Cuba – What you need to know!
Sanjay and I were lucky enough to travel to Havana, Cuba for a few days last year, the city was our favourite destination by far for 2016. While our first impressions were of chaos and dismay (our taxi driver initially wasn’t able to find our Air BnB apartment and we seemed to be driving around in circles in the dark for a very long time) Havana grew on us and we fell in love with the gorgeous Spanish, colonial architecture, the rich history and simplistic lifestyle.
We decided to rent a local apartment opposed to staying in a hotel, as we wanted to have a more authentic experience in the city. While the apartment was kitted out for tourists, it was also located on a backstreet, where the road was unsealed and with potholes, strange and sometimes unpleasant smells filled the air and vendors were selling colourful drinks from rickety wooden carts. This was also where the locals gathered in the street to hang out until the early hours of the morning, yup we definitely picked a good spot for Cuban authenticity! 😀
Entrance to our apartment
The funky green kitchen
The crusty old elevator we only used once!
Even though we only spent four days in Havana, we spent a lot of time planning before we arrived. Travelling to Cuba can be a bit of a hassle but if you do some research you should be fine.
Here’s some of our top tips –
- Travellers from most countries require a visa, so check out the requirements for your country.
- Credit cards are not widely accepted in Cuba, make sure you take cash! You can convert your cash when you arrive but be prepared to queue for a very long time. (The conversion rate is better in the city opposed to the airport and the rate is better for currency other than the USD, we took Euros with us).
Getting a little grumpy waiting in line!
- You can withdraw from ATM’s (non US cards) but don’t count on it working as there are frequent issues with bank transmission.
- Cuba has two currencies – CUC, the convertible peso and the CUP, the national peso. We would recommend you convert to CUC as it’s the most frequently used among locals and tourists alike. (If you want to buy something and the price seems extremely high, it’s probably because it’s been quoted in CUP, just ask the vendor to convert it to CUC for you).
- If you want a more authentic Cuban experience, stay at a local casa particulares (private home/residence, in some cases it’s just a room and in others the entire house/apartment) instead of a hotel. There are quite a few casa particulares listed on Air BnB.
- As in a lot of countries, the water is not safe to drink. Stick to bottled water.
- If you don’t speak Spanish, try and learn the basics, the locals respond better to people who at least try to communicate in their language 😀
- Be wary of pickpockets, we didn’t have any incidents but they are out there, so be vigilant.
- Internet/WiFi – Is pretty much non existent, some hotels may offer it and there are local hotspots but it’s limited and not worth it. Sanjay and I went internet free for the four days and didn’t really miss it at all! (Just make sure you let your loved ones know your travel plans beforehand, so they don’t get worried).
- Load your phone up with offline maps before you arrive, they are so handy when exploring the city on your own!
- If you have time, walk through Havana at your own pace. There’s so much to see and it’s so much nicer being able to explore and spend as much time at various locations opposed to being on a tight timeframe when on a tour.
- Food in Cuba is basic and you won’t be able to buy your usual snacks around town (chips, biscuits, nuts etc) so if you are like me and get hungry all the time take your own snacks.
- If you want to ride in a classic car (as most travellers do) there are a couple of ways to go about it. Firstly, these cars are sometimes used as local taxis, they are shared so expect to be riding along with others. Secondly, you can hire them out for a city tour with a driver and a guide (you can’t drive!) expect to pay CUC 30 for one hour.
- Besides souvenirs, shopping is basically non existent, the only thing I brought back with me was this little magnet!
Remember it’s a simple place, you can’t go there expecting it to be like a typical tourist mecca and amenities and facilities are lacking in some areas. I stumbled across a great quote before we travelled to Cuba by Clifton Fadiman – “When you travel, remember that a foreign country isn’t designed to make you comfortable, it’s designed to make its own people comfortable.” It definitely rang true!
So although travelling to Cuba requires a little bit of work, it’s well worth it. A little taste will leave you wanting more!
Happy travels, Priti X