Travel Tips for Americans Who Want to Visit Cuba

Now that I’m living in Havana studying dance, I’m getting A LOT of questions from Americans who want to travel here. I’ve put together some advice that I think will help you if you’re considering a visit to Cuba.San Ignacio

First steps:

1. Do your research before: 1) booking your trip and 2) asking friends who live in Havana for advice. There is a LOT to do here – think of it like New York or London. Buy a guidebook (I just discovered that Amazon Prime members can download Lonely Planet guidebooks for free) and read online articles and forums to get a sense of the possibilities.

Think about what you like to do – wander through museums, relax with drinks and listen to live music, go dancing and hit the best nightspots, explore beautiful natural settings, study music, dance or Spanish, go to the beach? You can do all of this from Havana, so if you only have a week, figure out your priorities for the time you have.

2. AMERICANS CANNOT ACCESS MONEY IN CUBA. That means no credit cards, no debit cards, no traveler’s cheques. You must bring the money you will need in cash. Most Americans either bring USD (but be prepared to get charged 10% when exchanging) or Euros (no 10% fee, but you lose money when you change from US to Euros in the US). For a short trip, I’d recommend USD. You’ll be exchanging for one of the Cuban currencies, called CUCs.

3. Prepare to be off the grid. You will likely not find up-to-date information on many websites anyway – it’s better to ask around or call to get current info – and wifi is only available in hotspots. Hotspots are located in parks and plazas throughout the city, and inside and outside many hotels. Parque Central is a good place to go online – either in the park or in one of the surrounding hotels. Once you get to Havana, you’ll need to buy a wifi card. Your best bet will be to go to the Etecsa office early on Obsispo for the best price (the hotels sell them for 3x as much) – 1.50cuc/hour – and wait on line.

4. There are two main requirements for traveling to Cuba that people often get confused about. Cuba requires that you purchase a 30-day tourist visa. Most airlines offer you the option to buy this at a kiosk at the airport where you’re flying out – you’ll need to check with your airline. From the US, it costs between $75-100. The other requirement is from the US side and has nothing to do with Cuban policy – it is to identify which category of licensed travel you fit under. In starting to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama opened up these categories to individuals – so you can state which category you fit into, without going through a ton of paperwork to get a license. Most US tourists are now using the educational category (also known as “people-to-people”) – you select this when you buy your flight. **

** I will update this post or publish a new post once Trump announces the revised US-Cuba travel policies this Friday, as I expect regulations will be tightened for individual travel.

Parque Central from Hotel Rooftop

Some ideas for your time in Havana:

Once you’ve researched and prepared yourself a bit for a trip to Cuba, start asking more specific questions based on what you’d like to do. Here’s what I recommend in Havana when friends ask me for general advice (not dance-related – that’s another post):

  • Splurge on a classic car tour – 35-40 CUC per car – you get a tour of the city in a convertible, hitting some of the most famous spots. Yes, it’s touristy and a bit cheesy, but it’s a great way to get a visual tour of the city. So bust out that selfie stick and have fun.
  • Spend some time on the Malecón – take a walk in the early morning or around sunset when it’s cooler. If you’re feeling social, buy a bottle of rum and refresco (soda) and find a spot to hang out at night (try where Galiano or 23rd intersect at Malecón) and be ready to make friends.
  • Give yourself time to wander Habana Vieja to take pictures, stop for a mojito or limonada, and catch some live music in the afternoons or evenings. Obispo or Plaza Vieja are good spots to start from.
  • Pick one or two museums that sound the most interesting to you, and definitely go to Plaza de la Revolucion.
  • I’m the worst at buying souvenirs for friends and family on my trips; I’m lucky they keep me around. If you’re better at that type of thoughtful stuff, you’ll like San Jose artisan market as a one-stop shop. Don’t get excited about it as a cultural spot though – just buy your T-shirts, claves and bottles of rum and get on with your life.
  • The terraza on the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra has horrible mojitos, but a great ambiance, lovely view and live music.
  • You can also easily do a day trip to nearby beaches or spend a day or two in Vinales or Trinidad. Both are interesting and beautiful, which is why they’re so popular with tourists.

Quick Tips:

  • Buy combination luggage locks for all bags – especially anything that will be checked. If it is not locked, expect to have a much lighter bag when you pick it up at baggage claim.
  • Keep your money on you in all transportation – airports, taxis, buses, etc. Lock it up in your suitcase in you’re room when you’re out.
  • Take a picture of your passport. You’ll need it for buying wifi cards and exchanging money.
  • Speaking of changing money, banks give slightly better rates, but are slower. Cadecas are generally quicker.
  • Download an offline map before you get here – I like “Map of Cuba offline”.
  • You can’t drink the tap water, but you can brush your teeth with it. For a short trip, you can buy bottled water. I have a Lifestraw water bottle with a filter that I use with tap water, and haven’t had any problems.
  • Stay in a casa particular – you can find them on sites like Airbnb – either renting a room in an apartment or house, or renting your own apartment.
  • You will usually have a phone in your casa that you can make local calls from, just ask the landlord.
  • Bring comfortable shoes. Havana is a very walkable city, so you’ll likely walk a lot. You can wear heels, but stick with wedges over stilettos. The streets and sidewalks are not even, and I don’t want you to break an ankle.
  • Bring a fan. It’s hot here. Really. Hot. Here. (Cubans and foreigners use umbrellas as shade from the sun – that’s an option too.)
  • When you get on line for anything – changing money, for example – ask, “who is the last?” by saying “Quien es el ultimo?”. Remember that person. People do not queue up in perfect formation here, so you need to remember where you are in line and let the next person know you’re last when they ask.
  • This should go without saying, but: learn the Spanish words for hello, how are you, please, thank you, bathroom, the check, water, and the United States (people will ask where you’re from) – and use them as appropriate with all of the Cubans you meet.

Of course, there is much more to share about enjoying Havana, but this should get you started! More information to come in future posts…stay tuned…and feel free to comment or ask questions below.

Feeling Intimidated? Ask Them to Dance Anyway

My friend and I were talking the other day about guys not asking her to dance salsa. A lot of times she’ll have to ask them to dance and at some point they’ll tell her, “I never asked you before because I was too intimidated!”

This frustrated and confused her a bit, because she is a very friendly, modest and down-to-earth person. She’s not dancing from her ego or showing off, she’s genuinely enjoying herself and usually smiling the whole time! So, to her, the fact that she could be perceived as “intimidating” didn’t make much sense.

I got it though. When I first saw her dancing, I was completely intimidated just as another female follower in the same room!

The thing that makes her dancing intimidating is that it is immediately obvious that she knows more than just the steps. Her movements are fluid and complex, stemming from her knowledge of African dance, and more specifically Afro-Cuban dance – the roots of salsa. When I see someone who clearly embodies the richness of a certain dance style, it inspires me to step up my game, but it also makes me think twice about whether I’m ready to dance with that person.

Sometimes you just have to go for it though.

In my experience with salsa, most dancers are friendly and non-judgmental (and they remember when they were beginners themselves!). I wouldn’t ever try to monopolize a more advanced dancer’s time, but from time to time it’s definitely important to step out of your comfort zone and ask someone better than you to dance (leader or follower).

You may surprise yourself and dance quite well! You might also be completely out of your element and get the chance to recognize your weak spots – and that’s a great opportunity to focus your ongoing study of dance.

And don’t forget one of the most important elements of partner dancing that has little to do with your level of technique – your energy! Your unique personality and way of expressing joy and humor all comes through in the way you dance. Let it! This is the essence of our connections to our partners and it is just as meaningful as technique for your partner’s enjoyment of the experience.

So, next time you’re out dancing, I challenge you to a little experiment: Put a smile on your face and ask that intimidating person to dance. Who knows what you might discover!

***

Tell me in the comments – how do you deal with feeling intimidated by another dancer?

When Your Dancing Feet Betray You

More often than not, when I go out salsa dancing, I have a blast.

But last night, I felt “off”. As soon as I stepped on the dance floor I sensed it.The floor seemed slippery and I felt unsteady on my feet.

One problem was that I didn’t really click with my partners. I felt a bit unbalanced and they felt rough in their leads. Complicated moves, which I can often follow very smoothly, were requiring immense concentration. I felt like I had to think a lot.

I watched other women dance and so many of them were dancing effortlessly and improvising with the music. One woman was killing it while wearing little glasses perched on her nose! (How was she doing that without them flying off?!)

Usually, salsa is a blissful combination of focus and surrender. Last night just felt like tiring work. I was barely noticing the music and certainly wasn’t having tons of fun.

I came home sweaty and tired, but feeling bummed out rather than tingling with joy.

I’m still feeling it today and I know I need to shake it off. Here are the steps I’ve come up with:

  • Chill. Everyone has a bad night. Just because I wasn’t dancing my best doesn’t mean that I’m the clumsiest, unsexiest, uncoordinated dancer in the world. I was just off. It happens and it’ll happen again. But I’ll still have “on” nights too.
  • Physical exhaustion makes for sub-par dancing. I was pretty tired and thought I’d get a second wind (it was 9:30 pm on a work night, after all!) I downed some Pepsi before starting, but I don’t think I really had the physical energy I needed to be on my game.
  • Sometimes dance partners don’t match. I really wasn’t feeling much chemistry with my dance partners. Some were too goofy, some were too rough, some were too soft. It’s nothing against them, it just wasn’t clicking. In a partner dance like salsa, chemistry is crucial.
  • Rest and then get back on the horse. My dancing confidence is pretty low right now, but I know I need to keep trying to feel good again. Tomorrow night is another salsa night at a club that I haven’t tried before. There’s a lesson and a new crowd of dancers to get to know. I’ll rest my body, warm up with a lesson and then approach it with an open mind.
  • Enjoy life as a dance student. I’ve been salsa dancing on and off for 10 years, but I still haven’t reached the advanced level that I’d like to be at. I see other dancers and get frustrated and jealous because I’m still messing up, dancing sloppy or having off nights (which I assume they never have!). But I think it would be helpful for me to shift my perspective and try to enjoy the process of getting better, realizing areas for improvement and then learning more.

Has this ever happened to you – either with dancing or something else that you’re really good at and usually brings you relaxation and joy? How do you bounce back from an “off night”?