Cuba is high on many travellers’ bucket lists and it should be, as it is one of the most interesting and enigmatic countries that I have ever visited.
To me, there are two ways to do Cuba, the easy way and the not-so easy way. The easy way means popping into your travel agents and booking a fun all-inclusive trip and allowing them to do all the work for you.
However, if like me you would rather not stay in a resort then the not-so easy way is for you! This way does involve more pre-trip preparation and research (something I really enjoy!) but it can lead to you having the trip of a lifetime.
So here are my top tips of what you need to know before visiting Cuba to make the not-so easy way a little bit easier.
Visa – Most countries including Ireland need a visa called a ‘Tourist Card’ to enter Cuba. This can be obtained from your local Cuban embassy (http://www.embassydublin.com) for a cost of €25. When getting your visa you need to bring your completed visa application form, passport sized photos, a copy of your return flights, a copy of your travel voucher from your hotel/casa in Cuba and a copy of your travel/health insurance policy*.
*Travel/health insurance – you need to have travel/health insurance to enter Cuba and you need to bring your policy documentation with you as they can do spot checks in customs and will make you buy it there. Some companies don’t cover you in Cuba so check with them before you fly. I usually use Mutlitrip for all my travel insurance and they were fine.
Money – Take enough cash with you, Euros or Sterling, as they get the best exchange rate. There is a bureau de change just outside the main door of Jose Marti international airport in Havana that will give you a good rate but remember to check your money before you leave.
ATM’s are not common place in Cuba, we wasted a few hours one day looking for an ATM in Havana, it’s better to just bring cash with you and change it there in either ‘Banco de Cuba’ or a ‘cadeca’ (currency kiosk). Don’t worry about security, all hotels and Casas are required to provide safes in your room.
If you need to withdraw money while you are there, bring a VISA or VISA debit card, Mastercard won’t work over there. Paying with credit card is not common practise in Cuba.
As most people know Cuba has two currencies, as a tourist you will be using CUC (Cuban convertible peso) and locals will be using CUP (Cuban national peso), I CUC is about 22 CUP. 1CUC would be worth about 85/90 cent in Euros and 70p sterling.
Most places use dual pricing and the prices won’t match up but I wouldn’t let it bother you. Although, I would suggest familiarising yourself with all the CUC coins and notes so as not to end up getting the wrong currency in your change.
It’s also worth noting that you will be unable to get CUCs before you arrive in Cuba and you won’t be able to change them when you leave, so don’t forget to go to the bureau de change before departing Cuba.
Getting around – Before we left we had arranged a pick up from the airport with our casa, the driver was waiting there for us and even hung around while I changed my euros over to CUCs. The drive took about 30mins and it cost 20/25CUCs. There were plenty of tourist taxis there, these are the yellow and black cars, to bring you to your accommodation in Havana and these are very trustworthy.
To travel from place to place within Cuba we used ‘Transtur’ and ‘Viazul’ buses. ‘Transtur’ buses are like tourist shuttle buses between hotels but any tourists can use them. We were staying near ‘Hotel Ingalaterre’ in Havana so we just bought our ticket from the tourist desk in there and returned the following morning for our pick up. We paid about 24CUCs for a return ticket to Vinales (3hours) and 25CUCs for a one way ticket to Trinidad (6/7 hours). The only negative I would say here is that it could add an hour onto your journey as you have to go around to other hotels picking up passengers. ‘Viazul’ buses are probably the cheapest way to get around Cuba, the buses are comfortable and have air-conditioning, just buy your ticket the day before your travel from the bus station, as they can get busy. We paid about 20CUCs for a one way ticket to Varadero from Trinidad (8 hours) on Viazul. All buses stopped for toilet/snack breaks. Transtur and Viazul seemed to have bus services going twice daily in each location, morning and afternoon.
Getting around Havana and the other main towns we visited was easy by foot or tuk-tuk.
Accomodation – My advice here is just stay in Casa Particulares! Staying in Casas and spending our evenings talking to our hosts are my favourite memories from Cuba. Each casa was so different but the people we stayed with all had one thing in common and that was their kindness and generosity. Before our trip we had only booked our Casa in Havana and when we arrived our hosts Joel y Yadilis organised all our other Casas for us, and they were all amazing. This is the way things are done in Cuba each Casa seems to be part of a network of Casas. However, if you don’t like leaving it to others and would to book your own then just use AirBNB. We paid between 25-33CUCs per night for the room and all rooms are required to have safes, en-suites and air-conditioning, breakfast was extra.
We did to go all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, it was lovely and it was nice to cool down by the pool with a mojito in hand but we could have been anywhere in the world, to me it just lacked the character of the Casas.
Food – Food in Cuba doesn’t get great reviews, due to embargos your options are very limited. On saying this, we ate in our casas every morning and most evenings. Why I hear you ask – well it wasn’t expensive, you get to eat what the locals eat and its extra income for your host. We were lucky, we had some wonderful meals, the best been lobster in Trinidad – delicious.
Internet – Wifi isn’t readily available in Cuba and if it is, it’s very slow and the connection isn’t great. We used internet cafés to keep in touch but to be honest it was nice been offline for a while.
Learn Spanish – We did Spanish lessons before we went and I’d recommend it. While a lot of people spoke English we did stay in one casa where our host only spoke Spanish, so our few words did come in handy.
What to pack – Basically if you think you need it, pack it! Due to trade embargoes in Cuba there is a lot of stuff that you won’t be able to get there, like paracetamol, soap, bug spray, sun tan lotion, motilium, immodium, tampons, deodorant etc. And, if you find you didn’t need it, then just leave it behind in your Casa, Cubans will really appreciate it.
I hope you found my top tips helpful. If there is anything else you would like to know please just ask!