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7 Essential Tips for an Amazing Trip to Cuba

Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba
Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba

Cuba is a wild and beautiful country. It is an exotic gem in the Caribbean, with stunning beaches, vibrant culture, friendly people and rich history, and until recently it has been a mystery to most travelers. The country has been closed off for years, and although it is now possible to travel to Cuba, the process can be daunting. This post is not for the all-inclusive hotel traveler, it is for those who seek to experience the real Cuba. The type of traveler who sips mojitos with the locals, smokes a Cuban cigar on the street, and orders food from a local street vendor. If you’re one of those travelers, keep reading for my seven essential tips for an amazing trip to Cuba.

1. Documents

Boarding our flight to Cuba with our paperwork and important documents.

You need quite a few documents to enter Cuba, and it's necessary to have them in order before departing on your trip. A valid passport, a tourist card, and the advanced traveler information paperwork are essential. Additionally, US citizens also are required to have travel medical insurance. You will need to bring hard copies of all of your documents and reservations.

  • Tourist card - Green tourist cards are for flights arriving from anywhere other than the US and pink tourist cards are for flights from the US. We are US citizens and flew from Canada and they gave us a green card on the flight for free. Our friend flew from the US and he purchased a pink card during his flight. Check with your airline to make sure they have the tourist card available for you.

  • Advanced Traveler Paperwork - Fill out this form two days before your flight,, make sure to print off a copy and bring that with you. We were not allowed to board our flight without this printed document.

2. The 12 Categories of Authorized Travel

We heard a lot of talk about categorizing our trip to Cuba. U.S. citizens are currently prohibited from traveling to Cuba for tourism purposes, so you’ll need to fit into one of the 12 categories of authorized travel. You will be asked about this on some paperwork and when booking accommodations, like AirBnB. Long story short, the best category to select for US citizens is, support for the Cuban people, i.e. tourism.

Vintage car in Havana, Cuba
Vintage beauty

3. Offline Google Maps and Tourist Maps

While Cuba is generally a safe country to explore, it can be challenging to find your way around. The streets are a bit tricky to navigate, and it is highly recommended to have some sort of map with you. It will be helpful while exploring the city, especially when it comes to finding your accommodation. Before you arrive, download the offline version of Google Maps, this will definitely come in handy. Or you can purchase a good old fashioned printed map and/or guidebook from the tourist visitor center for easy navigation.

Guidebooks and maps for Cuba
Guidebooks from 2003, local maps, and cafecito...doesn't get much better than this!

4. Cell Service and Internet

Cuba has limited to no access to public Wi-Fi, and cell service can be extremely spotty. If available you can purchase an ETECSA SIM card from the airport upon arrival or at the nearest ETECSA office for reliable communication. Or better yet, live in the moment and unplug, be present, and enjoy this amazing country without any distractions.

5. Currency to Bring

This was absolutely wild! Everything we read prior to arriving in Cuba was not really accurate. My advice is to bring US dollars or Euros, both of these currencies are widely accepted and are preferred to the local Cuban pesos (CUP). It is a good idea to have some CUP available for smaller purchases like water, snacks, and gas. But if you pay for dinner with CUP they upcharge you because they want Euros or US Dollars. At one restaurant I think they charged us the equivalent of an additional $15 USD in order to pay in Cuban pesos. What in the world!! It’s totally wild and makes no logical sense. They also consider Euros and US dollars as the same value in many restaurants and prices are listed as 5 USD/5 Euro. Again, totally wild. Also, for US citizens, our debit cards don’t work and our credit cards rarely work, so bring enough cash to pay for your entire vacation. I would suggest smaller bills, $20 notes or smaller.

Cuban pesos, CUP
Cuban pesos (CUP)

6. Brush up on your Spanish!

Spanish is the official language of Cuba, so it's always a good idea to learn some essential phrases and words. This will help you to communicate with locals, understand signs, and navigate the city. It will also add an extra layer of adventure and cultural immersion to your trip.

Fusterlandia, Cuba
Amor con Amor

7. Be Patient and Savor the Experience

Cuba operates at its own pace, and things might not happen as quickly or as logically as you may be accustomed to. Be patient, and don’t stress out if things don’t go as planned. Sometimes the best experiences come from going with the flow and enjoying whatever comes your way. For example, there was a gas shortage when we were visiting Cuba and we spent two and a half hours waiting in line to get gas. The car in front of us was a hilarious and friendly Cuban couple who now live in Miami and we spent the afternoon listening to reggaeton on their giant stereo system and sipping beers. We had a great time and it is a memory we will never forget.

Traveling to Cuba is a unique experience that requires a bit of preparation and a willingness to immerse yourself in a simpler way of life. If you're up for a little adventure, a bit of a challenge, and a lot of rewards, then you will fall in love with Cuba. These seven essential tips will help you make the most of your trip. Remember, you don't need to rely solely on Google. Embrace the unknown, let the locals guide you, and cherish the opportunity to disconnect and be fully present in the moment. Cuba is incredible! Happy travels!

Mosaic Cuban flag
Cuban flag near Fusterlandia, Cuba.

Note: For reference we traveled to Cuba in April, 2023.

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