Planning your first visit to Cuba? No doubt you’ve already done a lot of research, and yet it’s difficult to find helpful information. Some guidebooks and articles will go into so much detail about places you don’t have much interest in, or they might be annoyingly vague. When it comes to both the practical and cultural, here are 10 Cuba travel tips you need to know…
1. Is the Revolution Still a Big Deal?
Yes it is. While there was widespread rationing and an arguable reduction in the quality of life after the revolution, most Cuban’s remain deeply proud of their revolutionary history. It’s not as though it’s ancient history either – Fidel Castro, the leader of the revolution and Cuba’s subsequent leader, only retired from the presidency in 2008. There has been some appropriation of the revolution in that you can find shirts featuring Che Guevara’s face in practically any market in the country. But regardless of your political stance, it’s unwise to be critical of the revolution.
2. Some Cuba Travel Tips Say the Country Is Really Cheap. Is This True?
Yes and no. Cuba has two different currencies – the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The CUP is generally used by locals, and the CUC is offered to visitors and is pegged to the value of the US dollar. In popular areas (such as Old Havana), you will be asked to pay in CUC, and the price is not always low. Once you wander away from the popular areas you will find money exchange bureaus who will be willing to change your CUC (or foreign currency) to CUP. You will also find stores, restaurants and bars who will happily accept CUP from visitors to Cuba, meaning you might be able to find a mojito for less than a dollar!
3. Is Cuba Dangerous for Tourists?
Violent crime is not a major issue in Cuba, although there is a small chance of falling victim to a bag snatcher or a pick pocketer. No list of Cuba travel tips would be complete without urging you to be vigilant and take steps to protect your belongings (a money belt, for example). Cuba really does feel safe, and there’s a visible police presence. There aren’t really that many scams targeted at tourists, either. You might try to be convinced by a friendly local to go to an “amazing restaurant” owned by his friend, where the only crime will be crimes against cuisine.
4. Is There Really Salsa Music Playing Everywhere?
Perhaps not everywhere, but you’re certainly going to hear it a lot. There are a huge number of extremely talented street musicians playing, particularly in the areas popular with visitors. Like all buskers, they work for tips, so be generous. Many bars and restaurants will have a salsa band playing, and even night clubs will often have a live salsa band that will play for a few hours before the DJ takes over.
5. Does Everyone Really Smoke Cigars?
You will see a lot of people smoking cigars as they go about their business, but it’s one of those important Cuba travel tips to know that you can’t light up anywhere. Havana and other large cities have actually had a ban against smoking in bars and restaurants since 2005. This law covers both cigars and cigarettes, although it’s not strongly enforced. Many establishments ignore the law and allow their patrons to light up. A good rule of thumb is to look for other smokers. If other people are puffing on their cigars, you’ll know that you can too.
6. What About Technology – Can You Use Your Phone, the Internet and Even ATM’s?
The technology situation is slowly improving in Cuba, but it’s still different to what you’re used to. Cash is king, and credit cards are only accepted in large cities, and even then – not everywhere. It’s still wise to bring foreign currency into the country and change it. Canadian dollars, EU euros, and UK pounds are best, since the US dollar attracts a hefty fee. You might be able to use your phone if your service provider has a roaming partner in Cuba, but use it sparingly, since your bill could be astronomical. There is internet, but it’s slow and cannot be accessed in many places. Most large hotels will have a few internet terminals available.
7. What Is the Food Like?
The culinary standards in Cuba are much better than they were just a short time ago. The hospitality trade has been deregulated, meaning that a large number of great independent restaurants have sprung up, offering both local cuisine and foreign fusion style dishes. A great Cuban travel tip for vegetarians is that you might have to look hard to find a decent vegetarian dish that is not simply rice and beans. Meat still features heavily on most Cuban menus.
8. What Is the Standard of Healthcare in Cuba?
Cuba has one of the highest doctor to patient ratios in the world, so if the worst was to happen, you would be well looked after. You will need to have comprehensive travel insurance before you visit Cuba, and this is in fact a condition of entry into the country. You will have difficulty finding many basic medical items, so it’s wise to bring things like contraception, female hygiene products, painkillers and even band-aids with you.
9. Should I Take a Guided Tour?
A guided tour offers you the chance to see points of interest in comfort. In the peak summertime season, it can be fantastic to be taken to all the sights (often not having to wait in line) with a guide who is able to explain everything to you. Longer tours can show you pretty much the entire country, meaning you don’t have to deal with the often chaotic Cuban intercity busses and trains. Your guide will also be able to give you many valuable Cuba travel tips to make the most of the rest of your time.
10. Where Should You Go If You Don’t Have Much Time in the Country?
Havana is an obvious choice, but it’s also the best. You get the thrills of the city, but you don’t have to travel far to get away from the hustle and bustle. There are a wide variety of beaches just outside the city, and you can easily take a day trip to achingly beautiful village of Viñales.