Cuba is a unlike any other country I’ve visited and it’s safe to say that this out-of-kilter Caribbean island requires a bit more research and planning than your average trip.
10 Essential Things to know about Cuba before you visit
Having recently completed my second trip, here’s my list of 10 essential things to know about Cuba before you visit covering everything from visas to money to internet access to scams to US visitors.
I’ve not got the best past record for complying with visa requirements (I very nearly got kicked out of the Philippines before I even got chance to board the plane, and the online visa situation in Vietnam nearly made my head explode). Ever since then, I’ve been much more diligent. The visa situation in Cuba is, on the face of it, rather clear: for the vast majority of countries around the world, you must have a visa to enter Cuba. But that’s when things can get a bit more confusing because the way you might obtain your visa is going to differ depending on how you get to Cuba.
If you’re taking a package holiday to Cuba, it’s very likely that your visa will be arranged (and the cost included) as part of your package deal. But do check.
If you’re taking an independent trip from your home country, you’re probably going to need to send you passport, application form and appropriate fee off to the Cuban Embassy in your home country (making sure you have enough time to get the visa back before you fly – I always allow a few weeks if possible, just to account for f#ck-ups).
Alternatively, there are many Visa services like Visa HQ that will complete the process on your behalf without the hassle for a small fee.
However, perhaps the easiest way to gain a visa (assuming you’re flying from Mexico to Cuba) is to buy it at the airport just before you check-in. I did a lot of research before my first trip to Cuba. I wasn’t taking a package trip nor was I flying from my home country so I scouted around to understand my option and found the details scant. Some travel agencies told me I could…maybe…possibly get my visa at the airport. Some said it wasn’t possible…but they could help me for a small fee. All in all, the messages were mixed at best. Taking a dramatic leap of faith (the kind that got my in near trouble when I was heading to the Philippines), I pitched up at Cancun Airport and hoped for the best. I was lucky and got to board the plane, visa in hand (or passport at least).
I’ve just (June 2014) repeated the process and would like to confirm for the unsure that there absolutely is a visa stamping service at the airport. The booth sits opposite the Air Cubana check-in desks. The booth is permanent, legitimate and should cost you a straight-up $25, which can be paid in USD or Mexican pesos. If anybody is aware of a similar “get it at the airport” facility for other countries, do let me know in the comments below.
Tip: Don’t forget (like I did) that there is a $25CUC departure tax that must be paid at the airport. It must be paid in CUC and in cash only. Note: the CUC is tied to the dollar so $1CUC =$1USD.
I don’t know of any other country in the world that has a dual currency like Cuba does with one type of money reserved for tourists and one for locals (if there are any other places like this, I’d love to know!). The Cuban Convertible Peso, referred to as CUC (pronounced “cook”) is the currency available for visitors, while Cuban Pesos is what the locals use. Money is that bit more complicated in Cuba compared to other overseas destinations, so here are a few things to know:
Getting money before you go or on arrival: it’s not possible to obtain CUC outside of Cuba (absent a black market deal with a local dude in Miami who, I’m pretty confident, won’t be offering the most favourable exchange rate) so you will have to make plans to get your money in-country.
ATMs in Cuba: with the above in mind, it’s useful to know that the ATM situation in Cuba is diabolical. From cash drained machines to connections that time-out and don’t dispense, it’s very easy to spend half a day traipsing around Cuba looking for cash. My advice: get your hands on as much money as you can at the airport when you arrive, where the most reliable and full machines can be found.
Which credit cards work in Cuba – whether you’re getting money from an ATM or have found a rare spot that will accept credit card payment, be aware that Visa is the main card that is accepted. Mastercard is rarely, if ever, accepted and cards issued from US banks are not accepted at all.
ATM withdrawal charges: brace yourself for steep withdrawal charges and by steep I mean USD$19 for a USD$600 (equivalent) withdrawal. The rate is proportionate to the amount you withdraw and does not include any charges your bank may levy.
Changing money in Cuba: I’m afraid I can’t comment on other ways of changing money as I didn’t do it but the best currencies to take are Pounds Sterling, Canadian Dollars or Euros. Some other currencies are also accepted like Mexican Pesos. I’d generally avoid taking USD because any exchange incurs a 10% levy/special tax.
Cash versus credit card: cash is king in Cuba and it is very rare that you’ll be able to pay with visa or other credit cards. For that reason I tend to take out as much money as I can in one go and carry it around with me. As Cuba is incredibly safe, it’s one of the few places I felt comfortable having so much cash in my possession (though it doesn’t stop me losing it after a few too many Cuba Libres!).
Changing CUC back to your home currency – Don’t forget to spend-up or change-up before you leave – as well as not being able to buy CUC outside of Cuba, you can’t sell it either…unless you head back to the aforementioned shifty guy in Miami…
A note on local Cuban Pesos It is possible if you make an effort to get hold of some local pesos. The easiest way to do so is to buy something in a small, local shop, hand over a $1CUC and ask for your change in local pesos. Some unofficial taxi drivers will also give you local change. However, think things through. Change from $1CUC is probably a nice amount of local currency to have because it will allow you to buy the 10 cent pizzas off the street. Yum! Yet, getting your hands on local money is going to be a damn sight easier than spending it. The Cuban tourism system and the locals selling to tourists understandably would rather take your much higher value CUC and beyond street food, you’re going to struggle to spend your local money. Even restaurants have dual menus with dual prices and you’d be fooling yourself if you thought that by having a few local pesos in your pocket you’ll be given the local prices when you sit down.
3. Getting Around
Taxis and 1950s cars
The good news it that Cuba is well set up for travelling throughout the country. Getting around locally, there are a choice of official taxis and unofficial taxis. It doesn’t take rocket science to work out that the unofficial taxis are…well, unofficial (and therefore in breach of a bunch of rules and regulations, I’m guessing most commonly related to taxes and registration).
I tried both while I was in Cuba and the main differences come down to price and comfort. Official taxis tend to cost more but come with A/C and suspension (not to be underrated over a long distance). The unofficial taxis meanwhile usually offer the chance to ride in a cool 50s-mobile. Be under no illusion, however – these cars look cool on the outside and are very photogenic, but the leather seats will give you sweaty thighs in a flash (sorry for visual), can break your coccyx if you hit a pothole at speed, and are largely falling apart – think: no handles on the inside and exposed metal parts. As one official taxi pulled up to the kerb, the wing mirror fell off. Choose your taxi careful depending on distance, heat and your own sense of adventure.
If you want to ride in a 1950s car that has been enhanced back to perfection, it’s possible to do so – just expect to pay more. You’ll generally find these cars and their pushy drivers hanging around in Centro Havana.
In terms of cost, you’re going to have to negotiate – hard – to get a good price. My rule of thumb when I’m given a starting price: the length of the pause is relative to the amount that the driver is trying to overcharge! If the price is too high, don’t be afraid to walk away. Another opportunist will be along within seconds.
In terms of safety, I never had any safety concerns getting into taxis (official and unofficial) late at night. Admittedly, each time I’ve been in Cuba, I’ve had friends or family with me, but I still don’t think I’d be concerned if I was travelling alone. Generally, the Cuban people are more interested in your CUC than anything else. That said, trust your instinct and if you’re alone, try to stick to official cars at night to increase your safety.
I can’t speak directly about car hire in Cuba because I have never done it but that was because the costs were prohibitively high compared to taking buses and I read that the quality of the vehicles could leave me needing to change a cam-belt on the side of the road. Not the kind of travel adventure I’m after. Do share your experience in the comments section if you’ve gone down the self-drive route in Cuba.
Long distance buses
The Viazul bus system is the cleanest and most efficient way of getting around in Cuba. The network runs the length of the country and will get you to most of the destinations that interest tourists. One notable exception is the Bay of Pigs. However, after some research I found that there is actually very little of interest to observe there, so I didn’t take the extra steps to find out how to visit without the Viazul network.
Generally, you can book your bus ticket the day that you travel and there are at least one or two buses to each destination per day. However, I got caught out when I turned up to travel from Havana to Viñales with three family members – the bus was full and we ended up having to take a taxi.
Tips for taking the Viazul bus in Cuba
Luggage: if a luggage guy behind a counter asks for your bag so he can put it on the bus, tell him you’ll do it yourself. It’s not that the service is unsafe, my bag did make it onto the bus, but it will cost you 50 cents. Not a lot, but for the sake of putting it on the bus myself, I’d rather keep my money. Scam, scam, scam! Tourists only: Viazul buses are for tourists only. As such, they are a dull way to go. Pack a book and some music because you won’t be striking up many local conversations during the ride.
Price: don’t expect a steal when it comes to ticket prices – Viazul is a tourist service and the bus fees are set accordingly. Sure, the rate isn’t as high as Europe, the USA or Japan (for example), but these aren’t chicken bus rates. For example, for the 5 hour journey from Varadero to Trinidad, the bus cost $20CUC. By comparison, in neighbouring Mexico a 14 hour journey recently cost me around $30USD.
Lunch stops: do expect to be have a long, expensive stop at a tourist restaurant. I found this the most frustrating part of the Viazul system. On each journey I took we ended up at a kind of creepy-weird tourist-only eatery in the middle of nowhere. My advice: pack your own sandwiches and use the time to stretch your legs…or carry on with that book.
Taxi alternatives: no matter how long or far your journey, there will be a taxi driver ready to take you to your destination by car for the price of the bus. I tried this option twice. The first time to Viñales (little other option). The taxi was unofficial, the car far too uncomfortable for a five-hour journey and the guy tried to double the fee on arrival (he failed but the row between us was pretty harsh).
The second time was more successful. My casa particular owner recommended a driver, the fee didn’t increase on arrival, I got door to door service in a modern car and the ride through the mountains to Ceinfuegos with A/C, reggae music and occasional stops at miradors (look-outs) and aunties and old school friends’ houses along the way made it the much more interesting journey…even if the fuel gauge was on empty the entire ride!
Apart from taking the Hershey Train from Havana to Matanzas (near Varadero), I personally wouldn’t touch the train network in Cuba because it is super slow compared to the bus network (often taking four to five times longer to take the same journey) and generally arrives at inconvenient hours in the middle of the night or early morning. However, Seat 61 is an excellent site if you’re after more details.
Cuba does have a number of internal flight options available with Air Cubana and although not as cheap as the likes of Ryanair, they can be an option if time is tighter than your budget. However, plan your itinerary carefully as not all routes are served daily. I was really keen to head down to Baracoa. However, on a two-week schedule the only way to get back to Havana in the time available was to fly. I was ok with the idea and cost (under $200 one-way – hey, I really wanted to find pirate treasure), but I found that the flights didn’t go each day and the one I needed left days after I needed it to.
There are a bunch of accommodation options in Cuba so you’re never going to be scratching around for a place to stay. However, it’s worth understanding that a number of the traditional accommodation types for independent travellers simply don’t exist in Cuba, namely hostels and couchsurfing. The latter is not legal and the former just simply don’t seem to exist (when I last checked there was one hostel in Havana in a sub-prime location). With that in mind, here’s a list of the accommodation options in Cuba:
Casa Particulares: without a doubt, hand on my heart, staying with the local people in the casa particulars of Cuba is your best accommodation option. Cheap, well maintained room that come with dining option and offering a deep level of cultural integration, I can’t rave about casa particulars enough…actually, I can and do here: Mi Casa es Tu Casa: Casa Particulares in Cuba.
Is it weird staying with locals? A fellow traveller recently asked me if it was strange staying with the local people, particularly if you are tired and don’t want to engage in chit-chat. My answer was no, it’s not weird at all. In fact, not all casa owners want to chat all of the time either. Ultimately, their bed and breakfast style accommodation is their business. Their aim is to make you happy and if you want to come and go and keep yourself to yourself, that’s possible, in the same way you can chat to the reception staff in a hotel or not at all. You have your own private space – often an entire floor of a house to yourself, so don’t worry. There is nothing weird about staying with locals at all.
Government Hotels – I stayed in only one Government run hostel and I’m in no hurry to do it again. Undermaintained (think animal infestations, ripped curtains and no proper cleaning since…seemingly the 1950s), I’d recommend looking for any other alternatives before booking into a Cubanacan hotel (the brand name for Cuba’s Government hotels).
Resorts – tourist beach areas like Varadero tend to be riddled with resorts and although they are of a reasonable standard, you might want to consider what the other guests will be like. I enjoyed my resort hotel in Varadero…the other guests (who were drunk and obnoxious the entire length of my stay), less so.
Tip – if you are considering a resort, make sure you book online before you travel as it is much easier to get room discounts on the internet compared to paying the rack-rate when you turn up (which can be as much as twice or three times the online price).
Colonial Hotels – each of the big cities I visited had at least one big hotel inside a grand colonial building. While I didn’t stay in any of them, they looked beautiful and tended to have good cocktail bars/roof terraces for sunsets.
Food is, without a doubt, one of my favourite travel pastimes and while some countries can deliver me to food Heaven (Japan, Mexico, India), other’s have left me with a fit of food depression including the Philippines and, sadly, Cuba. It is illogical to me that Cuba, with its Caribbean location can be so lacking in spices and flavours, but I guess the lack of external influence has kept this countries cooking at a very basic level where sugar, salt and fat are the only additives used to provide flavour.
For the first few days it’s possible to embrace the simplicity as you cycle through the options – chicken, rice and beans; fish, rice and salad; beef, rice and beans. By day three I was done. Seeing the same vegetables come out time and again (cucumbers, tomato, canned green beans and not a drop of dressing), I fast started to dread mealtimes.
Breakfast was by far the best meal of the day comprising a plate of eggs, bread, fruit, coffee and (over-sugared) fresh juice. However, repetition is the key problem. Lunch offers little beyond ham and cheese sandwiches while dinner is the same each day with only the protein element being swapped out. My biggest tip: take some sort of sauce or flavouring with you.
5. Internet and phones
Let’s start with a fact that might add some context for what I’m about to tell you – the internet penetration rate (i.e. the number of people who have access to the web) is only 25% in Cuba. That compares with 87% in the UK, 81% in the USA. What that means in reality is that the internet is effectively non-existent in Cuba. Not only that, what little internet there is is largely run via satellite connection so switch on your “find wi-fi network” function on your phone/laptop and you’ll regularly get a flat zero networks appearing. Your casa particulars won’t have it, cafes won’t include it and you certainly won’t find any free internet zones or good wi-fi hotspots. In fact, the only place you’re going to be able to hook back into the internet world is in a large hotel. But even that isn’t so simple. Access rates are prohibitive for anything more than a half-hour, one-off attempt (costs are around $8 for 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on the hotel). Add to that your browsing speed is fresh from the 80s. But best of all, the internet is prone to run out in Cuba.
That’s right, Cuba runs out of the internet daily because access is strictly controlled via internet access cards. Only so many are sold each day and when they run out, your chance of getting online runs out with it. I tried only once to get online during my last visit and it took me 30 minutes just to find a hotel in my next spot (Viñales) and book it before my 30 minutes was up. This trip, I didn’t even try.
A note on phones: because of the complete lack of interment, phone remains the most common form of communication in Cuba. Outside of a large hotel (which will charge you handsomely for making calls – $4 for 1 minute back to the UK in the hotel I stayed in), your best option is the street pay phones. However, you will first need to find a phone card. I didn’t go to the trouble, which then proved to be a pain because most casa owners like you to call to confirm your booking the day before. However, I got by. My best advice for communicating back home (assuming you’re on a short trip) – tell people you’re off to Cuba and that you’ll be back in contact when you leave!
I’m not about to attempt a one-paragrah summary of Cuban history – a much better summary can be found here. However, what I will say is that of all the places you might travel around the world, Cuba is one country that really merits some dedicated time, even if it’s only an hour, to understand the country’s complex history. Doing just a little bit of research will make your experience much richer because it will help you to understand the social system that is in place, the revolutionary pride, the music, the food and the struggles that endure in this country that has become trapped in the past. I fast came to realise that when I had a question about the country, the answer was largely explained by Cuba’s history.
7. Brands and shopping
Someone recently asked where they thought was the best place to go to understand what a country was like decades and even centuries ago, and my answer was Cuba. Try, if you can, to imagine a world where brands have not emerged, billboards, buses and TV shows are not saturated with advertising and shops are still owned by individuals, not chains or superstores. On the plus side, there is something so refreshing about Cuba’s lack of consumerism and commercialism. On the flip-side, finding your favourite brands like diet coke or even just a packet of crisps (US translation: chips) can be a real challenge. The upshot: if you’re on a short trip, take everything that you’ll need from suncream to soap. That way you can avoid a half-day quest to find what you’re looking for.
Sadly too many people are eager to help you part ways with your cash in Cuba from taxi drivers who will chance their arms to get you to hand over $8CUC for a ride that should cost $2CUC to the touts who will try to sell you everything from rooms in casas particulares to restaurant reservations to cigars. Accept their services and expect to pay a higher price or receive an inferior product. And then there are the people who will play the long game. Befriend you, chat to you, show you some insider tips…until crunch point when the request comes. They do not have enough money for milk for their babies or could you just buy them a drink. In 9 out of 10 cases, these seemingly random interactions with strangers off the street come with a request for something. By all means hand over your cash but be aware that even sophisticated forms of begging are not good for locals or tourism.
Above all, what I found hardest was not letting the scammers turn me into a cynic. For about one hour a lovely Cuban lady guided me from one ATM to another in Cuba to help me find a bank that had cash (commonly, they don’t). When I was successful, I expected to be asked for money and I was prepared to give it – after all she had exchanged her time and helped me out, but in the end she simply smiled and walked away restoring my faith that not everyone is on the take. My advice: engage with the locals but be prepared to say a firm “no” when asked for money or milk or other kinds of donations.
Most developing countries are much cheaper than their developed counter parts but that price difference isn’t so pronounced in Cuba thanks to the dual currency. In a country where there are two price lists – one for locals and one for tourists, there is no need to set prices with local affordability in mind. So, don’t be surprised when your local, home-cooked dinner sets you back $15CUC per person and a bottle of wine lingers around the same price.
Tourist bus prices aren’t much cheaper. There are deals to be had (think local products like rum and eating in Government owned restaurants) but the list of bargain products is low.
On average you will pay:
$20-$30 per night for a room in a casa particulars
$4-6 for lunch in a cafe with a soft drink
$1.50-$2 for a coffee or a beer
$1 for a large bottle of water
$7-$15 for dinner in a casa particular or restaurant
$10-$15 for a (cheap) bottle of wine in a restaurant
$20 for a four hour bus ride with Viazul
$5 for entry into a club (usually includes a drink)
$2-$5 for a local taxi ride (depending on your negotiation skills)
Note: as mentioned above, the CUC and US dollar (ironically) are linked in price so $1CUC = $1USD.
It may seem strange in a country that is so commonly photographed that there is a significantly small number of sights in Cuba. Sure, there are “notable buildings” aplenty and a fair number of funky local museums (that have preserved the town’s past up to the 1950s, after which very little in Cuba has changed), but don’t expect the big hitting list of activities you might find on a trip to Florence where there is barely enough time to squeeze in a ribolita between galleries, museums, boat rides and cupola climbs.
Think of Cuba as one giant outdoor museum with the daily life of the locals and the incessant music belting out of the bars providing the attraction and you’ll be closer to understanding what Cuba has to offer. But also keep the lack of tick-list attractions in mind when you plan your itinerary. You may in theory want 4 nights in Trinidad (my first through) but in reality you’ll probably feel like you’re spinning your wheels after only 2.
A note on US visitors
Over my two trips I have met a not insignificant number of USA citizens in Cuba, meaning that it is physically possible to make a trip to this forbidden Caribbean island.
Of course, it is illegal for US citizens to visit Cuba – the rule is not that it’s illegal to go to Cuba, but that it is illegal to spend money in Cuba without an appropriate license, making it illegal through sheer practicality. And with penalties that can include up to $250,000 in fines and 10 years in prison, the penalty isn’t light.
However, in recent years the rules have relaxed as US citizens are now permitted to visa Cuba on a legal person-to-person tours. This might seem like a win for US visitors on the surface, but in reality the tours are expensive (often running to thousands of dollars for a relatively short, under 2 week trip) and don’t permit free roaming – you’re definitely on a tour, which isn’t always the best way to explore a country.
Beyond people-to-people tours, most other US citizens in Cuba have decided to roll the dice and take a risk on not getting caught.
If that’s for you, here are a few practical tips:
Don’t worry about visa stamps: despite the US restrictions, the Cuban government is very happy to accept US tourists into its country and to facilitate this, your Cuban entry stamp is placed on a piece of paper that is stapled into your passport and can be removed once you leave.
Fly from Mexico or Canada: there are cheap and accessible flights to Cuba from Cancun (where I usually fly from) and Canada meaning you don’t have to hijack a boat from Miami, which would definitely add to your list of crimes.
Be money savvy: spending money is the illegal act for US citizens but clearly you’re going to have to break that rule. Just don’t turn up with US bank cards (which are blocked) or USD. Instead, take a different currency (see above for my money tips).
Above all, cross your fingers and try to enjoy your time in Cuba.
As the USA-Cuba relationship improves and tourism increases, changes will inevitably come to Cuba – some are already visible since my last trip, so, if you are game, visiting sooner will be better than visiting later.