Cuba used to be a place of great mystery for me. The images in my head were those of dirt roads, dilapidated buildings and old cars, an antiquated infrastructure, and abundance of rum and tobacco. While some of that may be true for some areas, particularly rural areas, Cuba is more than just cigars and rum.
When we travel, we prefer to stay among the locals and to see how things are day to day. I find that to be a greater learning experience for me than staying in a posh resort and relying on the convenience of nearby tourist attractions. A big fancy hotel with its pools and swim up bars is great--there's a time and place for that after all--but I want the "real deal" experience.
If you are planning on a trip to Cuba, there are a few things you need to know. First, travel to Cuba has restrictions for U.S. citizens. Travel to Cuba for the sole purpose of tourism is prohibited. Anyone wanting to travel to Cuba is required to obtain a license for travel and, if your intended travel is not covered under a general license, you must obtain a specific license from OFAC. For more information, go to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for details regarding restrictions and criteria for licenses.
Second, Cuba has a dual currency system. What does that mean? Well, tourists use currency known as CUCs and Cuban citizens use the Cuban peso. 1 CUC = 25 pesos at the time of this article. Some businesses have prices clearly labeled as CUC or peso but some do not. Be sure to ask so you don't overpay! We used both CUCs and pesos depending on what the business would accept. For instance, we stopped by a nearby cafeteria and had 2 personal pizzas and 2 bottled waters. The price was 100 pesos which is approximately 4 CUCs which equals 4 USD. Restaurants in Old Havana took only CUCs and had prices similar to those in the U.S.: $10 - $20 CUCs per entree.
Third, you will get a better currency exchange rate if you change USD into euros or CAD, and then exchange to CUCs. There is a CADECA at the airport right outside baggage claim where you can do it easily and fairly quickly. They will NOT give pesos there......only CUCs! We found a CADECA near the Airbnb we rented and were able to get pesos there.
Fourth, cigar prices are regulated by the government and are the same at all cigar stores. There is no need to "shop around" although I heard from other travelers that there are ways to get them "under the table" and therefore cheaper. I don't know if this is true and don't have the first clue where this occurs so buyer beware. You run the risk of getting imposter cigars this way. We observed that cigar stores have boxes stacked up with a price tag but what the tag doesn't say is that the price is PER CIGAR and not for the entire box. Very deceptive in my opinion.
Fifth, Cuba is not a country that seems to be concerned with accessibility. Tourist areas are not as problematic as the outlying areas where sidewalks are often broken up and the streets are more dirt roads than anything else. Our neighborhood (which was described as a privileged area) had large pot holes and virtually no consistent sidewalk. Anyone with mobility issues will want to stay near or in the tourist areas to have better accessibility to local attractions. One word of caution about the tourist areas: some of the vendors are very aggressive and downright harassing. One guy literally followed us down the street trying to sell us a wooden sculpture.
My trip to Cuba had a profound affect on me. We went on a visa for "Support for the Cuban People" and I learned a lot about the things the people have and don't have access to because they are cost prohibitive. We had a 40 lb duffel bag of items we find commonplace here (school supplies, feminine hygiene and first aid products, etc). We wanted to help out an orphanage or home for people with disabilities so we gave our donations to a church that works to help those populations. They were very friendly and extremely appreciative of our donations.
Cuba is a place of friendly, warm, and welcoming people. I left with a better understanding of these resilient people and I wouldn't hesitate to go back! I hope you will have an open mind about Cuba and learn a little bit about it before removing it from your travel bucket list. It has indescribable beauty and a very rich culture! If you want to try out Airbnb, you can use my link and get a $40 credit (www.airbnb.com/c/aporterfield1). Check out Rentas Monica. We stayed in an amazing place in Jaimanitas that had steps right from our terrace into the ocean.
...................and as always MAKE THIS DAY COUNT!