First-timers Guide to Cuba | Everything you need to know

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You’ve decided to go to Cuba, huh? You are about to have a remarkable experience, let me tell ya!

Cuba will test your limits, challenge your patience and maybe even break your heart, but it’s also going to reward you greatly with an experience of a lifetime. The people will accept you with open arms and the scenery will likely leave you in awe. It’s one of the most unique places I’ve ever been and I couldn’t recommend it more!

I arrived in Cuba way over my head, so hopefully this guide will help absorb some of the shock for you!

How to get in

Disregard this section if you aren’t from the United States- you will have no problem getting in. But for my fellow Americans, listen up! As of now, March 2016, it is still technically illegal to travel to Cuba without a license. This license allows people who fall under one of twelve categories to travel to the island, but its lack of enforcement and paperwork creates a loophole that pretty much allows anyone to travel. There is no longer an application for the license, which means as long as you are comfortable lying you can get in.

I traveled with two other people and none of us even got questioned when we passed through immigration in Cuba. We were all prepared to say we were journalists or students or on a religious pilgrimage, but they didn’t even bat an eye at us. In fact, they rushed us along and only stamped our tourist visas. Which is key… don’t get your passport stamped!! But honestly even if your passport does get stamped you will be fine. The travel license no longer requires an application or paperwork, so you will simply just need to reiterate your “story” about being a journalist to US customs if they ask.

Hidden costs: You will need to pay a $20 entry fee (visa) before boarding your flight, which you can pay at the airport. To get into downtown Havana from the airport you have to take a taxi and it will cost $20-$25 USD. 

Understanding Cuban Currency

Currency in Cuba is a little intense. Let me break it down for you. There are two currencies; the CUC and the CUP. The CUC is the official currency and is always equal to $1 USD. The CUP is sort of like an underground currency that mostly remains in the hands of locals to use on cheap goods being sold from other locals. $1 CUC is equal to $24 CUP.

Most travelers will deal primarily in CUC. And you will too, at least for housing, acitivities and most transportation. But you can and should totally take advantage of the CUP for food! All of the “hole in wall” pizza joints and sandwich stalls take CUP and you will find yourself saving some serious bucks. For example, street pizza will cost you a mere $10 CUP (less than 50 cents).

When exchanging US dollars, or any other currency you will only be able to receive CUC. Once you have the CUC you can then exchange that for CUP. For the best rates, I recommend using a Casa de Cambio or bank for all of your money exchanges, rather than the airport.

Getting Around

Transportation is a seriously frustrating situation. All of the cheapest options are practically inaccessible for tourists, unless you’ve got a ton of local knowledge or a local guide. Which leaves 3 options:

  1. For cross-country travel, VIAZUL bus is really your best bet. Depending on how far you are traveling, it can cost anywhere from $12 CUC to $40 CUC. It’s comfortable, full of white people and totally a tourist trap. But you’ve got to get over it, because it’s pretty much your only way to get around the country. Collectivo’s are another option but I didn’t find them to be any cheaper.
  2. For inter-city travel, hop into one of the old American taxi cars for the best fares. Most places within the center of town will cost about 3 CUC, with day excursions costing more like 20-30 CUC. Bike taxi’s are available as well, but their prices tend to fluctuate a lot more.
  3. Walk. Self-explanatory, but totally a viable option for exploring all the best nooks and crannies of each city. You could also consider renting a bicycle or motorbike if you want to venture off on your own.

Where to Go

To understand the diversity of Cuban Culture you’ve got to see at least three different cities. My recommendations are Havana (duh), Viñales and Trinidad.

Havana– The capital city of Cuba offers a lovely and realistic taste of Cuban life. It’s dirty, constantly under construction and bustling with people but it’s incredibly interesting and eye-opening. Old Havana is a neat place to stay as it is close to many attractions and offers Obispo Street- which is full of life and tons a cheap food. Another great neighborhood is Vedado, where you will find a more youthful scene and better access to goods.

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Viñales– This place is a MUST visit. You’d be insane to miss out on this beautiful scenery. About a two hour bus ride from Havana, this countryside couldn’t be more different than the city. The land is fertile with tobacco crops, the people are just lovely and there are tons of activities. I’d probably live here if the U.S. would let me…

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Trinidad– So I actually didn’t love this city. But I know that a lot of people do, so I think it still deserves to be included. They town itself is really beautiful and colorful, with cobblestone roads and salsa dancing in the streets. There’s also an awesome beach nearby, Playa Ancon, that can’t be missed! However, for me, I felt like the place was desolate and lacking in life. The people we interacted with were either major hustlers or really depressed and clearly struggling to get by. With that said, I think it is important as travelers to have moments like this that give you a reality check. So while I didn’t enjoy my time in Trinidad, I appreciate the learning experience and the glimpse into a different type of Cuban life.

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Health Care

If you find yourself in a situation where you need medical attention, you’ve got a couple options.

  1. First, swing by a pharmacy to see if there is a quick fix. For things like stomach illness or minor injuries, the staff at the the pharmacy should be able to provide you with the necessary medication or tools.
  2. If you’re your issue is a bit more substantial, the pharmacist will send you to the clinic/hospital. You likely had to buy health insurance before entering Cuba, but if you don’t have it that’s okay. Your treatment will be incredibly affordable compared to medical costs in the United States. I had an infected road-rash wound scrubbed out, bandaged and was given a series of antibiotics for less than $50 USD. Make sure to bring your passport and address of the place you are staying in town.

Cuban healthcare is renowned across the globe, so don’t hesitate to use it! The hospitals are totally outdated with nurses in old-fashioned outfits and metal medicine cabinets with glass vials of ointments and serums, but your care will be top-notch!

Safety

Not a problem. If you can survive Los Angeles or New York City you will be just fine in Cuba. Petty crimes takes place rarely, brutal crime almost never. I felt incredibly safe.

However, there is a TON of cat-calling on the streets. If you don’t like it and aren’t interested just keep walking. It’s harmless and not ill-intended.  If you are looking for a little Cuban romance, I imagine you will find it easy to come by.

Communication Access

You’ve got two choices here. Choice one, use your trip as a chance to unplug and bask in the glory of freedom from emails and social media. Or choice two, buck up and face the trials and tribulations of trying to access the incredibly inaccessible Cuban communication system.

If you must access the internet or make an international call, here are the steps you need to take:

  1. You can’t access internet or international phones without an ETSCA card. You can buy these either at the ETSCA office, which will have a HUGE line, or ask around for someone who is selling them on the street. They come with login information that expires after the given amount of time you purchased.
  2. Once you have your WiFi card, you can either use it on your phone or find an internet café that has computers. Hotels are usually your best bet for this. WiFi can be found outside of most major hotels and parks. Just look for a giant herd of Cubans on their phones and you will know you’re in the right place.
  3. If you MUST make a call home, try to do it via WiFi through an App like Facetime or Skype or be willing to pay absurd amounts to use the international payphones. We’re talking 5 CUC ($5 USD) per minute. Yikes!

Where to Sleep

Unless you plan on splurging on a hotel, you’re only real option for accommodation is a Casa Particular. This is a room in a family home. Often time they have numerous travelers staying there and will offer breakfast and dinner at an additional cost. Not to fret, they are easy to find and available in surplus. If you arrive to a town via bus, you will be bombarded with offers- see if you can’t bargain a little bit!

You can book your first couple nights via AirBnb.com, but otherwise each time you arrive in a new city you will need to hunt down a casa for the night. These homes will have white and blue signs hanging outside their doors to signify that they rent out rooms. Key word being rooms. You are almost always charged per room. This will cost anywhere between 15-35 CUC depending on where you are and how nice the room is. So as you can imagine, it is much more cost effective to share a room with a few buddies. Most rooms sleep 3 or 4 people and all have access to a bathroom.

As I mentioned above, most casa’s offer breakfast and dinner for 5 or 8 CUC. I highly recommend trying this delicious home cooked feast at least once or twice!

Where to Eat

Cuban food isn’t particular worth writing home about. It consists of a lot of carbs, cheese and meat. But it can be REALLY cheap and you are sure to find a few favorite meals.

Best budget options:

Street Pizza– $10 CUP (less than $0.50 USD) this stuff is pretty hit and miss, but the ham and cheese is usually a safe bet! Throw on a little salt for a flavor boost. Look for doors with open shutters and a line, odds are they are selling pizza!

Street Sandwiches– $10 CUP another carb-olicious treat, these little guys come in a variety of options. They are usually toasted and are served up fresh and quick! My favorite is either the simple ham and cheese or shredded pork. You can find these either in the streets or in a Cafeteria.

Cheap eats at restaurants– $1.50 – 3.00 CUC you can usually sit down for a solid meal at a restaurant if you keep your hungry eyes on items like eggs, sandwiches and burgers. The more complete meals like a meat with side veggies and rice/beans will cost upwards of 7 CUC.

Little pieces of advice:

  1. Buy a guide book. You will struggle greatly to find travel information once you are in the country so do all of your research ahead of time!
  2. Download an offline map app. I use maps.me, just make sure you download your map while you still have WiFi.
  3. Assign a person as your Western Union go-to in case of a money emergency. They should know how to wire money and have access to information like your passport number and bank account. They should also be a reliable person to contact- they are useless if you can’t get a hold of them! FYI: You will need to have your money transferred to a Cuban. Ask your Casa Particular if you can use them!
  4. Learn some basic Spanish
  5. IMPORTANT: Come in with the mindset that you will face a lot of difficulties and frustrations. These are not without reward, but it’s important to prepare yourself.
  6. It’s pretty dang hard to eat healthy here, at least in US standards. This is especially true on a budget. But often you can find yuca, tomatoes, cucumbers and pineapple- so don’t be afraid to cook at home if you need a little variance from street pizza!

There you have it. Enjoy your time in Cuba!

What’s the most difficult country you’ve traveled to? How did you overcome the challenges?

2 Comments

  1. Super challenging right?! Wish we could’ve met up when you were here! Next time.

  2. You live in a pretty special place 🙂 I will definitely be visiting again- and will figure out how to get in touch with people haha the lack of internet or phone service (for me) took me by surprise!

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