10 Essential Tips for Travelling to Cuba

It is with some unease that I dish out a list of  travel tips about Cuba when I still have so much that I’m yet to share with you about the eclectic architecture, pulsating ambience and vibrant culture of this special country, so unlike any other I have ever visited. I once pondered over the lesser-considered nuggets of knowledge required for for planning an English cottage break but by heart, I’m a storyteller (or waffler, as Pumpkin sometimes tells me.)20140709_115217Just occasionally though, in between the romanticism and daydreaming, I would like to think that I may even have something useful to say and with that in mind, I hope these pointers may help you if you are heading to Cuba for the first time.

Essential Advice for visiting Cuba

1) Taxis

There are more options here than there are coffee choices in Starbucks! Both private and state cabs are safe to use, the three-wheeled, canary-yellow vehicles are known as Coco taxis or for a touch of glamour, feel the wind in your face in an open-top vintage taxi.coco taxi Havana CubaThe most distinguishing feature between private and state (historically) was that state taxis were metered. In the current day, however, most meters are non-functioning anyway thereby removing that factor from the equation. Whichever you select, check the price before setting off. Within Havana, even a 20 – 25 minute journey should not usually exceed approximately 15 CUC. (a little more if using vintage car taxis)

2) Drink plenty and cake on the sun block.

No matter how resilient a pyrex dish you think you are, if you are unused to these climes, Cuba in the (western) summer months has a humidity that can leave you feeling stifled and choked. I have travelled to many hot countries and lived in the Middle East but I struggled with the Cuban heat. Remember shady areas, avoid midday sun and keep well hydrated. And I mean real hydration not just rum!Cuban rum store Havana3) Evening Dress Code

The Cubans are generally very relaxed when it comes to dress sense, shorts and sandals being perfectly acceptable in most bars and restaurants. The general exceptions, however are jazz clubs, cabarets and A La Carte restaurants at resorts. In these environments, the etiquette is for women to wear smart attire or dresses (short or long, glam or not is irrelevant) and boys, you’ll need full-length trousers or jeans with closed toe shoes.International Salsa Festival Varadero Cuba4) Two different currencies

There are two local currencies: CUC and local Peso. At the time of my visit, approximately 24 local Pesos were equal to 1 CUC. Tourists deal in CUC and cannot use local Peso but make sure you know which currency is being mentioned to you. A 20 Peso beer is approximately 1 British pound (GBP) if the price has been quoted in local Peso but if it were 20 CUC, that would make it a rather more costly beer at around 16 GBP!

5) Check in advance with banks about whether your bank cards will work

I have a really bad habit, which drives Pumpkin up the wall and this is to leave absolutely everything to the last minute when it comes to packing and sorting currency for travels. I have lost count of the number of times where I have had to call my card company en route to the airport but for Cuba, this lax approach may prove risky. Many bank / credit card accounts where money is processed through the USA will not be accepted (e.g. American Express), although only time will tell whether this will change with the recent developments in US-Cuba relations.green vintage car Cuba6) Tipping

Tipping is not compulsory in Cuba and there is no obligation to do so but they are greatly appreciated and go a long way towards rewarding locals for their hard work. 10% is the suggested going rate at restaurants / cafes and 1 CUC for bell boys etc.

7) The Closed Currency and Exchange Rates

Cuba has a closed currency, which means you can only obtain Cuban Pesos upon arrival in Cuba. Airport exchange rates are less favourable than banks and hotels and most major hotels have foreign exchange facilities so most tourists bring either Euros, British Pounds or Canadian Dollars.

US Dollars are accepted but incur a heavier transaction fee. Although banks offer a marginally preferential rate than hotels, this advantage may be offset by the length of queues crawling out of the doors at the bank. Telephone and internet banking are not yet commonplace in Cuba so locals pay all their bills and do all their banking in person.Havana street music band8) Avoiding Scams

Most travellers to Bangkok have a scam story to share, either their own or one they have heard and unfortunately, in Havana, this is also true. The most frequent method tends to be locals approaching you to have a seemingly innocent chat about where you are from. They then give you the gossip about a dance and music festival that you didn’t know about.

Unless you can contain your intrigue and stay strong, you’ll find yourself in a restaurant owned by that individual or an affiliate, paying inflated prices for food and drink. There probably will be a live band playing but what they haven’t told you is that this is common in almost every restaurant in Havana – it’s not a festival.

Cuban cigar factory Havana

Alternatively, they may offer to sell you cigars made at their own home (this is in fact something that only the government are permitted to manufacture so if you are purchasing cigars, make sure you do so from official vendors). Some women in Havana earn their crust by dressing in traditional attire and charging tourists to have their photo taken with them. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, make sure you have checked your price first. It is common knowledge that 1 CUC is expected but they tried to coax me into giving 5.Cuban lady Havana Viejo Old Town9) Carry toilet paper

And probably some alcohol gel. Don’t assume you’ll find toilet paper wherever you go. Most public facilities I used didn’t have any. Not much else to say about that one.

10) Internet? What Internet?

Wifi is rather limited in Cuba, more than most countries I have visited. Whilst facilities are available in most big hotels, they are almost always chargeable and usually quite costly with poor connection. In both hotels we stayed in, there was only one area within the hotel with a good connection so you can forget browsing from your room. Essentially, if you are dependent on internet access, this is not the country for you.Parque Centrale Havana hotelHave you been to Cuba before? What other tips do you have?

32 thoughts on “10 Essential Tips for Travelling to Cuba

  1. My husband has always wanted to go to Cuba, but he’s pretty dependent on internet access for cartooning. An interesting list, I’d definitely still love to go to Cuba.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 14, 2015 — 11:47 pm

      Thanks Frankie! Aaaah if he needs access most of the time, he’ll go rather rapidly mad out there in Cuba – it was the first time I’d realised just how much time I must spend on the computer and on gadgets as it was this strange sense of desperation to get as much out of my one hour internet card as possible! It’s definitely one of the most unique places I’ve been to!

  2. Certainly a tale of two sides – I’m super curious about the tourist & local currencies…!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 14, 2015 — 11:48 pm

      Thanks Emma! It certainly is full of contrasts. The currency thing totally threw us but I’m just glad we were told on the first day because we know people who have been before and got caught out by being quote prices meant for locals but paying for it in the tourist currency therefore paying huge amounts of excess and getting ripped off!

  3. Really interesting! I love hearing about Cuba outside of the U.S. person to person tours. Will be fascinating to see how things change in the next few years/decades as things between the U.S. and Cuba relax, too.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 14, 2015 — 11:50 pm

      Thanks so much for reading Heather! Yes, I’m really curious and intrigued to see what happens now in the next few years and whether the environment, culture and experience out there changes quite dramatically. I’m also quite curious to see how the local people respond to increased US presence after all these years.

  4. Great tips here – I would also suggest to take any meds ie paracetamol etc and personal hygiene supplies as these can be hard to find and very expensive when you do.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 14, 2015 — 11:53 pm

      Aaaah yes! Thank you Suzanne that’s a great tip, I totally forgot about how expensive cosmetics and toiletries must be out there! Quite a few people had mentioned to me that small cosmetics and toiletries like that are often very well received by chamber maids etc as opposed to just money, which I found quite interesting.

  5. This is super helpful Shikha! I actually hadn’t even thought about whether my card would work out there so maybe I should give my bank a call! When it comes to wifi one part of me is thinking yay I can just shut off and not worry about anything for a while and the other part of me is having a panic attack!

    I’m super super exited!! One month eeeek!! 🙂

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 14, 2015 — 11:55 pm

      Eeek!! I’m excited for you! I’m so glad you found it helpful and yes, just double check with your bank but unless it has close US-connections, you’ll probably be alright! I must admit, although it was quite nice not feeling the pressure of being on Twitter and Instagram the whole time whilst I was there, I must admit there were times when I did feel a little on edge not having net access but it certainly taught me how to use internet time efficiently because the cards weren’t cheap so I had to ration my use 😀

    2. Thought of you, Ayla, STRAIGHT away when we saw this post 🙂

      1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 17, 2015 — 8:57 am

        :mrgreen: Ayla & I seem to be travelling to all the same places of late – this is one of the things I love about blogging – the way we all inspire each other with other with our travels!

  6. I’ve been dreaming to visit Cuba for a long time now!! Not only because I find it a beautiful country, but also because diving there is heaven… and many sharks 😀 ❤ thank you so much for sharing these very helpful tips! 😀

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 15, 2015 — 12:01 am

      My pleasure Allane! I’ve never dived, only snorkelled but oh my word, whenever I see your diving photos, I feel so tempted to give it a go one day – your underwater pics are always beautiful and I have heard that some areas of Cuba have fantastic diving too! I hope you get a chance to go soon and I’m so pleased you found some of these tips helpful 🙂

      1. Diving was always a dream of mine, and after a did snorkeling I was sure I wanted to do a diving course. Last year I finally got the chance and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. I hope you do try sometime, you will fall in love with it, just be careful not to catch the “diving bug” hahaha.

        It is amazing diving in Cuba, it is for sure on my bucketlist. And when I go your tips will surely be useful to plan my trip!! 😀

        1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 17, 2015 — 9:06 am

          So great to hear that you tried it & loved it & it was a dream come true ☺

          1. Yes it was ❤ I hope you get to try it sometime! 😀 it is a whole new World to be discovered!

  7. Thanks for the tips. Am considering Cuba for my honeymoon, so looking forward to your future posts!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 15, 2015 — 12:05 am

      Thank you! How exciting to be planning your honeymoon Emily-Ann – hard enough choice for anyone but even more of a toughie for a travel blogger I imagine 🙂 Congratulations and if you do decide to go to Cuba, I hope you find these tips helpful. I’m working my way through getting the posts out but just give me a shout if there’s any info I can help with in the meantime! Will keep my eyes peeled for your honeymoon travel updates 🙂

  8. Cuba is another one of those we are very keen to visit…. Thanks for sharing some fab info for when we get there!! (which we don’t know is when – LOL)

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 17, 2015 — 8:55 am

      Hehe, there are so many places like that on my list which I don’t know when I’ll get to either :mrgreen: Cuba was a very interesting places to visit. I’m so glad you found the tips useful & thanks so much for reading!

  9. so how do the two currencies work? you can actually use both? interesting… great post!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 17, 2015 — 9:02 am

      Thanks Andrew ☺ no, so as a tourist or visitor, you can only get & use CUC currency but the locals use local Peso. But because there are so many more local Pesos per pound/dollar etc than there are CUC, you just have to check when they are quoting you a price otherwise you could end up getting ripped off. Or if they charge you something for your drink & you do the conversion & it seems really expensive, that’s probably because they quoted the price in local Peso but you did the conversion assuming it was CUC etc.

  10. I have never been to Cuba but I would love to go there. I think the tip of staying hydrated and applying sunscreen is a great tip for any place that is hot and sunny. Speaking from experience, there is nothing as bad as being sun burnt on vacation.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 17, 2015 — 9:09 am

      Thanks Constance! Yes you’re absolutely right about the sun screen and hydration – that tip was definitely one of the more generic ones (as well as the toilet paper one!) I guess I just noticed it more out in Cuba because it was so hot but it’s important everywhere warm and sunny as you say! Thanks so much for reading ☺

  11. I went this time last year and absolutely loved the place, would go back in a second. I agree with all these tips! Great advice 🙂

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 19, 2015 — 12:25 pm

      Thanks Becky! Glad you agree with them! I remember seeing your posts and updates at the time. I had heard lots of mixed things from some people about Cuba but like you, I personally loved it & would have no hesitation in returning ☺

  12. We haven’t been to Cuba yet and I’m not sure when we’ll get there freely as Americans (but it is easing up a bit). This was an interesting read and such great tips. Love those taxis!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) January 19, 2015 — 12:27 pm

      Thanks Mary! I just couldn’t take my eyes off the vintage cars and the yellow coco taxis! Lots of my friends from the US say the same thing but like you say, it looks like things are changing so it may be sooner than you think! Thanks so much for reading ☺

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