Sometimes when I’m completely unknowledgeable about a topic, I don’t even know what questions to ask because I don’t know what issues are even relevant. My only expectation of Cuba because my only expectation was that the weather would be nice and that there were a lot of generic resorts but after experiencing the country for myself, I am more aware of all the questions people should be asking before embarking on a trip to Cuba.
I’ve compiled a list of the questions that kept cropping up from people and attempted to answer them fully:
WHAT'S A GOOD TIME TO VISIT?
In general, before Cuba gets Americanized with a Starbucks on every crumbling corner. Otherwise in terms of time of year, between December and May is high season. Also if you’re based in a city that experiences four seasons, it’s the perfect time to get an enviable golden tan in the middle winter!
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO GET BEFORE YOU LEAVE?
Canadians will get a tourist visa on the plane but Americans have to purchase one before entering the country which can be bought for approximately $75 at airport gates. Americans must also put together a loose itinerary of what they plan on doing in Cuba, focused on person-to-person, educational activities. Also, anything you need like sunscreen or bandaids, you better bring it from home because it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to find it anywhere in the country.
ANY TIPS GOING TO AND FROM THE AIRPORT?
Nothing in Cuba runs efficiently so get to the airport 2-3 hours before your flight. I got to the airport in Havana at 5am and was in line to check-in (no self check-ins) for an hour and a half. You don’t want to miss your flight (or DO you…)! You can prearrange a taxi to pick you up through your accommodations and should cost around 25 - 30 CUC to drive into the city. Also don’t forget to change your money to CUCs at the cadecas (money exchange) before you leave the airport. I waited in line for an hour but my friend experienced no line at all so it’s a luck of the draw.
WHAT KIND OF CURRENCY DO THEY USE?
There are two types of currencies used in Cuba: one for locals (Cuban National Peso or CUP) and one for tourists (Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC, pronounced “kooks”). You can only buy CUCs within the country and as Cuba lacks most modern conveniences and you can’t use credit cards, you have to bring cash and exchange it IN the country.
HOW MUCH DID THINGS COST?
As of 2017, 1 CUC = 1.35 CAD and is equal to 1 USD, so the easy conversion won’t have you labouring over the math in your head.
Accommodations: Casa particulares were the way to go ranging from 25 - 35 CUC per room so at a rate of 35 CUC, you’d only be paying 17.5 CUC each. AirBnB is also an option (albeit a more expensive one) and you could pay in advance.
Meals: You could find delicious sandwiches the size of your head and tamales so fresh that they were steaming, sold from someone’s living room for 1 CUC. Or you could go to fancy paladars, visited by the likes of Obama and Beyonce and order several appetizers, mains, dessert and two rounds of cocktails for 35 CUC each.
Generally prices were:
Breakfast (3-5 CUC), Lunch (10-15 CUC), Dinner (15-25 CUC)
Drinks: Drinks were strong and cheap, usually around 3 -5 CUC for everything from Daiquiris to Mojitos to Cuba Libres. They would bring a bottle of rum with your drink just in case you didn’t think it was fierce enough because rum was cheaper than water. My kind of place!
Tours: The ones I experienced ranged from 5 CUC and hour to 50 CUC for a package experience.
Transportation: Bike taxis were 1-5 CUC within Old Havana.
Regular taxis between neighbourhoods (like from Vedado to Centro Habana) it ranged from 6 - 15 CUC.
From Havana to Playa del Este (the closest beach 30 minutes away) was 20 CUC one way.
From Havana to Viñales (2.5 hours away) it was 130 CUC for a private, vintage car or you could go to tourist desks at fancy hotels – like Hotel Inglaterra – and arrange a collectivo (shared taxi) for 20 CUC.
HOW MUCH MONEY SHOULD I BRING?
Bring more than you think you’ll need because you don’t want to be stressed out about running out of money when you’re on vacation! I found $100/day to be a good amount (i.e. 10 days = $1,000) but I might also bring another couple hundred for a safety buffer.
WHERE IS GOOD TO STAY?
As I mentioned before, staying at a casa particulares is the best option if you’re looking to have an authentic trip to Cuba and you’ll benefit from the company and advice of your local hosts. Government-run hotels and are not only much more expensive but the same quality that you’ll find in the casas anyways but without the added benefit of being hosted by a helpful local. AirBnBs is also now an option and the best thing is that you pay in advance so you can subtract that from your cash budget.
HOW CAN I FIND MY WAY AROUND WITHOUT GOOGLE MAPS?
I have so little faith in my sense of direction and powers of observation that I would take a photo every time I passed a street for fear that I’d be lost in the middle of Havana with no means of finding my way back! If you can relate, then I suggest getting the Map.me app prior to your trip and downloading a map of Cuba while you have access to WiFi.
WHAT SHOULD I CARRY AROUND WITH ME ON A DAY OUT?
I highly suggest bringing tissue paper and hand sanitizer because bathrooms rarely have toilet seats let alone means to clean yourself after.
Try to break your larger bills at reputable establishments because if you’re paying a bike taxi for a 1-3 CUC ride, they may not have change to break your bill (or pretend not to).
I also would grab business cards from where I was staying so I could show it to my taxi driver instead of punishing him with my horrible Spanish.
DO YOU NEED TO SPEAK SPANISH WELL?
Most Cubans – at least the ones I met – spoke little to no English. Even if I managed to ask a question correctly in my mangled Spanish, I couldn’t understand their response. I could point to addresses on my phone and items on a menu and I downloaded Google Translate before my trip, but brushing up on at least basic words in Spanish before your trip is a good idea.
IS THE FOOD REALLY AS BAD AS EVERYONE SAYS?
Cuba still has a lot of trading restrictions so access to fresh produce is limited. While it makes finding good food more difficult, with some planning and research, it’s not impossible. As I mentioned before, paladars are better than state-owned restaurants because they’re more inventive with their dishes so check out my curated itinerary for my favourites.
WHAT WAS IT REALLY LIKE WITHOUT INTERNET?
Honestly, I loved it. There were plenty of times we could’ve gotten WiFi easily but I didn’t feel compelled at all. I got used to the slower pace of a city where human interaction was prized over getting things done as quickly as possible. Instead of looking at what everyone else was doing online, I was more present in MY life and was able to focus on living in the now. It WAS challenging if I needed to look up the number or address of a restaurant but that’s easily solved by preparing in advance or talking to people.
WHERE CAN I FIND INTERNET IF I ABSOLUTELY NEED IT?
WiFi could be found in places like Hotel Inglaterra or park squares. You know you’ve found a hotspot when you see people with their faces plastered to their phones. You have to find someone nearby selling phone cards for 1-3 CUC for an hour and if you plan on needing internet frequently, stock up when you find them.
IS IT SAFE FOR SOLO FEMALE TRAVELLERS?
Cuban guys are NOT shy when it comes to letting you know that they think you are “muy bonita” or “guapa”. It’s definitely more forward than anywhere else I’ve been but I never felt unsafe and no one made aggressive, physical advances. Like anywhere else in the world, you should still be vigilant and should avoid unnecessary risks like wandering around at night by yourself or going off with some guy you don’t know without backup.
WHERE SHOULD I GO FOR A MINI TRIP?
If you’re short on time in Cuba and are craving sun and ocean, Playa del Este is a beautiful beach that’s only a 30 minute drive away. You can get there by bus or arrange a private taxi to drive and pick you up at a prearranged time.
If you love nature and want to horseback ride through tobacco fields and coffee plantations, it doesn’t get more idyllic than the lush limestone cliffs in Viñales. It’s only a 2.5-hour drive away so a day trip is possible but I loved the pace there and found two nights was perfect.
Being a 4-hour trip from Havana, Trinidad is a popular mini trip the requires at least a 2-3 night stay. I didn’t have enough time to visit the vibrant, Spanish colonial town but lauded by locals as a favourite, it’s definitely on my to-see list for my next vacation to the country.