Everyone has a point of view on Cuba, the Caribbean dream destination. ‘Everyone’ says that you should visit the country before it’s too late. I think it’s already too late if you are dreaming of an untouched island that you have seen photos of.
While travelling, I neither do research about the place I am going to or use guidebooks. I just book the ticket and hope for the best. Cuba is not a difficult country to travel, even if you have no Spanish skills. I do not speak Spanish at all. I tried finding out if Cuba is different from other countries when it comes to travelling.
Here are the things I learned the “hard way” after travelling to Cuba for a couple of weeks.
Cuba Was A lot More Expensive Than I Was Expecting
Cuba because of its dual currency system is both very expensive, and also very cheap. It all comes down to which currency you use. Foreigners are technically (but not enforced) allowed to use the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). The CUC is pegged 1:1 to the United States dollar.
It is not hard to get the CUP (Cuban national peso) which the locals use. 1 CUC = 26,5 CUP.
Everything is priced on CUC and CUP. But the price doesn’t add up. For example – A meal may cost 5 CUC/15 CUP which just doesn’t make sense.
American Dollar Is Not King.
The American dollar is a horrible currency to bring to exchange in Cuba. There´s a 10% penalty tax on exchanging USD. It is much better to bring Euro or the English Pound since there´s no tax on exchanging those currencies.
It´s The Same Exchange Rate “Everywhere”
You get the same exchange rates everywhere because only banks are officially allowed to exchange money. There is no need to ask for a better rate like you would do in other countries. I felt that rates were much better in Havana than compared to any other cities.
Don’t Rely On Bank Cards
There are ATMs in the biggest cities but they only accept VISA cards. I saw quite a few ATMs in Cuba that were out of service or out of money.
I advise you to bring cash. I didn’t use my card during my stay in Cuba because I didn´t see a single shop or restaurant accepting bank cards.
Check If You Need A Visa
Only citizens of 19 different countries can obtain a visa free on arrival. All other will need to obtain a “Tourist Card” before arrival. If flying from Canada, you will have to get the “Tourist Card” onboard the flight. If flying from Mexico then will you have to buy the “Tourist Card” at the airport. I flew from Europe, so I HAD to obtain the “Tourist Card” from back home in Norway. The airline checked it both at check-in and during boarding.
Shared Taxi Is The Best Option
While the Viazul bus system in Cuba is fairly good and reliable. I think the shared taxi are the best ones. They are about the same price of the bus but faster. They even pick you up at your guesthouse or hotel for no extra cost.
They are also happy to stop for a toilet or drink break. Just talk to the owner of your guesthouse or reception and they will arrange it.
Everything Is On Cuba Time
Like in most countries in this part of the world, everything here is relaxed and laidback. Don’t expect anything or anyone to be on time. From a scheduled taxi pick-up from your guesthouse, or meeting local friends, they are never on time.
Prices go up when Cruise ships are in town.
There are quite a lot of cruise ships arriving in Cuba these days. Unfortunately, prices inflate a lot when they are in town.
I went to the same restaurant in Havana a few days in the row. During my 3rd visit, the price was double. When I was back at the restaurant 2 weeks later, the price was back to normal.
You Will Need Travel Insurance for Cuba
You are required to have travel insurance to be allowed to enter Cuba. You might be lucky not to get checked at the airport. But I and everyone else from my flight seemed to get checked at the airport.
The girl in front of me in the immigration got held back as she did not have a travel insurance. I am not sure if she was allowed to enter eventually.
Bring A Power Plug Adapter
The American 110V and the European 220V are common in Cuba. But for some reason, every place I stayed during my stay in Cuba did not have both. My first Casa in Havana only the American 110V plug.
My casa in Trinidad only have the European 220V plugs. To buy a power plug adapter in Cuba was a proper nightmare as every shop was out of stock.
There´s No Free Wifi
There´s no free WiFi in Cuba, even at nice resorts and hotels. And even paying for Wifi at nice hotel´s don’t mean it´s fast. The wifi at the most famous hotel in Cuba, the Hotel Nacional, is both the most expensive one and also the slowest one in the country.
Get Maps.Me app
There´s no free wifi and roaming will cost you a fortune; which makes google maps useless. Hence, the best app to get a map is the free app Maps.Me. Don’t forget to download the map before you arrive in Cuba and it will save you a lot of hassle.
Watch Out For Cigar Scams
In every Cuban city you will get approached by locals on the street claiming they got the offer of the century when it comes to cheap cigars. They will tell you that they can sell you authentic Cuban cigars for a fraction of the price as compared to the official stores.
But if the offers sound too good to be true, then it definitely is. 99.9% of the cigars sold on the street is of bad quality, so bad that they didn’t pass the quality test at the cigar factories.
Guesthouses and hostels in Cuba are called casa de particularies. 99% of them do not have online booking available, but the few offer booking through Airbnb.
Couchsurfing Is Illegal
If you normally use couch surfing while travelling, then you should know that it is strictly illegal in Cuba. Hence, there are very CS hosts in the country. If your host gets a couch, then they have to pay a very high fine. So if you are planning to go to Cuba on a low budget, save up some more money and forget about CS.
Drones Are Illegal
Camera Drones have fast become an extremely popular accessory. I even have my own. But don’t even think about bringing it with you to Cuba. It´s absolutely not allowed. You will be asked at the airport if you have one. If yes, then you will have to leave it at the custom and pick it up when leaving the country.
If you bring it illegally and get caught while flying it, then you will be imprisoned. A Canadian tourist was recently arrested for the same.
Even The Newest Guidebooks Are Very Outdated.
Things are changing fast in Cuba, and even the newest guidebook is already ridiculous outdated. I personally think guidebooks are always outdated but the ones for Cuba are particularly bad. Most of the restaurants mentioned are either closed or the owners are different. : many guesthouses have shut down as well. It´s just not worth they weight to carry it around with you.
Don’t Expect To Find Special Toiletries Or Necessary First Aid Stuff.
Bring everything you need when it comes to toiletries and first aid accessories. You will probably not find them in Cuba. The owner of one of my casa de particularly asked me if she could buy my simple first aid kit, including the simple plasters. Also, remember to bring suncream with you from back home.
Do Online Check In Before Going To The Airport!
Havana International Airport had the longest check-in queue at departures that I have ever seen anywhere in the world. The older man next to me on the flight said the check in took him 4hours. Our flight got delayed for 3hours because the check in was taking hours extra and according to the locals, this was completely normal.
Was I standing in the queue? NO.
Because I had done my homework and done online check-in for my flight. I was one of very few that had done that. So the check-in queue only took me less than 10min.
So do yourself a favour and do online check in if you don’t want to be standing in a long queue with an awful aircon.