When I first read about Cuba, I mostly learned about Havana and… Havana. I knew during the 1950’s the Cuban revolution took place and the U.S. trade embargo left Cuban streets frozen in time. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara iconic posters etched into my memory, were visual representation I knew best. I heard Cuban sandwiches were the bees knees and felt the heat of Gloria Estefan’s conga beat. I even hablo un poquito espanol, but none of this was enough to prepare me for the beauty of Cuban culture.
Had I known all that Cuba had to offer besides Havana, I would have stayed at least two weeks. I would have taken advantage of visiting the beaches in Vardero, Trinidad getaways, snorkeling, rural city tours and ziplining! It takes a lot of time and preparation to get to Cuba, and takes even more time to get out of Cuba. Do it all in one trip if you can’t afford to visit more than once.
If you’re anything like me, then a breakdown list would have come in handy before embarking on this adventure. That being said- you’re welcome.
Here’s a list of eight things you should know before visiting Cuba:
1. Cuba has two currencies.
There’s the Cuban peso (CUP, otherwise known as the national coin), and the convertible peso (CUC), which is almost equivalent USD. Simply put: Tourists have a separate currency from locals.
Cubans are paid in CUP, but have to pay for some things in CUC currency. So when you’re able to tip- tip big in CUC. It helps a lot!
2. Because of that fact, it’s not as easy on the pockets as you may think.
Since tourists have their own currency, prices are sometimes raised to meet foreigners’ buying power. That being said, double the cash that you think you will need to bring.
Another financial obstacle is that there are few ATM’s available. We were told we’d have to go to a bank to get cash out, but most banks close at 3pm. Not the most convenient for foreigners use to pulling their check or debit cards out.
3. Amenities are a luxury. Remember that when you go home.
When I visited my dad’s family in Vietnam, my aunt recently had her first toilet installed and this was no shock to me. So I am by no means surprised when simple western necessities are not available. I am used to third world country living and find it for the most part a humbling experience. But, I know not everyone rolls the same way I do; so as a courtesy, know toilet paper and soap are rare luxuries in public places— even in nice public places. As soon as I got off the plane, I noticed that even the airport didn’t offer these amenities that we take for granted.
Don’t be alarmed if tourist restaurants and even hotels don’t have toilet seats. Remember not to flush anything, as you will most likely clog up the pipes. Opt for the little bin to the side, that everyone uses.
Pack toilet paper and leave your emotions at home. Occasional discomfort is a small price to pay!
Wifi is available in a few government owned places. It costs $4.50 per card at the desk ( sometimes they run out ) and you can get wifi, if their wifi server is up. You should be coming to connect with Cuba and to disconnect with home, but you may have to warn people that they may not hear from you for a few days, no matter how nice your hotel may be.
4. Airbnb is the way to stay
Our Airbnb was lovely and our host Maria was fantastic. Contrary to what you may think, we had hot water, toilet paper, breakfast and were pleasantly situated in a neighborhood that was close to taxis and restaurants. We strolled the streets at night, with no phones or combat skills and felt safe. I repeat, Cuba is VERY safe.
Another positive impact you can make as a traveller is to support the locals. When you stay in an Airbnb in Cuba versus a hotel, you support the people of the country, who need it the most. It is also far more affordable at an average $53 per night versus your average $200+ per night.
( Above is Brittnie pictured in our Airbnb)
5. Cabs are expensive
Things most Americans take for granted take time in Cuba: from checking in at the airport to traveling by cab instead of Uber. If you’re on a really tight budget, you’ll need to take buses everywhere and dig deep for patience. Prepare yourself to make changes on the fly or leave a little early to avoid being tardy to the party. We hailed for a cab from the same location, 6 times and estimated rates were not consistent. Ya gotta learn to hustle these prices, if you plan on getting a decent rate.
6. There are things you MUST do in Havana
- The Parisian Cabaret ( Half the price. Just as nice )
The show is a two-hour, nonstop, highly polished and professional performance. Similar to the famous Tropicana show, but indoors and half the price. Incredible live music and dance that’s colorful and creative, you will surely not be disappointed. It is open EVERY night, which is a huge plus if you fly by the seat of your pants when you travel. Don’t let anyone – even the locals tell you otherwise. You won’t be able to book on the website, but you can buy tickets from a travel agency in town or at the event itself.
While the show is filled with excitement and bedazzlement, the food is not. Come having eaten.
- La Callejon De Hamel
La Callejon de Hamel pays homage to the Afrocubano culture and if you’re familiar with this alley, you know it is a work of art in and of itself. This is where Cuba’s innovative art scene lives and breathes. From the mouths of the people, poetry lines the walls. Murals mirror their history, their religions and their love for family. Bathtubs and other odds and ends are adapted to various sculptures that emerge from the ground or become a part of the alley’s structure; built into the walls, highlighting Cuban artists ability to make art out of literally anything.
Sundays are the busiest from 12-3 with a street block party full of locals, spectators, live music and dancers with a vibe similar to Miami’s Wynwood.
If you get a suggestion from a tour guide or a local- do it. If you get their phone numbers, don’t lose them because you never know what you might miss out on.
7. Bring donations
I regret not leaving my first world problems at home before visiting Cuba. Had I researched, I would have discovered how useful I could have been as a tourist.
- Feminine hygiene products, brushes, shampoos, soaps, medical supplies, school supplies etc.
Don’t create a problem by simply handing out needed items on the street. It’s best to give donations directly to a clinic or to another organization contact you’ve arranged prior to your arrival. That way you can be sure that your donations go to the right place and that you won’t have issues at customs.
If you have some things that you think you can leave behind, bring them to a local church, school or hospital. All of them accept donations.
Skate Scene in Cuba? Yes. Even with no skate shops or internet access, skate culture has developed in Havana since the ’80s, when Russian soldiers left their decks with handfuls of kids. Since then, this tradition has rolled over to new generations.
The unfortunate part is that when a board breaks, kids can’t just go get a new one, because there aren’t many skate shops or free internet. There is however, Amigo Skate. They are a charity that aims to use skate & street art to inspire at-risk youth.
I’m no skater, but still think that this is rad. Especially when I found out women have a skate scene! I repeat… The women have a skate scene!
If you’re going to Cuba, please set something up to donate to this cause. Collect unwanted or broken skateboard equipment, refurbish, rebuild, and then recycle it back to skaters in need.
8. The food is awesome. Truly.
Research Trip Advisor or other blogs for suggestions on where to eat before getting to Cuba. Create a list of address’, because not all cab drivers know restaurants locations by name.
One place I can guarantee won’t steer you in the wrong direction is Bodegita De Medio. It is a tourist spot, so rates will be higher than your average joint; but it is so worth it.
Cuba is a beautiful place with beautiful people. Be present and in the moment, because there is no greater gift than to actually connect with people of a different culture and find joy in commonalities and differences. Enjoy the food, enjoy the sounds and enjoy the vibrance the city has to offer. Help where it’s needed and leave your entitlement at home. I promise you’ll get more out of your visit to Cuba the more you give back and create space to soak up all of it’s charm.
“Don’t try to understand Cuba, just experience it.” – Alexander, Cuban tour guide.
Cuba is a beautiful place with beautiful people. Not having consistent access to things that you are accustomed to may make it more difficult than normal travel, but forces you to become present. There is no greater gift than to actually connect with the people and culture of the country that you are visiting. Enjoy the food, enjoy the sounds, enjoy the vibrance that the city has to offer. Help where it’s needed and leave your entitlement at home.
Check out our Vlog on Cuba below!