What to Expect When Travelling to Cuba
Whenever I told friends, family and acquaintances alike that I would be heading to Cuba in February of 2016, I tended to get the same reaction, over and over again.
Argh, jealous! I really want to go there, before it gets too touristy.
I guess I had too, or I wouldn’t have rushed to make this trip such a priority. However, arriving in Havana helped demonstrate just how cut off this Caribbean country is from the rest of the world. And I think it is time to let the cat out of the bag.
You see, Cuba is not heading towards being touristy. It already is. Not in the sense that there’s a Maccas and Starbucks on every corner. More that the tourism industry is booming and the place packed with people (keeping in mind that we were there during peak season).
I suppose whether or not this is a good or bad thing is up to the individual to decide.
I wrote a post before I left, covering the intense planning I’d undergone in organising this trip. It’s a bit laughable, looking back at how much I stressed about certain things, due to what I’d read on the Internet and others had told me. Oh, hindsight.
So, here are some quick tips about travelling through Cuba that you may or not know. And some common myths… busted! (And if you’re hungry for more, here are 40 tips for travel to Cuba that will be particularly helpful if you’re American).
Myth: You have to have accommodation booked in advance
My boyfriend and I originally had plans to free-ball it through Cuba, as we weren’t particularly sure of where we wanted to go. We figured we’d hit the ground running and see what happened… in the name of adventure and all that.
We were repeatedly told that this was a massive no-no. It was peak season, the country was inundated with travellers. What were we – crazy or something?
So, I panicked and had us trawling the Internet at all hours in the week before we left, desperately trying to put together a last minute itinerary.
It wasn’t until we arrived in Havana that we realised how pointless all the fuss had been. Yes, Cuba is crammed full of tourists. But you know how you go to Ireland and every second building is a pub? I swear every second house in Cuba is a casa particular.
In fact, in our first week we changed our plans to head back to Havana a couple of days early, without having a room booked for that night. What did we do? Sleep on the streets?
Hardly. We simply got our cab to drop us off in the most touristy part of town and door-knocked, until we found somewhere with an empty bed. We encountered success on the fifth place we tried.
On top of that, it was one of the nicer places we stayed in. Quiet and not too close to any roosters (you spend a night in Cuba and you’ll understand what a relief that is).
Myth: Cuba is not safe enough to travel around alone
I can understand why Cuba might seem overwhelming. It’s loud, colourful and bustling with activity. Another thing it appeared to be, was safe.
People were friendlier in Cuba than many other countries I’ve visited over the last few years – always willing to help you out and try to communicate, despite you having zero knowledge of Spanish and they only knowing basic English.
That being said, I would be a little bit more apprehensive if I were travelling on my own, as a female. Strutting down the street with my boyfriend by my side, I was largely ignored. That was welcomed and good.
However, there were some occasions where I was on my own and was approached by men. One memorable instance was when I was walking down the main street of Vinales and a man actually reached out and grabbed my arm. I shook him off and told him to leave me alone. He obliged.
He was standing outside a pub and had seemed keen for me to come join him and his friends. Thanks, but no thanks.
As long as you exercise the same caution as you would anywhere else in the world, I don’t really see how you’d have anything to worry about.
Myth: You have to buy your tourist card before travelling to the country
For whatever reason, I have a tendency to be a “glass half empty” kinda gal when travelling and expect everything to go completely tits up (for the record, it never really has… until that is, this particular trip).
As such, I wanted to be as prepared as possible before leaving the UK. So, I made it a priority to get myself out to the Cuban Embassy in London to nab a tourist card, before we left for our trip.
I don’t regret doing this, but it wasn’t exactly necessary. We could have easily have bought one just before our flight into Havana, as they were selling them at the Cancun airport.
While I can’t vouch for every airport, evidence seems to point to the fact that they’re pretty easy to obtain, without having to make a special trip to an embassy.
Myth: You’ll have to pay an entrance and exit fee, in and out of the country
You did once upon a time, but now you shouldn’t have to. It’s generally included in the price of your plane ticket. If you’re unsure, contact your airline for further clarification.
Myth: You won’t be able to access the Internet
Wrong! While Wifi is limited, it is possible to connect online.
You’ll need to obtain an Internet card, from a ETESCA store and you’ll pay 2 CUCs for a one hour card (people also sell them on the streets of certain cities, making themselves a profit of a CUC). We were able to buy three at a time in Vinales, so long as we handed our passports over for identification.
Many hotels and town squares have wifi. You just use the details on your card to connect yourself to the service and you’ll be emailing/Instagramming/Whatsapp-ing away in no time at all.
So, that’s a few myths busted there. The question now remains… what do you absolutely need to do, before and after stepping foot in this Caribbean country?
Fact: You should bring some foreign currency with you
We saw ATMs in Havana, Trinidad and Viñales. I tried to use one once. It flat out refused to cough out some cash.
Some do work, but Visa is the only type of card currently accepted. MasterCard is a no-no.
The easiest method by far is to bring foreign currency and swap it over at a CADECA, the Cuban currency exchange bureau. They can be found at airports and are littered across the bigger towns.
CADECA’s accept Euros, British Pounds and Canadian Dollars. You can exchange these for the Cuban currency for tourists (Cuban Convertible Pesos) or if you like, a little bit of local currency (they’re called Cuban Pesos and can come in handy from time to time).
CADECA’S do also accept US Dollars… but you’ll be whacked with a ten percent fee, despite the countries having a very similar exchange rate. It’s not worth the effort, if you ask me.
Fact: Don’t drink the water
Both my boyfriend and I managed to come down with a pretty unpleasant stomach bug during our time in Cuba, which lasted for well over a week. We believe the culprit was a bit of tap water, mixed in with some juice and fed to us by our casa owner for breakfast one morning.
So, I’d avoid the water like the plague. Filter it, use purification tablets or a SteriPen, drink bottled water as a last resort… whatever you do, don’t drink the water straight out of the tap. And, be wary of wet salad!
Fact: Haggle your heart out before getting into a cab or climbing onto a rickshaw
I’m a big fan of haggling and you should be too. It’s the best game ever and is loads of fun. Plus, I swear it helps with your self confidence. You know what something is worth and you find out your own as a consequence.
It’s accepted practice to haggle the heck out of transport in Cuba. Have a ballpark sum in your head, but offer slightly less than that. If they balk, pout and say you paid that amount the last time you took that trip.
There’s a fine line to taking advantage of a situation and being taken advantage of. Be sure not to cross it, either way.
Also bear in mind – the rickshaws will be a rip off. We were quoted what I thought was an okay price the one time we used one in Havana. When we disembarked, he told us that the amount we agreed on was PER PERSON. Then, he didn’t have any change on him, so I ended up having to pay him the original price he’d wanted. I wasn’t impressed.
Stick to the old American cars. They’re cheaper and the novelty of riding in them never wears off.
Fact: You will never be able to eat in peace
If you’re a fan of Cuban music, you’re not going to be disappointed. There are live bands all over the country, pumping out tunes.
It’s nice, to a point. What I didn’t like was having a quiet meal, only to have someone set up their band right next to where I was sitting and slam their hands down on their bongo drums for the next half hour… then demand money off us once they were done.
Plus, be prepared to hear the same five songs on repeat, everywhere you go. You’ll find you’ll start making up your own words to them, if you don’t know Spanish.
Fact: Bring your own soap, toilet paper, earplugs, a first aid kit and if you can, something for your casa family members
You’ll find many Cuban toilets lack basic amenities such as toilet paper, soap… toilet seats. Excluding the latter, it’s best to carry your own on you, whenever possible.
Cuba is LOUD. If you’re a light sleeper, bring earplugs. If you’re a heavy sleeper, bring earplugs regardless. You’ll thank me for it later.
Due to government rations, Cubans find it difficult to obtain many items that you or I may take for granted. I kicked myself for not bringing spare pens into the country… especially when one lady asked if I wanted to swap some for candy.
Lastly, it won’t hurt to have a mini-pharmacy in your bag. I wish I’d packed Gastro-Stop tablets, along with Ibuprofen. I know veteran travellers to Asia and South America are rolling their eyes and mouthing “duh”… but I’m all about Europe, baby.
Some things you learn through experience. Don’t let this be one of them.
Our trip to Cuba was interesting, to say the least. If you do decide to venture out to that part of the globe – I hope this rundown of what to expect proves handy.
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