5 to Survive: Cuba

I’ve just returned from a 5 day trip to Cuba. While there, my group and I visited the cities of Havana, Viñales, and Trinidad. The island is beautifully resilient and I struggle to describe my experience there. However, I’d like to give some tips that’ll help your trip go smoothly.

If you are in the early planning stages of your trip, be sure to read my article here.

1. Your tour guide/host may be the plug (or at least the extension cord). Prior to arriving in Cuba we booked our AirBnbs in Havana and Trinidad. Along with a tour of Viñales. We knew we wanted to stay in Trinidad for one night, but had no idea how we would get there.

I had heard horror stories about the reliability, or lack thereof, of the Viazul bus and the prices for private drivers were outrageous. During our tour of Viñales I asked our guide if he knew of anyone willing to drive us from Havana to Trinidad, roughly a 5 hour trip. Not only did he know someone, but he was able to help us book a ride there in a modern, air conditioned car for 280CUC total round-trip. This price was significantly better than what we were quoted by classic car drivers on the island. On our return from Trinidad I was able to book a tour of Havana, visit to Playa del Este, and an airport transfer with the same driver for less than 60CUC total.

Don’t be afraid to ask people you meet on the island for recommendations!

2. Don’t change all of your money at once and don’t do it on the street. When we landed at the airport in Havana the line for exchanging money was ridiculous. We needed funds for the taxi to our Airbnb and food, so we exchanged 300€ each at a rate of 1EUR=1.05CUC. There was a woman stationed next to the exchange kiosk in the airport offering a 1:1 rate for USD:CUC, but the process seemed sketchy, so we stuck to the official tellers.

If you need to exchange cash outside of the airport ask where the closest CADECA is or look for the closest major hotel. At the end of your trip if you have any CUC leftover you can offer to exchange them with people standing in the currency exchange line that just disembarked from arriving flights.

3. Make a reservation at La Guarida as soon as you book your flight. This restaurant was the highlight of our trip. Every single dish we had was delicious and the building is absolutely charming (read: perfect for photo ops). I made reservations via their online system on February 14th and received confirmation on May 9th.

This restaurant is one of the most popular ones in the city due to the frequent amount of of celebrities that have dined there, such as Jay-Z and Beyonce, Lance Gross, and Jack Nicholson. I’d recommend booking a table as soon as your flights to Cuba are purchased to ensure you get a seat.

4. Buy cigars at a tobacco farm in Viñales or at government run stores. Cuban cigars are renowned worldwide. Chances are that coworkers, family, and friends will ask you to bring one back for them once you tell them you’re visiting the country. If you’ve booked a tour of Viñales it will likely include a visit to a tobacco farm. Your best bet is to purchase cigars there or at government run stores. Locals will attempt to sell you cigars on the street or at various booths, however there is no way to verify the authenticity of them if purchased there.

5. Download the following apps in advance:

  • Cuba Travel Guide (iPhone|Android)
    • This app was a lifesaver while in Cuba. It contains an offline map that shows you your current location and allows you to search for popular sites. We used this app to give taxi drivers directions/addresses and also to find places when we were walking.
  • AlaMesa (iPhone|Android)
    • This app allows you to find restaurants in various Cuban cities. Think of it like Yelp, without the reviews. The address, price range, cuisine,  and hours of operation are offered for each restaurant. Some also provide pictures.

I promised earlier this year to be transparent with the cost of each trip I take. Below I’ve broken down the total cost of my trip to Cuba. Keep in mind that some costs are divided by 4 since this was a group trip.

Total Spent on Trip: 

  • Roundtrip flight from EWR: $138
  • AirBnb in Havana (3 nights): $168/4 = $42
  • AirBnb in Viñales (1 night): $81/4 = $20.25
  • Tour of Viñales: $70
  • Tour of Havana and Trip to Playa del Este: $40/4 = $10
  • Transport to Trinidad from Havana Round-trip: $280/4 = $70
  • Airport Transfer Round-trip: $40/4 = $10
  • Meals, Cigars, Taxis, and Souvenirs: $451.50
    • TOTAL: $811.75

As always leave a comment below with any questions you may have. If you’ve visited Cuba I’d love to read about your experience as well as some tips you found useful while there.

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