I spent my 38th birthday visiting Havana, Cuba. I wanted to get in before the travel regulations were more stringent or before the first McDonald’s showed up. As a photographer and a history buff, I’ve always been fascinated with Cuba. A full detailed outline of their complex history can be found here. Something I rarely do, is hire a tour guide, but having never been, having no cellular reception and no credit card use, I thought it made sense. Our tour guide from Cuban Connections, was simply, amazing. His loose and high-level version of the island’s history was:
- Natives were here. Spain showed up. Slaughtered the natives. Imported slaves.
- Over time, you have large land owners. You have businessmen. There’s a revolution against the colonization. The slaves are told if you fight along side “us”, you’ll get your freedom. They do. The freedom isn’t exactly freedom.
- Post revolution #1, Cuba still basically has a free market economy. The original founders of Bacardi, for example, started in Cuba. The free market economy creates haves and have nots. There’s a 2nd revolution led by Castro, Guerra and others. They topple the government.
- To rectify the have and have not situation, the government tells the wealthy, you know longer own that, we do. Yes, they took someone’s business, house, land and their wealth. They take that and “give it to the people.” Sure, you can stay on, in your business and we will offer you a salary.
- The wealthy who are now robbed by the government, leave for places like Spain or Puerto Rico. Bacardi, based in San Juan, is only based there because after the government seized their assets, they fled to Puerto Rico to start anew. This is why Havana Club exists. The brand was built on the plantations, distillery and inventory of what Bacardi had left, before leaving.
- This habit of siezing wealth to fully redistribute to the poor drove out innovation and entrepreneurism, but provided things like government provided healthcare. The Cuban healthcare system is renowned and their medical advances, respected. It also meant that, no Cuban, would ever have to pay for a funeral.
- When you “own” a house, you don’t own a house. The government owns the house. Your taxes pay for the upkeep of the outside. You are accountable for the inside, to a point. Think of this like the a country-wide Home Owner’s Association.
- Every restaurant we would eat at, is ultimately government owned. Restaurants fall into 2 basic categories. The first are called “Paladares” – these are restaurant concepts that are created and managed by a person. If you will, Adam’s Taco Joint. But, even though it’s my idea, concept and business, the government would need to approve it and they generally own the building being used. Most Paladares are above the 1st floor. The second category are government designed concepts. It’s their direct business. But, it employs the staff. If you’ve ever lived in Pennsylvania and contested with the state owned liquor stores, this is that concept, but for eateries. These restaurants are usually on the first floor.
Pretty fascinating stuff, from a tour guide born, raised and trying to make a business work in Cuba. I’m not making a judgement on anything. I am and always have been a fan of history. Cuba’s is complicated.
But, you probably didn’t come here for the history, you came for the travel advice and the photos.
How to Travel to Cuba – The Basics
- We flew from Chicago through Ft. Lauderdale and into Havana, on Southwest Airlines. I can’t recommend them enough.
- You will need a Visa. If you book with Southwest, they help to decrease the cost of the Visa, to $50, per person.
- You will need to purchase Cuban Healthcare. Again, in your ticket purchase with Southwest, this cost is included.
- You can reserve a hotel online with a credit card, but U.S. credit cards are not accepted in Cuba due to the embargo. So, you’ll need to pay in cash for your hotel and everything else. We stayed at the Melia Habana. On a 2nd trip we would probably pick the Iberostar for it’s direct proximity to the city center.
- Customs in Cuba will require your luggage to be screened again. Total process is about 15 minutes.
How to Travel to Cuba – The Tips
- Bring lots of cash. I would recommend about $200 a day, per couple, to cover 3 meals, bottled water, tips, taxi, drinks. Beer and mixed drinks are generally $3 to $4.50, but can creep to $6 or $12 at finer establishments. It was rare to pay more than $5. If you exchange money, realize you can only do it at the airport, a bank or your hotel (if they offer it). The exchange rate + fees, means you get $0.87 CUC for every $1 USD.
- Havana was safe and very walkable. Walk, talk with the locals and explore. I can’t say this enough. Every street, every corner is a new adventure.
- Cabs, both new and classic, are all over the place. You’ll never pay more than $30. When you aren’t hoofing it, this is the best way to travel around the city.
- Your U.S. cell phone service won’t work, or if it does, it will be very expensive. If you stay at a hotel, most offer WiFi for free. To make that work, while on the go, I recommend downloading AlaMesa, the Cuban version of Yelp, that works without an internet connection. This was invaluable.
- Drink the rum. Specifically, drink the Ron de Santiago 25 year. Trust me on this. Also, drink the daiquiri at The Floridita. And make sure to have a mojito or pina colada at the Hotel Nacional.
- Facebook, twitter, Instagram and email will work. No dice on Snapchat and most retail websites. For example, good luck visiting Target.com. I found FB Messenger to be the best cross platform way for keeping in touch with everyone.
- Tipping for good service is not expected. But, if offered, the standard is 10%. Some restaurants and bars will include a 10% feel automatically. Read your bill, so you don’t “tip” twice.
We had an amazing time soaking up the sights, culture, food and drinks. I can’t say enough about the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people. Every person we encountered was kind, patient, helpful and pleasant. If you can find the time to visit, I highly recommend it. A full collection of my favorite photos from the trip can be found here.