Cuba is a unique country with a one-of-a-kind atmosphere. There is a good chance it won’t be like anything you’ve experienced before. A few months before traveling to this country we made a lot of research thinking we would not be surprised once there. The tips we grabbed all over the internet helped. But, we can say for sure that we learned a lot more things during our 1-month stay there. To help you out, we’ve prepared a list of 9 things you need to know before planning a trip to Cuba.
Do you need a visa for Cuba?
There is some paperwork to do while planning a trip to Cuba. But, don’t worry it is not too complicated. If you are not from a country in this list, you will need a Visa (Cuban tourist card). You can buy it from tour operators online. It costs around 25 euros and allows you to stay 30 days (you have the possibility to extend it for 30 days once there).
COUNTRIES THAT DO NOT NEED A VISA TO VISIT CUBA:
- ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA (UP TO 30 DAYS)
- BARBADOS (UP TO 28 DAYS)
- BELARUS (UP TO 30 DAYS)
- BENIN (UP TO 90 DAYS)
- BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA (UP TO 90 DAYS)
- CHINA (UP TO 90 DAYS)
- DOMINICA (UP TO 28 DAYS)
- GRENADA (UP TO 60 DAYS)
- MACEDONIA (UP TO 90 DAYS)
- MALAYSIA (UP TO 90 DAYS)
- MONTENEGRO (UP TO 90 DAYS)
- MONGOLIA (UP TO 30 DAYS)
- NAMIBIA (UP TO 30 DAYS)
- SAINT KITTS AND NEVIS (UP TO 30 DAYS)
- SAINT LUCIA (UP TO 30 DAYS)
- SAINT VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES (UP TO 60 DAYS)
- SERBIA (UP TO 90 DAYS)
- SINGAPORE (UP TO 30 DAYS)
Visitors are required to have health insurance for the length of their stay. Don’t forget to add this when you’re planning a trip to Cuba. The authorities don’t always check but it’s important to have the printed certificate with you. One tip for the Visa credit/debit cardholders: you can be insured for your travel to Cuba and get the insurance certificate through your bank.
This is where it gets a bit more complicated… but not impossible. Cash is really vital in Cuba: few establishments accept credit or debit cards. We recommend you to bring euros or sterlings but no dollars (there is still a bit of tension with the US and we recommend you to check the exchange rate when planning a trip to Cuba). Indeed, Cuba imposes a special 10% tax on the US dollar in addition to the normal exchange rate. You will be able to change your money to Cadecas (exchange offices) at the airport. Make sure to count the money you get back when changing it as it’s easy to lose count. The exchange rates are pretty similar to the ones you will find in these Cadecas in the city center but you will save a lot of time (huge line-ups in town).
IMPORTANT: CUBA HAS 2 CURRENCIES.
There is the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). CUC is considered as the tourist currency (1 CUC = 1,10 €) and will be useful to pay for accommodations, Viazul buses, taxis, and services. CUP is mainly used by locals (1 CUC = 20-25 CUP) and thus will be useful if you decide to eat in local restaurants, take the city bus, etc. Since we were going to travel on a budget with our big backpacks we decided to change half of our money in CUC and the other half in CUP. We were able to save a lot of money that way because we ate at small cafeterias (where almost only Cuba go to), took Camiones (transports used by Cubans to travel between cities). Disclaimer: we only spent 400 each during our one-month stay!
TIP TO DIFFERENTIATE CUC AND CUP (SINCE THE BILLS ARE THE SAME COLOUR IT CAN BE DIFFICULT TO KNOW CURRENCY YOU HAVE IN HAND): CUP (USED BY LOCALS) HAVE PORTRAITS OF CUBAN PERSONALITIES WHEREAS CUC (USED BY TOURISTS) HAVE DRAWINGS OF MONUMENTS.
Internet access is very limited in Cuba. During the afternoon, you will see many people sitting in parks or squares, trying to connect to wifi hot spots. The State company Etesca gives people internet access through a service called Nauta at the cost of 1 CUC/hour (2019 prices). To do so, you need to buy internet cards at Etesca shops.
Accommodation: Where to stay in Cuba?
Broadly speaking, accommodation in Cuba falls into 2 types: hotels and Casas particulares which are literally « private houses ». The hotels themselves divide into two categories: state-run or run by international chains. In our opinion, the best option is without a doubt the Casas particulares. You can find every type of budget (from 18€ / night for a decent room with a double bed) and you really dive in the Cuban culture. Most of the time, the hosts really enjoy speaking with foreigners about Cuba and what is happening outside the country, and that, even if they don’t speak English. One of our best memory of our trip is the nights we spend chatting with Juanito, our host in Viñales.
Should you book everything in advance? The answer is no. Booking your first nights before traveling to Cuba is enough. Casas particulares are easily found throughout Cuba (identified by a blue insignia shaped like a capital I). We booked our first two nights and, then managed to find Casas in 12 cities throughout the country for an average of 16€ per night (these prices are from 2017).
Finding this cheap price in every city was possible thanks to Magnolia, the owner of a hostel called Hostel Hamel in La Habana (see reviews here). Over the years, she built a network of very affordable Casas particulares in all the country. The only thing you need to do is stay one night in her hostel and tell her which city you are going to after La Habana. For example, if you go to Viñales, she will call her contacts the day before to find you a room over there. Once your time in Viñales is almost finished, your host will call a casa in the next city on your itinerary.
Even if few people speak good English, Cubans love to exchange with foreigners. You could find yourself speaking to a total stranger for 1 hour while queueing for an internet card as it happened to us or share a nice to story with your neighbor in a camión (the old trucks affordable than buses). Learning a bit of Spanish while planning a trip to Cuba will help you to communicate with your hosts, buy bus tickets or order food in a cafeteria. Moreover, when Cubans see that you know a little of their language a huge wall just falls, and you really can connect on another level. A whole new world opens. Speaking fluent Spanish allowed us to get amazing tips on things to see, authentic Cuban restaurants, and have endless conversations with our hosts.
Transports – in the city
The easiest way to go around a Cuban city is by walking. Every building, facade, and parc is an explosion of color. Each corner is an opportunity to be a witness of the Cuban way, so special and far from our « western » standards. We walked an average of 16 km per day, wandering through the most beautiful streets we’ve ever seen. If you’re planning a trip to Cuba give yourself some time to explore the cities by walking, it’s so rewarding.
For longer distances, there are many options. The private taxis will take you to your destination in no time but can be quite expensive. Shared taxis follow a precise route and cost 5-15 CUP (less than 1euro). You can also use guaguas (local buses) but, despite the cheap price of 1 CUP, we wouldn’t recommend it if you are in a hurry. We found ourselves waiting for the guagua for 40 minutes without really knowing if they would come or not…Cubans have a completely different concept of time and they would always tell us « don’t worry, it’s coming soon » even after 30, 40, 50 minutes of waiting. Another popular type of transport is the bici-taxi (a bike with a seat for 2 people). Since it is mostly used by tourists, the price is 2-5 CUC depending on where you are going (and if you go during tourist season).
Transports – Between cities
To move between cities, the easiest and fastest way is using collective taxis. They are pretty affordable since the cost is split between 4-10 people. You will find them near the different bus terminals. Don’t hesitate to bargain for the prices! If the taxi driver wants 20 CUC, offer 15 and start asking for the price to other taxi drivers. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll pay 15 CUC. Moreover, it is a nice experience since most of the cars are old models (50s – 60s). In addition, there is the option of the Viazul bus. These buses are used only by tourists (Cubans have access to special buses with prices in CUP). From our experience, we would say that is it not worth the money. They are slow, water can drip from the roof and no way you can get a discount if that happens.
However, for most of our trip, we traveled as Cubans: using camiones. Camiones are old repurposed trucks made in the USSR or China which now transport people. We can’t say it’s the most comfortable way to travel. You’re cramped, seats are basically benches and people transport living animals sometimes. Also, it moves extremely slowly, safety in case of accidents is negligible, and everyone sweats intensively under the hot Cuban sun. But you won’t find cheaper and this is what we chose to go around the whole island. The experience was exhausting, sometimes emotionally intense (with people waiting with children for hours) and time-consuming. But it was something that gave us access to the most authentic experiences we had.
Touristy restaurants display their prices in CUC and can be quite expensive (2 CUC for a lemonade, 8-14 CUC for a dish). As soon as they see you as a tourist they will give you the tourist menu, if not, they’ll give you the menu with the CUP currency and you’ll eat for cheap). If you want to eat in local restaurants (that mostly always have their prices in CUP) ask people in the streets. In La Habana for example, you will find local restaurants outside of the old center. Dishes cost approximately 30-40 CUP and can be a bit bland. Another good option is the paladares. These restaurants owned by Cuban families serve delicious food for less than the tourist restaurants (3-5 CUC).
Is Cuba safe to visit?
Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world. Indeed, we never felt unsafe in La Habana or other cities. The crime rate is very low and the majority of Cubans are very protective of tourists. However, it is important to be aware of scams. Some locals wait at bus terminals to offer you cigars, accommodations or tour bookings for example. Most of the time they have an agreement with the owner of the casa particular or the restaurant they’re taking you to. This is how they get a commission on the price that you will pay. It means that you might end up paying way more than the original price.
You might also encounter Jineteros or Jineteras who will try to make you pay for your time with them. They are not violent and often very funny people who just want free drinks or food. But, they’re here to make sure you share your money with the rest of them. And, for the young, broke and cheap students that we were: we couldn’t afford it.
Thank you for reading this article “9 things you need to know before planning a trip to Cuba”, we would love to get some comment or feedback. Please remember that our trip to Cuba was in 2017 and some things like prices might have changed.
REMEMBER: PRICES ARE DIFFERENT DEPENDING ON THE TIME OF THE YEAR. WHEN WE ARRIVED IT WAS NOT SUMMER VACATION AND THE PRICES WERE LOWER. WHEN WE GOT BACK TO LA HAVANA TO TAKE OUR FLIGHTS THE PRICES WERE HIGHER BECAUSE IT WAS TOURIST SEASON.