I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with some friends recently. It’s not a place many Americans have traveled yet, so I wanted to share my experience with you.
The highlights were definitely the Cuban people, the people I was fortunate enough to travel with, and the fact that the place is not yet overrun by Americans.
I’m not a seasoned traveler outside of Western countries, so the challenges for me included not being able to drink the water, trying to protect myself from mosquito- and water- bourne illnesses and struggling with my pitiful Spanish language skills.
Vaccinations and other health-related concerns:
Your primary care doctor will likely send you to the travel clinic at SIU. They will tell you what vaccines you need. They can give them there, but your local health department might be more affordable.
For me, SIU suggested vaccines for typhoid and hepatitis A.
I went to the Morgan County Health Department for my hepatitis A shot (it’s 2 shots 6 months apart. I got one in February before I left and will get the second in August). You can also get the typhoid vaccine shot there.
I got a prescription for the oral typhoid vaccine (There are 4 pills and you have to keep them refrigerated) as well as a prescription for Cipro from my primary care doctor. The Cipro is to take with you in case you get sick while you are there.
You should also be up-to-date on your tetanus shot. There were A LOT of opportunities to get tetanus in Cuba.
Am I a tourist?
Technically, according to the U.S. Government, you can not be a tourist in Cuba. There are 12 designations that include educational and other reasons to travel to Cuba. One of those designations is “People-to-People.” That is the one we traveled under.
You have to purchase a travel card. You can do this through your airline. I purchased a travel card for $50 through Delta. When you are at the gate you use that travel card to fill out visa paperwork. You have to write your birthday, name, and address twice on this card. That doesn’t sound too hard, right? Just don’t mess it up. It costs $50 to get another card.
The currency situation in Cuba is very interesting. There are two currencies. The CUC (pesos convertibles – pronounced locally as “kooks”) is 1:1 with the U.S. dollar. This is the one used by travelers and in most of the places we went. The other currency, used by the locals is CUP (moneda nacional – pronounced “koops”) is has a 1:24 exchange rate with the U.S. dollar. Therefore, it is very important not to get these two mixed up. It is also important to be sure if you pay in CUC, you get change in CUC, not CUP.
If you go to a fruit market, a festival food stand, a street food stand or a small coffee shop in a place that is clearly only visited by locals, you can pay in CUP.
To get Cuban money, the exchange rate for Euros-to-CUC is better than the exchange rate for USD-to-CUC. So, I got Euros before leaving the U.S. and exchanged them for CUC when I got there.
Travelers from the U.S. must do all of their transactions in cash because the Cuban government has no relationship with U.S. banks. Therefore you can not use a credit card to purchase anything and you can not use ATMs.
There are two places to change money at the Havana Airport and there are Cadecas (currency exchanges) in Havana. Do not expect this to be a quick endeavour. There are always lines and the rules of how much you are allowed to change can, well, change, with no notice. I traveled with a group of people. We were all in line at the cadeca at the airport when we first arrived. The first four of us in line were told we could only change $100 each. Then, after four of use when through the line, the rest were told they ran out of money and that cadeca wouldn’t change any of our money.
One of the pieces of advice I took was to take gifts to share with people we connected with. While connecting was difficult due to my lack of Spanish, there were opportunities to give gifts.
If you Google “gifts to take to Cuba,” you will come up with lots of suggestions. Here are some of my favorites:
Pretty dangly earrings – I bought a couple of pair on clearance at Walmart
Fishing line – I brought two packages and gave one to our tour guide and one to a man with a fishing pole on the Malecón.
Guitar strings – I don’t play guitar, so had no idea what to look for. I went and talked to the friendly folks at Boyd Music on South Main Street. I explained what I wanted and why. They helped me find the right strings and even gave me a discount as a way to help me support musicians in Cuba.
Beanie babies – cheap and easy to find
Kids toothbrushes – they suggest not to bring candy because of lack of dental care available, but the sell cute toothbrush/toothpaste kits for kids. They are light, small, and appreciated.
We had two incredible tour guides. Our guide in Havana, Alaín gave us a one-day tour the focused mainly on the oldest part of Havana. He was incredibly interesting and was very opinionated about the Cuban government, but he had to be very careful what he said and who was around when he said it.
I’d highly recommend his tour. He can be contacted by e-mail or phone:
Havana Tour – Alaín
In Viñelas, Miguel can give you moutain or valley tours and also took a part of our group on a tour where they went swimming in a cave.