8 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Cuba
Cuba has, without a doubt, become one of the world’s hottest tourist destinations over the last few years. The formerly isolated country is slowly opening up to Americans, and the resulting boost in the tourism industry is encouraging travelers from around the world to experience the fascinating Caribbean island for themselves. In many ways, Cuba remains a world of its own, a stark contrast from most places you’ve ever traveled. Prepare yourself for a trip by reviewing these eight must-knows.
Don’t count on being able to withdraw money from ATMs upon arrival in Cuba. If your debit card has been issued by a U.S. bank, your card will not function in any ATM due to nationwide restrictions. If your card has been issued elsewhere, you’re legally allowed to withdraw from the ATMs, but, as they can be tricky to find (especially outside of Havana) and unreliable, I still recommend bringing cash. Additionally, very few places will accept credit or debit card payments.
Your best bet is to carry enough cash for your entire stay in Cuba and exchange it upon arrival. U.S. dollars incur a 10% exchange penalty, so if you’re able to get your hands on another major currency, you’ll be in good shape. The exchange booth at the airport will only accept U.S. dollars and euros, but exchange shops (cadecas – short for casas de cambio), hotels, and banks typically accept euros, British pounds, Canadian dollars, Australian dollars, Japanese yen, Mexican pesos, and Swiss francs.
Keep in mind that banks and cadecas will likely be closed on public holidays, so you’ll need to exchange your money in advance of any, and you may need to wait in a long queue — my sister had to wait for about two to three hours on New Year’s Day because few places were open!
Naturally, carrying large sums of cash while traveling can be nerve-wrecking, so consider dividing it between different items of luggage or bringing a money belt.
Cuba has two currencies.
The financial complications don’t end there. Cuba has two official currencies: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC – pronounced “kook”). Locals use CUPs, but tourists will be limited with what they can purchase with them. Street vendors, markets, and some restaurants will accept CUPs, and you’ll likely get a better deal, but hotels, souvenir shops, taxis, museums, most restaurants, etc. will generally require CUCs. CUCs are valued at one to one with the U.S. dollars and can be purchased at banks, hotels, and cadecas.
Spanish isn’t necessary, but it helps a lot.
Tourism is widespread enough in Cuba that, even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish, you’ll likely encounter Cubans who either speak English or who are used to communicating with non-Spanish speakers. However, a little Spanish can go a long way. Try to pick up a few basics like greetings and numbers.
The more Spanish you know, though, the more enriching your experience will be. One of my favorite aspects of my trip was chatting with locals and asking about their lives in a country as historically and politically fascinating as Cuba. You’ll likely find locals to be friendlier, you’ll get better deals on purchases, and you’ll learn a ton. Give the app Duolingo a try for improving your Spanish.
Locals will sometimes want something from you.
I quickly realized that many of the Cubans I encountered were looking for financial assistance from tourists. Of course, this does not apply to every local, but many will begin a friendly conversation and later ask for a donation (un regalito) or for you to purchase something from them. Considering the average monthly salary is less than $25 U.S. per month (source), earning a few extra dollars from a tourist can go a long way.
A few meetings with ulterior motives may make you suspicious of all locals, but it seems that Cubans genuinely are very friendly and often strike up conversation for conversation’s sake. The impression I personally got was that making a bit of extra cash is just a cherry on top of making a foreign friend, and they’ll rarely pressure or scam you. Enjoy your encounters, and don’t fret too much about possible ulterior motives.
Book buses in advance.
Buses will sometimes fill up several days (or even weeks) prior to their departure, particularly in peak seasons (such as December and January), so plan ahead. Viazul is the most popular bus company for tourists and offers clean, air conditioned, relatively comfortable coaches. Tickets can be purchased online fairly easily from their website. Most locals use the Astro buses, although tickets will have to be purchased in person.
Use casas particulares for budget accommodation.
While hotels can be found around Cuba, budget hostels are few and far between, so your best bet is booking a casa particular, a private house licensed to host travelers. These are a great way to meet and get tips from locals, and they usually offer meals for an additional fee. Many can be booked simply by walking or asking around, but Airbnb is a great resource for booking in advance. (Use this link for $40 travel credit!) Airbnb’s restrictions in Cuba were lifted in April 2016, and travelers from around the world can now use it to book accommodation throughout the country.
Bring all your necessities with you.
Shopping in Cuba is very limited — not surprising considering it’s a socialist country. Rations are imposed upon locals, and capitalism mostly exists solely in the tourist trade, so purchasing items, even as simple as toothpaste or sunglasses, can be tricky. Plan to pack all toiletries, clothing, accessories, etc. you’ll need during your time in Cuba.
Don’t count on finding Internet.
Internet in Cuba is very restricted. To access it, you’ll need to find an officially sanctioned internet cafe or one of the few hotels with wifi, wait in line to purchase a card that contains login details for several hours of internet (or buy one on the black market — it feels like a drug deal, but for wifi!), pray the wifi will actually be working at that time and will be compatible with your device, and then muster up all the patience in the world as you watch pages load slower than the days of 56K dial-up.
There is no chance your casa particular or local cafe will have a wifi connection, and you may not be able to find any internet cafes in your neighborhood or smaller towns, so don’t plan to stay well connected while traveling Cuba. Hey, actually living in the moment isn’t the worst thing.
Cuba’s history, landscapes, people, and culture make it one of the best countries to visit in 2017. I loved every moment of the week I spent there last year. Although traveling Cuba can be a bit complicated, with these eight points in mind, it’s a country that really can’t be missed.