With quite a few of our readers travelling to Cuba within the last few months, we decided to share with you the experience of two travelers who are residents of the United States who traveled one month apart. Charlotte holds a German passport, and Brook holds a US passport.
What was it like clearing Immigration and customs in Cuba?
Charlotte: It is a smaller airport, which made the immigration portion faster, but everyone waited a while for their luggage. I entered with my German passport and got sent back out of the line after the immigration officer saw one entry stamp for the United States. A Cuban officer asked me in very broken English why I was coming to Cuba, what I wanted to do there, whom I was traveling with and what I had to do with the United States.
Brook: No Problems, did not ask typical immigration questions such as where we were staying, how long, etc. just took picture and that was it.
How did you get to your hotel from the airport?
Charlotte: My friends had recommended to reach out to Maritza, a local lady who is absolutely wonderful and a management queen. Even though we weren’t directly staying in her accommodations, she arranged for our pick up and rooms. A friendly family member of hers was already waiting for me.
Brook: We prepaid for a taxi through Casaparticular (who we booked our apartment through) lots of people holding up signs with names when we walked out of airport but none with our name. So, after standing in line for an hour to get Cuban money we found a taxi driver who spoke English, and paid him $25 for a ride into Havana.
Did you travel out of Havana?
Charlotte: We did a day excursion to Vinales to see caves and cigar production, and spent three days in Trinidad. Trinidad is another beautiful, colonial city with beautiful beaches nearby.
Brook: We spent one day in Santa Maria which is about 25 miles away from Havana. beautiful beaches and some nice little outdoor restaurants to get food and drinks. Not much else there and not very developed. If you want a lounger or Umbrella to sit under, you have to pay for them.
Describe your accommodation?
Charlotte: Maritza organized most of our accommodations and I booked one night in Trinidad via Airbnb. The accommodations we had in Havana were apartments or rooms that were separate from the owner’s apartments. In Trinidad we had two different rooms and they each were inside a local family’s house.
Brook: We rented a 2 bedroom apartment through Casaparticular. We paid $65 / night. It was clean, with a TV and small gas stove to cook. The bathroom was good with hot water. No washing machine, so we had to hand wash clothes. We were about 5 miles away from old town Havana, but still in a built up area. It was very noisy even on the 8th floor, cars honking horns throughout the night and loud exhausts.
What are ‘touristy’ things you did?
Charlotte: We got picked up in old timers for taxi rides, but we didn’t pay extra for it or especially book it. We went to one of Hemingway’s favorite bars ‘La Floridita’ in Havana. We bought some cigars. We went to the cannon ceremony in Havana that is held each night at nine o’ clock at the La Cabana Fortress on the other side of the Havana Bay and symbolizes the closing of the city gates. It includes a military ceremony with actors dressed in Spanish uniforms.
Brook: Old town Havana, Ernest Hemingway bars and hotel, the cigar factory was closed for construction however a small store was still open to buy cigars (Americans can bring up to 100 back). We went for a drive in an old convertible (going rate is $50 / hour) this includes your driver and a set route tour around the city. The bus tour on the open top double-Decker (paid $10 each adult, kid was free) for a 2 hour tour around Havana. Not a whole lot of great places to get on/off but good overview of city.
What type of food is available for foreigners?
Charlotte: Cuba is very limited, when it comes to ‘consumption of food’. There are no international chains and no supermarkets. There are plenty of restaurants in all the touristy areas, but we weren’t impressed with the food or cooking skills. No one was left hungry, but take some snacks with you, like energy bars. Here and there you find some small corner stores, but they are limited to a few items and you can’t snack on a pound of flour!
Brook: Groceries are very limited… long lines even at Farmers Market, but cost less than $1 for a couple of pineapples and a bunch of bananas. Didn’t see milk, eggs or sugar. Lots of very small mom / pop type stores that sold coffee / creamer / soda / beer / etc. Found several bakeries as we walked around. Picked up bag of small sweet rolls / muffins for about $1 (or 1 CUC)
Not much Cuban food… some fish with beans, rice, and fried banana. Most places sell pizza, pasta, and ham and cheese sandwiches.
What type of shopping did you do?
Charlotte: We bought a few touristy souvenirs and cigars, but beyond touristy items, shopping options are very limited. Stores are difficult to find and the few items available would not appeal to the taste of foreigners. It is definitely not a shopping paradise.
Brook: Old town has plenty of cheap tourist stores selling the typical tourist filler… Che and Castro everything including hats, shirts, cups, pictures. We picked up some local painted art, wooden carvings, fridge magnets, etc. Cigars from Partagas Cigar Store (don’t buy on the street). Cuban Rum is cheap $8 for a big bottle of the 3 anos (3 year old).
What was the procedure leaving Cuba?
Charlotte: Leaving was very easy. For someone concerned they might still need Cuban money after they go through baggage check, there are also currency exchanges in the terminal area.
Brook: Know which terminal you are leaving from as there are three, and in different locations. Security was easy and there is duty free once you clear it. Cuba does not put a date on receipt so if transferring in US through airports, then TSA will not allow liquids (rum) to go through. Recommend buy rum and take bubble wrap or extra towel to protect bottle and put it in checked luggage.
Did you face any obstacles arriving in the US?
Charlotte: I was fully prepared for questioning at the US border and had all my documents ready. Especially as a visa holder I had a letter of employment, all my usual documents and I had made a list of the educational activities I had done, to be able to demonstrate that I didn’t just lie on the beach for a week and comply with the allowed activities under US regulations. In the end they didn’t ask me a single question. The Customs Officer just wanted to know whether I had a great time. My concerns seemed to be unfounded.
Most Important Thing to Know: It is not possible to access US bank accounts and withdraw money or pay with cards while in Cuba. You have to take enough US dollars that you can exchange locally as needed for your entire trip. I had to lend money to another girl from Florida because she thought she could use her cards and she completely ran out of money. Not even the banking apps like Venmo or Wells Fargo work, because the (very slow and hardly available) Internet on Cuba blocks American IP addresses.
Brook: TSA and their typical rude behavior…. see above!!!