10 Tips to Know Before Visiting Cuba
The cigars, music, rum, culture, cloudy history and complex political past make Cuba a place filled with intrigue, wonder and mystery that many people are now making the voyage to discover.
(cobbled streets of Trinidad)
Our first introduction to Cuba came in the form of a pink slip. The USA has banned tourism to Cuba in an attempt to restrict the Cuban government being about to use funds to repress its people and support Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro. Even though we are British and flew into to Cuba from the USA we still had to go through the protocol of applying for our pink slip weeks before going to Cuba. Out of the 14 options available tourism was not an option, so after some research we were advised to select: Help the Cuban People.…little did we know that it would carry a lot more weight for us by the end of travels in Cuba.
This is just our list of some of the practical things we found out and think are helpful to know before travelling to Cuba and we wish we had known or researched!
1. Cuba is popular…very popular. There were streams of tourists when we were there but we were told it was quiet. People are curious about Cuba since it has opened up. It is full of package holiday-ers, backpackers, weekenders and people on holiday with their mums and dads. It can in places feel quite unbalanced with the number of tourists to locals, so pick wisely or be prepared for more of us than them! Check out our blog on a month in Cuba if you want to know where we went and especially our hind sight part at the end of the article.
2. Cuba isn’t that expensive to travel Well technically this depends where you go and what you do. We were actually surprised as we budgeted $140 for both of us per day and we came in well under budget. Accommodation and food varied massively. There were insane jumps in prices from a humble (prices in pesos) restaurant $3 in the back street of Camaguey to a restaurant in Trinidad for $14! Basically the more desirable it is for tourists the steeper the prices and the less options there are as local people can’t afford to eat there. Our advice, find the back street small restaurants (ask someone local) stay in Airbnbs as it can be cheaper booking on line and pick and choose what attractions and excursions you want to do as some are expensive, busy and not quite worth it.
3. Check companies work: Paypal, Revolut, American Express all don’t work in Cuba (think anything from the USA!) So do check if you need any services whilst you are there. Also its worth checking your phone company works in Cuba! T-mobile didn’t!
4. Be ready to queue: Things can take a while in Cuba and there is usually a queue so try not to rush and expect to get things done quickly. Strangely we did find the Cuban people to be ridiculously punctual! A helpful thing to learn is “quien es el ultimo?” (who is the last) to ask when you arrive at a queue otherwise you might be waiting a long time and get no where!
5. Money: Cuba has two currencies the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and The Cuban Peso (CUP).They are both conveniently called Pesos too…confused?! We were too but apart from doing mental arithmetic most “tourist” stuff is in CUC. 1 CUC was approx 26 CUP when we were there and more or less 1 CUC was 1 USD. Small things like buying some biscuits or going to the market are in CUP. Most places have both prices so you can pretty much pay for everything in CUC but do carry around some CUP at all times just in case! CUC is worth more and it is approximately 1CUC to $1 which makes the maths a little easier! Don’t bring USA dollars into Cuba as you cannot exchange them, euros and sterling are fine. ATM's can shut early, run out of money or are few and far between so its always best to carry cash. Only government run organisations accept credit or visa cards for payments! Also if like us you use the savvy revolut card- it doesn't work in Cuba!
6. Transport: If you can afford it our advice is hire a car, the roads are pretty good but obviously you have to remember this isn’t like driving in the USA or Europe! You can also get off the tourist trap as it can be hard or impossible on the buses to get to smaller places. It is very expensive though so if you are stuck with the buses be aware there are really two types, local and tourist. The tourist buses Viazul, being the most widespread, are full of obviously tourists and you can end up feeling like you are on a coach trip but these buses are efficient and pretty cost effective in the scheme of things and going directly between main destinations. We didn’t actually try to use the local buses as we opted for the quicker Viazul! Be aware they are freezing, a/c to the max! Collectivos (or almendrones) are also in operation (shared taxis) you can be pick one up along the way and are much cheaper than private taxis. Private taxis are willing to drive long distances too but beware of the dreaded seat springs as cars are old and the cheap ones are using the old soviet Ladas!
7. Internet: On our first day it took us 5 hours to get online and I am not joking! Firstly you have to find the special Etecsa office in the town (this is also where to get phone cards from if needed for public phones). There is usually a long queue outside to be let in one by one. We were then only allowed to buy one card which would last 1 hour and cost 5CUC/ $5 as there was a shortage however in other towns we bought a few at a time. Next find a hot spot to use the internet. Some houses had these spots but most parks/plazas and government buildings do. Scratch off the strip on the card and you’ll see a code, now log in to the Etecsa website and enter your code. Do beware if you don’t close your session it will keep running and other people can hop on and keep using it, equally you can hope on if someone else is using theirs (it doesn’t cost them anything!). You can buy these cards in the parks/plaza but be warned we found they were often twice the price. One hostel owner explained to us that he couldn’t give guests “free internet” as it cost him approximately $750 a month for a private line so he also had to charge us which seemed only fare! Internet connection is improving in Cuba we were told.
8. GOVERNMENT/STATE RUN VERSES PEOPLE RUN This is probably one of the biggest aspects of travelling Cuba to consider and also one of the biggest ways you can help the Cuban people. Accommodation and restaurants are either local owned or government run. One going into the peoples pocket the other going in the governments which you could arguable said should benefit its people but there are questions as to whether this is happening. So…..
a) Accomodation: A large bulk of tourism book a package holiday and stay in an all-inclusive hotel for a week or two that is well….run and profited by the government. There is also the option to stay in “casa particulares” where your money goes directly to the Cuban people. You can call and book these or just turn up but many are now registered on Airbnb which has only recently been allowed to operate in Cuba. We were told this has been life changing for Cubans as this is a huge increase in income as they no longer had to work in government jobs. People did say it is still challenging to actually book an Airbnb from inside Cuba! We found some places my phone (android) would book and some places Jez’s would book (iphone). We had a back up plan of messaging someone in the UK to do the bookings for us! Airbnb is run a little different here to anywhere else we had travelled. All houses were “stamped” with a sign.
(guesthouse with B&B symbol)
When we arrived the host would take our passport number, text the state for them to verify our identity and this would generate a number they had to write down. This was mandatory and monitored with consequences. Breakfast isn’t included it has to be an extra charge paid separately to the host which was a standard $5 charge per guest with the exact same breakfast being served at all Airbnb’s.
b) Food: Ok I’m just going to say it…don’t hate me but food is not the best in Cuba….it is pretty starch heavy, quite bland and greasy…unless you’re into that type of food! There is a movement of innovative chefs so it is changing! I’m only mentioning so you are prepared! Like the accommodation there are two types government restaurants and non- so pick local! You’ll think it is strange to mention but buy biscuits, crackers or nuts when you see them in smaller places and also take some on the bus journeys as we found “snacks” hard to come by in places like Camaguey.
9. The Cuban People: The people are the reason you go to Cuba! The Cuban people have to be some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met and a reason to go to Cuba. They are quick to smile and even quicker to share a rum and get up and dance. We found them to be warm and open and keen to have meaningful and often deep conversations which we loved.
Equally they were also ready to poke fun at themselves and any one else around, the reason so many of them seem to always be laughing or smiling! Cuba was in our opinion, and other travellers we met, a very safe and a welcoming country with its people heavily reliant on tourism, a major way to improve their lives and those of their children. In the smaller cities and towns you may be invited for a coffee or a meal, our advice is go if you feel happy to.
10. Travelling a Communist Country It was important to consider the difficulties it means for people living under a communist government, we cover a bit more of this in our next article. Though there are some really positive changes happening in Cuba be mindful people only earn approx. $17-20 a month. Things are very expensive and often hard to come by in Cuba (their cars aren’t for fashion!) so if you can invite someone for a meal, or buy them some hygiene products or give them some clothes you may be making their life a lot easier and its also a great way to really understand the country! Equally things like branded Cigars can be paying straight back into the governments pockets so why not buy them directly from the farmers. Remember to help the Cuban people.
(Taking a sweet lady to dinner who had invited us to her house for coffee before. Buying some toiletries for this lovely guy. Cigars can be bought directly from the farmers. All these people asked us to take their photo!)
In conclusion enjoy Cuba it is such a wonderful place! These are hopefully some tips so you won’t waste loose time like we did and you will slide into the system of things and be way more prepared than we were! If you want to get a better feel of this fantastic country why not check out our videos and photos on Cuba to get a better feel of this fantastic country.
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