Part of travel is exposing yourself to new things, customs and ideals with an open mind and an open heart. I loved Cuba. Literally planning a second trip already. But different land, means different things. The mundane may not be so simple, the basics may not be as readily available like back at home. So here are a 14 travel tips I learned from my recent trip to Cuba that I hope will come in handy when you plan your trip out there:
1. Visas and such:
Technically, it’s still illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba simply for “tourism”. There are 12 different visa categories you must qualify for in order to travel to Cuba. So how are so many Americans going? Well, most American travelers fall into the “educational/people-to-people” category. It means you are not going to sit at the beach all day and do nothing. It means you want to learn about the Cuban people and the history through experiences like museums, art, music, food and having genuine conversations with locals, which shouldn’t be hard since that’s what you will probably do anyways. Many US airlines have direct flights to Cuba. From Florida, it was super easy and I would recommend JetBlue which has direct flights out of Orlando and Miami; and the convenience to purchase your visa for $50 per person at the Jetblue desk at the airport during your check in. The visa can only be purchased at the airport and you have to buy the plane tickets directly from the airlines website. I tried using Expedia like I normally do and it didn’t work.
Cuba has two currencies, the CUC (for tourists) and the CUP (used by locals mostly). Neither currencies are traded internationally so you can only get it upon arrival. Regardless of what currency you’re bringing with you, you’ll have to exchange it to Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUC. The Currency exchange window is located right outside the airport. So you’ll go through security, baggage claim, literally walk outside like you’re going to grab a taxi and the Currency Exchange office is located to the left. The signage will say “Cambio.” As for Americans traveling to Cuba, it’s best to arrive to Cuba with Euros or Canadian Dollars, because American dollars get taxed an extra 10% on top of the regular exchange rate fees. That’s less money for cerveza amigos! Cash is king in Cuba and don’t count on your USA issued credit/debit cards to work out here, hence plan out your budget and take a little extra cash just in case.
3. Don’t buy cuban cigars:
From anyone that approaches you on the streets of Havana that is. It’s probably a bad fake & poorly made cigar. I know what you’re thinking, ‘A fake cuban cigar in Cuba?’ For authentic, good quality cigars you have to buy from government stores in the city or do what we did, take a day trip to Viñales on the west side of the island about 2.5 hrs from Havana. Viñales is known for its tobacco farms and you can visit many of these farms and buy cigars directly from them. Some farms have horse back riding tours through the fields and you can watch them roll the cigars, walk through the leaf drying warehouse and see the farmers out in the field picking leaves. At the end we bought a bundle of cigars for $20 at the farm. Our day trip was booked directly through www.olivacubataxi.com. You get picked up in a classy car and the driver is with you all day!
4. Do stay in a Casa Particular:
Translation, stay in a “private home”. Book a room or an entire house/apartment from a Cuban. If your host lives in the house or an adjacent property, they will even offer to cook meals for you (for an extra fee) and it will probably be way better than eating out. It also gives you the opportunity to connect and have real conversations with locals. Our host was a lovely Señora named Glady’s, if you would like to book her place click here, and tell her ‘Ana La Brasileña from Florida’ sent you. Print out any confirmation paperwork and/or screenshot the address of the Casa you’re staying in, it will help the taxi driver or yourself if you get lost.
5. Bring toilet paper or wipes, and sanitizer:
Let me explain. If you’re staying in a hotel or Casa Particular obviously they will provide you with toilet paper, duh. But when you’re out and about exploring the streets of Havana and need to use a public bathroom, well, more than likely, you’ll be shit out of luck (Pun totally intended). Usually bathrooms, even at some restaurants museums and government buildings might not have paper or soap. WTF. So in the name of hygiene, carry a hand sanitizer and some napkins in your day bag with you at all times. Typically an attendant out front will hand you a few sheets of toilet paper as you walk in; but they expect a coin or 2 in return. Example: In the Museum of Revolution (big museum housed in the old Presidential Palace); the bathroom actually did have soap (shocker!) BUT didn’t have toilet paper and we had to flush the toilets by dumping water from a bucket that the restroom attendant kept refilling for everyone. That was a first for me. And I’ve peed in holes in the ground in past travels. And if there is no attendant in the bathroom? That means probably no chance of you finding toilet paper to wipe your booty or dry your vajayjay ladies. Luckily for me I always pack baby wipes which saved my life. Well, saved my dignity and I didn’t have to drip dry. Again.
6. Do Bring Toiletries:
Bring what you’ll need in terms of shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste etc. If you forget any basic items, it might be hard to find it even in stores and pharmacies as sometimes shipments don’t come into the island and certain items may be scarce. My friend Danielle from http://www.shikshin.com could not find any conditioner out there! Read her post for what to wear & packing tips.
7. Do bring Sunscreen, sunglasses, hats:
I shouldn’t have to tell you this but I’m going to. Pack the sunscreen and sunglasses because it might be hard to find and it will be expensive like other toiletries. As for hats, you can bring one or purchase a cool hand made fedora style hat from a local Cuban crafts market or souvenir shop.
8. Catcalling & Stares:
Ladies, the Cuban guys will definitely let you know how beautiful, sexy and everything in between you are. (More so than the Italians!) And they are not the least bit shy about staring and checking you out either. I didn’t really hear cat calls because my friend and I went with our husbands. But we still got stared down. Don’t pay any mind and move on, strutting your hot self. Unless of course, you’re single and ready to mingle, so by all means wink, smile and go get yourself a Cuban Papi on the dance floor 😉
9. Wi-Fi Situation:
Cuba does have internet and wi-fi but it is limited. You have to purchase wi-fi cards and then find a Wi-fi zone. If you walk by a park, into a bar or hotel and see a bunch of people on their phones, it’s probably a wi-fi area. It’s a good idea to take screenshots on your phone of maps and places of interest since Google won’t be able to help you. I kept it simple and stayed off the grid for all 4 days. It was a much needed digital detox.
10. The smog and dust:
Having classic vintage cars all over the city, along with crumbling architecture comes at a price. Old and puzzled together engine pieces don’t usually have the cleanest of emissions; and forgotten, old buildings make it for a dusty atmosphere in Old Havana.
11. Don’t expect the food to delight your palette:
The food is not bad in general but it wasn’t amazing either. We did find a great restaurant in Old Havana called Mojito Mojito which had well seasoned dishes and we ended up having dinner there 3 nights. Great service and live band every night playing great music! And the cherry on top was their bathroom had toilet paper, soap AND a working hand dryer. If your host offer to home cooked meals that’s a great option too and probably delicious #winwin
12. Don’t drink the water:
Buy bottled water for your room and for walking around town. As with many countries, the water might have microbes that your body isn’t used to and that might get you sick. If you are traveling into other cities in the countryside, best to get the water before hand or ask your driver to stop somewhere. It’s just harder to find stores in smaller towns.
As with any developing country I would always advise to not be too flashy with jewelry and name brands cause you never know, BUT Tom and I honestly felt safer here in Cuba than we did traveling in Brazil, my home country. Both Tom and our friend Carlos walked around all day with big high end cameras over their shoulders and I had my GoPro and not once did we feel unsafe, even at night all over Old Havana.
14. Bring Gifts!
The average Cuban salary is $25 a month. I know, astonishing. Granted the government subsidizes food, utilities, healthcare and education; most Cubans don’t have extra cash to purchase a variety of goods or specially of toiletries, which might not be available period. If you’re staying at a Casa Particular you could definitely leave behind extra toiletries. Some people dislike the idea of “gifting” because it can enhance the begging; but listen, if someone I talk to asks for something, I’m gonna hand over those cheap but super cool sunglasses I’m wearing because I know I have the means to go to Target and buy myself 10 more pairs. What kid wouldn’t like some cool shades or a superhero toothbrush? And if you want to take photos with locals, be polite and ask permission first! Most locals happily posed for the camera, but a couple did decline. And of course, offer some cash for the photos.