UPDATE June 2019 – the Trump administration has removed most, if not all, Obama-era travel easements to Cuba. Though actual travel to Cuba is safe and amazing, please check current political allowances before planning your trip.
Last year, for part of our summer vacation, I decided to take my little boy to Cuba. I wasn’t sure that Cuba would be family-friendly but from the pictures and reading I’d done, I didn’t see why it wouldn’t. It offers pristine beaches, great food, amazing music, interesting things to see, and friendly people… all at super economical prices. It turns out, it was a great choice for us! Havana with kids was an excellent choice and is now officially kid and mom approved!
Spoiler alert: Yes, we think it’s safe to travel to Cuba with your family.
Every year, my little boy and I choose a new adventure to go on. We’ve been traveling internationally together since he was 2-months old and, frankly, it’s been mostly amazing. Anyway, last summer (2017) we had been planning to go to The Philippines and Vietnam but at the last minute, we switched gears and pointed our compass towards Cuba.
Well, first off, I had always wanted to go but never prioritized it. Secondly, we ‘Mericans had recently voted in a new administration and I was nervous about Cuba restrictions being reimposed before we got a chance to see Havana (which they were, the exact week we were in La Habana).
Fortunately, travelers with US passports can still legally visit Cuba (see conditions listed below). And we should. It’s a beautiful island nation that’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from the southern tip of Florida, making it a growing competition for pricey beach resorts and hotels in Florida. Any restrictions are US-based and you won’t be questioned at all about it in Cuba (and relax, probably not on reentry to the US, either). When planning your Havana with kids adventure, check out airlines like SWA, Delta, or United. Many cities offer flights but we chose the super short flight from Miami after we took some time to explore the Florida Keys.
Curious Tip: Book your kids the airplane window seat and book yourself the aisle. Unless it’s a full flight, you may get lucky and have nobody between you. If you do have someone take that center seat, they’ll most definitely trade you for the aisle. Nobody wants the middle!
My little boy loved the 75-minute flight and its amazing ocean views. We hope you do, too!
Family Friendly Activities for Kids Around Havana
In hindsight, I didn’t do much research on our Havana adventure as I was pretty busy with work before we went. Normally, I work while we travel but this time I knew that wouldn’t always be possible because having internet in homes or hotels isn’t really ‘a thing’ in Cuba yet. Yes, even in the capital city of Havana, most people rely on public WIFI cards that can be bought and used in select public parks. Don’t worry, you’ll live (and thrive) without the constant connection.
Curious Tip: Read traveler reviews on places claiming to offer WIFI. Even high-end resorts have trouble maintaining internet reliably in Cuba so if your family is super dependent on la red, Havana with kids may be more of a challenge.
My lil boy and I had used the first week of our travel to visit (awesome) family and friends in Florida and go camping in the Florida Keys. Because of this, we only had a week to visit Cuba. We both wished for much more time to explore the island at the end of the week.
Initially, I’d reserved half of our week for wandering the streets of Havana and half of the time for a farm stay and horseback riding near Artemisa. When the farm had to cancel just before our trip (the family patriarch was sadly rushed to the hospital), I decided to not stress it and simply extended our time in Havana and added a small side trip to the beautiful and nearby beach town of Varadero. It was an excellent choice as the beaches are pristine and the water like blue crystal. Not much more to want out of a beach town!
In Havana, our days were filled walking the streets, finding local parks, bargaining lightly with street vendors, admiring the classic car, and taking those beautify classic taxis or coco tourist taxis from one local destination to another. And so much more. We visited museums, saw a cool kids’ show in the beautiful Teatro America, met many locals while accessing WIFI and eating ice cream in the local parks, and just generally, tried all the yummy fruits, foods, and drinks we could get our grubby little hands on. It was a blast.
The highlights of Havana include the amazing family behind our Casa Guillama room rental and a great little spot we found called Salsabor a Cuba. After our first visit to Salsabor, we filled our extra days with their Salsa dancing and Spanish lessons. My little guy goes to a dual-language school here in the US so we reinforce Spanish every chance we get. He loved his Spanish maestra (I wish I could remember her name) and said she was fun, pretty, and nice – those are high compliments from a 6-year old! We also took the classes because, I figured if something did change with the Cuba entry restrictions, I would have more proof of “people-to-people” or as the new administration likes it to be called, “Support for the Cuban People”.
Curious Tip: I would like to warn you that Cuban coffee, Cafelito, is addictingly delicious (coming from someone who rarely drinks coffee). And also, their local rum is very strong – drink slow and have water between each serving.
Since I was conquering Havana with kids, I didn’t drink much. Still, even a single drink, both times I ordered one (a Cuba Libre – my favorite drink) made me feel a light buzz. Parents beware, you buy more unnecessary stuff for your kids when you’re feeling happy!
20 Things to do in Havana with Kids
- Try any unknown fruit you see a local street vendor selling
- Soak in the colors, sounds, and smells of La Habana Vieja (Old Town)
- Dance in the streets! Especially along the Malecon
- Play at Santa María del Mar beach, which is only 12km outside of Havana
- Watch a baseball game with the locals
- Ask a random local what their favorite local dish is and then try it that night
- Indulge in a chocolate tasting at Old Havana’s Museo del Chocolate – it’s not much of a museum but the chocolate is great
- Watch night reenactments at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana (El cañonazo was at 9pm for us but check current times)
- Geocache along the Malecon and El Morro – much harder in Cuba without WIFI!
- Take inexpensive classic car taxis and slightly more spendy coco taxis
- Catch a show at the impressive Teatro America
- Discover local parks (parque infantiles) – take some bubbles with you for hours of fun
- Make your own perfume at Habana 1791
- Take salsa dance or Spanish lessons at Salsabor
- Sit and visit with another local family for the afternoon
- The hop-on-hop-off bus
- Try every delicious ice cream you see!
- Visit the many art museums and amazing sculptures around the city
- Take a break and buy a day pass at nearby Hotel Atlantico (pool, lunch buffet, fun activities, and a beach)
- Explore the Fuster House in Jaimanitas or Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuban villa that’s located just east of Havana
- Enjoy a Cuba National Ballet
Dealing with Money in Cuba
Ok, I hate to grumble about this but… dealing with money in Cuba can get complicated if you go off the tourist path. The country sports two currencies, the CUP for locals and the CUC for foreigners and international trade. If you stick to known tourist vendors and businesses, you’ll only ever need the CUP. That’s easy and will work for most travelers. It’s worth about 25 times what the CUP is and is approximate in value to the US dollar. Easy, right? What gets tricky is when you’re a bit off the beaten path and want to buy from local street vendors who are selling fruit, go to kids parks that have rides to pay for, or visit local businesses who only accept CUP. An example of this would be any of the inflatable blow up parks or Havana’s famous Coppelia ice cream. A bowl of ice cream with some cookies at Coppelia will cost you approximately 20 cents USD if you eat on the locals’ side and pay with CUP. On the tourist side… meh, who wants to sit on the tourist side?!
A Cuban worker shows 1 CUP (Cuban pesos – top) and 1 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos)
Before your trip, it’s a good idea to book and pay for as many of your hotels and activities as possible. That’s hard for a non-planner like me but it helps a lot in Cuba. Why? Because Cuba is not set up to accept US-based credit or debit cards. That means you’ll have to carry all of your spending money in with you and exchange it when you arrive. The more you’ve paid for in advance or book on US-based websites like Airbnb, the less cash you’ll have to keep on hand.
Curious Tip: Some events and tours, such as shows or sporting events, may be impossible to book ahead or even find schedules for online. Remember that the internet is only just becoming more available in Cuba so having an ‘online presence’ is a somewhat uncommon concept to many established businesses. Also, many may not be able to take advanced reservations, especially with US credit cards, so only sell at the box office. There may be a light at the end of the currency tunnel, however. Depending on when you travel to Cuba, you may (hopefully) not have to deal with both bills. In December 2017, Cuban President Raul Castro stated an intent to eliminate the two-currency system. We’ll keep our fingers crossed as both my son and I hope to visit again soon. (The country has tried to make the change before but fears of it affecting the economy have put such talks on hold.)
Curious Tip: It’s important to note that while classic tourism in Cuba is not allowed, it’s legal for Americans to go to Cuba under one of these 12 categories of travel. Don’t be discouraged from visiting this amazing, friendly, economical country. Just keep this information from the USembassy.gov website in mind…
- family visits;
- official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
- journalistic activity;
- professional research and professional meetings;
- educational activities;
- religious activities;
- public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
- support for the Cuban people;
- humanitarian projects;
- activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
- exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials;
- and certain authorized export transactions.
See the point #8 I’ve highlighted? Category #8, support for the Cuban people, is now the least complicated way for an average US citizen to visit Cuba. It’s a different take on the past administrations more lenient allowance of “people to people” but still simple enough for independent travelers to manage. Don’t worry, you can bypass those expensive tours and agencies by simply following these guidelines while planning and booking your trip to Cuba.
- Book your flight and, at that same time, declare a travel category and buy a tourist card for each family member who will be traveling ($50 – purchased either online and picked up at the airport or purchased at the airport, depending on your airline – it’s a pink card for travel from the USA)
- Book and stay at Airbnb homestays (called casas particulares in Cuba) instead of at the big hotels and resorts that the government profits from
- Interact with locals on a daily basis with possible activities like taking Spanish, Salsa, cooking, or other classes/programs
- Consider hiring local guides for your tours instead of going with big agencies that, you guessed it, the government profits from
- Do most of your souvenir or general shopping from local vendors instead of at the airport or big business shops
- Glance over the list of banned businesses and make sure to avoid them in your planning
- Keep proof of a very clear itinerary and receipts from your locally-influenced travel
Are you noticing a theme here? Your travel to Cuba must be about benefiting the local people and local businesses in Cuba and avoiding businesses and corporations that have strong ties with or are even partially owned by the Cuban government. Helping the locals over big business is the best way in any country, anyway. This is the type of traveling my son and I have always tried to do so it was natural for us to continue in the same fashion while enjoying all of the places mentioned above. If you are a traveler who tends to prefer pricey tours and a bit more luxury, however, you may need a different POV for your travel to Cuba. Both types of travel are great and I’m sure you can easily find higher-end travel through American-based tour agencies that specialize in Cuba.
As I’m sitting here, trying to shake off the last of the winter chill, I’m fondly remembering the warm beaches of Cuba. I’ll come back to my blog soon to write about Varadero. But in the meantime, take my word for it… Havana, Varadero, and the beaches in between are must-sees!