Cuba is the most interesting place in the world to travel today, but don’t let the allure of the forbidden blind you to some realities about the situation on the ground in the island nation.
Cuba is different from most travel destinations and is certainly different from the rest of the Caribbean: it is beautifully unspoiled. Despite having more beaches, historic architecture, dancers, singers, rum, art, cigars, protected ecosystems, coral reefs, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and history than any other island in the Caribbean, Cuba’s relative isolation from the U.S. has resulted in travelers having to plan and accommodate more than usual. But it’s worth it.
Low fares are a much needed relief after years of expensive and inconvenient air travel offered by the previous air charter services to Cuba. U.S. travel restrictions and relatively high airfares acted as a gatekeeper and balanced supply and demand for capacity, especially in Havana. While the Cuban government has been busy constructing new hotels and refurbishing old ones, the situation today is worthy of caution. There is very little or no hotel occupancy in Havana during the high season (winter months).
We suggest planning your travel to Cuba with a tour company. The biggest advantage is that the tour companies have reserved rooms well in advance and therefore have inventory. They also should have established itineraries that are compliant with U.S. travel rules.
Here are the major bottlenecks you may face in Havana:
Little or No Hotel Rooms Are Available – make sure you have a confirmed reservation. Changes are difficult or impossible. You will likely need months of advance planning to reserve a room in one of Havana’s business or luxury hotels. Airbnb is a great alternative if you are more flexible in terms of amenities and whether you require Internet access. Here is the best luxury hotel in Havana.
Restaurants are limited – Cuba’s food distribution system and new private restaurants (paladares) each have limited capacity. There are almost no fast food restaurants in Cuba. Don’t assume you can go out for dinner like you can in other Caribbean cities. Make reservations. Here are the best restaurants in Havana.
Translation/Spanish Language – many Cubans do not speak English, especially outside Havana. Since Internet access is limited in Cuba, and your cell phone will not likely work for Internet or Google apps, we suggest you download Google’s translation app on your phone and use a little-known but super helpful tool called “offline translation.” This allows you to download a robust dictionary of words that will work for translation when the Internet is unavailable.
Use poetry to study Spanish – poetry contains essential elements of culture and lots of vocabulary that is likely missing in structured language learning tools. Plus, encoding foreign words and phrases through poetry is easier because the poetry adds an aspect of imagery and emotion. Here is some instruction on using poetry to study Spanish.
Cash/Credit Cards – cash is king in Cuba. Nevertheless, Stonegate Bank pioneered the offering of U.S. credit and debit cards for use in Cuba. There are reports of transaction failures by users of these cards in Cuba. The likely culprit in Cuba’s antiquated Internet and technology. Try the card, but take a lot of cash too.
Note: crime rates in Cuba are much lower than in the U.S.
Take a tour of one of Havana’s best restaurants: