There are some things you need to know before you go to Cuba, others are better to find out when you get there. I did a lot of research before my trip, most of which came in the way of word of mouth recommendations, blogs and eBooks. No one source had everything I needed to know though, and a lot of what I read and heard was outdated. The Lonely Planet book I saw 90% of tourists carrying around? Largely redundant in the two years since it was published, in fact it led me astray more than a couple of times with incorrect pricing, times etc.
I want to provide a no nonsense guide to travel in Cuba for anyone planning a trip. Later, I’ll get into a little more detail on where to go, what to eat, drink and buy, where to stay etc. In the meantime, I’ve written a food & drink guide for TheTaste.ie which you can read here. So, without further ado…
Heading back to Havana shortly for my return trip with @klm I've seen a lot of Cuba in the past two weeks, but I still have a few more days to squeeze things in. Who's visited before? 🙋🏻 What are your absolute must dos before leaving the island? 📸: @canonuk 5d Mark IV #🇨🇺 #thedailyselftravels #KLMtop10
Cuba – Getting there
I flew with KLM who have four flights daily direct from Dublin to their Amsterdam hub where it’s ridiculously easy to connect straight onto Havana. This is probably the most efficient and economic route from Ireland and will get you there in around 14 hours. I think a lot of people forget that Amsterdam Schipol Airport doesn’t take much longer to get to than any of the London airports, plus KLM serve up free drinks and snacks on the short hop. Not bad!
Ease of connection at AMS is something KLM pride themselves on, you can make it from one flight onto the next in as little as 50 minutes for an intercontinental flight.
Cuba – Currency
There are two currencies in Cuba, both are only available inside the country. The island works almost exclusively on cash (with the rare exception of major hotels). American ATM cards won’t work in Cuba, but my European Visa Debit was fine in most of the cash machines. You can change money in the airport, but queues are long and exchange rates aren’t that favourable. Ask your Casa (more on that below) host before arriving if they can change money for you in their house, this is the easiest option.
You can also use exchange offices (CADECA), but expect a very long wait. Everything happens at a much slower pace in Cuba.
Changing from Euro or Canadian Dollars is your best bet as there’s a 10% tax added when exchanging from $USD, so bear this in mind if you’re travelling from the States.
CUC or the Cuban Convertible Peso is the major currency and is equivalent to the US Dollar. Most prices you see quoted are in CUC.
Confusingly, the other official currency is the Cuban Peso or CUP, or ‘moneda nacional’. Do not get the two mixed up (I carried two separate purses), as the rate is 25 CUP per 1 CUC. Always check change to ensure you’re not getting ripped off, it’s an easy mistake to make.
CUP is how Cuban state workers receive their wages and pay for non-luxury items. You’ll see prices for hole in the wall food and drinks spots in this local currency and will notice these products (such as pizza, juice and coffee) are a lot cheaper than buying from a dollar store or cafe in CUC.
Cuba – Accommodation
I recommend booking your first couple of nights accommodation in advance (unless you’re staying at an all inclusive resort for the duration, which I strongly advise against) and then going with the flow once you arrive in Cuba. Casa Particulares are very much the original Airbnb. Private home owners rent their spare rooms to tourists and often cook breakfast and other meals for guests.
Cubans are very house proud and their homes are always spotless, they take great pride in the meals they provide and rely on word of mouth recommendations. Expect to pay an average of 20-25CUC per night per room. Most rooms have one double and one single bed (so they can sleep 3 people), with an en suite and air conditioning. Fancier places will also have a ‘mini bar’ fridge and mod-cons such as hair dryers. Some even have WiFi, but don’t rely on it.
You can book Casa Particulares online before you go via Airbnb (you’ll probably pay a slightly higher rate) or directly by telephone and pay in cash when you arrive. Look out for this blue symbol above the door on registered Casa Particulares, these are the only official ones you should stay in and are in every big city and small town in Cuba.
Home owners with available rooms will be waiting at popular taxi drop off points and bus stops waving their business cards touting for business. This is your chance to bargain and get yourself a deal, whether it’s a lower price or breakfast included.
Hostels are really only available in Havana. Search hostelworld.com for options. I’ll have my own personal recommendations in the next blog post. Beds from about 8CUC per person, per night in a shared room.
Cuba – Airport transfers
There are buses you can get from the airport into Old Havana, but for convenience sake ask your Casa about a car transfer. They can be pricey (around 30CUC) one way, but if you’re sharing it’s definitely worth it in my opinion. Plus, it’ll save you queueing for cash at the airport, they can add the cost to your room charge. Havana will be tricky to navigate with luggage after a long flight in the heat and/or dark. The driver will be at arrivals with your name and most likely driving a 1950s car with no air conditioning or seatbelt.
Buckle in and enjoy the ride!
Cuba – Internet
Getting online is notoriously difficult in Cuba, but not at all impossible. In fact, my Irish Vodafone account worked fine 80% of the time for data roaming and calls. It’s nice to switch off though, so enjoy the lack of connection the majority of the time.
WiFi is government run and requires an ETECSA card which you can purchase at one of their stores in towns and cities. They start at 1.50CUC for 30 minutes and are sold in different increments. Some hotels (namely Hotel Nacional de Cuba) sell their own cards for 5CUC for one hour. You can also buy the scratch cards from street vendors, who hike up the price but also amp up the convenience. Probably illegal, but much easier than queueing in 35 degree heat for an hour with 100 other tourists.
Once you have a card, you scratch off your PIN/password and log in at a public WiFi zone. Usually open spaces like public parks or squares or in big hotels. Anywhere you see a large gathering of people on their phones is likely a WiFi spot. In Havana, try the air conditioned lobby of Hotel Iberostar Parque Central. Log out once you’ve finished browsing so you can reuse any remaining minutes.
Cuba – Food
Contrary to reports, the food isn’t all bad in Cuba. I travelled for almost 3 weeks eating street food, from people’s houses, in government run resorts and cafes, in private restaurants and didn’t suffer any sickness. I’ve done the research so you don’t have to, read my full Cuba food guide here.
Cuba – Weather
As we all unfortunately now know, the hurricane season stretches from July to November in the Caribbean (with September and October having the highest number of deadly tropical storms). Dry season comes next, which means it’s also peak tourist time (slightly lower temperatures and humidity) so prices can rise. Still, expect year round high humidity, this is a tropical island and downpours are heavy. Bring a waterproof backpack cover and do like the locals; shelter from both the sun and rain with an umbrella.
Cuba – Transport
There is absolutely every type of transport in Cuba. From luxury restored classic cars, to open air trucks, you can travel on it all depending on your budget and comfort preference.
Cuba is all the things we've been shown on TV, in magazines and books…but so so much more too. I feel a world away from home but it's nice to know my flight back from Havana with @klm tomorrow is so straight forward, connecting in Amsterdam before arriving in Dublin a couple of hours later. The dream 🇨🇺🛩 #KLMtop10 #thedailyselftravels 📸: @canonuk 5D Mark IV
Regular taxis will usually offer a flat rate. Agree on this with the driver before getting in. These are usually old cars which you can flag at the side of the street
Colectivo (shared) taxis are the most popular way to get between towns and cities in Cuba. If you’re travelling alone, ask your Casa host if they know a driver who is taking other passengers on the same route or head to a taxi or bus station where you are bound to find a driver or other tourists looking to share a car. The average price per person in a colectivo from Havana to Trinidad (4 hours) is 25CUC
Maquinas (shared local cabs along regular routes) are a bit like buses, you’ll want a little Spanish to ride these like the locals. The most cost effective option (50c or 10 pesos) but won’t bring you door to door and forget about ‘personal space’
Classic car tours – from Parque Central in Old Havana, no need to book, from 40CUC per hour, but feel free to haggle
Public buses – within Havana, take the T1/2/3 from Parque Central to popular tourist sights around the city and the beaches east of Havana, Playas del Este. From 5CUC hop on/off/return
Viazul bus – the official transport network across the island. Prices usually aren’t much cheaper than a taxi colectivo though and the journeys are around 25% longer in duration with all the stops. Air con is always set to freezing, so bring layers if you take this form of transport. You can book tickets in advance online before arriving in Cuba or at the bus station, but they do sell out so it pays to be prepared
Omnibus – I read (in one of the eBooks I bought on my Kindle) that tourists cannot take this bus, that it’s only for locals. The host of my Casa Particular in Playa Larga booked me a spot on a bus to Santa Clara (8CUC), so it is possible – just ask!
Bici-taxis (like a rickshaw) – the driver will quote around double what you should pay. Haggle
Moto-taxis – as above
Horse and carriage – ensure the horse is well looked after before deciding on this option. They can be overworked
Trains – apparently unreliable, but very cheap. Only consider if you’re on an extreme budget with a lot of time to spare
Hitchhiking – not for me, but you’ll see lots of people on the side of the road waving their thumb
Cuba – Avoiding scams
Most Cubans are friendly and eager to help. There are also some who can take advantage of confused or lost tourists (there’s no blending in here, no matter how hard you try). You’ll hear, “where you fron” (not a typo) approximately 76790 times a day.
If a local offers to show you where something is, it’s likely they’re looking for a tip or in the case they bring you into a bar, they’ll expect you to pay for their drinks. There are unofficial tour guides who work like this, but if you know what you’re getting into, it’s not really a scam.
Beware of receiving CUP instead of CUC in change, as it’s worth a lot less.
Jineteros (hustlers) might ask you to buy milk for their baby, this is generally a scam. Use your head here, you’ll know if it’s a genuine case.
Roadside cigars – if the price sounds too good to be true, then it’s probably a fake.
Cuba – Visas
European citizens need a tourist visa to enter Cuba. This can be obtained at the Cuban embassy or online and cost €22. You’ll need to provide details of where you’re staying, return flights and a travel insurance policy. The visa is valid for 30 days.
If you’re travelling via Canada, the visa is likely included in your airfare. Check with your airline before travelling.
Address For The Embassy of Cuba in Dublin:
Address: 2 Adelaide Court Adelaide Road Dublin 2 Ireland
Cuban Embassy Phone Numbers in Dublin:
Telephone: (01) 475.0899 – Telephone (Int): +353.1.475.0899
I share my favourite time of day with the mozzies, I know they'll win every time but I still can't resist the allure of sundown on the beach 🌅 Current bite count is 40+ and rising, but sure look 🤷🏽♀️ who else is the lucky one who gets all the bites while everyone else manages to avoid them? Also any unusual prevention/cure please let me know. Running out of ideas here! Today I'm running in between tour operators, travel agents and collectivo taxi drivers trying to organise a day and night in Cayo Santa Maria, home to supposedly the best beaches in all of Cuba. Only one way to find out 🤞🏽 📸: @gloria1209
Cuba – What to pack/do before you go
- Cuba uses both round and flat two pin plugs and the standard voltage is 110, although you can find 220v sockets in some places. The flat 2 pin American style plug socket is the most common
- Zika virus has been reported in Cuba and mosquitoes are prevalent around the island but especially near forested areas and water. Here’s some advice I cannot give, but instead would love an answer for. I’ve used 100% DEET in the Caribbean with no luck, natural remedies such as citronella and plenty of other deterrents and yet still get bitten alive. If you have the answer, please leave a comment!
- Make sure your travel vaccinations are up to date. Check at tmb.ie
- Cash! As mentioned under the currency heading, cash is king in Cuba. Make sure you have enough for the entire duration of your trip in case your card doesn’t work for any reason. Cuba is very safe, but it’s wise to split your cash into different pockets, bags etc.
- Your visa and travel insurance documents
- Medication – bring anything you might need in case you can’t get your hands on supplies while in Cuba. Stock up on antihistamines, immodium, motilium, dioralyte, painkillers, a traveller probiotic, after sun and cortisone cream before you go
- Toiletries – go prepared, these luxury items are hard to come by. Bring toothpaste, SPF, hand sanitiser, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, razors and any other toiletries you can’t live without as it’s unlikely you’ll be able to replenish while in Cuba
- It’s a nice idea to bring some extra toiletries, female sanitary products and small toys for kids (or crayons for example) as these products are few and far between and very expensive for Cuban people to purchase. A small gesture will be greatly appreciated
Cuba – Useful phrases/things to know
- ‘El último’, (the last). If you hear this when in a queuing situation, the person is asking who is last in line so they know where their spot is. If you’re joining a what looks like chaos when trying to pay for something or wait for a bus, ask the question‘¿quien es el último?’ because it’s actually usually well organised
- If you take pictures of locals dressed up, be prepared to pay around 1CUC
- If you have no Spanish, you can get by with just a few words, dropping the pleasantries
- ‘¡Demasiado caro!’, earned me discounts on taxis and in markets. It means, ‘too expensive!’
- Ladies, if you hear ‘linda’, they haven’t mistaken you for Aunty Linda, you’re being called pretty. Take it and run honey.
- Greetings; ‘ciao’ works any time of day or night for hello/goodbye. Easy peasy.
- A very useful phrase; ‘¿habla ingles?’ – do you speak English?
This post was sponsored by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. All views are, as always, my own.