diplomatic relations with the U.S. and lifted travel restrictions, Cuba's landscape, culture and economy is changing – almost too fast for the time-capsuled country to catch up. Despite the relaxed travel stipulations, Americans still face many challenges, requiring more detailed and strategic planning. And while there's no way to fully prepare yourself for the enriching and multifaceted cultural experiences you'll have while on the ground, these tips can help you plan ahead and navigate the country with ease.
[Read: How to Travel to Cuba.]
Accept That Wi-Fi is a Commodity
The best way to describe Wi-Fi access in Cuba? A novelty. Though there are places throughout larger cities such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba that provide Internet access, the signal will be sparse at best and you'll spend more time trying to connect than being connected. Some hotels do offer access in the lobby, like Hotel Nacional, but it's best to go in knowing you'll spend most of your trip on a digital detox.
Like any country across Cuba, you'll find a mix of lesser-known gems and tourist haunts. For a kitschy yet unforgettable meal – particularly if you're a Hemingway fan – head to El Floridita, which is worth the hype with signed menus, napkins and more memorabilia from the literary great. And for an authentic dining experience, check out a paladar, or independently run restaurant, where you'll find traditional dishes like ropa vieja (a stew-like mix of meats and vegetables over red beans and rice).
A Trip Takes Planning
Unlike neighboring islands, you can't simply book a flight and head to Cuba on a spur-of-the-moment trip. Along with securing a tourist visa, most trips still need to fit into Cuba's 12 broad and legally permissible purposes, like people-to-people tours, at least for the foreseeable future. To ensure your trip is legit, book through a reputable cultural travel agency, such as Intrepid Travel or Insight Cuba, that will provide the people-to -people experiences the government requires and you, honestly, want. The smaller group size and more immersive experiences also help to provide a deeper understanding of the local culture.
There's More to See Outside of Havana
Havana is certainly one of Cuba's most iconic cities, and there is no shortage of things to see in and around the Malecón and Old Havana. However, there is so much more to Cuba than Havana. Take Santiago de Cuba, which features restored colonial architecture, breathtaking mountain and water views, a lively city square and an 18th-century walking promenade. Meanwhile, the small fishing village of Cienfuegos, about a three- to four-hour drive from Havana, is another must- see, with its ornate mansions and bustling city center. Trinidad, a small, UNESCO World Heritage town in the center of Cuba, is difficult to reach, but worth the trek, with its storied city center, cornucopia of colorful buildings and dramatic Escambray Mountains.
Hotel Rooms Are Scarce
Keep in mind hotel rooms across the country (even in Havana) are expensive and limited. For example, most cost-effective places lack common amenities such as consistent air-conditioning, comfortable furnishings, hot water and Internet access. To get the most out of your experience, skip the pricey hotel in favor of a vacation rental, a private home or a cruise.
Look for More Than Vintage Cars
The Cuba you've probably come to expect – a fascinating, sometimes glamorous time-capsuled country, where locals drive pastel-hued vintage cars, smoke cigars on the corner and play billowing jazz music all day long – is a stark contrast to the actual country. Sure, you will likely pass a vintage car or cigar shop, but there's so much more to experience. After enjoying a taxi tour in a vintage convertible in Havana for fun, albeit kitschy exploration, spend time wandering along the streets on foot to see under-the-radar parts of the city.
Knowing a Little Spanish is Key
If you want to see lesser-visited cities (think: Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Trinidad), you'll need to have at least a basic understanding of Spanish since English is not widely spoken among locals. If you don't have time to learn Spanish phrases, book tours around these towns with a local guide whose language proficiency can help you navigate the area and connect with the locals in a way only Spanish speakers can.
Keep in mind that many vendors, restaurants and cab drivers don't accept American credit cards (mostly due to the restrictions, and much to do with the lack of available technology). In addition, ATMS are few and far between (and none accept U.S. debit cards), so the easiest way to travel with ease is to bring cash. There are two currencies in Cuba, the national peso and the Cuban convertible peso. Currently, $1 U.S. dollar equates to about $1 convertible Cuban peso or $26.5 national pesos.
The Easiest Way to Explore is by Cruise
Currently, the easiest and most comfortable way to experience Cuba is by cruise. Fathom, the first cruise line to visit Cuba in over 50 years from the U.S., launched their inaugural cruise from Miami to Havana in early May, and have biweekly itineraries available throughout 2017. On a cruise, you'll not only get to experience the charms of the Havana with a local guide, you'll also see hard-to-reach places, such as Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Plus, after taking emotional tours, you can return to comfortable accommodations, complete with familiar foods and amenities, like TVs.
Getting From City to City Can be Hard
Unless you're on a cruise ship, getting from point A to B isn't as easy as renting a car or taking a coach bus. Many of the roads between cities (think: Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba) are challenging to navigate. A drive between the two destinations could take as long as 14 hours, and driving at night is nearly impossible, since no street lights exist. Plus, the domestic flights from Havana to Santiago are just as unreliable, and sometimes are canceled or delayed at last minute.
Cuba's Culture and Rich Heritage is Humbling
With its crumbling monuments and dilapidated houses, Cuba's disarray is a reflection of its shattered economy, complicated communist ruling and lack of resources from much of the world. While there's incredible beauty all around, remember to visit with an open mind. One of the most rewarding parts of visiting Cuba is interacting with its people. Cubans are known for their hospitality and sincere demeanor, and the majority of locals are optimistic about future relations with the U.S. You're likely going to leave the country changed, confused and enlightened by the experiences, observations and people you encounter along the way – all of which makes a visit that much more meaningful.
About En Route
Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.
Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.
Edited by Liz Weiss.
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