In September, I flew into Havana, Cuba by way of Cancun. I made a LOT of mistakes, and I’d like to help you avoid these same pitfalls by sharing some tips for visiting Cuba.
1. Don’t set a Cuba travel alert with your credit cards.
I set a travel alert on my credit cards and debit cards in advance, listing Mexico and Cuba on the same notice. On the first day of my trip, I received a notification that my travel alert had been declined. The use of my credit cards and my Charles Schwab debit account was frozen. My plan had been to fly into Mexico, use my fee-free debit card to take out Mexican Pesos at the airport, take my flight to Cuba and exchange Pesos for Cuban pesos convertibles in Havana. Oops. BIG oops. I now only have the US cash that I have in my pocket, bound for 4 days solo in Cuba. Learn from me.
2. Bring a lot of cash.
Preferably Mexican Pesos or Euros. US bank run credit and debit cards will not work in Cuba. Even my Charles Schwab checking account locked me out because I attempted to log in from Cuba. There are several cash exchange centers in Havana, and there is a 10% higher charge to exchange US dollars. I was also limited to exchanging $100 dollars at a time. Prepare to stand in long queues and don’t go near lunchtime. You will enjoy your trip much more if you bring more cash than you’ll expect to need. Get your Cuban cigars while you can!
3. Fly in through Cancun.
I bought a tourist visa for $20 in line at the airport. (The same guy also exchanged $100 USD into Cuban for me, yay!) Cuba customs won’t stamp your passport, instead they will stamp the paper tourist visa. Also, I flew Interjet and they offered free beer on the hour short trip.
4. Get outside of Havana.
My trip was a short 4 days, so I spent it all inside of Havana. I’d recommend you get outside of Havana to the tobacco plants, beaches and charming towns. My friend Gina went diving in Cuba and I’m jealous!
5. Be open minded. Be friendly. Learn about Cuban culture. Dance!
Cuba is amazing. It’s a cultural gem with something for everyone. Go dancing at the Tropicana. Walk along the Malecon. Eat churros and empanadas from the street vendors. It’s certainly not the US. Experience all that you can.
6. Lastly, visit the Plaza des Armas.
This was my favorite spot in Havana. The Plaza overlooks the coast and the Malecon, and is bordered by a fort and the breathtaking Museo de la Ciudad. The friendly square hosts a daily book fair selling vintage wares and posters. I bought a pretty silver ring from a friendly man who chatted with me for an hour. I sat in on a bench and read my book, journaled and watched the people stroll by. Lively music and delicious smells of Cuban food filled the warm air.