“Timeworn but magnificent, fun yet frustrating, dilapidated but dignified and changing with every second.”
Lots of people keep asking me for tips and advice on Cuba, and therefore, my lovelies, I decided to share my experience with you.
We all can agree that Cuba is a very popular destination to visit at the moment. I would even call it a “travel trend”. And there are many reasons why it is so popular.
Firstly, Cuba is a unique country. Secondly, 5 minutes after you land, you will know that this is something different. Right away I had a feeling as I would have travelled to the past, like around 1950. When I was reading articles about Cuba before my trip, I couldn’t imagine that I would feel some difference. But since I am originally from Slovakia, I remember my grandparents and even my parents talking about old times, when communism was still around. My parents would share with me stories about not having enough goods and products, going to other countries to get furniture was normal, how they would wait for hours in long lines for bananas (yes there were bananas available), how everyone had a job etc. Of course not only is the system unique, but also how people live there, using things we don’t use anymore.
I was really fascinated by Cuba and after visiting many countries, this one was definitely something else, a country like no other.
Cuba is a country which changes really fast and is definitely the right place for unforgettable experiences.
So what do you need to know before going to Cuba? I am sharing with you 11 tips which you will need to know before visiting Cuba.
Cuba has many beautiful beaches
Cuba is a Caribbean island and paradise for beautiful beaches.
We landed in Varadero and stayed there only 2 days but the beach was very beautiful. For my taste, there were too many tourists around but white sand and turquoise water made our day really unforgettable.
However, my favourite beach was Cayo Jutias located in the province Pinar del Rio, just 1 hour of a bumpy ride from Vinales. Cayo Jutias is the most discovered “undiscovered” beach. Cayo Jutias is 3 km long blanket of sand and the most beautiful mangrove beach I have visited so far. We took a taxi collectivo and paid 15 CUC each per person to get there (including way back). Just ask your host to organise taxi collectivo for you. As I mentioned, the roads are full of holes so it can get really shaky but we had a lot of fun while listening to Spanish music. Once you get there, the beach seems not very long, but don’t be afraid to walk through a little mangrove forest. Feeling like India Jones, we did that and we were completely alone.
There is another awesome beach accessible and worthy of going once you are staying in Vinales. They are located in small resort island Cayo Largo, unfortunately, we didn’t manage to travel there. However, when you have time you should definitely go and you can get there by ferry.
If you are travelling to Trinidad, we visited really nice beach Playa Ancon. But there are so much more, depending on where you staying. I wish we would have had more time to explore more of them.
Cuba has 2 currencies
Cuba has two currencies: The Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC).
Cubans pay in CUP, nearly all tourists pay in CUC. There is currently 25 CUP per CUC. So what does it mean for us tourists?
All casas and restaurants etc will need to be paid in CUC. For me as a European tourist, going to Cuba was a little bit expensive compared to the other countries outside of EU as CUC is comparable to euro. For example, if you pay 35 CUC for your casa particular per night, it is basically around € 33, which is still okay and considerably affordable.
Casas particulares are awesome
Traditional, authentic, and soooooo cuban for fair prices. This is how I would describe casas particulares.
If you want to have a real Cuban experience, casas particulares are the best option for accommodation.
However, start researching accommodation at least 2 months before going.
We started late (1 month) and we did struggle a bit. Tourism in Cuba is expanding quickly, but there are still not many accommodations for tourists. Which means, the casas particulares are booked for very long time.
For us, it was very difficult to figure out how we are going to find accommodation. There was no EU Airbnb website in 2016 (check now, as I heard that there is a possibility to book a casa via Airbnb for EU tourists as well) no booking.com. We checked the Lonely Planet guide and looked for hotels or casas particulares there but calling each of them would cost us lot of money.
So we did some research and found an website casaparticular.com which had many casas listed and we had no problems at all. You can book your casa and wait about one day for the confirmation. If a casa is available, you would need to print the confirmation. What is super important to know is that you need to call 2 days prior to confirm that you are coming. If a casa is not available, an agent, in our case Jose, will send you an email asking you to pick between 5-7 casas and he will let you know which one is available. You can pay for casas only in cash as almost everything else in Cuba.
So what is the normal price for one night in a casa particular?
Most of the rooms are between 25-35 CUC but there are also more expensive ones, depending on the season (In Havana we paid 35 pesos per night, in Vinales 25, In Trinidad 25 and Santa Clara 20).
In casas you can get delicious food made by your host: breakfast:3-5 CUC or dinner 7-15 CUC depending on the owners. You can’t compare food in casa with restaurants.
We had always lots of fresh food, huge portions for a good price and awesome service.
We met a lot of people who didn’t book accommodation, just arrived at the city and ask locals if they know something. Some travellers do that, as they don’t know how many days they would need for a certain location. But with me, I want to be sure that we have a place to sleep which looks okay and in a good location. It saves you lot of time which you don’t have cut from your schedule. We had very good experience with this website and would definitely recommend it to everyone who travels to Cuba and wants to have booked casas beforehand.
Avoid staying in the hotels
The hotels in Cuba are very expensive and if you have a certain budget and want to experience real Cuban culture you want to avoid them. And that why I will share with you our not very pleasant story. But looking at it now it is actually really funny. And if you think about it, the best stories are the stories which didn’t go the way you planned 😀 and that’s the story you will usually tell your friends the first thing you see them 😀
As I mentioned with many tourists coming to Cuba for vacations, all cities are struggling with accommodation for tourists.
We left Varadero at 8 am and we were heading to Havana for 4 days. We took the Viazul bus and we paid 10 CUC each. It takes around 3 hours to get to Havana with little 10 minutes stop at some auto pista stop where you can have coffee and little snacks. We organised a casa particular via Airbnb. That time you couldn’t officially book it via European website so we wrote our host an email asking if he has a free room. After 2 weeks of emailing, we confirmed everything and ……. that day our host was supposed to pick us up at the Viazul station but somehow we couldn’t find him and we also had no contact information. Pretty stupid, I know (so make sure you always have contact information as in Cuba a lot of unexpected things can happen). After we came back from our vacation it turned out that he was waiting for us, but on the other side of the bus stop and of course we had no idea there was another side, so a little bit unfortunate….
So now we had no place for 3 nights. Great. People in Cuba live from tourism so you can always find someone who knows something or someone. It was our first time in Cuba, everything was so different, there was no internet, no google, so we had to brainstorm what we are going to do. And then suddenly, I saw a tour guide and I asked him if he knows about some accommodation for us. Of course, he knew and he was very helpful. Unfortunately, the casa he suggested wasn’t available. Bummer. It was casa which belonged to his mother and she sent us to another house. It was super far away from the Havana Vieja in a weird location and the room wasn’t the one I imagined. It was just hilarious, the floor was so dirty that I almost cried. There were no proper bed sheets so we really had to look for something else. We had the whole day in front of us to find something better. So we left this casa and went to the city. In our lonely planet guide were few hotels we called and asked if there have a free room, but they were either fully booked or overpriced like crazy… € 200-300 per night….just crazy.
We were walking around the city and went to ask at the Hotel Presidente and they told us that room costs 275 CUC per night, hahaha. Of course, we can’t afford it, so at least we asked if we can use the internet to contact our host and write him an email. The receptionist just answered: “We don’t have the internet at the moment as the internet connection is only at the certain times of a day” (usually evenings).
At the end, we went to ask at Hotel La Plaza where the room costs 170 per night. We took it. It’s expensive but really good location and we were happy to leave this place in the middle of nowhere.
Next day we left our casa “horrible” and went to the city. We could only check in at 4 p.m. Strange, that it takes them so long to prepare the room. Well, we went to explore Havana Vieja and came back in the evening. When we saw the room, we were shocked. The lobby looks amazing but then you go to your room and you see run down walls, old furniture, broken bathroom door, not working light…. but you know, somehow we liked it there. It really looked like the hotel stopped functioning and being maintained since 1950. It was a great location, just 1 minute to Parque Plaza and with the view of Bacardi building.
There are outgoing repairs all around the city since 1970 so if you don’t have ear plugs you’re kinda screwed (like me) 😀
Very Limited Internet
As I already mentioned you can’t find the internet on every corner, but there are some options. Recently, there is an option to get a voucher card from the local mobile shop, which you can use for a certain period of time and only in the certain locations, mostly in the main squares. When we arrived at Havana, being busy tourists, we saw in some squares a lot of people gathering and staring at their phones, wondering what they are actually doing. Later on, we figured it out that there was the internet, but honestly, I didn’t care about not having the internet (except first day in Havana when we couldn’t find our host) as it is really nice to go on vacation and not have any access to any news etc.
Bring cash with you, don’t count so much on ATMs
We haven’t seen any ATM at the Varadero airport. But there is one exchange office at Varadero airport where you can get Cuban pesos. There are few ATMs in Havana, also in Vinales and Trinidad. It can happen that the ATMs are not working so bring enough cash with you and plan ahead how much money you need for your upcoming trips. We had no problems with getting money from ATMs in Havana and in Trinidad.
Locals sometimes will want something from you
During our 2 weeks in Cuba, we met a lot of nice and friendly people, but also a few who were a bit grumpy (especially taxi drivers). Once we had a really nice conversation with our host from Trinidad as he spoke English quite well about the current situation in Cuba. And we were shocked. People in Cuba earn 20 euros per month, yes…you are reading right, I didn’t misspell it or forgot 1 zero at the end, 20 euros….Our host in Trinidad is working as a doctor and also subletting casas and he is earning 64 EU per month, and that’s the highest amount you can get, working legally of course. So I understand, that tourism is a very important element for the locals and a chance to earn additional money. So we had a few situations where we stopped by locals and I will share one with you 😉
Believe me or not, tourists are very easy to be spotted….big camera, no tan, it is easy to figure it out, right?
We woke up very early and headed to Museum de Napoleon. On our way, we stopped at some local cafeteria and enjoyed nice and very cheap food where you could pay with pesos (1 CUC is 24 pesos).
On our way to the museum when we were passing by the University of Havana we were stopped by two people, Rafael and woman (I forgot her name). They asked us nicely where we are heading and told us that this is a very important University where Fidel Castro was studying. We said thank you and wanted to continue but they told us that they have time to show us around. We looked at each other and thought: “Why not, we have time, let’s be open.” They showed us University and gave us 30 minutes tour explaining us every single statue, even with limited English we understood. I have to say, it was interesting. They said there were teachers there. I don’t know if that’s the truth, to be honest. After the “tour” we wanted to go already but somehow we ended up at the the bar called “Cooparativo” where Fidel and others were planning the revolution on the dictator Batista.
They told us to order and (for them to) a traditional Cuban drink called “Negron”. We said ok. It was a nice drink. And then the conversation went into buying coffee, cigars and rum. Before going to Cuba I read in the guide that we shouldn’t buy things from the street, as they are overpriced and not a good quality but at that moment we really didn’t get it :D. They told us that they can get coffee at the University shop cheaper (I now, University shop, what was I thinking? :D) than in the city, he said: “normally you pay 10 CUC for a coffee but he can get coffee from that shop for 5 CUC.” I don’t know why, but we bought one. We also paid their drinks which one was 4 CUC as we wanted to say thank you for their tour. Then, we were happy what an awesome deal we made. Nooot. Later, we saw an official shop with rum and cigars and we went there to look. And then we realised that they sold us some random coffee called “HOLA” and just 125 grams. In the official shop, you can get 500 g really good quality coffee for 6 CUC. So yup, we got punked! But as I said it didn’t make me even angry because I understand why they do this.
Take buses or taxi collectivo
The best way to travel in Cuba is by bus or take taxi collectivo.
There are two bus companies: Viazul and Transtur. You can book tickets for Viazul online or at the spot in the ticket office.
We actually thought about renting a car, but this is not a good idea as the streets are not in very good conditions and there are not enough signs so you might get lost. And if you don’t speak Spanish it is a little bit hard to ask locals for direction.
My favourite way of transfer is taxi collectivo and share a taxi with other travellers. It is really nice to meet other people and share your stories and experience. We used it for going to Cayo Jutias (our host Maria from Vinales organised for us) and also when we were going back to Varadero from Santa Clara. And it can get really shaky and bumpy because of roads like this. 😀
Basics in Spanish is super helpful
Many people cannot speak English in Cuba or only with a limited vocabulary, so learning a few words or having little dictionary is always helpful. Knowing basic phrases as: ‘Hello, my name is, how much that costs, numbers, good bye etc. could help you out in some situations (for example: looking for accommodations)’
Pack your toiletries and all necessities you need and also for the locals
What shocked me the most, as I didn’t know before going to Cuba, is that locals are missing a lot of products and necessities. There were kids and elderly people approaching us and asking us if we have spare soap, pens, shampoo. So if you are planning to travel to Cuba, please pack additional toiletries, pencils for kids, even make up you don’t use as you will have lot of chances to give it away and help others.
In Cuba there are no shopping malls, no fashion stores, no big grocery chains.
There are a few things you should always have on you: toilet paper or tissues ( a lot of places even museums don’t have toilet paper), sanitiser (very often there is no soap or water in the bathroom).
This is how the normal store in Cuba looks like, you can find there anything and everything, from pots to rum, from petrol to broom and some other little things. At the beginning of the month locals are receiving certain groceries for free as eggs, sugar, flour per family. So, if you see people queuing for groceries you know why.
Don’t forget mosquito repellant
If mosquitos like you as they like me, don’t forget to take the repellant with you. During our visit they were lot of signs about Zika virus or Malaria. We even walked by the street when they were spraying chemicals against Zika virus.
Few days before leaving Cuba I was attacked by mosquitoes and I had around 100 stitches on my body. It was itching like crazy. It was so unpleasant and annoying that I had to get some antihistamine from our friends we met during our travels. Thank you Sara and Tim.
I am wishing a lovely stay in Cuba and lot of unforgettable memories. If you have any questions regarding your trip or anything else please fell free to contact me or leave a comment below if you enjoyed the article 😉
Have fun in Cuba 🙂