Unbeknownst to most, traveling to Cuba is very much like traveling to any other economically poor and non-industrialized country. This is particularly so when it comes to the items you'll need to pack, the caution you should practice when consuming water and food, and the general atmosphere of the country's impoverished neighborhoods.
However, the differences outweigh the similarities. Because tourism is technically not permitted in Cuba, there are quite a few details that any new visitor should be aware of prior to arriving.
We stayed in Havana for the duration of our trip, so some of these tips only apply to the country's capital. However, I would assume that many of the basics can be applied to the rest of Cuba as well.
The most important suggestion I can give you is to go prepared. It is absolutely possible to “wing” your trip and opt for a more casual viewing of the city, but preparation for your travels and stay are a must. From currency exchange and travel documents, to packing your suitcase and navigating the narrows streets of Old Havana, I hope these basics will make your stay in Cuba as seamless and enjoyable as ours!
Here are some basic tips for traveling to Cuba:
What To Pack
- Important travel documents. Unless you are staying at a hotel, you will most likely not have internet access at your accommodations, much less a printer. Print off your flight tickets, your hotel/AirBnB reservation WITH the address, any contact details you will need, tour information, etc.
- Cash. You can exchange your USD or Euro to convertible peso at the airport or at the hotels. Currently, CUC (pronounced “kook”) is pegged 1:1 to the US dollar. When you exchange USD, you will be charged a 10% tax plus an exchange charge, depending on where you get it done. You will need your passport for this so plan accordingly. There are two currencies: CUC for tourists and CUP for locals. 1 CUC (or USD) is equivalent to 25 CUP. You are very unlikely to get CUP in change unless you are dining at a more local spot outside of Havana.
- The basics: Bug spray, a roll of toilet paper, sunscreen, a hat, Bandaids if you tend to get walking blisters, Ibuprofen and your stomach medicine of choice. This is not to say that you are bound to get sick but you really never know. These items are pretty hard to come by in Cuba, for tourists and locals alike. A local informed us that goods can be so sparse that one month there may be toilet paper at the bodegas, and the next month there will not. Locals are forced to sell and purchase from the “Second Economy” (the black market) in order to attain their basic daily essentials.
- If you are a picky eater or have a tendency to get the late night munchies, consider packing a few snacks to tie you over. Restaurants do serve quite late but it doesn't hurt to have a backpack snack.
- Comfortable walking shoes. There are plenty of taxis and bicycle cabs toodling around Havana, but you should really walk as much as you can to get the true Cuban experience. We walked a minimum of 4-5 miles each day, and that's being conservative.
For Travel & Transportation
- Traveling with a United States passport requires that you purchase one of 12 visas for travel to Cuba. We selected “Support for the Cuban People” and didn't run into any issues. It cost us $20 USD to purchase these visas traveling from Grand Cayman, however it may be more or less if your flight is coming from the United States. We did NOT buy these before arriving to the airport but were fortunately able to purchase them with cash at the gate. Don't bank on that!
- You should pay no more than $25 to $30 pesos traveling from the Havana airport to your hotel or AirBnB. There is a set price between all government-run and privately-owned taxis for airport transportation. If you are told more, tell them your price or move on to another driver.
- It is extremely easy to hail a taxi or bicycle cab in Havana. The general idea is to tell your driver what you are willing to pay rather than ask what the ride will cost. This was truly helpful advice from the host of our casa. For example, 5 pesos seemed to be the average fare traveling from say, Centro Habana to Vedado. We told our driver that we would pay 5 pesos before even entering the vehicle and had no trouble.
- I would highly recommend purchasing or printing a walking map. We had a Google Map print out, a Cuba travel book and the Maps.Me app and referenced each numerous times. They were really helpful in terms of mapping out our days. While Havana is pretty easy to navigate once you have a general idea of the locations of neighborhoods and major attractions, it can be tricky to find the exact location of restaurants and bars without a little help. There aren't many designated street signs, but rather street names on the walls of corner buildings. No map? Locals are SO friendly and willing to point you in the right direction!
- While the hotels are gorgeous, stay at a Casa Particular or AirBnB. Not only are they insanely affordable, but you will get a truly authentic Cuban experience. We stayed in a Colonial style casa via AirBnB and wouldn't change a thing! More on that later.
- Buy WiFi cards for internet access. WiFi is extremely limited in Cuba, but there are a handful WiFi parks as well as hotels at which you can log online using a paid card. You can typically get 1 hour for $2 CUC. We had a little bit of trouble connecting our phones to the WiFi, so patience is a must! However, it felt so good to unplug that you may not even want to get online!
- If you dine at a popular restaurant, be sure to have a few $1 CUC coins or bills on you to tip the restroom attendants. Many of these locations did not have toilet paper in the stalls; instead, the attendant will provide you with a piece for use.
- Speaking of tips, carrying a bit of small change to tip for service is definitely recommended. On average, Cubans earn $20-30 CUC a month. A MONTH! Most are forced to work more than one job and even sell within the Second Economy (under the radar, of course), simply to get by. Tips are very much appreciated and go a long way.
- If you are staying at a Casa Particular, most hosts are able to make your restaurant reservations for you, book your taxis and provide you with recommendations for your stay.
- If you are not a Spanish speaker, learn a few basic phrases. Many, many Cubans also speak English, but any attempt to communicate in their native language is appreciated.
Food & Drink
- Only drink bottled water – even locals will tell you that tap water will inevitably leave you with a stomach problem! We often ordered bottled water at restaurants to carry with us throughout the day, but you can also find them at bodegas on the street.
- Meals at local restaurants (Parador aka Private, non-government owned restaurants) will cost you between $1-5 CUC. Meals at more popular and government-operated establishments can be anywhere from $8-20 CUC, depending. The majority of our favorite meals were at privately owned restaurants.
- We did not personally consume any uncooked vegetables but were cautioned not to, so consider avoiding salads.
If you have any other basic questions that were not addressed, please feel free to comment and I will do my best to assist! Stay tuned for more on Havana!
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