Stuff to Know Before Your First Trip To Cuba
When I’m asked about it I have been telling people that it was a challenging trip. And it was. Now that I’m working more with the photos and writing about my experiences, I realize that it wasn’t so much a challenge as it was me not being as prepared as I could have been.
Some have asked for “the tips” and the highlights. So here they are:
Getting there is easier if you do it indirectly.
We flew to and from Havana through Cancun. At the airport you need to buy a Cuban traveler’s visa. They’re $20 USD each. This is just a simple piece of paper that gets you in and out of Cuba without any issues. From the States there is a similar visa you will need — this is the one that asks you to state your reason for going to Cuba. These reasons are 100% to appease the U.S. Government. Cuba doesn’t care why you are visiting. They just appreciate the business.
The Airport: We landed in Havana and it took about two hours for us to get from the plane to the cab. Customs is pretty easy if you have nothing to hide. Baggage claim, especially if you come through Mexico, is a nightmare. Not only are you dealing with traveller’s luggage, but also the enormous amount of goods within the checked luggage that Cubans are “shipping” back from Mexico with them. I’m talking TVs and cases of diapers and paper towels. The second hour will be spent in line at currency exchange (more on that below). And since you need Cuban currency to pay the cab ride, and Cuban currency is only available IN Cuba…
Money: Forget all your plastic from American-based banks.
They’re worthless here. No Visa, no ATMs, no debit anything. And if it does work you can bet on huge fees. Bring all of the cash you could possibly think of spending and a little more as a “just in case.”
The American dollar is filthy here. Sure, they will take it, but every USD you exchange here is immediately hit with a 10% tax BEFORE any kind of exchange rates or fees are applied. Technically $1 USD = $1 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). After the fees and taxes, $1 USD= .87$CUC.
If you happen to hit an ATM in Mexico, I’d suggest pulling out your cash there as Mexican Pesos. There is no 10% tax on them and my bank only charged me about $4.50 for 10,000 pesos (like$ 400-ish USD). These convert about 24–26 MXN to 1 CUC — which gets you closer to the $1 USD to $1 CUC.
Then trade some of those CUCs for CUPs (Cuban Pesos). This is usually around 25 CUP to 1 CUC. With CUPs things can get really cheap if you’re spending in the right place.
Learn Some Fucking Spanish Already
Spanish is king, clearly. If you learn one thing in Spanish it should be how to negotiate for a cab ride. Know it backwards and forwards and upside-down and in your sleep. Many of the cabs here negotiate for rates before you even get in the cab.
There Still Probably Isn’t Any Internet There. And Your Cell Phone Won’t Work.
Prepare to be offline. Seriously. Do all of your research for anything and everything you might like to do, see, or eat ahead of time. Then save all of that stuff offline in Evernote, or print it out (do people still print?). I’d suggest downloading Google Translate and Maps.me and have them ready for offline use BEFORE you get there. Then, once you land, stay in airplane mode. If your phone figures out you’re in Cuba it might render these apps useless.
Keep in mind that all of the places you find on Trip Advisor on on Joe Traveller’s blog are also the places everyone else is looking up before their trip. Naturally, these places will be far busier. Many places in Cuba have no presence online — so be ready to explore and drop in on random places. This is where you can find super cheap (yet plentiful) meals and have several drinks with them and only maybe spend 100 CUPs (like $4 USD).