Ever since the U.S. lifted the restrictions on travel to Cuba last December, the tropical country has been in the tourism spotlight. And now that President Obama's there this week, the spotlight is even bigger.
1. As an American, you can go to Cuba only if your visit falls under one of 12 government-approved categories.
2. And you have to keep your travel receipts for five years after you return to the States.
3. You have to book your flight on an authorized charter through an authorized travel service provider or tour company — or you can fly through a third country.
4. Or you can cruise.
5. There is an overall shortage of infrastructure, namely hotels and airports, which can make logistics challenging.
6. It's best to pay for everything in cash.
7. Internet service exists, but it's not great.
8. One of the best places to stay is in a private homestay.
Cuba has had its own version of Airbnb since the mid-'90s, called casas particulares — i.e., private homestays. "Private homestays were authorized in the Castro reign. They're about 20 to 40 bucks a night, more if you get breakfast, and there are thousands of them. They really help you get a candid look at Cuba, because you're staying with a Cuban family," says Sainsbury. And as of April, you can find and book these casas through Airbnb (in addition to Cubania Travel and even TripAdvisor). "Back in the day, you just turned up in town and could stay in any of the homestays. But now it's easier to book them ahead of time through Airbnb," says Sainsbury.
Another benefit: The availability of the casas will help with the lack of additional hotels in the next few years. "It's going to take about five to seven years for more hotels to come in, and so until they're built, things like Airbnb will help alleviate those pressure points," says Piegza. "And the other benefit is that they get money right into the individual's hands, which is great," he continues.
9. Especially because, through no real fault of their own, hotels may not honor your reservations.
10. The food is very fresh.
Historically speaking, government-owned restaurants are not top-notch dining. "On my first trip to Cuba several years ago, we went to several state-owned restaurants, and there were limited options," says Piegza. But these days, the food is much, much better — you may even call it a slow-food movement.
"Some parts of Cuba don't have the money to import food, so everything you eat is local. You'll get great locally raised meat, fresh fish, and locally grown fruits and veggies. The quality is quite good," says Piegza. What's more, there are many young chefs running private restaurants now.
"The biggest improvement in Cuba over the past four or five years is the food," says Sainsbury. "There are now Russian restaurants, and Italian, and Iranian ... and this has never happened before! It's quite an exciting time to go." Be sure to try these five street foods in Havana.