This may be one of my most useful ‘Top Tip’ posts, purely because there are so many things we wish we’d known before we visited Cuba. Things are changing drastically in this country at the moment so it all depends on when you decide to visit but, generally, we’ve tried to come up with some advice that will help you get the most out of your trip!
Where to stay:
I’m gonna do this section a little bit differently to how I usually do it. Hostels aren’t really hostels in Cuba they are houses or apartments owned by local people with rooms to rent (casa particulars). We stayed at Hostal Casa de Ania in Havana and Hostal Juliana in Trinidad. Both were perfectly adequate but the standards in Cuba are generally a lot lower in comparison to the other countries we have visited previously.
You don’t necessarily need to book accommodation in advance. We were told that we would need proof of a reservation in order to get our visa but this turned out to be a lie. There are hundreds of casa particulars in every city so it’s easy to sort something out when you arrive. Anywhere with this sign above the door is what you’re looking for:
Most casas in Havana tend to be about 10 CUC per person per night, which isn’t cheap considering the quality but it’s cheaper to stay in other, less touristy cities. It’s an experience to say the least and I think you feel like you’re getting a more authentic experience choosing to stay in casas instead of hotels so yes, I do recommend them! Just be prepared to lower your standards a little…
• First things first: THERE IS NO WIFI IN CUBA. Well, there is but you have to pay for a code and there are only a few hotspots in every city. I’m not sure how quickly this is going to change – there are plans to introduce WiFi for tourists in the near future – but for the purpose of this post I’m just going to address the current situation. Make sure to tell your family and friends that you’ll be offline for a week (so they know you’re not dead), print screen any directions or hostel names or recommendations of places to eat/visit beforehand because you won’t be able to access Google while you’re there and, finally, enjoy the freedom that comes with not checking your phone every 10 seconds. Go outside. Be free. Play. Run. Prosper.
• ATM’s are hard to come by and most of them won’t accept foreign cards so the best thing to do is take a stack of cash (pesos, dollars, pounds, whatever) and convert it there. Convert it gradually as you go along to prevent having too much cash left over at the end. Remember, if you leave the country with Cuban pesos you won’t be able to convert them anywhere.
• You need a tourist card/visa to get into Cuba. They were available to purchase for $30 from Cancun airport but if you’re flying from the UK then you’ll need to apply for one online. They cost about £25 and take a few days to arrive.
• There are 2 types of currency: CUC and CUP. The former being specifically for tourists and the latter for the locals. If you can get hold of CUP you will save yourself a ton of money but that’s easier said than done. Every bank and exchange bureau will give you CUC if you have a foreign passport. There are rumours that some banks will give in if you persist for long enough and that there are some backstreet dodgy dealings but the only CUP we got our hands on was from a kind local who paid for our bus ticket home from the beach.
• The food in Cuba is pretty awful so be prepared to embrace bland food that probably came from a tin. Don’t expect to cook your own food either because it’s hard to locate supermarkets. There are a few bread and meat stalls but that’s about it. We never solved the mystery behind where people buy their everyday bits and bobs but if any of you know the answer to this then please share!
• You can choose which mindset you choose to adapt here. 1) Enjoy every second, appreciate the scenery and the culture, accept that everything is expensive and that you’re being overcharged, just nod when you know the locals are lying to you and stay cool, calm and collected or 2) Question everything, consider yourself to be a professional detective, talk to every local, demand cheaper prices, try to get hold of some CUP and continue trying to overthrow the unfair tourist prices. We chose the second option but we sometimes wonder if we should have just gone with the first…. Do whatever your heart tells you to do!
• If you can read Spanish then definitely go to the Museo de la Revolución. It’s a fascinating museum with all the information you need to know about Cuba’s history. The more you start to learn about Cuba the more you understand why the country is so backwards today – it’s hard to experience a country properly without doing your background research first! We’ve heard good things about the rum museum too, if you fancy something more lighthearted.
• The hop-on hop-off bus is a super convenient way to get around Havana. Yes, it’s a tourist activity but YOU ARE A TOURIST. If the weather is good you can top up your tan on the top deck too…
• Just a quick internet search will show you hundreds of websites discussing which Havana neighbourhood is the best one to stay in. Some people will say Old Havana, some will say Central Havana and others will say Vedado. The correct answer is that there isn’t one. Each neighbourhood has it’s pros and cons and all of them have similar standards of accommodation. We chose to stay in Central Havana because we enjoyed the walk along the Malecon every day. If you’d rather not walk too far then stay in Old Havana and if you’re looking to avoid the tourists completely then choose Vedado.
• Whether you’re tall, short, thin, fat, brown, white, purple or glittery – if you’re a woman you WILL get catcalled. Everywhere you go. Turns out that some (emphasis on some) Cuban girls respond positively to this type of behaviour and so men continue to try their luck in hopes that you’ll turn round and say ‘OMG did you just whistle at me? You have such a beautiful whistle. Tell me again how beautiful you think I am and carry on making those smoochy noises, they totally turn me on!’
• Open-top American cars are the most expensive form of transport followed by private closed top American cars, official taxis, unofficial taxis (public closed top American cars) and then buses. If you’re desperate to score the perfect Instagram, throwing your hands up in the back of a pink mustang, then be prepared to pay $50 for that picture.
• It’s also cheaper to catch a taxi when you’re not in Parque Central. They charge more here because they know this is where the tourists are. If you’re willing to wander through a few of the back streets and hail a taxi from there you’ll save yourself a couple of CUC.
• Restaurants in the tourist neighbourhoods are significantly more expensive than in neighbourhoods where locals live. If you’re feeling brave, venture off the beaten path and hunt for restaurants with prices SOLELY in CUP. Even if you have CUC they will charge you the CUP rate, which is another way to save that precious cash.
• Cuba has recently opened it’s borders to the USA and things already seem to be changing pretty rapidly. It’s hard to tell how this is all going to play out and maybe one day all the advice in this post will be redundant. Only time will tell but I can honestly say Cuba is a beautiful country filled with beautiful people and, despite all the negatives I’ve mentioned, I think you should go and form your own opinion!
If you’d like to know more about our adventures in Havana and Trinidad then click the link below: