Cuba: Dispelling Misconceptions for USA Travelers

I recently returned from a 5-day self-guided trip to Cuba covering Havana – the capital, and Viñales – in the countryside.  We stayed at a “casa particular” which we found through Airbnb. Casa particulars are apartments or rooms with bath owned by local Cubans and rented out to visitors.

Our accommodations consisted of a clean, completely remodeled apartment with A/C, hot water, comfortable beds, a view of the harbor and walkable to markets, restaurants, bars, museums, etc. The day we we departed, the owner and his wife asked if we would give them an excellent review and help dispel rumors about traveling there for US citizens. Tourism in 2017 had fallen off tremendously from the USA. I told him I was happy to do so.

I decided to take it one step further than only reaching the folks who read the Airbnb reviews. I wanted to be sure anyone researching travel to Cuba would take this to heart. So many people who hold a USA passport think they cannot legally travel there. And that is simply not the case.

Here are a few misconceptions I have heard from friends, and my perspective from first-hand research, as of this writing in late 2017.

“US Citizens can no longer travel to Cuba.”  Most of the USA’s sanctions against Cuba travel were lifted under the Obama administration when the US Embassy was reopened in 2015 – after over a half-century of the cold war estrangement. True, the next administration has changed some of the policies backward – but NOT entirely. USA based cruises are still cruising there and USA based airlines are still flying there.  There are travel agencies taking group tours there – the suggested way to travel by the US government. You just have to make sure your travel plans are under one of the “reasons” for travel.  Your travel agent or airline can help you with choosing a reason, buying a visa (we bought ours right through the airline), and buying required health insurance (included in our airline ticket price). Easy!

“US Citizens cannot bring Cuban cigars or rum home.” Not true! It is always good to check before you go, as the rules do change. However, we were able to bring back multiple boxes of cigars and several liters of rum, as long as it was for personal consumption or gifts.

“It is not a safe country to visit.”  Is any place on earth “safe” anymore? Cuba is as safe as, or safer than many places I have traveled in the world – including much of Latin America. Being a communist country, gun crimes are virtually non-existent and so are drugs. I hear there is an uptick in the reported amount of petty crime with this recent wave of tourism. However, I can tell you first hand I never felt unsafe or saw anything alarming happening, even walking at night.

“Cubans do not like Americans.”  Simply not true. Many Cuban families have extended family living in the USA. Although the two countries have suffered the long-term embargo, due to the close proximity there has been a long-term intertwining of the cultures, especially in South Florida. We were treated no different than any other tourist. 

“There is so much poverty.”  Kind of, but not really.  Yes, the people of Cuba make abysmal salaries working for the government. How about $20-$50 per month? That’s right, per month! But remember: education is free, healthcare is free.  Cubans get monthly food cards and utilities cost only a couple bucks a month due to government subsidizing. Many Cubans work in tourism now, padding their income giving tours, demonstrating the rum and cigar trade, and using their old 1950’s cars as moneymakers. They also rent out rooms and open tiny restaurants out of their homes.  By western standards they are “poor”, but it is not like the poverty of the massive slums I have seen, for example, in Mumbai, Mexico City, Johannesburg, etc.

“There is hurricane damage everywhere.” There have been a couple of recent hurricanes roll through parts of Cuba creating damage. I did not see any of it in anywhere we traveled. Except for a few crumbled buildings in Havana that were on their way to rubble soon anyway. No trace of flooding, no electricity outages. It is in much better shape than the other islands hit in fall of 2017.

“You can use US Dollars anywhere in Cuba.” WRONG!  They pretty much are not accepted anywhere. Even changing dollars at the money exchange becomes more expensive with an additional change fee tacked on BECAUSE they are US Dollars. Best to exchange your money into Euros, Pounds or Canadian Dollars prior to your trip and then changing those to CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos).  Credit Cards based in the US will not work there. So it is necessary to have enough cash for the entire trip. Also, note there are 2 currencies in Cuba. One for tourists and one local Cubans. Check your change carefully because the local pesos are worth much less than the tourist ones.

“You cannot drink the tap water.”  You CAN, but you absolutely shouldn’t.  This one is true. Stick to bottled water and avoid the ice for extra safety.

Happy travels and don’t let state warnings stop you from enjoying Cuban hospitality.

2 thoughts on “Cuba: Dispelling Misconceptions for USA Travelers”

  1. Kat, great article! I have been to Cuba 5 times traveling from Costa Rica to Havana and then branching out to different parts of the country. The only thing I would add is that a tourist CAN use both currencies. It is not entirely true that the convertible peso is only for tourists. This is the cash that all Cubans want, of course, so they can shop in the better stores. I get lots of the national pesos so I can get in line with Cubans to get one of those great little pizzas for about 25 cents or a hot dog for about the same price! Also, the much cheaper Cuban cigars that the Cubans smoke are available at National peso stores for about 10 cents a piece. Glad you had a great trip. Joe Tursi, Heredia, CR

    1. Hi Joe,

      Wow, 5 times to Cuba! Thanks for your input. That is interesting you acquired the national peso easily. We were told by a few sources that we were unable to get them being foreigners. So we did not make any effort. Good to know for next trip. Our Airbnb hosts gave us a couple to take home as a souvenir, but that was as close as we got to having them. Hope all is well in Heredia. Pura vida! Keep traveling, keep inspiring!

      -Kathleen

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