Are you traveling to Cuba? Then this is for you! Cuba is a very unique and different destination, and lots of things we take for granted is not the same in Cuba. It’s isolated and one of the few countries where communism rules.
With that said, Cuba is a cool place to experience, and you will most likely have an unforgettable trip. But, there are some things that you should know before you travel to Cuba, and since I’ve been there recently, I will make things easier for you.
Here are 25 Things that you should know before traveling to Cuba!
Visa & Tourist Card
Most countries and citizens around the world will need a so called tourist card to be allowed entrance into Cuba. This card costs about 20 dollars if you buy it at the airport in most Latin American countries. If you travel from Europe, you’ll most likely have to apply for it at the Cuban embassy.
I flew from Mexico to Cuba, so I just purchased it at the airport for 20 dollars. It was quick and easy, and just a quick form to fill out. If I had done the same thing in Sweden through their embassy, it would have cost me about 100 dollars.
If you are uncertain if you can get it at your local airport, just contact the flight company that you travel with and ask them if they sell it, since it will be staff from the airline who’ll sell it.
Spanish is the official language in Cuba
Very few people speak English in Cuba. The majority can ONLY speak Spanish, and it is recommended to learn a few Spanish phrases and words before you travel to Cuba. In Havana, you’ll get by easy by using English and the same goes for Cienfuegos, Viñales, and Trinidad, IF you stick to tourist areas. Otherwise, you’ll have a hard time communicating and will have to rely on body language.
Best time to travel to Cuba
The high season begins in the middle of November and continues until March. This is the cooler period of the year and most of the times with good weather. From May to June is the rainy season but itäs also then connection where they harvest the tobacco fields, and multiple carnivals are being held. From July until November is hurricane season, which means it can be storming significantly.
From July until November is hurricane season, which means it can be huge storms. I would probably avoid this time of the year.
How to get around in Cuba
Guided tours or travel on your own?
Traveling around on your own in Cuba is a little complicated, even as a frequent traveler. Internet access is limited, and public transport is only for locals. Tourists are referred to expensive taxis or pricey coaches, or guided excursions.
The closest you can get to go on your own is through the “taxi colectivos”, which is a shared taxi. These cost about the same as the bus, but is faster and depart more frequently. If you are not an experienced traveler it can be quite frustrating to get around, at least if you travel on a budget. Normal taxis can be found quite easy, but they are much more expensive.
However, hotels and Casa Particulares will almost always arrange a taxi colectivo. And if you like to go on guided tours, try to book them while getting to Cuba through your accommodation. Then you get a more local experience and lower prices.
Local buses in Cuba is really only for locals, but if you speak Spanish, you can use them without problems. In the worst case, you’ll have to get off and jump on the next one. Tickets cost 0.05 CUC or equivalent in Cuban pesos.
The problem is actually finding the right bus, but if you have a host who speaks English they can often guide you quite well.
If you want to explore Cuba for real and even more budget friendly, lorries is the way to go. The journey will be bumpy, but that’s actually not the main problem. What is difficult is to find a truck driving past tourist areas.
Just as local buses tourists are not permitted to go with trucks, but as a tourist, you won’t be punished if the police come.
Book bus tickets online or a few days in advance
Viazul is the bus company that runs buses in Cuba. You can book tickets online, but the ticket must be printed in advance. Since the number of buses is limited, the tickets will most likely sell out during high season.
If you book the bus while you’re in Cuba, I recommend getting to the bus station a few days in advance, or ask your host to book. If you are lucky, there might be seats available on the day, but then maybe the times are inconvenient.
There are two types of taxi Colectivos. The ones that locals use and those driving to other cities or tourist destinations. Regular taxi colectivos are not supposed to pick up tourists, and they often have a fixed route. Locals go with them, and if you are lucky and get one that goes in your direction, it will be very cheap.
If you order a taxi colectivo, you’ll share with other tourists who are going to the same place as you. This usually costs about the same as the bus and these tend to be available when the buses leave, for those who don’t get tickets.
For excursions, it’s possible to share a taxi with others, such as Playa Ancon in Trinidad. But it runs only when there are four people going, or if you pay the full amount.
Old vintage cars
Classic old cars that are refurbished for tourists. These often run a fixed route or offer a guided tour of Havana. 1-hour costs between 15 CUC and 30 CUC per person. Some negotiations can be done, but most have fixed prices since they are so popular during the high season.
In Havana they are parked at the Hotel Inglaterra on the main square in Old Havana. Down by the water next to the book market, you can also find some old vintage cars that are waiting for tourists.
Money & Documents
Cuba has two currencies
Cuba’s currency is divided into two, one for tourists and one for locals. Tourists are mostly using the CUC (convertible pesos), that follows the dollar. 1 CUC is therefore about as much as US $ 1. The Cuban peso (Moneda Nacional) is worth much less, and it’s this currency that you should use if you pay to local places.
If you pay with CUC, you often get a shitty exchange rate and a higher price (eateries and shops). Therefore it makes sense to exchange some of your CUC into Cuban pesos. Both CUC and the Cuban peso are available at the “Casa de Cambio” (House of Exchange).
You can also withdraw money from ATMs, but it’s safer to do so at an exchange office when you arrive. At the airport, you can exchange a small sum, or book and pay for transportation to accommodation in advance.
Print all documents in advance
Getting hold of documents or other documents via the Internet can be difficult and take a long time in Cuba. So, if you don’t already have all the important documents printed, I strongly recommend to do it before you go.
Also take print screens of addresses and places you want to go to. It will make things easier.
Insurance is compulsory
By law, it’s a requirement to have insurance when traveling to Cuba. They don’t always check this, but if they ask, you must be able to show proof that you are insured during the journey. Otherwise, you have to buy a local travel insurance.
Currently, only VISA card are working in Cuba. No debit/credit cards with American ties are accepted.
Tell your bank that you are traveling to Cuba
Since Cuba is such an isolated place, it is good to tell your bank that you’re going there. Otherwise, there is a risk that your debit/credit card will be blocked.
Do not exchange from USD
There’s a penalty charge when exchanging US dollars. 10% is added in addition to the other charges. Have instead Euros or Canadian dollars which will give the best exchange rate.
Accommodation & Food
Casa particulares or Hotels?
Casa Particulares are like a guest house where you live in the same house as the owner, or in an apartment that is approved by the government. These people have a special license and are allowed to host tourists. Food is usually offered for 5 CUC per meal and person.
To stay at a Casa Particulares, can be better standard than hotels and often cheaper. Plus, you get a more authentic experience and a chance to learn more about the Cuban culture and their traditions.
The hotels are rarely in the same class as the number of stars indicates. There are scores of 4-5 star hotels that would maximum get 1-2 stars in Europe. Almost all the hotels are outdated and overpriced. The service is usually not the best either, unlike Casa Particulares where services need to be on top. Otherwise, their tourist license will be withdrawn.
You can find Casa Particulares on site or better book it in advance via Airbnb.
Cuban food is not something to write home about
The shortage of groceries, materials, and products in general, have resulted in a lack of food culture. Mostly you’ll see fast food of poor quality such as pizza and burgers. The only exception is actually fish & seafood, especially lobster is delicious and a specialty along the coast.
Sure you can find good food, but it’s an exception rather than something common.
As Casa Particulares, though restaurants. These are privately owned restaurants, which are cheaper and tastier than regular state-owned restaurants that do not care about service or quality. The only snag is that Paladares Particulares often stay below the radar and no signs that they are.
You can ask your host if Paladares near where you live. On these get far more value for their money.
The price level is higher than the value
Before you go, you should prepare yourself that you will not get value for your money in Cuba. Ordinary Cuban workers earn about 20-50 dollars a month. Even so, one dish at a tourist restaurant can cost as much as a whole month’s salary.
The price level does not match the country’s wage level as it does in many other countries. Cuba is not a cheap country to travel in since everything tourists do is priced for tourists.
Do not drink the tap water in Cuba
Buy bottled water to avoid stomach problems when traveling around Cuba. It’s simply not worth risking it. The tubes are additionally old in many places, and even if there shouldn’t be any danger drinking the tap water, there may be leaks and toxic substances from the old pipes.
Ordinary shops are very rare
If you think you can get everything you want to in Cuba, you couldn’t be more wrong. There are not even regular stores, just a few. Sometimes you have to walk far to even be able to buy water. The shops in Cuba have a limited supply and one should not be surprised if they run out of stock.
The only things that seem to be of abundance are cigarettes and rum. In other words, you want to bring your favorite snacks since they most likely won’t be available to buy in Cuba.
Internet and other things good to know about
How to get Internet in Cuba
Wi-Fi is something that most people take for granted today, but in Cuba, it’s a little different. Wi-Fi is limited, expensive and fairly complicated to use. Admittedly, it will be easier when you know how it works, but do not expect a stable connection.
In all honesty, however, the speed was way better than expected, that will say when the internet actually worked.
Step 1: Go to the ETECSA office. These can be found in all major cities. They are the only ones selling Internet cards. However, there are Cubans in a pure entrepreneurial spirit that has bought several cards and then sell them to tourists for a higher price.
If you go to the parks or places where Wi-Fi connection is available, you are sure to be asked if you want to buy an internet card. But, it’s cheaper and safer to do so by an ETECSA office. However, you should be prepared to queue. It took us an hour before we got inside, and if you get there later in the day, the cards may be sold out for the day.
Step 2: Once you bought a card, just follow the instructions. But first, you need to find a place where Wi-Fi connection is available. It is only larger parks and larger hotels which have internet access.
Step 3: Log off when you are done, otherwise, your time will be up. Each card has a period of either 30 minutes, 60 minutes or 5 hours. The easiest is to buy several cards with less time, so you don’t have to worry about losing time if you can’t log out.
If the Internet connection is poor, it may take a little while before you manage to log out. If you log in via the hotel, you can log out by visiting http://184.108.40.206, if your browser does not allow you to connect, choose you to connect anyway despite the security risk.
Cuba is not dangerous, but various scams are common
There are some rumors that Cuba is a dangerous country, particularly when it comes to Havana. But in tourist areas you shouldn’t feel insecure. However, one should be vigilant about overprices and different tricks that they use to make more money.
A common trick is to give back the wrong change, or offer a useless exchange rate of CUC.
You can trade your stuff for services and goods
Since the supply in Cuba is very limited, Cubans have had difficulty to get a hold of Western products. So, if you have old cell phones and other things that are not of particular value to you. For example, old clothes of American brands, you actually have a golden opportunity to exchange them for services and local goods.
It’s likely that Cubans will come forward and ask if you can spare some things that they can’t buy in their stores.
Use offline maps
Google Maps are of great use or other apps that offer offline maps. But be sure to download them before you arrive in Cuba. This helps avoid getting lost and you’ll be able to explore more freely. But, please remember to download maps!