10 Things to Know Before Visiting Cuba
1. Choose your category of travel
From the 1920’s and into the 1950’s, Cuba experienced tremendous growth. During that time, It was extremely popular as a vacation spot for jetsetting Americans looking for an exotic Caribbean getaway. All that changed with the Communist Revolution of 1959 and the resulting embargo by the USA, which halted trade and travel between the US and Cuba. Americans wishing to travel to Cuba had to enter from countries like Mexico or one of several locations in the Caribbean.
When President Obama relaxed travel restrictions in 2016, travel from the United States once again opened up to Cuba. Most major airlines offer affordable routes to destinations throughout Cuba. However, Americans can still only visit if they fall into 12 categories of travel such as family visits, religious or educational activities, or humanitarian projects. This is a requirement of the US government, not Cuba. Airlines departing from the US are required to log your category of travel in their systems, but they don’t require any paperwork or validation of your selection.
Update: Choosing your travel category
For several years after travel opened up to Cuba, individual travelers were visiting under a “People-to-People” visa. Under recent restrictions, however, “People-to-People” visits are limited to trips with licensed tour operators. American travelers can still visit with a “Support for the Cuban People” visa. This visa requires travelers to stay in a casa particular (that is, a private residence or AirBnB) rather than a hotel, eat in paladares (privately-owned Cuban restaurants), and shop at private stores that are operated by self-employed Cubans.
2. Things will change
Americans view Cuba as a land stuck in time. Because it has been off limits for so long, Americans are rushing to Cuba to see it before things change. The volume of American tourism since late-2016 has risen tremendously. According to the state-run site CubaDebate, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba spiked in January of 2017 at 43,200. That’s a 125% increase from January of 2016!
The increased volume of tourists have cause prices of hotels, restaurants, and transportation to skyrocket as they struggle to meet the demand. When we visited in December 2016, we prepared a budget based off information from other travelers who had visited in prior years. However, we found much of the cost information we had gleaned was outdated by the time we arrived.
3. Cuba has two currencies
Cuba has two local currencies, which is initially confusing but you get the hang of it pretty quickly. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC, and pronounced “kook”) is the “tourist” currency and is linked 1:1 with the US Dollar. When you exchange money, you will receive CUCs.
The Cuban Peso (CUP or just peso) is the locals’ currency. 25 CUP is equal to 1 CUC. The CUP is rarely used by tourists. In fact, you can spend your entire visit in Cuba without spending a single CUP. The only time we found it beneficial to have a small amount of CUP on hand was when we were buying street food (which can also be purchased with CUC).