I was lucky enough to spend a little over five weeks traveling in five countries in January 2018. Yet there was one that prompted more questions than any of the others I went.
It’s understandable. Cuba is a very different society to most others in the world, and unlike other countries with similar systems it is somewhat insulated being an island. It is alluring and mysterious, a gem tucked away in the Caribbean seemingly frozen in time. If you’re planning to travel to Cuba there’s a few things you need to know.
For my part, there were so many questions before I went, and I spent months researching. Many answers were conflicting when they were even able to be found.
While I’ll be detailing my adventures in Cuba in good time, I thought I would answer some of those essential questions in the meantime for those planning to travel to Cuba.
Money and Cards
There are two currencies in Cuba, both called Pesos. As a tourist you are only likely to come into contact with the Cuban Convertible Peso, which is worth seven times the local Cuban peso. It’s important to realise the difference so you don’t get ripped off. The local one is being used less and less, so in the future we may see a move to the one currency.
Cash is king. ATM’s are available but they aren’t on every street corner like you expect in a western country. Essentially where there is a bank you will find an ATM. You are very unlikely to find EFTPOS or credit facilities in stores or restaurants, unless you happen to be in a big hotel.
Cuban Convertible Pesos are not available outside of Cuba, so don’t expect to be able to change currency before your Cuba vacation. You will be able to exchange money immediately when you walk out of the airport doors. The best currencies for exchange are Euro, Canadian and Pound. I took a bunch of Mexican Pesos since I flew into Cuba from there and these were changed with no issue, but check exchange rates before you leave to see what will give you the best rate. They will exchange American dollars, which on face value give you the best rate as the Cuban Convertible Peso is matched against them, but a 10% penalty is applied to exchanges of US dollars, so it will ultimately leave you worse off than the other currencies.
As with any country you travel to it is a good idea to have multiple sources of funds, and it is the same with Cuba. However, it’s also pretty hard to get a clear answer on what will work in Cuba and it was a source of considerable stress to me. I ended up taking enough cash for the trip in both Euro and Mexican Pesos, because I was unable to get straight answers on what would work. According to the forums anything affiliated with the US is out, as is anything Mastercard. For the Aussies they say Westpac doesn’t work, and nor will anything branded as a travel card. I did see that some people had success with a card from the Bank of Melbourne.
When I arrived at my Casa in Havana the desk attendant told me to try my card anyway, saying with a shrug “This is Cuba, who knows.” I didn’t try my St George Visa debit but I did successfully withdraw from my Qantas Frequent Flyer card in both Havana and Trinidad – which contradicts what I had read about both Mastercards and travel cards.
In a nutshell; take cash.
I was told you cannot remove the currency from Cuba but I didn’t see this being enforced when I flew out. But I tried to spend up what I had anyway.
In regards to costs, I found Cuba pretty cheap. My accommodation and transport had been paid beforehand, food wasn’t expensive and alcohol is definitely cheap, especially rum. If you budget $100 CUP a day you’ll come home with plenty of change.
You will need a Visa to visit Cuba, but there is no need to organise this prior to your trip as they are readily available at the airport. I forgot all about it and they sold me one while I was in the line waiting to check in to my flight.
If you are a non-US resident and are flying to the US out of Cuba, have your ETSA paperwork handy. They wouldn’t check me into my flight to Miami without showing it.
Do yourself a favour and learn some basic Spanish before you travel to Cuba. You will get by on English in the main tourist areas but I couldn’t even find someone who spoke English in the airport and struggled to get through even with some basic Spanish.
While we are at it, you cant bring a radio into Cuba. Expect some scrutiny at the x-rays if there is anything in your bag that resembles one, like a powerpack.
Ladies, this one goes out to you. Not because it doesn’t effect men, we just have more specific needs in this department.
Everything you need, you bring with you on your Cuba vacation. Don’t expect to be able to replace anything you run out of. Supermarkets, when you even find them (I saw one) have no guaranteed stock of anything. No one knows when deliveries will arrive and what they’ll contain.
This goes for toiletries, sanitary products and any medications. It’s a good idea to pop a few purse packs of tissues in too, toilet paper is a luxury you won’t find everywhere. You can’t flush it and you’ll be lucky if there’s a toilet seat. And if you manage to close the cubicle door with your knees inside.
And keep your eyes forward. Trust me on this. Cuban’s are not a tall people.
Tourism in Cuba has traditionally been the province of the Cuban government, and as such you will find most of the hotels are government owned.
Though there are still stringent requirements tourism has been opened up to the locals and casa’s provide a cheaper and often equally good alternative to the government hotels.
Provided they comply with the strict regulations local homeowners can apply to open their homes and rent out their spare rooms to tourists. A different classification of casa is available to other Cubans.
They are clean and comfortable, and the people are incredibly generous and eager to look after you. You won’t manage to eat all of the breakfast that gets put in front of you!
Outside of the cities your hosts probably wont speak English.
The Cuban people are warm and friendly and will make you feel very welcome. They will however, take any opportunity to make money off tourists in order to support themselves. Don’t expect to take a photo of any performers without handing over some Pesos, and if you stop for a moment or make eye contact with a musician you’ll be asked for a tip. I was asked for one from performers at a cafe I had literally just sat down at. I watched one man with his dogs dressed up trying to explain to a group of Japanese tourists that they had to pay him for the photos they had just taken.
One woman in a museum in Havana made great show of concealing me from watching security cameras while encouraging me to take photos of exhibits which were not allowed to be photographed. Before I knew what was happening she had my phone out of my hand telling me she would take photos of me. I had to pay to get it back, and she didn’t hand it over until she was satisfied I had placed enough Peso’s in her hand, then trotted back to her post with a smile. Her photography skills were terrible.
Everyone has something on the side. The drivers of my horse-drawn carriage took me to one of their mates who attempted to charge me a ridiculous amount for cigars. Which I ended up paying just to remove myself from the situation. I figured it wasn’t a huge amount of money for me, but it was a lot to them.
As a woman traveling alone I’m always hyper-conscious when it comes to my own personal safety, but there was not a moment when I felt unsafe in Cuba, not even walking the streets of Havana alone in the middle of the night.
If you are a woman alone though, expect to be propositioned by virtually every man that goes past, asking if you are looking for a husband. It’s annoying, but it isn’t threatening, I just had ‘no gracias’ on repeat and there was no one that didn’t take my polite no for an answer. I was told most crimes in Cuba are crimes of passion.
I had read that food in Cuba was quite bland, but that was not my experience at all. There was heaps of variety and it was all quite delicious. Expect to see a lot of Seafood being an island. I had some really delicious lobster a couple of times in Trinidad as well as an amazing prawn pizza, chicken schnitzel in Cienfuegos and local dishes straight from the harvest on a farm in Vinales. Breakfast always included eggs, a plethora of fresh fruit and often cakes and pastries. The Coconut Pie I was served in Havana was simply to die for!
The coffee wasn’t to my taste, though several people I traveled with enjoyed it. I preferred the Guatemalan coffee.
Access to the internet in Cuba is a mission. In order to utilise Wi Fi, when it is even available, you will need to purchase a card from the Telecommunications supplier. They aren’t particularly expensive at roughly 1 CUP for an hour, but they are in demand. I waited in line for over 90minutes in Havana just to get one. You can often find locals on-selling them at a higher rate.
Once you have a card, you’ll need to find Wi Fi. There are a few designated spots in Havana, if you see a bunch of people standing around with their phones its a good bet you’ve found one. Don’t expect small hotels and restaurants to have Wi Fi on offer like elsewhere in your travels, but even if they do you’ll still need the card. I found Wi Fi was easier to find outside of Havana in the smaller towns but its not something that every household has like in the western world. There was talk of internet access being extended though so this may improve.
Many of the people I traveled Cuba with largely gave up on internet due to how difficult it was. In my eight days there I didn’t even go through the five hours credit I bought, and a chunk of that was killing time at the airport waiting for my Miami flight.
Take food. Once I was through the checkpoints there was nothing to purchase to either eat or drink.
Mobile phones will work, but sporadically. I took my mobile with a global SIM, I did find out it wasn’t connecting to the network settings properly once I got to LA, but some of the messages I sent were received while others weren’t, and I didn’t receive many of the messages sent to me. Best let people know not to worry if they don’t hear much from you for a while.
Don’t take photos of the military
Unless you feel like spending a few hours in a room without windows being questioned.
The Cubans are a really happy people. They don’t have much, but they don’t know any better. You have to wonder if the increasing access to the rest of the world with the internet will change this.
The streets are filled with music and you don’t have to look too hard if you want to find somewhere to dance. The Cuban’s learn to Salsa at school so they are almost born with rhythm in their bones. I danced in both Vinales and Trinidad.
They also love their rum. Expect any cocktail on a menu to have this key ingredient.
It should be noted that animal welfare is not of the same importance as elsewhere in the world. My companions and I were distressed by the treatment we saw some subjected to.
Expect Cubans to be curious. Most of them are restricted from traveling outside of the country so they’ll be interested in hearing your experiences.
Like Central America, water in Cuba is not safe to drink from the tap. If you don’t want to buy bottled water you can buy water purification tablets or invest in a water bottle with an inbuilt filter, like the Lifestraw.
Apparently tourists have easier access to Dr’s than locals in Cuba. But as with everything else in Cuba medical supplies are not guaranteed to be available. You are best prepared with your own travel medical kit before you travel to Cuba. I got the worst bout of Gastro of my life and my kit was a lifesaver!
Step back in time
Many people who visit Cuba expect to see nothing but cars from the 50’s, and I was much the same. So I was surprised to see plenty of newer cars on the roads, among the 50’s cars and even horse-drawn carts. Many of the farmers can’t afford a car so horse and cart is still a common form of transport.
You will see more old-era cars in one place than anywhere else though!
You won’t notice it so much if you stay in Havana, but if you venture out into the smaller towns you’ll notice a lot of people that don’t have a lot, and appreciate many of the things we take for granted. Cuba was my second last stop and I pilfered hotel toiletries the whole trip leading up to it. I also took the opportunity to lighten my bag of anything I didn’t need for the last few days of my trip, including some clothes. If you’re on an organised tour your group leader will make sure these items get to where they’re needed.
Everyone’s heard of Cubas cigars! If you want to take some cigars home from your travel to Cuba make sure you check the restrictions for getting them back into your country. Australia has lowered the duty free weight allowed and will hit you with duties on the full amount if you go over. Buy direct from the farmers or government run stores to ensure you are getting the real deal.
Be prepared that Cuba is a very different country. Their system is based on an equal distribution of wealth which was established after the revolution, but if you venture outside of Havana you will see that disparity has crept back in. Many people still live in poverty and everything is government regulated. You are unlikely to find anything made outside of Cuba. Che Guevara is a national hero and you will see reminders of this fact everywhere. You may see soldiers working beside the road as part of their compulsory government service, if they wish to continue their education they will complete an additional year. It wouldn’t surprise me if the internet is closely monitored through the use of the cards issued from their Telecommunications authority. It is a country with considerable history, culture and beauty and well worth experiencing.
Any questions I didn’t answer? Let me know below!
Check out Practical Packing; the list for any destination for more tips on what you might need to bring.
For more Havana, take a look at 45 pictures that will make you fall in love with Havana.