I visited Cuba for 4 days in March 2017 and loved it! Please note that all information in this article is accurate up to that date, but I will do my best to keep the content updated as things in Cuba are rapidly advancing.
Cuba is one of the hottest countries to visit at the moment, which comes as no surprise after the travel ban was lifted with the USA in 2015. As I write this, there are 10 different U.S. Airlines and 4 cruise lines that go to Cuba from the USA, carrying an expected 6 million tourists in 2017 (up from 2 million in 2013).
Traveling to Cuba is like stepping in a time machine back to the 1940s or 1950s — in regards to its old cars, cash-only economy and lack of name brands items.
I hope you will consider visiting Cuba on your next trip to the Caribbean, while it remains cheaper and easier to get there than it’s ever been in history.
Here are some useful tips to know before visiting Cuba!
10 Things to Know Before Visiting Cuba:
1. You Can Get Your Visa on Arrival
There is no need to go to a Cuban Embassy beacuse you can pick up your visa on arrival when you check into your flight (at the U.S. airport). I paid $100, but I was told if I prepared the information online more than 72 hours before my flight, then it would have cost me $50 (every airline has a different policy). You can also apply for your visa online before for even cheaper.
While it’s still illegal to visit Cuba solely for “tourism,” you are given a choice of 12 options to explain why you are visiting Cuba and you check whichever box you think is most applicable to your trip. It’s not strictly enforced, and you most likely won’t be asked to explain your answer more in detail… I checked the box next to “educational purposes.”
2. It’s Cash Only, & Bring Euros or Canadian Dollars
When you arrive at Havana’s International Airport, you will need to exchange your money for CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). Note there are 2 currencies in Cuba (one for tourists and one for locals), but you will be using the CUC (tourist currency) which is pegged to the USD at $1 = 1CUC.
Given that Cuba doesn’t want USD, if you try to exchange dollars, they will charge an additional 10% fee… So I advise you to bring Euros or Canadian Dollars to exchange, so you can avoid paying extra.
Also, you will want to exchange twice as much cash as you think you’ll be spending. If you run out of money, you will be royally screwed and it would not be a good situation for you.
There are select ATMS in the airport, and some in the city of Havana, but I wouldn’t rely on them. Bring Cash, and a lot of it.
3. You Should Stay at Air Bnbs
Homestays (also called casa particulars) in Cuba are 100% the way to go! Staying with a local in an apartment is a much more authentic and cultural experience that hotels can’t provide.
Air Bnb was recently activated in Cuba and now you can easily book a place to stay in advance. I stayed a few different Casa Particulars in Havana, and loved them all (especially our host named Rosell who you see in the above photo). Please note that your host probably won’t speak any English, so brush up on your español!
4. You Can Bring Cuban Cigars into the USA
The law states that you are allowed to bring back $100 USD worth in souvenirs from Cuba, which includes cigars and rum. However, you can see how this rule can’t be strictly enforced because you can stretch that $100 by saying you bought everything cheaper than you really did (they won’t ask for price tags or receipts)… When I arrived in the U.S., the immigration didn’t check my bags or even question me, but you should be prepared to explain that all your items cost under $100 if they ask. I brought back 30 cigars and a bottle of rum, and you can do the same!
5. Bring Extra Toiletries
Things like shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, deodorant, etc, are not commonly found in Cuba. They don’t have many super markets or grocery stores selling these types of items. I ran out of shampoo on my first day, and I could not find any place outside Havana that sold some.
Bring loads of extras, and if you aren’t going to use them all, then give them away to people on the streets as gifts. I can promise you they will appreciate it!
6. Wifi is Available Only in Hotels & Wifi Parks
The wifi situation is becoming more available day by day, but when I visited, there were only 2 places to get connected. In your hotel (only if you are a guest), or in one of the few wifi parks in Havana.
For the wifi park, you will need to buy a 1 hour internet card by Etecsa for $2USD at a phone store. However, the lines are usually really long so you can buy a card from a random guy selling them on the street near the wifi park. They sell them for $3, and you get internet access for 1 hour.
The internet connection is VERY slow in Cuba, but strong enough to load your FB photos or send emails. For me, it was too slow to send Snapchats, use Facetime, or stream any videos.
It’s a good idea to leave your computer at home because you will be frustrated to use it, and Cuba is not a place to get work done.
7. English Isn’t Commonly Spoken or Understood
It’s time to brush up on your Spanish skills, because you will not be able to get by with English. Kids aren’t taught English in schools, so the only people who speak English are highly educated people or those who work in hotels/tourism. Nearly all taxi drivers, restaurant waiters, bartenders, Air bnb hosts, etc will most likely only speak Spanish.
8.Don’t Get Ripped Off
Much like in other countries, you should bargain for everything you buy in Cuba. Once the vendor notices you’re a foreigner, they will try to charge you 2X or 3X the price. This is especially true at street markets or souvenir shops. If they tell you the price is $20 for a painting, then don’t pay more than $10 for it (or else just leave and you can find it elsewhere).
As long as you stay away from the touristy restaurants and resorts, etc – then you’ll find Cuba to be a very cheap country. Much cheaper than the touristy Caribbean countries of the Bahamas, St. Lucia and Barbados.
9. Take a Day Tour to the Countryside
There are many tours offered in Cuba that you can attend. Most of the tourist agencies are located in hotels, so simply walk in and talk to them about booking a trip. Hotels are like your best friend in Cuba – go there if you have any questions about anything!
I recommend doing the same tour that I did, to the tobacco farms of Viñales. It was $65 per person for the full day tour.
10. Don’t Expect Anything Fancy
I had a friend visit Cuba and hated it because he had high expectations. Don’t be that guy!
Cuba is not a luxurious country (yet), so don’t go there thinking to have an all-day spa treatment or a big screen TV. Cuban people don’t have many materialistic things, and they live happy lives. It makes you appreciate what you have and to not stress the little things in life (like losing your cell phone charger).
Cuba is an all-around amazing country and a place that I hope to visit again soon. My final piece of advice is to just go with an open mind and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. I hope you will fall in love with Cuba for what it is and come home appreciating the life that you live.
Have any Cuba questions? Contact me!