Jessica Maienza from the United States went to Cuba with her husband on vacation. She went caving, drove in a cool 1950's Chevy, and experienced some fantastic hospitality from her homestay hosts. Interested? Read on to find out how much she loved Cuba and get some helpful tips on travelling in Cuba as a US citizen.
Jessica and her husband
Living with host families in Cuba was an eye-opening experience. My husband and I were looking to practice our Spanish on our trip while also experiencing the Cuban culture (and as Americans, traditional tourism is still illegal). With the help of Homestay.com, we were fully immersed in the Cuban culture and met the locals. We spent our first 5 days in Viñales with our host, Anayuri, experiencing the country life and our last 4 days in Havana, living the busy city life with another Homestay.com family.
Our hosts, Anayuri and her Aunt Maria, treated us like members of their family. Prior to arriving, Ana and I messaged back and forth for what seemed like almost daily for over a month. I had SO many questions and she was always quick to respond with detailed answers. I became even more thankful for her midnight responses once I arrived and realized she had to use the public Wi-Fi in a park across the street from her house!
We feared we might not have many options in Cuba since we are both vegetarian, but Aunt Maria made us dishes upon dishes of food for both breakfast and dinner. This goes without saying, but food is one of the best parts of traveling; through our homestay, we experienced authentic Cuban cuisine that you can't get by going to a restaurant or staying at a hotel.
Our host's husband, Darien, is a taxi driver, so he picked us up from the airport in Havana and drove us 2 hours to Viñales (talk about hospitality!). As soon as we arrived, Anayuri greeted us and welcomed us into her home like we were family. Her aunt gave us delicious agua de guayaba (guava juice) and showed us around her house. Ana scheduled all our activities for us. We went hiking through the mogotes with her brother to an organic tobacco plantation, a coffee plantation, and then ended at a panoramic view overlooking the valley.
The next day, her family friend drove us in his 1950's Chevy to the most beautiful beach I've ever seen, Cayo Jutías, roughly an hour and a half away from Viñales. The following day, her husband took us caving. We went to 3 different caves, Cavo del Indio, Cuevas de los Cimarrones, and Cueva de Santo Tomás, the latter required headlamps and a touch of skill. Afterwards, her husband brought us to all the best viewpoints in Viñales, including several miradores and two historic hotels with sweeping views. On top of all the activities, we enjoyed the simple things: walking through the town and sitting on Aunt Maria's porch watching the "traffic" (mostly horses) go by. By the time we left Viñales for Havana, we felt like we were leaving a piece of our hearts behind. Anayuri told us we'll always have a home to return to in Viñales.
My top tip is to download Cuba on Google Maps and as well as the Cuba app (both are free). Make a list of all the sites you’d like to see before you get there and use Google Maps to get directions once you are there. Old Havana and Central Havana are very walkable. If you are interested in walking tours of Havana, book and look up times & meeting locations in advance.
Americans can’t use their credit or debit cards in Cuba since U.S. banks don’t conduct business with Cuba. It's not ideal, but I budgeted beforehand how much cash we’d need based on our homestays, meal costs, tour prices, and transportation. There are 2 currencies: CUP & CUC. Cuban Pesos (CUP) is used by locals while Convertible Pesos (CUC) is used by tourists. 1 CUC = $1USD = 25 CUP, so make sure when you get change, you do not receive CUP. We encountered this once at a restaurant and lost a few dollars. When exchanging money, if you are American, don't bring USD as the exchange rate is worse. We brought Euros (but GBP or CAD would work just as well). The exchange rate at the airport was worse, so we exchanged most of our money at a bank in Havana (which you need your passport for).
You also need your passport to buy Wi-Fi cards at Wifi Etecsa stores. I had read online that hotels sold Wi-Fi cards with drinks, but this was a much cheaper option that our host told us about ($1 per 1 hour card). You can find the Wi-Fi network “Wifi Etecsa” in popular public areas, like Plaza Vieja in Havana and Parque José Martí in Viñales.
Make sure to bring towels, sunscreen, bug spray, toilet paper, and all your toiletries as Cuba's grocery store shelves often aren't stocked, and frequently, there are lines at the grocery store on delivery day. On that note, I wish I had brought gifts like clothing, beach towels, toys, and toiletries for the people we met. The average Cuban salary is $25 a month (per Cuba’s National Office of Statistics), so tourists’ gifts and tips go a long way.
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