Cuba is a beautiful country located in the Caribbean. When one thinks of Cuba, they think of the Communist rule, Fidel Castro, old vintage cars and then issues of travel difficulties, strict rules and regulations, poverty, trade embargoes, tourist safety comes to mind. Before visiting Cuba, I have extensively researched about the country, especially about Havana. Researches on Cuba included tourist safety, visa requirements and Cubans attitude towards tourists. And I shall admit, I was pleasantly surprised with some of my experiences in Cuba (Havana).
Although my planning did help in navigating through the city of Havana and being prepared for travel visas, insurance etc, the city and the country as a whole was like a breath of fresh air!
In this post, I want to highlight and summarize some of the important things that you need to know before traveling to Cuba. I will also cite some of the notions that I have learnt from other travelers or through travel resources.
So Get Ready for Cuba
Things to Know Before you Travel to Cuba
So first things first. If you wish to travel to Cuba, you will need a tourist card (aka tourist visa) or a Cuban visa, depending on your citizenship/nationality. Cuba allows visa exemptions to 18 countries which includes passport holders from Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Dominica and Montenegro.
Most countries are allowed to purchase a $20 USD tourist card and are able to travel and stay in Cuba for 30 days. These include tourists from Canada, most European nations, USA, etc. The price of the tourist card is usually included in your airfare. If not included, you will have to pay it when you board the flight. In the US, depending on the airlines you are boarding, it would be a $65 USD fee. But check ahead of time in the airport to get the tourist card.
We boarded our flight from Canada on an Air Canada vacation package and got the tourist card included in that price. On the flight, we filled out the card and it was shown to the customs and immigration officials in Havana, Cuba for a stamp. It was not collected when we exited the country though and I am not sure why.
There are 20 countries that are required to apply for Cuban Visa. Passport holders from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines and some African nations are required to apply for visa for enter to the country. But if you are an Indian passport holder with a Canadian Permanent Resident, you can obtain a tourist card.
A US citizen traveling to Cuba can apply for tourist card. As of March 2018, there were travel advisories issued against US citizens traveling to Cuba. The US embassy in Cuba is currently closed. (We drove by the embassy to take a peak. Its located by the beautiful waterfront, but is deserted right now). The advisory reads that tourist travel to Cuba is prohibited. One must obtain a license from the Department of Treasury or travel must fall into one of 12 categories of authorized travel. The advisory also prohibits traveling to Hotel Nacional in Havana (we went to Hotel Nacional in one of our stays in Havana. Its a beautiful hotel, lots of history to explore and the best part is – you can sit and enjoy a few daiquiris at their sea facing open restaurant. It was amazing)
All travelers to Cuba also require to possess a return ticket, travel insurance policy with medical coverage, valid passport and a visa or tourist visa
This is an interesting part. Cuba has 2 currencies – CUP or the Cuban Peso and CUC or Cuban Convertible Peso.
CUP is used by the locals. Hence its their national mode of transaction, also referred to as the “moneda nacional”
As far as conversion goes, 25 CUP = $1 USD
Tourists use the other currency, which is the CUC. Conversion is 1 CUC = $1 USD (or = 25 CUP = $0 .75 CAD)
Few things to remember :
- You can only convert currency in Cuba. It cannot be converted outside the country.
- Tourist can use CUP as well. Intercity buses uses CUP.
- Most banks and exchange offices (called CADECAS) within Cuba will offer CUC in exchange for foreign money
- You can exchange currency at the airports, banks and even hotels. We didn’t notice any difference in exchange rates whether it was nationalized bank or the hotel. Only thing is hotels cater to their guests and may or may not offer services to other customers. We didn’t stay at Hotel Nacional but they helped us in currency exchange. On the other hand, Parque Central Iberostar hotel refused to exchange currency. So it depends. At times, the hotels might also run out of currencies.
- Passports are always required for currency exchange.
- A 3% fee applies to all currency exchange transactions. (except for USD exchanges which is at 10%)
- Credit cards are not very popular in Cuba. There are ATM machines and Credit card terminals in hotels and restaurants in cities like Havana and Varadero, but most dealings are in cash.
- Most tourist websites cite that a 25 CUC is levied to departing travelers from Cuba. We didn’t have to pay anything when we departed for Canada.
Health & Travel Insurance
Cuba has a free health care system. Whether its a flu shot or a heart transplant its free for all Cubans. Tourists have to apply for travel medical insurance (coverage up to 50,000 USD). The travel medical insurance plan must include coverage for medical evacuation by air, medical emergencies and repatriation.
As far as medicines are concerned, they are free of charge for Cubans. We went to a drugstore in Havana and it was housed in an old building and it looked like a museum. They had big containers with medicines in it and are provided to clients based on prescriptions only. (With the existence of black market or “alternate market” in Cuba, prescription note have become essential)
For tourists, there are International Medical Centers from where you can purchase your Advil, Tylenol and Paracetamol of the world.
Good to know: The following are the recommended vaccinations for travelers to Cuba – Typhoid, Cholera, Rabies, Influenza, Hepatitis A & B.
Let me say it out LOUD : Cuba is extremely safe! We arrived late in to city of Havana (like at around 12:30 am). We saw a lot of people walking on the streets, some enjoying cool breeze by parks, etc. Men, women and children- anyone can be out and about and were having a good time.
Havana is bustling with activities at night. “Actual” night time activities start after 08:00 pm and you will see lots of people on the streets and in the restaurants. Solo female travel is also safe. In fact we met with a lot of female travelers or 2-3 female group travelers enjoying and having a good time without being bothered with anything – like what they are wearing or what time of the day it is.
Cuban society is focusing on women’s emancipation and that’s evident in a free will society and also in government schemes. I was very impressed and happy to see how women were treated in the country. Did you know women in Cuba donn’t change their last names after wedding? The kids take the last names of both the parents, which is interesting.
Cubans are extremely friendly. You can approach them and ask for directions or help and they are willing to assist you with anything. If a Cuban approaches you – with sales or tourist schemes, you have to be careful of scams and that advice is applicable where you go in the world.
Cuba has different accommodation options. They include – Hotels, resorts, Airbnb style “casa particulars”
Would you love to stay in a historical vintage hotel? If the answer is yes, you are in the right spot.
- All hotels are state owned in Cuba. There are some hotels that are co-partnered with private groups, but the state still owns all properties.
- In Havana city, most hotels will offer you a decent size room, bed (flat beds) and a TV. If the hotel is a 100 year old, don’t expect great interiors or fancy furniture. But it does the job. We stayed at Hotel Plaza in Havana. This hotel is 110 years old, looks great on the outside, is close to Old and Central Havana, but the interiors were okay. It was 3.5 stars by Cuban standard, we found it to be 2 star (or a tad less) by global standards. Hotel Plaza had free breakfast served at their rooftop restaurant. And we were so amazed at the views from up there. We stay at Hotel Plaza was $100 a night with breakfast.
- Don’t get me wrong, not all hotels are like that. Iberostar Hotel Parque Central, located in the same square is expensive and is quite fancy inside. They also have a great rooftop restaurant. Historic Nacional Hotel is also very well maintained and beautiful both inside and outside. These hotels range from $300+ a night
- Varadero and Trinidad has resort and hotels alike. Depending on the budget and amenities included it can range from $120+
- Casa Particulars are your AirBnBs. You stay at a host’s place and they offer you the accommodation amenities and/or food. It is a great way to learn and experience the local culture. AirBnb has a few casa particulars listed on their website. When you wander in the streets of Havana, you will see some houses that has a sign, “Hostals” – those are casa particulars. (They are not the hostels that travelers are used to. I think Cuba only has 1-2 hostels and are hard to locate).
Food and Drinks
Lets start with food. A lot of the people that I spoke to, advised me to carry tomato ketchup on my trip. According to them, food is not great and is very blah. Well, I did carry tomato ketchup as per advice, but didn’t have to use them!
We tried Cuban dishes like black bean rice, plantains, roopa vieja (shredded meat), chicken tomato or pork salsa – they all tasted great. Pork and beef are popular dishes, followed by shrimps and chicken.
If you are ordering plain and roast chicken, it may not be as delicious as roopa vieja. Most restaurants offer vinegar along with the meals.
Our free breakfast at the hotel included lots of baked items, fruits, salad, pork sausage. And coffee!
Moving on to drinks. Cuban coffee is delicious. Coffee is locally grown and not imported. And of course Vitamin R (rum) is very popular.
Mojito is popular in Cuba and it originated here. I have tasted one of the most refreshing mojitos in Havana. Daiquiris and Pina Coladas are delicious too. Popular beer include Cristal and Bucanero.
And Cubans love ice-creams. Lots of ice-cream parlors are found in the city.
Where to eat? In Cuba, there are state run restaurants. They are cheaper as compared to private own restaurants. Private/in house restaurants are called casa paladars. The casa paladars have a great variety of food options. The cheapest meal that I had was for 5.5 CUC which included a drink, dessert and a full meal.
Cuba has limited wifi networks. It is expensive and one has to purchase a internet card that consists of a username and password (all digits) and this allows you to log in and access the internet. There are hot-spots scattered across the city (Havana) and you can see people gathered in those areas to access internet.
As internet is expensive, it means you should download maps and make your itinerary notes offline or on paper, if you do not wish to pay for internet. Internet or cyber cafes are available in the cities. You will definitely find one in a hotel lobby and use that to print tickets or boarding passes.
Maps and me (maps.me) are popular offline maps that you can use in Cuba.
Language in Cuba
Spanish is the official language of Cuba. At most tourist areas, hotels and agencies English is common. If you plan on going to remote areas or deal with local Cubans, you should be considerate that not all them will speak perfect English (which is okay). They will still try and help you.
We took a private taxi in Havana and the guy didn’t know much English to converse with us, but he did try to help us out and dropped us and picked us up from the right location (win-win)
That being said, if you speak Spanish, good for you. I brushed up and learnt a few Spanish words and phrases to interact with locals. (Babbel or Duolingo are free apps that you can use to do that)
Best Time to Visit
Cuba has a tropical climate. Temperatures usually range from 22- 27 degree Celsius all year round. December to March are the popular tourist months.
We visited in May and the temperature remained at 24 degree celsius all throughout. It was humid though. There were a few showers here and there but no major rainfall to spoil a day of sightseeing.
Although you can visit Cuba at anytime of the year, July to September are considered hurricane months and there could be travel advisories issued depending on the weather.
Commuting in the City & Outside
In order to commute in Cuba, you can use taxis – the state run yellow cabs, intercity buses, coco-taxis/pissi taxis, colectivos, etc.
If you are visiting Havana, you can cover a lot of the city by walking.
- There are 2 types of taxis – state owned yellow cabs (marked by plain white licence plates) and privately owned American vintage cars (licence plates are marked with a P)
- Both types of taxis are official. State owned taxi fares tend to be cheaper and the operator has a metre that they can use to charge accordingly. But its rarely used. Hence its important to always set the fare when your ride. Rule of thumb is 1 metre = 1 CUC
- You can easily negotiate prices with private owned taxis. For 30 CUC, we rented a taxi for 1 hour and we drove along the harbor-front (malecon)
- There are coco-taxis (like the Asian Tuk-tuk and Rickshaw) that can be used for short distances. Pissi Taxi can be rented for commute in Old Havana or anywhere where cars are prohibited. They are a tad expensive than taxis (or sometimes almost equal. In either case, you have to set the fare before the ride)
- Intercity buses are available. Locals use them extensively. They are usually crowded, but they do have a good bus network. For 1 CUC you can travel anywhere within the city.
- You can also use state taxis to reach resort towns of Varadero, Santa Marta, Trinidad from the Havana International Airport. If you booked a package trip, airport transfers will be included (just ask and confirm). Colectivos can also pick and drop you between 2 major cities/towns, but I would arrange for them ahead of time and consider local laws before availing those services.
Day Trips from the capital city of Havana
If you are flying into Cuba, most likely you will be flying to Havana Airport. Taxis and buses are available to transport you to the resort town of your choice. Here are some popular destination list : –
- Havana to Varadero – 2 hours and 10 minutes (by car)
- Havana to Trinidad – 4 hours (by car)
- Havana to Vinales – 2 hours and 30 minutes (by car)
- Havana to Coco Cayo – 6 hours by car or you can take a 50 minute direct flight
What to carry with you?
Here is a list of items that you will find beneficial on your Cuba trip
- Being a warm tropical country, always carry a sunscreen, hat and an umbrella.
- Carry a battery back-up for your phone and camera
- Comfortable shoes for all the walking.
- Toiletries like facial tissue, sanitizer
- You can always carry items like books, coloring pencils, hats, etc to pay as tips.
Our visit to Cuba and especially the capital city of Havana was really amazing. We do recommend visiting this beautiful Caribbean island nation. The people here are warm and friendly. When you arrive here, you will be transported to a different era. A country with an interesting history and with a future that is looking positive and bright!
Do let us know if you have further questions about Cuba. We are happy to help you to get-Cuba ready!
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