Cuba is an exciting country to visit but it can also be quite overwhelming when you first get there. Even planning in advance is not straight forward and it’s definitely one of those places where I wouldn’t recommend just ‘showing up’. But fear not, this post will cover all the things that you need to know before you have an adventure of a lifetime!
Before you get to Cuba:
1) Get your Tourist Card (£17) – this is sort of like a visa except it doesn’t get placed in your passport and is a separate piece of paper. For UK travellers, you will need to get this from the Cuban Consulate in London. If you can’t travel to London, you can also apply for a Tourist Card via post but this will be more expensive than getting it in person (£39).
Top tip: At the moment, the Cuban Consulate does not accept cash or credit cards. The only way to pay is by a postal order or a banker’s draft. I’d recommend a postal order as it’s easier to get from any Post Office.
On arrival at the airport in Havana, the tourist card will be stamped and part of it will be given back to you – keep this safe as you will need it when you leave the country.
2) Get travel insurance – this is a compulsory requirement in order to enter Cuba. On arrival, no one actually checked my insurance details but if you’re unlucky enough to get picked and you don’t have a valid policy, you will be made to purchase a Cuban insurance policy which may not have the right coverage and will most certainly be more expensive.
3) Book your flights and accommodation – Virgin Atlantic has direct flights from London to Havana which is a lot more convenient. Daily connections are also available from various UK airports via Madrid on Iberia and via Paris or Amsterdam on Air France/KLM. I used skyscanner for the best deal and ended up using Iberia. There are many other options available as well so this is by no means an exhaustive list.
On accommodation, casa particulares are a really great way to experience Cuba. This is basically a private house and you will usually be living with a family. During my stay in Cuba, I saw the good, the bad and the ugly so really do your research and read reviews before you go. Most good casas will have private bathrooms, air-conditioning and will include breakfast. In Havana, I stayed at Casa Lourdes Havana 1913 which was really nice – good location, lovely breakfast and friendly family who could speak English (really helped as I speak minimal Spanish!). There are a number of websites where you can find casas e.g. HostelClub.com and AirBnb. I found that booking directly with the casa was a lot easier.
If casas are not your thing, there are also many hotels. As I didn’t stay in one, I can’t give recommendations but here are a few that usually get mentioned in Havana guidebooks – Hotel Saratoga, Hotel Florida, Hotel Ambos Mundos, Hotel Raquel, Hotel Santa Isabel, Hotel Sevilla and the list goes on! I would really recommend doing your research on hotels. Many are described as ‘5 stars’ but the service and facilities are not what you would expect of a 5 star hotel.
4) Plan your trip in detail – I say this mainly because of the lack of access to wifi. As liberating (or frustrating!) as it might be, you can’t just easily jump on to google when you’re lost or when you’re looking for a nice place to eat so it really will pay off if you do your research in advance. This should include what you want to see, where you want to eat, how to get from A to B and your accommodation. I would highly recommend downloading the ‘Cuba’ app. This was an absolute lifesaver when I was in Cuba. It is an offline app with maps, Spanish phrases and information on places to see, restaurants etc. Although I did notice that it wasn’t 100% accurate, I still found it really helpful! Download this before you leave as well as downloading offline Googlemaps (instructions here).
5) Get vaccinated – visit your GP to see whether you have all the necessary vaccinations! You can find more information on the Foreign Office website here.
6) Pack with a purpose – the weather in Cuba is hot and humid. Avoid taking tight clothes or jeans. For women, dresses, skirts and light fabric trousers are the best option and for men, light cotton shirts and trousers! Take all the toiletries that you will need for the whole trip. You won’t be able to find simple things like sunscreen, shampoo, travel adaptors etc in the shops and, if you do, they will probably be a lot more expensive. Also, remember to take snacks with you (I took some packs of crisps, biscuits etc), especially if you’re planning on travelling around Cuba. Drives between cities can be long (around 6 hours from Havana to Trinidad) and you’ll want something to snack on during the journey. Most supermarkets I went to barely had any options so it really was a lifesaver to have my own with me!
The same goes for medicines – make sure you take enough paracetomol, anti-histamines and any other prescription meds that you think you’ll need (keep them in their original packaging).
Top tip! Rooms are rarely sound proofed and you can easily hear cars throughout the night so take earplugs with you to have a good night’s sleep. In one of the casas I stayed in, I got woken up by a cockerel at dawn for three nights!
When you arrive in Cuba:
1) Don’t panic in the arrivals hall – It is extremely hectic and small and it can take ages for your bags to arrive – mine took 1.5 hours!
2) Take enough cash with you (preferably sterling or euros as you get charged more when converting dollars) – most credit and debit cards are not accepted in Cuba (check with your bank before flying if yours is accepted) so if you run out of money, you might find yourself in a sticky situation! You can’t get Cuban currency outside of Cuba so you’ll need to do this when you arrive at the airport. There are two money changers located just outside of the exit, one to your left, and one to your right. Be prepared for big queues not just here but at most money exchange places! I understand that there is an ATM machine at the airport as well so if you’re lucky enough that your card works, you can also use this.
There are two different currencies in Cuba – the CUC (for foreigners) and the CUP (for locals). Familiarise yourself with what a CUC note looks like – they tend to have pictures of national monuments and will say ‘Cuban convertible pesos’ on them. I say this because you want to make sure you get given CUCs back instead of CUPs when you’re paying for things. 1 CUC = 24 CUPs so the difference could be staggering! CUPs will usually have pictures of national heroes e.g. Che Guevara.
Top tip! You will always need your passport whenever changing money so remember to bring this along whenever you plan to visit the ‘Cadeca’ (money exchange) or bank. It wouldn’t hurt to convert a few ordinary pesos (CUPs) – these are useful if you want to buy any street food etc.
3) Taxis and getting in to Havana city – Jose Marti airport is around 10 miles from the main city. A taxi should cost around 25 CUC but bargain hard! Make sure you finalise the price before getting in to a taxi. Yellow taxis are the official ones and are best to use though I did use the classic car taxis as well while I was there.
4) Wifi – you’ll just have to accept that wifi is not easy to come by in Cuba. To get access to wifi, you will need to go to the ETECSA telecom shops in town (ask your hotel or casa for the nearest one). You’ll need your passport as proof of identity to purchase a wifi card (1.50 CUCs which equates to $1.50) which gives you internet access for 1 hour. You can also purchase these cards in some hotels. Once you have the card, you will need to find a wifi hotspot. Most hotels have wifi hotspots but another way to spot a wifi hotspot is to just keep an eye out for a bunch of people all looking at their phones! Once you’ve found a hotspot, use the code and password provided on the back of the card. Even with this code, connection can be sketchy so don’t expect too much!
Top tip! Buy more than 1 card while you’re at the ETECSA – queues are usually long so it’s worth buying atleast 2 or 3 cards while you’re there to save you the trouble later. I used 2 hours worth of internet during my whole 10 day trip so that gives you an idea of the access I got while I was there.
5) Only drink bottled water in Cuba and buy it in bulk where you can – I found that it was worth buying a few large bottles of water mainly because, believe it or not, bottled water actually can run out in some places! This happened to me on one of the days in Trinidad where most of the supermarkets didn’t have any water.
Hope these tips were helpful. If you’re going to Cuba, feel free to ask me any questions in the comments. If you’ve just been to Cuba, I’d also love to hear from you about your experiences and if there’s anything you would add to this list!
Have a great bank holiday Monday! X