Havana Experience: The Reality of Traveling to Cuba

Cuba was never on my list to visit as I grew up in Miami. I had an understanding of and experienced Cuban culture. So, why would I want to visit? Over the years, several friends would invite me and I declined. I honestly had no interest until this year. To be truthful, the only reason I went was Delta was having a killer airfare deal to Havana during the 4th of July Holiday weekend.

What did I know about Cuba? I knew several things – I know that there is an embargo, U.S. citizens were allowed to travel, and you need a Visa. Other than that, my knowledge was pretty limited. I started looking at hotels and found a couple that I liked. I even booked my room until the rug was pulled from under me.


As U.S. citizens, we are not allowed to stay at any Cuban government-owned hotels. ? Que? I was looking at Melia, Iberostar, and Kempinski; all well-known hotel chains. What does this mean? My travel mate informed me of this, and I did not believe her. I then went to my travel group page and asked the question, then I was directed to the State Department website https://www.state.gov/cuba-restricted-list/list-of-restricted-entities-and-subentities-associated-with-cuba-effective-january-8-2021/ that listed all of the restricted hotels.

That put a damper on this trip and I was ready to cancel. Because I was going to Cuba to “Support the People”, the only option was to stay in a Casa aka use Airbnb. I have an Airbnb account (just because) but I don’t like them; my preference is hotels for all of my travels. I started looking on the Airbnb site for high-standard accommodations, very unrealistic. Anywho, I found one that had pretty much everything checked off for me. I submitted my request and was declined. Uh! Since I was not comfortable with Airbnb, my travel mate took over. I only had one request — I was not going to be staying with other people. The apartment was booked.

Now the fun stuff begins. This blog is an honest account and provides details of my experience; to simply show you what travel to Cuba entails, what you should expect, and show you what places to see.

Logistics of Traveling to Cuba

Traveling to Havana Cuba requires a little bit of preparation, especially for US citizens. Having the correct plan and all required paperwork is necessary. There are some providers that arrange your paperwork for a fee, but you can do it yourself. Here is a summary of how to get to Cuba as an American citizen.

US citizen entry requirements
    • Can Americans go to Cuba? Yes, US travel to Cuba is legal.
    • Booking a flight is possible from major airports in the USA. Where is Cuba located? Well, it’s only 90 miles from the south of Florida. New York and Florida have direct flights, making your connection super easy. As a US citizen, you will only be able to fly into Havana.
    • There are 12 categories to select your travels from. Tourism is not a reason for travel. The most popular declared category is Support for the Cuban people. There are more like education, research, religious or journalism activities. It’s a self-selected category so pick one that matches your visit the most. You will declare this at some point in your travels, it’s not an official document.
    • When traveling under the Support for Cuban People category, you will need to stay at a Casa Particular. I booked my stay through Airbnb.com, but you can book through booking.com or Expedia.com.
    • A Tourist Card can be purchased from your airline at the airport. I flew on Delta from NYC connecting at MIA. There is a person at the gate 45 minutes prior to departure selling the Tourist Card. The cost is $100. You can also purchase it ahead of time on the Flyready Delta site. This is your Visa to Cuba.
    • Travel Insurance to Cuba that is specific to Cuba is also required. From my understanding, the insurance is included in your airfare. I erred on the side of caution and purchased insurance through Allianz.
    • Cuban currency is complicated. You can’t get Cuban currency anywhere else but Cuba.
    • Take enough cash for your trip as your American credit or debit cards won’t work there nor are they accepted. Estimate a budget based on your type of travel and convert it to Cuban Pesos (CUP) which can be found at the airport, Airbnb Host, or other places in town. Note: Don’t convert at the airport or banks.
    • For my 4-day trip, I took $400.00 and my travel mate did the same. My travel mate converted her cash and I kept mine in US dollars as a backup.
    • US Dollars and Euros are mostly accepted. So, you don’t have to necessarily convert all your money into Cuban Pesos.
    • Internet connection is hard to get unless you purchase a special card. Your Airbnb accommodation will most likely have internet, but it will be slow at times. I would simply plan to “disconnect to connect.”
    • AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile also offer international roaming in Cuba, but you don’t want to incur that cost.

Navigating Havana

Airport Jose Marti in La Habana, Cuba is about 30 minutes from the city center of Havana. You will need to take a taxi to town. We asked our host to arrange a pick-up for us which was a fixed rate and took us straight to the casa without any confusion. It was around $30 and the driver accepted U.S. Dollars.

Most of the city is walkable if you stay in the main area (Old Havana). For touristy sights, you will be able to get by without a taxi. If you want to venture out a little further, there is an abundance of taxis in the streets always waiting for you to hop it. Also, you can ask your host to call your taxi. That way they will make a little money for a referral and you’ll get door-to-door service. Remember, we are here to Support the Cuban People.

Is Havana safe?

Cuba is generally very safe, and you shouldn’t be afraid to walk around. They have low crime rates because of the consequences you can face when committing one there. You will get asked, “Where are you from?”. I stopped saying America because it attracts too much (negative/positive) attention. I would say Haiti and I was pretty much left alone. Also, I acknowledge them, but I don’t engage. What does that mean? I smile or nod my head and say hello, but I keep it moving. As a female traveler, safety is my top priority, and I am always aware of my surroundings.

Cuban People

People are nice. Truly nice good people. It’s actually fascinating how amazing and warm they are. Definitely, a big difference from the Miami Cubans. However, please be respectful and conscientious with your questions. At one point, one of my travel companions was asking a series of questions, and our guide asked “Are you a reporter for the Miami Herald?” He immediately clammed up. In other words, don’t talk about politics or ask how they feel about the regime.


A common practice among travelers is bringing gifts for the locals as certain basic goods are hard to obtain in the rationed economy. I did not bring any and from reading more on the subject, it seems to be a mixed opinion among travelers. On the one hand, you want to help out the locals but on the other, you’re enabling a culture of expectations each time someone visits.

Food in Havana

Food is tricky for me. I eat to survive. If it is good, I am happy. If not, oh well! Anywho, the food was good but it wasn’t something I particularly remember blowing me away. Being from Miami and with Caribbean parents, the food is widely available and super delicious. My approach was to try it all. Don’t forget that you’re going to a place that doesn’t have access to the same amounts, spices, or varieties of foods that someone for example in the States does. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the food will be bad but it will certainly limit your options. Make sure to have a good mojito. I had several!


I stayed in an Airbnb that was centrally located and I loved it as it was within walking distance to the majority of restaurants and tourist attractions. Also from the rooftop, I had a view of the Capitol and the city.

The apartment was okay — 2 bedrooms and 1 bath. It was clean and functional, and it had an AC in the bedrooms. It served its purpose and I was only there for 4 days. Here is my Airbnb information should you want to book it yourself.

Things To Do in Havana

There is a good amount of things to see in Havana. In comparison to a typical trip, the whole city itself is a sight. In addition to exploring, make sure to set time aside for soaking in this extremely unique and vintage place. People watching, drinking, and strolling in the old streets will be some of your favorite memories from there. Try to talk to locals but don’t touch on the topic of politics unless they choose to talk about it.

Old Havana

Habana Vieja is the main tourist area of the city filled with landmarks, restaurants, music, dancing, and everything else that makes it one of the most recognizable places. This is the area I would recommend staying in or at least nearby at a casa particular. Note that it’s very touristy and not as representative of actual living conditions, however, it’s something you should see.

There are numerous landmarks within this part of town that I will cover below but this part of town is an attraction all within itself. Make sure to roam around the streets and note the patched-up tourist buildings vs. the real way of life a couple of blocks away. If you’re going to do any activity there, make sure to do a free walking tour. A quick history lesson from someone who lives in Havana is a must.

Plaza Vieja

This square is beautiful. It has colorful (updated) buildings, street artists, and cute bars with balconies overlooking the plaza. Aside from the bars, little vendors, and occasional street shows, there isn’t much to do there but people watch.

Plaza de Catedral

Speaking of Plazas, this one has a cathedral hence the name. It’s one of the historical plazas in town and it attracts a ton of tourists. As the name suggests, there is a cathedral in this place. The inside of it is very beautiful so make sure to take a peek inside. There are a couple of restaurants and local vendors in the plaza worth a couple of additional minutes of your time too.

El Capitolio

This capitol building is a stunning piece of architecture. The inspiration came from the U.S. Capitol Building. You can stroll around and admire the old cars, parks, and colorful buildings right next to this impressive structure. Fun fact, you can actually enter this building, something I wish I did. The admission ($3) includes a free tour with it.

Gran Teatro de La Habana

This is a beautiful theater in the city. The building and its surroundings are beautiful from the outside. Very elegant and different for this city. They offer tours for a little under $10 so I would recommend doing that. The history is quite interesting and complicated. Additionally, you can catch the ballet, opera, or other shows at cheap prices (compared to NYC). Make sure to see this place during the day as well as at night.

Fine Arts Museum

The museum has two locations, one near Prado in Havana Vieja housing international art from world-famous artists like Goya or Velazquez. The second location is the Palacio de Bellas Artes near Parque Central. Here you will find Cuban art. I regret not visiting because when I saw the uniqueness of the art online after my trip, I wish I got to see it in person.

Vintage car ride

This is the most touristy Havana thing you can do but why wouldn’t you?! Did you see those cars? They’re beautiful. You can take a guided tour where the driver will explain to you each landmark around the city and that should cost you around $20 per hour. Or you can use it as a regular taxi to get you somewhere you want to go.

El Malecon

This is a long esplanade along the water that stretches for a decent distance. You will see a lot of the locals fishing and enjoying their afternoons. This is a very “Cuba” spot. A beautiful sunset is a must. Oh, and this is where they filmed Fast & Furious 8.

Havana to Vinales day trip

Viñales is an amazing 2-hour one-way trip into the STUNNING valley of mountains and tobacco fields. It’s certainly not close to the city, but it’s a favorite of day trips from Havana. We hired a private driver to take us there. The drive was long but enjoyable.

We got to see the stunning valley, a cave, and a cigar and rum factory and ate lunch on that farm.


I enjoyed my short visit to Havana. Will I go back? Definitely, just not during the summer. Before I went, I had several people say that the poverty was bad. When I arrived, I did see poverty from an American perspective. However, what I say was a lot of wealth and peace of mind. They don’t have to worry about education and medical care. They don’t have to have to worry about gun violence or other types of violence. Yes, political freedom may be oppressed but who are we to judge? If you do decide, please leave all your “American” viewpoints and enjoy Cuba and the Cuban people.

Lastly, you are not allowed to bring back any cigar or rum from Cuba to the U.S. It will be confiscated by Custom.

Thank you so much for reading this blog and joining me in my adventures! Make sure to check out my other blogs and contact me when you are ready to travel domestically or internationally. I am here to you to curate a trip for you and your friends and family.

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