Just visited Cuba for the first time over the holidays. It was an eleven day, family affair with my parents, sisters and their families. We had an amazing time. I tend to do a lot of research and planning before I go on a trip and like to help other people know what to expect when they travel. Especially if it’s to a country you’ve never visited before. Cuba definitely isn’t a country you want to be winging it in, since wifi isn’t readily available. I’ve provided some practical and useful, know-before-you-go tips to help ensure you’re ready for your trip to Cuba and that it will be enjoyable.

1. You’re In a Foreign, 3rd World Country!

Let me repeat: You’re in a foreign, 3rd world country! Don’t go to Cuba with expectations that things will be the same there as they are in your home country. Cultural norms or things that you consider standard may not be the standard here. When I travel I see too many people turn up their nose or get aggravated because something isn’t similar to what it is at home. You’re traveling. You’re not at home. Part of the travel journey is having new experiences, things that will take you outside your comfort zone. Be open to understanding that. If this is something that is hard for you, a visit to Cuba may not be for you. Travel period, may not be for you. This is a beautiful country, with beautiful people and a beautiful culture. So please show respect when you visit and remember the golden rule: Treat others, as you want to be treated. This should go without saying, but there are a few people out there that could stand to hear it again. Although this article is discussing Cuba, this goes for anywhere you travel.

2. Tourist card/Visa

If you’re flying to Cuba from the U.S. your tourist card will be pink. You can either purchase your tourist card/Visa in advance through an agency or purchase at the airport before your flight. I recommend purchasing in advance instead of purchasing at the airport because the cost is $100 per card at the airport versus $85 per card through the agency. Some airlines have tourist cards specifically for their airline so before you purchase through the site, make sure to request that particular tourist card. For example, I used the agency I provided the link to in this article. We flew on American Airlines, so I requested the tourist card for American Airlines passengers. If you need the visas quickly, you can pay the expedite fee with the agency ($40) and get overnight delivery.

**Side note: For Americans, many articles will tell you health insurance is required to visit Cuba. Health insurance is built into the cost of your airline ticket. You do not need to purchase travel insurance, unless you’re just looking to get better coverage.

3. Currency & Converting Money

If you’re an American traveling to Cuba, please know that your credit cards and debit cards will not work for you. They won’t even work in ATM’s. You must carry cash. I believe my father and sister were able to use an ATM at the airport to pull out cash, but only one of their cards worked and I believe it was their Navy Federal Credit Union debit cards. (Shout out to them!) They tried other debit and ATM cards, but that was the only card that worked for them.

I was unable to find any money exchanger/currency converter that had Cuban currency before we left the US. You must wait and convert money upon your arrival. The currency used mostly is CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). If you’re exchanging USD, it is an even exchange, 1 CUC = $1 USD. Cuba also has the CUP (Cuban Peso Nacional). The exchange rate for this currency is 25 CUP = $1 USD. Primarily, locals use this currency. The only places that will really accept this currency are possibly street food vendors and neighborhood restaurants. If you decide to exchange for some of this currency do it sparingly. There was only one place we found that would take it. Most vendors tend to operate on the CUC. There is a money exchanger at the airport that you can use to convert your money once you arrive. If you choose not to use it there, find a bank (before you go, look up which local banks exchange CUC, many only exchange for CUP) in the city to use or cadecas (exchange houses). You will need your passport when exchanging money. Don’t forget it.

4. Learn Some Spanish Or Spanish Phrases

Spanish is the native tongue. It’s a great benefit to you if you know or understand Spanish, but it doesn’t have to stop you from getting around. There are people you can find that do speak English, but I highly suggest learning some Spanish before going if you can or at least learning phrases that will help you communicate. Duolingo is great for this. I would also suggest downloading the offline version of Google Translate to help you communicate. This app was a godsend when my very, super limited Spanish failed me and the other person didn’t know English.

5. Download Offline Versions Of Maps

If you’re someone that loves exploring a city on foot, I highly suggest downloading offline versions of maps for Havana or other cities you plan to visit. This way even though you don’t have wifi and/or don’t want to run up some astronomical bill with your cell phone provider, you’ll still be able to explore to your hearts content and know exactly where you’re going. Apps such as CityMaps2Go by Ulmon is a great one. Maps also has an offline app. Another resource is Lonely Planet. They have guides and maps that work offline.

6. Budget More Than Needed For Ground Transportation

We stayed in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana during our trip. It is about 15 minutes or so from Old Havana. This meant we had to take a taxi everyday to get to attractions and sightseeing. Cuba’s currency used for nearly everything (especially tourists) as mentioned above is CUC. If you’re traveling with a large group like we were sometimes we had to use 2 taxis. The lowest cost I remember paying for a ride into Old Havana, was 25 CUC ($25 USD), that’s not round-trip. Depending on the length of your visit, the number of people in your group to split the cost and how often you’ll need a taxi, ground transportation can eat up your budget very quickly. Make sure you budget more than you need for the ground transportation portion of your trip. Paying for transportation to travel outside of Havana for day trips and things of that nature can be very costly as well.

7. Pack Snacks

If you’re someone that enjoys snacking between meals or even for health reasons need to eat every so often I highly suggest packing pre-packaged snack items. The mercados and supermercados are usually crowded and busy and often you’ll have to wait in long lines to pay for your items. Plus, there are slim pickings when it comes to what the stores offer. Please don’t go expecting to be able to walk in and find a plethora of options or brand names to pick up. What is offered is very limited.

8. Bring a Flashlight

Many ‘casa particulars’ or AirBnB’s are of course in residential neighborhoods. Many of these streets do not have street lighting or it is limited. Plus, the sidewalks can be broken and uneven in areas. If you’re planning to walk around at night remember to either pack a small flashlight or download a flashlight app on your phone. I highly recommend getting out and exploring the neighborhood you choose where you choose to reside. The neighborhoods are great. Usually, there are parks or restaurants/food vendors within the community. The flashlight will come in handy so you can see where you’re going and won’t cause yourself an injury because you can’t see.

9. Buy a Local SIM Card

Most people aren’t going to use their phones while visiting Cuba because the roaming and data fees can be astronomical. If these features even work on your phone while you’re there. Your phone will more than likely be more of a glorified camera during your visit. Unless of course you’ve downloaded some of the offline apps I mentioned. If your phone is unlocked, jailbroken or you have an old or extra inexpensive phone you can buy a local SIM card to use in the phone during your visit. This SIM doesn’t provide internet access, only allows you to make calls locally. This can be helpful for communicating with tour guides or making local phone calls. If you do want to spend the money and attempt to use your phone while there (even though I don’t recommend it) make sure to check with your cell phone provider so you’re aware of the fees and costs before you go.

10. Internet Use

If you really must use the Internet while you’re in Cuba you can buy a wifi card. Wifi pre-paid cards can be purchased at ETECSA locations. The cards provide 1-hour or 5-hours of Internet use. The 1-hour card is 1 CUC and the 5-hour card is 10 CUC. You’re only allowed to purchase 3 cards per person, so make sure you buy enough hours to cover how much time you think you’ll need. Also, make sure you have your passport with you when purchasing the card. They will ask to see it. Just know the lines to purchase these cards can be long. Some locations don’t require foreigners to wait in the line, so if jumping the line isn’t an issue for you, be my guest. If you have manners and want to be courteous then wait in the line with the locals. Once you have the card you must find a wifi hotspot. These hotspots are typically located in a hotel or park. There are some casa particulars or AirBnB’s that are starting to have access, but these are few. Another thing to note is that, the Internet is restricted in Cuba and government controlled. Remember it is a communist country.

11. Wear Comfortable Shoes

As a woman I know how important it is to want to look cute for all those photos you take when you’re traveling. However, your feet won’t thank you when you’re walking around all day on rough, uneven or cobblestone terrain in shoes not meant for long hours or certain surfaces. You’ll do a lot of walking here. If you don’t want to be sidelined quickly due to an injury or sore, aching feet, bring comfortable shoes with you for the days spent hiking, sightseeing or even out in the countryside (cities such as Vinales, etc). Later in the day, trade those in for the cute shoes when you go to a nice dinner.

12. Research Before You Go

Again, your access to wifi will be limited. Before leaving on your trip, research where and what you’re interested in seeing and doing: attractions, places, tours, restaurants, etc. This way you’ll have some ideas or plans before you leave. I also suggest possibly pre-booking some activities before you go so you can limit how much you’ll need to use the wifi. AirBnB has a section for activities that are offered in Cuba or you can try a site such as Get Your Guide to purchase activities and events in advance.

13. Bring Extra Napkins, Tissues and/or Paper Towels

There was not an abundance of paper products when we were out and about. Even some restaurants provided napkins sparingly. I ended up getting sick the last few days of our trip because we were caught in the rain during our horseback ride. Tissues were hard to come by. Even at our casa particular these items were doled out sparingly. Plus, many of the paper products offered are very rough in texture. Don’t expect to find Charmin or Angel Soft here. If you’re someone that has skin that is easily irritated I suggest making sure you add paper products (toilet paper, tissue, paper towels) to your packing list.

14. Public Restrooms

Most public restrooms require you to pay in order to use them. Usually, there is an attendant. Some have a set fee, you’ll pay anywhere from the equivalent of $0.50 up to 1 CUC. Also, this fee usually pays for the toilet paper they provide you before you enter the stall since some restrooms won’t have paper in the stall. (This is also another reason I mentioned packing toilet paper, so that you can have some on you in case you encounter a restroom with no attendant and no toilet paper.)

Part of the reason for the charge of the toilet paper is that many of the attendants have usually paid for the toilet paper with their own money. So don’t get irritated about this. This is how this person is making a living. Also, something else to note, most of the restrooms don’t have toilet seats. You’ll have to squat or sit on the porcelain rim. Which brings me to another item you may want to pack: toilet seat covers.

15. Always Read The Fine Print

When booking a tour make sure you know exactly what your money is covering on the tour. Often, you’ll see a list of what you’re going to do on the tour, but you may still be responsible for the costs of some of the items listed on the itinerary. The tour may mention that you will stop for lunch, but often you will have to pay out of pocket for your lunch. Another example is visiting different sites on the tour, not all the entrance fees for these sites may be covered in the costs of the tour. Make sure to ask these questions if you’re unsure what the cost of your tour is actually covering so you don’t get blindsided by additional fees you weren’t aware of.

To piggyback off of reading the fine print: when booking a tour to Varadero find out what’s included or what beach/hotel/resort they are taking you to. Are they just dropping you off at a random beach and you’re on your own or will they take you to one of the hotel/resort’s beaches where you will have access to lounge chairs, umbrellas, food, beverages, activities, etc. for a fee?

16. Cuba Is Larger Than You Think

Getting around Cuba can take a lot longer than expected. The cities you may be interested in visiting are more spread out than you think. If staying in Havana, other cities like Trinidad (6 hours from Havana), Santiago (nearly 8 hours from Havana) and Baracao (13 hours from Havana) are several hours away. If you don’t have a lot of time or you’re not someone whose up for long car trips I suggest narrowing your itinerary to specific areas and organizing a few day trips to locations that may only be a couple hours outside the city. Shorter day trips from Havana might be Varadero, Vinales, Las Terrazas or Cienfuegos. All of these locations are 1-3 hours outside of Havana. You can choose to fly between cities, but this isn’t a cheap option.

17. Be Prepared For Noises At Night

Whether you’re staying in Old Havana or a residential neighborhood, be prepared for some noises during the night. Depending on where you stay in Old Havana you may be subjected to noises of nightlife during the wee hours of the morning. If you’re in a residential neighborhood the noises you may be subjected to during the night and early morning hours could range from barking dogs, loudly meowing cats and roosters. I was definitely treated to the soundtrack of the latter. I’m a heavy sleeper so I wasn’t really bothered, but members of my family will tell you a different story of many sleepless nights. So if you’re a light sleeper, I would suggest packing ear plugs just in case.

18. Departure From Havana Airport

On your departure flight out of the country, it’s important to note that you must be checked in an hour before your flight. They close the check-in an hour before and will not let you get checked in if you miss this window. You will be forced to reschedule your flight. This happened to my sister. Thankfully, she was able to get on another flight leaving later the same day. The gentleman ahead of her that this happened to couldn’t get out of Havana for another 5 days, because that’s when the next flight was headed to his destination. So make sure you arrive in enough time to get checked in.

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure, self-determined, self-motivated, often risky, forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world.”

– Mark Jenkins

Cuba is an amazing place to visit. There is so much culture and history to experience and enjoy. The last thing you want is for your trip to be upset by things that could have been prevented or planned for. These tips will ensure that you have a smooth trip. You’ll be prepared and able to relax and enjoy your visit. Stay tuned for my next post that talks about our experience in Cuba.


In a previous post, I spoke about some fun things to do while you’re visiting Medellin. In this post I’m going to focus on a few things to see and do, as well as some restaurants to find good food in the beachy town of Cartagena.



Old Town, also known as Old Cartagena, is a historic, walled city with beautiful colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. The vibe is definitely more laid back here, than in Medellin. This area offers many museums and amazing restaurants. The museums of note in Old Town are the Zenu Gold Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. You can even enjoy walks along the top of the walled city. During our visit, I often went out at night to stroll around on top of the wall.


If you choose to stay in this area make sure you stay in a hotel or AirBnB that has a back-up generator. The first few days we were there, there were blackouts three nights in a row that lasted from about 10pm until as late as early afternoon the next day. The whole area of Old Town was dark. One night we were sitting in a restaurant and thankfully had already finished dinner when the power went out, but the other two nights it was past 10pm when the power cut out. The bad thing about having the power go out at that hour is that you have to sleep without air conditioning in hot weather which is a miserable experience. We ended up moving to a hotel outside of Old Town for the last few days of our trip.




Tour guide, Alex Rocha offers a tour of what he considers real Cartagena. As someone, who grew up in one of the barrios and calls Cartagena home, Alex is an expert on the city. In this tour you discover more authentic locations of Cartagena and not just the tourist traps. You’ll also sample some of the local foods. During the tour, Alex also discusses the African influence on the culture and way of life in Cartagena.


Part of the tour included visiting the Mercado Bazurto, which is a food and marketplace where many locals shop. It is a hive of bustling activity with food and fruit stalls and other vendors selling all sorts of goods that range from souvenirs, to clothing and other household goods. (Note: There is an occurrence for theft so keep an eye on your purses, wallets and backpacks.)



You won’t find San Basilio de Palenque in too many guidebooks, but it has a very important history of being the first settlement for freed slaves in the Americas. In 2005, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, about 4,000 people live in the village. It’s worth taking a day trip to visit the village and discover some of the rich history. The women in the colorful dresses, known as palenqueras, that you often see walking around Old Town with the baskets of fruit on their head originally come from San Basilio de Palenque. During the tour of the village, you learn about the people, culture, history and their way of life. We were able to see a dance troupe perform. For women, you can purchase a head wrap and pay the local women to affix the head wrap for you.

It takes slightly over an hour to get to San Basilio de Palenque from Cartagena. You can either book a tour with a local touring company (prices will vary, some will include lunch). The company I mentioned earlier in this article, Experience Real Cartagena offers San Basilio de Palenque tours. The other alternative is to either rent a car or take a bus or taxi on your own and then hire a local guide in the community to show you around.




La Mulata

Calle Quero 9 58 Sandiego, Cartagena De Indias, Bolívar, Colombia

Phone: +57 5 6646222


Located within Old Town La Mulata serves up some amazing seafood and the ceviche is some of the best I’ve ever had. The food is moderately priced.


Restaurante San Marino

12, Cl. 8 #8, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia

Phone: +57 5 6651140

This restaurant is located in the Bocagrande area so is bit more expensive. It overlooks the beach so you’ll have a nice view. The wait staff is friendly. The chicken dish I had the second night I went here was delicious. Also, another place that had great ceviche.


Restaurante La Perla Negra

Cl. 63 #21, La Boquilla, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia

Phone: +57 5 6560846

Situated on La Boquilla beach, this restaurant offers up simple seafood dishes that are quite tasty. The fish was succulent and well seasoned. If you’re looking for inexpensive dining, you’ve come to the right place.

Trip Highlight

Another highlight of my trip to Cartagena was being there during the World Cup. Most Colombians are very passionate about football (I know we call it soccer here in the U.S.). Everyone walked around wearing the bright, almost neon yellow shirts in support of the home team. Getting to watch the Colombian team play a game alongside their countrymen was a very fun experience.



So there you have it, a few things to do and places to eat if you only have a couple days to spend in Cartagena. This city has a lot to offer. I look forward to getting back soon to further explore this great city.

Many people think of Colombia and they think of all the violence that encapsulated the country decades ago, but the Colombia of today is a country that has undergone an amazing transformation. It’s a word you’ll hear many of the Colombian people use when you speak with them. During my visit to Colombia I had the pleasure of enjoying a few days in the vibrant city of Medellin, the second largest city in the country.

Medellin is a vibrant city that has spent a long time reinventing itself and you see the evidence all throughout the city. People from the city of Medellin and the surrounding areas call themselves Paisas. They are friendly and welcoming. The city offers a lot to see and do. Here are just a few gems that are a must when planning your trip.


Where To Stay

Two of the best neighborhoods to stay in are El Poblado and Laureles. El Poblado is the most popular neighborhoods to stay in. This is where you will find most of the city’s nightlife, such as restaurants, bars and nightclubs. This area is also great for shopping.

We stayed in the Laureles neighborhood, an upper-middle class residential area of the city, in a highly rated, 4-bedroom AirBnB property.


Getting Around

There is a great metro you can use to get around or you can use Uber, if you don’t plan to rent a car.


Fun Things To Do

Real City Tours 

The tour of downtown Medellin offered by Real City Tours is a free tour led by a local. It lasts between 3 ½-4 hours. Put your walking shoes on and be prepared for a good walk. This tour is great because you learn a lot about the city itself, its history you walk through some of the squares and parks. Our tour guide was very colorful and made the tour fun. Even though the tour is free it does require you to make a reservation on the site where you can choose the date and time of day you’d like for the tour. The tour guides do work on tips so make sure to have money ready at the end of your tour to tip your guide.


The Rock of Guatape (Stone of El Penol or El Penol) & Guatape

El Penol is located in the town of Guatape and rises about 650ft. It is one of the largest . If you’re up for the climb, there are 740 steps to the top of the rock. Yellow numbers mark each step so you don’t have to keep track of how many steps you’ve climbed. I was unable to climb when we visited because I have a knee injury so I took pictures and explored the food stalls and vendors that surround the base of the rock. The surrounding area is beautiful and offers many picturesque views.

After you climb El Penol, head back into Guatape and visit the colorful little town. The Catholic church in the little village, Parroquia Nuestra Senora Del Carmen Guatape, has a beautiful interior that’s worth checking out. There are some good restaurants around the city where you can grab lunch. We ate at La Fogata and were even serenaded by a local during our meal. Afterwards, roam around and even shop for souvenirs.

You’ll either need to rent a vehicle or hire a driver to get to El Penol because it is about an 1 ½ drive from Medellin. You must purchase a ticket to climb El Penol. Ticket costs are around 18000 Colombian pesos. You purchase tickets once you arrive.


Cooking class and dinner at a local’s home

One of the things I always want to do when I travel is attend a cooking class and/or eat in a local’s home. This allows me to get the authentic experience I love to have when I travel because I get to go to a local’s home and have a meal, but more importantly good conversation where I can learn about them, their life and more about the culture.

A site that’s great for helping you find people that have been vetted is a great site called Traveling Spoon. You can check out profiles of home cooks in the area and then book with them. You can choose to do a cooking class and an in-home meal, throw in a market visit if they offer it or you can simply just go and enjoy the meal. Normally, I like to do it all. This particular visit we did the cooking class and in-home meal.

Our hosts were Daniela and her mother, Beatriz. They were wonderful. Step-by-step they took us through making yummy Colombian dishes. For the appetizer we made Papa rellena (potato stuffed with ground beef, tomato, onion and hard-boiled egg). The main dish was Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken and vegetables) and the beverage that we made from scratch was called Lulada (Colombian lemonade made with the fruit lulo. I wish I could find lulo in the U.S. because this drink was so refreshing. Towards the end of the meal they also made Colombian coffee for us as we sat around and continued talking. Everything was delicious and Daniela and I plan to keep in touch.

The experiences on the site, depending on what exactly you want to do (cooking class, market visit, and/or in-home meal) in Medellin will range from about $35-$140.


Graffiti Free Zippy Walking Tour Comuna 13

This was by far one of the highlights of my visit to Medellin. During the tour you learn that Medellin is broken up into sixteen communities (comunas) and Comuna 13 was once one of the most violent and dangerous neighborhoods in the world. The people here have worked hard to transform their community. Their story and reinvention is written on the walls of the community in stunning graffiti and street art. As you walk through the community and listen to the history, you’ll get lost in the artwork and murals that seem to decorate every surface.

Years ago, escalators were put into the neighborhood to make getting around on foot a little easier. You’ll ride up the escalators to get to the top of Comuna 13. Along the way you’ll find a small art gallery of local artists and you’ll even see some street performers.

Toward the end of the tour our guide, Laura, took us to her home, where we sat on her porch and listened to her talk about what life was like when the neighborhood was dangerous and you either were making choices to join the guerillas or a gang. It really is an amazing tour. This is something not to be missed if you’re going to be in Medellin.

This tour is also free and requires a reservation. They offer a day tour and a night tour and the tours last about 2 ½ hours. Again, even though the tour is free the tour guides do work for tips so please have money handy so you can tip your guides because they do an awesome job. Wear comfortable shoes because you will be walking a lot and up some inclines, hills and steps.



I enjoyed my time in Medellin very much and lamented that I was only able to spend five days here. I plan to go back very soon and spend more time. There was something electric about the city that just pulled me in and made me feel at home. I hope when you visit you have a great experience like I did.


Quick Facts:
Currency: Colombian peso
Language: Spanish
Weather: temperate weather all year long
Well known dish: Bandeja Paisa
Visa: No Visa required for US citizens