Everyone should travel to Cuba.
Recent changes in the diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States have caused quite a stir among Cuba lovers who are afraid that the character of the country rapidly going to change due to an influx of tourists.
Even though this is bound to happen I highly recommend visiting Cuba. It is an incredible country, with varied landscapes, incredible seas, beautiful countryside, and lovely colonial cities. Active travelers will fall in love with the high variety of fun things to do in Cuba. Activities include snorkeling, diving, biking, dancing and lots of relaxing and enjoying the good vibes.
With that in mind, here are a few things you need to know before going to Cuba. For more information on getting the most out of your visit, and to experience the deep culture and beauty of this amazing country, have a look at this guide about authentic Cuba travel.
Table of Contents
When to Go to Cuba
It is always a good time to visit Cuba. Full stop.
But it may be best to go travel to Cuba between November and March, when it is slightly cooler and there is less risk of being caught by heavy rains. In any case, the prices of flights to Cuba don’t change much throughout the year. It costs around 600 USD to fly from Europe, and 300 to fly from Mexico, for example.
What You Need
Together with your plane ticket you should buy good health insurance. Since May 2010 anybody travelling to Cuba has to have medical insurance and a visa, known as tarjeta de turista, which is normally valid for 30 days (it can be extended for 30 more days while in Cuba) and costs about $30.00. You can get it through the Cuban consulate, or, better, through your travel agent who can also sell travel health insurance.
Money Facts About Cuba
There are two currencies in Cuba. One is the CUC, or Pesos Convertibles, used by foreigners and by Cubans to purchase certain specific goods. A CUC is worth about one US dollar. The other one is the MN (Moneda Nacional). 1 CUC is worth about 25 MN. If you think that the average salary of a Cuban is 15 CUC per month, and that 20 CUC is the average price of accommodation for tourists, you can easily understand why most Cubans want to work in tourism. Credit cards are not used in the country: you can withdraw cash in most places (beware of the occasional power cuts!). Cards generated through US bank accounts are not yet accepted.
Internet in Cuba
Wifi is not available in the country. You can log on in any ETECSA centre but internet is so slow you will be discouraged. My advice? Just let your family and friends know that you are going to Cuba and if you need to communicate with them, send a text message (no whatsapp!) or call them from a public phone (get a calling card from ETECSA centres).
Safety in Cuba
Cuba is safe to travel alone, as a single woman, or even with children. Crime rates are relatively low. Cuban men may comment on a woman’s good looks, but ignoring the cat calls will usually discourage them.
Accommodation in Cuba
The best way to visit Cuba is by staying at casas particulares.
They are way more personable than hotels, and give you an insiders’ look on Cuban life; they are usually clean, and they are cheaper. Owners are always good at providing information on what to see and do, where to eat, arranging transport, laundry, and even on how to avoid scams. Besides, some casas are simply splendid colonial buildings. A room in a casa is always a private double, with a private bathroom.
The price is per room so if there is two of you travelling you will save considerably. Meals are not included but you can get all of them at the casa (lovely breakfast, packed lunches and incredibly good dinners).
Prices vary between 15 and 30 CUC – so between 7.5 and 15 CUC per person. Rooms are more expensive in Havana, Trinidad and Santiago (around 30 CUC for a good casa), and cheaper in other locations (2O to 25 CUC in Viñales, up to 25 CUC in Baracoa, up to 20 CUC in Cienfuegos).
Food & Drink in Cuba
Food in Cuba is good and cheap, especially if you eat at casas particulares or paladares (privately run restaurants) where you pay between 5 and 12 CUC for a full meal, or even in the street (a pizza or sandwich will cost you around 20 MN, so less than a dollar).
State owned restaurants taste like boring school cafeterias. Portions at paladares are huge so you can easily share a meal. Beef if hardly available, and you will mostly have to opt for pork, fish, shrimps or lobster (oh that’s too bad!) and at times chicken. They are usually accompanied by tostones (fried plantain croquettes), rice, beans (congris), and salad.
The best food in Cuba is in Baracoa: shrimps, octopus, and lobster in coconut sauce is a must try! Drinks are good too: every Cuban has its own secret recipe for a mojito, which is simply divine.
Haggling in Cuba
With the exception of restaurants, casas particulares, or tourist buses like Viazul, everything else in Cuba should be bargained or haggled over, especially taxis.
Jineteros (a word that in Cuba refers to an intermediary, that will normally get a percentage of the profits for getting you to a specific casa, paladar, or even taxi) will state a price for the taxi that he will find you, but the actual price you should pay is normally 1/3 of what they suggest. You can’t negotiate prices of state owned taxis, but you can definitely haggle with the taxis particulares. For long distance taxis, the trick is to first find out how much a bus ticket would cost. If the price of the taxi is only 1 or 2 dollars more, per person, it is definitely worth opting for the taxi. So for example, keeping in mind that the bus from Viñales to Las Terrazas costs 8 CUC per person, if the jinetero suggests a price of 80 CUC to take you from Viñales to Las Terrazas, you should offer to pay no more than 20 or 25 CUC.
The same goes for short distance taxis: this is when asking your landlord at the casa particular will help, as he will know what a ride should cost. Sometimes you may want to gather a group of people to share the expenses of a taxi – i.e. when travelling long distances such as from Cienfuegos to Trinidad (the taxi would cost 80 CUC for a ride of about 4 hours, but if you manage to squeeze 4 persons in the car, it will only be 20 CUC each and way more convenient than taking the Viazul bus that leaves at 2:00 am).
Claudia is from Ca gliari (Sardinia) and is obsessed with travelling. A former human rights lawyer and academic, after devoting her life to the protection of cultural identity, in November 2013 Claudia decided to give in to her biggest passion and started travelling around Latin America, and she has hardly stopped since. Blogging came as a natural consequence, for Claudia wanted to let her family and friends be updated with her adventures. You can read more by Claudia at My Adventures Across the World or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Photos courtesy of Claudia Tavani
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4 thoughts on “What You Need to Know Before Going to Cuba”
Overall good article about Cuba, but there are a number of inaccuracies, especially about the monetary systems. As stated, there is the CUC — the “convertible currency” that you exchange on arrival and exchange back on departure, after paying a 25 CUC departure tax. It’s roughly tied to the US dollar… but don’t bring US dollars to exchange as you’ll be zapped with a 10% surcharge. Euros or Canadian dollars will yield the best exchange rates.
And then there’s what Cuban workers get paid in, the Cuba peso or CUP, which is valued at about 23:1 CUP. Cubans receive, in CUPs, the equivalent of 20-25 CUC a month, whether street cleaner or doctor. Therefore, almost every taxi driver you meet will be a former doctor, engineer, professor or other professional. It’s no wonder, as they can make more in one day driving a taxi than a month working at a job (and many jobs require 6 days a week).
Unless you plan to spend extended time in Cuba, it’s not worth trying to figure out that system as you can spend CUCs everywhere, and the locals are happy to have convertible currency instead of their own “worthless pesos.” The notes also look quite similar, so be a bit cautious: a common little scam, especially in marketplaces, is giving change to tourists in pesos (CUPs), when you think you’re dealing in CUCs. I’ve never heard of this happening in regular stores, restaurants, hotels and such.
Although people work for next-to-nothing and life really is hard, Cuba for tourists is not cheap (almost all prices are set by the ubiquitous government). But what you’ll likely find is a abundance of genuine friendship, undistracted by the acquisition of things and status. I don’t think Cuba is the place to try and bargain (except for taxis!) because people truly have so little and cannot leave their island nation and travel freely, even if they had the money. By virtue of the fact you can fly in and travel there, pay $25+ a night for a casa particular and eat in restaurants makes you rich. Enjoy, be humbled, and be generous when appropriate. It will be appreciated.
For more about Cuba and specific resources, check out: http://www.inhabityourdreams.com/2013/05/visiting-havana-2 and http://www.inhabityourdreams.com/2013/08/visit-cuba-resources
Thank you for your valuable feedback! We will let our guest poster know. 😀
Thanks for your comments Aysha. I did compare the CUC to the USD because a CUC is more or less a USD. Yes, you are right though: it is better to carry Euro there. That’s what I did. I still exchanged some CUC into CUP, just for the fun of trying it. And the scam you describe is common, I am aware of it.
Re. the prices: true, pretty much only taxis can be negotiated, and they MUST be negotiated, as the prices are often too high. I did not find the country too expensive actually. Not once I learned to get a bargain taxi and surely not when going there straight from Europe.
With regards to Cubans, I do have a different opinion, but I guess it is all a matter of personal experience!
Good post, we just spent 15 days in Cuba. Internet worked well, it was fast for us but a pain in the butt to buy the cards and sit in a park. We were shocked at how much everything cost. Cuba is not cheep and we are well oiled budget travelers. Water $1.50 – $2.50 (we did find a local place where larges were .70 CUC) for the larges. Beer $2.00 – $4.00, Mojitos from $2.00 – $4.00 (we did a happy hour price once for $1.50) If you want to go anywhere your going to pay 30-60 dollars. If you want to do any day trips or tours it’s also going to be easy 40-60 dollars.
Don’t get Cuba peso’s not worth exchanging.