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Things to know about Cuba before visiting!
Cuba is an incredible place to visit and should definitely be top of your bucket list! It isn’t the easiest country to travel around, so this post covers some of the key things to know about Cuba before visiting. These essential things will make planning your trip, arriving in Cuba and travelling around just that little bit easier. And these are the things I wished I had know before visiting!
First things first – you need a visa to visit Cuba. These are standard 30 days visas, for a one time entry. They can be bought through some airlines, but for peace of mind it would be advisable to get them in advance. For more information and details on how to get a Cuban visa in the UK take a look at this post:
For direct flights to Havana, they will often check you have a visa for Cuba when boarding the plane.
If you are an American wanting to visit Cuba, then you need to visit under one of the 12 categories of authorised travel. Under Obama there was a ‘people to people’ loop hole, but this has now been closed. The situation is often changing, so best to check advice on websites such as this one.
The unique style of accommodation in Cuba, staying in Casa Particulars. Literally translated to ‘private home’ in English. Some of the more traditional style of accommodation just isn’t an option in Cuba. Couch surfing is illegal and hostels just don’t exist. In Havana there are the more traditional hotels, but as you travel outside of the city these are less and less frequent.
Instead, staying in a Casa Particular is an essential part of travelling in Cuba! It is such a great way to get to know locals and you will be touched by the kindness shown. These casa’s are simple rooms, many do come with en-suite bathrooms, located within the house of a local. Breakfast is served by the families in their houses.
Look out for the blue and white sign above the door that signals that the house is a Casa Particular. Often you will be able to turn up in a town and find a whole range to choose from.
CUC and CUP
The first thing to know about Cuba is that is operates a dual currency system. One currency is reserved for tourists and the other is what the locals use. CUC is the tourist currency (pronounced “cook”) and the local Cuban Peso is known as CUP.
In terms of value 1 CUC equals exactly $1 and is worth 25 times more than the CUP. CUC is always identifiable a every note has a picture of a tower or statue on it. Cuban’s are paid in CUP, nearly all consumer goods are marked in CUC. When buying something, just check the change given to you is CUC. It is fairly rare that you will come across somewhere where the prices are in CUP.
Bringing money to Cuba
While both currencies are legal tender on the island, neither can be exchanged outside in the foreign markets. The best thing to do is to bring a foreign currency to Cuba to exchange when you arrive. The best currency to bring with you, and the one you are likely to get the best exchange rate on, is Euros.
GBP can also be exchanged, but the rates are varying. I also saw Candanian dollars being exchanged, but the options for where you can do this are reduced. USD are definitely not the best currency to bring, and will be hard to exchange.
The first place you can exchange currency is at the airport when you arrive. After you come through immigration you will see a long line ahead of you, of people queuing to exchange money. If you leave the airport there is also another booth outside of the building.
The other option is to change in some of the larger casa’s or hotels. If you have Euros it is likely you will be able to change in your accommodation. It is not always guaranteed that your Casa will offer this, but you can go into the hotels to change their.
The Casa I stayed in did offer this option. If you are interested in booking – take a look HERE.
It is commonly said that there are no ATM’s in Cuba. This isn’t true, they are ATM’s to be found in Havana. They aren’t prolific but they are definitely around. However, if you want to rely on getting money out of ATM’s it would be best to do this in Havana. There really aren’t any once you leave the city.
Credit / Debit cards
Most debit and credit cards can be used in Cuba. However, for obviously reasons, American Express is not accepted. Likewise American bank cards don’t work. So if you have American bank accounts, make sure you take some form of cash with you to exchange. A form that isn’t US dollars!
The tap water in Cuba isn’t drinkable. However, I used a filter bottle to drink from the tap, and had no issues. If you want to invest in one take a look HERE.
Alternatively you would need to buy bottled water. Again, this can be hard to come by outside of Havana. Best suggestion is to buy enough larger bottles to survive the trip!
It has often been said that there isn’t any toilet roll in Cuba. This isn’t necessarily true, often the Casa’s have some. However, when you are travelling around Cuba – the loos you will stop on along the way sometimes don’t. Even those that do have it handed out by an attendant, so it is rationed. Best advice is to bring a roll with you!
Also when travelling around, make sure you have an amount of small change on you. There are toilet attendants at nearly every rest stop. While it isn’t always essential to pay them for entry, it is expected.
Female travellers take note, this is an important thing to know about Cuba before travelling here! The best advice to give, is to bring anything you might need with you. There are a few shops in Havana that sell sanitary products, but even these are closed on a Sunday afternoon. And if you want to purchase tampons, then this is even more of a challenge!
Tipping isn’t mandatory in Cuba, but it is expected. As a rule – in restaurants tip about 10% of the bill.
If you are staying in hotels then 1 CUC for a porter. 1 CUC a day for housekeeping and 1 – 5 CUC for the conierge.
For taxi drivers however, tipping is expected. If you are taking part in a tour, then it would be expected to tip your tour guide and any driver you have.
Jose Marti Int’l Airport
When you are arriving into Havana airport, prepare yourself for long queues to get through immigration. It is most likely going to happen. And once you are getting close to the front of the queue, the chances are the person manning that booth might get up to go to the loo. It might test your patience, but it’s a good time to get into the more laid back Cuba style!
Once you are through immigration you then need to fill in a declaration card. There doesn’t seem to be a particular place where these are kept, just look for the people standing around holding them. It would be really easy to walk past without noticing. But there is then another queue you have to join to leave the baggage reclaim area and they collect the cards in. It would be really annoying to get to the front of this queue, to then have to leave to go back to fill in the form.
There is no public bus between the airport and downtown Havana. So taxis or private transfer are the only option.
When you are leaving Cuba there are a few things to note. It is often said the queues to get through immigration to leave are just as large as those on the way in – so factor in time to spend in the queue! Having said that, I breezed through and then had an awfully long wait in what is not the most exciting airport in the world. Still better safe than sorry!
Once you are through security you can no longer use CUC as a currency. So make sure you have changed that back before you leave. It cannot be exchanged anywhere else in the world, and it is actually not allowed to be taken out of the country. You can change the currency at the Kiosk by Terminal 3. However there is no guarantee of the amount of each currency you want to change it back into that they might have. So make sure you only have small amounts to change.
Once through security there are only 4 forms of accepted currency – USD, EUR, CAD and CUP. A lot of the concessions will take card though. Prices for food and drink is high!
Connectivity and WiFi
First thing to know about Cuba – you are going to struggle to stay connected!
WiFi is available in hotels and some cafes and restaurants. However, while it is available it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work! Be prepared for a few days of limited, to no, connectivity when travelling through Cuba.
In order to access the WiFi from any where in teh country, you need to purchase a scratch card from the state telecoms company – Etecsa. These can be purchased from various spots around Havana, as well as larger hotels and Casa’s.
The cards are $1 for one hour, but you can pause the time when you log off to make the most of the hour. Other denominations are also available, if you think you need longer.
However, be warned! Even with the WiFi cards the connectivity isn’t great, is quite frustrating, slow or no connections. Eventually I just gave up and embraced the digital detox!
Check with your provider if your sim will work in Cuba, as a lot don’t. Especially when trying to access 3g or 4g. A SIM card can be purchased, but this will only work for calls and messages within Cuba. An activation fee also applies.
As a rule, it is good to know that Cuba is a safe country. However, as in all place, petty theft does occur. So be aware of items, like cameras, being loosely slung over your shoulder. In general, keep your valuables in your site at all times. I felt perfectly safe walking around Havana, even at night.
By law in Cuba, you should a copy of an item of ID on you at all times. If you don’t want to carry your passport around with you all the time, then a photocopy will be absolutely fine. I wasn’t asked for it once, but didn’t want to risk it!
Learn about the history.
Probably one of the most important things to know about Cuba before visiting, is at least a basic understanding of it’s history. Cuba has a very rich and deep history, and doing some research before will give you even more context when you are in the country. It will help you understanding the social reasoning behind a lot of things, the pride Cuban’s have. When you have a question about Cuba, most often the answer can be found in it’s history.
Hopefully this post covers some helpful hints and tips on things to know about Cuba if you are travelling there. It is the most incredible country, and one which has a lot to give. If you have any more questions I’d love to hear them. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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