So, you read on news and social media about visiting Cuba and you wonder what’s going on – Can I now go to Cuba as a tourist? Do I need a visa? What about flight and hotel logistics? We spent a few days in Cuba mostly taking leisurely walks and eating and drinking our way through this beautiful city, and had a great time!
In this series we will cover the ins and outs of heading to Cuba, from visa requirements to favorite sites & restaurants.
With countless flights and cruises bound to the Caribbean islands, it is still difficult to imagine that a country just 90 miles away from Key West was inaccessible to the travelers from the United States since 1962. Even though savvy travelers figured out ways to explore this unique island country, they were still the minority and going to Cuba was certainly not on the mind of your average traveler.
In the last year, travel restrictions have been relaxed making this an ideal time to visit. You still cannot visit as a tourist and need a visa (more on that later). Therefore, when an opportunity presented itself and we saw a few days free in our schedule we made an impromptu decision to book our tickets. Jamie had actually been to Cuba in 2003 under a regimented educational visit so this also gave Hemali an opportunity to increase her country count 😊
See other links for:
This post: Visa / Entry Requirements, Currency Exchange & When2Trip
Entry to Cuba is legally allowed under the 12 categories by U.S. OFAC (Office of foreign assets control) listed below.
An interesting point to note is that apart from not being able to visit under a general tourist visa, there is another explicit category under which you are NOT allowed to travel to Cuba-
- Starting a missile crisis
Seriously, I am not kidding. So, too bad if you are planning to start a missile crisis because you won’t be allowed.
12 U.S. OFAC categories under which travel to Cuba is allowed:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- People to People exchange / Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
After a lot of research, we decided to go with the “People to People exchange / Educational activities” category. We also heard that no one was actually checking or questioning the reason for entry and this was mostly a formality. Being type A, I was a bit hesitant and so I created an itinerary to show how our activities each day fit into this category.
This turned out to be unnecessary in our case because not a single government official, from either country, asked any questions about our reason for travelling to Cuba. To be honest, I was actually a bit disappointed because I had a whole spiel prepared for this.
Note that I am not a lawyer and the information listed below is my personal opinion if you want to comply completely with the law, it is best to work with a tour agency to create an itinerary.
Cuba has two official currencies CUP (Cuban Pesos) and CUC (which is Cuban convertible peso). Here are the approximate valuations of CUC and CUP.
1 CUC = 1USD
1 CUC = 24 or 25 CUP.
Most foreign travelers only need CUC since the payment to the hotels, restaurants, etc. is all priced in CUC. You can keep some CUP handy if you are planning on buying any road-side fruits or taking bicycle taxi which cost less than a CUC. We decided to just get the CUC and didn’t need any CUP’s during our stay.
The CUC was created to stop the circulation of U.S. currency which was widely accepted in Cuba prior to 2004. However, bear in mind that you actually pay a penalty of 10% when you exchange the USD bills in Cuba. The best way to avoid this hefty fee is to convert USD to other currency before heading to Cuba (we chose Euros). Since we were exchanging a good chunk of change, we called in a few currency exchange places in NY which offer much better rates than banks, and went with the company that offered the highest rate and was easily accessible. Take more than you think you need because the credit and debit cards from North America are not usable in Cuba. Non U.S. affiliated U.K. / European cards are fine.
We were originally planning to exchange just a few euros for CUC at the airport since the exchange rate at the airport is one of the worst, and then exchange the rest of the currency at bank. However 3 flights had just landed in Havana and the line at the airport was really long. Our taxi driver suggested that we stop in town instead, which was a much better option. There are several official Casas De Cambio (money exchange, a.k.a “Cadeca”) in town which don’t offer as good of a rate as the banks, but are open for longer hours and are conveniently located all over the town. Refer to this link if you want to know the exchange rate for that particular day.
One scam to watch out for is being charged in CUC and given change back in CUP. So, it is good to make a mental note of the currencies.
We also exchanged some currency at a bank where the rate was better but it is important to go early in the morning, as soon as they bank opens to avoid long lines. Also, avoid the casa de cambios in old town and touristy places because they always have a long line.
Unless you like 100+ degree temperatures, the best time to visit Cuba is from September to April. We went in March and the temperatures were in lower 70s during morning / evening and upper 80s during the afternoon.