10 Things To Know Before Traveling To Cuba
In the year of 30 and life uncertainty, I decided to have a mini “Eat Pray Love” moment, throw caution to the wind and head to the previously forbidden island of Cuba. My first major corporate freelance contract ended, and I needed to find a new income source. Obviously, a vacation was needed. The purpose? Reflect on life, get inspired and celebrate my dirty 30. Since coming back, I’ve gotten text messages, calls, gchats and DMs, asking me about all things Cuba, so I decided, why not write a blog about it. So here it goes, here are 10 things you should know before traveling to Cuba.
1. Cuba isn’t a resort trip. And that’s a good thing.
I don’t know about you, but when I’ve traveled to places like Cancun or Jamaica, I wasn’t going for the authentic experience. I was going for the infinity pools, all inclusive cocktails, massages, and a good ole dolphin swim. Sure I’d sign up for an excursion or city tour, but let’s be honest -- I was an infinity pool junkie who wanted a tan (and was butt hurt when coworkers didn’t notice my chocolatey goodness).
Yes, there are resorts in Cuba. The staff there will probably speak English. You will be able to get pasta or a burger. However, the food is bland, the people who are staying are older and less diverse than the young folks staying at the Airbnbs. Besides, you’re supposed to be going to Cuba to be with the people. That’s much easier to prove it you’re not staying at a resort.
2. Visas --they don’t have to be a headache.
Yes, you need a visa. I’d recommend flying via JetBlue or Delta because (drumroll please) you can buy your visa for $50 at the airport, the day of your flight. Make sure you fill out everything correctly. If you spell your name wrong, have a moment of dyslexia and write the wrong passport number, you have to buy a new visa for another $50.
Although I didn’t have a problem getting a visa, you should keep in mind some airline employees aren’t used to people traveling Cuba. My friend had trouble with Delta flying out of Newark. They legit weren’t about to let her on the flight because she didn’t have a visa in advance. However, after speaking to a manager, she was able to get on the flight.
To avoid the drama, bookmark or screenshot visa policy information from the airline you choose. Here’s JetBlue’s visa information page.
Just select Educational -- People to People as your reason for going. These guidelines are super vague. In short, go to some museums, farms, chat it up with Cubans and learn about their culture.
You do need to keep your receipts for five years, but it’s Cuba -- don’t be surprised if there aren't any receipts.
3. Airbnb is your friend.
Airbnb is the way to go. I was an Airbnb newbie, so I was a little nervous about booking. Just look at reviews to make sure the place has a reputation of being clean. Remember, Cuba is not super fancy, mainly because of the embargo and inability to get current items. So most places will look like your granny’s house -- just go with it. Many hosts will have add-on services like buying bottles of water, cooking breakfast, etc. My host Giselle has a few highly-rated spots around Cuba. Here's where I stayed.
If your Spanish is not that great, be sure to stay in a walkable area, near places you want to visit. Many Cubans don’t speak English, so calling a cab on the phone might result in getting hung up on. It’s better to stay in a part of town where you can easily hail a cab in person. Also, don't underestimate that value or writing down locations down and pointing to where you want to go.
Tip: If you stay near a hotel, at least in Old Havana, they speak English and can help you find things like money exchanges.
4. Bring toilet paper
So, there may not be toilet paper where you go. Or it may cost money. So just bring tissues, a roll, whatever, so you can have a little peace of mind.
5. Espanol, Espanol, Espanol.
Unfortunately, I speak French, so I was at a disadvantage going to Cuba. My Spanish sounds half American and half French, so it’s safe to say no one understood me. If you can, be strategic with your travel buddies and invite someone who speaks Spanish. If that’s not an option, hire a guide. If you don’t want to do that, Yandex Translate is a Godsend. Download it before you go, and be sure to download Spanish and English. If you do that, your app works in offline mode, and you’ll be able to type pretty complex thoughts in English, and it will translate it into Spanish in real time.
6. Your money will fly out of your pockets.
The great thing about Cuba and the annoying thing about Cuba is that your debit/credit cards will not work. It’s annoying because if an emergency comes up or you want to take an unexpected adventure, you’re out of luck if you don't have the cash. Honestly, at the end of the trip, my group probably had $17 between the three of us, and then I bought rum at the airport, because, Viva La Cuba!
7. American banks don't carry Cuban currency.
This can be really annoying since you need cash as soon as you land. But the good news is that you can do a quick currency exchange at the airport. Before you leave, convert your money into euros. Keep in mind; U.S. money is subject to a 10% penalty in Cuba (so $1 will be more like 87 cents) vs. the euro which is slightly over a 1:1 transaction.
8. CUC and CUP -- there’s a big difference.
Learn the difference and learn it fast. CUC is the Cuban currency for tourists, and the CUP is for people in Cuba. It takes about 24-26 CUPs to equal 1 CUC. So if an apple costs 3 CUP, you better not hand them 3 CUC. You’re paying $3 for something that’s $.03 (rough math, but you get it). While some people will be honest, others won’t tell you the mistake. Be sure to look at any change and ensure the word PESO isn’t written anywhere.
9. Guides can be life-changing.
My secret weapon of the trip was Papo. He was literally my Cuban father for the trip. He was our photographer who guided us around Cuba. He ensured that we knew the differences between CUC and CUP, how much a taxi should cost to and from local hot spots and the history of Cuba. We only got cheated by a food stand by $.07 but, Papo was ready to let someone have it.
You can reach out to Papo here, tell him Adrienne sent you!
I was nervous coming to Cuba with my lack of Spanish skills, but hiring Papo for the first few days of my trip was one of the best decisions I ever made. He made sure we had a ride to and from the airport, made dinner reservations (a must for Havana) and showed us the best Havana had to offer. The best part, I was able to email Papo my ideas for the trip, and he was able to incorporate them into the itinerary. He coordinated finding us a car, cab, whatever we needed.
As an American, I’m not going to lie; I wanted a nice flat rate that includes all activities. I also want a detailed itinerary with dates, times and tons of details. In Cuba, that’s not always possible unless you get in on a big tour, so I learned to go with the flow.
Keep in mind, many tour guides don’t have cars or any connection to attractions, so they essentially act as your liaison/booker/tour guide/friend.
What does that mean? You pay your guide his daily rate, but if you want a taxi, to swim with a dolphin, or ride in a vintage car around town, you need to pay for that too. It was confusing to me at first, but after learning the lay of the land, I realized you’re paying two separate businesses that aren’t synced up. Maybe this will change as more tourists flood to Cuba, but for now, just accept that things are done differently.
10. Don’t be an asshole.
I’m sad to say, I’ve heard horror stories and witnessed Americans being assholes in Cuba. So let me break this down for you. Compared to the US, Cuba is cheap. You can get amazing mojitos for around 3 CUC. When I went to Vinales, for 15 CUC a person, we had a cocktail, bananas, crab, lobster, pork, yuca, cucumbers and a crap ton of other food. Please tip people. Do not go there trying to be cheaper.
Just do your research to know how much something will cost. That is where a trusted guide like Papo comes in handy. Also, check out blogs and ask friends. That way you are less likely to be cheated.
For example, a car ride from Havana to Vinales (the beautiful countryside where you ride horses can get AMAZING rum and CIGARS) is about 160 CUC per car, if you’re rolling with three people, that's slightly over 50 CUC per person. Keep in mind, the distance is the equivalent of D.C to Philly, and the driver stays with you the entire day. So offering anything less is an asshole move.
Also, your word is your deposit. Aside from services like Airbnb where you can book online, there’s no way to pay your guide in advance. No Venmo or Paypal. So if you book an all day trip with a guide, you need to show up. Sure things happen, flights get canceled, people get sick, but canceling a booking is an asshole move. Your guide, said no to others when he/she could have said yes, not to mention you’re messing with their livelihood.
Have you traveled to Cuba? Want to add some tips to this post? Comment with your tips below.