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How Americans Can Visit Cuba (And Why You Should!)

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!

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

sierra nevada cuba

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.

  1. Remember to buy the pink version of the Cuban tourist card.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. If you book any organized tours and activities, make sure the company you choose is not on the restricted list.
  6. 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.

tropicana havana cuba

Here are the highlights of the most popular destinations visiting Cuba.

Havana

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 cuba fort

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.

Varadero

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.

varadero cuba

You can book flights to Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport.

Vinales Valley

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.

Trinidad

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.

havana forest

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.

las Terrazas cuba

Holguin

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.

Is Antigua, Guatemala Safe?

Located in the heart of Guatemala in Antigua, a small town that’s a tourist oasis about an hour drive west from the capital. Although Guatemala City nearby is notorious for its high crime rate, Antigua has a reputation for being safe and a gateway to the rest of the country. Crime is a broad topic and one where when it affects you personally, doesn’t make the best of statistics comforting.

You’ll read a lot about how safe Antigua is or isn’t but overall, here’s what you need to know.

Small Town Vibes

There aren’t many reliable statistics on crime in Antigua but economically it is an important hub of tourism for Guatemala. Tourism equals money and corruption in government is an issue in Guatemala, meaning that officials have a vested interested in bringing your cash to Antigua. (So they can pocket part of it.) Sometimes though as a traveler your goals align with that of shifty politicians and to keep Antigua safe, there is a heavy police presence in the town.

antigua guatemala church

Not ominous, just present. You’ll see cops and tourist police a the corners of many popular spots in town, casually keeping an eye on things.

Local Recommendations

Most locals will tell you Antigua is free to explore during the day – which coincidentally is when most things are open. Restaurants and even bars close relatively early and if you are out in the later hours, just have a cab called for you to take you back to your hotel. The streets are pretty deserted at night so better to not risk being the only person at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

antigua guatemala tacos

But aside from general street common sense (don’t walk around at night alone when it’s late) at most other times it’s just business as usual. Take your phone or camera out to take pictures, there’s no need to tourist around in fear. Smartwatches are common sights and so long as you take the usual precautions (watch you pockets in busy places) you should enjoy what Antigua has to offer. (Which by the way is lots of history and lots more good, good food in Antigua.)

Digital Eyes

There are also cameras on most street corners so if you do get unlucky and pick-pocketed or lose something, locals will tell you the cops are generally good about reviewing footage to help you out as best they can. The cameras are a good deterrent for criminals and helpful police means happy tourists, which means money – some of which will probably be skimmed into someone’s pockets.

Like life, crime levels can change over time, for better or worse. Being so close to Guatemala City may make you apprehensive. But there’s a lot of effort in Antigua to keep it tourist-friendly, safe, and that’s cultivated a wonderful place to visit in Guatemala.

Everything You Need To Know About Traveling To Baghdad

baghdad iraq

Although it might not seem like it, Baghdad, Iraq is a blossoming tourist destination welcoming casual groups interested in history, art, and a city that’s been off limits until recently. Adventurers are also making their way to this exciting new destination in the Middle East but you don’t have to be one to visit Baghdad, a remarkably modern and welcoming city.

Logistics And Accommodation

Flying into Baghdad is straightforward and there are direct flights from several destinations, including Istanbul. Iraq recently implemented an online e-visa program for a number of countries, removing some of the logistical barriers that once existed. Hotels are plentiful though they tend to range from dirt cheap or semi-luxurious, without many options – or prices – in between.

Getting to Baghdad is mostly normal. Flights land as they would anywhere else but upon arrival you’ll want to have your hotel pickup, Baghdad tour company, or other transportation arranged in advance. Unauthorized cars are not allowed up to the terminals at Baghdad International Airport for security reasons (more on that in a bit) so you won’t be able to just grab a cab once you step outside.

Security

Baghdad is a city that has been experiencing recent periods of normality in between waves of local instability, including recent clashes and curfews. It’s best to have local contacts (e.g. guides) who can advise you of the situation on the ground during such waves. Otherwise, as locals will tell you, traveling to Baghdad isn’t dangerous but it is risk(ier) than many other places. Occasionally there are random attacks, mainly on the outskirts of town and they rarely target foreigners. Everyone has a different risk tolerance but when you’re in Baghdad, a bustling, vibrant city of over 7 million, it doesn’t feel much unlike most other developed capital cities.

Baghdadis are by and large friendly, welcoming, and aside from the ruthless traffic, getting around town by car or on foot isn’t extraordinary.

Why You Should Visit

Baghdad is a modern city with its Starbucks, hip restaurants, and a young and open-minded population who will be deciding what they want their country to be. Being one of the oldest cities in the world, there’s history (Babylon anyone?), cultural events in public squares, and some of the best cuisine you’ll find not just in Iraq, but anywhere.

Perhaps the untold story of Baghdad is that its not only a crossroads of time and peoples, but with that comes the unique mix of foods you can find here. Dishes with a range of fresh ingredients you might not have expected from Iraq but remember, you’re in the heart of the Fertile Crescent. There’s masgouf, traditional carp that’s farmed in the nearby marshes or absolutely one of the best falafels in the world (and a nice vegetarian option).

You’ll be welcomed in Baghdad as a guest – the locals will make sure of that – and you’ll be getting a peak into the fragile state of tourism here. It may be the beginning or a temporary end. Only time will tell so if you’ve been considering a trip to Iraq’s capital, now may be the time.

How To Protect Your Backpack From Slash Attacks

Slash attacks on backpacks are brazen theft attempts where a thief uses a knife to cut through your bag and make a run for it. These are quick grab attacks where the crook doesn’t really care if you notice because by the time you react, they’re already running away at full speed.

Fortunately, there are a few tactics to avoiding slash attacks on backpacks, purses, and other handbags.

Prioritizing Prevention

There aren’t many statistics on specific ways people are pick-pocketed but anecdotally the slash and grab is most common against bags with one strap. That’s purses, belt packs.. things where the slash immediately detaches the bag from your person. With a backpack that’s a lot harder to do, so one piece of advice right off the bat is to always wear your backpack with two straps on. Also, don’t wear your backpack too loosely, so you can better feel if your bag is being tampered with.

Plan Of Action In Progress

A good backpack security strategy against slashing starts with the bag you choose. Fabrics like nylon with higher denier counts, sailcloth, and polyester tend to hold up well. The Aer Travel Pack 2, Tortuga Outbreaker Laptop Bag, GORCUK GR2 and Pacsafe LS450 offer solid protection. No matter which backpack you go with, inspect where the backpack and supportive straps meet.

Not only will strong stitching and reinforced straps be more durable over time, strap meets the bag, is a part that tends to get a lot of use, movement, and wear over time. Also, the thicker the material used for the thinnest part of the backpack straps, the more resistant they’ll be to cutting.

Layering Strategy

Many slash attacks don’t go for your entire bag but rather vulnerable exterior pockets. So, pack your most valuable items in the interior, closest to your back. A lot of backpacks have multiple pockets so don’t use outside facing ones for your wallet, phone, or other important items like a passport. With your valuables deeper inside the bag, there’s more material between the knife and your stuff.

When you’re riding in a bus, metro, or train, don’t keep your bag by your feet which gives a thief a lot of time to attack your valuables without you noticing. Always keep your bag on your lap. It’s inconvenient but a lot more difficult for someone to tamper with.

Like most pick-pocketing security, you want to deter an attack from even happening and give a thief reason to look elsewhere. Being aware of your surroundings, having your gear secure, and using a strong backpack will all help. But if you do notice someone cutting through your backpack and turn around to see someone with a knife in your face – do the smart thing and give them what they want. That’s a mugging situation, don’t be a hero and risk injury or worse, for things that can be replaced.

8 Creative Ways To Use Apple AirTags

Apple’s AirTags are small Bluetooth trackers than can be used to locate your luggage but also have a number of other good uses. Despite the bad press, AirTags can be a valuable asset in your personal security system both at home and during travel.

These are 8 creative ways you can use AirTags to recover your lost valuables.

1. Luggage

The most obvious use for an AirTag but the obvious place to put on – in the luggage tag – isn’t the best place. Rather, place the AirTag in your suitcase, preferably in an interior pocket so it can’t be easily swiped or lost.

airtag

2. Pet Tag

Using an AirTag keychain holster or a collar made with AirTags in mind, you can track your pets when they’re outdoors in case they get lost or just to find out what your cat has been up to all day.

3. Car

Hiding an AirTag in the trunk or between seat cushions (again, so it’s not easy to spot or locate for a potential crook) can give you some tracking information in case your car is stolen.

sony electric car

4. Keys

An obvious but useful one is using an AirTag key chain because your keys will get lost when you really need to find them.

airtag key chain

5. Backpack

We often think we wouldn’t just leave our bag somewhere until we actually do. The same principle applies here – keep the AirTag in an interior pocket away from any external zippers.

6. Mail

Sure, you can use FedEx or UPS to track your package but now you can theoretically get real-time updates on any piece of mail you send if you place an AirTag in the envelope.

7. Bicycle

There are specialized lights for bikes built to hide an AirTag out of sight of a potential thief. You can also use the lower tech method or duct taping one inside the seat, keeping it out of view.

amsterdam bikes

8. Purse And Some Wallets

Depending on the type of wallet or clutch you carry, an AirTag can fit and help you find it in case it gets lost. Unfortunately, since AirTags aren’t flat, they won’t easily fit in a folding wallet.

Remember This When Using AirTags

AirTags can be purchased individually but Apple does discount them if you get a 4 pack. Alternatively there’s the competing Tile which might work better for you. Still, there are a lot good ways to put multiple AirTags to use, just remember to keep them hidden because the longer their with your stuff, the more chance you have to recover your valuables if they get lost.

5 Pickpocket Tricks To Use Against Them When Traveling

aer travel pack 2

Part of any good security strategy is to learn from what the other side you’re trying to protect yourself from is doing. You can’t always avoid an elite pickpocket or completely prevent getting robbed at knife point – but what you can do though is minimize your losses by thinking like the criminal who wants to steal from you.

Your personal security plan needs to have many legs to stand on as well as distractions to keep your real valuables safe.

1. Distribute Your Money

Always distribute your valuables in several places when you travel. This include both on your person, in you bag, and your hostel or hotel room. Never keep all of your money in the same place. You can hide some emergency cash in deep in your socks, in the side of your underwear or in a bra and in your front pocket as well. While you may get robbed or pickpocketed you’ll have minimized your loses.

hotel room pakistan lahore falettis

For extreme circumstances do the same and have some money hidden in your hotel room too. Some in the safe if there is one and inside of a dirty sock in your laundry. Have kids? Their toys make great hiding spots.

2. Use A Decoy

Your wallet is the first target of any pickpocket so make it where you keep your least valuable stuff. Put in a small (but not tiny amount) of money along with some of those inactive (or expired) credit cards you get in the mail. If you don’t get any in the mail cancel your current card and request a new one from your bank – instant decoy. Include a student ID or some other photo identification with no personal information on it. A wallet without an ID might give you away.

trove wallet

Make sure your wallet doesn’t have sentimental value and never keep important things in a big purse – they are very easy targets.

3. Set a Trap

A decoy can be a way to potentially set a trap for a pickpocket. It won’t work in all places but if your bank offers a free checking account or credit card with no fees and is free open one up. Keep this card (with no money in the account) in your decoy wallet. If it’s stolen call the credit card company or bank right away to let them know.

ridge wallet

In most countries the companies will keep close track to see where and if that card is used. If there happens to be a camera at the first place the pickpocket tries to use the card you may be in luck.

4. Make Your Things Ugly

There are several techniques on how to make uglify your camera but the same premise goes for all of your valuable electronics. Get over the need to keep your things shiny since they won’t do you any good if they’re enticing and get stolen. Stickers, worn duct tape, and ugly carry bags work too.

red iphone 11

Oh, and that iPhone – be careful where you flash it. If you’re traveling in a place and worried about the area bring along the cheapest, oldest Nokia you can find and save the Twittering until you can get back to the hotel.

5. Set Up A Camera System

Hotel rooms can be vulnerable spots for your stuff and not all come with safes. You can though use an old smartphone as a security camera to monitor your things and get an alert if anything is disturbed. Also, while we’re at it, always use a “Do Not Disturb” sign and only have your room cleaned while you’re in it (and have packed away your valuables beforehand).

Be Creative and Add More Legs

There are plenty more ways to be shadier than thieves – be creative! Unique hiding spots, zipping your backpack like this, and other tricks are fun to come up with and there are almost an unlimited number of them. The important thing it to have more than one self-security plan and have your strategy stand on many legs so you always have a backup or two.

This is an updated version of a post I originally shared for a now-defunct travel blog in 2009.

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About Anil Polat

foxnomad aboutHi, I'm Anil. foXnoMad is where I combine travel and tech to help you travel smarter. I'm on a journey to every country in the world and you're invited to join the adventure! Read More

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