Tips for Traveling in Cuba
There are tons of great guide books out there, so these are just a few tips to add to the list:
Before we left, we ordered all the newly-updated guidebooks we could find. Our two favorites were Rough Guides’ Cuba and Frommer’s Easy Guide to Cuba. Also, if you’re spending any time in the capitol, be sure to buy the StreetSmart map of Havana from vanDam. This plastic laminated map was wonderfully informative, accurate, fit nicely into seat pockets and purses (note it does not fold up small enough for a front pocket), and was an absolute life-saver!!
Packing: Of course you should check the weather before you go, and pack accordingly, but remember that Cuba is very dusty, so clothes that are easy to clean, replaceable, and hide dirt are advised. Laundry facilities are very hard to find unless your hotel offers, so clothes you can rinse out yourself and that will dry quickly are ideal. I love the Horizon Travex pants from Eddie Bauer since they are so easy to travel with and can look really dressy too.
You will have to buy an exit visa to leave Cuba. This is done at your last US point of departure and you will not be allowed to board the flight without it. The cost of this visa is $50-$100 depending on what airline you are flying and what city you are departing out of.
On the plane, before landing in Cuba they will pass out forms for you to fill out. You should fill them all out properly (pay careful attention to the forms – they keep switching the date formats even within one form and not all of the questions have been correctly translated so are unclear), but be advised that your pink and white embarkation and debarkation form will probably never ever be used (at entry or exit). So you can fill that out if you want, but can keep it tucked into your handbag and produce it only if asked since otherwise they will just keep throwing it back at you.
Also note that the Havana airport has FIVE terminals which are really mini independent airports located several kilometers from each other. Be sure to ask what terminal you are at when you land and be very sure you go back to that same terminal to leave unless your airline instructs you otherwise. We got stranded at the wrong terminal because all international flights (except United and a few others) are there. If you are taking a domestic flight to Trinidad (in Cuba, not the separate island nation of the same name) or elsewhere, make sure you know what terminal you need to go to since those fly out of other terminals.
The country has a dual currency system – tourists use CUC (1 CUC = 1 USD) and locals use CUP (1 CUC = 25 CUP). I wanted to be sure I could buy from local shops so I changed money into both CUC and CUP. I found that it was very rarely useful to have CUP as most places can take both and prices rarely differ by much (ie, there is often a tiny price difference slanted to favor one currency over the other, but not enough to matter at all). Because there is a 10% ‘commission’ charged for changing USD, we changed our money into Canadian dollars before leaving. I don’t think this really made much difference and was just more hassle than it was worth.
Be sure to bring enough money with you since you will not be able to access any additional funds once in the country (US credit cards cannot be used in Cuba, and there only a couple of places – mainly large state-run hotels – that even have credit card capabilities. For that reason, we like pre-booking accommodations via AirBnB so we didn’t have to bring that cash (a word on that below). We calculated our budget, then added an additional 50% for emergencies. We ended up spending every single penny of it. We could certainly have saved more money if we were very careful about expenditures, but we didn’t buy lots of souvenirs and were pretty careful with our money and bargained for everything. Don’t be fooled, Havana is surprisingly expensive.
Bargaining is certainly accepted and often expected, but be aware that this is not like many Middle Eastern or Asian countries – negotiations are more laid back and they will let you walk away rather than continue to negotiate. It’s always worth trying, but be polite and friendly about it, don’t approach it with the mindset of “They are trying to cheat me and I must win!” Also understand that many prices are wildly inflated and because Cuba still has the novelty and ‘cool’ factor, tourists often cave and pay those prices. I would expect prices to be brought relatively in line as the country opens and tourists become more discerning, but that seems some years out still.
Though there is not a lot of heavy traffic, there is a lot of friendly honking. Cars will gently tootle at each other to signal all kinds of things, including lots of polite warnings (I’m coming through! I’m about to get a green light and will then be moving! I found a taxi fare! Congratulations, you got a taxi fare! I will be turning! You just ran into my lane and almost hit me, please be careful! There is a speed trap up ahead!). There is almost no aggressive honking. Many of the horns (and all the other parts on the cars) are after-market additions, and so will play an enormous range of sounds, notes, and even a few bars of song. Traffic lights are brilliant marked with a countdown clock that tells you exactly how many seconds of that color are remaining. This helps traffic move very efficiently since everyone can predict the red light (the yellow light is not always present and is only 3 seconds long), and be ready to move as soon as it turns green.
To flag a taxi, just go to a curb and stick your arm straight out palm down, and wave towards your body with just your fingers. Many private cars are willing to function as taxis and it’s safe, so any car that pulls over for you is fine. Negotiate the price of the ride before you get in, sometimes reducing the fare by 50%! You may have to walk away once or twice before you find a taxi willing to take you for the fare you want to pay (ask your casa hosts and other tourists how much you should expect to pay to set your standards.) Nicer cars are more expensive than crappy cars, but are also more comfortable and fun. Nice vintage cars are the most expensive option. This means you can enjoy the view rather than worrying if they got lost or are taking a more expensive route to run up the meter and cheat you. Expect to pay a high premium if you want a cab at night (if you can even find one – less of a problem in Havana, very difficult outside the city proper), or are in an area with little competition (if there is no other cab coming by, you don’t have much bargaining power). In addition to taxis, personal transportation options including CocoTaxis – yellow fiberglass coconuts that seat 2-3 with a driver on a motorbike. Cheap, not good safety records, lots of fun. Horse-drawn carriages – in Havana this seems to be an option mainly for tourists. In the countryside it seemed to be more for locals. And bicitaxis – like bicycle rickshaws. Public buses are very tightly packed and not an easy option for tourists.
Popular! Cuba is very popular with tourists from all over the world, and the country can be surprisingly packed during the high season. Top-rated restaurants listed in guidebooks are frequently sold out days in advance, so if there is something you really want to do, try to have your hosts or hotel call for a reservation ahead of time. Areas that are popular are likely to be very crowded.
The famous Tropicana is one such example – people are packed in tightly and while tickets are usually available on the same day, the shows usually sell out. Even with a ticket you should show up about an hour before the show to get a good seat. Despite what your guidebooks and guides say, your experience will not be what you expect (your seat will be wrong, your group may be broken up, your food is not what was advertised and neither is your ‘souvenir’, etc.). Arguing with them is mostly pointless, and will annoy you without accomplishing anything. Nonetheless, you can see the show and if you stay to the VERY end, you can dance on their stage!! The show is nice but feels like the same song and dance routine endlessly repeated with various costume changes and an occasional twist. You go for the experience, not because it’s an awesome night out.
While the tap water is not considered potable, we brought a LifeStraw bottle and never used it. We also ate and drank at restaurants (though not from street vendors) without asking about their ice, and also brushed our teeth with tap water (carefully spitting it all out) and none of us got sick from anything. Be sure to buy water from shops or restaurants rather than street vendors who may be reusing bottles and filling them with tap water.
On that note, medicines you know from home can be hard to find, so be sure your own first-aid kit is fully stocked just in case you need something. Bring bug spray and anti-itch cream – mosquitoes are bitey, though of our group I was the only one to be favored and everyone else suffered only a bite or two.
Havana is a mixture of gorgeous buildings from the countries storied past, and ruins of those same buildings. It’s a fascinating city with a rich mix of styles, construction and decay, wealth and poverty, most of it side by side, rather than segmented away. Expect to do lots of walking, and know that the streets are often torn up, badly paved, full of steep steps up and down off curbs, or otherwise inhospitable. Comfortable flat shoes with lots of cushioning are highly recommended!!! Be careful, mind your step, expect a wrenched ankle, and bring bandaids for the almost inevitable injuries. While I did see a few tourists in wheelchairs, it is a very difficult city to explore for non-able walkers.
Public bathrooms almost never have toilet paper or soap, and rarely have even the seat. Your odds of a seat are pretty good in fancier restaurants or the large hotels, but you should probably plan on carrying a pack of tissues and hand sanitizer with you. Many toilets suffer from low water pressure, so be a thoughtful guest and check that everything flushed before you leave. You may have to flush even urine several times.
AirBnB scams are pretty common – you book a nice place on AirBnB, pay for it, show up and find the room is unavailable for some reason (they often double and triple book and then whoever shows up first gets the room). Don’t worry, they have already arranged another room for you with their friend – that happens to be significantly less nice (smaller, more stairs, fewer amenities, not enough bedrooms or bathrooms, etc.) than what you paid for, and since you can’t get on the internet very easily, you can’t do very much about it. While you should absolutely be sure to contact AirBnB upon your return, you do have a couple options in the meantime. To prevent this, be sure that the place you are renting on AirBnB has actual reviews from actual people that say nice things about it. Many of the online listings don’t have reviews or have evidence of last-minute cancellations. It’s safer to just steer clear of those. Even with all precautions things happen and sometimes your room is not available (or up to snuff). Getting internet is quite difficult and AirBnB cannot be accessed from Cuba, so if you need a room try explaining to your hosts what you need and ask them to call around and find you something. There are LOTS of rooms for rent, so as a last resort, you can also wander around looking for the blue anchor/house logo that signals a room for rent (casa particular) and ask them if they have room or can call around and find a room for you. This can be a very involved, time-consuming, process, but there is hope. The country can get quite full in the high season (November to March), so it’s best to pre-book as much of your accommodations as you can as on-the-ground arrangements are so hard. And of course, the state-run hotels may have room but will be much more expensive.
Island Time! The country runs on island time, so don’t expect to get much done in a day, and do expect meals to take at least an hour from when you sit down to when you get the check. Service is very slow, restaurants are often out of whatever you ordered (though the one item they do have instead has all of the same ingredients making you wonder why your item is not available), drinks and desserts are often forgotten, and food will usually come out randomly and at very different times (entrees before appetizers, one person will get two courses before the others have even received one, etc.). Just smile, relax, and go with the flow. Don’t overplan your day – you will make yourself and others miserable. Depending on what part of town you are in, be aware that museums and attractions and most shops close at 5-6pm, even in the heart of the tourist areas. Restaurants tend to close early too – not much is open after 10pm.
There are lots of guards and police and various uniformed officials everywhere. While they often look grim, they are usually fairly friendly and willing to offer directions, information, and other help.
Havana and much of the country is somewhat overrun with tourists and so locals may be camera shy or not interested in interacting because they have had enough. Be respectful of that. They are usually more willing to be photographed if you ask first.
Regardless of your personal politics and opinion of Trump, the Cubans are really hopeful that because Trump is a businessman, he will relax US sanctions even more. Thus, when they ask your opinion of him as president, they don’t actually care if you like him or not, they are just expressing their hopes that the embargo will be ended.
From the framework of our experiences, Cuba is sort of a combination of Soviet-era Russia, late 1990s-China, and Prague. Things are often not available, many amenities we take for granted (flushing toilets, hot water, electricity, internet, shops to buy replacement items) can be more scarce than most Westerners are used to. People are mostly pretty friendly, but very few people speak English – even tourist information desks are often staffed by people with only a very rudimentary command. There is often an expectation for a tip (restaurants, public bathrooms, etc.), but little or slow or grudging service. Cubans do not yet seem to understand (or care) that tourists expect certain things and are willing to pay for them, but are not willing to pay for a lack of those things. So just keep your expectations adjusted accordingly and do not get impatient, cranky, or frustrated – it won’t do any good and you’ll just make everyone unhappy including yourself. Expect things to be a hassle or difficult and you will be pleasantly surprised by how much fun you have and how much smoother things go!