In October 2017 we spent 16 days on the biggest of Carribean islands – Cuba. During over 2 weeks of holidays we have seen places that amazed us but at times also negatively suprised us. In this post I summed up all the facts that you may not know about Cuba yet but are essential if you are planning your journey. The next few posts will be dedicated to specific places we have seen and things that we experienced there. Now sit back, relax and follow our travel to Cuba!
It’s easy to travel to Cuba on your own
There is plenty of travel agencies organizing travels to Cuba however you can quite easily organize it yourself too. Simply follow the tips from this post, ha! Traveling on your own is a good solution if you want to follow specific trip plan and do not waste time in places than are not of interest to you. For usit was also an opportunity for the first backpacking experience. Having 16 days to manage, we decided for ~60% of sightseeing and ~40% of pure relaxation. The itinerary was as follows: Havana (2 nights) – Viñales (1 night) – Havana (2 nights) – Cienfuegos (1 night) – Trinidad (2 nights) – Varadero (6 nights) – Havana (1 night).
You don’t need to spend fortune when travelling to Cuba
The most expensive part when travelling to Cuba is usually the flight itself. We were lucky to find a good deal offer on Tripsta. The connection wasn’t the fastest and most comfortable ever by quid pro quo. For the Air Mexico ticket from Amsterdam to Havana via Mexico City we payed around 200 euro per person. To get to Amsterdam from Berlin we paid around 100 euro per person, travelling with Easy Jet.
Flight from Amsterdam to Mexico City took us around 11 hours, then we spent 6 ours on Mexico airport waiting for the next flight and 3 more hours of flight to Havana, Cuba. Here we are trying to rest on Mexico airport:
In general Cuba is not a cheap country for tourists. We spent money mostly on accommodation and travelling between the cities. The smaller part of costs were formalities we had to complete before coming to Cuba (find more in next section), food and beverages, activities like horse riding in Viñales Valley or visiting Park Topes de Collantes when staying in Trinidad. For all of these we spent around 1800 euro in total which makes 900 euro per person. Thus altogether with the flights total cost for 16 days of self-organized holidays in Cuba was 1200 euro per person. Cheaper than travelling with travel agency and we have seen and experienced exactly what we wanted to.
But before you leave …
Make sure you complete the formalities
Obligatory document you need to enter Cuba a tourist card (“tarjeta del turista” by some mistakenly called “visa”). You can get it in Cuban Embassy for ~22 euro with waiting time approx. 2 weeks. As there is no Cuban Embassy in Berlin and one in Warsaw is open during a work week only, we decided to organize tourist cards by intermediary agency. Once when in Warsaw on the weekend, we arranged the meeting in Opal Travel. We had to show our passports and for ~33 euro we got our tourist cards right away. We read that when organizing the cards by Cuban Embassy you also have to provide confirmation of health insurance, flights and accommodation for at least first night in Cuba but we cannot say whether it’s true or not.
Even though the health insurance is not necessarily needed to get the tourist card, you would probably like to have one too. First thing, you don’t want to risk paying tousands of euro in case of accident or illness. Second, it’s sometimes checked on the border and you may not be allowed to cross it. Please make sure your worldwide health insurance covers Cuba as apparently some of them exclude it from the scope of insured countries.
When preparing for the travel we’ve read that every tourist should have minimum 100 euro per each day spent in Cuba however in our case nobody checked that. We made some calculations and knew we don’t need that much. But yet your credit cards may not be working in Cuba, it definitely makes sense to bring a bit more cash when needed.
Talking about money, you should keep in mind that …
There are two currencies in use in Cuba
CUP – Cuban peso, used mostly by Cubans. CUPs cannot be exchanged for any currency other than CUC and exported from the country.
CUC – Cuban peso convertible, mostly for the tourists. You can buy CUCs with Euro or US dollars. When paying with dollars you will be charged 10% more of penalty. There are multiple currency exchange points at the airport as well as at the banks in a city. 1 CUC = roughly 0,85 Euro.
When paying in Cuba, keep in mind that CUP is worth much less than CUC. With current conversion (November 2017) 1 CUP = 0,038 CUC = 0,032 Euro. We heard about frequent practice when tourists paying in CUC were given the change in CUP however it never happened to us. Just in case, you should always pay attention to the change you are given and remember that there are people presented on CUP and monuments presented on CUC bills.
Accommodation in Cuba: stay in Casas Particulares
In Cuba you can stay either in hotels (very expensive) or casas particulares (much more affordable).
Casa Particular is a private accomodation in Cubans’ house, usually in form of Bed & Breakfast. Most of the rooms available for the guests are equipped with private bathroom. Depending on the location and standard, double room costed 20-40 CUC per night, breakfast is paid extra (4-5 CUC per person). October was still a low season in Cuba, I expect the prices go up a bit during the high season.
We stayed in casas particulares during whole holidays except for 3 nights at Varadero where we decided for a hotel for a change. We were pretty satisfied with all the rooms we chose, however you should be prepared for a standard lower that you are used to. Hosts do their best to make you feel comfortable but they simply do not have much and you can see it from how their apartments are arranged.
Some photos from the first Casa Particular we stayed at, Old Havana:
You can book casas particulares in advance before arriving to Cuba, but it shouldn’t be a problem to find something when already ther, too. We decided for the first option as we didn’t want to spend too much time walking from one casa to another. On the ither hand this solution limits you a bit as you pay advance fee and loose it in case of your plans changing.
To book our casas particulares we used two websites. There were no problems with our reservations and we can recommend both:
- https://www.cubaccommodation.com – offers rooms in all big cities. You don’t see rooms availability in a real time and has to wait for booking confirmation, therefore it’s better to do it in advance.
- https://www.hostelsclub.com – not the best user interface ever, but after booking a room you receive confirmation right away. We only used it for booking a place in Viñales as the town was not covered by the first website.
As internet doesn’t work well in Cuba and Cubans speak mostly Spanish (find more in next sections) we recommend printing all the confirmations of your booking. Taking them with you and showing to the hosts makes conversation about costs and formalities easier.
You can easily travel taxis between the cities
If you want to travel between cities in Cuba you can either take Viazul (bus services for tourists’ use only) or taxi. We took Viazul bus twice – from Havana to Cienfuegos and then from Cienfuegos to Trinidad, for other travels we chose taxi. Usually Viazul is cheaper however if you use taxi colectivos (collecting up to 4 passangers) the difference can be very small to none. An undeniable advantage of taxi is travel time – it usually takes 60% of the time spent in bus to get to your destination.
To organize a taxi for your next travel you simply need to ask taxi drivers around. We usually did that 1 day before the travel and – except for some longish negotiantions about the price – never had serious problems with our taxi drivers.
Cuba can be depressing at times
There are many places in Cuba that will amaze you and make you sad at the same time. One of them is Old Havana. UNESCO certified, full of beautiful colonial buildings and interiors can feel like a walk back in time. At the same time there are so many tenements houses in ruin for years reminding you that Havana’s years of glory are far behind.
Typical view in Old Havana:
Here photo with a view on Capitol:
… and photo from exactly the same place, turned right 90 degrees:
Cubans don’t speak English
There are always exceptions from the rule and you can meet Cubans speaking English quite well, especially in hotels or restaurants. But most of locals refuse to speak English. Out of 7 casas particulares we stayed in, we could communicate in English in 2 only, for other places I had to refresh my Spanish skills which was actually quite funny. After all with a spanish – english – gestures mix we were always able to communicate quite well and didn’t have any serious misunderstandigs during whole stay.
Internet addict? Get ready for rehab
Going to Cuba? Forget about easily accessible Internet. Internet services are controlled by state-owned company names Etecsa. To connect with internet you need to buy Etecsa card (1,50-5 euro / hour) and find WiFi spot. After coming to Havana we had 3 attempts to buy Internet card in Etecsa shop located at Calle Obispo (Old Havana). Each time we gave up after 20 minutes of waiting in the heat in queue outside of the shop – for some reason there is a security guy only letting 1 person in at a time even though the shop is huge. No being able to get access this way we bought cards from illegal vendor hiding in the dark entrance of the tenement house … On the other hand it took us only 10 minutes to get our Etecsa cards in Viñales, even though we had to show our passports first.
Once you have your card it’s not clear you will be able to connect to Internet. There are several WiFi spots each city, they are super occupied and get easily overloaded.
If you are used to using Google Maps and don’t want to get lost in the new place, we highly recommend Maps.me app. It’s working offline, you only need to download maps of specific area (city/country) first. Oldschool guide will do the work too.
Whole Cuba is an old classic cars museum
Because of the ban for foreign vehicles’ import, you can see lots of old classic cars like Chevrolets, Buicks, Cadillacs, but also polish small Fiat 126p in Cuba. Seeing classic, colorful, renovated cars everywhere you look makes you feel like 50’s movie star! Safety and comfort is another thing – almost none of these cars have air condition and seat belts. Another dissadvantage are exhausts – you can really feel the fumes in your throat, especially in Havana when traffic is high.
Here is the cabriolet we took for our last ride from Old Havana to the airport. It’s Chevrolet Fleetmaster from 1948, totally renovated by his owner. 70 years old, can you believe it ?
There is plenty of options to move around the city
Ride in old classic car is just one of the options when you explore the city. To move from one spot to another you can take the cabriolet, closed car, horse carriage, bike trailer or small round shape Coco Taxi. When going to Cienfuegos we wanted to get from Old Havana to the Viazul bus station with our big backpacks. Since we didn’t want to pay 10 euro for 6 km ride as we were offerered and the tout that approached us didn’t want to give up, another vehicle was found in 2 minutes. Here it is – 6 euros and a lot of fun! :D
Memory of the revolution is still fresh
It’s been over 60 years when Fidel and Raúl Castro started the revolution with their companions. Despite such a long time memories of the revolution and it’s heroes still seem to stay fresh in cuban hearts. You can see pictures of national hero Che Guevara in every restaurant, cafe and shop, words of spontaneous support for Fidel Castro decorates the walls across whole country and 90% of books in a bookstore are dedicated to the revolution.
It’s hard to say how many of Cubans really support the revolution and the regime resulting from it and how many of them are simply afraid to object. The fact is that you can see propaganda slogans everywhere and words like “Everything for the revolution”, “Socialism or death” or “Homeland or death” are nothing unusual there.
In Old Havana one of each few houses is equipped with “Revolution Defense Comitee” (CDR) plate. It’s members keep track of every aspect of social life, therefore contacts with oppositionist or critisising the government and political system can get Cubans into troubles. Interesting experience that made me realize how happy I am to live where I live.
Socialism also means …
Queues. Just get used to it
You can see them everywhere – to the shop, pharmacy, bakery, Etecsa point, cafe. You can do nothing but wait or … pay as sometimes – like in Coppelia ice-cream parlor – you can decide whether you want to wait in a long line with locals and pay for your dessert in CUPs or take definitely shorter one and pay much more in CUCs.
Queues are suprising because there is …
(Almost) nothing in the shops
My parents used to tell me how Poland looked like in late 80s /early 90s but there is nothing like seeing it first hand. In Cuba it’s common to see supermarkets with maximum 15 products, make it havana rum, wine, worst quality ham and cheese, 1 type of random shampoo, shower gel and chocolates with 0% of chocolate. Want to get a healthy snack for a 5 hours bus trip? Forget it, chips are all you can get. Sometimes we even had problems with buying bottled water.
Here is the typical butcher shop during the break. When the shop was open there were pieces of raw meat laying everywhere, not covered with everything, with flies walking here and there and people grabbing it with bare hands and then putting back to the bowls. Mmmmm, tasty!
Food is nothing to brag about
Cubans try hard to make something edible out of nothing but they do not have access to many products and spices which makes their cuisine pretty flat and boring. When in Casas Particulares we used to get fruits, juice, bread, cheese, ham and eggs which sounds actually nice but it was EXACTLY the same products for 16 days and we literally couldn’t eat it anymore at the end. Also the amount of food, fine for me, was definitely not enough for Wojtek. One during the breakfast in casa he asked for additional slice of ham and almost fell dead under angry look of the owner.
If you’re travelling on a budget and want to eat cheap, you can buy food from locals. It’s usually served directly from their kitchen’s window and you can pay in CUP. The choice is however very limited and boils down to 2-3 pizza alike products.
In the restaurant you can expect bigger choice however it’s not easy to find a place serving food that would be really tasty and not very expensive at the same time – we managed to find only 2 or 3 in Havana. One of typical cuban meal is ropa vieja (literally old clothes): shredded beef with vegetables served with rice cooked together with black beans.
Here is a typical snack: sandwiches with ropa vieja, cuban beer and cooling non-alcoholic drink.
Need to go to the toilet after your meal? Keep in mind that you will have to pay extra in most of restaurant, toilet paper usually not included.
but Pina Colada is the best ever!
Fresh, thick, sweet and delicious with cinnamon sprinkle. Honestly, best I have ever had.
Another thing that suprised us very positively were coconut ice cream made of coconut pulp and coconut milk served in coconut shell. Simply delicious!
Being a tourist means you are rich
Fact that you could afford flight to Cuba makes you rich in Cubans’ eyes and makes it highly probable that you will be treated like a cash machine. At the end of our stay we were sooooo tired with people approaching us 100 times a day trying to sell travels, classic car rides, snacks, making you pay for photos with them and song they played you even though you didn’t ask for. Trying to convince you that horse or bike trailer ride is exactly what you need at this moment, turning angry and offended it what you actually wanted was a walk.
Here’s a photo with two traditionally dressed Cubans, that came out of nowhere, grabbed Wojtek, kissed him in the cheeks calling me to make a photo. After I did they said it’s 10 CUC and we had a longish discussion trying to convince them the price is unacceptable. After ladies found out we’re polish they showed off with their polish language skills, unfortunately the only thing they could say was “Daj CUC-i” which basically means “Give me CUCs” (“Give me money”). How nice.
Music is everywhere
Music is present everywhere and all the time in Cuba. You can hear sala, rumba and reggeaton on every street, every restaurant, every taxi, in the shop and in the gas station. Really loud. I love hot rhytms and there is no better timing to get carried away by the music than on holidays in Cuba but sometimes it felt like too much. Two examples:
- We sit in a restaurant in Varadero eating the dinner and enjoying ourself. Unfortunately we cannot talk to each other at all because at the table right next to ours, there is a big cuban 3 generations family with a portable speaker listening to very loud Cuban music. Noone else including stuff feels bothered.
- We walk through beautiful Park des Collantes inhaling fresh air, listening to birds chirping and absorbing the atmosphere with all senses, unfortunately there is Cuban guy following us with maximum volume on his phone, listening to reggeaton and Despacito-alike mix of hits.
Beware of mosquitos
We heard about the mosquitos transferring viruses of Dengue and Zika and got ourselves Mugga – anti repellent spray with 50% deet. The instructions of use say you should only use it once a day therefore we were using it during evenings mostly. That was apparently not a best solution – even though we didn’t see many mosquitos, each day we were finding new bites. Most of them we probably got during the day.
After we came back to Berlin I got quite badly sick with fever, huge headaches and stomach problems, which could be a symptome of dengue. The doctor said it’s highly possible however there is no cure for dengue anyway so it doesn’t make much sense to do the specialistic tests to confirm that ;)) The only way to recover is to stay home, rest and drink lots of water. I did so and got better in a week but small fear has remained – we have a trip to Dominicana planned for February and I’m going to use Mugga day & night!
Cuba is a safe place
During the whole stay we didn’t feel in danger even once. In fact Cuba is the safest country in Central and South America. Cubans approaching you, even if pushy sometimes, are very friendly and happy after all. Except for the mentioned photo with Cubans (where we could also have asked for the price beforehand), noone ever cheated on us.
We’ve been walking small streets of Old Havana during the night, watching Cubans’ regular life – most of them keep their doors open until they go to sleep. You can see their flats’ interiors, families watching tv, grandpas swinging in their chair smoking a pipe and motorcycles suprisingly often parked in the middle of the living room. We never experiences anything that would make us feel even a bit unsafe.
Keen on on your travel to Cuba? Want to come keep my post handy? Simply add it to your Pinterest. Thanks and best! Marta.