Though only 90 miles from the USA, it feels like a lifetime away. Stepping inside the time capsule called Cuba means leaving behind the 21st century to emerge in the fabulous 1950’s. While you’ll occasionally find newer development, most of the country was built prior to the 1960’s and is in various stages of decay. Though the physical differences are immediately obvious, the cultural, political, and societal differences are perhaps even more pronounced. It is impossible to fully understand Cuba and the plight of its people without visiting the enchanting country.
For some of us, a trip to Cuba takes more planning than visits to other countries. First, Americans are eligible to visit under the general license of “Support for the Cuban People.” There are many direct flights from airports in Florida, as well as other gateway cities. Everyone must have a Cuban visa prior to arrival. This is currently $85 and can usually be purchased from the airport departure gate. Expect to pay cash.
Yes, and about cash. Expect to pay with it everywhere in Cuba. Nearly all businesses accept only cash. Though the Cuban Peso is their official currency, most (if not all) small businesses and individual sellers of services and goods only accept foreign currency. Most readily accepted throughout the country are the USD, GBP and Euro. You can generally pay with any of the three but should have “some” local currency on hand for things like buses and other government fees. Seemingly counterintuitive, locals are widely known to charge more if you try to pay in Cuban Pesos. Their own currency is so weak right now that nearly all purchasing power requires foreign money.
Some other financial things to keep in mind are that Cubans are astonishingly picky about the condition of the foreign money they receive. They will reject any bill that shows any signs of aging so make sure there aren’t any bent or torn corners, or even tiny tears on the sides. And since change will almost never be given, make sure you bring an abundance of $1’s, $5’s and $10’s. Not only is this helpful when it comes time to pay for things, it is also extremely helpful when you are hit up by beggars, who are everywhere. Additionally, plan to tip everyone for everything. Because the locals don’t make enough money to support themselves, they depend upon the generosity of tourists. Sadly, many also depend upon scamming foreigners out in the streets, in taxis and in local eateries and bars. Don’t carry money you aren’t willing to part with and always negotiate prices for everything before you accept or order.
If you’d like to provide more help than simply giving cash tips, consider bringing extra medications, band aids, toiletries of all kinds, candy, and pet food for the many starving animals. These things are difficult or impossible to purchase in Cuba today. As far as I know, Americans have not had any trouble bringing a suitcase of these things into Cuba during their travels. You’ll soon discover upon arrival that stores are few and far between, and those open have little to no inventory.
Cuba offers much to see and do for tourists, and the real treat is in simply being there. Seeing how the hanging, brightly colored and beautiful potted plants and vines growing from the ground cover the façade of buildings, crumbling from decades of neglect. Smelling the ever-present exhaust and acclimating to the damp tropical heat in a country predominantly without air conditioning. Visiting with the proud locals who despite their lack of what most humans would consider necessities, genuinely love their country. Enjoying the local food and delicious drinks, listening to fantastic music, and relaxing on beautiful beaches.
While there is so much more, when you’re in the capital city of Havana, make sure you specifically:
Stroll through PlazaMayor, which is the center of what was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
Visit Malecón Blvd at sunset for a visual treat.
See Museo Hemingway Finca Vigia and discover how Hemingway lived from viewing the outside of his home.
Enjoy the history of El Morro Castle, which is part of two combined Spanish fortifications that together make up the largest defensive complex in the Americas, built in 1630. Workers dress in period costumes and the history presented is priceless. Don’t miss the nighttime light show and cannon ceremony at 9pm.
See the newly restored National Capitol of Cuba, El Capitolio.
Take in the site of Plaza de la Revolución, which houses large communist-style buildings with facial depictions of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
Absolutely, tour the vastly different, yet beautiful city from the comfort of an old American convertible car.
By Lisa Osborne Blalock
Footloose Travel & Tours