Now that you have a smartphone in your pocket, do you even still have a wall calendar? There is something more ceremonial about a wall calendar, particularly when there’s something you’re looking forward to. When it comes to your first trip to Cuba, chances are that your day of departure will be circled numerous times in brightly-coloured ink, along with numerous smiley faces, stars, and probably a little drawing of a palm tree.
Try doing that on your smartphone!
Even though, and let’s face it, there’s probably a darn app for that. Cuba is one of those places where a bit of research can really pay off. You might not want to explore absolutely every aspect of your trip online before you go, since for some people this can take the fun out of discovery. But certainly, knowing a few things about Cuba before you go can be highly beneficial and will make your time in the country all the more enjoyable.
Often called a tourist card, you will need a visa to enter Cuba. The good thing is that this is sometimes included when you book via a travel agent. Some airlines (depending on where they are flying from) will also include the tourist card as part of the package. Alternatively, some airports allow you to obtain the card before boarding your flight to Cuba. Don’t take any of this as a given though, and it’s important to ensure that you will be able to obtain the card before you board a plane to Cuba. Enquire with the company whom you’ve booked with (whether it’s a travel agency or airline). If the tourist card is not included, you will need to make your own arrangements.
Contact the Cuban Embassy or Consulate in your home country to make the application, well before your departure. You should also find out about any other entry requirements that might be applicable to you whether it’s your first trip to Cuba or not.
Cash in Cuba
Some larger businesses and hotels will take credit cards, but for the most part you will be using cash. Cuba has a closed currency, so forget any plans to obtain some of the local banknotes before you arrive. If you plan to change money, bring Canadian dollars, British pounds, or European Union euros. US dollars attract a surcharge, so it’s really not worth it. Large airports have cash machines, so it’s not critical to bring any money to exchanges. Cash machines can sometimes be hard to find, so ask about the location of the closest one when you check into your accommodation.
Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban convertible peso (which has the same value as the US dollar) and the Cuban peso, which is what the locals use and is worth roughly 25 times less than the convertible peso. You will largely be using the convertible peso, but if you can receive your change in standard pesos after making a purchase, you can use these too (and might end up paying a lower price when it comes to smaller purchases).
What to Pack on Your First Trip to Cuba
Even those about to embark upon their first trip to Cuba will be thoroughly unsurprised to learn that it’s going to be hot. Even the amusingly-titled Cuban “winter” is far warmer than summer in many parts of the world. So please pack accordingly, and this means that you can pack light. A lightweight jacket or wrap is handy in case there’s a cool breeze in the evening, but this will be more refreshing than uncomfortable. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, and while you will be dressing in a fairly casual manner for the majority of your first trip to Cuba, it can be beneficial to bring something slightly more formal so you don’t feel underdressed if you should go to an upmarket restaurant or nightspot.
Please remember that some types of toiletries and hygiene products are difficult to readily find in Cuba, so when it comes to hair care, dental care, feminine hygiene products, insect repellant, contraception, painkillers, and allergy pills, you should bring these with you.
Getting from Place to Place
If you’ve booked a tour that’s going to take care of all your transfers, then you don’t really need to worry about making these arrangements. But if you need to get from place to place of your own accord, you can go by air or by road. There is a rather antiquated railway network, but reliability is not its strong point. Flying from city to city in Cuba saves time, and if booked well in advance, can be reasonably inexpensive. The bus is the better bet if you want to keep some spontaneity to your trip. The Viazul intercity bus service won’t be the most luxurious ride of your life, but you will get there comfortably, safely, and generally on time. Just go to the central bus station in your departure city a day or two before you plan to travel to ensure you can obtain a seat. Bookings can also be made online, which brings us to the next item on this list…
Cuba used to be a black hole as far as internet access was concerned. This is now changing at a rather rapid rate. While internet access in private homes is still unheard of, the government have invested in an increasing number of wireless internet access points throughout major towns and cities. For example, if you take a walk through Havana’s Parque Fe del Valle and you’ll see a small group of people, all tapping away at their smart phones.
You just buy an access card from one of the many stores that sell them and you’ll have an hour of internet. It makes travel infinitely more convenient, although you will still be able to enjoy a type of digital exile when in Cuba, since you won’t be online anywhere near as much as you’re used to.
Do you have any questions? Please let us know in the comment section!