Cuba is an amazing country full of friendly locals, beautiful old cars, and ruined majestic buildings. If you’re looking for what to do in Havana then make sure you also check out my other guide. Cuba’s a unique country, and even as a seasoned traveller there were things I wished I’d known before I arrived. I’ve written this guide for past me, that turned up with her visa, but almost nothing else. So, what do you need to know before you go to Cuba?
Let’s talk a little bit about history, as you can’t imagine Cuba without knowing what shaped it. They are obsessed with their history, everything always seems to be looking back towards their past heroes and their triumphs and struggles (which sometimes seems to take focus from their present struggles). Cuba is a melting pot of cultures. Originally Cuba was inhabited by various indigenous tribes before the Spanish turned up and claimed it as theirs. With the Spanish came slavery and a large influx of Europeans and Africans. The country became a prime exporter for sugar cane, rum, and slaves and many cities and people became very wealthy. Eventually the Spanish were thrown out, which is how America first became involved with Cuba. They stepped in to help Cuba out and then kept their fingers in all the money and power pots.
Cuba was now free of Spain, but from all accounts, was now ruled by America. A succession of despotic and corrupt leaders followed. In short the rich got rich and the poor got poorer. This fostered the socialist revolution led by the peoples’ hero, Fidel, and his charismatic buddy Ché. Using a guerrilla army they stormed into Havana (after a few failed attempts), and ousted the dictator of the time and installed themselves as the saviours of Cuba. It’s quite a moving, and passionate story if you’re interested in going deeper. You can buy lots of books while you’re there, although the cynic in me assumes that they’re heavily doctored to present a shining socialist ideal.
America tried to get Cuba back under their control but was defeated in the Bay of Pigs in 1961. And that’s about when Cuba was frozen in time. There were many other factors involved, like the Cold War, and their relationship with Russia, but it was the beginning of their separation from the world. Cuba is a blast from the past, an open-air history museum, a time machine to another world. Cut off by sanctions and their own controlling government they have not been able to advance into the twenty-first century. This makes for a fascinating culture, a make do and mend attitude, and absolutely everyone has a side hustle to get by.
What You Need To Know Before You Go To Cuba
Cuba is unlike any country you’ve probably ever visited. These know before you go posts are so stereotypical, but Cuba is a destination that you need to research before you arrive! I’m looking at you, Bliss, the girl who turned up with a little bit of knowledge and was saved by her husband having downloaded Google maps for fun and her twin sister’s Lonely Planet guide book. Seriously, usually I’m a bit more organised, but I think because I was doing most of it by a G Adventures tour I hadn’t bothered to look into too much beyond accommodation and airport taxis. Here’s what I wish I’d known before I went.
As a travel agent, this was one of the first things I checked once we’d purchased our tickets. And yes, most passports will need a visa to Cuba. It’s different per country and per passport, so you’ll have to check the rules yourself. You can check your government travel advice website, or go to visa companies like CIBT. I use this company for my work and they’re legitimate and have all the up to date information. Depending on where you’re located you will either have to wait for your visa in the post or be able to buy it from a registered travel agent. In Barcelona, there is a Cuban travel agency across the hall from the Cuban consulate. You go there with your itinerary, passport, or even a copy of the passport and they will issue the visa for you in fifteen minutes for twenty euros (that was for Australian, and British passports). In Australia, my sister had to pay ninety-nine Australian Dollars, and it was all via post and took about three business days.
Travel Insurance Is Mandatory To Enter Cuba
All websites and travel agencies state that travel insurance is mandatory to visit Cuba. This is because the country can’t support you if you become sick or injure yourself. Be careful when purchasing travel insurance as not all companies cover Cuba. I had all the paperwork ready when we arrived in immigration, but all they wanted to see was the visa and passport.
There Is No Internet In Cuba
A bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not like everywhere else where you grab a Starbucks latte and surf the web for a few minutes. Internet in Cuba needs prior planning. The Cubans didn’t even have access to the Internet on their phones until 2018, and now they’re all on Facebook and sending each other friend requests. The internet is accessed via ETECSA, a government-run company. You have to buy a plan, which is usually one hour, three hour, or five hour allotments that must be used in thirty days. You will need to queue at an ETECSA office, and this could take a while (the joke is that Cubans are really great at queueing). Other places sell them, but they’re not marked, and we only found one with the help of our guide. Once you have this card you still can’t just log into the internet anywhere you like. You have to go to a wifi spot, which is usually at hotels, or in a lot of the public parks. I wonder what the parks in Cuba were like before they were allowed to have the internet on their phones? When you enter one you’ll find yourself surrounded by people sitting silently, glued to their phone screens.
How to Get the Cuban Convertible Peso
Cards are not usually an accepted form of currency in Cuba, so you need those paper things that you probably hardly use anymore. If you love to be super organised, I’m sorry, but the only place to get the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC for short, is in Cuba. They also don’t always accept every currency, so turning up with your Kiwi dollar is not a good idea. The safest currencies to have are the British Pound, Euros, Canadian Dollars, Japanese Yen, Mexican Pesos, and sometimes USD, but you’ll be charged a much higher fee for USD so it’s not worth it (and sometimes they just don’t accept it). Once you reach Cuba you need to exit the airport terminal and instantly turn left. There is a big yellow currency exchange counter with a line (get used to them in Cuba). The only other places you should exchange at are the banks. All other places can’t be trusted.
Cuba has another currency called the Cuban Peso (CUP). 24 CUP is the equivalent of 1 CUC. Tourists are not supposed to have this currency, and to be honest you won’t need it. Everything that caters to tourism and travellers is in CUC. If you want the Cuban Peso as a souvenir you can buy them, kind of illegally, from people on the street. Usually, it’s women and they’ll act like shady drug dealers. After they’ve looked around to make sure it’s safe, they’ll flash a card of CUP at you.
When you leave you must exchange any remaining CUC into your currency, as it is not allowed to be imported out of Cuba. There is a yellow currency exchange office at the airport before immigration.
Using Your Credit Card In Cuba (Or Not Using It)
If you have a United States bank, or even a bank that is associated with the US, then chances are your card will not work in Cuba. This means that you should get all your money out before you get there. A lot of ATMs will not accept foreign cards, but there are a few, you just have to find them. The ATMs at the major banks did work for us. Cash is the major form of transaction in Cuba. Apparently only recently the Cubans were all allocated bank accounts to get their monthly allowance from the government (It’s about 25 CUC). It was chaos and more lines, as they didn’t know how it worked. Our G Adventures guide had to show them how to do it, and they had absolutely no concept of secrecy and were telling each other their pins and trying to see her’s when she put it in.
Getting Around Cuba
Download Google Maps before you go! If you only listen to one thing I say, listen to this. As you can’t just log in to Google and figure out where you are, having Google Maps accessible off the internet is a lifesaver. Luckily my quick-thinking husband had done this, otherwise, we would have been lost.
Taxis are the easiest way to get around in the cities of Cuba. And yes, most of them are beautiful historic cars. I thought you just got them for the tours, but even the normal taxis are vintage cars. Some of them are pristine and others aren’t in the best condition. Our ride from the airport was falling apart and the doors couldn’t be opened from the inside. The exhaust also seemed to circulate into the back of the car, and it was raining but you couldn’t put the windows up as they didn’t work. It was such a crazy introduction to Cuba and I loved it. Your hotel, hostel, or Casa Particular can help you book an airport transfer.
Buses are the major transport in Cuba since their rail network is suffering from lack of funding. It is recommended that you pre-book your tickets as far in advance as possible as the bus network is also suffering from lack of funding. You can do this online with Viazul. You have to register to use the website, but it’s a great tool to plan your trip and ensure you can go where you want to go. If you turn up on the day most buses will be sold out, and you could wait up to five days in peak season for the next available bus.
Rental cars in Cuba sound like a nightmare, so I’d advise against it. They’re expensive, sometimes you pay for a car that never turns up, or you have to wait five hours for your car to arrive. If you do end up driving, the highways around Cuba are large and strangely empty (as no one can afford to travel). The smaller roads can be in bad condition. You will find many Cuban’s hitchhiking as it’s the cheapest and safest way for them to get around. Also, watch out for rice on the highways, it’s where they dry it!
Where To Stay In Cuba
The most common and authentic places to stay in Cuba are the Casa Particulars. These are personally owned by Cubans and are technically like an Airbnb. You can even book them on Airbnb now. This is the easiest way to support the Cubans and the most common accommodation type. They are very safe and lovely and local. Always check what facilities they include. There are some great hostels in Cuba as an alternative. These mostly operate like a Casa Particular with the rooms spread out in different buildings. Hotels are becoming more popular due to the increase in tourism in Cuba. There are some luxury options, and the most famous one is the Tryp Hotel Habana Libre. This is where Fidel and Ché based themselves when they first came to power.
Have A Paper Guide Book With You
My husband and I met up with my twin sister in Mexico, and when she pulled out her Lonely Planet Havana City Guide my husband made fun of her for being old fashioned. Once we reached Cuba, however, we were super glad that she had it. You don’t realise until it’s taken from you, but you rely on the internet for so many bits of information daily. Especially where to eat and what to see while travelling. Instead of Googling “best places to eat in Havana” we did it the old fashioned way and found it in the Lonely Planet’s list. This was really useful as you do have to be semi careful about where you eat in Cuba. One of my friends ate at a really local place, and she ended up expressing large amounts of bodily fluids from both ends for a full day and night.
Staying Healthy While In Cuba
This paragraph is purely a recommendation of what worked for me. You should obviously speak to your doctor before you go, as I’m not a medical practitioner, so can’t give you any medical advice.
Bring mosquito repellent with you. I can’t stress this enough. My sister contracted Dengue Fever from Cuba, which is a mosquito-borne disease. Luckily she got the symptoms once she’d reached Australia, and she’s totally fine now, but it’s not nice and can potentially be fatal. There’s no vaccine for this, so your best defence is strong mosquito repellent. And I’m sorry for those people who like to be all-natural (I’m one of them), the natural stuff doesn’t work against the hungry hordes of mosquitoes that you get in the tropics.
A probiotic or acidophilus every day before breakfast can help your stomach. I learnt my lesson the hard way in Vanuatu that you should always travel with something to strengthen your tummy. This way you hopefully won’t spend half your holiday on the toilet. Just be careful where you eat. You can use my guide on where to eat in Havana as we had no problems with these restaurants.
Do not drink the water in Cuba. Don’t even brush your teeth with it, or get it in your mouth while in the shower. This will seriously impact your health as the water is not sanitised. Once you have settled in the first thing you should do is find a couple of big bottles of water to refill from. This is strangely difficult, as anything normal is not normal in Cuba. If you ask for help the locals can point you in the direction of a supermarket and hopefully, they’ll have some (this is never a guaranteed thing in Cuba).
Toilet paper is a hot commodity in Cuba. Bring tissues with you or toilet paper whenever you go out. Chances are the bathroom will not have toilet paper, or you will have to pay for it. Even nice looking restaurants can be missing it. Always remember that items we take for granted may not be readily available in Cuba.
Safety In Cuba
Cuba is apparently one of the safest countries in the world. There is hardly any crime. You can see this in the way they live. Cuban’s open their doors to the streets. It’s common to walk passed someone’s living room and see straight into their house, this is during the day and night. They all hitchhike, as this is the cheapest, easiest, and safest way to get around. Usual care should be taken with your valuables, but not extreme caution. The Cuban’s are very proud of their safety rating, and it’s one of the things they’ll usually tell you about their country.
Women Travelling in Cuba
Bring all your sanitary items with you to Cuba. Unfortunately for the Cuban women, it can be hard to find pads or tampons. Bring some extra if you want to give them out to anyone you stay with, or who looks after you.
Cuba is a very safe country. You can travel there as a single woman and have a great time. The only slightly unnerving part is cat-calling and whistling. Sometimes it’s cute, like little old men saying “Que Grupas” and sometimes it’s creepy, with random men staring and making kissing noises at you. Cuba is a bit behind the times and hasn’t realised that this kind of harassment is no longer okay. Deal with it as you would at home. Ignore it, look at them like dirt, or call them on it, whatever takes your fancy.
Tipping and Haggling In Cuba
The Cubans do not earn a lot of money, in fact, the most highly sort after careers in Cuba are in the tourism industry due to access to tipping. Your taxi driver will probably be a brain surgeon, and your tour guide, a computer engineer. Cubans all have one or two side hustles to get by. Tipping is usually an extra 10% on whatever you spend. This is for any service you receive like taxis, food, drinks, cleaning, or even bag storage. It’s for a really good cause, as you’re helping the Cubans to support themselves, as they definitely won’t get paid enough without it. Everything is so cheap that 10% can sometimes only amount to one CUC (1 Euro).
Like anywhere in Central America it’s always advisable to check the cost of something before you do it. The Cubans are friendly but they want to make as much money as possible from you. You will have to haggle in certain circumstances, but always consider what you think it’s worth, and how much you’ll be helping them. Taxis are a good example of knowing the cost. We usually checked with our accommodation for the price, and what we were offered was sometimes double what we’d been told. You can haggle in markets and with art sellers, but it’s not like Asia where it’s an art form and expected.
Shopping In Cuba
There’s lots of beautiful art in Cuba. It’s encouraged by the government, as well as literacy and university. Cubans are some of the most literate, highly educated people in the world. Find an art studio and buy yourself a beautiful souvenir of your time in Cuba. There are lots of tourist shops selling the same paintings over and over, but there are also artist studios with some original and fascinating pieces. Other great buys are rum and cigars. Cubans are very proud of their rum and cigars, and many of them will give you this advice; don’t buy from any street sellers. You will be approached by someone offering you rum and cigars but they are bad quality and not worth the cost.
Dance Like No One And Everyone Is Watching In Cuba
The Cubans must be born dancing. Everyone can Mumba, Rumba, Salsa, and Barata and look extremely beautiful and sexy while doing it. The beat of a song is second nature to them, and they move so effortlessly from their arms, hips, and feet. A Cuban club or bar is a sweaty, exotic, and super fun place to be. Even if you don’t dance you need to dance in Cuba. It’s the life of the country and a window into their culture. The music will start and couples will slowly start making their way onto the dance floor. Have some change ready as the band will come around for tips at the end. 4 days in Havana, Cuba