Top Five Havana, Cuba Travel Tips
Though the rules governing travel to Cuba by Americans are expected to tighten back up this fall, that shouldn’t stop you from traveling there. I just got back from Havana, and the place is well-worth what little extra effort it takes to get there. Here are a few things I learned that will help your trip…
1) You can’t use U.S. credit or ATM cards. You have to bring cash.
You really do. I know that one blog said you could use your U.S. debit card, and your friend’s cousin’s old boyfriend claims he hit up ATMs across the island, but because of the American government’s six decade long economic embargo on Cuba, U.S. folks cannot do any business electronically. Your credit cards and ATM cards will not work. Nope. No way. Most everyone else, no worries, ATMs are available, at least in bigger cities. But as an American you have to arrive in Cuba with the money you will spend, in your pocket, in cash. You simply cannot access your money at home (maybe via Western Union if mommy will wire you) from Cuba. Scour the web for prices for your style of travel, add some extra for extras, and roll up to Cuba with a (literal) bankroll.
2) Changing money (CUC versus CUP)
With the exception of at the few duty free shops available at the airport as you exit Cuba, all tanned and happy, everything you buy will be bought in one of the two local currencies. So you’ll have to change your foreign money. U.S. dollars (alone) are penalized for the exchange (it’s all politics, friends) at 10%, so it is better to get Euros, Canadian dollars or even Yen outside Cuba, and then exchange those.
It is relatively quick and easy to change money at the airport upon arrival. You already have your passport with you, and the workers there are used to the whole messy process even though you may not be. Change what you think you’ll need for the whole trip at once. Otherwise, once in town, changing money means either a lower rate at the big hotels that may help you, or a typically long wait at a local bank where clerks seem to draw mysterious strength from working s-l-o-w-ly and enjoying watching you burn away your vacation hours in their lobby.
There are two currencies circulating, convertible pesos (known as CUC) and “local” money (known as CUP.) Do some Googling on the difference. The short answer is CUC is used nearly anywhere you’ll be as a tourist, is desired by local people as a tip or payment, and is what you will receive anyway when you exchange foreign currency. The coolest part about the local money, the CUP, is the three peso note has Che’s picture on it, a great souvenir. You can change any leftover CUC — but not CUP — back into foreign currency when you depart Cuba.
3) Taxis and negotiations
A lot of things in Cuba are negotiable, none more than taxis. For practical, casual, tourist purposes, there is no such thing as public transportation. You’ll travel around by taxi. They have no meters. Taxi drivers have been doing this longer than you have.
So research a bit and get a general idea of what prices are from the airport into old Havana, or from Vedado (a popular AirBnB location) into town. For the latter, we paid at times US$5 and US$20 for the same trip. Nicer cars, time of day, negotiating skills, official taxi or not, and maybe just luck all affected price. If you are a group, make sure the price you settle on (and settle before you get in the cab!) is for the whole group. Some unscrupulous drivers will offer a group of say four a low price, only to demand x4 that price upon arrival. Negotiations are soft-style, a smile, a little sigh, a lower number, another smile, that kind of thing. You’re not Liam Neeson trying to get his daughter back, you’re on vacation.
4) Spanish words, every one helps
Speaking of negotiations, every word you know in Spanish will improve your trip to Cuba. English is not widely spoken, and in most cases you will have a better/easier/smoother/more culturally mindful time if you can tell drivers your destination in Spanish, and settle a bill in Spanish. So go, right now I’ll wait, and write down the Spanish words for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25… and so on. Know the street address of where you’re staying in Spanish, and thrown in an hour of review online somewhere for a few handy phrases. It’ll all pay off. Tourists who already can communicate well in Spanish are in for a real treat because…
5) Hit the Beach (Playa de Este)
…because the Cuban people I met were uniformly friendly, warm, and interested in chatting. We were held back only when language walls were reached. Not everyone was willing to talk politics, but if you want to, so do some others. Local baseball fans seem well-informed about what was happening in the U.S., and young people have reasonable access to the web and are aware of music and fashion trends, at least in Miami and the Bronx.
One can’t miss way to mingle is to hit the beach. About 30 minutes’ taxi ride outside of Havana is the Playa de Este area, a string of great beaches. Pick one (we liked Santa Maria), go on a Sunday, and it will be mostly Cubans of all types. Go on a dull Monday afternoon, and there still will be plenty of local people. Everyone is in a good mood, beer and rum may be involved, and it was easy to strike up a conversation. The beach trip also gives a short-term visitor a (albeit) brief glimpse outside the city itself.
You can also easily find people to talk with at Havana’s outdoor WiFi spots, as well as the usual places like bars, cafes, restaurants and the like.
Otherwise, I encountered no crime, and never felt threatened or afraid. Drink bottled water. Wear good walking shoes, and sunscreen like it’s the tropics because it is. Bring pocket tissues as some public toilets don’t have toilet paper. Enjoy the fact that there are no fast food places cluttering up the streets.
And say hello for me to the Cuban people. I already miss being in their company.