Cuba. It’s a beautiful, complicated, colorful, and slightly-tricker-than-average place to get to. And it happens to be where two of my good friends got married on New Years Eve! It was epic and I’m so excited to share their love story with you. But I also want to do MORE than just that. I love photographing travel weddings and I want to help more couples have the destination weddings of their dreams! So today I’m going to teach you how to elope in Cuba!
Matt and Amanda’s Story A little backstory first! Matt and Amanda met on Twitter. They had spent many years living closely without their lives ever overlapping until Twitter brought them together, as well as an infamous bar in our college town known as The Peacock. They fell in love. For Amanda, she was attracted to Matt’s steadiness. She loves that he always thinks through his options, weighs the risks and benefits and is consistent. “He is a steady source of support and encouragement and his consistency sets an amazing example for me,” Amanda said. Matt fell for Amanda’s big heart and her desire to change the lives of everyone around her through continual acts of service. They love to plan monthly date nights for each other, surprising each other with fun activities like kayaking, trampoline parks, and new restaurants. They also love chilling at home with their adorable cats and playing games or watching TV. Matt proposed to Amanda on New Years Eve 2017 in London. They were watching the fireworks along the Thames Path and they had just enjoyed an amazing evening at a martini bar as well as a wonderful trip to Scotland. She said yes!
Why Cuba? Like SO many of the incredible couples I work with, Matt and Amanda wanted to do things differently. I love that. They were drawn to doing a New Years wedding because the date had such significance to them personally. They also wanted to go somewhere warm and different. When they started brainstorming ideas, Cuba came up because it was somewhere they were curious about. It was non traditional, AND it was a place that hadn’t been accessible for a long time (and might not stay accessible in the future). Why not? It was totally them.
Planning a wedding or trip in Cuba
Step one of planning a Cuban elopement: find a beautiful Casa Particular on Airbnb! A Casa Particular literally means “private house” in Spanish. It’s essentially like a bed and breakfast or homestay. Expect it to be a little different than your typical Airbnb experience, because even though you have the house to yourself, there will be staff there 24⁄7 making sure things run smoothly. Casa Particulars are government sanctioned, regulated and taxed, and most importantly, they qualify you for the visa/tourist card you need! Matt and Amanda chose a Casa Particular with extensive gardens because they wanted to have their ceremony there on the property. If you do this, talk to your host about your plans and make sure you keep things simple! It’s a great way to keep your elopement stress-free because you don’t have to worry about having a ceremony in a public place or obtaining extra permits. In Matt and Amanda’s case, it was 7 people standing in a beautiful orchard for about 20 minutes. No decor, no chairs, super simple and memorable!
How to get in to Cuba
Tourist travel from America to Cuba is still prohibited by statute, so you have to qualify for one of 12 other categories for travel there. Most people enter under the “Support of the Cuban People” category, which your Casa Particular qualifies you for! Essentially the Casa Particular will work with you to set up an itinerary that shows you Cuba from a local’s perspective. When it comes to actually getting your hands on this visa, also known as a Cuban Tourist Card, it’s not that hard. You don’t need to apply for it – you just need to buy it ahead of time online, or pay for it at the airport. It’s recommended that you get it ahead of time so you can have all your documents in order before your trip. If you are entering Cuba from the states you will need a pink tourist card. You can get it here. It’s valid for 30 days of travel, and needs to be used within 180 days of issuance. You can also buy it directly through your airline.
Okay, so I booked a Casa Particular, now what? After you book a Casa Particular, it’s time to start looking for flights. And yes, you can fly directly from the U.S. to Cuba now! You don’t need to worry about going through Mexico or anything like that. You just need your passport, pink tourist card, return flight, and proof of health insurance that may be spot-checked at the airport. Many airlines provide the insurance through your plane ticket (it’s an extra fee added to the flight cost). It’s also recommended that you get trip insurance. You never know how long the US government will continue allowing travel to Cuba at all. When you have your flights, Casa Particular, and tourist card, it should be easy from there! All you need to do now is start researching activities and places you want to visit while you are there! Matt and Amanda used this Cuba book, read this travel blog, and looked at Tripadviser, among other internet resources and google searches. You can see Amanda’s Cuba Pinterest board here!
“We emailed back and forth a lot with our hosts to build a unique program for us,” Amanda told me. “They coordinated our day trips and our transportation. Basically we got there and they took care of us. I can’t imagine how much more time and frustration we would have experienced having to coordinate every part individually when we arrived. It would made it impossible to squeeze so much into a short trip.
The part where you get legally married
Okay. Just because you want to physically get married in Cuba, doesn’t mean you should legally get married in Cuba. The process for getting married in Cuba is extremely complicated. Save yourself the headache and sign the legal paperwork at home in the state you live in. Do it the day you leave for your trip if you want – you just need your officiant and two witnesses. Matt and Amanda signed their official marriage license at PDX with a few friends and their officiant before our flight. It ended up being super fun and we surprised our waitress at the restaurant quite a bit haha. Then they brought their “pretty” license (the non-official one that is for decoration only) to Cuba and we signed it at midnight on New Years Eve instead.
Things you need to know before you go to Cuba
There are number of things you need to know before you go to Cuba:
Once you create your daily itinerary with your host, make sure you print it out (with all the details) and bring it with you! You need to keep this on record for 5 years in case the US ever decides they need verification that you trip met all the requirements.
People don’t speak a lot of English. We had one solid Spanish speaker in our group and they were a lifesaver. I don’t think we would have had as much success without them. If you don’t speak Spanish, now is definitely the time to learn a bit before you go!
Learn about Cuban currency. They have two types! The CUC is the tourist currency you will be using. It’s closely related to the US dollar (1 USD = 1 CUC) The CUP is the local currency that is lower valued (1 USD = 26 CUP). The two types look similar, so just be careful that you don’t end up with CUP change when you buy something at a small store.
Bring a ton of cash! Your US bank cards wont work in Cuba. And don’t even think about credit cards. You will need cash for everything, and you will only be able to exchange it when you arrive, since you can’t get Cuban currency in the states. Bring more cash that you think you need.
It’s not that cheap! Because the tourist currency is closer to the US dollar, things are really not that cheap. Expect things to cost the same as they do in US. Budget accordingly!
Say goodbye to internet. There is hardly any wifi in Cuba, and there is a good chance your international data plan won’t include it. Tell your friends/family that they won’t be able to get in touch with you on your trip. Download everything you need beforehand. Then enjoy a blissful break from the rest of the world! Matt and Amanda found that their wifi-free experience was one of the best parts of the trip. All of us were truly present for the four days and it was great to have that escape from everyday interruptions and social media. Embrace it!
Download offline maps BEFORE you go. You will need these.
Bring necessities! You want to bring toothpaste, toiletries, medicines and even some toilet paper along with you. It can be hard to find basics there. It’s also sometimes customary to gift toiletries and necessities to the hosts! We made the mistake of not bringing enough cold medicine, and some of us got pretty sick on the red-eye flight over. Dayquil is a lifesaver. Bring lots just in case!
The rum and cigars are delicious. You already knew this. But here’s a reminder anyway. Buy them.
Tipping 10% for all service-related things is customary and it is a HUGE help to locals! A small tip from you in the tourist currency makes a big difference to them!
Consider the size of your group. We had seven people and it made it possible to fit in one 7-person taxi easily. If we had eight, we would have had to take two cars every time. This makes a big difference!
If you do have a group, consider doing a money buy-in at the beginning, and put ONE person in charge of paying for everything. When everyone has their own cash, it can be sooo hard to remember who paid for what and how much, especially with meals and taxis. If every person contributes $300 at the beginning to a pool, then you can spend shared meals/taxis/activities from the pool, and split it again at the end if there is any leftover. We didn’t do this and we wished we had!!
Check with your host about the outlets where you are staying. Many outlets are the same as the US – but they aren’t consistent everywhere across the country. The outlets at our Airbnb charged our phones/cameras no problem without an adapter, BUT you want to double check and maybe bring an adapter jusssst in case!
Our Cuban Itinerary
Matt and Amanda described their wedding as personal, private and unique. They prioritized daily adventures, but we also had a good amount of down time hanging at the house and eating AMAZING food. And of course, drinking local rum and smoking cigars. Here’s what our itinerary looked like!
Day 0 – Travel Day: Pack, drive to airport, get legally married at the airport, fly to Cuba overnight.
Day 1 – Travel and Arrival Day: Continue flying to Cuba, exchange money when landing, taxi to house, relax and have dinner there!
Day 2 – Adventure to Vinales Valley: 7am-6pm adventure day in a taxi to the STUNNING Vinales Valley for sightseeing! Then relax at the house after.
Day 3 – Wedding: Get ready in the morning, 11am ceremony, cake and champagne after, 1pm taxi to Havana for lunch and exploring! 7pm taxi back to house for dinner, drinking and relaxing.
Day 4 – Beach day: Sleep in, 10am taxi to beach, hangout on the beach all day swimming and drinking. 4pm taxi back to the house for dinner and relaxation.
Day 5 – Travel day: Wake up early, 9am flight back to the US. Fly all day, get home that night late!
I couldn’t tell you how to elope in Cuba and not share photos from the whole trip! We had such an amazing time staying at our house in Bauta (45 minutes from Havana), exploring the epic beauty of the Vinales valley, and having a low-key beach day. The whole trip was a blast, and it was so fun for me to combine travel photography with wedding photography! PLUS, my fiancé Mikael was actually the officiant at the wedding! So it was truly a remarkable and special way to end 2018 and begin 2019 exploring a beautiful new place!