Travel guide: Helpful tips for your trip to Cuba

Plan ahead and read these tips to make the most of your time in Cuba

A woman shops at a food stand in Trinidad, Cuba, January 16, 2017. (Hannah Button)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — If you’re anything like me, you may find that planning and counting down for a trip abroad is one of the most exciting parts of traveling.

Have a date set for your trip to Cuba? Or considering visiting the island now that travel restrictions for Americans have been eased?

These helpful tips and suggestions are just for you:

1. Think logistically: Why am I going to Cuba?

Under current rules, U.S. citizens must fall under one of 12 categories to qualify for a general license to travel to Cuba. Those 12 categories include things like family visits, journalistic activities, humanitarian projects, educational and religious activities.

Current categories of approved U.S. travel to Cuba

You do not have to apply for a general license to visit Cuba, but you do have to be able to prove that you fall under one of the 12 categories of approved travel.

When I visited Cuba in January 2017, I did this by writing out an itinerary for my trip weeks in advance. I kept that itinerary with me as I traveled around the country.

It’s up to you to make sure your trip fulfills one of the current requirements.

To get into Cuba you will need:

A passport: Your U.S. passport must be valid at least 6 months after your return date.

A 2-part visa: After booking your flight, your airline will instruct you to purchase a tourist/visa card. Some airlines give you the option of purchasing your visa ahead of time so that it’s ready to pickup at the airport before your departing flight. Others will tell you to be prepared to purchase the visa once you arrive at the airport.

Airlines like Southwest have deals for discounted visas with Cuba Travel Services.

You will need to hold onto your visa once you’re in Cuba. Border control agents will ask for your visa and passport before you are allowed to leave the country.

Don’t forget to keep track of everything you do while you are in Cuba. The U.S. government may request information about your trip for up to 5 years.

2. To beach or not to beach? Choosing a destination

The sun sets behind a palm tree in La Boca, Cuba, January 16, 2017. (Hannah Button)

For a first-timer in Cuba, visiting the capital city of Havana is likely a must. The city’s rich culture, storied history and impressive architecture are just some of the many reasons it attracts tourists from all over the world.

While I highly recommend a trip to Havana, keep the following in mind: It is not a place to lounge at the beach. Havana’s rocky beaches are beautiful, but not ideal for a traveler looking to dig their toes into the sand and drink straight from a coconut.

But, fear not! Traveling to other parts of the island from Havana is do-able and worthwhile. The island of Cuba is vast and diverse, and you’re going to want to experience as much of it as you can while you’re there.

If you’re into idyllic beaches, check out these cities:

Trinidad, Cuba: Hire a taxi or hop on the Víazul bus to travel from Havana to this UNESCO World Heritage site. Trinidad is a colorful colonial town known for its proximity to the white sandy shores of Playa Ancón, one of Cuba’s most picturesque beaches. Rent bikes or hire a rickshaw for your quick journey to the beach. Make it an overnight trip and stay with a local family to get the full Trinidad experience.

People relax at a beach in La Boca, Cuba, January 16, 2017. (Hannah Button)

Varadero: If resorts are your thing, Varadero is the place for you. Just over a 2-hour drive from Havana, this tourist hot spot offers all-inclusive hotels, spas and golf courses. Go snorkeling at Coral Beach and visit Ambrosio Cave where you can marvel at aboriginal rock drawings that are more than 2,000 years old.

Ana Guevara, of Mexico, practices her swing at the Varadero clubhouse in Varadero, Cuba. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

Cayo Coco: If you’re planning a long trip to Cuba and enjoy lush, tropical landscapes and exotic wildlife, consider an excursion to Cayo Coco. The island sits off central Cuba and can be reached by airplane or causeway, where you may be lucky enough to spot flamingos that live in the bay’s shallow waters. Stay at one of the island’s many resorts and relax on long, white sandy beaches. Go scuba diving off Cayo Coco’s northern coast and explore the largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere.

Flamingos walk in a lake in Cayo Coco, in Ciego de Avila, Cuba. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

Viñales to Cayo Jutías: Take a taxi or ride the Víazul bus to get from Havana to Viñales, a small town in northwestern Cuba known for its stunning natural beauty and tobacco farms. The town serves as a gateway to Viñales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site rich with glaring limestone cliffs and lush landscapes. Travel through the valley on horseback and visit a Cuban tobacco farm to see how the country’s world-famous cigars are made. Rent a scooter or take a 1-hour taxi ride from Viñales to Cayo Jutías to enjoy an afternoon on an isolated beach with crystal clear waters.

Tobacco picker Romerio Garcia collects leaves at the Alfredo Rojas farm in Viñales, Cuba’s western province Pinar del Rio. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

3. Exchange your U.S. currency ahead of time

Cuba is unique in that it dispenses 2 types of currencies: the locally-used Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is what you will exchange your foreign currency for. The CUC has a 1:1 exchange rate with the U.S. dollar.

However, there is a 10% penalty to exchange U.S dollars for CUCs, in addition to a standard 3% fee. To get around this, you can exchange your USDs for another foreign currency, like Euros or Canadian dollars, before you head to Cuba.

While U.S. banks have their own service fees for foreign currency exchanges, you will still save money by having Euros or Canadian dollars to exchange for CUCs in Cuba. Plan ahead, because it will take your bank a few days to get you foreign cash.

For more information about Cuban currencies, click here.

4. Brush up on your Cuban history

It’s always a good idea to research a country’s history before you arrive for a trip. While American students who study Cuban history tend to focus on the 20th century, there are records of people living on the island all the way back to 8000 BCE.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba in 1492, he claimed the island for Spain and brought native “Indians” back with him as slaves. Decades later, Spain began sending slaves from Africa to Cuba in an effort to establish the nation as a global producer of sugar cane, which it remained for centuries.

A couple of residents stand framed by a window of their house next to an image of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro and a Cuban Flag in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886, but it wasn’t until the U.S. intervened in the second war of independence that Spain officially gave up all claims to the island. Although Cuba was technically free at that point, the U.S. remained largely involved in the nation’s affairs as a result of the Platt Amendment.

Throughout the early 20th century, Cuba was led by brutal dictators, most notably Sergeant Fulgencio Batista whose regime was backed by the U.S. government. After years of fighting, Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro overthrew Batista and forced him into exile in 1959. After that, Cuba and the U.S. ended all diplomatic relations. In 1961, Castro proclaimed Cuba as a communist state.

In January 2015, President Barack Obama took the first steps toward normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba by easing some travel and trade restrictions.

5. Give back: How you can help the Cuban people

Cuba has made tremendous strides since the days of the Batista regime when extreme poverty and illiteracy were rampant. Today, all Cubans are guaranteed education and healthcare under the government, in addition to a monthly salary.

Still, many families struggle to make ends meet and have a tough time getting some of the everyday items we may sometimes take for granted here in America.

When packing for your trip to Cuba, consider bringing some of these items to give to locals you stay with or people you befriend throughout your travels:

  • Toys, sports equipment
  • Ballpoint pens, notepads and other school supplies
  • Aspirin, ibuprofen
  • Vitamins (for kids and adults)
  • AA batteries
  • Old cellphones (that SIM cards can be taken out of)
  • USB sticks
  • Spanish/English dictionaries
  • Reading glasses
  • Sponges, gardening gloves
  • Kids toothbrushes, toothpaste
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Hair scrunchies
  • Bed sheets, towels
  • Fishing lines, hooks

HEADS UPIf you’re flying into Havana on Southwest Airlines, you will arrive and depart via Terminal 2. Make sure you let your taxi driver know this before they drop you off at the airport. Southwest is not in the main international terminal.