Planning a Trip to Cuba? Here’s What You Need to Know (Pre-Trip Edition)
Note: There’s an updated version of this post, here.
Planning a trip to Cuba has turned into one of the hardest things I’ve had to do over the last few months.
As the Caribbean country is relatively new to the Internet, booking things online is generally – a nightmare.
We’ve basically been to hell and back (I’ve admittedly had a relatively easy and stress-free life) in trying to plan this trip. If I can save someone from going through what I went through, then I’ll be very satisfied indeed.
So, here is a detailed account of the pains I went to to get this trip organised. When I get back, I’ll hit you with a comparison of how the trip turned out. I’m really hoping all the stress that’s come with the pre-planning stage of the trip pays off, so the two weeks we spend there is all smooth sailing.
Don’t worry – I’m not naive enough to expect that to happen.
Getting your tourist card
You’ll need a tourist card to enter Cuba, but they’re luckily quite easy to obtain.
If you live in London, you can visit the Cuban embassy in Holborn from 9:30am -12:30pm Monday to Friday.
I took a photocopy of my passport (not even the passport itself), a form filled out with my details (you can grab one at the embassy or print it out online and pre-fill it), details of the tour we were doing and proof of flights.
The fellow at the desk looked through my documents, I paid the obligatory £15 and left the embassy five minutes later with my tourist card clutched in my hand.
You can apply for your tourist card via post, although it will cost an extra £19 on top of the £15 fee to be processed.
I originally planned to grab my boyfriend’s tourist card along with my own. Unfortunately, submitting an application on behalf of someone else also incurs a fee of £19.
That’s a bit of quid, so I told my beloved he would just have to venture to the embassy to grab his for himself.
The standout irritating part of our trip planning so far has without a doubt been trying to sort accommodation.
It’s something that’s usually so simple, right? You jump on AirBnB, or Hostelworld, read a few reviews, make a decision, book and hope it’s clean when it you turn up.
Where Cuba is concerned, cleanliness is the last worry on the list. I’m more concerned with whether the places we appear to have booked will actually have space for us on the days we rock up.
Hotels are expensive and from I hear, largely a waste of money. So, many folk who travel to Cuba tend to book into what are known as Casa Particulars.
These are rooms within normal Cuban houses, which the citizens rent out to tourists. From what we’ve seen and heard, they generally charge around $25-30 USD per room for the night.
So if you’re travelling with a friend or lover, you can generally score accommodation for around $10-15 USD a day. Many of the casas also offer up breakfast and in some cases dinner, for an additional fee.
Sounds all right, doesn’t it? Until you remember the lack of Internet in the country. And the lack of Spanish in both my boyfriend and my own’s repertoire. The cherry on top of the icing? Cuba’s a designated hot spot and we are travelling in peak season. It seems less simple now.
I don’t know whether this is true (yet) but we’d read online that you needed proof of accommodation for your first night at least in Cuba to pass immigration, as you do in the States. What ensued were several very confusing days of us scrambling around, making calls to Cuba and relentlessly surfing the internet (do people still say that?) to try and find somewhere, anywhere that we could book into.
Most return emails said things along the lines off “sorry, we’re full – that’s what you get in peak season!” We’d thought we’d found success after my boyfriend spent awhile on the phone and was told by a Cuban that they had a balcony room free.
Feeling hopeful, we’d emailed as requested only to be told they were booked up.
We eventually made a booking through some Swiss website that seemed legit, although we won’t know for sure if that is the case until we get there. I also seem to have nailed down accommodation in Trinidad purely through word of mouth.
I have a suspicion that once we get there, we’ll find all the worry will be for naught and there’ll be plenty of casas available for hire. I really hope I haven’t just jinxed myself in writing this!
Getting around Cuba
We’re spending our second week doing an Intrepid tour that will be taking us west of the island. Our first week, we’re hoping to head from Havana to Trinidad (the place I most excited about seeing), spend a few days there and then head back through Santa Clara or Sancti Spíritus. I really haven’t decided which one yet.
Naturally, I was panicking about how best to get to these places.
There is a company called Viazul, who run tourist buses from destination to destination – although there is no account of how far in advance these need to be booked. I read a day on one source, I read six days on another, yet on the website itself dates three weeks in advance were either available or fully booked up. I live my life in a general state of confusion.
There is a second bus company Transtur, which requires tickets to be booked in advance.
Train travel is an option in Cuba, which apparently can be booked five days in advance from the station you are departing from. More information can be found on this website.
I could have almost kissed a friend of a friend who reported that they’d managed to travel around using personal taxis or public buses.
So, there seems there are plenty of options to get around Cuba, but most can only be arranged once you are on the ground.
I’ve both read and heard from an acquaintance who was recently in Cuba, that MasterCard tends to not work on ATM’s in Cuba. Visa will work sometimes, but not always. This means at times you may need to go into banks to withdraw money over the counter.
It’s best to take some money with you to exchange for pesos (CUC). Pounds and Euros are best. AUD and NZD is largely not accepted. You’ll get a bad rate with USD, so keep your American dollars for another trip.
The Cuban currency itself sounds a bit confusing. Flora the Explorer has written a detailed account from her time in the country.
Spare toilet paper and soap is apparently a necessity, along with your own toiletries, which are quite hard to track down on the island.
That’s what I’ve been able to ascertain so far. Now, we get to live it. Wish us luck!
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