Cuba is one of the most intriguing countries we had the chance to visit. It can be quite amazing and disappointing at the same time. But we are sure about one thing: Everyone needs to go there and experience this special country. Our tips on travel visa, casas particulares, getting around, vintage car tours and other things will make it easier to plan your Cuba trip. With the right expectations and some preparation, you are going to have an amazing time!
If you’re heading there, here are the 11 things you need to know before taking your flight:
1- A visa or tourist card you will need
Depending on your citizenship, you need to make some prearrangements and order a tourist card before your trip – this is only done for you if you fly directly from the US. For any other country, ordering the visa online or via a travel agency is sufficient. If you are in Netherlands, Germany or UK, I can recommend www.cubavisa.net.
For more details on visa requirements, we will just send you to this link: www.howtotraveltocuba.com/cuban-tourist-card-and-visas/ 🙂
2- Spanish you should speak
Don’t get me wrong… my Spanish is probably as good as the French beers (they’re horrible). But we tried to learn a few basics before our trip and it helped us a lot, even if it wasn’t easy to communicate and even funny sometimes (like when I said that I was “muy caliente” to say I was feeling hot to our casa owner). But Cuban people usually don’t speak any language other than Spanish – unless you go to a resort in Varadero. We also used Google Translate for offline translation during conversations, which was really helpful.
If you don’t feel like going to a last minute Spanish course, you can also try these apps:
3- In casas particulares you will sleep
Since a few years, Cuban people are allowed to transform their houses/apartments into hostels, where they can rent out a small number of rooms. Their prices are much cheaper compared to big hotels, and the experience to share a home and meet the locals is priceless. Usually they also propose breakfast for 4 or 5 CUC and sometimes even dinner (For around 10 CUC).
How to book?
You can find many Casas Particulares in Airbnb. It’s an easy and safe way but you will need to pay the Airbnb service rate. Still, the review system, English speaking relatives often supporting the bookings, and the support of Airbnb in misunderstandings makes this process very easy.
Of course you can also stay in a hotel, but we experienced many of them to be quite pricey for the service and quality you are getting. Many hotels have been built before the 1970s, and were not updated from the outside and sometimes also inside. Where it makes sense to choose a hotel is in areas like Varadero or Cayo Coco, where the choice in hotels is quite extensive and the quality is kept up due to the many international visitors.
4- Solicited a lot you will be
Cuban people are really nice, if you’re not in touristic areas. They will try to help you as much as they can if you can speak a little Spanish, or smile at you if you don’t. In touristic areas, it’s another story and you will not walk more than 10 meters without being asked if you want a: taxi, room, wifi card… and so on. You can also meet “scammers” who will befriend you, tell you about and take you to a “good location” and make you pay for them, while they’re also having a commission from the bar/restaurant. As a girl, you can expect stares and comments on your way through any city, but it usually stays at just that. The number of nice people still way outweighs those minor disturbances!
This being said, it’s still a quite safe country and we didn’t hear about violence or theft stories that happened to travelers.
5- Bus, rental car or Taxis you can take
Viazul is the main (and only) bus company in Cuba. They can take you to almost all the touristic destinations. You can find their schedule and prices in viazul.com
Renting a car can be quite expensive. But compared to buses it will make you save more time and provide you more freedom. If you choose this option, check our next bullet point about driving in Cuba 🙂
If you are in a big city like Havana you’ll probably need to take taxis quite often. If you do so, avoid the ones next to big hotels as they often propose 2 or 3 times the normal price. Just stand in the street and stop the next taxi who drive by. Give him the address and ask for the price. Ideally, you can ask native people about a price estimation (Here casa owners can be very helpful) before.
The best prices and experiences were when we stopped a vintage car taxi, or “taxi particular” as they are called. Not air conditioned compared to the new cars, but much more fun and genuine. The concept is similar to casas particulares, so you are also supporting a local family with your taxi fare.
6- During the daylight you will drive
If you rent a car, here is some advice and tips:
Avoid driving during the night (except inside a city). There is no light in the Cuban roads and considering bikes, horse wagons and even some trucks don’t have lights, driving during the night can be a quite exhausting and stressing experience.
There are some police control points but we have never been stopped. It seems like they care more about big trucks and local drivers.
We didn’t see any speed control points… we think the Cuban government found a better solution for this: Really bad roads! When we say this we’re not talking about little potholes which will make your stomach shake a bit… We are talking about huge holes that can even throw your car off the road. So you better drive slowly, especially if you’re skipping the 1st advice and have to drive during the night.
7- Internet you will forget about
Well not completely. Internet still exists in Cuba but
Only in some places where you can find ETECSA (the only Cuban telecom carrier).
You will need to buy internet cards to use it. They can be found in ETECSA stores (You’ll usually find a big line at the door) for 1,5CUC/hour or in hotels (the price will depend on the hotel). Strangers can also propose you internet cards in the street. You can buy one… at your own risk.
Internet speed will drive you crazy sometimes
So yes, Internet exists, but just pray you don’t really need it for anything vital (answer to an urgent mail, cancel or change a last minute booking…) to avoid stressful moments.
8- An offline map or a paper guide you should have
As a consequence of the lack of internet, you will need some of the three (or all) during your stay in Cuba. We were using:
Lonely Planet guide: Helped us a lot to find good restaurants and bars. Cons: Lack of pictures, some reviews seems outdated and the quality of some places was much lower than described.
Maps.me: Probably the best offline map on Android and iOS (iPhone). Can help you to find an itinerary and guide you there, and it also has offline availability of restaurant n ames, hotels and even many Casas Particulares! Quite useful when you have only the name of the street in your booking.
Tripadvisor: We used Tripadvisor for Havana only, as you can download the city restaurants and activities. The best part is it saves also all the user reviews. Quite useful!
9- A vintage car tour you will take
Let’s say it: It’s so kitsch and touristy… But what is a trip to Cuba (especially to Havana) without taking a vintage car tour?
These cars are parked in several places in Havana. The main one is next to Hotel Inglaterra and you will have many color and model choices… depending on your mood of the day or… the skirt or shirt you’re wearing 🙂
They usually propose it for 50CUC but you can always negotiate and 25CUC is a correct price, especially if you are more than 2 people (up to 4 in the car).
10- CUC and CUP difference you will know
Cuba is the only country officially using 2 currencies.
Is the Peso Cuban Convertible and has become the official currency since 2004. 1 CUC equals approximatively 1 US$ and is used by tourists to pay all expenses (hotels, restaurants, imported products…). And let’s be honest, it is probably the worst invention ever as it is making costs much higher for foreigners. Not that there is anything wrong with paying more, but the price difference is quite intense!
Is the local Cuban Peso and the Cuban state workers (teachers, doctors, administration employees) are paid in this currency which they are using for their daily expenses. 25CUP = 1 CUC approximatively… If you can get some CUP from locals (they will be happy to get CUC in exchange) you can use them to buy local products or street food for a very cheap price. We also got CUP in return at local restaurants that didn’t have enough CUC for change.
11- A visa card you should have
Mastercards (not from US banks) are also accepted, but more ATMs will accept Visa cards. However be aware that any US credit card will not be accepted (sorry folks!). So make sure you have enough cash that you can change in any “cadeca” or national bank.