Cuba is an exciting destination and offers more than a typical Caribbean holiday.
The island has a back-in-time appeal with retro cars in the streets and where the revolution seems to be pretty much alive. It’s the perfect destination for those who want immersion in history, but also enjoy the beach while having a refreshing drink and spending the nights dancing salsa.
The Ministry of Tourism of Cuba has announced that 5 million tourists are expected to visit the small island in 2018. The number represents a 32 percent increase if compared to the 3.3 million people who chose Cuba as a holiday destination in 2017.
Although Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida, the travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba made the island sounds like a distant dream for many. In 2017, 600 thousand people from the US visited the small island.
Those from the States who choose to visit Cuba have to select one of the 12 travel authorized categories. The most popular choice is among the independent travelers is “Support the People of Cuba” category, which will give the tourist more freedom to interact with the people in the country.
Cuba is a fantastic country, but it can also be confusing for those who are visiting it for the first time. The island is more than a holiday, but spending some days at the island can help you to see the world differently. In fact, it’s impossible to be 100 percent prepared for Cuba. You will understand it once you get there.
22 CUBA IS MUCH MORE THAN HAVANA
Havana receives most of the international flights and is probably your first stop if you decide to visit Cuba, and many tourists decide to concentrate the whole holiday in the country's capital. It’s not a mistake to do that, since Havana is a lively city, with great nightlife and many sightseeing. There is also the option to arrange a day trip to beaches nearby. The most popular among tourists is Varadero.
However, if you have at least one week, it’s possible to see enjoy Cuba in different ways. You can visit almost unexplored beaches, ride a horse through the fields and visit other historic cities.
21 CUBA HAS TWO CURRENCIES
Many people don’t know, but Cuba has a dual currency. When traveling in Cuba, you will often see price tags with both of them: CUPs and CUCs.
CUCs is the one used by tourists and that’s the currency they will give you at the exchange house. CUCs are accepted everywhere and you can use it to pay accommodation, buses, internet (yes, there’s internet), restaurants and tourist attractions.
However, the official currency among locals is CUPs. You can use it on regular public transportation, markets, or skip the touristic area and buy food at local paladares. However, you should be aware that it has a different value than the touristic currency. While one dollar is equal to one CUC, the same amount is worth 24 CUPs.
20 THE BEACHES ARE BETTER THAN WE THINK
In Havana, many people will advise you to buy a day trip to Varadero, a beach that is approximately 2 hours from the city. The combination of white sand and blue water is impressive, but getting a place under the sun is not easy and you will have to share it with hundreds of people.
But once you arrive in Cuba you can choose one of the Cayos. They receive fewer tourists and you can enjoy an almost unexplored beach, with transparent and warm water. The most famous are Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cayo Levisa, Cayo Santa Maria and Cayo Las Brujas.
19 USING US DOLLARS ISN'T THE BEST IDEA
Most tourists choose to bring Euros when traveling to Cuba and change it at the Cadecas (Exchange houses), found at the airport and in all cities. Unlikely many countries, there are no different rates among the exchange houses in Cuba, since they are controlled by the government.
Although the US dollar is a strong currency in almost every country you go, it doesn’t apply to Cuba where the Cadecas charge a 10 percent fee for converting US Dollars to CUCs, the currency for tourists. Many US tourists bring currency from Canada, which has no extra charges.
It’s also common to see tourists exchanging US dollars with taxi drivers and souvenir shops.
18 THE MUSEUMS ARE TERRIFIC
While walking in Havana, you will feel like walking in an open-air museum. The vintage cars and the architecture will drag you back to somewhere in the 50s. That alone makes Havana a perfect destination for people who are affectionate by history.
There are places like the chocolate and the tobacco museum that will help people understand how those products are essential to the island. But the most important of them is the “Museo de la Revolución,” which focuses on the revolution and where it’s possible to learn more about the most important chapter of local history. Don’t be surprised when you bump into a section mocking foreign presidents.
17 THE IMPORTANCE OF BRINGING FOOD WHEN VISITING THE CAYOS
Once you decide to a day trip to the Cayos, people will advise you to pack your food. Make sure that besides the sunscreen, you also bring water, sandwiches and some fruits. You will usually pay to enter the Cayo and it will give you the right to have a meal in the Cayo’s resort. It sounds like a reasonable option since there are no other restaurants over the Cayos.
However, they hold a reputation of not serving the best food and it often doesn’t look fresh. If you want to buy a snack, it will also be overpriced. So if you're used to being careful with food when traveling, it’s better to have some options inside your bag.
16 THERE IS INTERNET IN CUBA, BUT DON’T ASK FOR THE WIFI PASSWORD
Yes, you can find internet in Cuba in all the cities you visit. You will be surprised to find out that it’s fast enough to make a video call, post pictures or access your bank account. But don’t ask for a Wifi password at the hotels and restaurants.
The internet is only available on specific spots, usually a plaza (square). It’s easy to recognize it since there are many people there with phones and laptops. You need to buy a card from an official shop or hotel, which costs 3 CUCs for one hour and sometimes you need to show your passport.
At the wifi spots, there is also a sort of black market, where people sell the cards.
15 FORGET ABOUT CREDIT CARDs AND ATMs
Credit cards can be a useful tool when traveling, but they're useless in Cuba. On rare occasions, they work in hotels, but even in the most touristic places, they only accept cash. When traveling in Cuba, make sure you always have money with you to pay for tours, restaurants, and entrances.
It’s possible to withdraw money from ATMs and there will be a 3 percent charge every time you do the transaction. However, it’s common to find tourists complaining that they don’t work. In some cases, even if the withdraw doesn’t work, the money can disappear from your account and it’s a headache to try to make things clear with your bank while traveling.
14 THE UNIQUE EXPERIENCE OF A STAY WITH A LOCAL FAMILY
There are hotels everywhere. But if you want to know more about the culture and be closer to people, you should stay in a Casa Particular (Bed & Breakfast) managed by a local family. They usually charge $25 per night and serve breakfast for $5 or $10.
If you travel to different cities, people advise to book the first Casa Particular and find the other ones during the travel. Booking a place online usually costs twice the price the B&B charges and sometimes the best houses are not available online.
More than good prices, it’s an excellent opportunity to meet different families and understand more of the local culture. The only place you can’t find a Casa Particular in on Cayos since there are just hotels there.
13 GOTTA BE CAREFUL WITH TOURIST SWINDLES
The people of Cuba are often amicable and outgoing. But especially in Havana, you should be careful with some scams. People often approach tourists claiming that today there is an annual festival of cigars (or salsa, or rum) and will take you there, charging a high amount. They will bring you to a regular place, since there is no festival. Also, the only way to buy authentically is by going to official shops or buying it at Viñales farms.
It’s also common that a friendly person will approach you trying to help and sound friendly while you walk. By the end, don’t be surprised if the person asks you a tip for tour guide service.
12 IF YOU ARE A WOMAN TRAVELING ALONE, BE PATIENT
Cuba has more positive than negative things if you are a tourist. However, if you are a woman traveling alone, you should be prepared for constant annoyance. It will happen mostly in the streets, but it will also come from the taxi drivers, tour guides, waiters attending you in a restaurant or even security guards while you are walking in a museum.
They will say that you are “muy linda” (very pretty) or ask if you want a boyfriend. It happens to almost all solo female travelers in Cuba, especially in big cities like Havana and Trinidad.
11 THERE'S AN AMAZINGLY UNIQUE NIGHTCLUB
Cuba is well known for the salsa music and the Caribbean rhythm is indeed everywhere. It’s an excellent place for those who love dancing and partying. Probably the most famous nightclub in Cuba is the “Gruta Ayala” (Ayala’s cave), in Trinidad. The club was built inside a cave and plays all types of music.
Before it became a club, the cave was famous among locals because of a legend of a runaway who used it as a hiding place. Today it’s one of the main attractions in the city and it’s always full. The Gruta Ayala is open every day from 11 pm to 3 am and the ticket costs $3.
10 WHAT IT'S LIKE TO VISIT A SPECIAL FARM
Cuba has a reputation for their cigars and they can be a great gift when you go back home. They can be official shops in any city, but there is a funnier way to get your authentic souvenir.
You can travel to Viñales, where the farms are, see how the famous cigars are made and buy a box directly from the producer. If you go in August, it’s possible to ride a horse through the fields and watch the sunset in a mirador.
Viñales is located at the rural area and has an entirely different lifestyle compared to Havana. It’s a great option to slow down and relax for some days.
9 THE BEST FOOD IS NOT AT THE TOURIST RESTAURANTS
There are many restaurants in the tourist neighborhoods and there are many good options. However, the best typical food is at the paladares, small restaurants in private houses. They became legal in the mid-90s when Fidel Castro allowed the people of Cuba to open a business in their homes.
At the paladares is possible to try typical dishes, but also more sophisticated options. The most famous paladar is La Guarida, which became world-wide famous thanks to the movie Strawberry & Chocolate.
In Cuba, you should try the grilled lobster and ropa vieja, one of the national dishes, made of shredded flank steak in a tomato sauce.
8 WE CAN BRING OLD CLOTHES TO DONATE
While walking in the streets of Havana and Trinidad, many people will stop you asking if you have clothes to give away. Others will ask you to buy something at the market.
If you have space in your suitcase, you can bring shoes, clothes or even school supplies. There are proper places where you can leave your donation. In Havana, you can look for Parroquia Sra. de la Medalla Milagrosa, where they collect food and clothes for many projects. .
In Trinidad, you can also donate to Casa de la Musique. They have many art projects for children. If you have clothes, pens, crayons, toothbrushes or other items, they are welcomed there.
7 YES, WE ARE GOING TO FIND ALL THE CLICHES THERE
Travel in Cuba is like travel back in time. You will find all the cliches you expect there. It’s possible to have a ride in a vintage car while admiring the old architecture of Havana. You can also take salsa lessons ($5 per hour) and use what you’ve learned in some famous clubs in the evening. Everywhere you go, there will be references to la Revolucion, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. People are festive and happy.
However, if you have time enough, you can go further and understand that the country is more than that. Traveling to Cuba is more than a holiday, is a lifetime experience.
6 YOU ACTUALLY FEEL VERY SAFE IN CUBA
You have to be prepared to avoid street scams and deal with lots of unwanted attention if you're a woman traveling alone. But, apart from that, you will feel very safe in Cuba. You can walk in the streets alone at night, and you will still feel safe.
There are almost no gun incidents in Cuba and the rates of any sort of shifty behavior is very low. Generally, they're a very happy and kind civilization.
Of course, you shouldn’t push your luck. Don’t leave your things alone on the table, lock your valuables in the suitcase and be careful with pickpockets.
5 FORGET ABOUT UBER
As you can imagine, apps are not very popular in Cuba, so you can’t count on Uber or Cabify to travel. If you want to go inside the country, you can use a bus, but a popular way is to book a “coche compartido,” where you will share the car with other people going to the same destination.
The best way to find a trustworthy driver is to ask it at the place you are staying. Negotiate the price before and never pay it in advance. The roads in Cuba are generally good but don’t be demanding about the cars, sometimes you won’t have seatbelts or will find broken windows.
4 CUBA IS A PARADISE FOR BACKPACKERS
Traveling inside Cuba is very cheap if compared to other Caribbean countries. With $50 - $70 a day, it’s possible to book an excellent accommodation, eat in good restaurants and visiting the most important places in each city.
It’s also possible to save money by staying in a hostel, which usually charges $7. It’s also possible to spend less than $5 per day on food. Some places sell pizza for approximately 50 cents and burgers for $1. Of course, they aren't the most delicious meals you will have in your life, but if you are traveling on a budget, it’s a great way to save money.
3 IF YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO BARGAIN, YOU WILL LEARN
Bargaining is part of the culture. Don’t be shy to ask for a better price in a Casa Particular, taxi or souvenir shop. Never enter a cab before asking the price or you can have a bad surprise at the end of your ride. As a tourist, you will notice that many things in Cuba are overpriced. After some days, you'll get used to bargaining and it becomes part of the fun of your journey in Cuba.
But don’t cross the line and make sure to try to pay a fair price. Remember that most people in Cuba live on approximately $20 per month.
2 UNDERSTANDING SOME SPANISH IS VITAL
It’s possible that if you stay in Havana, you can manage to travel the city just saying “por favor” and “gracias,” but if you want to see more of the country, it’s useful to understand more than that. In some cities, it’s hard to find people who can speak English.
Of course, you can get by using just body language, but you will also miss a lot of information in the tours and you won’t be able to interact with most locals. Traveling to Cuba is a great chance to improve your skills and people are usually very patient and try to help.
1 YOU HAVE THE CHANCE TO HEAR AMAZING STORIES
When you arrive in Cuba, you will understand that the people you meet along the way will make the travel worth it. The locals and their stories will give you a new perspective of the country.
During your holiday, you will have the chance to understand how the people deal with the embargo and the limitations imposed on them. And they are very creative!
You can meet a taxi driver who has graduated in Medicine but became a driver to make extra money. There's so many unique stories like this, you're guaranteed to learn something interesting.