Cuba has always been an exotic destination for most of us. It has the rum, it has the cigars and it has the Sangre Latino – it is a perfect place to spend your vacations. However, it is not only sugar and honey (although they’re quite known for their massive sugar production). There are a lot of things to know before traveling to Cuba and that’s why I’m writing this. I’ve done a lot of research before going since it was such a long way from home (I live in Romania) and I wanted to be prepared for whatever it may come.
So, without further ado, here is my guide for 10 things to know before traveling to Cuba 🙂
1. You probably need a visa.
As a Romanian, you need a visa. Well, not exactly a visa, but you need a ‘tarjeta de turista’. This is for staying less than 2 months. It can be obtained at the Cuban Embassy in Romania and on the MAE website, you can find more info. From my personal experience, this is what you need to obtain it: the flight reservation, the booking reservation (they need to know an address at which you’ll be staying once in Cuba), your passport (which needs to have at least 6 months before expiring), your medical insurance (you need to buy one in advance if you want to travel to Cuba) and 22 euro.
Once at the embassy, you will have to fill in a form (with passport no., address in Cuba & others), pay the 22 euro and then the Tarjeta de Turista will be handed to you.
For other nationalities, you can check out this list that comprises the countries which require a visa and the ones which don’t.
The medical insurance was purchased from Allianz Tiriac and the cost was about 10 euro/person.
2. Cuba has 2 currencies
Being a rather poor country, Cuba needs 2 currencies to survive. This is one of the things to know before traveling to Cuba as this might be a little odd and confusing at first. Don’t worry, you will get used to it while there. The first currency is called CUP and it is a currency used only by Cubans. The value is 26 CUP = 1 U.S Dollar. So you can imagine why they need a second one in order for their economy to survive. The second currency is called CUC and it is used mainly by tourists, although one of our hosts told us that they’re paying a lot of things with CUC, also. The value is 1 CUC = 1 U.S Dollar.
Both currencies are called ‘pesos’, so make sure you’ll understand clearly from the beginning which currency you’re buying in. Their economy is based mostly on tourism and that is why you don’t need to feel like you’re being scammed. Everything is cheaper, anyway. Think about the fact that you’re helping Cubans survive a communist regime and it should be enough 🙂
3. Cuba transportation
In almost a week that I’ve spent there, I’ve only used a cab. You know those beautiful and old cars you see in the movies/commercials? Most of them are used as taxis. The prices are reasonable, but you always have to bargain. That is the official rule of Cuba. You need to negociate everything. The public transport looked rather unsafe, but I’ve heard there is a bus that takes you between cities, called Viazul. I have not used it, so I cannot talk about it, but honestly I haven’t seen that many buses while in Havana or Varadero. The taxi prices, however, were the following:
- 25 CUC (25$) for a ride from the airport to the accommodation and another 25 CUC for the ride back to the airport
- 70 CUC/car (70$) for a ride from Havana to Varadero – 2 persons*
- 80 CUC/car (80$) for a ride from Varadero to Havana – 4 persons*
- 10 CUC/hour for a tour of Havana – 4 persons
With the taxi, our entire experience was wonderful. Our car driver, Osvaldo, was also a guide and a friend to us and made us feel very safe and pleasant the entire trip.
* Negotiated from $100/ride
4. The internet in Cuba
One of the most important things to know before traveling to Cuba is that the internet in Cuba is almost non-existent. Yes, that might be hard to acknowledge, but the first time they had internet was just 4 years ago. Right now, if you want to go online, you need to buy an ETECSA card which is $1.50 – $2 and it lasts 1h. The internet card works just in some public places (in private homes it’s still illegal) where there is Wi-Fi and you’ll find these places quickly: there are a lot of people gathered there staring at their phone. The card has a ‘Usuario’ (username) and ‘Contrasena’ (password) on it that are used to sign in to a wi-fi network. Be sure to close you’re wi-fi once you’re done.
5. The Rum is strong with this one
Yes, I already knew that the Cuban Rum is absolutely delicious and totally original, but I didn’t know that you’re going to be tipsy in the middle of the day from just one cocktail. Don’t get me wrong, the cocktails are delicious (I strongly suggest Daiquiri – rum, lime juice and sugar – yum!), but be careful when you’re having one for lunch because they put 3,5/4 rum and 0.5/4 other ingredients. Wanting to go to sleep in the middle of the day (on vacation) because you’ve had one too many drinks during lunch is not so fun! At least for me, it isn’t 🙁
6. International calls from Cuba
Let everybody know you’re going to Cuba!
No, really. Let them know. You probably won’t be able to call anybody internationally. A minute was around $2 and a text around $1, but this is only if you have a network. Most of my friends didn’t have a network while we were in Cuba so you’re stranded on an island with nobody to call. Literally. So if you don’t post on social media, call or text for a week or so while in Cuba, they’re going to get worried.
7. Offline maps in Cuba
Since you won’t be able to use the internet, you will need to download some offline maps for navigation or just use the old-fashioned map. If you decide to go with the offline one, be sure to download it for the exact places you want to visit: Havana, Vinales, Varadero, etc. I used maps.me and it worked perfectly! This is one of the things to know before traveling to Cuba because you wouldn’t want to get lost. Without a phone connection and without an actual map you’re not going to enjoy your trip so much.
8. The food is delicious
I have previously read some articles about Cuban food not being so tasty. I can’t disagree more. Everything I ate, from the breakfast the host offered to the seafood lunches and dinner we had every day, was absolutely delicious. In order for you to get an idea, the breakfast that the host offer is about 4-5 CUC ($4-$5) and it consists of fruits, natural juice, coffee, bread, omelette with cheese and avocado. We had this kind of breakfast at 2 different places we stayed in and it was amazing.
For lunch or dinner, you can simply eat in if you’re on a low budget; it will cost you about $10 maximum, I’d say. But if you’re eating at a restaurant every day, a meal will be no more than $25, that being the most expensive meal I had. Usually, we paid around $18-$20 for lunch/dinner with a lot of seafood (shrimps, lobster, fish fillet, salad, rice and usually a drink, too). So prepare to be amazed by the tasty food Cubans are cooking. The seafood, at least, is out of this world! 🙂
9. Best time to go to Cuba
One of the other things to know before traveling to Cuba is when to actually go. Well, I went in the middle of October and it was hot. July to November is actually hurricane season, so I arrived just after hurricane Irma. The busiest and coolest season is Mid-November to March; the wet season is between May and June. Now you decide. October for me was really great, although a little bit too hot. However, I wouldn’t want to visit Cuba during the busy season because it is probably way too crowded 🙂
10. Cuban people are great!
I’ve saved the best for last: besides the beautiful places, the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the history this place has, there are the great people. This is definitely one of the things to know before traveling to Cuba because there are a lot of stories out there. Yes, there are some rotten apples in Cuba like in every other country, but most of them are so kind and warm, they help you with everything and smile and dance all day long.
Honestly, at first I was totally scared because I’ve read that their main “occupation” is pickpocketing and I strongly suggest to be careful about. There are also the taxi drivers who will want to take you everywhere and offer you anything you need – this might become exhausting at some point. But this is what they do; there aren’t many places they can work at so they’re mostly focused on tourism.
But all of them are smiling, all of them are dancing, all of them have warm faces and souls that endured so much until now and don’t know how to get out of it. I think communism has kept this population authentic and naive – which can be transformed into great personality traits 🙂
Have you been to Cuba? If you have anything else to add, I strongly suggest you do. This way, we can make this article a thorough guide for things to know before traveling to Cuba.