Cuba is an exotic destination and there are many conflicting stories of the do's and don'ts of visiting Cuba. After a recent Cuba trip I decided to share some helpful travel tips and advice which you'll find useful if you haven't been before.
Travel brochures and guides such as the Lonely Planet series are full of colourful photos of Cuba's fabulous colonial architecture, amazing vintage cars and clean tropical beaches - and it's all true! Visiting Cuba is a wonderful experience which will be memorable and fun, but a little pre-trip preparation and planning will make the experience even better.
The national language of Cuba is Spanish, and if you don't speak any then you need to plan your trip carefully. While you can get by with offline translator apps on your phone, it is a very clunky way to interact with locals. Many visitors find the multitude of guided Cuba tours fit their sightseeing needs, and make the trip more pleasurable. Staying at a casa particular (guest house) on your Cuba tour is an easy way to meet locals and learn more about life in Cuba.
Al Fresco Dining at Havana Harbour on Your Cuba Trip
Medical Advice Before you go, see your doctor well in advance and get any essential vaccinations needed for your Cuba trip. Make sure you have enough of your regular prescription items to last throughout your trip. Drinking tap water in Cuba can cause tummy upsets and diarrhoea, so take precautions for this. Avoid ice in your drinks, and keep plenty of bottled water with you.
Visas and Travel Insurance for Cuba A visa is essential to visit Cuba for most people, and can be obtained from your travel agent, or the nearest Cuban Embassy or Consulate.
Anyone visiting Cuba must have travel health insurance, so get a comprehensive insurance policy which covers accidents, luggage etc too. Avoid buying insurance from a travel agent as it costs much more, and remember an annual policy is usually much cheaper if you travel occasionally.
Taking Money to Cuba You'll read horror stories on the internet of people being stranded in Cuba without money. It shouldn't happen, and taking a few precautions will help. Take enough money with you in Euros, or pounds sterling rather than your local currency, and remember the US dollar gets penalised in Cuba on conversion.
Don't rely on getting money from ATM machines in Cuba - you will find ATMs in Havana, but not in most smaller towns. Contrary to other reports, I successfully used MasterCard branded cards to withdraw money from an ATM machine in Havana. It's best to take more than once card from different banks to give you the best access to funds.
You can change your money at banks and the CADECA exchange booths in most towns (take your passport). There will be a queue, with shorter queues for locals and a much longer one foreigners. Be aware that the tellers can be very fussy about the money that you present to them: make sure there are no dog eared corners or tears on your notes, otherwise they may be refused.
Admire the Colonial Architecture of this Palace in Cienfuegos Cuba
The Internet in Cuba
You need to have a WiFi access card from a ETECSA telecommunications centre or a hotel to get online in Cuba. Again there are two queues at ETECSA offices, and the wait for foreigners can be lengthy so don't forget your passport. Many hotels also sell the WiFi card (no passport required), but you may have to buy a drink at the bar to be able to do so.
Most people use the internet in Cuba at WiFi parks, central locations where you will see hundreds of people staring at their phones. Getting connected online can be a struggle at times, and is a test of your patience. Many tourists sit in hotel lobbies to get their internet fix, you don't need to be actually staying there.
Take the Hop On Hop Off Double Decker Tour Bus in Havana
You will quickly learn that Facebook is not friendly on the low bandwidth internet in Cuba. You will probably be able to update your own status, but forget browsing your timeline on Facebook. I found emails on Gmail worked well, and Facebook Messenger was also an effective way to stay in touch with friends.
With Magnificent National Parks, Who Needs the Internet in Cuba?
Tipping in Cuba, and Things to Take
Tipping on a Cuba trip is pretty much universal for services provided to you. Bartering is quite acceptable for taxis, and sometimes essential. Many people take gifts for hosts of their casa particular - anything from USB sticks, toys, clothing and shoes to nail clippers seem welcome.
Don't forget to take travel adaptors for phones and other appliances, and taking your own toilet paper saves embarrassment if it's run out when you need it most.
Search and You Can Find Delicious Cuban Food in Havana Cuba
Most tourists will find the food in Cuba bland. The most common meals are either chicken, pork of lamb served with rice and salad (usually tomato, cucumber and cabbage). Cuban food is rarely spiced with anything more than salt or pepper, and maybe a bit of chilli. A snack is often a sandwich - either ham, cheese or both, and often served lightly toasted.
Tourists in Cuba staying at a casa particular will generally find a decent breakfast included. Expect a fresh fruit plate including guava, pineapple and papaya, bread rolls, ham, cheese, and eggs cooked in a variety of ways. Freshly squeezed fruit juice, tea and coffee are always on offer, so you will be well fortified for the day.
Ride Colourful Vintage Cars in Havana on Your Cuba Trip
Other Cuba Travel Tips and Tricks
Download an offline map of Cuba to your mobile phone before you go - it makes life so much easier for finding your way around. And learn from the relaxed way of life that Cubans enjoy - there's no need to hurry.
Cuba Travel Tips: Relax, There's Even Time to Meet the Cuban Wildlife