Note: I wrote more about my time in Cuba here.
How did you get there?
You still have to fly through other countries. Connections are pretty plentiful, though – you can go through Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Columbia, most of the Caribbean, etc. The major airlines flying into and out of Havana (“La Habana”) are Cubana and Interjet.
Is it legal now?
No, not for tourism. As of Jan. 2015, Americans are now permitted to travel if it falls under one of twelve categories. You no longer have to apply beforehand, but you may be asked to cite your reason. I was asked when booking. Official .gov wordage.
Any trouble with credit cards?
No problem whatsoever booking the flights or accommodations online using an American credit card. Not sure on using cards in Cuba – I read they still weren’t accepted and never tried. Used cash the whole time.
How much cash did you bring?
Cash is apparently hard (impossible?) to come by for Americans in Cuba, so take more than you’ll ever need. If your accommodations and flights are already handled online, I’d like to say that $150-200 per person per day should suffice. Worked for us. But use your own judgment. You absolutely want to take enough to have cash left over. Do not get stranded.
Did you have any trouble with customs in Cuba?
Not at all. Zero. As others have mentioned, the only real question going into Cuba was whether I’d been to Africa in the last 30 days.
Did you have have any trouble with U.S. customs coming back?
Still no. When they ask where you’re coming from, you tell them your connecting city. They may ask if you bought anything. Tell them yes or no. (ps – it’s legal to bring back up to $100 of Cuban cigars.)
Key bar and restaurant reviews:
Prado No 12: cannot speak highly enough of this place. Adorable location on the acute corner of two streets, with like 4 tables, where you can tuck in real quick during a downpour. They’ll sell you some food after the kitchen’s closed so you can feed a stray dog, let you negotiate a beer with your last dollar (CUC), and then remember your name when you drag yourself in to do it all over again the next day.
El Floridita: Alright, yes. This is one of two bars where Hemingway chilled. He drank there all the time and loved their daiquiris (which, incidentally, they claim to have invented) and now he’s got a statue. Whatever. You should go. But go, have a drink, get the photo, and then get the hell out. It’s not really worth more than that.
Paladar Doña Carmela: the place your taxi or “classic car hour-long tour” driver will take you. You’re going to be irritated, maybe even suspicious. It’s actually really good – probably one of the best places in the Havana area – but be careful that you negotiate with your driver so he doesn’t charge you per hour while you eat.
La Farmacia: overlooked gem. They do this breakfast with eggs and fruit and coffee and espresso for like $4.
The best and worst of Havana:
Most expensive drinks: by far Hotel Santa Isabel, where a whiskey ran the handsome Chicago price of $15.
And maybe that’s what you get for drinking at a hotel, but drinks (and food) at many of the other hotels were reasonable enough.
Least expensive drinks: pretty much everywhere else.
Seriously, though. Everything from beer to mojitos to whiskey pretty consistently go for $1.50-$3. Prices were a bit cheaper along Paseo del Prado, the street running from the Capitol Building to the sea, and might peak a bit in some of the more touristy areas of Old Havana, but if you’re seeing big-city prices, you’re in the wrong place.
Best deal: you mean other than most all of Havana?
Biggest rip-off: the “one-hour” tour by classic car tour, where you’re invited to pile into a classic car so a driver can chauffeur you to all his favorite tourist traps (not so subtly suggesting you buy things) for more than one hour and charge you for both the overage and all kinds of other things. Fun.
Best meal: Paladar Doña Carmela
Sigh. Yehhs, the same place the tour driver will take you… they were right.
Worst meal: The pizza, if you mistake salt for parmesan and sabotage it.
In all seriousness, I guess there might be a lot of great contenders here, if you were critical enough. But luckily they all save each other. You don’t go to Cuba for haute cuisine. Let it go.
Best mojito: Europa, but only by one of the bartenders – not the others – and I don’t even remember his name. Sorry.
Confession bear: I’m not really all that into mojitos (I’m not really all that into any sugary drinks) and this was one of three, total, that I had in Havana. But! It was the also the best mojito I’ve ever had (one might even say the only one I’ve ever really liked) and I figure that counts for something.
Best daiquiri: I don’t know, El Floridita?
It was the only one I had. See: “mojitos.”
Other tips and Warnings:
- Don’t do the classic car hour-long tour. Or do, but know that they’re going to try to charge you more . At least my driver, Abraham, with his bright pink Hello Kitty car, did that, trying to charge $100 more than what we’d initially discussed.
- Seriously, watch out for Abraham and his bright pink Hello Kitty car.
- In the same way that most cities have strangers on the street that try to sell you drugs, people here will try to sell you cigars.
- If you buy a cigar – whether from a factory, a bar, or some random guy – it is almost assured that it will be ruthlessly judged on basis of quality or cost thereafter.
- Everyone – men, women, probably children – drinks mojitos in Cuba. This does not, however, change the rest of the world’s perception of mojitos. If, still high on your mojito-sipping confidence from Havana, you order one at home, you will still get looks. Just like before.
- Make sure you plan out your entire itinerary before booking anything – flights or hotels. Several of the airlines only fly out on certain days.
- Make sure you check your departure terminal. There are several, and are set far enough apart that they require a taxi to travel in between.
- If you get a late-night personal pizza from one of the many vendors, be warned that the big shaker is not parmesan. It’s onion or garlic salt. Dumping it on your pizza will render it all but inedible.
I wrote more about my time in Cuba here.