Cuba is becoming more and more popular and more and more accessible to tourists. This is very good news as the sooner you can visit it the better. There are few such countries where time has stopped so much. Cubans have no luck with history, they were first occupied by the Spaniards, then former local dictators. Thanks to Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul, the country became a living open-air museum of communism. Despite this, Cubans are born optimists who love life in and of themselves. In the evenings loud laughter comes from pubs and open houses. People sit by a glass of mojito, slowly blow out smoke from cigars and try to forget about everyday worries. Vacationers arriving to the island go primarily to Varadero. Here they find hot, white sand, blue water. But Kuba has much more to offer. Cayo Coco, Cayo Santa Marta or Viñales, not to mention Havana itself, are just some of the places that should be on our list. It is not surprising that artists and writers admired the island. It was here that the novel ‘Old Man and the Sea’ was created, and Hemingway himself lived in and around Havana for a good few years.
I will prepare an exact route with a map and the most important places to visit in another post. Here I will focus on more practical tips you need to know when going to Cuba. I visited Cuba in May, I spent over 2 weeks there, travelling on my own, without a travel agency. Most of the advice that I managed to gather here I received right after my arrival, from a Cuban family with whom I rented a room in Havana in the so-called casa particular. Such a solid lecture at the beginning made it much easier for me to learn about Cuba later. I think that to really get to know Cuba and its atmosphere, it’s worth living with Cubans, they will help with practically anything, order a taxi, tell you what to visit in other parts of the island, what to try, where to stay and what should it cost so that we don’t need to be unnecessarily strain.
Everyone traveling to Cuba needs to get a so-called Tourist card (Tarjeta de Turista), this is done directly at the Cuban consulate, travel agencies or at the airport. It costs around USD 25 depending on the country and nationality. Passport must be valid min. 3 months from the planned date of departure from Cuba. The tourist card alone allows you to stay in Cuba max. 30 days. In addition, you must have a return ticket (or which allows you to continue your journey, travel insurance, confirmation of the first night, and before passport check, complete and return the form handed out at the airport.
There are different ways of getting around in Cuba. No matter which one you choose, it will always work “a lo cuabno”, i.e. in Cuban, that is, in the right rhythm and time … and not necessarily punctually 🙂
We must also remember that sometimes the price for transport will be a fixed rate, while in others it is necessary to negotiate. It may happen that the price will be raised specifically for tourists.
In Cuba, as in most Latin American countries, you can choose a taxi only for you or the so-called taxi colectivo. A taxi leaves when a set of passengers gathers and the amount is simply divided between them. No matter if you choose a taxi only for you or this colectivo, always before you get in you should ask for a price and negotiate it because the rates can be different.
Paying in Cuba, at least at the beginning, can turn out to be quite complicated, and this is because there is a double currency there. We have Cuban peso (peso cubano CUP) and exchangeable pesos, reserved for tourists (peso convertible, CUC). It can be exchanged at banks or larger hotels. It is not worth exchanging US dollars because there is an additional fee. You will not find too many ATMs or card payments here. CUC can be recognized by the fact that there are Cuban structures on the banknotes, CUP are banknotes with human figures. In terms of 1 CUC is around 25 CUP. All banknotes can be seen in this photo. It comes from a lecture at my Cuban family;)
GMT – 5 hours in summer and 6 hours in winter. Although in Cuba you can quickly feel that time is a relative concept here and the happy do not count 🙂
Of course, the official language is Spanish with its typical Cuban accent and vocabulary. With some you will be able to communicate in English. Although Cubans are so nice people that you can get along with them and in sign language. However, if we want to get to know places outside Varadero or Havana, the basis of Spanish may not only be necessary, but it will definitely make your life easier and save you time.
There are no large differences in seasonal temperatures in Cuba. It is a dry season from November to May and a rainy season from May to October. So the best time to go to Cuba is the dry season. It is worth remembering that from August to October it is hurricane season, which sometimes can be very strong. The climate is tropical, the weather is extremely sunny and the sea breeze brings pleasant cooling.
110V You will need the same adapter as for the USA
In Cuba there are three types of accommodation: hotels (some of them are real historical works of art), cheaper hotels / hostels (which are rather small hotels cheaper than a normal hotel, but not as cheap as lodging at home) and my favorite, i.e. private rooms in Cuban home (casas particulares). This kind of hospitality was born in Cuba in the 90s in the so-called “special period”, in which Kuba opened up to tourism to save its economy. It’s an amazing way to meet the local people, sleep and eat at home and an unforgettable experience. It is good to know that it is enough for us to book such accommodation in only one place, e.g. right after arrival, we will arrange the next ones in other places on the spot. It is also customary that when we stop in one casa particular, its owners will help or recommend someone in other parts of Cuba. It is amazing how well this solution works here, there is no internet, it is a great privilege to have a phone at home, but word of mouth is doing its job.
Although no vaccinations are mandatory, it is recommended among the recommended vaccines to protect themselves primarily against hepatitis A and B, tetanus, polio, diphtheria and abdominal wall.
Before leaving for Cuba, you should buy health insurance, not only for your own safety, but you may also be asked to do so when entering the island.
FOOD AND SHOPPING
The basis of Cuban dishes is rice, beans and meat, fish or seafood. If you decide to stay in casa particular, in most of them for an additional fee you can count on breakfast and dinner, and in some also for lunch. The price for such a meal is around 10 CUC. The advantage of my breakfast in all the houses I have been to was a huge amount of fresh and juicy fruits that is not lacking in Cuba.
The greatest availability and choice among restaurants is of course in the capital of Havana. In smaller towns it may be a problem to eat something in the city, so often eating in casas particulares can be very convenient. You will not have to look for a store that has something on the shelves and not just things that are not useful and those that you cannot eat, which is very common in Cuba. Several times I went to a store only for Cubans, where I was asked for a card, without it, despite the money, I couldn’t buy e.g. bread. Later, I learned to distinguish myself and I only went to shops “for tourists”. You can get to know them at much higher prices. Generally, even in them, there is still a small selection and sometimes it is difficult to buy what we want, e.g. water.
Most restaurants have two menus: for residents and tourists. Of course, the tourist pays more. In practice, it works so that the price given is for a tourist, and Cubans simply get a discount. As for tips, they are very much awaited here, because wages in Cuba are very low, and it is in tourism that Cubans look for support for their budget.
As for souvenirs, it is worth bringing a bottle of the real Havana Club rum from Cuba. You have also a huge selection of Cuban cigars. A lot of souvenir stands can be found mainly in the old part of Havana.
The tourist is very protected and Cuba is generally a very safe country. Just use your common sense.
Internet access is limited. Once, for an hour of the internet in the most exclusive Havana hotel I had to pay up to 15 eur! Today, even some private homes are beginning to have access to the internet, though mostly illegally. To access the Internet, you must purchase an ETECSA card, which you can get in larger hotels. It costs 1 CUC per hour, does not be fooled by people on the street who sell them more expensive. There are 30 minutes, 1 hour and 5 hours. The internet works quite well.
One of the things that can turn out to be quite tiring in Cuba is harassment and encouragement to buy anything. Although Cubans are very friendly and polite, you can indeed meet many on the streets who simply want to stich a tourist. I think in this case you need to approach such situations as simply as possible, i.e. if you feel that someone is too friendly, it is better to completely ignore him. It requires patience, but it works. And after just a few days spent in Cuba, you can learn to recognize their true intentions. In less crowded places, it is nice to talk to locals.
Cuba’s life for tourists and the average Cuban is two different worlds. When going to Cuba it is worth to remember that it will depend on you what our stay will look like. There are two options: focus on what is available or what is missing. It’s up to you to decide;)