a little confusing. I will share with you all the useful tips that you should know before your first trip to Cuba.
1. Traveling to Cuba requires a visa
Anyone wishing to go to Cuba for a tourist stay must be in possession of a tourist card for Cuba, whether for a first trip to Cuba or for the following. The tourist card is the equivalent of the entry visa for Cuba. This name card must also be obtained for minor children even if the child is on the parents’ passport. Online services ensure the obtaining of original and compliant tourist cards for Cuba for all people residing in Europe and especially in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg.
2. The best time for a first trip to Cuba
Mid-November to March is the coolest, driest and busiest season. May and June are wet seasons, but important Cuban events like the tobacco harvest and Carnival are at this time. From July to November, it’s hurricane season, so there’s a lot of wind in these months, especially late August to early October, when it’s the peak of the season hurricanes.
3. Print your documents before leaving
Technology is not very present in Cuba and, in 2015, I did not see a single cybercafe. Print and take your travel documents, bookings, insurance or any other information you need before leaving.
4. You need travel insurance
We do not always think about it during a first trip to Cuba, but it is necessary to have travel insurance to enter Cuba. They may or may not ask you for proof at the airport, and if you do not have one, they may refuse your entry. I was not asked, nor to other people to whom I asked the question of the famous insurance. But, you never know, so it’s better to be safe and buy travel insurance.
5. Money in Cuba
Did you know : it will be confusing at first, but you will quickly get used to it. There are two currencies in Cuba: the National Peso (CUP) and the Convertible Peso (CUC). Until 2004, Cubans used the peso (national currency) but tourists paid in dollars! As now the US dollar is no longer accepted, the Government has decided to create the convertible peso, indexed to the dollar, it is intended for tourists. The value of the CUC is much higher than that of the Cuban peso: 1 euro = 1.29 CUC = about 24 Cuban pesos. The Convertible Peso, however, has no value on the international exchange market and is tradable only on Cuban territory. You will not be able to get some before you enter the territory!
You can exchange your euros in banks or exchange offices (cadecas) that you will find at the airport, and in major cities! You can also cash cash with a credit card on your first trip to Cuba. But, do not forget that there are few distributors in Cuba! Only the most important cities have … And sometimes they are down! If you go on an adventure, do not forget to plan enough money before leaving the main cities. It is also possible to pay by credit card in some establishments, but payment cards are rarely accepted in Cuba, especially as soon as you leave the big cities!
Currency exchange centers are known as CADECA. It is possible to exchange US dollars, euros, pounds sterling, Mexican pesos and some other currencies, but the worst currency to trade is the US dollar. It is charged a 10% fee in addition to the current exchange rate while all other currencies do not receive any additional fees. You can find out more HERE !
6. Always find out what currency is required
Whether CUC or CUP, Cubans call it simply “pesos”. So, when someone says it’s 2 pesos, you have to know what currency he is referring to, because the amount is significantly different. You can ask: CUC or Moneda Nacional? Or, if the price seems to be really high, it’s most likely the national peso (CUP).
7. Casa Particular: the most common form of accommodation
There are hotels in Cuba, but the most common form of accommodation is the Casas Particulares. These are rooms, houses or apartments rented by locals for a daily fee. Sometimes you can rent an entire apartment, in other cases you can rent a room in a family’s house and share the common areas with them. Many families have transformed their homes into Casa Particular. If you can, stay in a Casa Particular to experience local life and help local and family businesses. The basic price per night in a Casa Particular is 20 € and +, much cheaper than what you will pay in a hotel.
8. Bookings are mainly by phone
Since the internet is still not widely available, most hotels and homes do not have internet or a website. Most bookings are done by phone. But more and more Casas Particulares use Airbnb to promote themselves without the need for a website. You should consider this option (and with this link you get $ 30 off your first booking).
It is recommended to have at least the first night booked before arriving in Cuba. The rest of your stay you can extend or book elsewhere.
9. The food in Cuba is not stupendous
Due to its trade restrictions, Cuba lacks culinary delights; so do not expect big meals. Yes, you can find good food here and there on your first trip to Cuba, but that’s not the norm.
10. Do not drink water
Simple and easy for your first trip to Cuba. Buy bottled water!
11. Try eating in the Paladares Particulares
Cuba has two types of restaurants, state-run restaurants and private businesses known as Paladares Particulares. Try to eat in the Paladares Particulares because they are about the same prices as those in the state, but usually offer better quality. As locals say, state-run restaurants do not care about the quality of food because at the end they do not need the profits (because they are supported by the government). Private restaurants, on the other hand, if they are not good, go bankrupt.
How to know which restaurant is state or private? Either ask them before you settle in, or watch where locals eat and queue. Cubans (who can afford to eat out) do not like state-run restaurants, so they prefer to line up in the Paladares Particulares.
12. Do not eat in really cheap local restaurants
I usually eat street food in very cheap places, but Cuba was an exception. It is common to see shops selling pizzas and ice cream or other meals for a fraction of what they should cost and charged in CUP (like 10 CUP or 0.50 and much less). These foods, although inexpensive, are considered “waste” by locals because they are made with local produce of the lowest quality possible.
13. Take your favorite snacks with you
It is not surprising that markets in Cuba do not offer a lot of variety as they focus on selling items of basic need to locals – which does not include candy and snacks. You can find some snacks here and there, but these are rare, and there will not be many varieties.
14. Cuba is relatively well served by the bus
You can visit all major cities on your first trip to Cuba and travel all over the country by bus. Although there are some bus companies, only Viazul is a company that embarks travelers independently.
15. Go to the bus station at least one hour before departure
Although Viazul has a site with an up-to-date service schedule, it is not possible to book tickets online. You must go to the bus station in advance and queue to buy a ticket. As buses are not very common, they tend to sell quickly. But, there is another option …
16. Shared taxis are also a good option
Taxi drivers stand in front of the bus station, ready to carry excess passengers without tickets. They offer a shared taxi ride to some of Cuba’s most popular and well-connected cities for the same price as the bus and more quickly. If you are going to a small town not covered by the shared taxi, you can take the shared taxi to the nearest town, and from there take a shared local taxi called “Almendrones”. In case they want you to pay for the shared taxi far more expensive than the bus, then you have to haggle. Oh, and do not be surprised if a local pays a little less than you paid. It’s Cuba. Foreigners must almost always pay a little more than locals.
17. Havana is within walking distance
Havana is great, but if you have a few days in front of you on your first trip to Cuba, you can save money on transportation by walking around and seeing things at a slower pace. I recommend walking; That’s when you see the best scenes of the city. In addition, Viñales, Trinidad and other popular cities can easily be visited on foot.
18. Do not rely on the internet
Do not expect to have internet in your hotel or rental, and even if they have it, it will not be accessible to you. The local telecommunications company (ETECSA) has recently started adding WiFi hotspots in major cities, which can be used with the purchase of a WiFi card that allows you to use it for one hour. Hotspots are found in some parks in Havana and in front of the ETECSA building in other cities. Cards can be purchased at ETECSA and cost 2.50 CUC for 1 hour of use. They are often short of cards quickly because of the demand, so be sure to buy more when they are available.
Oh, and do not expect WiFi to be reliable or fast!
19. Havana is not dangerous, but common scams
In addition to small theft, violent crime is not common. The most common scam is that a person calls himself a friend and tells you that a great party is happening in a restaurant or cafe, or somewhere else. She takes you there, chats with you, drinks / eats, and charges you for everything. In addition, she asks for money for “recommendations” given during your “chatter” and she also gets a commission from the restaurant. Do not be afraid to say NO.
That said, Cubans are generally friendly, so do not be afraid to talk openly with them, but pay attention to their intentions.
20. Learn Spanish
This will make your life easier for your first trip to Cuba. Learn at least some basic words to communicate. The locals are also friendlier to the tourists who make at least an effort to communicate a bit in Spanish.