Please sign in to post.

Cuba trip report--just returned

Just got back from Cuba (2 days in Veradero flying there on SW Airlines and 4 days in Havana flying out from there on SW Airlines). All the advice on this forum was extremely helpful, so I thought I would share some thoughts on things that we experienced (couple traveling independently without any tour group). .

Overall pros---(a) Compared to other Central American and Caribbean places not a lot of begging and panhandling (given the poor country), (b) felt very safe given all the poverty (compared to other places we have been to around the world in similar circumstances), (c) no issues with food or water (or at least we didn’t eat or drink at the wrong places ourselves).

If smoking and/or smog from cars or in every taxi bothers you, be prepared (it is everywhere).

Southwest Airlines—no reason to get to any Cuba flights in or out more than say 2 hours before your flight. We got there a bit over 3 hours, and nobody is there at that gate and you can’t even check in. Check in was very quick. 2 hours for either Varadero or Havana would seem more than enough. Our flight into Varadero was almost empty. On landing in Varadero, was very easy and quick through customs. Can’t speak to what happens on any other airlines.

Varadero—We stayed in Melia Varadero. It was pretty good. Pretty nice beach. Relatively clean and organized. Food was nothing special. We booked “The Level” and it was nicer than the rest. WiFi worked no problem there and was faster than many other places I’ve been. For the price, if you are looking to go to an “all inclusive” Carribean/Mexico beach type place, I think you can find much better deals than in Cuba. We just spent 1.5 days there basically to see it and get our feet on the ground in Cuba. If you need a good transport from Varadero to Havana, we used Blexie (he arranged a classic car ride with a tour along the way and for about 3 hours around Havana for 130 CUC). He was great, perfect English and nice guy. Contact is [email protected].

Havana—was great. Food much better in Havana than Veradero. For a guide (2 different days for different parts of Havana) we used Nosotros Cubanos (Juan Carlos was great—great English and very nice guy and knowledgeable). Contact for them is [email protected] and cost for 2 with private guide was 40 CUC a day, for 9-4pm so seemed like a great deal for how much we got. We stayed in Hotel National. Not the greatest price for what you get, but very cool place and so historic so would definitely recommend.

Tips—(a) seems like US dollars are pretty easily accepted many places, so no “rush” to change money at the airport. Taxi from airport to and from, we gave them US dollars with no problem. You need CUCs generally, but if there was some long line to convert, I wouldn’t bother and our hotels all did the conversion. Also interestingly on leaving Havanna, stood in line for cash exchange, and an “official” looking guy standing outside the booth quickly asked me if I wanted to exchange 1 for 1 (without the US dollars penalty or any conversion cost, so basically saving 13%), so I said sure and it was very easy. Seemed to be guys like that standing around most of the exchange places, so be on the lookout for. (b) AT&T phone worked fine everywhere. For wifi in Havana, I just turned on my wireless hotspot on my cell phone and it worked great, if you don’t want the hassle with buying the cards and logging in and all the other stuff you have to do. Yes there is the cost of phone calls and data charges (I had it for work and just had to stay somewhat connected). So other than the cost, in terms of it working well and easy to get the signal, the wireless hotspot was simple for me. (c) Maps.me worked worked great so definitely get that app and download maps there. Very easy to use for offline maps (d) tips are already included in many of the places we went to eat (tourist places mostly) so check the bill before you think about tipping

Posted by
9429 posts

Thanks for posting this Craig. Great info and an enjoyable read!

Posted by
7050 posts

A couple of questions, I hope you don't mind answering:

1) Varadero looks very similar to Cancun (on Google maps and photos) and filled with similar all-inclusive type of accommodations (not much "local" life). Are there any major differences between the two, or are they pretty much substitutable?

2) What were the highlights of your trip? What did you see and experience, especially in Havana, that makes the trip memorable?

3) What else would you recommend seeing, knowing what you know now about Cuba?

4) If you are from the US, what "reason" did you give for visiting and what documentation did you gather or provide to substantiate the trip?

Posted by
98 posts

Yes I would go back again. Plenty of other places to see. But for Havana, I think about 4 days is all you need there.

Posted by
98 posts

Yes I'm from the US. As far as categories, just pick one when you get the visa online. Very easy. Nobody asked anyway at any point which category you are under. I think for all practical purposes, this is a silly "regulation" that they are ignoring.

Posted by
98 posts

On the questions below see my thoughts (hope it helps)

A couple of questions, I hope you don't mind answering:

1) Varadero looks very similar to Cancun (on Google maps and photos) and filled with similar all-inclusive type of accommodations (not much "local" life). Are there any major differences between the two, or are they pretty much substitutable? I wouldn't go to Varadero for purposes of a "beach type vacation". There are lots of better choices (cheaper, nicer, better food). Mexico, other Carribean islands, etc. We only went there because you could fly into Varadero and out of Havana on Southwest, so I figured it was a free way to see 2 places vs. just Havana. But after being there, I would probably skip Varadero. If you are looking for that kind of trip, go someplace else. You don't see much of "real Cuba" there.

2) What were the highlights of your trip? What did you see and experience, especially in Havana, that makes the trip memorable? Too long of a list to come up with really. Check out TripAdvisor Cuba forum and it is full of all the great things there are to do there.

3) What else would you recommend seeing, knowing what you know now about Cuba?
If I was going back, would check out some of the other major cities in Cuba. I understand there are some beautiful Unesco cities there. For a first timer, I think Havana is the place to start. Spend 4 days there if you can. If you have more time, then spend the remaining days at some of those other cities.

4) If you are from the US, what "reason" did you give for visiting and what documentation did you gather or provide to substantiate the trip? See my prior post

Posted by
8006 posts

Thanks craigandersonlawyer and those fares are unbelievable

So this note on the Southwest Airlines site is just a bunch of BS to scare people:

"While in Cuba every traveler must document a full-time schedule of activities

If you are traveling on a general license, you must document a full-time schedule of activities consistent with your designated general license category. The U.S. Government has up to 5 years after your trip to request your full-time schedule of activities."

Posted by
1507 posts

I have been to Cuba and I can tell you that so far no one is checking for documentation. I did not keep any receipts or records. One of the reasons is that I didn't receive any receipts from the activities I participated in. I have a lot of nice photos if US government officials would like to see those. : )

Posted by
11355 posts

It really has changed in the three years since we were there as no wifi, cell phones, US dollars accepted then. Glad you enjoyed it!
We liked waterfront Cienfuegos and pretty Trinidad a lot. Those areas were no where near as dilapidated as Havana, both nice colonial towns/cities. Also recommend a visit to Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevara Museum and mausoleum when you return. The museum is very interesting and explains so much of the history of the revolution.

Posted by
9363 posts

2) What were the highlights of your trip? What did you see and experience, especially in Havana, that makes the trip memorable? Too long of a list to come up with really. Check out TripAdvisor Cuba forum and it is full of all the great things there are to do there.

I think Agnes was asking what made it memorable for you, what you considered the highlights. Anyone can look up a list of things to do there.

Posted by
7050 posts

Nancy nailed it...that's exactly what I was looking for. I've already researched Cuba so I know what there is to do there, but I was wondering what your impressions were and how the guide contributed to your knowledge, understanding, experience, etc. Any interesting cultural activities that you took advantage of, and what really stood out? Anything you learned about Cuba that was a surprise?

Also, was the National Hotel in Havana one of the few that can be booked over the web using a US credit card? I may be mistaken, but I don't think there is a private market for lodging there (i.e. prices are regulated by the government and there aren't many choices). I thought that Americans can't use credit cards over there, so how did the booking go for the hotel? It seems like Airbnb and mom and pop rentals are very prevalent in Cuba, and the Airbnb platform works just fine for completing those transactions.

Posted by
98 posts

In terms of things that I personally enjoyed, I would say just booking the tour guide each day, and having basically all day to walk around and explore and have the opportunity to just talk to them and get feedback on day to day life, and just asking everyday questions.

On the question of the Hotel National, we booked it online to just hold a reservation, but we had to actually pay there in cash (so I don't know of a way to pay them through a credit card, although there may some way I just didn't find)

Posted by
4535 posts

Some memorable things not in guidebooks is to get out at night and find a place with music, go in, have a mojito and enjoy. Or find a cafe overlooking one of the squares and enjoy the music coming from somewhere nearby.

I also cherished getting up and hitting Havana's streets just as the sun was rising. The streets are empty then except for dogs and street cleaners (and one must be careful where you walk given all the dogs). It's so quite and peaceful compared to the crowds and noise a couple hours later.

Riding in a classic convertible along the Malecon in the evening - cliche but still really awesome.

Visit FABRICA at night for the art, drinks and fun atmosphere.

Posted by
6629 posts

Thanks for posting this, Craig, and I'm glad you enjoyed your educational-cultural-people-to-people tour, as I enjoyed mine a month or so back. Cuba was fascinating and beautiful and the people remarkable. I'd recommend Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, and Trinidad as well as Havana. And I'm sure Santiago and other places at both ends of the island that we didn't get to see.

My understanding is that US credit and debit cards won't work in Cuba, period, because there is no US banking presence at all. And that the 13% penalty for exchanging dollars applies at the beginning, when you convert them to CUCs, but not at the end when you turn the remaining CUCs back into dollars.

Varadero and other all-inclusive beach areas (like Cayo Coco, Cayo Santa Maria, etc.) cater mostly to Europeans and Canadians looking for a fast cheap beach getaway. They might take a day trip into a nearby city or town but mostly they want to lie in the sun. There's a weekly charter between Helsinki and Varadero so the Finns can escape their dark winter, next year it's supposed to become a scheduled flight. One of the resorts on Cayo Santa Maria offers an all-inclusive week for two, plus airfare from Montreal, for $1200 (not sure whether Canadian or US $ but a hell of a bargain either way). This kind of tourism may be Cuba's leading industry.