Independent travel is now possible for American families. Here’s the Harvey’s tale of how to have an unforgettable Cuban adventure.
By Megan Harvey
As we prepped for our Thanksgiving week trip to Cuba, a friend asked, “Wouldn’t it be more fun without the kids? All those hot Havana nights? The clubs? The rum? The rhumba?”
Truth is, it never crossed our minds to leave our kids at home – and we didn’t regret our decision for an instant.
Americans used to have to travel as part of a group tour prior to the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations in July 2015 (read about the Glasser family’s trip in the last days of “old” Havana). When we realized our family could now travel around the country independently – after jumping through a few hoops, of course – see “Good to Know” below – we knew it was time to book a trip.
In the end, taking our kids to Cuba was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we’ll never forget it. Here’s what our family loved about Cuba:
1. The Capital
Havana may as well have been a blocks-wide circus. We began our stay with a horse carriage tour of the city for $20. The kids were enthralled with the street performers, the old cars, the music and the peoplewatching.
The plazas were full of life. Tom and I would watch the world go by while our kids would join the locals playing soccer in the rain or racing a homemade scooter. We’d go out to dinner every night. Most places had live music and again, more kids to play with.
From our perfectly located apartment in Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, we could walk everywhere. We spent our days wandering and checking out all the sights. We visited old haunts of Hemingway, walked along the Malecón and visited the Hotel Nacional.
Everywhere we went, the people were welcoming and friendly – and Piper was a trooper considering she made the whole trip in a leg cast!
We knew a beach stay would be a fun and necessary break for our kids. When planning the trip, we purposely tried to stay away from the busy Cancun-like beach area of Varadero near Havana. Instead, we chose to head for an island called Cayo Levisa despite its mixed reviews on Trip Advisor. On the map, it didn’t look like it was that far from Havana but the poor roads made the journey last almost four hours in a taxi. You take a short ferry and end up at a government-run, all-inclusive property set on an island with ringed by stunning beaches.
Here’s where the communist attitudes were most apparent. Even though we all arrived on the ferry, we couldn’t check in for four hours. The bartender would talk on the phone and ignore her customers. Food was only served at specific times. Beautiful bungalows were under construction but the staff members were unmotivated and unimpressed. We’d read the reviews, were ready for a poor reception and weren’t disappointed. But if we had to do it over again, we would likely have stayed in Varadero and not trekked all the way out to Caya Leviso.
3. The Mountains
Vinales is often called “The Yosemite of Cuba” and though it wasn’t exactly that for us, we all enjoyed this laid-back mountain town. The kids loved hanging out in the plaza, with its restaurants, cafes and brightly colored homes and we all loved our time in the countryside.
For $20, we stayed in a local B&B – called a casa particular in Cuba – and ate dinner there too which turned out to be one of the most delicious meals we had in the country. It was a rural area so the kids loved all the farm animals in the neighborhood, especially the horse two doors down, the pig that hung out in the street, and this awesome white cow.
For the fair price of $30, our taxi driver from the prior day offered to take us to see the sites around Vinales – including a tobacco farm, some caverns and a few spots to hike around. When it was time to go, it only took only 2 hours to get back to Havana on the Soviet-built highway.
4. The History
Thomas in particular was fascinated by the trajectory of Western civilization that passed through the island: from explorers to pirates to slaves to movie stars to gangsters to Soviets. We were surprised the kids understood as much as they did about things like the Missile Crisis and Guantanamo Bay. We all learned quite a lot.
5. The Difference
Cuba is the first Communist country we’ve ever visited as a family. After listening to our attempt at an explanation of “communism”, the kids thought it made a lot of sense. “Well, that’s fair,” they responded. Kids love it when things are fair…
It was great for our kids to to see a completely different way of life and how content the people are living it. The Cubans seem to have all the necessities but not much beyond that. Our kids were excited to share items from the bags of cleats, basketball shoes, clothes and other sports gear we brought to donate to the local kids we met.
At the same time, you can see capitalist ways moving in quickly. The influx of tourists is enabling more Cubans to express their inner entrepreneurial spirit. Many locals now offer rooms, rides, meals or tours to earn cash. As Americans, we were happy to reward these hard workers with our business.
6. The Food
Cubans eat very simply and very well. All the ingredients are extremely fresh and delicious. We ate mainly in paladares (privately owned restaurants) and we were very impressed. Depending on what’s available, a lunch or dinner plate will include chicken, pork, or fish with rice, beans, avocados, tomatoes and a fresh fruit platter for about $8 per adult and $6 per child. Beer and “tuKola” are the same price. The kids got a kick of the hanging meat skewers we ate one day in Havana.
We aimed for places we’d read about online or in our guidebook. When heading for one dinner spot in Havana, a local approached us to have dinner at his home. We politely declined but when we arrived at the paladar and found prices to be twice what the guidebook printed, Piper said, “Let’s go back to that guy’s house!” We went back, found him and somewhat nervously followed him up a little alley to his home. We were the only ones there, which again made us a bit uneasy. But he entertained us with stories about Havana and his cousin in Texas as he prepared and served an incredible meal. The food and drinks were $30 but the experience was priceless.
7. The Opportunity
We’ve traveled a lot – both as a couple and since we had kids – and we still love going new, off-the-beaten-path destinations. Now we love it even more when we go as a family. We had always hoped to visit Cuba so when we realized it was getting easier to go, we jumped at the opportunity to take the kids to see such a unique place at a unique time.
The ROAM Report : Cuba
Travelers : Megan, Tom, Piper (11) and Thomas (7)
Date : November 2015
Itinerary : 10 nights total: 1 red-eye via Mexico City, 4 nights in Havana, 2 nights on the beach at Cayo Levisa, 2 nights in the mountains of Vinales, 1 night at the Mexico City Hilton
Budget : Approximately $6,500 ($4,000 air, $1,000 accommodation, $1,500 food, local transport and activities)
Good to Know
Flying In Direct flights to Cuba from America will resume in 2016 so flying in will soon be much easier. But for now, you must fly to Cuba via somewhere else – usually somewhere in Latin America or Canada. We booked a round-trip flight to Mexico City as usual but had to book the Mexico-Cuba flight abroad. We found a travel agent in Havana with good reviews so we took a leap of faith and paid $2,800 on our credit card for four flights on Aero Mexico. We soon felt reassured that he was legit because we received a refund for a rental car that we had originally booked and then cancelled. So aside from the typical Latin American response-time lag (which made us a bit nervous given the situation), the service was great.
Getting a Visa Americans must declare one of twelve approved reasons to visit Cuba as part of a cultural exchange. You can do the paperwork and obtain your visas in the Mexico City airport just prior to boarding your flight to Havana.
Money Matters Traveling in Cuba involves good money management. It’ll take you back to the days of your youth, backpacking on a budget and changing just enough currency to get you to the next country without running out. Budgeting is even tougher given the rapidly rising costs for tourists in Cuba. When we visited, everything we purchased was 2-4 times the price quoted in our guidebook – and I’m sure prices will continue to rise as more and more Americans visit.
Using credit cards and ATM cards is impossible in Cuba. We booked rooms and flights in advance from home so that we didn’t have to carry as much cash. (That said, we never felt in danger on the street and tried to use hotel safes when possible.) You can only exchange money into Cuban Convertible Pesos – CUCs (pronounced “kooks”) at the airport, banks and major hotels. If you are traveling farther afield (like our trip to the island), be sure to check if your hotel will change money (ours wouldn’t) before you arrive. You’ll need crisp new $100 bills for exchange. The commission is high but you have no choice but to pay it.
For our eight-night trip, we brought $1,500 (plus $200 I stashed away as emergency money). As the days passed, I was definitely concerned we might run out of cash especially since costs were more than we anticipated. I had immediately pulled out $100 for our departure tax from Havana airport, but that ended up being included in our air ticket so it pays to double check whether you need to hold onto that cash. We spent the whole $1,500!
CUCs are the tourist currency. Some really savvy tourists “go local” and pay in Cuban pesos to save money but it’s not easy so we didn’t try. We were quite certain that we were paying more than a local would pay for everything but to save a few dollars, we didn’t argue.
Airbnb Works! Even though Americans haven’t been part of the party, the rest of the world’s tourists have been visiting Cuba for decades. That means sites like Trip Advisor and Airbnb are full of reviews and listings to help you plan your trip. We got a killer Airbnb apartment in Plaza Vieja in Havana for $75 a night. The site is set up to handle American visitors (you can designate which of the 12 reasons you’re visiting Cuba and other official details as you book.) The Airbnb owner helped us with tours, taxis and other information. Our room at the beach was $450 all inclusive for 2 nights. The Trip Advisor reviews were mixed and they were accurate. In the mountains at Venales, we stayed in a casa particular for $20 a night.
You Don’t Need a Car Local transport was easy so we were glad we didn’t bother with a car rental. From Havana, we hired a local taxi through our Airbnb host to take us to the beach. Another driver took us from there to Vinales, on a day tour, and then back to Havana. Each time we were able to negotiate a reasonable price, especially considering gas is expensive in Cuba. The local drivers knew all the routes which is so much better than doing-it-yourself. In Havana, there are a variety of taxis, from motorcycle-type cocotaxis to taxis in classic 1950s American cars. The prices vary from 10CUCs to 50CUCs and keep rising with the volume of tourists.
Good Family Trip?
If Cuba is on your “bucket list” and you have kids, you need to take them – and you need to go soon. Cuba will change more dramatically in the next few years than most any other country on earth. Yes, it is still a hassle to get there and no, it isn’t the cheapest Latin American country to visit, but Cuba is worth experiencing before it becomes just another port of call on a Caribbean cruise.
Megan Harvey – February 2016
Megan and her family lived every traveling parent’s dream by exchanging a year of their everyday Northern California outdoor adventures for a year of around-the-world outdoor adventures. Now they’re back – but still traveling every chance they get.