Cuba is a unique place, unlike any other place I have ever traveled to. What makes it unique is that it is like stepping back in time, a time when ATM machines and internet access were scarce, and when a variety of foodstuffs and basic consumer goods were expensive and difficult to come by. It’s this backwardness that makes Cuba so attractive to travelers.
Cuba is also beautiful and extremely safe with low violent crime rates, and the Cubans are very friendly. In its capital Havana, one can find magnificent antique buildings, squares, and unique museums such as the Museum of the Revolution. It also has plenty of natural beauty, with waterfalls, caves, wetlands, coral reefs, and sandy beaches with crystal clear water.
In order to make your trip to Cuba more enjoyable, here are some things to know before you go:
Budget to spend a lot more than you regularly spend when you travel
With the exception of coffee, rum, and cigars, I found Cuba to be a lot more expensive than other countries I have visited in Latin America. This is not only because there is a lack of competition in the tourism sector in Cuba, but also because it has a dual currency system, where foreigners pay a lot more than locals. Foreigners must use the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso, pronounced “Coo” by Cubans, the ‘c’ at the end is not pronounced, also referred to as “dolar”.) while locals use the CUP (referred to as “Moneda Nacional”). The word “Pesos” is used for both. However, as a foreigner, you can assume that when given a price in “Pesos” they are referring to the CUC. Most places do not accept foreign currencies, and the majority of private businesses do not accept CUP, but only accept CUC. CUC and CUP bills are easy to tell apart. CUC has buildings or statues on them, while the CUP has people. CUC bills are also thicker and cleaner looking than the CUP.
Take Euros instead of U.S. Dollars and bring extra cash
Cuba charges a mandatory 3% to exchange any type of foreign currency. However, if you are exchanging U.S. dollars the fee is an additional 10%. This means that with every $100 you exchange, you are only getting back 87 CUC. If you are in the U.S., the cheapest way to access Euros is to order them from your bank (they usually require at least a 48-hour notice.). This will save you the expensive cost of using an exchange bureau.
Be sure to bring extra cash with you. Credit cards are not accepted, and ATM machines are rare in Cuba. Also if your ATM card is from a U.S. bank it will not work at all. So it is better to bring more cash than you plan on spending. You can always deposit the extra cash back into your bank once you return.
Don’t forget to buy your visa from your airline before you leave
A tourist visa is required to enter Cuba. If you are coming from the U.S. through Mexico City, it can be purchased from your airline ticket counter once you get to Mexico City. The cost is around $20 USD.
Bring everything you will need on your trip with you from home
The only things that seem to be abundant and cheap in Cuba are coffee, rum, and cigars. Other than that, bring all your necessities with you, as not only will you pay more for them in Cuba, but you might not find them at all.
- Toiletries (eg. shampoo, soap, sunscreen, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, tampons etc.)
- Any medicine you anticipate needing such as aspirin, ibuprofen, insect repellent etc.
- Comfortable walking shoes or hiking sandals. Expect to do A LOT of walking.
- If you plan on swimming, bring a bathing suit and a towel/sarong. Unlike most beach destinations these things are hard to find in Cuba.
- If you have special dietary requirements (such as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free etc) bring packaged snacks such as energy bars for situations where you can’t find acceptable food options (such as in the airport’s departure lounge, which only sells ham sandwiches and packaged cookies).
Take carry-on luggage only
I generally always recommend only taking carry-on luggage on trips, however in the case of Cuba, it is a must. This is because only government employees work at the airport who work at very low wages (around $25 a month), so expect service to be extremely slow, and delays of up to 4 hours to retrieve luggage sometimes happen.
Patience is a virtue
Waiting in slow lines is part of the Cuban experience. It is inevitable that you will wait in at least a couple of slow-moving lines during your trip. One of your first experiences of waiting in a slow-moving line will be when you go to exchange your cash for CUCs. When you head out of the airport it will be on your right. If the line only has a few people, still expect at least a 30-minute wait. If it is long, then expect to wait around an hour or more, or else you can pay your taxi in U.S. dollars or euros and exchange your money at one of the hotels in Havana. The easiest places to exchange money is at the reception desk of the Capri Hotel. You will be changing your CUCs back once you are in the airport departure terminal, so don’t be afraid of changing all the money you need for your trip in one go, so that way you won’t have to wait in further lines while on your trip. With that said, be sure to show up at the airport around 3-4 hours before your flight leaves Cuba, as check-in will take a while. Also, expect slow service at some restaurants, regardless if they are public or private. In many bars and restaurants, it is common to find staff standing idly around, chatting and ignoring their customers.
Stay in a Casa Particular (Home Stay) instead of a hotel.
The Cuban government now allows people to rent out rooms or portions of their houses. These places are called “Casas Particulares”. This is not only a great way to get to know the Cuban people, but you will find better service and cheaper rates than if you were to stay at one of the national hotels. In Havana, they go for around $20-$50 per night in high season, and they are slightly cheaper outside of Havana. Airbnb is also now available in Cuba, although there it is still quite limited in Cuba. Since accommodation is harder to find in Cuba than most other countries in Latin America, I suggest booking your accommodation before you go, especially in high season (December-April). To recognize “Casas Particulares” look for a sign outside the door or gate which looks like those below (A blue sign means that they rent to foreigners, and a red/orange sign means they rent only to locals.):
Opt for private restaurants over national restaurants.
Not only is the quality of the food and service at private restaurants way better than that of government owned restaurants, but by spending money at a private restaurant you are helping the hard-working Cuban people instead of the inefficient Cuban government. It is usually not hard to tell the difference between a public and a private restaurant. Private restaurants usually have a “Paladar” sign, and the restaurant usually has a distinct name, a unique style of decor, and a menu with a variety of options. National restaurants are plainer looking, they sometimes don’t have a sign, and if they do, the sign will just have a generic name like “Restaurante”, “Cafeteria”, or “Pizza”, and they usually have limited options.
Do not expect to have reliable or free wi-fi access
The picture below it shows the line that one must wait in to buy a 1-hour wi-fi access card for around $2.50 USD. To avoid waiting in line you can buy a card from a street hawker in a wi-fi hotspot for an extra $1 fee, or from one of the hotels for $5. Just remember that the internet can only be accessed in wi-fi hotspots. So if you want to use the internet in a comfortable environment rather than on a street corner, it is recommended to spend the extra money and get one at a hotel so you can browse in their lobby area. Also, a few of my friends found that they were not able to access gmail or google at all due to it being blocked.
If you are planning a side-trip outside of Havana transportation could be expensive
Cuba is so much more than just Havana. You will find the island to be very diverse with each area being unique with lots to see. However Cuba does not have a long distance bus system with easy access for tourists like in other countries in Latin America, so you might be stuck taking a taxi or flight to explore the places outside of Havana.
Since Cuba is now rapidly modernizing, I recommend going sooner rather than later. I can say that Cuba is one of those few places in the world that really moved me, and I definitely want to go back to explore more.