These days Cuba seems to be a hot item on many traveler’s bucket lists. Inspired by the buzz surrounding Cuba, we couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to check it out on our own, and after spending 3.5 weeks there this past August, we certainly feel like we’ve learned a thing of two about Cuba.
It’s a great country to explore, but even experienced travelers will attest to how different travel in Cuba is compared to other countries. If you are planning a trip to Cuba, there are a few things you need to know before you go!
Learn Some Spanish Before You Go
Professional tour guides and those working in the tourism industry will have some knowledge of English, but for the most part, locals outside of resorts speak no English at all. Luckily, Spanish is easy to learn and can give you a serious leg up when traveling in Cuba. Speaking even a little bit of Spanish will give you bargaining power for tours, activities, and shopping. It’ll also help you get an insight into Cuban customs and learn more about the history, culture, and local ways of living.
Bring a Power Converter for Your Electronics
Power outlets in Cuba range between 110V- 220V. Some cities/areas will have only 110V sockets while others will have 220V. Phone chargers, laptops, and most other modern electronics should work just fine, but some hair dryers, hair straighteners, head buzzers, older video camera chargers, etc might need a converter, which you should buy ahead of your trip.
Learn the Difference Between CUC and CUP
In Cuba, cash is king. Credit cards are rarely accepted and ATMs are hard to come by. So if you want to avoid money problems, bring enough cash with you to last you the entire trip. Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, and Euros are the best. US Dollars can be converted but they incur a 10% exchange fee/premium. Australian Dollars are not widely accepted.
It’s important to note that Cuba operates a dual currency economy. Traditionally, CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos – bills with buildings on them) has been the designated currency for visitors while CUP (Cuban National Pesos or Moneda Nacional – bills with people on them) was the currency used solely by locals.
Today however, both currencies circulate freely in the market (1 CUC = 25 CUP) and are used by both locals and tourists. The CUC exchange rate is pegged to the American Dollar and all goods and services for tourists are quoted in CUC prices. However, it is possible to exchange your CUCs into CUPs and enjoy the low prices of the local shops (hole in the wall restaurants), produce markets/fruit & veggie carts, transport (horse and buggy rides), and some services.
Don’t Forget to Pack the Essentials
Unfortunately, Cuba is not one those countries where you can buy anything you might have forgotten at home, so take the time to think about your packing list. Things like shampoo, conditioner, and sunscreen are expensive and hard to find. Bathing suits and any other clothing items are pretty much non-existent outside of all inclusive resorts.
Getting Around Cuba is Not Easy
Options to get around Cuba are currently very limited. As of August 2016, Viazul is the only bus company offering transportation around Cuba to tourists (a few others like Omnibus are reserved strictly for Cuban nationals).
Viazul bus network connects all major cities and towns in Cuba you may want to visit during your time here, but Viazul bus tickets are expensive and very limited, however, you can pre-purchase bus tickets online well in advance of your trip to Cuba. Online ticket sales close 1 week prior to departure date, but generally speaking, you can still buy tickets for a few days ahead at the Viazul bus stations in every town.
But leaving things until the last minute (i.e. rocking up to the bus stop an hour before departure without a ticket) is not recommended as you can’t buy tickets for the bus a few hours before departure. Instead, all travelers without tickets are added to the waiting list and rely on no-shows for their ticket. (All passengers with tickets have to check in for the bus 30 mins prior to departure. It is at that point that the Viazul staff determine how many extra seats there might be available for those on the waiting list).
Stay With Locals at Casa Particulars
To save on accommodation and enjoy a more authentic travel experience, stay in Casa Particulars (licensed Bed & Breakfasts). Rates at Casa Particulars are $20-25/night in most cities in Cuba and $35/night in popular places tourist destinations like Havana and Varadero. Most Casas offer guests a private double room, often with a separate toilet, hot water, AC, and sometimes even a fridge and a small kitchen/living room space. Casas hosts will almost always offer breakfast for $3-5 per person and some also offer dinner for $7-10 per person.
Most Casas are simply extra rooms in people’s homes, so don’t expect the same amenities and service as you would find in hotels. Casas that offer more than 1-2 rooms are called Hostals (not to be confused with Hostels, that offer a typical dorm room setting). Outside of 1-2 proper hostels in Havana, you won’t find typical backpacker hostels anywhere in Cuba.
At the end of your stay, ask your host to recommend a Casa for the next city you are traveling to and enjoy not having to worry about finding accommodation upon arrival. Your new Casa address will most likely be given to you on a piece of paper. Keep in mind that most addresses in Cuba indicate both the street on which the building is found and the two streets which it is between. For example, the address of a building on Lamparilla Street between the streets Habana and Aguiar would be written Lamparilla e/ (or %) Habana y Aguiar (e/ being an abbreviation of entre, (meaning between).
Eat in Paladars or in Your Casa
If our experience is any indication, the best food in Cuba is the one you are served in Casas or in small family run restaurants called Paladars. Eating at your Casa is not only a great way to try all the local specialities at a reasonable price ($3-5 for breakfast, $7-10 for dinner), but also a good way to give back to the locals. We did try a few state-run restaurants during our time in Cuba and were almost always disappointed with the food.
Don’t Expect Reliable Internet
Yes, the rumours are true. There is no free internet in Cuba. You won’t find it in hotels, restaurants, or anywhere else for that matter. To access the Internet in Cuba, you’ll need to purchase an ETESCA internet card (that gives you a unique username and password) and find one of the public wifi hot-spots (there is at least 1 in every city) to get online. Internet cards come in 2 and 5-hour denominations, cost 2CUC/hour, and can be purchased from the ETESCA offices across the country (be prepared as the lines are always long). If getting online is important to you, we recommend stocking up. You are allowed to buy 3 cards per person (bring your passport).
Download Maps.Me Before You Go
Without internet, accessing Google Maps and navigating cities around Cuba can be very difficult. But you don’t have to rely on paper maps either. Download a mobile app called Maps.Me and download an offline map of Cuba to use during your time in the country. You’ll be able to use Maps.me’s navigation to get you from point A to Point B, search the map for your Casa locations (a lot of them are marked on the map) and even find restaurants, bar, and supermarkets in any city.
Service in Cuba is Terrible
The majority of service transactions you have in Cuba will be with people working in state institutions like state restaurants, hotels, tour companies, and so on. Unfortunately, these folks are far from being happy in their jobs. Expect grumpy faces and to feel like you are bothering your waiter or tour desk operator. Anyone that works in a state run business hates their life and their attitude reflects this. They get paid $20 a month, can you really blame them?
Be Prepared for Disruptions in Your Travel Plans
Traveling in Cuba is not for the lighthearted or the inexperienced. Lack of easily accessible internet makes everything just a little more difficult. And it doesn’t help that things in Cuba often just don’t work the way they are supposed to. Buses are frequently sold out, casa reservations aren’t honoured, recommended restaurants end up being closed, ATMs are broken down, and so on. One of the most important things you can bring with you to Cuba is a handful of patience and the ability to just go with the flow.
It is Possible to Just Wing It
You can book your flight, pack your bag, arrive in Cuba, and have a great time exploring the country without making any other plans or arrangements. As much as it is harder to travel unprepared, especially in the high season, and it might be a bit pricier, it is by no means impossible. You can show up in any city and find a reasonably nice Casa Particular in under 10 mins. You can find a collectivo taxi to take you almost anywhere in Cuba any time you want, and you can safely eat in any hole in the wall restaurant you come across when hunger strikes. If you’ve got a sense of adventure and a “up-for-anything” attitude, Cuba can be the perfect place for a great escape.
Is a trip to Cuba on your bucket list?
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