As one of the last few remaining communist countries, Cuba makes for a fascinating travel destination. It can be both fascinating and frustrating in equal parts. Much of what makes Cuba so special is also what makes it so frustrating. With private businesses illegal until very recently, the Cuban government runs most of the hotels and car rental operators.
Planning a trip there can seem quite daunting for first-timers; possibly due to a combination of the double currency monetary system, lack of reliable internet connection and alternative views presented by the media.
Don’t know the difference between your CUP or casas? Don’t stress. Here’s 11 useful tips you need before planning your trip.
1. Cuba Tourist Card
All visitors must have a Cuba Tourist Card to enter the country. Airlines usually provide one for you and it just takes a quick filling out of the official form at the airport for you to gain access. But ensure you check that your airline offers this, as the alternative is visiting your local Cuban Embassy – High Holborn, in London. For UK citizens, the Cuba Tourist Card covers you for one entry for 30 days and costs £25 plus £7-12 shipping. Your passport must have at least two months left on it before you travel to Cuba, however, I’d always advise applying for a new passport when you are close to the six months mark as many countries don’t let you in with less than that.
When arriving in Cuba, it can be very confusing at first to have two official currencies.. and it’s made even worse by the array of information (and misinformation) that exists online. The CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) is used by tourists and the CUP (Cuban National Peso, otherwise called Pesos Cubanos) is used by locals, but you will need to use both. You cannot bring CUC into the country, it’s a closed currency, so you’ll need to exchange some when you arrive.
Cuba is a cash economy, and so it’s advisable to bring enough cash for your entire trip, particularly if you are a US citizen. They don’t accept cards issued by American banks, and there is a 13% fee for exchanging USD. Therefore, it’s advisable to bring GBP or EUR with you regardless of where you come from.
3. Airport Tax
There is a mandatory airport tax in Cuba of 25 CUC which is often covered by your flight. Check before you leave though, or you’ll be sweating in the queue at the airport, like us, with the ATM not working. No stress required if it’s included in the cost of the flight.
4. Travel vaccinations
Check what vaccinations you need before flying to Cuba and don’t forget to leave plenty of time for this. Tetanus is recommended and Hepatitis A, Yellow Fever, Hepatitis B and Rabies may also be required.
5. Download Offline Maps
Print out or screenshot all important information and ensure you download google maps offline before you leave. Wifi connection is extremely limited, and although 3G data is slowly being rolled out for locals in Cuba, there is currently none for tourists.
6. Learn some Spanish
I don’t think I’d say this about any other country that I’ve been to, including Japan, but you have to learn some survival Spanish before going to Cuba. Only tour guides can speak English; casa owners, taxi drivers and general members of the public don’t speak English. Just remember, you are in their country, they speak Spanish.
7. Prebook transport before you go
There are two main options for getting around Cuba.. hire your own car, or use a mix of buses, colectivos and taxis. The car rental companies that operate in Cuba are, as you might have guessed, government run, so there’s very little price difference between each of them. Make sure you book well in advance.
8. Stay in Casas Particulares
Privately-run accommodation options are called a casas particulares and privately-run restaurants are called Paladares. Don’t think of Casas Particulares (homestays) as basic accommodation, think of it as a cultural experience. Not only is it much more affordable than a dreary government run hotel, but nothing beats the joy of being welcomed by a homemade Cuban dinner after a day of exploring.
9. Don’t Talk About Che Guevara or Castro
Cubans do have a great sense of humour so feel free to have some friendly political banter with them, but I suggest you to wait until a Cuban speaks to you about the topic first. It’s a sensitive subject.
10. Take all your essentials with you
Shops in Cuba are on the whole dreadful. Whether it’s for the essentials or food. It’s notoriously difficult to find shampoo for some inexplicable reason, though I suspect this is down to trade embargoes. Ensure to take all your toiletries, sunblock, insect repellent, SD cards, medication etc – as finding these items will be virtually impossible.
I’d also recommend packing some of your favourite snacks. Stores sell bottled water, sometimes biscuits and rum, but not so many packaged snacks. Trying to put together something like a sandwich for lunch on the road will be a real struggle. So if there is something you can’t live without, it’s best to bring it with you. Don’t forget to pack those tea bags.
Ear plugs are also a must! With the animated conversations of locals, street music playing into the wee hours, pigs oinking and roosters crowing all night, it’s a pretty noisy country!
11. Leave the capital
As with any new country, leave Havana to explore more of what Cuba has to offer. If you want to truly experience something more authentic, the best way to do so is to explore some of the more traditional towns of which two are the most popular for visitors and locals alike; Trinidad and Viñales.
Don’t just visit Cuba. Experience Cuba. Talk to the Cubans. Understand. Immerse yourself in the culture. And keep on wondering what can we do to help every single person in this world to achieve their dreams.