What you need to know before you travel to Cuba.
First off let me say I do not claim to be a travel expert or guru. This article is based on my personal experience. My intention is that this might help someone out there who needs some advice and help before they travel like I did before I left. Everybody's experience will be different. Always use discretion and do your own additional research to compliment the information I provide here.
I recently went on a trip to Cuba which I enjoyed every minute of. I've been asked a lot of questions about my experience and what it was like travelling as a woman to this beautiful and interesting Caribbean island. How did I get around? Where did I stay? What did I eat? What did I do? Here's what I think you should know if your planning to take a trip.
Skip the Hotel and Stay at a Casa Particular
Don't go to a hotel! You probably will be disappointed and it's not worth your money. How do I know? I did it. Casa Particular's are VERY popular in Cuba. It's basically like a home stay or bed and breakfast where you can stay with a family or rent an apartment/home by yourself. I tried both a Casa Particular and a resort and my Casa Particular experience far outweighed my stay at the resort. It was the best! Actually the only thing I liked about staying at the resort was the beach. The food was bad and it wasn't very clean in the main areas of the hotel. I rented an apartment in the Vedado neighbourhood in Havana and spent most of my nights there. For the last part of my trip I decided to book a few nights at a resort in Varadero so I could have some time on the beach. My nights at the apartment were a lot cheaper and I had my privacy and freedom to do what I wanted. The neighbourhood was safe and welcoming. In the mornings we would walk around and look at all the beautiful old mansions as we went to get breakfast and sometimes in the evenings after grabbing dinner. Staying local is more authentic and that's the way I like to travel. Resorts get boring to me after a couple of days.
Eat at Local Restaurants
I don't know about you but Cuban food was the one thing I was the most skeptical of mostly because of how others described it. I was prepared for some pretty boring and tasteless cuisine and I could see how this could be true if your staying on a resort. Off the resort I couldn't be more wrong though and I was pleasantly happy to discover how great Cuban food is. I think part of it is knowing where to go and part being open and adventurous to trying new things. We would sometimes walk around looking for places to eat and when a place looked interesting we would check it out. Asking your waiter or waitress what they recommend is a good idea. Cubans are very friendly and more than willing to share recommendations on what to eat. Be mindful that the price for food varies depending on where you eat. On average a meal at a local walk in restaurant for me costed about 5-7 CUC and this included a drink. At more higher end restaurants expect to pay around 15-25 CUC for a meal including a drink. I did splurge on my last night in Havana and got a lobster dinner for 23 CUC which is still cheap compared to a lobster dinner here in Canada. (Read up on Cuban currency below)
Learn Some Spanish
Ummm this is veryyyyy important. Cubans are not gonna switch it up and start speaking English so easy. If the person your talking to doesn't know how to speak English then you better know some basic Spanish! This will help you a lot whether it's taking a taxi and having to provide directions, eating at a restaurant and ordering off the menu (if there are no English translations), or even talking to a teller and counting your money at the bank. I often found Cubans who didn't speak English would just talk straight Spanish to me and expect me to understand. Learn some basic Spanish it will go a long way!
Tip: Write the address of where you want to go on a piece of paper and show it to your taxi driver. Sometimes my pronunciation was off when I would try and direct them in Spanish and they couldn't understand. I found this helped me a lot. It was actually kind of funny at times.
Bring Enough Money
Cuba has two currencies. The Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). CUP's are mostly used by locals and CUC's are mostly used by tourists. 1 CUC is equivalent to roughly 25 CUP. Tourists can use CUP's for things like street food and at some really small restaurants or shops. For most things you will be paying in CUC's. Make sure when you are bargening the price of street food or your taxi fare you make it clear from the beginning which currency you want to work with.
Bring all the money that you will need on your trip before you go. Don't depend on credit cards or ATM's being available because they are unreliable and if your credit card is connected to an American institution it won't work.
You can exchange money at the airport, hotels, banks, or state currency exchange offices called CADECA's. Have a budget of what you expect to spend daily and plan out your activities. A daily budget of $50-75 was more than enough for me and that's with me "splurging" on touristy type things like going to a museum, taking a hop on hop off bus tour around Havana, and eating at a higher end restaurant for dinner in one day. Also remember that your activities each day will change. One day might be really busy and the next day might be really low key. Plan accordingly and it's always good to try and have a little cash left over just in case. It's better than running out and having no money.
Don't carry all your cash with you at once. Leave some in a safe place at home and when you go out put your money in different places so if you loose it or get pick pocketed then you won't be stranded and broke!
Prepare to be Offline
Internet is not easy to access and as readily available as it is here in Canada. Be prepared to go without internet for awhile. You can only access wifi at public hotspots throughout the island (I walked to the park or had to go down to the hotel lobby at the resort). You will need to purchase an Etesca card to gain access which will cost you about 2-3 CUC for an hour. Use it wisely because once the hour is up you will be without internet and have to purchase a new card.
I downloaded all the offline apps, webpages and PDF's that I would need before I left. I only really used the internet to check in with people at home and access social media. The funny thing is I actually didn't mind being disconnected. It was a nice break and I was so focused on absorbing everything around me that I didn't have time to be bored or think about it. Embrace being disconnected and actually talk to people! You might learn something new.
The following apps helped me a lot during my trip.
- Maps.me - This is a must. Download the cuba map before you go and use it whenever you need to go somewhere. I used this everyday in Havana especially when I needed to get to and from home.
- Google Translate - When the Spanish gets too complicated and you need some assistance this will save you.
- Cuba Travel Guide - I learned a lot about Cuba with this app. You can read up on Cuban history and where to visit. There is also a handy phrase book. Read up before you go!
- GPS My City: Havana - Want to explore Havana on foot and have a virtual guide walk along with you? This is it!
Overall my trip was amazing. Cuba was way more than I expected it to be in my head. I plan to make this a regular destination for myself. I got to see Havana, Vinales and Varadero during this trip and I can't wait to go back and explore more of the island on a solo trip.
My final advice? Stay local, talk and interact with people and be willing and prepared to disconnect from the outside world. Carve out your own path and judge this island based off of your own experience. Cuba is a Caribbean gem stuck in time. Embrace it and enjoy it.
Now cha cha on and have fun!