Cuba: tips & tricks
At the moment, Cuba is at the top of many a traveler’s bucket list. ‘You should go now, because it’s changing fast!’, was something I heard more than once before I went. The many old-timers, colorful streets, sleeping in casas particulares: I couldn’t wait to see it all for myself. Now that I’m back I can only say: I’ve fallen in love with Cuba a little bit. A beautiful country, kind people…..and those colorful streets and old-timers really are all over the place. Traveling through Cuba is a unique experience that I can recommend to every (slightly adventurous) traveler. But a bit of practical info makes preparing for your first trip to Cuba just that little bit easier. So here are our beginner’s tips for Cuba, in no particular order!
How to organize your trip?
This is usually the first question when traveling to Cuba: how do you organize your trip? Cuba is different from other countries: you can’t just book an accommodation anywhere on booking.com or rent an Airbnb. So you can choose to book with a travel organization. They’ll organize your visa, transport, a few tours and the casas for you, but you can still travel individually and they have some really beautiful travel itineraries. If you do choose to organize your own trip, you need to figure out whether you’re going to book (parts of) your trip in advance or all of it on the spot. The first option will give you more security, the second more flexibility. Bear in mind that it’s relatively busy with tourists in Cuba at the moment, so if you decide to organize things on the spot and you’re traveling by bus, it might end up being fully booked and you’ll be forced to search for an alternative. Because there’s a limited amount of places with Internet access, you’ll organize most things on the spot. It calls for a bit of flexibility from time to time, but I found that it always works out in the end and you can get where you want to go and always find a place to stay. Of course, the advantage is that you can adjust your travel plans as you go, leave sooner when you don’t like a place as much, stay longer in places you do like and change your route if you suddenly hear about another unique place.
The perfect way to stay overnight in Cuba is with the Cubans themselves: in a casa particular. A casa particular is in fact a Cuban version of a bed & breakfast. You get your own bedroom and usually your own bathroom. Most casas are similar to one another and the casas I slept in were all good and clean. You can book a breakfast in nearly all of the casas and usually dinner too, if you want. Don’t expect too much luxury or ‘hotel service’, but you can definitely count on a unique experience and a glimpse into the lives of locals! If you’re organizing your own trip, you can choose to find your casas on the spot; you’ll find more than one casa particular per street in the popular tourist spots of Cuba (Havana, Trinidad, Viñales, for example). You can recognize them by the special sign at the door. And if there’s no space available, the owner of the casa will always have a friend, cousin, or friend of a cousin that does have space available in his casa that he can call for you. Prefer to book in advance? Have a look at mycasaparticular.com, for example.
Most people travel through Cuba by rental car, taxi or bus. The latter option is definitely recommended because Cuba has an excellent bus network for tourists: the Viazul. You can book bus tickets online, or through a Viazul office on the spot. Book at least a day in advance or you might find the bus is already fully booked. A compromise would be to travel by collectivo taxi. This is a taxi where several tourists share a ride. You don’t have to find fellow travelers who want to make the same journey yourself, the drivers will do this for you. Ask your casa or a taxi driver to organize a collectivo for you and it will happen. The collectivo will pick you up at your casa or hotel at the agreed time.
The following apps are useful in Cuba:
Cuba Junky – to find a casa particular along the way
Here maps – download the offline map of Cuba before you leave
Currency – to convert currency
Wiki Tripp – offline travel tips
Google Translate offline – to translate Spanish into English and vice versa
Internet is only available in certain places in Cuba and you have two options: either a place that has computers or wifi. The wifi spots are easy to find; if you see more than ten people sitting in a row with a phone or laptop, you’ll know there’s probably a wifi hotspot. This will usually be a main square or park. To get access to the Internet you need a code, which you can get by buying a scratch card at an Etecsa office (don’t forget to bring identification). An hour-long Internet card for Cuba costs 2 CUC (about €1,70). You don’t need to spend the entire hour in one go, you can log out each time and continue using the same credit next time and it’s valid throughout all of Cuba.
Shops in Cuba
Shopping in Cuba isn’t what you’re used to. There are shops, but the selection is limited and it varies. You may have to search through three shops before finding a bottle of coca cola. Bear this in mind.
Spanish is the main language of Cuba; some people speak a bit of English, but don’t count on it. Most owners of casas particulares don’t speak English, for example. So make sure you know a few words in Spanish; the useful language app Duolingo will go a long way. You can also bring a Spanish pocket dictionary or use the offline Google Translate app.
Cuba is a relatively safe country, especially when compared to other countries in the same region. It also feels really safe when you walk the streets.
Proof of health insurance Cuba
Officially, you need an English language printout of your health care registration to be allowed entry into Cuba. It states that you’re insured and against what. Your insurance company will know exactly what you need if you call to ask for proof of health care for Cuba. Nobody asked me for it, but they sometimes do. Given it only takes a phone call to your insurance company, why not make the effort?
Visa for Cuba
When traveling to Cuba, you need a tourist visa. If you’re booking through a travel agent, they’ll organize it for you. If you’re organizing your own trip, you can pick up the visa at the consulate in Rotterdam or get it through an ANWB office, for example. The visa won’t be in your name initially; it’s actually just a form that you need to fill out.
Two currency units in Cuba
Cuba has two different currency units, which might be confusing at first. One is the Cuban peso (for Cubans) and the other is CUC (for tourists and Cubans). There’s talk of scrapping the first currency unit, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s not something that actually hinders you when traveling through Cuba, as long as you pay close attention when exchanging currency and receiving change. A well-known scam is for tourists to pay with CUC and get pesos in return. However, I didn’t experience this myself. So how do you know whether something like a menu is in pesos or CUC? Simply by using common sense. If a pizza costs 20, these are pesos, because a €17 euro pizza is of course way too much. So if the amount is significantly higher than you would expect given the item, it’s probably priced in Cuban pesos. If the price matches your expectations approximately, then it’s in CUC.
Exchanging currency in Cuba
You can exchange currency at the airport, at currency exchange offices and in hotels. Make sure you bring enough euros (not dollars, they will charge you an extra fee for these) with you. It’s better to bring too much than too little; you won’t be the first tourist to be left without any money halfway through their holiday in Cuba. To exchange currency in Havana, we can recommend Hotel Nacional, because you usually don’t have to stand in line for hours here.
To calculate how much money you need to bring, you can count on spending approximately the following amounts on daily expenses:
Casa particular 25/30 CUC for 2/3 persons per night
Breakfast 5 CUC
Lunch 3-10 CUC
Dinner 10-15 CUC
Cocktails 3 CUC
Of course you need to add your transportation costs and expenses for activities. It’s best to leave a wide margin, particularly if you want to go out a lot or eat out luxuriously. You can spend any leftover euros when you’re back home, but if you run out in Cuba, it won’t be easy to just get more.
Credit card / ATM machines in Cuba
There are virtually no ATM machines in Cuba. If you do find one, there’s a good chance it won’t accept your bankcard or credit card.
You won’t have trouble finding a meal anywhere in Cuba, although lunch can be tricky, because there aren’t bakeries or restaurants all over the place. You can usually book breakfast with your casa particular for a few euros extra as well as eat your dinner here (usually fish or chicken with rice, vegetables and fruit) or at a local restaurant.
Because you won’t have access to the Internet in Cuba most of the time, it’s a good idea to bring a travel guide or digital travel guide (the Lonely Planet Cuba, for example).
Snacks are difficult to get. Take some biscuits, sultanas or muesli bars with you for hikes or just as snacks. Things like chips and nuts aren’t easy to find either.
Take plenty of anti-insect spray with you, I didn’t see this in any shops either, but there are definitely mosquitoes in Cuba!
Most public toilets don’t have toilet paper, so it’s useful to carry paper tissues with you.
You won’t find any stores that sell things like this. And if something breaks, it’s useful to have some of this. Tip: wrap a few meters of duct tape around a pen, this way you don’t have to lug around an entire roll.
Extra pair of sunglasses/ swimwear
Things like this aren’t easy to find either and it would be a shame if your sunglasses break in a sunny country such as Cuba. Bring an extra pair if you can.
Bring plenty of sunscreen; you’ll need it in Cuba!
Universal plug adapter
Cuba has a connector with two flat prongs. Most power outlets are 110V and some are 220V. Most chargers are made to work on both 110V and 220V, but check this before you go (it will say on the charger).
First aid kit
Make sure you bring a basic first aid kit with Band-Aids, bandages etc. These won’t be easy to get when you need them either. If you get motion sickness easily, bring something for this too. The old-timers in Cuba are pretty to look at, but they’re not always that comfortable.
Bring a mug or cup. You’ll be staying in casas particulares a lot where they’ll prepare breakfast and dinner for you, but in between you’ll probably be spending a lot of time in your rocking chair on your porch reading a good book. Soft drinks are usually available either in cans or in 2 liter bottles, so it’s useful to take a mug or cup with you, so you can mix a nice Cuba Libre in your rocking chair on your porch.
There are many places in Cuba where you can go snorkeling. Sometimes you can just go on your own from the beach, so it’s nice to have your own snorkeling set for these occasions. You can often rent gear on snorkeling trips, but it’s not always great quality and you’ll often end up paying less for the trip if you have your own gear.
And you don’t need to bring this…
You don’t need to bring things for breakfast; the casas offer delicious breakfasts. Water and soft drinks etc. are also readily available. They also sell soap (unlike what it says on the Internet). And what’s easiest to get in Cuba is rum; you can literally find it in every shop. All the casas also provide a clean towel, so you don’t need to bring a load of towels.
Did you also travel across Cuba and have you got additional tips? Let us know and we’ll add them!
Our favorite travel gifts for Cuba
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