Cuba 101: What You Need to Know

Ramze Cuba
In this week’s Travel Tuesday Interview, I chat with Cuba expert Ramze Suliman. He’s been traveling to Cuba for the past seven years and is the author of two books about the country. (I met him in Havana on the first day of my Cuba trip!) He discusses the cost of traveling in Cuba, safety, how Americans can visit legally and the best restaurants in Havana.

 

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A classic car in Old Havana, Cuba (All photos by Ramze Suliman)

 

Name: Ramze Suliman
Age: 42
Hometown: Las Vegas, NV
Country count: 50
Blog/Website: www.RamzeTravels.com


1. How did you start traveling?
I originally started working for a company that did poker cruises. That gave me a small taste of many countries and from there the [travel] addiction was born. I originally went to Cuba back in 2010 because I have always been a cigar lover. The minute I arrived, I was in love. I have since written two books about Havana (Havana for Americans and Top 100 Places to Eat in Havana) and started my own tour company there:  www.TheCigarLover.com

 

2. How can Americans legally travel to Cuba?
Due to the economic embargo, Americans technically still can’t go for outright tourism. Obama opened it up quite a bit though. There are 12 sanctioned reasons that make it legal to go. Most people just choose either “Support of the Cuban people”, “People to People educational tours” or “professional research.”  These are all very easy requirements to fill and there is currently no real oversight or hassle with Americans traveling for these reasons. The gate agent will ask you when you check in at the airport in the US. That is the end of it.

 

3. When is the best time to go to Cuba?
Cuba shares very similar weather to Florida. The weather stays between 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, but it is more humid in the summer with more rain. December, January and February are peak months.

 

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Ramze enjoying a cigar and Havana Club at one of Havana’s many amazing restaurants.


4. Where are your favorite spots to eat in Havana?
Havana has some great restaurants and food and a lot of mediocre ones. My top three are Starbien, La Terazza and La Guarida. That said, I live there so I have lots of very inexpensive street foods I love. [FYI: Starbien is my favorite!]


5. What are your three favorite cities in Cuba?
Havana for the energy, Viñales for the sheer beauty and Varadero to just chill on a beautiful beach.

 

6. What’s the average daily cost of traveling in Cuba? Can you share some budget tips?
Cuba has some wild swings in what things cost. You can literally get a shot of coffee for .4 cents and then have to pay $25 bottle of sunscreen. Being prepared and knowing what to bring and where to go is more important than most countries. There are no supermarkets or drug stores on every corner to just pop in if you forgot anything. You can definitely hit the three budget ranges most people associate with though

Backpacker Budget:  $40/day
Average Budget: $100/day
Top Tier Budget: $200-$300 a day

Cuba Budget Tips:

  • Internet is $2 per hour and cards can be bought at all major hotels and at the government office called Etecsa.
  • Hotels currently are overbooked and severely overpriced. You can book at Casa particulars (private homes) for around $30 per night. This is the best option, and you will get a better feel for how Cubans actually live.  Check Airbnb for listings. [I stayed at casa particulars, which is how I met Ramzee.]
  • Learn to eat at the local peso kiosks and restaurants. If you see them full of Cubans, then you know they are cheap and good. The Cuban pesos is 24 to 1 with the CUC or Dollar. You can have a good meal for a buck.
  • The tap water is potable. Carry a small filter and drink the tap. Bottle water isn’t always easy to find and is expensive.
  • Fruits and vegetable markets are widespread in Cuba and are heavily subsidized by the government. So, is bread. You can easily buy both for pennies and make healthy easy meals. Take a jar of peanut butter with you.
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Pinar del Rio, Cuba (Photo courtesy of Ramze Suliman)

 

7. Share one of your travel highlights in Cuba.
I have learned to speak Spanish in Cuba. I took salsa lessons, learned to scuba dive and got some tattoos all while traveling around Cuba. There really is something for everyone and it has definitely enriched my life. I am writing this from Spain currently and it is such a pleasure to be able to speak to the locals here in Spanish!


8. What is the biggest myth about Cuba?
Safety. People always ask if it is safe. I have visited 50 countries and it is the safest I have ever been to! [I agree with Ramze. I always felt safe.]

The Cuban people have always been warm and friendly. They love American tourists the most because we tip and also because we are the closest to their lifestyles. In seven years of being in Cuba off and on, I have never heard of or witnessed any violent crime. I have walked dark streets at night and nobody will even approached me.

 

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Hotel Nacional in Havana is a must stop for their famous Cuban sandwich and fresh piña coladas. The historic hotel has a list of famous guests ranging from Frank Sinatra to John Wayne. (Photo courtesy of Ramze Suliman)

 


9. Name three things you always pack.
My electronics, my flip flops and my cigars

 

10. What is your next adventure?
I am officially moving to Havana full time in June. I am thrilled to finally call Cuba my official home. I have some repeat trips planned this year to Thailand and Colombia and some new ones to other parts of Southeast Asia


Want to know more about Cuba?

To connect with Ramze, check out his blog, Instagram and his two books on Cuba: Havana for Americans and Top 100 Places to Eat in Havana.

Looking for photo tips for Cuba? Check out my Photo Guide to Havana!

(Please note

The Art of the Road Trip

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

Thanks to a tip from a friend, I discovered Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona on my Southwest road trip last summer. I couldn’t believe this hidden view was a short walk from the road! I went back twice to shoot!

 

There’s something therapeutic about a long drive and a beautiful sunrise. The clutter in my head slowly dissolves with each passing mile. There is nothing more relaxing to me than a long road trip.

Road trips are the most nostalgic form of travel. Everyone has at least that ONE epic road trip memory that makes them smile or laugh hysterically. What was your favorite road trip?

 

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Bell’s Beach, the infamous surf spot, located west of Melbourne was one of the highlights on my road trip along the Great Ocean Road in Southern Australia in 2009. 

 

For me, it was the Great Ocean Road, a postcard worthy section of the coast of Southern Australia. (It’s the Australian version of the Pacific Coast Highway.) I was traveling with two guys from Buffalo, NY. We slept in our rental car by the beach every night, ate lots of peanut butter sandwiches, drink beer on the beach and snuck into RV parks to shower. It was literally the BEST.

I’ve driven across the U.S. roughly four times. I prefer driving to flying any day. Last summer was the summer of road trips for me. I drove out to New Mexico and Arizona to explore Chaco Canyon, White Sands National Monument and Antelope Canyon in May. In August, I drove the ring road around Iceland then flew back into Boston and hopped in a car to explore Cape Cod.

I am kicking off this summer with a long road trip from Austin to South Carolina to visit my family. It gives me an excuse to break up my trip to visit friends in Birmingham (my former home) and Atlanta. (Plus, it’s like a third of the price of flying. There’s also the fact that being stuck in my hometown without a car is a form of torture.)

Afterwards, I’m hoping on a plane to Vermont and NYC before taking the train to Washington DC. I’m also super excited to announce that I’ll be running photo trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions in Yellowstone this summer! Plus, there’s a few more exciting things in the works!

 

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California Redwoods

 

What if you can’t find the time to drive cross-country? Well, then pack mini-road trips into bigger trips. When I visited my friend Miles in San Francisco, we rented a car, borrowed a tent and headed out to see the Redwoods. My best friend James lived in Boston for years. We always took trips to Vermont, Maine, Cape Cod or Rhode Island. I explore all the cool small towns in Texas like Marfa, Round Top and Boerne.

A few months ago, I flew into Miami, met up with three friends and spent four days road tripping through the Florida Keys and stopping at all the dive bars and places that my travel hero Jimmy Buffett sings about. (Blog post coming soon!)

I pass the time by binge listening to NPR, attempting to do my Spanish audio lessons and long phone conversations with old friends. (Don’t worry, those phone calls are all hands free!)

Let’s be honest—the best thing about road trips are singing horribly loud in the car.  Admit it – you know it’s your guilty pleasure as well. Most of my road trips are solo so I can sing and car dance without judgement from anyone besides the occasional trucker or RV in the other lane.

Here’s my favorite road trip playlist:

  1. Wherever You May Roam by Metallica
  2. Keep the Car Running by Arcade Fire
  3. Sleep on the Floor by The Lumineers
  4. Next Year by Foo Fighters
  5. Heads Carolina by Jo Dee Messina
  6. Changes in Latitudes by Jimmy Buffett
  7. American Girl by Tom Petty
  8. Mr. Columbus by Grace Potter
  9. Breakdown by Jack Johnson
  10. Leaving Town by Dexter Freebish

Any traveler can relate to the lyrics of each of these songs.

Pack your bags, download some new tunes and hit the road! I challenge you to make the most of your summer!

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COMING UP:

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Cuba, Epic Road Trips & Interviews with NYTimes Frugal Traveler

I’ve got some exciting posts coming up this summer including an interview with the New York Times Frugal Traveler Lucas Peterson, my top eight road trip destinations and an interview with a Cuba expert! Sign up for the email list to have the posts delivered directly to your email inbox!

 

6 Free Things to Do in NYC

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Sunset at Brooklyn Bridge Park

My very first flight was to New York City. It was a school trip during my junior year of college at the University of South Carolina. It was a mad rush to visit all the highlights –  Times Square, Broadway show, Central Park, the museums, etc. My second trip was a 24-hour quasi-layover. I’d flown back from Delhi and was headed to London. (Crazy, I know.) All I did was eat a lot and go for a run in Central Park. Every trip since then has been to visit friends, meet with editors and explore new parts of the city and check off icons that I missed on my previous visits. (I’ll be back again in early June!)

Whether it’s your first or 40th trip to the city, make sure you check these six free sights off your list. (Plus, they are all great photo opps!)

 

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I totally got up at sunrise to photograph Alfred the Gnome on the Brooklyn Bridge.


1. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge

One of the most famous icons of the New York City skyline is the double Gothic arches and crisscrossed cables of the Brooklyn bridge. Built in 1883, the bridge was the first road to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. Be sure to walk, bike or run across the 1.1-mile pedestrian path. I recommend walking from Brooklyn toward Manhattan to get the best view of the skyline like in the photo above with Alfred the gnome!

How to get to the Brooklyn Bridge:
From Brooklyn: The promenade begins at Tillary and Adams street. Several subway stations get you close to the entrance. If you’re on the A or C train, exit at High Street Station. The entrance is a quarter of a mile north from this station. There are signs marking the entrance but consider using Google maps to help.

From Manhattan: The entrance is just across from the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station for lines 4, 5 and 6.

 

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The Staten Island Ferry offers one of the best (and FREE) views of Manhattan.


2. Staten Island Ferry

The free 25-minute ferry is a great way to see both the Statue of Liberty and get one of the best views of the Manhattan skyline. Departures are usually every 30 minutes. Avoid rush hour times, when ferries are packed. (I discovered the ferry on my quest to shoot the most iconic NYC gnome photo but preferred my Brooklyn Bridge shot above.)

How to get to the Staten Island Ferry: From Manhattan, the nearest subway line is the J/Z line to Broad Street or the 1 to South Ferry and 4/5 to Bowling Green.

 

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The High Line offers great views of the city and great spots to relax.


3. High Line

One of my favorite things in NYC is the High Line, the former above-ground train tracks that were transformed into a 1.45-mile public park and garden. The tracks were used to transport goods from 1934 to 1980. Afterwards, nature took over for almost three decades before the City of New York took ownership and transformed it into an urban masterpiece that incorporates many of the original tracks. 

PRO TIP: The Highline offers a plethora of FREE activities including multiple themed tours throughout the week, Saturday yoga classes and stargazing on Tuesday nights. (Check out their calendar.) It’s open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

How to Get to the Highline: There are eleven different access points that stretch from 34th and 12th Avenue to Washington and Gansevoort Street. Check the official website for a great map.

 

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The Chelsea Market is my favorite lunch/dinner spot!


4.
 Chelsea Market

The Chelsea Market is a fun food court/shopping mall/office building combo located close the High Line. While entrance to the building is free, the food’s not.  It’s a great lunch or dinner spot. Los Tacos No. 1 is amazing and Creamline is a farm to tray burger spot.  It’s very budget friendly for New York standards. The best part is that’s it’s air conditioned and a great escape on those steamy summer days.

How to Get Here to Chelsea Market: Take the A, C, E or L train to 13th Street.  Walk one block west and one block north. The address is 75 9th Ave, New York, NY 1001.

 

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One World Trade Center borders the 9/11 Memorial.

5. 9/11 Memorial

Everyone must take a walk through the 9/11 Memorial, which is both a powerful and beautiful tribute. The centerpiece is two enormous reflecting pools and waterfalls located at the base of each of the original towers. The pools are lined with the names of those who died on September 11, 2001 and on February 26, 1993. The surrounding plaza is lined with swamp white oak trees adjacent­ to One World Trade Center building, which is the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. Memorial is open 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

How to get to the 9/11 Memorial: The A, C, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, J, Z and R trains all run within walking distance of the memorial.

 

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I paused my run for a quick snap of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.


6. Exercise in Central Park

On every NYC visit, I always go for a run in Central Park with just my phone, a little bit of cash and my subway card. It’s a great way to explore the park and relax. Pretend you are a local and go for a run/walk/bike ride through the park. The trick is to leave all your bags and cameras in your hotel/hostel so you’re not distracted and can focus on just enjoying the park like a local who’s just out for their morning workout. I always start on the east side of the park near East 59th Street and run along the eastern side to Bethesda Terrace then head to Belvedere Castle before running around the reservoir. When I get tired, I just exit the park and head to the nearest subway stop!

For more about NYC, check out my Travel Tuesday Interview with native New Yorker Jennifer O’Brien, founder of TheTravelWomen.com!

 

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