Planning a trip to Cuba? I have to admit that my time on this amazing island was one of the best experiences of my life. Cuba had everything from the vibrant streets of Havana to the lush green countryside with tropical birds. I danced, I drank, I hiked, I swam and I switched off from the rest of the World.
There is one problem with planning a trip to Cuba and that is the lack of information available online. I have received so many emails from people asking me questions, so I have decided to write an ultimate guide to planning a trip to Cuba, featuring some of the frequently asked questions!
Before you go
Cuba is one of those countries that require a Visa, so you need to apply at your local embassy by post or in person. Some travel agents can also organise this for you at an additional fee. It is also advisable to have good travel insurance. While the Cuban healthcare system is actually excellent, you will need to pay for any treatment before leaving the country, so be sure to have an insurance provider who have a 24 hour helpline!
One of the important things to note about Cuba is the fact that they have hardly any shops and no convenience stores. This means if there is something you can’t live without, you have to bring it with you. Importantly, items such as toiletries, shampoo, shower gel and for ladies, sanitary wear is not readily available or is very expensive, so make sure to pack all of you essentials, don’t rely on buying anything while in Cuba!
There are two currencies in Cuba. The CUC and the CUP. The CUP or Cuban Peso is the currency used by locals and it is restricted in use for things like food and essentials. The CUC or Cuban Convertible Peso is mainly the currency you will be dealing with as a tourist. This is the currency taken by most hotels and restaurants.
Both Cuban currencies are restricted meaning that not only can you not use them outside of Cuba, it is also an offence to take the money out of the country. You can exchange money at the airport, but there is an exit tax of 25CUCs, so don’t change it all! Some airlines include the exit tax in their fare, so it is worth checking this before you fly.
You won’t find ATMS readily outside of Havana, so carrying cash in Cuba is inevitable. You can exchange money in the Caminar in most towns. We used Canadian Dollars for the best exchange rate at the time.
There are two ways to do Cuba. You can relax by the beachside resorts like Varadero or you can travel around the country soaking in its rich culture. The best and most economical way to stay in Cuba is in one of the Casa Particulares. These are basically like bed and breakfasts where families receive a licence from the government to host tourists in their home. This can be really cheap; we got accommodation for two people for about €15 a night in Trinidad.
The great thing about this is the flexibility and the fact that you can arrive at a town and check into any Casa you like. If you fall in love with a village like we did, you can stay for as long as you like! We booked our first 2 nights’ accommodation in Havana in advance and for the rest of the time we “winged it”, deciding where we wanted to stay and for how long.
The food in Cuba is notoriously bland. While the main staple is chicken with rice and peas, this lacks the flavour and spice that you can get with other Caribbean cooking. Due to their trade relationships, Cuba hardly import any goods, so the good news is, pretty much all the ingredients are locally produced. Get ready to eat an abundance of Mangos and everything flavoured with lime!
The best place to eat is actually in the Casa Particulares where the families will put on a feast at an additional cost to your accommodation. This was actually the best food we had while in Cuba.
As I’ve mentioned, imported goods are not easy to come by in Cuba. So it’s best to make the most of the fantastic local drinks, such as fresh mojitos and daiquiris. When in Havana, make sure you visit La Bedeguita del Medio, the home of the Mojito and La Floridita, for the best Daiquiris in town. Thank me later!
For non-alcoholic drinks, branded soft drinks can be acquired at a price, so it is definitely worth switching to the local cola, Tu-kola.
There are two modes of public transport, one for locals and one for tourists. It is not advised for tourists to use the local public transport as it is poorly managed and not considered safe. Viazul is the recommended company with modern air conditioned coaches running on a timetable. Using this service can be quite stressful for a number of reasons. Firstly, the timetable and information was only available in Spanish. You can’t book a ticket in advance, so you have to arrive at the station well in advance of time and book in person. There are no guarantees that you will get on the bus, you simply have to queue and when the bus is full, it’s full. Some destinations only have one bus per day, so make sure to get there in plenty of time!
As I’ve mentioned, internet access in Cuba is not very common, nor is a decent phone signal. If you are travelling outside the resorts you may find a pay as you go internet café, but wifi is almost impossible to find. I personally embraced the down time and logged off for the longest time in my adult life. It was pure bliss!
So there you have it. Cuba is one of those places that you will have to see to believe, but if you have anymore questions, just ask in the comments!