I am always fascinated by peoples opinions of Cuba, as going to Cuba can cause mixed reactions. Travel to Cuba is not always easy, so make sure you prepare for your trip as much as you can! I asked Antoine from Traveling Life to share his thoughts and travel tips for Cuba to help you plan your perfect Cuba vacation.
Cuba is a truly unique place. No other country gives such a strong ‘time warp’ feeling, inviting tourists to step into the past and feel like they’re back in the 50s. The vintage cars that the country is famous for really are everywhere, the buildings are painted in bright colors and friendly locals sell Cuban cigars in the streets. And then there’s miles of beautiful beaches, some of the world’s best diving and gorgeous national parks. Cuba is a country alive with culture and bursting with natural beauty.
However, this isn’t to say that there aren’t big problems in the country. The communist rule has caused poverty for a lot of Cubans, who are not able to speak out against the regime. When traveling to Cuba, it’s important to be fully educated on the culture and know the appropriate way for tourists to behave. While it’s a very rewarding country to visit, its isolation from the rest of the world and unique way of doing things can sometimes pose problems for tourists traveling to Cuba, so here are my best travel tips for Cuba:
Think about money before going to Cuba
Credit cards aren’t widely accepted in Cuba, and some (including most American cards) are not acknowledged at all. Do your research and work out whether you can use your bank card in Cuba before you get to the country. If you can, be sure to inform your bank of your travel plans before you get to Cuba.
You won’t be able to get Cuban currency anywhere other than Cuba, so take cash in your own currency to Cuba and exchange at the airport in Havana or wherever you land. For Americans traveling to Cuba try to avoid changing USD as you will face a 10% fee in addition to the usual exchange rate. The best currency to take to Cuba is Euros or Canadian dollars which are easily exchanged. There are two currencies in Cuba; the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Anything related with Cuba tourism nearly exclusively uses the CUC, so be sure to get your cash in this form. You can then ask for change in CUP if you want some local currency for street food and other local items which can be useful if you are traveling to Cuba on a budget. If your card isn’t going to be accepted (or even if you think it will), remember that payment by credit card is rarely accepted, so take enough cash to cover your trip!
On your way out of Cuba make sure you change your CUC back into another currency before you leave the airport. You won’t be able to do so any other place than Cuba, and it’s actually illegal to take CUC out of the country! There are exchange booths in the airport, on both sides of security, and changing back to USD doesn’t levy any additional fees this time.
Be wary that interactions could cost
Cubans are naturally very friendly people, and the majority love to chat and hear about your travel experiences and thoughts of their country. That being said, do be wary of people approaching you on the street and offering to take you to places, as well as elongated conversations initiated by locals about the best things to do in the area.
If you are taken to places by a local, they will often be destinations where your new friend will be paid commission for bringing you along. Or you may be asked to pay them for bringing you – or if you get into a long conversation about the best places to go, they may request a fee for disclosing the information.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t pay them; people in Cuba are very poor and often the information they provide you is invaluable. But do be wary of this, and if you have no intention of paying make this clear before accompanying them anywhere or taking too much information.
Don’t be alarmed if strangers join you in your taxi
The old-style cars truly are a fantastic way to get around. There’s not anywhere else in the world where these are so widespread, so taking a seat in one of these majestic vehicles is a uniquely Cuban experience. Don’t be alarmed if your taxi driver pulls over and others get into the car; often, these vehicles operate a bit like buses, with different passengers coming and going. It can be a great way to meet locals too!
Stay at Casas Particulares rather than state-run hotels
Casas Particulares are the best places to stay in Cuba. They are essentially B&Bs but function as homestays, and guests at the Casas share living spaces with the local owners. They’re a great way to both fund local families and learn more about Cuban life and culture. The Casa Particular owners are typically very warm, friendly and open people and when staying with them you will be expected to spend time socializing. Take this opportunity to get to know as much about Cuba as you can and really make the most of visiting Cuba!
Don’t rely on working Wi-Fi
There is some internet in Cuba, but you can’t rely on it. Generally, most hotels, restaurants and bars are void of Wi-Fi, although some of the more upmarket hotels may have some. There are some spots in Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and most town squares where you can connect to a hotspot after purchase of an access card. You can queue and buy an internet access card from an ETECSA telecommunications center, or pay slightly more and buy a card from the sellers in the squares who have already done the queuing for you.
The WiFi here is hardly reliable, but should be enough to check messages or send a Facebook post. There’s a few reports that some phones and laptops don’t work, so if you’re going to need to access the internet be sure to take more than one device. Downloading any maps, itineraries or travel information before you go is also a great idea. Maps.me is a great app that allows you to download a Cuba map and saved locations before you leave, so you don’t need to spend your holidays in Cuba hunting WiFi!
Travel Tips for Cuba: Eat at Paladares
Until a few years ago, gastronomy tours to Cuba tended to involve just rice and beans. But in the last half decade, that has substantially changed thanks to Raul Castro’s economic reform program. The ban on non-government owned restaurants in Cuba was lifted and subsequently dozens of Paladares have sprung up, owned by local people.
Paladares are not government-owned so they often have a lot more variety, and better quality of food than the older Cuban restaurants and are therefore the top choice for any visitor to Cuba.
It’s not always immediately obvious whether a restaurant is a Paladar or a government restaurant, so either seek advice from Cubans, ask the restaurant staff or just look for the restaurant with locals inside – Cubans don’t like government restaurants, so the ones who can afford to eat out will be in Paladares.
Tip your server
Citizens who work for the state are paid an abysmally low wage, especially compared to those from well developed nations. The average state wage is just $18 per month. This leads to fully qualified Cubans (like lawyers and doctors) working service jobs just to make rent. A lot of these people make a living just off tips, so do the right thing and leave them one. Just one dollar most likely won’t break your travel budget, and will make a huge difference to your server’s living costs.
Avoid the hurricane season, but the wet season is ok
Cuba enjoys a sub-tropical climate and is warm all year-round. Mid-November to March is widely thought of as the best time to visit Cuba; it’s the dry season and there’s sunshine nearly every day.
August to October is hurricane season, so it’s best to avoid Cuba then if possible. Visiting during the wet season wouldn’t be a complete waste of time; there’s lots of festivals to enjoy at this time of year and although it rains nearly every day, showers are intense yet short and there is still plenty of sunshine even if it isn’t the best Cuba weather.
Book your first batch of accommodation before arrival
It’s a good idea to arrive in Cuba with your first stint of accommodation already booked. Air BnB is a popular option for accommodation in Cuba and can be organized prior to your stay. If you are backpacking in Cuba there are a few hostels in Havana which are cheap, and a great place to meet fellow travelers. However, a lot of accommodation cannot be booked online due to the lack of internet in Cuba, so you’ll find that most Casa Particulares after your first will be booked by word of mouth, and each casa owner will help you to find your next one.
Iff you’ve never used Airbnb before, by signing up here you will get up to $40 of credit to use – every little helps!
Know what you need regarding visas
Visas are required for most nations. Typically, these are applied for in the same way as you’d apply for a visa for any foreign country, or in some cases can be bought at the airport before you fly. Check with your embassy to make sure this is the case.
The exception to this is if you’re American; for people from the US travel to Cuba It’s still a bit hard, but is no longer impossible.
Americans are not allowed to visit Cuba just for tourism purposes; they have to fit one of 12 categories of reasons to visit which include journalism, humanitarian aid and visiting family. There are some flights that reach Cuba from the states, but if you are flying direct you will certainly be asked for proof of travelling due to one of these 12 categories. It’s also worth noting that lots of flight search engines don’t show up routes from America to Cuba, so you need to book your journey through the airline direct.
If you cannot supply proof that you’re travelling due to one of these categories, you could choose to fly to Cuba from Mexico or Canada. Visas can be organized within these countries – in some cases even at the airport – and when in Cuba they will stamp your visa card rather than your passport.
You won’t have any problem getting into Cuba, as the country wants American tourists – it is just at USA’s end where it is limited and you may have problems returning home if your paperwork isn’t in order.
Have you been to Cuba? Do you have any other travel tips for Cuba? Let us know in the comments below.
Antoine is a Canadian who currently resides in the Cayman Islands, but spends a great amount of time travelling and exploring the world; with last country count being at 45! His goal is to eventually visit every country and show you overlooked attractions in each location. Check out his blog at Traveling Life or follow him on Facebook.
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Last updated: April 5, 2018