It can be difficult to find accurate information on travelling in Cuba. With the travel climate here constantly changing and the island under an embargo, there is a lot of misinformation and out-of-date recommendations. After twelve days of exploring the island nation of Cuba, there are a few things I would tell everyone who is considering exploring the area. From serious must-knows to some light-hearted things you will come to notice here, these are Cuba travel tips and top 20 things to know before travelling to Cuba.
YOU SHOULD TRY TO GET OUT OF HAVANA
As drop-dead gorgeous as Havana is, the rest of Cuba is equally stunning and there is a huge amount of variety. Even though most promotion about Cuba revolves around Havana, it’s an inaccurate representation of how much there is to do in the country. In my twelve days travelling to Cuba I only just managed to scratch the surface of the West part of the island and I’m dying to come back and see the rest. From the dramatic hillocks of the fertile Viñales Valley to the warm Caribbean waters of Playa Larga, you would be missing out big time if you just stuck to the capital. Some of my best memories from the trip were outside of the cities, and I’m sure it will be the same for you too.
THE CAT CALLING IS INSANE
This does get on your nerves in Cuba because the amount of cat calling is pretty ridiculous. In Havana you can’t walk a few metres without someone making kissing noises or shouting something at you. It is important to know that this will happen and, as annoying as it can be, try your best to ignore it. This seems to be a part of the macho culture here and glaring at everyone won’t make a difference, so try to brush it off so at least you can enjoy your trip and stay positive.
KEEP YOUR 25c PIECES – YOU’LL NEED THEM
Almost every bathroom in Cuba comes at a price. Even if that price gets you a toilet with no seat, no flush, and a tap that doesn’t run, you still have to pay up. There is an omnipresent Cuban toilet attendant at every publicly accessible toilet and in restaurants. You hand over 25c, he/she will hand you back a wad of toilet paper, and you go on your way. It’s like a well-rehearsed dance routine that you will do over and over again on your trip. So make sure you have plenty of 25c coins and try not to spend them elsewhere!
IT’S PRETTY SAFE TO TRAVEL HERE
To be honest, I felt pretty safe in Cuba the vast majority of the time. Even solo. The worst part was the cat-calling which felt much more intimidating at night, but in terms of petty crime, it felt pretty non-existent. There were no problems walking around with a phone and camera like there might be in other Caribbean and Central American destinations. On the whole, everyone was incredibly helpful and it didn’t feel like you were being as brazenly ripped off as I have elsewhere. As long as you keep your wits about you and barter where it’s expected to barter, you won’t do too badly.
IT’S HIGHLY BENEFICIAL TO KNOW SOME SPANISH
Although not a complete necessity for travelling to Cuba, it is pretty helpful to know some basic Spanish. The vast majority of people speak no English at all, which is probably how it should be, but it makes it a hard if you don’t speak a word of Spanish either. It will improve your trip immeasurably if you know how to say the basics. I would recommend knowing: hello, goodbye, where is, how much, numbers from 1 – 20, and I speak English (or whichever language).
LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL
Travelling to Cuba is all about having a good time. To maximise your enjoyment of the island be prepared for late nights, plenty of salsa, and mojitos at any time of the day. There are no limits to fun here, you can open a beer absolutely anywhere, break into dance in any square or bar, and smoke cigars wherever takes your fancy. The most important thing to know about going to Cuba is that you are going to have fun. It is one of the most vibrant travel destinations and you have to pack your party shoes to make the most of it. So let your hair down, enjoy that extra-strong mojito, and resist the urge to cough and splutter when you smoke that prime Cuban cigar.
THERE ARE PLACES WHERE YOU BARGAIN, AND PLACES WHERE YOU DON’T
There are definitely times in Cuba where you need to put on your bargaining hat and try and get a good deal. Restaurants, bars, grocery shops, and casas are usually set price, but souvenir vendors, markets, and taxis are where it’s expected that you try to get yourself a good price. The general rule is to shave half to one third off the price and work it from there, depending on what you’re purchasing. But if you don’t feel like bargaining, the prices in Cuba are pretty cheap anyway so it might not make that much of a difference.
THE DRINKS ARE STRONG
Look I’m not complaining, but if you don’t like strong drinks, you might think twice about ordering any kind of cocktail in Cuba. They serve their drinks strong in Cuba, like very strong. The national obsession with rum might have something to do with this. In a sense, this is one of the great parts of Cuba because not only are the cocktails insanely cheap but you really don’t need many to last you the night.
YOU WILL DEFINITELY SALSA AT SOME POINT
Admittedly, there is a strong chance that I am the worst dancer in modern history. My prematurely arthritic hips and complete lack of rhythm combine to create a spectacularly awkward rendition of the traditionally sexy salsa. Let’s just say, when I try to salsa, I somehow more channel the robot. Unfortunately for me, but luckily for slightly more coordinated people, salsa is bloody common in Cuba and you will be dancing at least once, and more likely once a day, for the duration of your trip. It’s a good idea before you arrive in Cuba to know a few salsa steps, or consider taking a class while you’re over there, to make sure you have some moves in your arsenal at least.
GETTING WIFI CAN BE AN ADVENTURE
Although there is WiFi in Cuba, and it’s accessible in most cities and towns, it can be an adventure to find it. WiFi is mostly accessible through a network of hotspots dotted at random points in the country. There aren’t signs indicating where the WiFi spots are so you have to wander around with your phone until you see one pop up as an option. Usually you’ll see a bunch of people sitting in a bizarre location all staring at their phones — this is the biggest hint. It can be a bit of an adventure wandering through an array of streets and parks on the hunt!
To access the WiFi hotspots you will need an ECTESA access card which is 1 CUC for 1 hour and this gives you a hotspot login. If you’re lucky, your casa or restaurant may have WiFi, but I only experienced this once on the whole trip and the quality was pretty bad. Unless you desperately need WiFi for work or important events, maybe try giving it a miss for your trip and having a digital detox. It’ll be a lot easier than trying to hunt down WiFi and it’s quite relaxing to disconnect.
IT’S BEST TO STAY IN CASAS
Casa particulares are the most common form of accommodation in Cuba and the best value. Although there are hotels in Cuba, they are few and far between, and often come at a much higher price tag. Casas are the way to go with wonderful hosts who can help you out, decent rooms, and usually a good quality free breakfast. This will not only save you a few bucks but will be a more authentic, local experience that you will remember forever. You can stay in hotels anywhere in the world, but you’re going to Cuba now, so why not try a casa?
THERE ARE TWO CUBAN CURRENCIES
Yes, that’s right. There are two separate currencies in Cuba and it can get pretty confusing. There is the CUC and CUP. The CUC is more of a “tourist currency” and it is the one you will overwhelmingly use with casas, restaurants and taxis accepting CUC. The CUC is exactly equivalent to the US Dollar. The more touristy restaurants and accommodation will also accept USD/GBP/euro payments but at a much worse rate.
The CUP is a more local currency which is used more at markets, small local stores, and in public transport. It is roughly 25 CUP to 1 CUC, and as a tourist, you will probably not use the CUP much unless you want to get the best possible deal in a local market. To be honest, I didn’t ever end up with CUP during my travels and only paid with CUC to keep it less confusing.
DON’T EXCHANGE USD
If you’re going to exchange money instead of withdraw from an ATM, do it with GBP or Euro because the USD is subject to an additional payment of about 13%. This makes exchanging USD a worse deal and you should avoid it if you can. Unfortunately cambios don’t accept Australian dollars so if you are planning on exchanging cash you have to do a double conversion to GBP/Euro and then to CUC. Budget-wise, I think it’s best to just withdraw from an ATM but I have no way of confirming that because I can’t access my online banking.
AVOID FAMOUS BARS (UNLESS YOU WANT TO PAY MORE)
Ernest Hemingway has earned Cuba some coin. There are a handful of bars and eateries in Havana where he used to frequent which now charge a decent amount so that you can have the pleasure of enjoying the ~very same~ mojito. It’s worth going there to see what they are like, but then head to one of the cheaper places which will give you a better value drink and it’ll be a place where they don’t have to pump out twenty mojitos a minute to satisfy the number of customers.
In Cuba, it is customary to tip or pay extra in the bill for service. The minimum amount to tip is 10% and it may be included already as a service charge, but make sure you factor this into your budget. This is not only for bars and restaurant services, but also for guides and drivers. This includes going on group tours where the minimum tip is around 5 – 10 CUC per day per person for your guide.
SOME THINGS ARE COMMONLY ASKED AT BORDER SECURITY
Nobody asked me anything, but I saw two people in my line get turned away after being questioned. Things that you need to have in order when you enter Cuba are: a valid passport with at least six months’ validity, your tourist card or visa, valid travel insurance which includes health cover (and you need to make sure it’s approved by the Cuban government or you will have to buy their insurance at the border), and evidence of a return flight.
IT’S BEST TO AVOID TRANSITING THROUGH THE UNITED STATES
Relations between Cuba and the United States aren’t great and the travel restrictions between the two countries seem to change quite often. If you can help it, it’s best not to transit through the United States to Cuba in case things change and you aren’t allowed to board your flight. If you can fly directly from your country that’s great, but otherwise consider going through Mexico or Canada instead.
DOWNLOAD OFFLINE MAPS
With internet a bit of a luxury in Cuba, you won’t have access to Google Maps and other GPS locating maps like you might be used to. One tip which I found really helpful was to download offline maps so you always have an idea where you’re going. With access to reviews about restaurants and activities already incorporated into the map, it is really helpful when travelling in Cuba. A few people I met had downloaded Google Maps offline but I always use maps.me. Make sure you download them before you get to Cuba though, because even if you get to an ECTESA hotspot it won’t be strong enough to download a map.
AND DOWNLOAD AN OFFLINE TRANSLATOR WHILE YOU’RE AT IT
Another useful thing to have on your phone is an offline translator for Spanish. Sometimes it can be tricky to communicate in Cuba and despite your best efforts, a translating app can be invaluable. To access Google Translate offline you need to do more than just download the app, but you need to download offline access to certain language translations.