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What To Know Before Visiting Cuba

5 things you need to know before you travel to Cuba for the first time.

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So, you want to go to Cuba, but you don't know where to start or what to expect when you get there... And hey, that's totally normal given that only a few years ago Americans were able to start traveling to this island nation. For most Americans, the allure of Cuba is almost taboo given the two countries' history with one another. But, if you go, it promises to be an amazing journey.

Know before you go:

1. American visitors to Cuba still can't go strictly for tourist reasons

Via http://U.S.State Department

The State Department provides 12 different reasons that American travelers can visit Cuba. Be sure to select your reason for visiting to Cuba before you go. Once you get to the airport you'll be asked to buy a visa (only about $60 total) that lists your reason for going. This is normally listed at the counter next to your gate. You'll need to hold onto this entering and exiting the country.

2. Most Cubans Have Never Left The Island

Our view landing in Cuba

Did you know that Cubans are not allowed to leave the island unless it is for a very specific purpose? Anyone looking to leave must secure a visa and permission from the local government as well as file any required paperwork from the country that they are visiting. This makes for really interesting conversations but also a very unique experience, especially when visiting the airport.

Be sure to give yourself extra time when traveling to the airport. We got to the Havana airport almost 4 hours before our flight and they didn't begin boarding until the time our flight was supposed to depart. This is really because 99% of the people working at the airport have never been on a plane or been to other airports to see how they are operated. What this means is that the airports on the island function with some different timelines and very different expectations than what you are used to.

3. Hotels in Cuba are Dated

Our AirBnB on the top floor

Remember that the island really hasn't had much contact or trade with the Western world since the 1950s, so the main source of imports and exports to the island have been from China and Russia. As such, Cuban hotels are very dated and often feel like you've just stepped back into the Soviet era.

AirBnB is by far your best bet for a clean and updated place to stay while in Cuba. The great thing about using an AirBnB too is that you automatically have knowledgeable Cuban "friends" built into your trip. AirBnB opened a year ago in Cuba and it has grown tenfold; the hosts are super welcoming and they are the best and most knowledgeable when it comes to helping you hire a driver, get around the island, or find cool things to do off the beaten path.

4. Food in Cuba is Actually Really Delicious

Amazing seafood stew at Ivan Chef Justo

Cuban food often gets a bad rap by tourists going in and expecting high end, gourmet meals that they would get at some of the best restaurants on their resort vacation. Cuban food is delicious but you have to lower your expectations. Tourists often forget (or don't realize) that groceries are rationed in Cuba, so most restaurants are working with whatever they have access to that week or month. We had absolutely amazing, delicious seafood meals every day along with some excellent traditional dishes like Ropa Vieja. BUT, we also noticed that just about every meal had the same side dishes wherever we went- and eggplant seemed to be popular that week.

For the best meals, do yourself a favor and eat at restaurants outside of the tourist areas. If you're stuck for where to go, ask a local where their favorite place to eat is; you really won't go wrong.

5. Go In With An Open Mind

Cuba is unlike anything you can imagine or expect, so go in with an open mind and let Cuba shape it. The Cuban people are amazing hosts, everyone is welcoming and they want to get to know you as much as you want to get to know them. Go in expecting to explore a place that few Americans have ever been. Don't make plans, the best days in Cuba are those where you just get up, have a cafecito, and start walking.

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