Cuba is a huge country with very different areas, in the east Baracoa with its rivers, white sandy beaches in Varadero, in the south colonial old city of Trinidad, old railways and sugarfarms in the middle of the country, in the west tobaco farms in Vinales of Pinar del Rio and tons of history and culture in Havana. Cuban history is very complex and diverse with precolonial taino and ciboney indian tribes, spanish colonialization after Christopher Columbus landed in Baracoa 1492 until independence 1902. Cuba was under dictator Batista producing sugar for the world when revolutionaries toke over and Castro and the communist party have been in charge of the country since 1959.
Cuba is an unique third world country as it has ensured education and health care for all its citizens, even though the people are poor, their basic needs are guaranteed. Also cuban people are lot more caring towards their neighbors and other cubans than in general in developed countries. Cuba also educates doctors for other third world countries and sends medical staff to work in other countries. Cuba is also well known from its sugar and tobacco production and of course its salsa music and rum.
American embargo since the revolution has caused a lot of special issues in Cuba. Recent years have brought some hope, but there is still long way to go until Cubans can have what we call normal relations, trade and communications with other countries. Inevitable changes in Cuban communist party will also bring changes to the island, we shall see how that will work out.
I do not recommend staying in a hotel in Cuba. First, the level will not be what you expect based on the star rating and second I highly recommend casa particulares for the contact you will get with the cuban people. Obviously speaking Spanish here is an asset. I have met several kind of casa hosts, most of them very friendly, but ALWAYS check the arrival and departure dates, prices, breakfast etc other services needed before renting. Also make sure that the casa is marked with the blue sign that means it is permitted to accommodate tourists. The casa owner should ask for your passport and signature immediately after your arrival. Some casa owners are VERY talkative, some are not too interested, some will be very happy to help you out with booking transportation and suggesting restaurants and other events nearby and others just want money. All houses will be sprayed for mosquitos regularly in Cuba so your casa owner might tell you to leave like we had to that one Wednesday 8am. You can book some casas online, also airbnb works now in Cuba, some casas are still “hidden” and you can book them just by knocking on the door. During peak seasons I highly recommend booking in advance. Usually casa owners can help you with booking for your next locations and they have a good network of their “people” for what ever you need: car ride, money exchange, buy cigars, music, dance teaching, they’ll tell you the restaurants and so one..
Coffee, ron, chocolate, jugos naturales
One of my favorite parts of Cuba are the breakfast moments with fresh juice from fruits. Guayaba, papaya, mango, pineapple you name it! Another amazing treat I got in Baracoa was the fresh chocolate (drink). Cuban coffee is very strong and served in espresso type of tiny cup. Cuba is also very well know from its rum. There are equivalent for coke, sprite and fanta in Cuba, called tucola, refresco lemon or refresco naranja. There are two brand of beer Cristal and Bucanero in Cuba. Most bottle/can drinks are 1-2 CUC if you get a cocktail such as mojito it can be more expensive. Remember that ice might contain some bacteria if not made from bottled water.
Cuban food is ridiculously good and fresh. The food is based on rice and beans, most common meat is pork, chicken or seafood. Some say they won’t eat veggies in Cuba, cucumber, beetroot and tomato being the most typical ones, because of the water used for watering the veggies might contain bacteria or parasites. For vegetarians there are no real variations, omelets and bean soups are your best options. Cubans also love their desserts like rice pudding, flan or guava turron with cheese.
Cuba is very well know of its salsa, that might also be called casino or timba. Cubans love their music and to play it loud pretty much anywhere. Most popular music you’ll hear is reggaeton, the cuban version of hip hop. Cubans do love to dance, and even if they are not dancers they will enjoy their music. Cuba has also a strong influence of afro music and dance, that can be heard in the drums and seen when rumba is danced. There are plenty of dance schools in Cuba or groups that can give private classes so it is guaranteed to learn some steps of salsa before you leave the island.
Cuba has railways that are ridiculously cheap but unreliable and might take a while. Haven’t tried yet, maybe one day I’ll go for a ride.. Then there are busses, the most common option for tourists is Viazul, a bus that covers pretty much the whole country at regular price if you compare to Europe. Cubans have their own way cheaper busses and other means of transportation called collective. Cuban highways are used by chickens, walkers, bikes, cows, horse carriages, trucks, busses, private cars and so on.. Street conditions are pretty horrible at times, but I haven’t yet found a way that a cuban would not make. As a tourist make sure when hopping in a taxi that it has two labels in the windshield, one for registration and a blue permit for providing transport for tourists.
The weather in Cuba is just perfect, in case you love the heat and the sun like I do. Mornings and during the day the sun is pretty intense, usually cumulating to a rain with thunder in the afternoon. Rain is typically a short one, but clears the air nicely so that the evenings are bearable for normal people and even bit chilly for heat lovers like me. Cuban rain as short as it is might be pretty intense so I would prepare with shoes that can handle water as even after the rain streets might stay wet for a while. The coldest I have heard from Cubans that they experienced is about 14C.
European phones might work, depending on your operator, so far American phones do not work in Cuba, however I have read T-mobile/at&t doing deals with Cuba so never know! However, one of the best parts of being in Cuba for myself was the ease of disconnecting from the “real world”. Calling is extremely expensive, even for Cubans. Landline to landline is the only affordable option, and there are several coin phones around on the streets. Mobile phones are getting more and more common, but Cubans can’t still afford one without support from family abroad. It is easy to topup a Cuban cell phone from abroad using such companies as dign, hablacuba etc. Internet works just fine if you don’t have too high expectations, I have uploaded a video on Youtube and used internet without interruptions for emails and such. In order to connect to internet you have to go to Etecza, the national communication company and get a internet card from there. You can also buy from the streets or some casa particulares sell them, but I only used from Etecza and had no issues with them. The cost is 2CUC for an hour, available 1, 2 and 5 hour cards. You will need your ID for buying them. Internet can be found in major plazas in most cities and near Etecza store and hotels. Usually these places are crowded with young Cubans staring at their phones, tablets and laptops. Calling Cuba is very often a monolog of the lady telling you “el movil que Usted llama esta apagado o fuera del area de la cobertura” meaning that the phone is off or doesn’t have signal.
Cuban people love their tourists and they know how to take care of them. Cuba is in general very safe place to be, but like everywhere be street smart and don’t leave your belongings unattended, somebody will for sure like your phone or camera more than you. I carry only a copy of my passport with me and so far it has been ok where ever I had to show it. I really want to invent some special cuban style bra where I would have proper pockets for money.. That is the safest place to keep them #traveltip.
I divide cubans in 3 categories. 1) jineteros. The ones who will smell when your plane lands and will be glued to you since you step out and offer this and that and try to get all of your attention (and money), because for them foreigners equal money. 2) normal cubans. The people I love to interact with, the dancers I have learned to know, taxi drivers, waitresses, casa hosts, just about anyone who I interact with and have very interesting conversations about Cuba, culture, politics, language, travels, or just about anything. They also share their feelings about “la lucha” the everyday struggle cubans go through with their low salaries that do not allow them to get all the food they need, no new shoes and not to mention cars or property for living. 3) “blank” face cubans. Some who just sit all day, read their newspaper and do not react to anything around them. Basically you don’t exist in their universe.
The Cuban way
Cubans have their own way to do pretty much everything. Don’t expect thins to happen fast or according to plan A. But things will happen, one way or another, that is for sure. Cubans are very inventive with alternatives because the most common way is not possible due to lack of resources. The embargo and Cuban bad economy guarantee that there are no new parts available for cars, no brand new smartphones, laptops etc, but one way or another cubans still make it.
#traveltip bring your own toilet paper and be ready to squat, cuban restrooms are bit different than what we are used in Europe and the US for example.
One amazing proof of the Cuban way was hurricane Matthew, Cuba arranged massive evacuations and preparations, this was performed by the local CDR comite defensa de la revolution, revolutionary groups and people taking others in their homes during the storm. While numbers of death in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Florida and Bahamas keep increasing there are no lost lives in Cuba. The hurricane did however destroy one town and other villages completely. But, the cuban way was being prepared this time, what they have learned from previous hurricanes. For example the electrical engineers were already moved to the area to be ready to begin their work immediately after the hurricane to return the electricity as soon as possible.
When going to Cuba do it the Cuban way. Don’t expect anything else!
Cuba has two currencies, CUP = pesos nacionales (for local people) and CUC = pesos convertibles (for tourists)
1 CUC = 1 USD
1 CUC = 25 CUP
You can get money from ATM (not yet with American cards), have never tried though. Or you can get your money changed in Cadecas, the government run offices. Other options for money exchange is the bank, what I found out during my last visit to cuba is that they should have one desk for foreign people so even if there is a long que of cubans waiting like there was with this hoax of dropping the course for CUP, you can cut the line and change your money. Or you can find “a friend of a friend” cubans usually have some people they know for everything to change your money, but be sure to count well and double check that you get the right currency back. There has been news about Cuba eliminating the 10% sanctions for US dollars but as of now I have not heard about it been in action yet.
The basic salary in Cuba is 20 CUC per month. Then go figure how anyone can afford to use a smartphone (500CUC) and go online (2CUC/hour). So if you travel and there is an old lady in front of the rest room, please tip, that is her salary. Some places, especially in Havana have already added 10% service on the restaurant bill.
You will need a visa to go to Cuba, for Canadians and Europeans this means a tourist card, valid for 1 month and you can extend it for second one. You can get this card from the Cuban embassy in few days around 22€ or from most airlines. Americans still have to fall under any of the 12 specific categories to be able to travel to Cuba and if traveling from other country I have heard that the airline ask Americans to sign a document as a proof that they are aware of the rules.
Have a travel insurance for your trip. Cuba has free healthcare for its people and other medical services for tourists. Because of the US embargo Cuba is often lacking some basic medications, so you better take all you think you might need when traveling. I highly recommend diarrhea medication, basic painkillers and allergy medication because the pollution might cause breathing problems. Also make sure you have something for blisters, wounds and bug bites.