No, really. Cuba is not like other countries and there are certain things to need to know even if you intend to stay holed up in the all-inclusive beach resorts of Varadero.
But don’t do that.
- Wifi is not readily available and 3G rarely works. To go online you must buy internet cards ) at around $3-4 CUC a go (£2.50-3 ish) from hotels for an hour’s access then go and sit in a hotspot (identifiable in central Havana by the lines of people sitting on low walls and pavements and twiddling with their phones)
- Drink bottled water unless you want spent your entire time worshipping at the porcelain throne – and carry toilet paper/antiseptic wipes around with you as well as painkillers and Immodium.
- Bartering is not really a thing in Cuba, most things have set prices. But tip people – they live off it. Cuba is a largely cash-based economy, you will need it even in all inclusive resorts (for tips) and when a musicians’ hat comes round for cash it is accepted you will put money in – it’s their only payment alongside selling their CDs.
- Cubans speak Spanish and it is advisable and polite to learn a few key phrases. Do not assume they speak English though some do.
- You cannot buy local currency in advance of your trip. If you are British/European you can withdraw cash in CUCs (convertible pesos) from machines, just let your bank know you are travelling to Cuba. There are still restrictions for Americans due to ongoing trade and political disagreements and they cannot use the cash machines. (see, history!) Alternately exchange Euros etc. on arrival.
- You need a visa to visit Cuba. Your travel operator will arrange this for you but beware if you are an independent traveller as you will not be allowed in the country without it.
- Cuba is a country of contrasts – in some ways very modern and in other ways lacking in basics. These include toiletries, pens etc. Bring your own. Visit a supermarket to see how Cubans have to live – some things are freely available but items including shampoo, tinned tuna fish, sun cream, etc. are sold at separate counters and are expensive luxuries for Cubans.
- Bit obvious but the sun is extremely strong. Bring plenty of suncream and buy a hat, drink water (and find a fan). You’ll need insect repellent at night.
- Practically everybody you meet (outside the big resorts and sometimes inside them) will try and sell you cigars. Just say no and pay a proper price from a proper cigar shop or you will get cheap knock-offs, unless you are just looking to put money in the hands of Cubans, who do need it.
- Topless sunbathing is not a thing here, ladies (apart from on three set nudist beaches frequented only by tourists). Apart from that clothing is fairly relaxed.
- Don’t drive in Cuba if you can avoid it. Taxis are cheap. Potholes swallow whole streets, no joke, I fell in a few. Car parts are like gold dust and drivers make the rules up as they go along. I passed a horrendous RTA on my way into Havana which was a real eye-opener.
- Cuba is a bigger island than you think. Plan any travel carefully if you want to visit the major towns, it takes a full day to travel from one side of Cuba to the other. I recommend Lonely Planet Cuba or similar – take it with you as you can’t just google when you fancy it.
- Cuba experience and to put money in to the pocket of the population don’t stay at a hotel, book a Casa Particular (private homestay). I stayed at the Hostal El Encinar in Havana, sister to the Hostal Peregrino (hostalperegrino.com)
- If you’ve booked at an all inclusive resort in Varadero try and escape for a day or two and visit Havana – it’s a couple of hours by taxi and a night at a Casa is inexpensive. It’s an experience you won’t forget.
15. Be friendly! Cubans are smiling and effusive by nature and are often just after a shake of the hand. If you are travelling with kids, they absolutely love it and community spirit to protect the young will include yours. If you want to take something to give out locally, take travel size toiletries and pens, though the need for this has reduced in recent years.
Read more on Havana HERE