When our flights to Cuba rolled around we realised that the all-important research we had intended to do just hadn’t happened. We hadn’t booked any accommodation or even had a good look at a map. To put it bluntly, we didn’t really know anything about travelling in Cuba. All we knew was that at 11 PM that night we would be standing in Havana airport with no clue where to go from there.
Sometimes having no plan is the best plan of all… except, it seems, when travelling in Cuba. With the beauty of hind sight, here are the pearls of wisdom we wished we had known before venturing across the Caribbean.
Not having wifi surrounding you every second of every day really makes you realise how reliant you are on it.
No internet meant no lengthy research sessions. Damn It! It also meant a lot of the things we do spur of the moment – looking up activities for the day, checking restaurant and tour reviews, possible day trips or the feasibility of spontaneously changing plans altogether – were neither convenient nor cheap.
Wifi is only available in certain public areas in the city and is charged by the hour.
Having seriously neglected our prior research we became heavily reliant on our trusty guidebook. While this was an excellent source of information (and really saved us quite a few times), it meant basing ALL of our decisions on the authors’ opinions. Two people who were not entirely on the same wavelength or budget as ourselves.
So, do as much research before hand as you can, at least to have an idea of what is available to you and general idea of where you want to go.
As we were arriving late at night in Havana we booked our first night only. And that is really all we needed.
In the casa particular system – where Cubans can rent out spare rooms in their homes as tourist accommodation – it seems every host has friends or relatives living the length and breadth of the country. They literally have notebooks broken down into every town in Cuba with pages of names and phone numbers. When you are ready to move on they will call around to make a reservation in your next destination.
Make sure to check the price and get the name and address of your new host. They often agree to meet you at the bus or train station but in our experience this rarely panned out.
We have both travelled to a lot of countries in different parts of the world, but in Cuba it felt like the systems put in place specifically for tourists took away some of the freedom of travel. There were so many things we were told as foreigners we ‘weren’t allowed to do’. For travellers looking for a bit of flexibility in their travel plans this can be a fair annoyance and makes being spontaneous a little difficult.
Coming from a western perspective many things just don’t work in the most logical way and there were so many moments where we just stopped and thought, Wait, what!?
For example we rocked up at the bus station. Can we buy 2 tickets please? No, the tourist bus is full. Is there another bus we can take? The local bus is going but you can’t use that. When is the next bus we can take? Two days. … So… there are buses going where we want to go that have space for us but we can’t use them because we are foreigners so we must wait here for two days until we can travel in a bus with all the other tourists? Yes.
Basically, having no plan and attempting to be spontaneous is not really the best way to approach a trip in Cuba, especially during high season.
Our biggest misconception was that Cuba was still a little remote and undiscovered corner of the globe. That it would just be us strolling around town with the Cubans. Looking back, this was so naive of us.
Cuba has become the go-to destination on the planet. It seems everyone that has ever harboured the desire to ‘one-day’ visit Cuba has finally and simultaneously decided that time is now.
When we arrived we were quite shocked at just how many tourists there were, particularly in Havana, Viñales and Trinidad. Between the cruise ships, the day-trippers and the never ending queues of tour buses it definitely impacted our initial experience of the country.
If you are planning to go in the high season (December to March) be prepared and if tourist crowds are not your thing perhaps change your route accordingly or plan your trip at a different time of year.
Our first day in Havana it was steaming hot and all we wanted was a cold bottle of water. Two hours of exploring the city later, figuring we’d pass a shop sooner or later, we were still at a loss.
Many areas actually don’t have stores with general supplies and in other parts it turns out those grey, hazy windows with no signage that look like an abandoned warehouse are actually brimming with stuff for sale.
Many shops are small and with limited stock and some supplies can be hard to come by. If you plan to self-cater bring a few staples with you.
Some places are cheap and amazing, others are expensive and rather disappointing. You can never really be sure what you will get.
Surprisingly we found the cheaper private places generally served the better food, while the slightly more expensive restaurants, which catered mainly to tourists, were almost always disappointing and not worth the extra money.
Our best value and most delicious meals were in Camagüey and Baracoa.
Baracoa’s specialty dish is seafood in a spicy tomato and coconut sauce over a bed of rice and is definitely worth a taste. It is prepared almost everywhere in town, each recipe with its own twist, so you’ll never have the same dish twice.
Bring a decent stash of cash to exchange when you arrive. You will get the best deal in town, not at the airport. Euros and Pounds are the best currencies to bring while American Dollars carry a 10% surcharge.
Mastercards will not work so don’t bother bringing them but VISA cards are accepted at most ATMs and should be brought as a backup. All bank withdrawals, from ATMs or tellers, come with a minimum 3% fee.
Of all the casas we stayed in, just two spoke English. After several months in Central America we were pretty confident communicating in Spanish but if you have no knowledge of the language you will most likely end up in a battle of charades never quite sure whether the other party is really understanding you or just politely smily along.
For things like ordering breakfast and dinner, discussing prices and payment and booking onward accommodation, having even a basic grasp of the language can be a huge help.
It may look a little rough around the edges but Cuba has a very low crime rate.
In most of Latin America going out at night often involved constantly of checking over your shoulder and being wary of passers by. But in Cuba we often ended up walking around the streets late into the night both with cameras in hand and backpacks and handbags and we never felt uncomfortable at all.
Obviously there are areas where a bit more discretion and common sense is required but in general the cities are very safe to explore day and night.
OK, so it’s not crazy expensive either, but a lot of things are definitely on par with what you might expect to pay in somewhere like Europe.
Considering the locals live off so little we were expecting our dollars to go a long way but there is a clear divide between what is for foreigners and what is for the Cubans. Services that are targeted at tourists have a price tag to match a foreigner’s budget while many services in place for locals are not accessible to foreigners.
To learn how to cut down on costs, read our budget tips for Cuba here.
Cuba is getting a growing reputation as a diving destination but with strips of beautiful reef just off the beach it’s great for snorkelling as well.
In our experience, just turning up and expecting dive shops to be open or operating rarely panned out. If you are keen plan ahead. Otherwise pack your own snorkel and see where the water takes you.
This was by far our biggest frustration in travelling Cuba. When we arrived along with the crowds of other tourists, naïvely thinking we would be one of the few, all we wanted to do was get away. Find somewhere off-beat, where perhaps the other half of Germany and the UK hadn’t already arrived and set up camp.
There was no shortage of interesting and off-the-beaten path places to choose from – rarely visited islands with fantastic underwater worlds, wetlands with flamingo sanctuaries, isolated hiking trails – but it seemed getting there in a somewhat timely and inexpensive manner would be the real challenge.
It was either going to cost a whole lot more than we were prepared to fork out, or had such convoluted transport connections that it would likely take us the better part of a week just to get there. We quickly realised that with our timeframe and budget, most of these options would not be plausible.
If you want to get off the beaten path, hiring a car or a guide is ideal. There are lots of options out there, places where tourists have barely set foot, but they definitely require some forethought and planning and are certainly not cheap to get to.
Understanding why Cuba is how it is means understanding its past and current situation.
Between the ever present images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos, the encouraging billboards of Viva la Revolution and the haphazard graffiti with statements preaching “Communism is our Saviour”, it’s not hard to get suckered into a positive mindset. Castro was Cuba’s hero and liberator who brought about the revolution and a new set of ideologies that changed the lives of the Cuban people for the better… or so the pervasive propaganda would have you believe.
The reality of course is starkly different. Through the revolution came a fiercely repressive communist regime which has shaped what Cuba is today, for better or worse. Although the heavy restrictions are starting to slacken, just a little, Cuba still has a long way to go.
Further than that, signs of communism are everywhere in the streets of Cuba even if you don’t quite realise it at first. From dull shop windows with no signs out front to little old men whipping out their ration books to buy a few bread rolls, these little quirks are a product of the system’s ideologies and are one of the most interesting things about travelling in Cuba.
Knowing at least a little about the aftermath of the revolution and what it means to live under a communist system will completely change the way you see life in Cuba.
In many countries the touts are obvious from the start. You are approached with an item clearly on display and asked to buy this or that. Soon enough you are able to just walk by drowning it out, completely unfazed.
Cuba, it seems, has a different technique. People approach you with big smiles and strike up a conversation. “Where are from? Australia! Wow, thats far. Sydney or Melbourne? How long you spend in Cuba?” On and on with variations of “you must visit X, it’s my home town/the most beautiful place in Cuba”.
Then, just when you are starting to relax into the conversation (surely if they wanted something they wouldn’t waste all this time on small talk), it comes.
Would you be interested in this tour/accommodation/cigar/friends bar/nightclub/taxi ride/a photo of me in my eccentric hat/this odd souvenir I just pulled from my pocket that you probably have no idea what it is and have no use for but you must buy it anyway.
Sooner or later it always comes.
To the point that every conversation means you just have to wait it out.
Of everyone who approached us on the streets, only a handful didn’t try to sell us something. They are in no way aggressive, in fact often the complete opposite, and really, they are just trying to make a few extra bucks, but experiencing this day after day can be a little wearing and being drawn into to your or their personal stories makes it all the harder to say a firm and resounding ‘no’ when the punchline finally comes.
We wished we had researched and planned our trip to Cuba a little better but it was an interesting experience all the same. Did we leave anything out? What did you wish you knew before your trip?