Cuba - What to Know Before You Go!
So, I recently went to Cuba for seven days (July 2017). When I told people, this was my vacation destination, they were often confused. While some were excited, and I even knew some persons who had been and recommended it, most people kind of screwed up their face, and asked but why Cuba? My response was why not? Cuba is beautiful, and it's a time capsule of sorts. This will be changing in the near future, as tourism increases, and the government puts measures in places to accommodate this, and I wanted to visit now before things change too much. I wanted to experience Cuba in its natural, purest form, before it's been touched, and yes, maybe even corrupted by the Western world. While, I'll go into the trip in more detail in future posts, for now, you can believe that it was an experience I do not have an ounce of regret about. I had an amazing time, and it was definitely one for the history books.
I realised alot of people did not see Cuba as a viable destination because it's not widely advertised, and because of that, they are simply unaware of the beauty of the country. I want this blog post to be about my pre-journey to Cuba, so you can get interested, and when you are, you have an easy resource for what's needed.
First of all, you need to decide, Is Cuba right for you?
You need to figure out what you want in a vacation, and there's no right answer to this, because it's completely personal. It's okay to want a cushy, all-inclusive vacation, a high-paced adventure-packed vacation, a combination of the two, or anything in between, but you need to know what you want so you can plan accordingly. Cuba, because of its history, and current circumstances does not have the amenities we now take for granted. The biggest one being lack of internet access. It's available, but not easily accessible, so if it's something you can't live without, then either this vacation is not for you, or you need to book one of the hotels that provide WiFi (at an additional cost of course). I personally think that Cuba has something for everyone, and once you research and plan accordingly, you will have an unforgettable trip.
What documents do you need?
1) Valid Passport - Different countries have different requirements for the length of the validity of your passport (that is, when is it going to expire?). As I was passing through the US, I made sure that my passport was valid for at least six months. Although, I'm not sure whether Cuba has these requirements, it is always important to check, as countries often change their regulations, so it's best to have the most up-to-date information.
2) Tourist Card - You need a tourist card to enter Cuba. If you are a US citizen, travel to Cuba remains technically restricted, and your travel needs to fall into one of 12 categories of authorised travel. Even if you're not a US citizen, once you're flying through the US, you need to also pick one of the categories. Don't worry, it's just a checkbox when you're buying your airline ticket, and a form when you're on the plane. If you fly with Delta, you get the tourist card at check-in for a cost of US$50. If you fly with American Airlines, you need to organise it beforehand, and it costs US$100. Do not lose your tourist card, as you need to give it to Immigration when you're exiting the country. If I was flying through Panama 'directly' from Trinidad & Tobago, I would have had to get the card at the Cuban Embassy, and it would be at a cost of TT$105 (US$16). To get the card at the Embassy, you need the yellow fever vaccine, international immunization card, and travel insurance with medical coverage. So, you need to decide which option is best for you.
3) Medical Insurance - This is a requirement for entering the country. It is usually included in your airfare, but you should confirm. Also, this means that you need to keep your ticket stub very safe.
4) Vaccinations - The US Embassy site says that you do not need any vaccines. When I called the Cuban Embassy in Trinidad, they noted that you needed the yellow fever vaccine, especially if you were getting the Tourist Card through them. The only question that Immigration asked me upon entry to Cuba was whether I has been to Africa in the last six months/year (I can't remember which). I never had to show my vaccination card, but I had it in the event that it was required. So, better safe than sorry. Also, this is a shot you're ideally supposed to get ten days before travelling, so you don't want to leave it to the last minute. If you're from T&T, you also need to get an international vaccination card, so investigate all these things with enough time to get them done.
What airlines fly to Cuba?
UPDATE: Effective January 2018, Caribbean Airlines has a direct route to Cuba from several Caribbean islands, Trinidad and Tobago being one of them. These flights are currently running on Tuesdays, and Saturdays, and start at US$500, but beyond the introductory period, these prices will increase. However, I think there'll be promotions with slashed prices so look out for those, because it would definitely be worth it.
There are quite a few airlines that fly to Cuba. I chose to fly into Cuba through Miami, so my cheapest options were Delta, and American Airlines. I chose Delta as the tourist card cost was less, and also the process, as noted above gave me less anxiety. As always, check your baggage requirements. My basic ticket meant that I needed to pay US$25 for a checked bag. However, luckily, this was only to go to Cuba. I did not pay any baggage fee for the checked bag from Cuba back to Miami, although the US$25 is usually for the one-way ticket only. There was also the option for fly 'directly' to Havana through Copa Airlines from Trinidad. However, this cost was much more (more than US$300 more) than the total of the two return flights from Trinidad to Miami, and Miami to Havana, and it was also a minimum 12 hour journey, as they were several stops. The Miami to Cuba flight is only an hour long.
Have a realistic itinerary.
First of all, let me stress that Cuba is hot! The heat was nothing like I've ever experienced before, and I'm from the Caribbean. So, when you think about being in the sun for long periods walking, you can understand how draining this can get. Take this into consideration when planning your itinerary, and even though it's a once in a lifetime experience, I think it's better to properly explore one place, than to rush through several just to check it off the list. The reviews of the places and the estimated times you would spend there are generally pretty accurate, so you can safely use those as a guide when planning.
What currency does Cuba use?
So, Cuba has two currencies. One is the local currency, Moneda Nacional (MN), or pesos for ease of reference, and the tourist currency, or CUC (pronounced Kook). When I was doing research, this confused me so much until I figured out it works this way. You can use pesos to buy necessities (water, salt, fruit, some street food, some local transport, entrance fees for locals only), and you use CUC for luxury items such as meals at restaurants, tours, taxis, souvenirs, etc. Now, the exchange rate is 24MN to 1CUC. Anyone can have either currency. I changed 5CUC into MN at the airport, as I wanted to ensure I had local currency, in case the occassion came up that I needed it. I never needed it. Maybe, if you plan on buying lots of street food, etc. But, as I was very cautious, and didn't want to risk being toilet-ridden for the trip, I avoided street food. I only found one occasion to use the MN to purchase water, and there was the option to use CUC as well, so it really was not necessary. Based on discussions with our tour guide in Havana, he noted that the MN is more or less useless, and it would be best if they move towards just one currency. From our understanding, locals who work with the government, etc. are paid their salaries in MN, so it is very much a locally used currency. Please also note that there is a 10% tax on USD, so it would be more beneficial to bring another currency, such as Euros, or Canadian, to avoid this additional cost. Don't count on your bank cards working. US bank cards definitely don't work, and others aren't always available, or don't always work, so plan to have enough cash in hand.
Where to stay in Cuba?
There are hotels in Cuba, and resorts, but the most common form of accommodation is staying in casas particulares, or private homes. This means staying with locals in rooms, or sometimes even full apartments. You can find these on www.airbnb.com, along with many reviews, so you can make an educated choice of accommodation, based on description, pictures, and reviews. The way I went about choosing my casas was based on the close proximity to the towns, and the experiences I wanted to have based on my itinerary. One huge benefit of airbnb is that you actually see where the house is on the map, so you can decide on the location based on what you want. I wanted to stay close to the action in Old Havana, Trinidad, etc. so I chose accordingly. My advice is to book your casas as soon as possible, as they get booked quickly. I had many heartbreaks where I saved places, and when I went back to book, they were no longer available. You will find others, but it is a time consuming process, and can get frustrating, so once your itinerary is finalised, sit with your travel buddy and make the decisions!
Below are the places I stayed, and I highly recommend. I excluded the one in Trinidad, as although location-wise it was good, and the host was nice, I was not very comfortable in the room. It's probably because I got spoiled at the others. These are not affiliate links or anything, just places with wonderful people.
1) Havana: Casa de Sonia y Icha: Casa Sonia y Icha
This was the first casa we stayed at ideally located less than ten minutes walking distance from Old Havana. It was exactly as advertised. The room was very comfortable, and the food prepared by Icha was delicious. She even went out of her way to prepare breakfast much earlier for us when we had an early start to our Vinales trip. We stayed here for three nights, and the hosts we had, Icha and Rahul (Sonia's son) were extremely pleasant. Rahul speaks English well, so translation is not an issue. I highly recommend this casa because you truly felt at home, and I will definitely stay there again when I return to Cuba.
2) Cienfuegos: Relais Italia: Relais Italis
This was a lovely, clean, modern accommodation. It is ideally located a minute walk from the town of Cienfuegos. It is directly across from the Malecon, and the view from the balcony is stunning. Meals are also available, and it has more of a hotel feel, than a casa.
3) Vedado: House D'March
We chose this casa based solely on location. It is walking distance from FAC, which is where we wanted to go on our last night in Cuba. The pictures do not do the room justice. Daynelys was our host, and she was truly lovely, providing directions, an iron when we asked, and a delicious breakfast the next day before we headed to the airport.
Should you book tours & taxis beforehand or when you get there?
I booked my taxi from the airport through the casa, as they offered this service. It was at the regular price - CUC$25 from the airport to Havana. I did this because I don't speak the language well, and I am horrible with directions, even though the casa provide detailed directions, so I just wanted someone to meet me at the airport, and take me to my casa. This worked out perfectly for me. As soon as I walked out of the airport, there was a tall, good-looking red man holding a sign with my name, and the journey began. It was easy because they knew where they were going, and I could just sit back in my old classic car gaping in awe at my surroundings. They knocked on the door, and made sure we were inside, before they left. It was great. As for other tours and taxis, I booked the tours beforehand because I customised an itinerary, and found a tour company that could accommodate these requests. However, for transport between the towns, I organised that when I got there. My tour guide in Havana actually put us in touch with our tour guide who took us around to the different cities in the country (Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Vedado). To the beach, we organised a taxi the day before from a guy on the roadside. Every single taxi was always on time (five - fifteen minutes early actually). So, it's really up to you if you organise before, or during the trip. As a non-Spanish speaker, I wanted to arrange as much as possible beforehand, without having such a full itinerary that it did not allow for free time to simply wander. Also, by organising online, I was able to pay for more things with my credit card, thereby reducing the amount of cash I needed to have in Cuba. Look out for details of my full Cuba itinerary in another blog post.
1) Locally Sourced Cuba Tours
2) Leandro, our taxi-driver - if you're interested, let me know, and I can get a number for you!
The use of buses is much cheaper, but more of a hassle to get to the stops/stations, get a ticket, and a seat, as well as it's often unreliable. We read mixed reviews about the public transport system, so although it would have been cheaper, we chose to use taxis. This was for our peace of mind, and it made better use of our time. Taxis are faster, on time, comfortable, and allow for stops, etc. as necessary. It's a personal choice, and we were happy with our decision. A good point to note is that it is cheaper to travel around Cuba in groups, as the cost of a taxi is fixed for the entire car, so if you have more people to split the cost, it is more economical. It is very easy to catch taxis within towns, and once you're there, your casa/guide will be more than happy to put you in touch with taxi drivers. A word of advice, check the standard rates online between towns, and within cities, and have a copy of it with you, so you know what the rate should be, so you'll be aware if the price they're charging you is too high. This happens often with the short drops, so don't be afraid to bargain. On one of our trips from San Jose Market back to our casa in Havana, our guide had told us that it shouldn't cost more than CUC$7 for the ride. The taxis started at CUC$10 per person, and we refused, telling them we would pay CUC$7. When we started to walk off, they ran after us, and took us to our casa for the CUC$7. I don't believe in haggling down to the point where you're taking advantage of the person, but I also don't believe in being taken advantage of, so find a happy middle ground.
Is Cuba safe?
The streets of Cuba do not look safe from our Western eyes. The dilapidated buildings, with persons just loitering at corners can be intimidating, and it was at first, but we believed our guide on the first day, when he said the streets are safe. Don't worry. After that, we truly did feel safe. It was normal to have late dinners and be wandering back to our casa at midnight or later, and we felt safe. Havana is also very lively, so at no time was it ever deserted, and lonely. You should have a flashlight just in case though, because some corners can get pretty dark, and before you get your bearings, you'll need some light to read the street signs to navigate.
Can you have a proper Cuba experience if you don't speak Spanish?
It's true that most people speak Spanish, but some also speak a little English. You should learn some common Spanish phrases at a minimum. Also, download the Google Translate App, and ensure that it works without data. I know very basic spanish from high school, but this App was my best friend. In fact, one of my favorite persons in Cuba was our taxi driver Leandro who drove us around for a couple days who spoke no English. Yet, we got along. We communicated. It was lovely. However, you may think that you understand Spanish, but when these locals started speaking quickly, let me tell you..it's a different experience. My brain just froze. I was confused! No worries though, as when they realise you're confused, they slow down, and eventually you'll both understand each other enough to get along.
What's the customer service like in Cuba?
Again based on research, I expected lengthy waits at restaurants, but this was never the case. There was only one restaurant where the wait was lengthy, and they had live music, so it wasn't bad. Also, I've has similar wait times, or longer at restaurants in T&T, so I'm not going to knock the Cuban service based on that. I do have some favourite restaurants that I will also share in upcoming posts, so stay tuned.
Are persons constantly hassling you?
Now, I did tons of research, and everyone said to expect lots of people hassling you, and not taking no for an answer, and to beware of persons offering help because they'd then demand money for this assistance. We encountered none of this on our trip. In all the towns, there were old ladies in their nightgowns (just a few) who would approach you and beg, and try to be persistent. I'll be honest. I cannot stand to see people in this situation, in any country, so it was very hard for me to walk away from them. However, beyond this, while persons did shout out offers of tours, taxi services, and lots of restaurant recommendations, no one hassled us. Also, people were helpful, and friendly, always asking where we were from, and when we said Trinidad y Tobago, they were even friendlier. Maybe it was Caribbean solidarity? We even met a guy walking through Cienfuegos who had met the T&T female volleyball team (I think) in Havana recently, and told us he was most impressed with them.
Can you drink the water?
We were advised to only drink bottled water, and we heeded this advice. We were also told to be cautious about where we bought our drinks, as some bars make ice-cubes using unfiltered water. I'm happy to report that even though we did not have street food, we picked bars/restaurants based on the vibe, and we had no stomach issues. Water cost can add up though, so buy the 1 litre bottles, or even the larger bottles if you can carry it back to your rooms, and transfer it to smaller bottles for your day outings. We bought the 1 litre bottles whenever we found them, and the prices always varied. Except at the general stores/supermarkets, which we only discovered later in our trip. These stores sell them for CUC$0.70, the cheapest we found anywhere, so look out for these stores (convenience stores, supermarkets), and stock up!
What's the washroom/toilet paper situation?
There are public washrooms available at the different places in Cuba. The ones that cater to tourists are generally very well kept, being very clean, with toilet paper, etc. However, it is also common to encounter toilets without toilet seats, as when it breaks in Cuba, it is difficult to get a replacement. Hopefully, you're lucky and these are few, but hey, work on your squatting abilities from now. You should always walk with toilet paper though to be safe. Also, don't expect the same quality toilet paper as you're accustomed. It's often made from recycled paper, etc. Also, walk with small coins, or dollars to give the washroom attendants to clean the stalls for you, offer you toilet paper, or just for their service. All in all, it wasn't an issue for me, as I wasn't inconvenienced through any lack of facilities.
How expensive is Cuba?
The most expensive thing in Cuba is transportation. However, as bank cards don't work, you NEED to keep track of your money, as you definitely do not want to run out of cash. I tracked my expenses, and we did not run out of money. We actually ended up changing some cash back into Euros at the airport when we were leaving. I regretted this actually. It wasn't much, and I feel like it would have been better to just spend it in the Duty Free Shop in the airport, as the exchange rate was not very good. In fact, I'm certain that it didn't make sense, but as it was a small amount, I didn't bother to try to argue with my limited Spanish vocabulary.
Must pack items:
1) Copies of all important documents - passports, travel documents, cards, etc.
2)First aid kit - My first aid kit was a sandwich bag (to ensure I didn't overpack) of the necessities. There are pharmacies in Cuba, but it would not be easy to find, and you will probably not find the drugs you are accustomed using, so ensure you have enough of any necessary medication, as well as piriton, gravol, lomotil, pain-killers, band-aids, anti-burn cream, etc.
3) Sun-block - Again, I repeat..the heat from the sun is on another level!
4) Hat, although you will find very affordable ones to purchase around every corner, bring one to have from the start. I bought two while I was there!
5) Comfortable walking shoes - one pair of shoes and a sandals.
6) Sunglasses, if you don't wear glasses (If you do, hopefully they are tinted).
7) Toilet paper - walk around with this ladies (and gents!)
8) Wet Wipes - You will need this, whether to clean your hands, or just wipe your face. Again, it's really hot.
9) Towels - although there are towels at the casa, you will need your own for beach visits.
10) Bug-spray - we didn't use this, but we did have strange insect-looking bites sometimes. However, luckily, none of it was a big deal. We did see some tourists with some brutal looking ones though, so be prepared, especially if you're sensitive.
This was a crazy long post, but I wanted to cover everything I wanted to know before I went on the trip, so I hope I was able to do that. If you have any questions, or additional advice, please send me a message, or leave a comment. Let's help each other out. Feel free to share, and subscribe so you can get blog post alerts, as well as other emails with cool stuff in between.
Look out for more Cuba blogs about my time in Havana, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Bay of Pigs, and Cayo Blanco!