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.)Just 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
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.The 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!3) 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.4) 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.6) 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.8) 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.
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 5.9) 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.Have you been to Cuba before? What other tips do you have?