Cuba is a fascinating country – tantalizingly close, but out of reach for American vacationers for so long, its carried an air of mystery and adventure for decades. As trade and travel restrictions ease and more direct flights and cruises become available, this friendly, dynamic nation is going to become an increasingly popular destination. Here’s what to know as you prepare to travel to Cuba for the first time.
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You’ll Eat Organic
Due to trade limitations, Cuba has developed a 100% organic agricultural system. While this makes perfect sense, it’s rarely discussed. Go ahead and revel in your “farm to table” dining options!
Water and Ice
The ice seems perfectly fine to drink – after a full week of mojitos and other icy beverages in 3 major cities, we are happy to report no signs of gastrointestinal distress. We did stick with bottled water though. That said, it’s best to bring a small arsenal of typical medications against cold, flu and upset stomach, as pharmacies have erratic hours and it may be difficult to source the medication you may require.
Most bathrooms have attendants; they may request a tip or fee of up to 1CUC for the pleasure of letting you use the facilities.
Carry toilet paper, antibacterial lotion, a bottle of water, and small change.
Taking photos of people
If you take photos of people on the street, it’s not uncommon to offer some small change for their time. This is obviously true of people in costume or musicians, but should also be respected of the average person on the street. Always remember that these are human beings going about their daily lives. How would you feel if someone got in your face to take a photo or stared at your child and then started photographing them. Always ask first!
There are 2 currencies in Cuba: the Convertible Peso (CUC or tourist money) and the Cuban Peso (CUP), which only Cuban nationals are allowed to use. The CUC is approximately 1CUC = $.85USD once you account for the exchange rate and service fees. Some street vendors also accept Euros. Do not exchange money from people who approach you on the street, as it’s both illegal and risky.
Most Cuban establishments can not accept credit cards or foreign currency. You must carry CUCs with you if you want to buy anything. No one will accept U.S. dollars in exchange for goods.
Helping those in need
As a woman, you may be approached for help by mothers. I was approached and asked for help with a milk ration for a baby. It’s heartbreaking to consider the limited resources available to many people, but it’s also difficult to help on the street. There are a number of organizations that help Cubans: if you feel inspired, please check out the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, Heart to Heart Health and Humanium.
Cigars and Rum
Cuban cigars and rum are the most commonly requested souvenirs. At the time of this posting, the U.S. limitations have lifted, allowing for unlimited importation of both rum and cigars by U.S. travelers for non-commercial use within standard US regulations. Be cautious if buying goods from any place other than a clearly marked store. “Blackmarket” cigars are known to be made of banana leaves and worse. Regulated vendors have prices clearly marked, and cigars are wrapped with Cuban seals, not in white paper like you will see on the street.
Want to travel to Cuba? First read 24-Hours in Havana Cuba with Fathom Cruise
The arts in Cuba are very well promoted and developed – all citizens have some kind of arts education throughout their lives, whether musical, visual or dance. Local artists abound – pop into galleries, shops and concert halls, listen to the street musicians, and help support Cuban creativity.
Chatting with Cuban citizens
Cubans are very friendly and will gladly talk about everything. They have a natural curiosity about the U.S. and may try to strike up a conversation – trust your gut when deciding if you’re talking to someone who really wants to chat or is looking to make a hustle. Cubans are also very open about their own country – if possible, take the time to have an honest conversation with a number of locals to learn about their unique challenges, perspective, hopes and lives. Stay open minded and respectful of different viewpoints; not everyone hates the government and is trying to leave the country.
Cuba and U.S. relations
Relations between the US and Cuba are changing every day. Visit the U.S. Department of State for the most up-to-date travel guidelines, restrictions and permissions.
11 thoughts on “Travel to Cuba facts for U.S. Citizens Visiting for the First Time”
Very interesting, sounds very similar to my travels in parts of Mexico and Ethiopia. This is a great overview with very practical information which is super useful when trying to plan a trip to somewhere you have never been. Mike really wants to travel to Cuba and I would like to get over there before it becomes westernized. Seems so raw and interesting!
Thanks for your comment! In an era of endless connectivity, it’s refreshing and stunning to be in a place that just ISN’T. It’ truly unique in the world right now – developed but raw, scrappy and sophisticated, creative and suppressed. An amazing amalgam of humanity and experiences. Head over – and let me know what you think!
Ahh, this brings back so many great memories of my travels through Cuba many years ago! I agree with you on all points, especially talking with locals, bringing cash only, and asking permission or tipping for photos. I didn’t know the organic piece, though!
As I was packing for the trip, I realized – this was as close to “off the track” as I’ve been in 20 years. Cash only! Blackmarket currency dealers! It’s like eastern Europe, 1995!
I’ve taken my boys to Cuba twice this year and we absolutely love everything about the country.
So great! I am hoping to go back this year, with my husband and 3 year old daughter. I wonder what her memories will be, if at all.
Great piece on Cuba. It’s an excitimg time for all concerned. I’m guessing it’s best to visit sooner rather than later before “development” descends! 😀
Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for reading, and your kind words! Every day that passes makes me wonder how the island is changing! It’s really a dynamic time to explore all that Cuba has to offer – and be a witness to her change.
Thanks for the information!
Our schedule is looking like August might be the only time we can visit Cuba this year. I have read several blogs that discourage travel in August because it is the start of hurricane season and it is hot. Does anyone have any experience with traveling during this time of the year? Is it really that bad?
Well, August in the tropics can definitely be brutal and you do run the risk of being hit by a hurricane for sure. I’ve done the Caribbean in the summer. It is very hot (over 100 + humidity), but you will have the beach, so it could be OK. Drink a LOT of water. I would not plan on air conditioning everywhere you go though. I’d definitely get travel insurance in case of the hurricane though. This way if you get stuck you have back up help and if your trip gets cancelled, you save your money.
I was in the Tulum area this past August (2017) and it was miserably hot if you were more than 5 feet from the beach; the sea was so warm that it really didn’t offer much relief until you were out in the deeper waters. We were hit with a hurricane the day of departure. Remember that in Cuba there is essentially zero air conditioning; humidity levels will likely be very uncomfortable for people not accustomed to them. However, if that’s when you can go, do it!