Cuba has been on my bucket list for a while. Before embarking on this adventure I’ve done a decent amount of research online on various do’s and dont’s in Cuba as trust me: it’s not an easy place to travel to. Moreover there are many misconceptions about Cuba. Pay attention to these things to know about Cuba – here are my Cuba Travel Tips!
Along with my boyfriend and friends from Getting Stamped we’ve asked our friends about some travel tips for Cuba and read a bunch of blogs. All of this just to be prepared for any eventuality and learn all the important things to know about Cuba.
Cuba Travel Tips & Common Misconceptions
Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that what you can read online cannot always be trusted and there are way too many misconceptions about Cuba. Moreover, it seems like many travelers went to Cuba without doing even the slightest amount of research.
Based off of what we all saw, Cuba is far more complex and better than how it’s portrayed on the internet. It might not be a perfect country and you definitely shouldn’t expect luxury conditions as if you traveled around the US, so there are a few things to know about Cuba before you go.
I’d like to point out a couple of common misconceptions about Cuba and some important things to know, so that you can plan your trip accordingly and explore it with your eyes open. Especially if you want to do some independent travel to Cuba.
1. Getting into Cuba isn’t easy
While the US might have said it’s not legal to travel to Cuba a lot of people are confused about the details. The State Department says that all travel to Cuba must still meet certain activity-related requirements. There are 12 types of travel that are permitted, including family visits, journalistic activities, professional research and meetings, educational activities, public performances, and religious activities. You cannot book a flight without selecting one of the 12 categories, you cannot book an Air BnB without selecting one, but don’t worry!
Documentation needed for Cuba isn’t as complicated as it may sound at first. It all seems vague, but… the easiest way to travel to Cuba is flying through Cancun. Since we’re based in Mexico at the moment it was easy for us to book our flights with Interjet and head to the airport.
At Cancun airport it doesn’t matter if you’re American, European, or from the moon, white, black or blue… you simply pick up a Tourist Card for $20 at the check-in counter and voila! Moreover, when we arrived in Havana all Americans were asked if they’d like their passport to be stamped or not.
2. Pre-booking accommodation in Cuba & airport pickup is a good idea
Housing in Cuba is hard to find online, so I wouldn’t bother and opt for casas particulares in Cuba. What exactly is a “casa particular?” I’d compare it to AirBnB without a necessity of booking it online.
Cuban residents can rent out an extra room in their home. They pay a monthly government tax of 10% of their income, but staying there does help the locals more so I’d highly recommend staying in casas when in Cuba.
Anyway, to make things easier we pre-booked out first 2 night including the airport transfer on AirBnB. We got our confirmation within a day and a driver was meant to wait for us at the airport. Sounds easy, right? It turned out that getting out of the airport wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. There were at least 100 people squeezed in the arrivals hall holding a name card. Finding our driver was almost a mission impossible.
When I finally found him, the poor guy had to wait for us 1,5h as the line to the only one Casas de Cambio SA (CADECA) – currency exchange booth in the arrivals hall was enormous. In the end we ended up paying even more than we would for a regular taxi as we made the driver wait.
3. There’s no internet in Cuba
Almost everyone was telling us that we need to take 2 weeks off from work simply because we won’t find any internet. Others warned us that even if we find internet it’s going to be unaffordable or simply it won’t be working well. Well, what a bunch of bullshit! Since I was Snapchatting our adventures every day I could easily find internet all over the country.
While wifi doesn’t work everywhere, like it would in other countries, it’s definitely not impossible to find a hotspot. Every major hotel has wifi. Also if you see a group of people sitting around with their phones in the park, it means it’s probably a hotspot.
4. Cuba is very cheap
“Cuba is cheap, because people earn $20 a month” was what we heard. But we prepared to spend at least $50 a day. We weren’t wrong. The level of tourism infrastructure that was in place and also the many tourists flocking here, which results in higher prices.
Unfortunately, prices in Cuba are slightly different. The cost of a trip to Cuba for a week would be a minimum of $500.
In Havana you could find double-decker hop-on-hop-off busses and world-class hotels for approx. $175-300 a night. We took plenty of cabs that costed $10-15 CUC, and while that’s cheap, plenty of Ubers in LA are the same price.
5. It’s hard to find bottled water in Cuba
“Water is incredibly hard to find because you can’t just stroll down to the nearest street corner and find them” we read online. We brought our LifeStraw Bottles to avoid unnecessary problems, but we hardly got a chance to use them apart from the hike in Trinidad. People were selling bottled water in various places. You could also easily buy a cold can of coke if you prefer it.
In my experience you’re going to be able to survive buying water or coke everywhere. However, my boyfriend who drinks a lot disagrees and was glad we brought the Lifestraw. So I guess it depends how much liquid you normally drink 😉
6. Cuba food is awful
We read to be aware of Cuban food and to be prepared for the worst aside from the infamous Cuban sandwich. Our friends told us that famous Cuban pizzas are inedible, and that we need to bring some spices and hot sauce, because the food is bland. And even more important that it’s actually hard to find any food.
Sorry guys, but I’m not sure if we traveled to the same place, because the food in Cuba was cheap and delicious!
You haven’t been to Cuba unless you’ve had a succulent grilled lobster for $5 or a giant seafood platter with lobster, crab, shrimp and a bunch of sides for $6.50! We’ve never spent more than $10 on a dish and I was struggling to finish my plate every time.
We’ve never actually used our bottle of tabasco, as we’re always offered a salsa, ketchup and salt. I also discovered my new favorite dish: crema de queso, which is basically a soup made of grated cheese.
As for the Cuban pizza it’s not bad, but it’s not good either. It tastes like a frozen pizza you’d eat hungover, but for $1 I can’t really complain!
7. Cuba has the best mojitos & pina coladas
It’s no surprise that Cuba is a rum country, with Havana Club rum leading the pack for only $4 a bottle. While you can also purchase some rum in the box (which seems to be Cuba’s leading invention when it comes to street nightlife), I expected the best mojitos in the world.
Unfortunately, here’s where I got disappointed. The ice was never mushed and I never fully tasted the mint. I decided to stick to Pina Coladas, but here’s the twist: they always sprinkle cinnamon on top which makes the drink taste like a cinnamon more than a coconut. But the fresh pineapple juice used in a Cuban piña colada certainly contributes to its easy drinkability.
8. Havana is a dump
As we read a lot of visitors weren’t happy with what Havana has to offer and described it as a ‘dump’. Is Havana ugly? I tend to disagree, as we all loved the city! While it might not be the cleanest capital city of the world and many buildings are falling apart, it’s definitely a beautiful place.
9. You can’t buy anything in shops in Cuba
“Stores to buy simple supplies such as bottled water or snacks were very few & far between. Often the shelves were less than half stocked, so cosmetic items cannot be replace” – we read. We prepared like for a deserted island, carefully checking if we have enough soap, lotion, toothpaste and toilet paper (yes, we read to bring our own toilet paper too).
While bringing these items to Cuba was useful I’ve never experienced a lack of soap or toilet paper anywhere. I could have easily bought a big bottle of shampoo and lotion at the store. There might not be a 7-Eleven at every street corner, but it doesn’t mean you can’t buy anything in Cuba.
10. Bus is the best way to travel in Cuba
We expected to use bus a lot, as we were told it’s the best way to travel around Cuba. There are 2 long-distance bus companies. One company is called Astro where you pay in moneda nacional (CUP). The other is Viazul where you pay in the more expensive CUC currency. Tourists usually can’t catch the less expensive Astro bus, because it’s mainly reserved for Cuban citizens.
Here’s where we were wrong though. While buses might seem like the best priced idea it would only be cheaper if you travel solo.
On the way to the bus station to purchase bus tickets for the following day (as bus tickets sell out quickly) our taxi driver offered to take us to Viñales for 70 CUC. While we were 4, so it turned out it was only 2 CUC per person more than the bus would be. But transportation door to door saved us on taxis to the bus station. We could stop for photos whenever, and do everything without being stuck to the bus schedule.
On the way back from Viñales we simply asked around for a driver who could take us back to Havana and within 5 minutes we got an offer. It was easier, cheaper and definitely less stressful.
11. You can easily rent a car in Cuba
We wanted to rent a car in Cuba to explore the island on our own. “You can rent a car” said various websites, but it turned out to be barely possible. Why? Let me tell you a story here.
First, we tried to book a car online and got an email that our reservation will be confirmed within 72h. After 24h we got another email saying that the reservation cannot be processed.
Then we tried to go to the car rental place in Viñales, but the booth never actually opened despite the sign saying that it’s open.
We made a choice to return to the airport as we saw 4 stalls with car rentals. Guess what? None of them had cars available. Moreover I was told that booking online is always going to be rejected in Cuba and we should have booked our car in person at least 2 weeks in advance.
This is when I started to wander around the airport leaving my friends in the line to the currency exchange. I stumbled upon a guy who sold us internet cards and happened to remember me. I told him that we wanted to rent a car, but now we’re probably going to have to take the bus. “Wait here!” he said and went to talk to another guy.
Within 5 minutes he called me up, as it turned out his friend worked for a car rental place at the airport (which told us they had no cars before) and I was quickly offered a few cars to choose from.
I’m still unsure if I got the car for us because I was a girl wandering around the airport on my own, or because they thought my Spanish was good and wanted to be nice to me. One way or another rental cars in Cuba are only given to people who they like.
12. Cubans don’t know what’s going on in the world
While Cuba might seem to everyone like a country that’s still behind the US or Europe, it turned out not to be true. People were surprising us about their knowledge about the world and current events. I’d go even further and say that many Cubans knew more about the world than some Americans do.
13. Varadero is crowded
The coastline around Varadero has a plethora of all-inclusive resorts that seems to rival Cancun. We weren’t originally supposed to go to Varadero as we thought it would be a tourist trap. But since we were driving around the northern beaches we stopped there for a night and… I’m glad we did.
Varadero, while has some resorts, isn’t very touristy outside of the them. The town was small, beaches were gorgeous and we really enjoyed the local beach bar with cocktails and cheeseburgers for 2 CUC. I mean, who wouldn’t?
14. Cuba is dangerous
The entire time we were there, we felt extremely safe. With a rate of fewer than 5 homicides per 100,000 people, Cuba is safer than any other Caribbean destination except for Grenada, according to U.N. statistics. We never had to feel insecure about our professional cameras. I could wander on street of Havana on my own without any issues. In Viñales we saw that no one locked up their bikes there – that’s how safe it is.
Don’t forget about travel insurance
Don’t forget to arrange a health insure before heading to Cuba. Visitors are often stopped at the border and checked if they have a valid insurance. In case you don’t have one, you might be forced to buy a Cuban one. But not all insurances cover Cuba. It’s not clear whether World Nomads Travel Insurance covers Cuba, so you might want to contact them to double check.
Suggested books for Cuba:
Hope these Cuba Travel Tips were helpful. If you have any more questions let me know!