Sitting on the tarmac in a Southwest Airlines jet, I looked out the window as an American Airlines plane rolled by. Across the runway, passengers were disembarking from a Frontier jet and next to it a United Airlines plane was parked.
From the look of the airport, we could have been in any Caribbean destination – but we had just landed at José Martí International Airport in Havana. For the first time in over half a century, commercial air service to Havana from the United States was once again underway.
The lure of Cuba
With the easing of travel restrictions to, we knew we wanted to get to Cuba before the crowds.
We wanted to experience and photograph Cuba in its authentic state, before American tourism took its toll on the country where much of life remains tied to 1959 and the time before Castro’s revolution and the embargo.
What did we find? Havana is a vibrant, charming city filled with friendly, welcoming people. Not yet overrun by tourists, everyday life plays out before you in the narrow streets lined with colorful buildings.
Was it what we expected? In some ways, yes; in others, no, but in a good way.
Can all Americans travel to Cuba?
No. Tourism is still officially prohibited for U.S. citizens with travel only permitted for those journeying to the island nation for a purpose that falls into one of the approved 12 general categories, which are listed below.
We were asked our purpose of travel when obtaining a visa and at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter when checking in, then never again. Per U.S. government requirements, travelers must keep a schedule of their activities for five years after their return from Cuba.
In other words, your activities log shouldn’t include catching rays on the beach or dancing away the nights in Havana clubs.
Visas are available for purchase online at the time of ticket booking (recommended, as it speeds up the process) or they can be acquired at the airport. At the time of our flight, the cost was $50 per person.
The Visa has two parts, which need to be completed carefully. If you have an error in filling out your name and date of birth, you have to purchase a new one. One part will be taken at immigration in Cuba, the other is kept with you while in country and then retrieved at immigration upon exit.
The 12 approved categories for American travel to Cuba
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. Government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activities
- Professional research or meetings
- Educational activities and exchanges
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic/other competitions and exhibitions
- Humanitarian projects
- Support for the Cuban people
- Activities of private foundations, research, or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information material
- Certain authorized export transactions.
Before heading to Cuba
Get and bring cash… and more than you think you are going to need.
Credit cards issued by U.S. banks and U.S. ATM cards do not work in Cuba. Americans rely so much on plastic – you will be surprised how much cash you need that you’d normally just pull out a card to pay for. Taxis fares, food, beverages, tips, internet access and more all add up quickly. When traveling, things don’t always go as planned and the last thing you want to do is be stuck in Cuba with no money, so bring double or triple what you think you may need.
A few hotels can be booked and prepaid online. We found some of the room prices are significantly higher than rack rates displayed when arriving at the hotel. For example, for one hotel where we stayed, only had suites available for purchase online, with standard rooms available at the hotel for almost half the rate.
The benefit of prepaying is the ability to pay in advance with a credit card. If you do so, make sure the reservation is clearly identified as prepaid as some hotels take credit cards to hold the room but require cash payment at the hotel.
Getting to Cuba
Major cruise lines and airlines began regular service from the United States to Cuba in late summer 2016 with flights to cities in the outer areas of Cuba such as Varadero and Santa Clara. Prior to this change, flights had been via much more expensive charters.
In December 2016 commercial flights to Havana with bargain prices –mostly around $150 roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale or Miami. We booked our flight on Southwest Airlines for a few thousand points during the second week of their service to the capital city.
Local Cuban health insurance is required by the Cuban government and, at least with Southwest Airlines, was included in our airfare. Your boarding pass is proof of health insurance so don’t toss the boarding pass into the trash once you land.
If you go – arrive at the airport a minimum of two hours in advance. We flew from Fort Lauderdale, where Southwest has set up a check-in counter on a separate floor for Cuba departures. Stop by the visa counter near the main counter and pick up a visa prior to heading to the main check-in counter.
Nearly everyone in line had piles of large duffel bags to check for the flight. It was the holiday season, so we’ll assume they were taking a vast amount of Christmas presents to family and friends in Cuba.
As with any new service, there are generally bugs to work out in the process and it appears new flights to Cuba apply here. We departed nearly an hour late – primarily due to the vast amount of stuff people were bringing with them.
The instant the wheels touched down on the 45-minute flight cheering erupted from the passengers. Before we reached the gate, an elderly man rushed to the front of the plane and quite a few others quickly followed him.
After a quick immigration process, we departed to the arrival area to a crowd of hundreds waiting on arriving passengers outside a barricaded area. A family rushed to greet an elderly woman who made her way with a walker to the end of the barricade. Watching the families re-united it was well worth the delays and slight chaos associated with the short flight.
The Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC, is the currency of Cuba. The exchange booth at the airport is located near the arrival check in area and was the place where we received the best exchange rate of 90 CUC to 100 U.S dollars. At the hotels where we exchanged currency, the rate was 87.3 CUC to 100 U.S. dollars.
Getting around Cuba
Cuba is a huge island, with a land area of 42,426 square miles or 109,884 km2. If you are considering venturing to areas other than Havana, make sure to calculate the estimated cost of the transportation before arriving on the island to ensure you have sufficient funds.
For example, the resort area of Varadero, which is also an alternative airport to Havana, is about two hours away from Havana. Cab fare between the locations runs between 100 and 120 CUC.
Cab fare from the Havana airport to Old Havana in an official cab runs 25 CUC. Negotiate taxi fare, whether in a metered taxi or not, prior to departing.
The most common word heard when walking in Havana is “taxi?” and there are numerous taxi options…
Official taxis are yellow, newer automobiles that can be metered or flat rate. They are a good choice to and from the airport as they are typically air-conditioned and the ride is about 20-30 minutes. The standard fare to a major hotel is 25 CUC.
Unofficial or illegal taxis are the older cars that can be found in popular areas and outside hotels. Fares are fully negotiable.
The convertibles are a great way to tour Havana while snapping some photos and are available by the hour for a flat rate. We found the range between 30 and 60 CUC.
Little yellow cocotaxis are a scooter-powered rickshaw-type vehicle for two plus the driver. They are cheaper and, albeit zipping around the Malecón can be a bit harrowing, they are fun and a bit cheaper than the cars.
Bicitaxis are quite prevalent in Old Havana. The three wheeled, human pedaled vehicles are also a less expensive method for short trips around the city.
Additional transportation options include buses, horse carriages and, of course, walking – which is truly one of the best ways to explore the city.
As far as coverage from your existing phone provider, check with your cellular provider prior to departing for Cuba to determine coverage and rates. Upon landing in Cuba, I turned off Airplane Mode to check if I’d receive the standard text we typically receive from Verizon advising of rate information in the country where we are visiting.
It came through immediately. At the time of our trip in 2016, Verizon’s rates on our plan (provided only as an example) were $2.99 minute for voice calls, $ .05 text sent or received and $2.05 MB for data. My phone went back into Airplane Mode.
WiFi in Cuba is through ETECSA, the government-owned telecommunications provider. Cards providing one hour of internet time can be purchased at most hotels and at Cyber Cafes. Rates vary – at the Hotel Nacional cards were 7 CUC and at other hotels the rate was typically 2 CUC.
Lobbies of the hotels, and outside on the curbs, are typically filled with countless people looking at their phones. The reason is that the coverage doesn’t extend to hotel rooms so, if you want to get on the internet, you do it in the lobby.
As far as television, we were surprised with the variety of television coverage at hotels. Available channels included CNN, BBC, and the Denver Broncos were playing on the big screen in the café when we stopped by for a pizza and a beer.
Where we stayed
We choose to split our time in Havana between two hotels – the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba and the Iberostar Hotel Parque Central Havana. Both were wonderful hotels and deliver a completely different experience.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba was built in 1930 and on a hill next to the sea in the middle of the Vedado section of Havana. The most famous hotel in Cuba, it has been declared a National Monument and proudly displays numerous photographs throughout the hotel of the many famous personalities that have stayed at the facility throughout its history.
We stayed in a large room on the seventh floor with sweeping ocean views.
Iberostar Hotel Parque Central Havana
Located across from Havana’s Central Park along the Paseo del Prado, the Parque Central contains two buildings, several restaurants, shops and a rooftop pool and restaurant area that offers stunning views of the city.
Rooms are located in either the modern tower or the colonial section, with the building linked by an underground tunnel. Our time at Parque Central was in a large suite in the modern tower.