Visiting Cuba: Everything You Need to Know About Getting and Staying There
by Lynne Rostochil.
As many of you know, a group of us took a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Cuba in March, and since then, a lot of people have asked me how they can go, too, especially with all of the restrictions the Trump administration continues to implement to discourage travel there. Of course, you can always go the illegal route — fly to Cancun, catch a plane from there to Cuba, and make sure the Cuban authorities don’t stamp your passport. But, at least for now, you can still get there legally so there’s no need to bother with the Cancun plan just yet.
My pal, Cristina is from Cuba, has family there, and has visited often, so she was a huge wealth of information in the planning of our trip. I also spent a couple of months doing research and found out all kinds of useful information that, for some silly reason, isn’t easily located in one place, so I’m trying to remedy that with this Mod Blog. This covers just about everything you need to know to go to Cuba, so grab a pina colada and start reading away!
What You Must Have To Go To Cuba
These are the things you’ll need to get into Cuba:
- Valid passport with an expiration date at least six months past the time you’re going to Cuba
- A designation
- Health insurance
- Tourist card
The passport is pretty self-explanatory, but let’s talk about the rest of these.
When you go to Cuba, you have to choose a designation under which you can travel. Some designations are for students, some for aid workers, etc. The popular People to People designation was perhaps the most well known designation because it allowed Americans in the country as tourists as long as they had a tour guide taking them around the country. While Trump and his cronies removed the People to People designation as an option in June, you can still travel to Cuba as a tourist using the Support For the Cuban People designation. Actually, this designation is better, anyway, if you don’t want to be stuck with a tour guide the whole trip. Here’s how this designation works….
With the Support For the Cuban People designation, you are allowed to travel throughout Cuba without any kind of tour guide, but you must:
- Interact with Cubans at least eight hours a day (which is easy — I’ll explain in a bit).
- Keep a log of your activities that shows you’ve interacted with Cubans and save it for five years.
That’s it! Very simple.
When you book your airline ticket, you will choose the Support For the Cuban People designation and that’s all there is to it.
Flying and Health Insurance
Even with the most recent restrictions, several airlines are still flying to Havana, so you shouldn’t have any problem getting there.
Also, you have to have health insurance with an authorized company to get into Cuba — your normal health insurance won’t work. Most airline tickets include the necessary insurance you’ll need, but you will want to double check with your carrier before you book your ticket.
In addition to the designation, you’ll also have to have a tourist card to get to Cuba:
Most airlines will sell them at the last departure gate before leave the U.S. for Cuba, and they range in price from $50-$100 — every airline charges differently. On our trip, we had a very short layover and I didn’t want to take the chance of not having time to get our visas at the gate, so I sent off for tourist cards a few weeks before the trip and we filled them out at home. You can go here to buy tourist cards beforehand for $85. Things to remember about tourist cards:
- If you’re flying from the U.S., you’ll need the pink tourist card. (Use the green one if you’re flying to Cuba from a different country.)
- They are valid for 30 days from your flight date.
- You must complete the tourist card in black ink.
- If you make any mistakes, you’ll have to get a new tourist card and start all over. That’s what the websites say, anyway, so be careful filling it out.
- When you go through customs in Cuba, they will take half the card and give you the other half back. We never needed it again but kept the other half just in case.
Currencies – CUC vs CUP
The money situation in Cuba is very interesting. First of all, no one there takes American credit or debit cards, so you’ll be using a lot of cash. One way to avoid taking so much cash is to book and pay for your room and excursions before you go, but we’ll talk more about that in a bit. You will need cash for all meals, tips, souvenirs, transportation, etc.
As for the money itself, that’s kind of complicated, too. There’s one type of currency – CUP – for locals and one type – CUC – for tourists.
CUP is the currency used by locals and it is quite a bit less valuable than CUCs — something like 25 CUPs = $1. So, you need to be careful that, when you pay in CUCs, you get all change back in CUCs and not CUPs. CUP bills and coins have faces on them:
Tourists are not supposed to have CUPs, so you probably won’t be dealing with this currency much. However, merchants outside of the tourist areas may give you change in CUPs because they aren’t allowed to use CUCs; if that’s the case, just make sure you receive the correct change.
Unlike CUPs, you will be using CUCs quite a bit. CUC currency has buildings on the bills and coins:
So, as you can see, it’s pretty easy to differentiate between CUPs and CUCs.
CUCs are also very easy to work with because 1 CUC = 1 U.S. dollar. Not much brain work involved in that conversion!
It’s not quite as easy as that, though. There is a 3% exchange fee and an additional 10% tax to exchange dollars to CUCs in Cuba, so $100 will get you 87 CUC once you’re there. That’s why a lot of people exchange dollars to euros in the United States — the 10% tax applies only to dollars and you can avoid paying it if you convert euros to CUCs instead. The downside to doing that, however, is that the euro isn’t as stable as the dollar and some Cuban travel agents won’t exchange euros.
You can exchange dollars or euros for CUCs at the airport or at any large bank in Havana, but be aware the lines are likely to be long and very slow. I mean VERY slow. Another option for exchanging money is to use a local Cuban travel agent who can trade dollars for CUCs. We will talk more about travel agents later on.
Finally, get some small denomination coins for tipping — either in CUP or the smallest CUC denomination.
Since you’re going to have to bring enough money to last you the entire vacation, it’s important to budget well. If you have limited funds, you can definitely get by on very little a day if you’re willing to walk, eat at local stands or cheap restaurants, and limit your guided activities. You can also get a room for less than $50 a day in the heart of Havana pretty easily. If you’re going on the cheap, you should be able to get by with $100 a day (including your room) with no problem.
On the other hand, if you want to live it up and do a lot of things, travel outside of town, eat at nice places, imbibe many fruity drinks, and perhaps buy some art or other nicer souvenir, you’ll want to up your budget accordingly. I suggest that you look around on Airbnb to get an idea of the average cost of rooms, activities, and restaurants that you’re interested in, add in some buffer money for tips and taxis, and go from there.
What to Pack
I probably spent more hours obsessing over what to pack than I did anything else about the trip. That’s because you won’t find well stocked pharmacies or grocery stores anywhere. As an example, here’s a photo of what passes for a plumbing store in Havana:
I’m really not joking when I tell you that this shop is Havana’s equivalent of an Ace Hardware.
We did walk past a grocery store or two, but most of the shelves were empty. This one in the heart of Old Havana where the tourists hang out was, by far, the largest and most well stocked grocery store we saw, but you can see on the left that a lot of shelves are empty and the only available goods are packaged ones — the produce section was completely empty:
So, I do not jest when I say that you need to bring everything but the kitchen sink with you to Cuba. In addition to the standard items, you will want to make up a little medical kit with a pain reliever, antacid, motion sickness medicine, band-aids and wound cream, insect repellent, Pepto-Bismal, something for diarrhea, something for constipation, etc. Also, take an umbrella or rain poncho, extra batteries, all of your toiletries, feminine products, prescriptions, etc.
Where do most Cubans get their groceries, you ask? Well, on the street. There are fruit/veggie vendors, butchers, and florists with carts set up on almost every corner selling meager but sumptuous supplies of goods:
As for what to wear in Cuba, it can get pretty warm during the day, so bring clothing that will keep you cool — shorts, t-shirts, dresses, skirts, a hat. You’ll also be walking around a lot on cracked and crumbling sidewalks and streets, so leave the heels at home, girls. Wear comfy shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty because the streets and cars will make a white shoe dark brown pretty quickly. If you plan on going someplace nice in the evening, feel free to bring something a little dressy — and don’t forget a light sweater because it can get kind of cool in the evenings. Also, it did rain several times while we were there, so bring a rain poncho like I mentioned earlier.
Finally, as with most third world countries, you won’t want to drink the water. Your accommodation will likely sell bottled water, but I would recommend taking a high quality filtered bottle along, too. We had both the LifeStraw and Grayl bottles in my little group. The LifeStraw is great, but you can’t use the water to clean toothbrushes and the like with. We could use the Grayl bottle for washing and to drink from, which was very handy.
Finally, even though many public restrooms have toilet paper, several didn’t, so it’s a good idea to bring a couple of rolls with you to carry around — you will likely need them.
Phone Service and Internet
Wi-fi in Cuba is a relatively new thing and the only places you can really count on getting service is in some of the city parks, which are literally packed with people sitting around looking at their phones — it’s about the only sight that will make you feel right at home.
As for phones, your American ones won’t work in Cuba unless you get a prepaid SIM card from Cubacel, the cellular carrier there. Instead of doing that, we just rented Cuban cell phones from our travel agent for 10 CUC for our entire stay and bought a couple of 10 CUC prepaid cards to go with them, but we didn’t really use the phones much at all — just to coordinate times/places to meet up a few times. Other than that, there’s no real need to have a phone there and it’s a true vacation when you’re not looking at it all the time. Besides, service can be very dodgy, anyway.
It’s good to take a paper map of Havana with you. We also downloaded Mapsme, an offline map that we could use without wi-fi. It was very handy and worked well.
As for transportation, taxis are very affordable (5-10 CUC around Havana), most are vintage cars, and you can find them everywhere around town and at all hours.
A few people took the city bus to various places, but many of us either walked or took taxis for longer hauls. If you can walk there, do it! You’ll see all kinds of interesting neighborhoods …
Yes, some are a bit crumbly, which is why most people walk in the middle of the street — they don’t want to get hit by debris from the decaying buildings. All of this decay is also why you don’t want to be wearing heels while walking around town.
What you will see walking around are the wonderful people of Cuba, who you will find yourself chatting with on nearly every block, like this lovely man, who apologized for his terrible English (which, by the way, was almost flawless) and explained that he had been a teacher for decades…
… and these friends, who were just hanging out on the street and doing a little people watching and maybe a lot of drinking:
In fact, walking the streets of Havana was my very favorite part of the whole trip because there was always a great surprise around the next corner.
How Safe is Havana?
VERY! We walked in nearly every part of town during the day, in the evening, late at night and never had one problem. People are out on the streets at all hours, but everyone is just minding their own business, like this father and son playing stick ball with, you got it, a bottle cap because a ball is a very rare commodity in Cuba:
These people are enjoying a warm spring evening hanging out on the street, probably because air conditioning isn’t very common except in places where tourists go:
We were told that crime is almost non-existent in Cuba because no one wants to get on the wrong side of the government … and I believe it.
As for Cuban drivers, we were very pleasantly surprised by how safe and courteous they were. Yes, there’s some fast driving, but I’ve been way more terrified in a taxi in Mexico than I ever was in Cuba. You don’t see a lot of dinged up cars there, either, which was heartening.
Places to Stay
As an American, you’re not allowed to stay in any hotel owned by the Cuban military … and a lot of them are owned by the military. That’s okay because you won’t want to stay in a hotel, anyway. The best route to go in Cuba is to stay at a casa particular, which is Cuba’s equivalent to an Airbnb. You will be in a local Cuban’s house and will have all kinds of opportunity to chat with and get to know your hosts, which helps a lot in getting the required eight hours a day of interaction with Cubans that the Support For the Cuban People designation requires.
Our hosts, Carlito and Angel, were incredibly helpful and friendly and made our stay very comfortable.
While our hosts didn’t speak English and my kids had to translate, most of the other casa particular hosts for our group were fluent in English.
As for our group, there were 31 of us staying in six different casa particulars throughout the city, and all of us had great experiences with our accommodations and hosts. Everything was very clean, there was air conditioning in the bedrooms, and there were also safes in the bedrooms to keep extra cash and passports. (We carried photocopies of our passports around town and left the real deals in the safe.)
In my case, we had the entire second floor of a casa particular (three bed/one bath), and it had a giant balcony overlooking the street where we could relax in the evening:
It was quite affordable and very well located near the University of Havana. Our hosts offered breakfast in the morning for 5 CUC per person and it was well worth it because there aren’t a ton of breakfast spots around town. For breakfast, we had omelettes, bread, fruit, freshly squeezed juice (usually guava or strawberry), coffee (Cuban coffee is the best I’ve ever tasted) and it was all delicious.
The best place to find the right casa particular for you is at airbnb.com. The good thing about going through that site is that you can pay for your casa particular up front, which means you don’t have to take as much cash with you to Cuba.
There are some lovely places to stay in the more touristy areas of Old Havana. If you like to live among the locals in a more modest setting, you can pick a place a little further west. Our casa particular was located on Mazon Street, and it was an easy 1.5 mile walk through local neighborhoods to Old Havana — we walked there and back in daytime and in the evening several times and never had a problem with people bugging us, crime, etc. It was an enlightening walk, too, because we saw how most Cubans live (and it’s not fancy).
We were also just a few blocks from the Coppelia ice cream parlor and the very mid mod Hotel Tryp Habana Libre, formerly the Habana Hilton — more on those places in a little while.
Others in our group opted to stay in casa particulars in the much more posh Miramar section of town, where there are a lot of parks and the homes actually have yards. Look for casa particulars near John Lennon park and you can’t go wrong. Here are a couple of places in Miramar where some in our group stayed — first up is Cristina’s house:
Mark, Holly, and their gang stayed an upper story flat with a giant balcony that easily fit some of our group after dinner one evening:
You can find a casa particular to fit almost any budget, ranging from 35CUC a night and up. Our well appointed place was about 85CUC a night and fit five people.
Places to Eat
Before we left for Cuba, I did a ton of reading and heard that the food there was very bland and not so good. Well, that was not our experience at all. Yes, the food is simple and not overly spicy, but it’s completely fresh and I can honestly say that we didn’t have a bad meal when we were there. Well, we had one not-so-great meal but more about that later.
Certainly, one of the best options for dining is at a paladar, which is a restaurant located inside a local’s home. Paladars are generally more expensive (25-50 CUC per person with drinks), but they offer the best food in beautiful settings, too. We ate at several paladars and had incredible meals and lively conversations with the home owners at every single one. The most memorable was one Cristina recommended called La Esperanza, which was located in an Art Deco home that hasn’t changed a bit since it was constructed in the 1930s:
Cristina and her gang:
Our little group:
It was a magical place, indeed!
In Old Havana, we had lunch at Paladar Dona Eutimia near the Plaza de la Cathedral — very good. Terri took this shot of some of us there:
One of the most scenic spots where we dined was Paladar Rio Mar in Miramar, which is located in a mid-century mod house right on the bay overlooking the city:
Terri took this shot of all of us at dinner at this charming place:
Great food, wonderful views, and if you’re there on Saturday, you’ll want to go to the club/gallery on the other side of the bay.
In the heart of Old Havana, we found great music, ceviche, and pina coladas at El Rum Rum, which was very reasonably priced, too. Retro Habana got rave reviews from those who were having a pizza craving one evening.
We ate another delicious meal at Eclectico, which is a paladar and small boutique hotel on Avenida Paseo in the heart of Miramar. It wasn’t cheap, but the food was delicious and the service and atmosphere were amazing:
Also, all of the restaurants and even the smaller food stands we went to used bottled water for everything, so you probably don’t need to worry about eating fresh fruit or drinking water at restaurants.
Organizing Your Trip and Things To Do
Because you have to keep a log of your activities and show that you’ve interacted with Cubans at least eight hours a day, which Chuck is working on here…
… I highly recommend that you plan at least one organized activity a day. I’m not one to usually do organized things because I’m much happier wandering around and doing my own thing, but our activities were actually a lot of fun and well worth doing. Not everyone in our group joined in every activity, but here are some of the things we did while in Cuba.
And, while you don’t have to have a tour guide with the Support For the Cuban People designation, there are some definite benefits to finding a local travel agent to help you plan your trip:
- Your travel agent can meet up with you throughout your stay to exchange money for you. That means no long and very slow moving lines, but you will have to pay the 13% in fees and taxes.
- You can look up activities on AirBNB, but a local travel agent can arrange them a lot less expensively for you. The downside to that is that you’ll have to take more money and pay for the activities in cash when you get to Cuba.
- If you want to do an activity that isn’t listed on AirBNB, a local travel agent can arrange it for you. For example, we wanted to do a mid-century modern tour of Havana, but we couldn’t find one anywhere, so our travel agent put it together and had a local architect join us as our guide. It was a fantastic tour and we had the chance to visit some great buildings that we would have missed if not for our travel agent arranging it for us.
- Your travel agent can make reservations at paladars. We had a large group, so this was very helpful for us on the nights when we all wanted to eat together.
If you’d like to learn more about getting a Cuban travel agent, just contact me and I’ll be happy to discuss it more with you.
Here are some fun activities I highly recommend:
Take a ride around Havana in classic cars – guided
Yes, I know this sounds so touristy, but it was honestly one of the most fun things we did while in Cuba.
This was our first activity of the trip and it was a great way to start the vacation because it gave us a chance take in the sights in a broad way and figure out the lay of the land, which was very beneficial. Our guided tour was about three hours, and we drove as far west as the Havana Forest (yes, there’s a real forest in the heart of the city with a rest area that serves the best pina coladas in town). The forest is also the location of the largest banyan tree in the country, which easily dwarfed our entire group:
While driving around town, we also checked out fancier parts of Havana like Miramar and Vedado, meandered around the Plaza de la Revolucion, drove along the Malecon to Old Havana and then went over the bridge to a park that looks out over the city:
It was all very impressive and the perfect way to start our trip.
Walking tour of Old Havana – guided
Our travel agent, Sandra, walked with us through Old Havana and explained the fascinating and often little known history about some of the buildings.
We checked out an artists’ collective, too, which was very interesting:
It was right by the restaurant I mentioned earlier, Paladar Dona Eutimia.
Gallery tour with a curator
This was definitely one of the most well liked activities. A local artist took our group to various modern art galleries around town, some of which were located in mid-century modern buildings — even better!
There are also all kinds of art collectives scattered throughout town; in fact, it’s hard to walk a block in Old Havana without seeing one. So, go check them out even if you aren’t on a guided tour.
Visit Jorge Gil
Jorge is a Cuban modern jewelry maker with a shop in the heart of Old Havana at Cuba Street 467 A (near the intersection of Amargura and Teniente). Here he is with our travel agent, Sandra:
This wonderful man is a true artist and if you love jewelry that’s out of the ordinary, you won’t be able to leave his place without a trinket or two. I bought a ring from him and haven’t worn another one since, I love it so much.
Golf at the Havana Golf Club
A couple of people in our group wanted to play golf in Cuba and even though it wasn’t what they would call a traditional golf experience, they had a great time and returned with some very funny stories. Well worth doing, they say.
Some of the younger folk in our group were interested in skateboarding, which is a relatively new and kind of underground thing to do in Havana, apparently. They really enjoyed the activity, though, and got to meet a lot of Cuban kids their ages (teenagers). Go here to learn more.
You can’t go to Havana and not check out Fusterlandia on the outskirts of town. It is the creation of artist Jose Fuster, who wanted to bring tourism to his small fishing village in the early ’90s. He began by creating artistic tile mosaics on one building and the project has now spread to several buildings along the village streets. In addition, there are now shops and galleries selling souvenirs, drinks, and original art. The whole place is very fun and free flowing and altogether trippy in a Gaudi kind of way.
The kids especially enjoyed it:
Hemingway House and Finca Vigia
Writer Ernest Hemingway spent decades living in a spacious cottage to the east of Havana, and you can visit the grounds of the home, look in the windows, and check out his boat on this informative tour. Afterward, head to the nearby beach at Playas del Este for an afternoon of leisure and sun.
If you want to get out of the city and check out the astonishingly beautiful countryside, a trip to Vinales is certainly worth your time. A nearly three-hour drive west of Havana, Vinales is located in the mountains and provides some pretty great views of the unusual countryside.
The town itself is sweet and boasts a lot of restaurants and shops, but we skipped that and went to an organic farm for a tour and lunch instead. In fact, the food we enjoyed at the farm was the best meal of the trip, in my opinion. Here we are getting ready for our feast, which was comprised entirely of food grown/raised on the farm:
If this activity sounds up your alley, the name of the farm is Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso.
A short drive from the farm is a family-owned cigar factory … and when I say factory, I use the term very lightly. There wasn’t a machine to be seen anywhere other than a tractor or two, and all of the gathering of tobacco leaves and rolling is done by hand. We were given a fun and very informative demonstration on cigar making and then we smoked away.
Who knew that you can dip the mouth end of the cigar in honey or rum for a more enjoyable taste? And FYI, this region is the only place you can get 100% authentic Cuban cigars. Why? Because of the rich soil and the fact that the government takes 90% of the cigar owners’ crops and can mix other types of tobacco together to make the cigars they sell in Havana. Local growers get to keep 10% of their crop, and they are the ones who harvest and roll cigars the old fashioned way with just the tobacco leaf and nothing else. So, buy your cigars in Vinales if you want the most real of the real ones.
Our trip to Vinales was incredible and I could have certainly spent another day or two there looking around and exploring. You can check out more about this region, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, here.
Bike riding tour of Havana
A few members of our group spent an afternoon riding bikes around Havana’s neighborhoods and cemetery. They ate lunch at a paladar and enjoyed what they said was the best smoothie they’ve ever had. They had a great time and highly recommended it. They found the tour on Airbnb here.
Explore Havana with an economist
Another person in our group toured Havana with an economist, who took the group on a city bus to off-the-beaten-path places and introduced them to locals who had small businesses. She said it was fascinating. She found the activity on Airbnb here.
Visit Colon Cemetery
If you like cemeteries, you will not want to miss strolling through the 150-year-old Colon Cemetery:
This is where some of the country’s most famous artists, musicians, statesmen, and religious leaders are buried in some pretty grand mausoleums. Every architectural style is represented in the mausoleums, from ornate and very traditional to mid-century modern delights:
The Nunez-Galvez tomb was designed by Max Borges Recio and Enrique Borges and built in 1957:
The Havana Reporters Association Mausoleum was designed by Arnaldo Mesa and also built in 1957, but it’s looking quite a bit worse, with windows knocked out and crumbling concrete everywhere:
When you arrive at the main gate, get a map of the cemetery so you’ll know where to find all of the goodies.
Walk along the Malecon
No trip to Cuba would be complete without taking a stroll along the Malecon and chatting with the locals who hang out there in the evening, waiting to get a cooling splash from the attacking ocean waves:
Check out the Museum of the Revolution
Located in the former presidential palace, which is an architectural marvel itself, the Museum of the Revolution is mind blowing, to put it mildly.
I’ve always been very interested in Cuban history and in the revolution in particular and have read a lot of books on the subject, but this museum was like falling through Alice’s looking glass and landing in a topsy turvy parallel universe where everything I’ve learned was completely skewed. Of course, I know that things I’ve read likely have a pro-American slant, but I wasn’t expecting such a different interpretation of events as was presented at the Museum of the Revolution. To say it was fascinating is a vast understatement, and I found myself questioning many of the things I’d learned over the years about the revolution and Castro. If you like history and want a total mind f@#k, put this museum at the top of your must-see list.
Do a little antiquing
We didn’t see many antique shops around town, but one treasure we found is Memorias, which is located in Old Havana:
There, you will find some great Cuban magazines, vintage books, and fun knick knacks that you certainly won’t be able to resist.
Have a drink at the Hotel Nationale
At the end of a long day of sightseeing, be sure to stop by Havana’s most historic and elegant home away from home, the Hotel Nationale, for a drink on the outdoor patio overlooking the Malacon. While Americans can’t stay at the hotel because it’s owned by the military, you can go and walk around its sumptuous halls and enjoy a snack and fruity concoction.
Enjoy a treat at Coppelia
If you love mid-century mod and ice cream, you will definitely want to visit Coppelia Park, which is a true architectural marvel and also sells some pretty yummy ice cream. It was a gift from Fidel Castro to his people and opened in 1966.
Walk around the Plaza de la Revolucion
If you like architecture, art, and history, you’ll definitely want to take some time to walk around the enormous Plaza de la Revolucion, where most of the country’s political rallies take place. There’s a lot of history and symbolism here so read all about the Plaza before you go.
Walk around the University of Havana campus
Did you know that almost everyone in Cuba has a university education? It’s free and most people take full advantage of the opportunity, getting to spend their university years on this beautiful hilltop campus that was established in 1728:
These are just a few of the experiences you can do while visiting Cuba. To see more, go here. If you book through Airbnb, you can pay for your activities online and not have to take as much cash with you to Cuba.
Finally, a short word on tipping. Most Cubans make about $25 a month, including those in such esteemed professions as medicine and the law. Now, of course, their housing and utilities are free, but $25 doesn’t go very far even in Cuba. The big money makers there are the people who work in the tourism industry and that’s thanks to the tips they receive. Even with tip sharing, a cab driver can make twice as much money as a doctor or lawyer, so please remember that tipping goes a long way in helping Cubans make better lives for themselves.
When you first arrive and exchange money, you will want to get some small denomination coins, either in CUC or CUP, to tip various people you meet.
Here are tipping guidelines:
In restaurants, a 10% tip for good service is customary, but check your bill because some restaurants will include the tip in the total amount. If that’s the case, no need to tip extra. If you get truly outstanding service, a 15% tip is good.
Cab drivers: 1-3 CUC depending on how long the drive is
Musicians: 1 CUC
Maids: 1 CUC per day
Tour guides: 2-5 CUC (more if they are with you most of the day)
Toilet attendants: There’s often a toilet attendant at public bathrooms, who will dole out toilet paper and clean up after you. Some bathrooms don’t have running water to flush toilets, so they will pour a bucket of water in after you’re finished doing your duty and clean up after you. Tip toilet attendants .25-.5 CUC.
Although the government frowns on tourists bringing in donations for the Cuban people, most do it, anyway. Just don’t tell customs agents that you’re going to donate anything and you will be good to go. Because we were with Cristina, she organized a party and pig roast with several of her family members, and we donated toys for the kiddos.
The pig roast was pretty fantastic, by the way:
The day we left, we also gave our casa particular friends, Carlito and Angel, all of our leftover medicines, sunscreen, vitamins, etc., and you would have thought we had given them a $1 million, they were so thrilled. These items are so impossible to find that they are true treasures in Cuba, so leave behind anything you don’t need to take back to the States with you.
Good Guide Books
I’m not normally a big guide book person, but because Cuba seems to be the exception to just about everything, I broke down and bought three of them:
The DK Eyewitness Travel book is very handy because the pages are thicker and all of the illustrations are in color. The guide provides a lot of useful history about the places and people of Cuba, too. I bought the Top 10 Cuba guide because it had, by far, the best maps of Havana and of Cuba in general. There’s even a laminated map of Havana that you can take out of the book and keep in your bag when you need it. It came in very handy many times. The Moon book wasn’t as good but I got it for $.10 at the Friends of the Library book sale, so I got it anyway. It’s handy because each chapter gives you an idea of things you can see in whatever time frame you have. It tells you when to not bother with an attraction if you have limited time and the ones you won’t want to miss.
And that’s it for everything you want to know about visiting Cuba … well, almost. I haven’t told you about all of the great mid-century modern architecture you MUST see while you’re there. We’ve devoted another entire Mod Blog to Havana’s plethora of mid mod that you can read here.