Cuba: 10 things to know before you go

Peak hour on Havana’s Malecon.

Cuba is an amazing travel destination – we highly recommend it. But let’s face it, it’s not your average country. Many things work differently there, while some others don’t work at all. Talking of which, internet access IS gradually getting better – but it’s definitely still best to be prepared.

Most of the time accessing internet in Cuba involves sitting in a park.

We did our homework on Cuba. Before we went, we spent many hours trawling the internet researching subjects like the two currencies, how to access funds while we were there, how to access the internet, what and where to eat, best transport options between cities etc. We made notes of important information and took it with us. We booked all our accommodation before we arrived and we thought we were pretty set.

Here are some things that we missed and others that we were really glad we knew.

1. Be prepared and bring everything – I mean everything – you might need with you. This includes sunscreen, insect repellent, snacks such as nuts, chocolate or muesli bars, even basics like a new toothbrush. You might get lucky and find something in a shop, but unless you are looking for a bottle of rum or a cigar, you probably won’t find it.

2. Bring a guide book on Cuba, preferably hard copy. In this day and age many people (e.g. us) have ditched the well-thumbed Lonely Planet and rely on a host of useful websites, apps and google searches instead. In Cuba, we generally accessed the internet every 2-3 days in a short and frustratingly slow session that focussed on checking emails and dealing with ‘must do’ online tasks. There was very little time for researching the top things to do in Trinidad or the best places to eat in Vinales, and our questions about Cuban history, society and its natural environment mostly went unanswered.

View from Havana’s Morro Castle.
From the Malecon back towards Morro Castle.

3. Work out a method for accessing cash. Unless you are holed up in a swanky resort you can forget using credit. Before we left home, we ordered a new credit card – VISA, not Mastercard – through a non-US affiliated bank. We preloaded it with funds and used it like a debit card to withdraw the maximum amount of cash possible in one go. Although we were still stung to the tune of US$10 per withdrawal, applicable on any amount, we managed to find ATMs when we needed them, didn’t have any rejections, and we didn’t need to use our back-up plan, which consisted of a wad of euros.

4. Don’t assume that you can make online purchases from Cuba. When the flights we had booked before we arrived in Cuba fell through, we had a very stressful time trying to book new flights online. We finally gave up and emailed family back in Australia begging them to book and pay for us! This was despite informing our (multiple) banks that we were visiting Cuba before we left. Not one of them would approve our purchase.

Enjoying some Cuban music while relaxing with a mojito on the roof terrace of this Moorish-inspired palace in Cienfuegos is a must.
Despite the lovely setting it wasn’t at all crowded.
Maille got in on the act.

5. Get maps.me and download the Cuba map before you arrive. Maps.me works well offline and many restaurants and accommodation options have reviews. We found this to be very helpful in finding decent places to eat, not to mention finding our way around. It also felt good to be able to consult our phones about something!

6. Talk to the locals and ask lots of questions! Cuba is a pretty safe country and we found Cubans to be friendly, helpful, genuine and not out to scam us. It’s ok to drop your guard, smile at people and start conversations. Note: there are some exceptions – e.g. people scamming for commissions from restaurants in Cienfuegos.

This friendly farmer in Vinales offers tastings of home grown coffee, honey and rum.
His neighbour offers free samples of home grown organic cigars.

7. If you need to ditch something along the way, Cuba is the perfect place. Clothes and other items are so hard to find that someone will appreciate your faded old t-shirt, even if you don’t. We gave some unwanted clothes to our casa host, who seemed genuinely appreciative.

8. Travel within Cuba can be very unreliable. In 26 days, we had two buses break down, causing delays of between 2 and 5 hours and a taxi that had to stop a couple of times for minor on-road maintenance. Poor roads also slow travel times and it’s probably best not to book any close connections.

Stunning Varadero beach was worth the journey.
There are plenty of excellent snorkeling opportunities in the Bay of Pigs.
People in Playa Giron were super friendly. This friendly young fellow showed us how to write with sand.

9. Be prepared to eat out – or have your casa particular host cook for you – for every meal. We actually had a basic kitchen at one place but – unusually for us – didn’t try to cook as we’d realised by then that finding ingredients would be too hard. We suspect that finding food items in Cuba involves a complex bartering system with your neighbours, supplemented with occasional state-issued rations and inside knowledge of who sells what where. Unless you feel like taking on a challenge – e.g. is it possible for a tourist to cook spaghetti bolognaise in Cuba? – really don’t bother.

10. Finally, Cuba is quite a big island with a lot to see. Travel between destinations is slow and often uncomfortable, particularly in taxi collectivos and when the air con breaks down on the tourist bus. If you move too fast you risk feeling like you are constantly on the road. Travelling with the kids, we stuck to a Western Cuban itinerary and hit many of the big-name spots. If we could do it over again, we’d probably spend 4+ nights in Havana, 3 nights in Vinales, 1 night in Cienfuegos, 5 nights in Trinidad, 3-4 in Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) and 3-4 for some beach relaxation in Varadero.

View from our Airbnb just outside Trinidad. There is so much to do in the area beyond visiting beautiful Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Just chilling in Trinidad.

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