Practical Tips for First Time Travelers to Cuba
Cuba can seem like a difficult place to travel to for a multitude of reasons. First, it’s extremely difficult to get in touch with Cubans living in Cuba. Second, the internet recently became accessible to the entire public at a 5% the average monthly salary, so Cubans can’t publish a lot of information online. Third, it’s difficult to reserve most homestay accommodations (except Miami-owned Airbnb), private ground transportation, and/or various excursions ahead of time. And lastly, the U.S. embargo prohibits “tourism” in Cuba. Yes, as of September 2016, the U.S. embargo against Cuba is still very much in place.
Finding it difficult to get real-time information on traveling throughout Cuba, I took to Reddit. To my relief, despite an emotional political cloud over Cuba, everyone could agree on one thing: it is an incredibly safe destination for tourists! The Cuban government imposes harsh punishment for Cubans who harm foreigners. It can happen, but it’s very rare.
I never felt unsafe. Solo female travel is very easy–however, there is a lot of street harassment from men. Especially when they congregate in groups. As a woman, strolling down the street by yourself in Cuba can quickly turn into a stressful affair. The street harassment was always uncomfortable to bear but ultimately nothing ever happened with the exception of one man (of hundreds) who began to scream at me. Cuban women told me they hated it, especially because today it’s mostly vulgar and disrespectful.
In Cuba, like most developing nations, sexism, homophobia, and racism are de-prioritized and thus become largely unacknowledged issues.
Legally, Cuba requires all travelers to have health insurance coverage. You may or may not be asked for proof on arrival. If you’re arriving on a plane that came directly from the U.S., your airline may have already included this in the price of your plane ticket. Check with your airline. Worst case scenario, you can purchase health coverage on arrival (or ahead of time here).
This is one the hardest part of my Cuban trips: exchanging money. In Cuba, you are legally prohibited from exchanging currency anywhere that’s not a government-owned Cadeca (an official currency exchange office). Cadeca’s will almost always have a line so long that you will consider burning the money to rid yourself of the burden.
After waiting on line for 30 minutes at the airport, it was finally my turn. I got to the counter and was asked: “Are you departing or arriving?” And I answered, “I just got here.” To which I was informed to go to another Cadeca because this one was only for departures (there were no signs about this). So I went to the next one, the same story. Finally, I got to the correct one and the line was so long it seemed to wrap around the airport twice.
GETTING THE BEST RATES PER CURRENCY:
- U.S. dollars have a 10% “tax” by Cuban government (plus a nominal fee of about 3%). There has been talk that with the normalizing of relations with the U.S. that they may waive this tax soon, so be on the look out.
- If you try to avoid the 10% tax by exchanging your USD into EUR/CAD make sure it’s at a place where the exchange rate won’t cost you more than 10%. Otherwise, you clearly might as well just take USD to Havana.
- Example: Official market rates for CAD to USD is $ 1.00 USD = $ 1.30 CAD. But the currency exchange business is trading $1.00 USD = $1.15 CAD (Already lost ~15%). So why bother?
- You could exchange USD for CUC on the black market for about a 5-7% loss ($100 USD for $95 CUC) but then you take black market risks (ie: getting robbed, cheated, it’s illegal, etc).
All in all, it is best to take USD, CAD, or Euros over all other currencies because you can also exchange these at hotels, which is a GREAT option if Cadecas have hour long lines/are shut down/etc.
CREDIT CARDS & BANKING
Leave them at home. Bring C-A-S-H. Despite what the news or your bank says, American credit/debit cards will NOT work. Be careful even when trying to even check your bank balance from Cuba. Chase refused to let me log in, and Charles Schwab suspended my bank account just for trying to check the balance from Cuba. I could only access my account with Charles Schwab after I could prove to them that I wasn’t in Cuba anymore.
DUAL CUBAN CURRENCY
According to a story by a Cuban family, once upon a time… U.S. Dollars reigned in Cuba. At one point, one dollar was worth up to 200 Cuban pesos. In order to regain some control, Cuba made dollars illegal. Then came the creation of its second currency, el CUC. Today, Cuba has two currencies: CUC (international currency) and CUP (national pesos). The CUC is pegged to the dollar 1 to 1.
1 USD = 1 CUC = 25 CUP
I advise carrying both currencies. Some places that only foreigners go to, may only accept CUC. But with CUP you can pay for things that are in the national/cheaper (local) prices, since these places may not have enough change if you use CUC.
In Cuba, booking accommodation can be tricky. Trying to book anything online is almost impossible (unless you use Airbnb which is for rich Cubans). There is a shortage of hotels, so since the 1990’s the government has allowed Cubans to take part in their own version of Airbnb called “casas particulares”. So you can stay in the home of a Cuban person for about $20+ a night.
It is completely normal for a traveler to arrive in Cuba with nowhere to stay and ask people to take them to a casa. Sounds crazy, I know. But someone will always know someone else. Remember, Cuba is one the safest destinations I’ve ever visited.
If you have a particular budget or a certain standard, you can always go Trip Advisor, search for a particular accommodation, and call the place through Skype to reserve.
Airbnb is now also legal in Cuba, which is good if you have time constraints and don’t want to spend time on the ground asking around. But remember this: if the Cuban person has an account on Airbnb chances are they either 1) don’t even live in Cuba and have someone else managing the place 2) the payments are being through their family abroad. Cubans with family abroad make up the upper class in Cuba.
TRANSPORTATION IN CUBA
At first, I would only get around by private taxis ordered by business owners for my own safety as I got comfortable adapting to Cuba. By the end of my travels, I was getting into stranger’s cars with other strangers and driving for hours to different towns and cities.
You can take collective car rides within cities or across the country. From Havana to Trinidad, I paid $20 for a shared taxi with another girl I met at the bus stop. Bus stops are where you will find people offering rides in their cars. This is also where you can take Viazul buses to other towns. Viazul takes longer and costs the same (sometimes more) as a private taxi.
You can hop on national buses with Cubans for insanely good prices. I traveled from Las Tunas to Havana for 10 CUC. That’s a 10-hour drive for $10 on a bus with AC and TV. I took trucks (camiones) across parts of Cuba for $2. I hopped in the back of shared vans with hand-made seats in the back.
Finally, there is also Cubana Airlines which can take you between various Cuban cities for a couple hundred dollars.
Transportation is everywhere in so many forms. It all depends on your time availability and budget.
COMMISSION REFERRAL SYSTEM
My first day in Havana, I was guided by a very helpful man who bargained and called restaurants for me. It was very nice and I felt safer leaving a trail of my whereabouts since I was traveling solo, but it is possible that he was mostly working towards getting a commission by referring me. In Cuba, this is a commonly used commission referral system for private sector businesses like casa particulares, restaurants, and cabs. You’ll hear people asking if you need a taxi, a place to stay, or a restaurant to eat. When he/she find someone who needs one of these things, they run to the respective owner and get a commission for referring you. It’s sort of like Uber, Airbnb, or Seamless. It can be cool or kind of suspicious depending on how it’s used.
A FOOL AND HIS MONEY
A big issue in Cuba is called jineteroism. It is the act of Cuban men and women chasing foreigners to be their “friend” and take them around their town. This usually is a scam to either: get you to take them out for the day or woo you into marriage to get out of Cuba. It can be straight up obvious, or incredibly elaborate.
GIFTS TO THE CUBAN PEOPLE
Please remember to bring gifts to the Cuban people. But please be wary of how you distribute your gifts. Do not hand them out on the streets, do not encourage begging from children, and the last people that need your donations are those who work in the tourism sector/casa owners. The church is currently accepting donations and sending them east for hurricane relief. Orphanages take donations, but to ensure that your donations get to the right place, they require that you register the donation with the ministry before they can accept your donations.
What can you bring? Basketballs, soccer balls, baseballs (I saw little kids playing soccer with a coconut), guitar strings, fishing equipment, needles, or anything that you may throw away could find great re-use in Cuba. Old cell phones, USB sticks with media, old watches, shoes, clothes, medicine, anything can go to use there. Nothing goes to waste in Cuba.
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*** Last updated January 14, 2017 ***