Cuba at a Glance!
Here’s a list of things to know before visiting Cuba. Though a trip to this beautiful island seems undoubtedly exciting, you’ll need to understand how the country works to get the best out of your visit. From visa rules to dual currencies, Cuba can be confusing for first timers. To ensure an enjoyable vacations there are a few things to be aware of before you embark. Smart Travelling Blog Magazine puts together this first time visitor’s guide to help ease the minds of travellers, based on our personal experience. Some of the points are small, specific things, others more general and helpful tips:
Population: 11.27 million (World Bank 2013)
Major language: Spanish
Currency: Cuban Peso (CUP) and Convertible Cuban Peso (CUC)
Main attractions: “Old Havana”
Habana is a mixture of opulence and decay, old world and new, socialism and capitalism, Europe, Africa, and America. A trip to Cuba seems undoubtedly exciting, but you will need to understand how the island works to get the best out of your visit. To Avoid Pitfalls Check this Practical Guide.
When to visit Cuba
The best time to visit Cuba is from the end of the year. December to the beginning of the rainy season that tends to start any time from April, May and into June. August, September and October are probably the worst time times to go to Cuba due to potential hurricanes.
Things to Know Before Visiting Cuba
You will definitely need a valid 30 day tourist card which can be extended if you decide to extend your stay. This is also referred to as a tourist visa! It can be purchased from travel agencies or airline offices prior to your visit; if you fly with a major airline via Madrid or Toronto, you will be handed a free tourist card en route. Policies vary, so be sure to contact your airline office or agent before the flight. Check your country’s government website for more specific information. If while in Cuba you lose this card, it will cost you a delay of at least one day to have it replaced, so be sure to keep your tourist card safe.
Cuba Dpt. of State Alerts & Warnings – (US passport & International Travel)
Visa requirement for Greek citizens
- Avoid poorly lit streets or outlying neighborhoods at night.
- Be on guard for purse/bag/camera snatchers in touristy areas.
- Avoid unlicensed taxis.
- Don’t exchange currency on the street.
- Don’t draw attention to your wealth –avoid wearing flashy watches or jewels.
- Be cautious about friendly people in the street who approach asking you about yourself, cheap cigars or to show you a beautiful lady/man. Firmly say you are not interested and just walk away.
- Single women might find men calling out to them. A firm no is the best way to deal with and don’t feel to be polite about it either.
- Don’t take photos of military personnel, military buildings even the police –you are likely to get into serious trouble.
Cuba’s currency cannot be purchased outside the country. Carry common currency like Euro and Sterling and exchange it once you are there. There are two-currency system. For locals, the Cuban pesos, but for tourists, convertible Cuban pesos or CUC (pronounced cook). The notes look similar so be sure to check your change. One CUC$ is equal to US$1, but it is unlikely anyone to charge you or mention anything other than the CUC$ option.
Most shops, bars, restaurants and attractions do not take credit cards, so be prepared to pay in Cuban convertible pesos
Avoid taking US dollars –the reason is that Cubans get charged to change the currency, so they pass it on that cost. It is preferable to change your cash when and where you can. ATMs are very few and far between. There are times when they are empty too. Avoid carrying much cash with you. It is preferable to use credit cards. Most shops, bars, restaurants and attractions do not take credit cards, so be prepared to pay in Cuban convertible pesos.
While you’re having a good time, just remember that Cuban wages are low, so tipping is particularly important here – even if you’re staying in an all-inclusive resort. Most Cubans earn less than 30 CUC per month. Leaving a 10% tip is the average, but because some restaurants will already include a 10% service charge on your bill, double check it.
You can try the app Map of Cuba Offline, here but it is highly recommended to buy a map at the airport. You can find them on floors 1 and 2 for between 3-5 CUC depending on the size. There’s an array of transportation options in the city, especially in the center of the action in Old Havana. You can almost always find a taxi, bus, bicycle or horse cart to take you where you need to go, plus the city center is very walkable.
You can take a tour in a Classic Car, which is highly recommended. You’ll see dozens of them outside Hotel Nacional all lined up. Choose which one you want and negotiate a price.
Generally it is 110V 60Hz – in some hotels it is 220V or both. Plug adaptors and voltage converters are almost impossible to buy in Cuba if you come from Europe or the UK, Australia or New Zealand. Preferably bring along your own. Preferably bring along your own.
Wi-Fi is quite expensive and only 5% of the population has access to the Internet. We had our card purchased from the Hotel Nacional de Cuba for less than €6 an hr. Try not to be that dependent on this trip. If you are that much you will be shocked! It could be a good opportunity to take a technology detox, and simply enjoy what the country has to offer. Use it just for an emergency research.
Whatever you do never drink the tap water in Cuba. Even the locals don’t drink it. Make sure you always buy bottled water. You can get them from little corner shops that sell bottled water, cans of fizzy drinks, cigars, and rum. Bottled water typically costs 1CUC a bottle.
Cuba is 5 hours behind London, 15 hours behind Sydey and on the same time as New York.
Most locals speak Spanish but in hotels it is likely that staff do speak some English. We recommend have along a phrase book or download one of the many apps onto your phone.
Why you will Love Havana
The energy in Cuba is buzzing. The music, the colours, the smiles. Havana is like stepping back in time. From the moment you step off the plane, things feel different here. No matter what kind of traveller you are, Havana has something for everyone. The first time you see one of the old classic cars driving along the road is special. Taking a ride in one is even better!
Would Smart Travelling Go Back to Cuba?
Certainly, we would! Cuba swept us off our feet. Personally I felt every hair on my neck stand up when I walked out of the airport for the first time trying to absorb every detail of the scenes that were unfolding. One week in Havana felt like a month because of the sheer amount of experiences we had but at the same time it felt like we only scratched the surface of this country. The second part of the trip was one week in Varadero, a totally different experience. Cuba is by all means in our bucket list. Smart Travelling Blog Magazine hopes that this guide helps you start planning your own Cuban experience.