Cuba’s not really a place where you can just wing it.
This is a country where you need to understand what you’re getting into. Its unique history means its present day reality feels quite different from other destinations you may have travelled to. Systems are outdated, there’s limited Wi-Fi, the locals’ livelihood is on a whole other level (meaning, the majority of the working population lives off of $20-$60 USD a month, and a taxi driver makes more than a doctor).
When I arrived in Havana the place I was most reminded of was Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It takes a lot to give me culture shock, but Havana feels like a nation stuck in the past, the buildings are beautiful but crumbling, the vibe is alive, locals are everywhere in the streets.
They’re not inside sitting on Wi-Fi.
Everything from Cuba’s cars to its architecture to its communication methods resembles a time capsule locked in the 50s. You will be exposed to remarkable natural beauty, a unique sense of human hospitality, and an energy pulsating through the streets that is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, especially if you had no idea what you were getting into.
Cuba is one of the most amazing travel experiences I have had, but also the most challenging. Especially as a solo female whose Spanish consisted of a 44-day Duolingo streak, the obstacles I faced were no joke.
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Travelling is not always an easy ride — in fact, if it is easy, you’re not doing it right. It’s important to remember that throughout the challenges, remember these three things:
- They are making you a stronger, more adaptable traveller. If you can handle this, you can handle anything the world throws at you.
- These challenges are teaching you how to be resourceful, how to solve problems, and how to think on your feet. These skills are transferable to everything in your life.
- The obstacles you face will only make you appreciate the good times so much more. My favourite memories from my trips are always the outrageous challenges or mistakes that could have brought me down, but instead ended up turning into something so special. Look for the silver lining in every hardship.
Now that we’ve got that locked down, it’s time to look at the challenges presented by Cuba specifically. When I talk about Cuba, I’m not talking about the all-inclusive version, and travelling this country is in a league of its own. There are things you’re going to want need to know — things that I definitely wish I knew before going. But don’t worry, I made the mistakes so you don’t have to!
Here are some need-to-know tips for travelling in Cuba.
Bring a sufficient amount of cash
Cuba is a cash-based society. The locals don’t have credit cards, American bank cards are not accepted there, and certain international banks aren’t either.
Speaking from experience — even if you think your bank will work there, it is strongly advised to bring enough cash for your entire trip. I bank with HSBC in Canada and my card has been accepted across Africa, South America, Asia, you name it. But it wasn’t accepted in Cuba.
Please learn from my rookie mistake of not bringing sufficient cash or at least contacting your bank beforehand (although you shouldn’t rely on that either). After spending the first morning of my trip running around Havana trying different ATMs, attempting to speak to various bank tellers (me: “Yo necesito dinero!”), calling my bank, getting my mom to transfer money through Western Union, and still not being able to receive the money since I’m not a Cuban resident, I eventually was on the receiving end of a cash loan from my saintly Tours By Locals guide, my casa owner and a new friend (thank goodness for PayPal).
Trust me, save yourself the headache, and just bring the cash.
Cuba is a closed currency country, meaning you can only exchange for the local currencies (which I’ll explain further down) once you arrive in the country. You can do so at the airport currency exchange desk, or at major CADECA offices or hotels throughout the city. Accepted currencies include Canadian dollars, British pounds, euros, US dollars, Mexican pesos, etc.
Bringing the right amount of cash will mean detailing out a budget more precisely than normally required for a trip where your bank cards are accepted. So do your homework, and set yourself up for a less stressful trip than I had.
Check in with your bank
Let them know you are going to Cuba whether you plan on using your cards or not, but don’t count on this. Sometimes your bank will tell you it works in Cuba and it doesn’t, or, even worse, vice versa. But best to touch base just in case.
Don’t count on having Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi hasn’t exactly established itself in Cuba like it has in many other destinations across the world. You won’t find it in every accommodation, cafes or restaurants. It is currently offered at most public parks, in upscale hotels, and some casas are adopting it.
But even then, you have to purchase Wi-Fi cards from kiosks in some parks or plazas. The cards sell for about 1 CUC per hour (roughly $1 USD). You receive a user code and scratch off the password — don’t scratch too hard, you will scratch the number right off — to enter into the login page, and hope that it connects.
If that’s not enough of a doozy, when you have problems connecting (trust me, you will), you don’t know if: a) your time has run out and that card is now null; b) you entered the password wrong; or c) the Wi-Fi signal is gone. That’s right, the signal works about 70% of the time, which means you may be cut off or unable to login without notice.
This means that if you have major commitments in the online world, such as paying bills or telling your mom you’re alive, you had best settle them before arriving in Cuba and make sure you’re not scrounging for Wi-Fi.
Download offline maps
This isn’t so much a Cuba-specific travel tip as it applies to all destinations, but since Wi-Fi is so limited in Cuba you won’t be able to pop into a cafe to Google something.
Download the offline version of Google Maps or even better, Maps.Me (it is way more detailed with showing reviews on restaurants, the ability to estimate your route timing while offline, etc.) and mark key destinations down before you leave the land of Wi-Fi.
Or, you know, you can always go old school and rely on real paper maps and advice from locals!
Be aware of Cuba’s two currencies
Cuba has two currencies: CUPs for locals and CUCs for tourists. It’s confusing.
CUCs are roughly equal to the USD and one CUC (or USD) is about 26 CUPs. I recommend using the XE Currency Converter app for all the exchange rates, but basically just keep in mind that there are two different currencies when you receive change and need to know which currency you’re dealing with.
Learn basic Spanish
A little Duolingo goes a long way, but even my 44-day streak wasn’t enough to prepare me for Cuba beyond asking for “la cuenta, por favor.” You are sure to meet some tourists and locals who can dabble in Spanish and English to help translate, but honestly, it is so worth it to study your key phrases before you go — it will make your trip much smoother. Here are a few starting points:
- Hola = Hello
- Buenos dias = Good morning
- Buenos noches = Good evening
- Gracias = Thank you
- Lo siento = I’m sorry
- Por favor = Please
- La cuenta = The check
- Como estas = How are you
- Muy bien y tu = Very good, and you
- Fuerte = strong (for ordering drinks)
- Cuanto cuesta = How much
- Cambrio = Change
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 = Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinqo, seis, seite, ocho, nueve, diez
Choose your bookings carefully
If backpacking and you want a little flexibility/freedom, it’s completely acceptable to not book your accommodation or transportation until arriving at your destination. Every city centre or bus stop has plenty of bus drivers, taxi drivers, tour operators, and casa owners that will either try to hustle you over to their service, or can point you in the direction that will help.
That being said, there are some cases where you may want to book ahead of time. If you are dead set on getting from point A to B in a certain amount of time, you are best to book with a reliable tour operator such as Tours By Locals or the reputable bus line Viazul ahead of time.
Case in point: When journeying from Viñales to Trinidad (two must-visit spots), I booked a taxi collectivo — think Uber pool, but with no seatbelts. After a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Viñales to Havana, the taxi pulled over for us to transfer into a different vehicle. However, this wasn’t another taxi as promised; it was a bus that was essentially a box on wheels. All the taxi riders were bamboozled, as Ja Rule would say, and we were all stuffed into this bus for the next four hours… and by four I mean seven. We had to wait for the bus to fill up with passengers. And then it broke down and we had to wait for a new one.
Told ya Cuba was challenging!
Be a flexible foodie
In Cuba, the food quality is a bit of a gamble. Yes, you can absolutely find some delicious gems (check out Lamparilla 361 in Havana or La Botija in Trinidad), but the culinary scene here can leave something to be desired.
Like this gourmet ham and bun combo I devoured while waiting for our new bus.
Most casas will provide breakfast to guests, and it will consist of some variety of fruit, buns, cookies, and also maybe a toastie with ham, egg, and butter.
The typical meal at most restaurants consists of your choice of protein with rice, beans, and some root vegetables. Maybe a plantain or two if you’re lucky.
Cuba’s culinary scene means that vegetarians, vegans, those with dietary restrictions, and those who really like flavours may have some troubles meeting their needs — so being flexible is key! Remember, it’s all part of the experience.
Venture beyond Havana
I, too, was lured to Cuba by the sultry beckoning of Camila Cabello crooning “oo nana.” And while Havana is fascinating, gorgeous and alluring, the Cuban countryside offers so much more that you would be remiss not to spend any time exploring outside of its capital.
Viñales is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is a land version of Thailand’s limestone cliff faces. Known as the land of cigars, Viñales attracts visitors to ride on horseback through the stunning landscape and visit a tobacco farm, coffee and rum plantation, and picturesque caves.
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Trinidad is the most charming old town with colourful casas, cobblestone streets, horse-drawn buggies, and salsa music blaring on every corner. Just outside of the town you can jump in waterfalls, zipline, and frolic on the beach. A must, must, must visit.
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Cuba is fascinating. It’s alive, it’s beautiful, and it is challenging. It’s a travel experience you will never forget, and hopefully, these tips will help your journey be smooth and rewarding. But remember, even if it’s not, it’s all about the (bumpy) ride!
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