Cuba is a very special country – not in a bad way, but in a fantastic experience kind of way.
When I left for Cuba back in 2013 I was working as a travel agent having Cuba as my main product. I believed I had a very good insight into Cuba, it’s diversity and difference to the European and Scandinavian communities I know so well. Fearless and wanting to really experience Cuba up close and personal. I learned a great deal on my journey which I will share with you.
Cuba is definitely not a spontaneous getaway location. A lot of planning needs to be done before entering the country.
Even though I was working with Cuba on a daily basis, I still had plenty to plan and investigate. Our journey was a good mixture of experiences, history and we would get close to the local people as well – check out our itinerary or check our movie 🙂
VISA and TRAVEL INSURANCE
First of all, you probably need to bring a visa/tourist card. Most countries are required to get a visa/tourist card to enter Cuba.
Here is a site with a list of countries requiring visas.
To obtain a tourist card can be a bit of a challenge. If you have bought a package journey with a travel agency, you will probably have it included in the package or at least as an option to add. You need to check that. If you are on your own, I will recommend to buy it at your local Cuban embassy. You cannot be sure that your airline will have tourist cards upon check-in.
Travel insurance is important when traveling to Cuba. It is a requirement from the government that all travelers must be in possession of a travel insurance to enter Cuba. The control of this is sporadic when going through customs. You need to bring documentation for your travel insurance. If you cannot show this, they make you buy one. No matter if you have one or not. Many people do have their insurance included on their credit cards, but you still need documentation.
PHONE & WIFI
If you need any travel documents for your trip in Cuba or maybe for your next destination, I recommend you print everything before flying to Cuba.
Cuba has a rather poor infrastructure when it comes to wifi coverage and it is almost non-existing. They do have internet cafes, but I will absolutely not recommend them. You will pay for a full hour, even if the connection gets cut after just a few minutes. That is just how it is.
If you really need a connection, I can recommend going to Hotel National. They have a good connection.
Signal for your phone is fine. Even when we were out in the middle of a huge lake in Bay of Pigs, I received messages and had a surprisingly good signal.
CUBAN MONEY AND FOREIGN CREDIT CARDS
If you are not aware of the two kinds of currencies Cuba have, it can be very confusing to visit Cuba. But don’t let that confuse you.
You will not be able to exchange in advance before your travel. Instead, bring Euros or British Pounds if possible – you will get the best exchange rate from them. Do not bring US Dollars, the exchange rate is really bad and you have to pay an extra fee, every time!
Both Havana and Varadero do have banks in the arrival hall in the airport so you can exchange to CUC. If the line is too long at the airport, you can take a bank or cadeca in the city. Just remember to bring your passport. For info, only one person allowed to enter the bank.
CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) will be the currency you will mainly be using as a foreigner. You will get the currency in banks and ATM´s without any problems. CUC is worth the same as USD – 1 CUC = 1 USD.
CUP (Cuban National Peso) is the local´s currency. It is not possible to entirely avoid this currency. We bought a cola for example from a local house like many others. Prices were stated in CUP, I paid in CUC and got some CUP back. The cola was cheap and I paid 1 CUC thinking that was sufficient. But 25 CUP equals 1 CUC so be prepared for that and pay attention, someone may easily scam you.
Cuba does not welcome credit cards issued from the US. You cannot use your Diner’s, AMEX, JCB or similar. I brought my MasterCard and VISA and since these were issued by a Danish Bank, they worked fine.
Cuba is not a shopping mecca with malls on every street corner. Far from it. Shops are actually few and far apart. You can find the large Plaza Carlos III in Havana. It is a 4-floor shopping mall with shops, restaurants and more. Bring what you need from the beginning, especially If you are on a round trip and only have few days in each city. Quality and price are definitely not correlated.
GET CLOSE TO THE LOCAL POPULATION
I will strongly recommend trying to live with a local family (casa particulares). If not on your entire journey then at least try it for a couple of nights. To stay in casa particulares doesn’t mean you have to eat with your host or watch TV – you will have your own private room with a bathroom. The only contact you will have is how you want your eggs or if you want some excursions. On my trip, we stayed 2 nights in casa particulares at Casa Maria Luisa in Viñales. It was a fantastic place and the family was nice. Families have to get approved to open a casa particular.
The Cubans are very nice, friendly and easy-going, but be aware and use your common sense.
You can be scammed in Cuba in different ways. Some really nice people can direct you to really expensive places or you can be approached by women carrying babies trying to convince you that only tourists are allowed to buy milk. When you go to the shop she suddenly also needs diapers and other stuff as well. I have heard lots of stories with broken down cars, sick family members and other things where nice and helpful foreigners are being taken advantage of.
Not really a scam, is the locals who dress up in colorful dresses, have the famous cigars or similar and before you can take a picture, they want to make a bit of money. Fair enough, these people are going to your picture album or Instagram feed after all. It is around 1-2 CUC so no big deal and it is nice to have a picture of two in a traditional outfit.
Are you planning a trip to Cuba – go explore!
You basically have two ways to explore on. By bus or using a rental car.
Cuba has a very nice bus network and the Viazul buses are nice and comfortable. They go across the entire country practically. You can go to the bus station and buy a ticket for the same day departure, but there is the risk the bus is full and you will have to wait until later during the day or even the day after. I recommend you check out www.viazul.com and buy your tickets beforehand. The site is also available in English.
RENT A CAR
With that said, I warmly recommend renting a car and go explore on your own. I did this myself and it was a huge experience. I traveled alone with my kids, then aged 10 and 12 and they still speak of this journey with the many detours we encountered.
There are some things however you need to be aware of when driving in Cuba. First of all, the roads are not in mint condition. You have large holes and bumps, even on the main roads. Second, you can experience hitchhikers and they can be quite offensive to get your car stopped. I have heard plenty of stories from my previous customers who picked up some locals and they got some pretty crazy experiences. They visited locals, saw a cigar maker and other things. When I was there alone with my kids, I did not pick up any locals.
Bonus info: I do not speak Spanish at all, so it is possible to explore without knowing a single Spanish word – the people I asked for direction helped me plenty using sign language and we arrived without too many problems to our accommodations 🙂
Because of bad roads and stray locals, I would not recommend driving around after dark.
TIPS TO HAVANA
When you are planning where to stay in Havana, I will recommend staying in Old Havana. You will be able to explore the city by foot. We had a nice time at Hotel Inglaterra. At this hotel, you will be right on the Parque Central and near beautiful picturesque pedestrian streets with popular bars and nice paladars (privately own restaurants). Take the Hop on/Hop off bus in Havana, it will take you to all the famous places and it is possible to hop off to explore more.
Ernest Hemingway had his other home in Havana and you can still sense his soul in the city – check out where to find it.
I know many people advise not to spend your time on the beaches in Cuba… I would disagree. It is perfect to use a couple of days by one of the most beautiful beaches in the world after exploring the many diversities of Cuba. Cuba has many small islands around with the pure white sand and wonderful shallow turquoise water. The most famous beach in Cuba is Varadero, cause it is only 150 km from Havana. Other famous beaches are on Cayo Levisa and Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo… people know the islands, but they are not that crowded yet.
Read about the best beaches in Cuba on Alltherooms.com
NO COMMERCIALS, THANKS
Imagine a country without any billboards or bus commercials. Cuba simply doesn’t have commercials. In a funny way, it makes Cuba very interesting in terms of clothing and different ways of expression.
You will not be able to locate a single Starbucks, McDonald’s or exclusive clothing brands either. Even Coca-Cola is absent on the island.
BRING YOUR OWN…
When you travel around Cuba, you run into old things and worn down stuff. I recommend you bring your own towel if you plan to stay in a casa particulares plus all your basic necessities. Also, you should bring your own scuba gear if you have plans to scuba dive.
NICE TO HAVE
No matter where I travel to in the world, I always bring tablets with digestion support and for better stomach balance. For Cuba especially it is recommended as the food is different.
You should also bring an insect repellant spray. It is just a good thing to have around and you can’t expect to find it locally. And of course, sunscreen and after sun lotion, no matter what time of the year you are planning to visit Cuba – the sun will be strong.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT CUBA?
The most popular period is from start November to April. This is the dry season with low temperatures and tolerable humidity. Average daily temperatures will be around 25-30 degrees C.
From early May to end of October is normally the wet season and from mid-July to end of October is the most common hurricane season.
I was personally traveling for 14 days in July and we only had 3 days with clouds and tropical rain. Rest was bright and sunny.
Are you planning a trip to Cuba – and did you find my tips useful?
Have you been to Cuba – can you relate?