This is a guest post by Hege Jacobsen, a Norwegian Army officer, social scientist, and traveler who writes about Cuba on her travel blog, The World By Hege.
Many people are unaware Cuba is still open for travelers and is still destination you can visit legally – including Americans – despite recent tightening of sanctions. It’s not always the most straightforward travel plan but well worth considering Cuba as your next destination. Here is everything you need to know about visiting Cuba now, and why you should.
What you need to know about visiting Cuba now
The most important thing you need to do to travel to Cuba is to buy a ticket. Then, you buy your Cuban tourist card, book your hotel or casa particular, and that’s it. There are no complicated extra steps to it unless you are American, then you need to check out just a couple of more things (listed below).
Here is a simple checklist to make sure you don’t forget anything!
- Not all search engines provide flights to Cuba due to ongoing sanctions. This does not mean you can not travel to Cuba, just that you need to find another search engine to book your flight. (Upon arrival, make sure you follow this advice at the airport.)
- Buy your Cuban tourist card (also called a tourist visa) from the Cuban embassy, from selected airlines, or from an online provider. You buy it, you do not apply for for a Cuban tourist visa, it is a formality.
- There are two versions of the tourist card, green and pink. For most travelers, what you need is a green tourist card. If you are a U.S. citizen or your flight has the last stopover at a U.S. airport before arriving in Cuba, you need the pink tourist card.
- When you book your accommodation in Cuba, a great option is to stay at a casa particular. This is a private rental holiday home, where your rental fee will go to the Cuban owner. This way you will put your money somewhere helpful, have the opportunity to connect with locals, and learn a bit about Cuban culture and life. There are casa particulares all over Cuba, some modest and some luxurious, in all shapes and sizes.
- Note: if you are a foreigner with an ESTA visa for the U.S., you need to know after President Trump put Cuba on the “list of countries that support terrorism”, visiting Cuba might create problems for your ESTA.
How can Americans travel to Cuba?
As a U.S. citizen, you absolutely can travel to Cuba despite the rocky relationship between the two countries. You just need to follow the regulations set by the U.S. government, and they are not as difficult as you might think.
Here is how Americans can travel to Cuba hassle-free, within the current rules and regulations.
- Remember to buy the pink version of the Cuban tourist card.
- As Americans can not travel to Cuba as regular tourists, you need to choose one of the 11 U.S. pre-approved reasons for visiting. There is no paperwork connected to this, you just state your reason if anyone asks. The most common reason used by Americans visiting Cuba is “helping the Cuban people”. You can find the official list here.
- Make a simple itinerary for your journey, showing that your planned activities are not in opposition to the U.S. regulations for travel in Cuba (if anyone asks).
- Book your stay in a hotel or casa particular that is not on the U.S. restricted list (most are not). You can check what accommodation is on the U.S. restricted list here to avoid any mistakes.
- If you book any organized tours and activities, make sure the company you choose is not on the restricted list.
- Note: U.S. credit cards are not accepted in Cuba. Bring enough cash in euros or Canadian dollars to pay for your planned activities, and change it to Cuban currency when needed in Cuba.
Amazing destinations to explore when visiting Cuba
The largest island nation in the Caribbean, Cuba is an archipelago with 4000 islands, endless beaches, and intriguing history. There is quite a distance between the east part of the island where you find Santiago de Cuba and Holguin, and the west, where you find Havana, Vinales, Varadero, and Trinidad. So if your holiday schedule is not unlimited, you probably need to prioritize your time.
Here are the highlights of the most popular destinations visiting Cuba.
The Cuban capital Havana is a fascinating city, with around two million inhabitants, 500 years of motley history, and a complicated current situation. The city was founded in the 16th Century by Spanish colonialists, stayed a colony until 1898, and has remnants of five centuries worth of more or less planned incidents.
You will notice this in architecture, old fortifications, and a vast variety of regional influences in the tiniest details. The revolutionary ambiance is also very present, although more in the social space and art, than city architecture. This makes for an amazing melting pot of people, cultures, and a mix of religions that you meet today.
Havana will feel different now from only a few years ago. Wifi in Havana is easily available and people are online. There are lots of interesting things to do, great restaurants, bars, and clubs, and you can get most things you need apart from pharmacy items. You will also find many modern casa particulares, some even with wifi. But rest assured, there is still a myriad of Classic Old American cars, run-down colonial mansions, rum, and salsa around.
The nearest airport to Havana is Jose Marti International Airport.
A few hours east of Havana is the famous Varadero, a thin peninsula of beaches with high-end all-inclusive hotels, casa particulares, bars, and restaurants. Varadero is the biggest resort area in the Caribbean, with infinite water activities, and Varadero Beach was voted the world’s second most beautiful beach on TripAdvisor in 2019.
You can book flights to Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport.
Around three hours west of Havana is Vinales Valley, one of the most fertile and lush green places in Cuba and home to the production of the famous Cuban cigars. What you might not know, is that you can also go rock climbing here, swim in underground cave waters, horseback riding, and even take a day trip to the beach a couple of hours away.
On the southern shores of Cuba, you find the colonial city of Trinidad, where the historic center is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Trinidad was once the wealthiest town in Cuba due to its sugar production (and slavery), but as it fell off the hype it was collectively forgotten. Because of this, Trinidad’s old city is almost the same as centuries ago.
Ten minutes outside Trinidad is a paradisaical beach called Playa Ancon, and close by you find the national park Topes de Collantes. Go here for hiking and swimming in incredible freshwater pools under little waterfalls, and a few hours away is also the infamous Bay of Pigs.
The Cuban Keys
Visiting the Cuban Keys you will spend time in truly paradisiacal surroundings and pampered luxury, but there is no ounce of “the real Cuba” here. The most popular keys are Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Coco on the northern side, and off the southern coast is Cayo Largo.
Go here to relax completely for a beach holiday (it is amazing), but just remember you have not really been visiting Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and an 18-20 hours bus trip from Havana, with a more relaxed ambiance. The city was the capital of Cuba at one point, and also where Fidel Castro stayed during the decisive battle of the revolution in 1958.
The highest-rated Cuban rum is produced in Santiago, the Extra Añejo 25 Años, coveted across the world by rum lovers. A few hours outside Santiago, you also find the vast Sierra Nevada mountain range where you can visit the old revolutionary headquarters of Fidel Castro.
Commercial flights fly to Antonio Maceo Airport.
Lastly, Holguin is a small northeastern city known as the cradle of Cuban music and is a great destination if you love dancing, art, and history. It is around two and a half hours from Santiago, and one of the places Pope Frances visited in Cuba in 2015.
If you do the one-hour drive from Holguin town up to the coast and Guardalavaca or Playa Blanca, you will find a myriad of resorts and crispy white beaches. It is said that when Christopher Columbus first laid eyes on these parts, he said “The goodliest land that eye ever saw, the sweetest thing in the world.” Maybe you will feel the same?
Holguin has a small international airport called Frank Pais.
3 Smart travel tips for Cuba
- Pack a water bottle with a filter. Water can be hard to find, and this way, you can drink water from anywhere.
- Bring the amount of cash you plan to spend in euro or Canadian dollars, and change it in Cuba.
- Download an offline Google map, a Spanish app, and a VPN before you go, to keep you connected on all levels.
Thank you Hege for sharing why and how to visit Cuba! You can follow Hege on her site, The World By Hege and on Facebook, Instagram, and Pintrest. All photos in this post are courtesy Hege Jacobsen.