Cuba might be a mystery to most Americans. Just 90 miles across the Florida Straits, it’s the Caribbean’s largest island. The US has been giving mixed signals about travel to Cuba over the last several years. Although American tourism has dropped significantly since the U.S. has returned to its more hardline stance on the socialist republic, at the time of this writing it is still possible to visit.
However, check the U.S. State Department’s regular updates on Cuban travel even though American authorities are not necessarily sure of the latest regulations. Cubans tend to love Americans and seem grateful for the economic boost. Personally, I find Cuba to be a safe and inviting country. You’ll find yourself lost in the nostalgia of this charming little island time warp brimming with character. Consider these tips when planning your trip.
- Take cash. Your credit and debit cards will not work in Cuba because they are tied back to American banks. So take enough currency to cover your spending needs during your stay. There are almost no ways around this. I have personally tried ATMs and they do not work. I have even tried Western Union and the website was blocked when I tried to access it through my cell phone. Research prices of food, drink, and transportation in advance so you know what to expect. So remember, cash is king in Cuba.
- Cell phones are a no-go here. You will not be able to access your phone or your data plan unless you are connected to Wi-Fi, so plan to leave your phone in airplane mode for the duration of your trip. Sounds pretty good, eh? When you decide you need Wi-Fi, and you will, (you’re going to want google maps, yelp, social media, email, etc.) you need to know the lay of the land. I recommend stopping at an ETECSA store and purchasing a Wi-Fi card. The cost is about 1 CUC per day. It’s not quite that simple, though. Familiarize yourself with Wi-Fi hotspots (which are not always marked) where you can use your card to access the rest of the world. Young locals are your best source for locating these zones. The problem is that often times, there are so many others trying to use it, that it’s often hard to get connected and even harder to stay connected. Some hotels and Airbnbs offer Wi-Fi, which can come in super handy. Also, you may find a restaurant or bar offering free Wi-Fi to customers. The reliability at each of these sources is not a sure bet, though, so have patience.
- Take foreign currency to trade for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Unlike other places, you will find designated exchange houses (including the airport) where you can trade your currency for Cuban CUCs (pronounced “kooks”). It’s best to take Euros or Canadian dollars instead of U.S. dollars. Larger banks will order foreign currency for you at a minimal cost. Exchanging American dollars comes with a price here…like an additional 10% price! Also, forget ordering CUCs in advance – you can’t do it. Your best bet is to determine your needs in advance then order the cash equivalent for euros or Canadian dollars from your bank and exchange it at the airport. I did not find the exchange rate in the airport to be any different, so just go ahead and do it to save you the trouble of locating a currency exchange office later.
- Don’t expect to get the Cuban sandwich you’ve come to love in Miami here – it’s not the same. Good food can be tricky to find. State-owned restaurants and snack bars feature bland food, a reason to stash a small bottle of your favorite hot sauce before leaving home. Better yet, find an eating spot that is privately owned. To save time, I recommend searching for flavorful food options in advance.
- Try a Casa Particular on Airbnb and book in advance. I have stayed in both hotels and Airbnbs – often called casa particular, which literally translated, is a private house. Airbnbs are the best way to get the full Cuban experience and usually, it’s much cheaper! Choose one that has good reviews. Pay attention to location if you want o walk to most of Old Havana. I have found Airbnb hosts to be hospitable and a valuable resource in answering questions and giving recommendations. Don’t rent one for $40 a night and expect luxury accommodations, though because most Cubans live very modestly. If visiting in the summer months, verify that it has air conditioning.
If you plan to stay in a hotel, make sure to check the State Department website. The U.S. government bans some hotels and tour operators because the Cuban government owns and operates them.
Other interesting facts about Cuba:
- It has two currencies. Tourists and locals use the CUC, or the convertible peso. Cubans primarily use the Cuban Peso (CUP) in their everyday life. It’s unlikely that you will need to have any Cuban Pesos unless you plan to spend a lot of time outside of the major cities. it may be helpful to have some.
- You won’t see many Cubans eating out or participating in tourist type activities in the city (such as attending shows, smoking cigars, hanging out in coffee shops) because they simply cannot afford it. Prices in Havana are not cheap. Once you get outside the city, however, the price of food drops and you’ll likely be dining with locals.
- You rarely find branded fast food restaurants, hotels, or fashion stores to speak of in Cuba.
- The “Capitolio” looks almost exactly like the U.S. Capitol. The only exception is that it’s slightly bigger…on purpose.
- You will encounter some anti-imperialist (anti-American) propaganda in the form of billboards and signs. The best place to see it is in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. Don’t be frightened by it. Most Cubans are completely numb to it. Many of the billboards have the same message they had in the 1960’s.