15 Travel Tips for Cuba

15 Travel Tips for Cuba

Cuba was one of the countries I was looking forward to most when we planned our Latin America adventure. Unfortunately for me, while I did enjoy Cuba, I think it could have been a lot better. And it wasn’t Cuba’s fault, it was mine. Daniel and I came unprepared and made many mistakes. Bad for us but good news for you because hopefully you can learn from our mistakes and have an awesome time. Alas, we’d like to present to you our 15 Travel Tips for Cuba (and all the lessons learned for the next time).

1. Research and plan ahead

Spending 6.5 months in Latin America can make you a bit cocky. When we first started travelling, we did a fair bit of planning. Never in too much detail but an idea of the main cities or towns we’d visit and we’d tweak as we’d go along. By the time we got to Central America, we pretty much winged it all. For most people, the language barrier is half the battle. So when we arrived in Cuba and could speak Spanish, we didn’t think that it’d be much of a problem just winging it. Wrong. Oh so so so wrong. We arrived in Cuba with nothing more than a casa booked in Havana which meant our week there was not spent wisely and neither was our money. Wifi is limited and can sometimes be a hassle to access so if you have favourite blogs (like ours – shameless plug), just save it to iBooks or something equivalent on your phone so you can access it when offline. Pick up a guidebook and really plan ahead.

A couple told me about a tour you could pre-book with a driver in Havana who was a part of the Cuban Revolution. He takes you to all the significant sights, gives you the interesting facts and shares personal experiences. Definitely something I wish I knew about beforehand!

Travelling to CUBA? Come prepared with our 15 travel tips for Cuba!

2. Don’t try to fit too much in

In our 1 week, we squeezed in Havana, Viñales and Trinidad. Throw in on top of that a flight delay and long bus rides, we effectively had 2 days in each city. So rather than enjoying any place fully, we felt like headless chickens, rushing the entire time and actually missed out on so much. My recommendation is (again) plan ahead. Pick where you want to go, what you’re going to do there and even look into some interesting tours (and make note of contact details). There is so much to see and do so you will enjoy yourself much more if you take your time.

Cuba travel tips

3. Spend a day in Centro Habana

Or if you’re up to it, just stay here during your time in Havana. Centro Havana is midway between Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Vedado but far less touristy. It may feel like a bit of a sketchy neighbourhood but you shouldn’t have any problems. Centro Havana is filled with old, run down buildings that haven’t been restored (unlike Old Havana), street vendors, people playing music and dancing in the streets. You’ll see a lot people sitting outside their houses or standing on balconies enjoying people watching or chatting with their neighbours. This was also one of my favourite activities. Also, if you like to dance, this is the place to be since a lot of the dance clubs are here.

15 must read travel tips before going to Cuba.

Centro Habana at sunset

4. Bring plenty of cash and only selected currencies

You can’t pay by card in most places in Cuba so you will need to bring plenty of cash to exchange. The following currencies are accepted in Cuba: Canadian Dollar (CAD), Swiss Franc (CHF), Euro (EUR), British Pound (GPB), Japanese Yen (JPY), Mexican Pesos (MXN) and the US Dollar (USD). However, if you exchange the USD, you are penalised 10-15% so you will save money exchanging to any of the other currencies prior to coming to Cuba. Bring more than you think is enough and some extra for emergencies. There are ATMs but US Bank cards are NOT accepted. This includes Citibank for any Aussies who use it. It’s better to bring more than enough cash (in the correct currency) and change back anything unused.

Read:  L I M A

Note: Cuba has a dual currency system – pesos national (CUP) and pesos convertibles (CUC). 1CUC is 25CUP so you really need to check your banknotes. The CUP banknotes have national heroes printed on them and the CUC have national monuments. The CUC is tied to the US dollar and is what most things will be charged in.

5. Change money at the airport

Up until I travelled to Cuba, my blanket rule was to never change money at the airport because the exchange rate is always significantly lower. However, the exchange rate at the airport in Cuba was the highest rate we received the entire time. Since you’re already going to be waiting in line for a while, just exchange as much you as think you’ll need to avoid finding a bank or casa de cambio to exchange more (opening times and lines are always a pain).

15 must read travel tips before going to Cuba.

Typical line to change money at a casa de cambio

6. Stop by the bus terminal after leaving the airport

Viazul, the main tourist bus company, is on the way from the airport to Centro or Old Havana so ask your taxi driver to stop here so you can buy your bus tickets to your next city/town. Why? Bus tickets can only be purchased in person so save yourself the return taxi trip to the terminal.

7. Stay in a casa particular 

You pretty much have 2 main options for accommodation in Cuba: hotels or casa particulares. A casa particular is a person’s house. You stay in a private room, usually with a private bathroom and air conditioning but won’t have access to the kitchen (maybe if you ask nicely). Make sure to lock any valuables away carefully (we know someone who had money taken from their room).

Read:  M Á N C O R A

When you are staying at your first casa, your host will likely ask you where you’re going next and tell you that their friend/cousin/sister/uncle has a casa there too. I get it, it’s hard to say no when you’re staying at someone’s house and they really try to push you to book there and then. Here’s the thing, everyone has a casa these days so it is so much cheaper to show up at the bus terminal and pick one of the places being waved around in your face (except for Havana, you should have a place booked in advance). You can also negotiate prices. To put it in perspective, we paid 30CUC in Havana without breakfast, 20CUC in Viñales without breakfast and 15CUC in Trinidad with breakfast (all prices for 2 people).

15 must read travel tips before going to Cuba.

8.  Cuba is not cheap, especially not for tourists

And especially if you’re travelling solo. Casa prices are usually for the room, regardless if you’re staying alone. You should have some success bargaining the prices down but these instances are when a travel buddy comes in handy. Restaurants aren’t cheap with most meals in restaurants costing on average 10CUC each plus tips. If your casa offers meals then you might save money eating there instead. Having a home cooked meal is always so much nicer too!

Average costs for us:
• Casas: 15-30CUC for 2
• Breakfast at casa: 4-5CUC per person
• Dinner at casa: 8CUC per person
• Wifi: 2CUC per hour
• Beer/mojitos: 1.50 – 3CUC
• Meals: 10CUC per person

Cuba travel tips

Meal at our casa for 8CUC per person

9.  And with that, nothing comes free!

We met so many lovely and helpful strangers in our 6 months in Latin America. Most people just wanted to help out and make things easier for us. For example, in San Salvador, we were dropped off in the wrong place for a bus we needed to catch. A local man could see that we were confused and walked with us to the correct stop about 10 minutes away. If we asked locals for tips of things to do or places to see, there was rarely ever a catch. They would make recommendations or show us and leave it at that. We found that Cubans were very friendly but almost every time, they would ask for money at the end.

Read:  THE AMAZON

Take this man who approached me and said “where are you from? Let’s take a photo!” I genuinely thought he was a guard, Daniel took the photo and then he told us we had to pay him for the picture.

15 must read travel tips before going to Cuba.

10. Bring a phrasebook or learn some basic Spanish

Although there is a fair bit of English spoken in Cuba, knowing some basic Spanish will:
a) Make things less awkward at your casa given many hosts don’t speak English
b) Help you to bargain prices (taxis, shopping etc)
c) Help you get around in smaller towns where there is less English being spoken.

11.  Take tourist buses for trips over 4-5 hours

The tourist buses are very comfortable, have air-conditioning and make various meal and toilet stops along the way.

Costs:
Bus from Havana to Viñales: 12CUC per person, approx. 5 hours
Bus from Viñales to Trinidad: 37CUC per person, approx. 10 hours

12. Take collectivos for trips under 4-5 hours

A collectivo is a shared taxi. The price of a collectivo is usually the same as the bus ticket but it will get you there faster and straight to your destination. However, you obviously don’t get as much leg and seat room as a bus so we recommend this option if you’re travelling under 5 hours for the sake of comfort.

15 must read travel tips before going to Cuba.

13. Enjoy being disconnected

One of the best things about Cuba is that internet isn’t widely available. You’ll especially notice this in busy neighbourhoods because people aren’t glued to their phones and instead are hanging out on the streets together!

15 must read travel tips before going to Cuba.

14. But if you really need to connect…

Wifi is generally available in select locations (such as main plazas in smaller towns) and hotels. You need to buy a wifi card (2CUC per hour) fromLook for ETECSA telecommunications. This is usually the building with a long line out front. If you can’t be bothered waiting at the building, you will also find guys on the street reselling the cards for 3CUC per hour.

15. Have your camera ready!

Cuba is filled with great photo opportunities. As you’re walking through the streets, you’ll see cars, buildings and people that you’ll want to photograph. And that could all be iwthin 5 minutes of leaving your casa! You won’t miss the beautiful vintage cars in pristine condition but note that if you want a ride in some of the fancier models, you’ll be forking out a fair bit.

15 must read travel tips before going to Cuba.

So there we have it, our 15 tips for Cuba travel. We’d love to hear some of your experiences or what you think in the comments below. For anyone travelling solo to Cuba, also check out See Her Travel’s advice on solo travel!

15 Comments

  1. November 10, 2016 / 12:53 am

    I totally agree with this, I just got back from a trip to Cuba and really didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped! I found it expensive (except the food) and quite stressful. But it is still a beautiful country, and I think if I went back I’d be much more prepared! Great tips for the first timer 🙂

    • November 10, 2016 / 9:18 pm

      Totally second you on the stressful part and being more prepared…waaaay more prepared for next time!

  2. thischicafrican
    November 10, 2016 / 9:07 am

    I love your pictures. Thanks for the heads up on bringing cash. I don’t know about not trying to fit too much into my schedule. I really need to work on this. We’re going to Cuba mid next year and this post just came in the right time.

    • November 10, 2016 / 9:19 pm

      Thank you and glad it helped! Things just happen at a slower pace there so you’ll enjoy yourself more if you embrace the pace and go slow 😉

  3. November 10, 2016 / 9:14 am

    Perfect tips! Thanks for sharing! i love your pictures. Cuba is on my bucket list… i save these travel tips for sure 🙂

  4. November 10, 2016 / 9:20 am

    I love Cuba, I was there back in 2007 and it was the beginning of 7 months overseas and my first solo travel adventure. As a naive 21 year old I booked a tour and so glad I did. It’s one of the few organised multi-day tours I’ve ever done but looking at what you’ve just written and what I saw when I was there I’m so glad I did. Definitely a destination for some advance planning!

  5. November 10, 2016 / 9:39 am

    Great tips for Cuba, especially about conversions and getting penalized with USD. so useful as its a high priority on the bucket list. P.S. your photos are awesome.

  6. November 10, 2016 / 2:08 pm

    I am absolutely DYING to visit Cuba so thank you for sharing these super practical and helpful tips! Which places in Cuba would you recommend visiting and in which order?

    • November 10, 2016 / 9:28 pm

      It really depends on how much time you have and what you’re interested in doing. You’re flying into Havana so of course, that’s a must. Some people say that you can spend over a week here and though I agree, I like branching out to at least one other place. Personally, my fave was Trinidad – it has a mixture of city, beach and nature activities. If you have under a week, I’d go to Havana and then Viñales. If you have over a week, then I’d suggest Havana, Viñales then Trinidad before heading back to Havana for your flight home. This because there is a bus that goes from Viñales to Trinidad but not the other way around. Hope that helps!

  7. carlywayward
    November 10, 2016 / 3:05 pm

    I want to go to Cuba so badly! Especially since Trump was elected, I’m very concerned that he’s going to mess up the tentative thing we’ve got going with Cuba!! This was a great article!

    • November 10, 2016 / 9:30 pm

      I don’t think you have to worry so much 🙂 If you fly through Mexico, you just pick up a visa at the airport and won’t have any issues coming in and out of Cuba. I was surprised with the amount of tourists from the US in Cuba because of how taboo it’s made out to be.

  8. November 10, 2016 / 3:21 pm

    Pinned this for future reference. Great tips – I’m really hoping to visit Cuba next summer. It’s always been an out of reach place for Americans until recently, and I’d love to visit before it gets oversaturated with American tourists. Thanks for the tips about the casa particulars – I will probably go that route instead of hotels, so those are great things to know. If I only have 4-5 days there total, which places would you recommend visiting? Thanks!

    • November 10, 2016 / 9:34 pm

      Hi Diana, thanks! I’d suggest just going to Havana and Viñales. Viñales is a super small town where you can do a tour on horseback (we paid 12CUC) through the tobacco plantations, coffee farms and sugar cane fields. It’s a great way to see the countryside and learn about the production side of cigars and coffee (free samples too). I think this is a nice mix of city and country. There’s also a hop on/hop off bus tour that drives around the area for 5CUC. Definitely stay in a casa, it’s a great experience and much cheaper than hotels.

  9. November 10, 2016 / 8:48 pm

    Really love all these tips, actually really specific and helpful over than some pretty vague lists that you see. Haha, I know what you mean about the people always asking for money (thought not to that extent ahha, can i have a photo… now pay for it… whaaat?) Sounds like a crazy and beautiful country.

  10. Traveling Dreads
    November 11, 2016 / 11:10 am

    I’m glad you got your page up again. I really enjoyed this post about Cuba, a place I’ve always wanted to go. Some very valuable information! I’ll definitely heed your warnings when I plan my trip there. Thanks! And great pics!!

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