I was lucky enough to travel to Cuba from November to December, 2018. I spent just under one month there. I left completely in love, but it took me some time to get to that point. At first, I faced loads of unique challenges (read more about my personal challenges here) which I had never had to deal with in any other place I’ve visited. But in the end, the difficulties of traveling in Cuba only made it easier for me to fall in love with this place. Here’s most of what you need to know about travel to Cuba so you can get to the falling in love part that much faster!
How to use the Wi-Fi in Cuba
There is Wi-Fi. But you need to understand the system. It is run by ETECSA and in order to use any Wi-Fi you need to buy a card.
The price is 1 CUC/1 hour and the cards come in 1 or 5 hour amounts. I suggest buying a handful of 1 hour cards. In case you lose the card (but take a picture no matter what!) or forget to turn off your Wi-Fi, you lose 1 rather than 5 hours.
There are lots of little kiosks around town, and if you find one go ahead and buy a card. They very often sell out or simply won’t sell to foreigners. I found by far the most reliable place to buy cards in Havana was at the Hotel Plaza which is around Park Central. There is a window in the back of the lobby run by a woman who speaks English. The Hotel Plaza does sometimes sell out, but there is never a queue and it is one of the few foreign hotels that don’t limit use of the Wi-Fi cards they sell to their own lobby. For example, the nearby Iberostar Parque Central sells cards which can only be used in that hotel’s lobby. Additionally, The Park Central jacks up the prices while Hotel Plaza is the same as it is at any of the company kiosks. A final option you have is to buy from the men who stand around the Wi-Fi parks throughout the city and whisper (or shout) Wi-Fi? Wi-Fi? They have legitimate cards (mostly) but will charge more – generally you’ll pay 2 CUC/1 hour from them. A last resort if you are in need of a quick fix.
Now that you have a card, you can use it in many different places. You can stick to a hotel lobby, or you can head to any of the many Wi-Fi parks throughout the city Generally speaking, all the little green dots on your map are Wi-Fi parks. You’ll be able to pick them out as you wander the city as they are swarmed with people mesmerized with their screens at all hours of the day.
At this point, you’ve got a card and you’re in the right spot. Now it’s time to log in, which means you need the login credentials on the back of your card, one of which you’ll need to scratch off. Be very careful! The first one I bought I used my fingernail and completely destroyed the numbers underneath. I got no refund, no exchange, and no pity. Use one of the Cuban coins (I found the one that had squared off edges to work best), go slow, and be gentle.
If you login at a hotel or a Wi-Fi park, all you’ll need to do to log out is turn off your Wi-Fi and walk out of range before turning it back on. Your time will be stopped and you can continue using it whenever you want (within 30 days).
If, however, you log in on a network which required a password to join (many small hostels and guest houses have these) you’ll need to actually end your session. On Androids this appears to be quite simple (though I don’t have one – I’ve only been told), the page which you log in on remains open throughout your session and when you’re done using it you just go back and hit end session. On iPhones, I haven’t found a way to end a session despite trying many URL’s which I was told would work. If you’re an Apple user get your Android friend to log in, otherwise, get ready to chew through your entire card on any closed network. Now, the good news here is that when you plug your card details into the network, anyone with the password can simultaneously use the Wi-Fi for the full time.
How to Deal with Money in Cuba
By far my biggest challenge was money. As an American there are two ways to get money into the country. Bring it with you, or Western Union it to a trusted Cuban. This inability to access further cash than what I had on hand took my strength and made me perhaps the most vulnerable I’ve ever been as a traveler. I’ve always felt I could get myself out of anything with the swipe of my credit card and then worry about paying it off later. Not in Cuba.
If you are from the U.S., bring all the money you think you’ll need and then some, and change it in country. I’ll discuss budget later in this post. Be sure your dollars are in tip top condition. As in, no wrinkles, no tiny tears, no writing, no bent corners, or they won’t change them.
To change USD, you’ll pay a 10% penalty on top of whatever the current rate is, but you absolutely can do it.I got 0.87 CUC to the dollar. It could be a good idea to get CAD, EUR, or GBP before leaving for Cuba, depending on current exchange rates, fees, and how easy it is for you to access those currencies.
You can change all these foreign currencies at any bank or CaDeCa (casa de cambio). I changed all of my money at the one here. As you get closer to more touristed areas, you’ll be faced with longer lines and the potential of a place simply being out of cash. To find your nearest location, search online, ask around, or be on the lookout for Western Union signs, these are generally shared spaces with CaDeCa.
If you’re from nearly any other country that’s not The U.S., you can use an ATM. Be absolutely sure though, to let your bank know you’re going to Cuba, no matter how much you usually travel. They will block your card. The same rule applies to ATM locations as it does to CaDeCa’s. Closer to tourist areas you’ll find longer queues and machines without money.
Something else to be aware of with your money; there are two currencies in the country. One is theoretically for tourists and the other is for locals though both tourists and locals can and do use both. Casually, they are both called pesos, though the local currency is the one which the name actually belongs to. Additionally, both use coins as well as paper bills in most denominations to keep things perfectly confusing. Officially, the ‘tourist’ currency is CUC and the ‘local’ currency is CUP. The conversion rate, as of January 2019 ranges from 23-25 CUP for 1 CUC. If you go anywhere not wholly intended for tourists both will be being used and you could receive change from your CUC in CUP. So, try to remember these numbers:
5¢ CUC=1 CUP
10¢ CUC=2 CUP
25¢ CUC=5 CUP
When the change is that small you might not care to check. But it’s when the change is in the same currency that you can be even more vulnerable to getting screwed. If you’re supposed to get 20 CUC back and the cashier gives you a 20 CUP, you’ve just been scammed about $20. And while, generally speaking, you’re not going to get scammed, it does happen. If you look distracted or like you have no idea what’s going on it wouldn’t be shocking for a cashier to try to slip themselves a few of your CUC. Keep an eye on your change, count it in front of them, and at least act like you know exactly what’s going on.
Where to get Food in Cuba
You can absolutely go to a restaurant for every meal. Whether it be one targeting foreigners or a cafeteria style place for the Cuban masses, there are plenty out there.
If you are vegetarian or, god forbid, vegan, you will mightily struggle and will be eating a lot of rice and beans and iceberg lettuce, and lots of butter, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.
If you’re a meat eater things will be simpler, but expect a lot of pork
Some typical dishes you’ll see on menus:
Ropa vieja: shredded beef
Filete do cerdo: steak of pork
Cassava: yucca (root vegetable)
Moros y cristianos: beans and rice
If spending at least 15 CUC per meal doesn’t sound ideal to you, or you just want something quicker, the roadsides are dotted with ham and cheese sandwich vendors which should be paid for in pesos and usually cost 5-10 CUP.
Finally, if you’re planning to cook at home, don’t. Food shopping is anything but straightforward. Fruit and veggie vendors are the only ones easily and readily available and simple to shop at. At these spots you’ll find bananas, papaya, pineapple, and guava along with tomatoes, eggplant, root vegetables, tiny peppers, onions, and mini garlics. If that’s enough for you you’ll be living cheaply. If you want to buy and cook meat I can’t help you except to recommend against it. Meat vendors do not refrigerate their wares, so use caution with your foreign stomach. While I was in Cuba there was an egg shortage, then a bread shortage. It’s simply a challenge to figure out where and when you can buy things. It can be a fun challenge, but not on an empty stomach.
One additional food pointer: book accommodation which offers breakfast. Usually the rate will be 5 CUC and you’ll have to pay in cash, but it will be more than you can fit and will keep you going well into the afternoon. You should expect some array of tea, coffee, or milk, juice, fruits, bread and butter or jam, eggs in some form and some ham.
And finally, I strongly suggest packing some reserves into the country with you. A few packages of ramen would have been handy for the days I didn’t want to walk to, spend the money for, or exert energy to eat at a restaurant. Power bars or something similar would also be great to have if you end up with an upset stomach or for the long bus rides from place to place, there truly are not good snack options to buy in the country.
Where to use the Toilet in Havana
Toilets vary greatly in quality but I never came across a simple hole in the ground. Though there are times that may have been more welcome than a stinking white throne.
Ladies, carry paper with you, it’s often unavailable or costs CUP, another tax on the female body. And remember when you’re finished – toss your paper in the nearby bin rather than flushing it.
Public toilets of course do not exist, so go when you can. If you’re wandering around Havana vieja and are in need, the Parque Central has a lovely bathroom straight through the back of the lobby. The lobby space is an open to the public restaurant so you can walk in without anyone asking questions and attend to mother nature without having to be a hotel guest.
The Etiquette of Lines in Cuba
Waiting in lines is an often-sought adventure in Cuba. It seems that the people spend an unnecessarily large portion of their lives in lines, and they’ve created an art of it. Walking up, for example, to the CaDeCa, you’ll see a gathering of people outside, some will be against the wall standing in a somewhat orderly fashion while others will be seemingly randomly scattered about, or moving from place to place. They are all in the same line. When you arrive, approach whatever appears to be the back and proclaim ‘la ultima?’ This translates literally to ‘the last?’ and is used to determine who you are after in line. Someone will answer you with a ‘si’ or ‘yo’ whether this person wanders around or not, you are after them and must remember that. Now, you are la ultima and when the next person arrives with the question simply raise your hand and proclaim ‘yo.’ Your job is done, now just wait.
And please, for the love of literally everything in this world, do NOT be that jerk ass foreigner who arrives, has no idea what’s going on and just cuts the whole queue. I watched as a group of five young Americans walked right up to the front of a line of 20+ Cubans (and me) who had been waiting 30-40 minutes. The Cubans are kind enough that they just shake their heads a bit and explain to the person behind them ‘extranjeros’ but their kindness is no excuse for your ignorance. Ask questions or read blogs, figure out how to follow the guidelines of the culture.
How to Get Around in Cuba
How to get around in Havana
Unfortunately, Cuba is far from the only place in this world where taxi drivers operate in a gang like manner. You need to know how to play the game so you don’t get scammed. Generally speaking, if you pay more than half of the first price a taxi driver offers you, you’re being ripped off.
But let me take a step back, there are a plethora of different ‘taxis’ which drive around any given city in Cuba. Yellow ones which look vaguely like NYC cabs, cyclo or tuk tuk taxis, old cars (not the pretty touristy kind) with a little taxi sign stuck in the window, and old cars with no sign stuck in the window – just a driver who could use a few extra dollars. On top of this there are vehicles which will give you city tours; those are the fancy old convertibles and sometimes also horse and buggies (please, at all costs, avoid supporting the men who treat these animals so poorly). Outside of big cities though, horse and buggies also act as normal taxis for the everyday Cuban.
On December 7, 2018, while I was in the country, a new law went into effect and for the first time since the revolution, taxis could no longer be private. That meant each driver must be licensed by the government (and pay the hefty tax that comes along with the government knowing about you). It also meant the police were out in full force collecting fines (read: bribes) from unlicensed drivers. It’s unclear how much this will affect taxis in the long run though my prediction is drivers will get sick of paying fines and you’ll have fewer of the unlicensed cars willing to pick you up, and that should drive prices up all around. What it won’t do – regulate prices, it certainly was not introduced as a way to protect the consumer.
Now, prices; as an example, going from Old Town in Havana to Fabrica de Artes can be done for 4 CUC, if you pay more than 8 you’re being scammed but you’ll likely be quoted 15 to start out with.
A friend of mine got into a cyclo taxi (I recommend steering clear of these at all costs) and agreed with the driver that she would pay 5 CUC for the 6-minute ride (a high price to start off with). When she went to get out and pay him he began yelling at her, ‘15’ he said, ‘in Cuba cinco means 15’ he said. BULLSHIT it does not. He had children he told her. It was broad daylight, in the middle of the city. She ended up giving him 15.
Be careful. Stick to what you know is right. Don’t allow yourself to be scammed or intimidated.
How to get from place to place within Cuba
When you travel to Cuba you’ll probably want to see more than just Havana, and you should! Luckily, traveling from city to city is actually incredibly easy. I took the bus.
Viazul has routes all over the country. Tickets sell for a set price, and can be bought in advance online with a credit card – but be sure you print out a copy of your e-mailed receipt. The buses are more or less on time, generally arriving not more than 10-20 minutes late which pretty good as buses go the world over. And, the drivers seem to be pretty safe, with a relief driver (or perhaps he’s a support buddy?) riding shotgun. Note: these buses are often extremely over air conditioned.
If you’re above bus riding, you’re probably reading the wrong blog, but I’ll help you how I can.
It is possible to get taxis from city to city, the prices of which you have to haggle. If you’re on your own you can get a taxi collectivo. This means you’ll be in a taxi with other people wanting to do the same route. There can be up to 6 people in the car, 3 in the back and 2 up front with the driver. Plus luggage this sounds a lot less appealing to me than the bus. Prices vary but, for example, one person from Varadero to Havana – a 2.5 hour ride, should only be 25 CUC.
If there are a few of you, you can get the entire taxi to yourselves (if you’re solo you can still do this but you’ll pay for the entire vehicle). A full taxi from Trinidad to Havana should cost you only 70 CUC (it’s a 5.5-6 hour drive)
Note: if you book a taxi (or anything) through your accommodation, you’ll pay a good chunk more than you would out on the street, this is so that everyone can get their cut.
What to Budget for Cuba
I’ve never had to think about a budget before. I’m a naturally frugal person and I simply don’t overspend. Cuba, and the financial blockade thanks to The U.S. forced me to count my pennies. Due simply to the amount of money I had with me (and some that had been lent to me a very kind and more prepared traveler) I had a budget of 23 CUC per day, accommodation and bus rides already having been paid for. It was doable, but it was tight.
For sustenance, I regularly had a 5 CUC accommodation breakfast, and one other big meal plus a snack and a mojito. I walked just about everywhere I could and almost never took intra city taxis. I went to a few museums, but my sightseeing happened primarily on the streets. I went two or three times to a salsa club which charged cover, but tried to avoid that when possible. I bought very, very minimal souvenirs, save some rum for my brothers and a shot glass for my collection.
You can go even smaller with your budget if you have to. 10 CUC is possible if you stay on a diet of bananas, ham and cheese sandwiches and water (but even that you have to pay for). It’s not an ideal situation to be in.
40 CUC would be comfortable for 3 good meals, drinks, and nights out. Throw in things like the theatre and souvenirs and you’ll want to budget about 60 per day.
What do things cost in Cuba?
1 hour of Wi-Fi: 1 CUC
1 banana: 0.04 CUC = 1 CUP
1 mojito: 2.50-3 CUC
1 small bottle of water: 1 CUC in a restaurant; 0.35 CUC in a shop
1 pork steak in a government restaurant: 4 CUC
1 port steak in a tourist restaurant: 6 CUC
1 entry to a salsa club: 5 CUC
1 national beer: 2-3 CUC
1 casa particular breakfast: 5 CUC
Should You Tip in Cuba?
Hey America, leave your obscene 20% tips at home. The reason they exist is because of a ludicrous, unfair, and archaic law which allows wait staff to receive an awful, below minimum, unlivable wage. It does not matter how much money you have to throw around and how ‘sad’ you think the country you’re visiting is. Making a 20% tip normal affects more than you know.
In Cuba, there are already some restaurants which tack on a 10% tip automatically. These are usually tourist haunts which are increasingly inaccessible to locals. Pay the 10% if you must go to such places, and not a penny more. If gratuity is not included in your bill, you can leave it if you felt you had great service, but not more than 10%, which is already a lot.
Please, let dining out remain affordable for more than a wealthy tourist.
Something else to note, it is unclear if tips actually go to wait staff. We went to a lovely dinner one night and had great service so left a good tip. The waiter had been the only person to visit our table all night, but when it came time for the money to be collected someone else came to get it. Please keep this in mind, you don’t know whose pockets you’re lining.
How to Prepare before Visiting Cuba
- Download maps.me: it will be invaluable to getting around. Google Maps are o.k. but they don’t have the extent of offline info that maps.me provide. Maps.me also provides an offline search function which is very handy. Do your download before you arrive, the Apple app store is blocked in country though I can’t vouch for what Android users will face.
- Get travel insurance: travel insurance covers you not just if you get sick or injured, but it also covers loss of luggage, delayed, cancelled, missed transportation, accommodation, etc. Cuba isn’t a place you want to be caught out as ease of access to help isn’t necessarily there. I highly recommend World Nomads for travel insurance. I’ve had to claim with them and it’s been a painless process. Check what they cover and make sure it’s the right match for you.
- Download a good VPN: if you get a good enough VPN this could take away some of the other items you need to have prepared beforehand. I have used hola in countless other countries, and it failed me in Cuba. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend anything but if you know of one, please let us know!
- Book everything: if you can pay in cash in country you’ll save some money but if your cash on hand is going to be limited, book everything in advance. Though Airbnb experiences were possible to book in country, accommodation was not. Booking.com and other similar sites were also blocked.
- Set your bills to autopay: All U.S. financial websites are inaccessible. I had to send my login details home to ensure my bills got paid on time. Set up auto pay so you don’t have to think about it.
- Bring extras with you. Make sure you have enough toothpaste, socks, contacts, etc. with you to last your time and then some. You will NOT be able to find these things easily, if at all.
- Turn app auto updates off: If you’re an iPhone user and apps try to update while you’re in Cuba, you’ll lose access to things which previously functioned fine. A friend was using Google offline translator and when it tried to auto update he lost all ability to use it.
Cuba is a spectacular country. It is beautiful, full of history, and stories. The people smile and help. It is a relaxing place where life slows down. And it is different, in so many ways what makes it special are its differences, but sometimes these differences can be challenging. Don’t let those challenges stop you from visiting, I so very highly recommend it.
Got questions I didn’t answer here? Pop them in the comments or shoot me an email! I’m always happy to help.
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