I Wasn’t Prepared for Cuba, But You Should Be
Let me clarify- I am an absolute research nerd. I am easily seduced by hostel reviews, I drool over essential experience lists and “authentic local guides” are downright sexy. I don’t like planning everything to the last detail and always have flexibility on my trips, but nothing gets me more excited for a trip than reading about how other people spent theirs and knowing what I absolutely can’t miss. So when my boyfriend and I booked our last-minute tickets to Cuba a week and a half before my trip, I decided to do something absolutely nuts. I did no planning or researching whatsoever.
I knew that we would be arriving in Havana around midnight, so I booked our casa particular for the first night and called it a day. I knew I was addicted when I began to stare longingly at the screen thinking, “one little printout of must-eat foods wouldn’t hurt would it? Or a few sample itineraries?” I was a woman obsessed, but I trudged on. A few days later, I left for the airport with stars in my eyes, a cheddar bagel in my mouth, and no idea what I was doing. For me, this was the equivalent of dropping out of Harvard to run away and start a Blondie cover band. WILD.
In a lot of the other countries I’ve visited, this would not have been a problem. Staying in hostels and constantly being around other travellers pretty much always keeps you in the loop. I quickly found out that Cuba was a whole new ball game. Neither of us speaks Spanish beyond being able to make fun of ourselves for being muy gringo and we have been completely spoiled with the amount of English speakers we were able to find on our earlier trips. Backpacking in Cuba is not very popular with North American tourists yet, so most of the other tourists we met along the way spoke English as a second or third language. So here we were in a new country with no maps, no guidebook, no internet, minimal communication, and two different currencies to get a handle on. I quietly cursed my new carefree alter ego.
If this sounds like the beginning to a depressing tale, let me assure you that my time in Cuba was still fantastic. I was able to meet some awesome people and explore some seriously amazing highlights, and if you’re a Spanish-speaker without a tight time budget, odds are that you will be totally fine! But if you’re a fellow gringa with a terrible sense of direction, budget, and maybe a little common sense, there are a few things you need to know beforehand. For ten easy instalments of $9.99, all of this information can be yours.
Just kidding! Here’s one on the house.
Surprisingly, this was one of the most expensive and confusing aspects of my trip. While public transportation is easily accessible for locals, it can be pretty difficult to get around as a tourist when ballin’ on a backpacker budget. If you have the time and patience to book your bus tickets a few days in advance, this is the most affordable way to go as a solo traveler or couple. Three major bus services ride between towns: Viazul, Omnibus and Transtur. You may see a horde of Omnibus shuttles in each town but it is a local-only service not available to tourists. Transtur is a viable option, but the offices are usually much more difficult to access and they offer less routes on unreliable timetables. So that leaves us with Viazul. Timetables for this service can be accessed online but bookings must be made in-person at your town’s local office. Some routes only run once per day and can easily sell out days in advance, so give yourself some leeway in booking and plan your trip to the next town as soon as you reach your current one. Once you have your ticket, the process is relatively painless. However, be prepared to make a few extra stops on your journey which can lengthen it by hours- our two hour ride from Varadero to Havana was easily stretched to three after numerous pickups and stops at roadside tourist traps that will try to sell you a $5 beer.
If you’re on a tighter time budget like we were, you may have to consider the more expensive option of a taxi collectivo. This is likely to cost you double the cost of a bus ticket per person, unless you can fill the entire car. The car will drive to your destination for a set price no matter how many people are riding, so if you can scrape together a few fellow travellers to share the journey with, you will likely end up spending only a few more CUC than you would for the bus. We found the extra cost to be so worth it; the taxis usually leave as soon as you’re ready so you aren’t stuck waiting around and will take you door to door. On one particularly late journey, our poor collectivo driver drove us around for an extra hour and a half trying to secure us a casa particular after we found everything to be booked. These collectivos are usually the 50’s American cars your see cruising around. Maybe I’m just a hopeless sentimental, but driving around Cuba in these cars totally enhanced the experience for me. Ask your casa for a ride first as they will often be able to arrange one for you, or just check for a taxi sticker on the windshield of any older vehicle. If this fails, there is usually a CubaTaxi desk at Viazul stations, which can arrange a collectivo for you and match you with other travelers to ride with. No matter what, do not take a yellow government taxi- these will gouge you far beyond collectivo prices.
Pro Tip: Watch where you sit in your collectivo in relation to the car’s speakers. When the drivers start bumping’ tunes, your ear drums may be in serious peril.
Bills, Bills, Bills
What’s more fun that mastering one conversion rate? Mastering two. In Cuba you will be dealing with CUC and CUP, and the rule of thumb to remember is that the CUC is roughly equivalent to the US dollar and that 1 CUC=25 CUP. So no, that is not a $25 cup of street coffee you just bought! When using a foreign bank card ATM’s will always spit out CUC, which is typically used as a tourist currency. If you can exchange your CUC for CUP it will go a lot further and can usually be used for any payment outside of big formal tours, resorts, or fancy hotels. Cubans pay Cubans in CUP. Bargaining is usually welcome, but don’t be surprised if your attempts are immediately shut down. Most drivers and casa owners have an unspoken agreement about what they want tourists to pay and are not very likely to budge on that.
Side Note: if your card doesn’t work at at ATM, don’t panic. Some don’t accept foreign cards, and some simply run out of CUC by the end of the day. When the ATM in our town ran out of CUC for the night, we were forced to live on hot dog buns and sparkling water until it was refilled the next day!
In terms of tipping, the general rule is to give 10% if you are actually receiving service, like at a fancier restaurant or an all-day tour.
Ask any traveler in Cuba and they will tell you that casa particulars are the way to stay. Homeowners will rent out a room or two in their home and often offer services on top, like homecooked meals or tour bookings. You won’t find any hostels in Cuba so this is the only real budget option, but I would recommend it even if it wasn’t. Being welcomed into someone’s home is the best way to see real Cuban life and if you’re a Spanish-speaker, you are likely to have some pretty interesting table conversation. Some casas can be booked on Airbnb, but we found it extremely easy to find one by just asking around in town. White signs with an anchor are hung on the front of the house by the casa. Red anchors mean that only locals are welcome and blue anchors welcome tourists. We weren’t exactly bargaining our brains out, but we found it difficult to find a casa for two people under 25 CUC, with 30 being the average. For a directory of particulars throughout the country, check out Cuba Junky .
On our first morning in Havana, we had no breakfast, no water, and nowhere to stay. But we did have a box of ten Cohiba cigars. As soon as you step onto the street, prepare to be approached by a parade of overly-friendly locals who promise to help you get the best deal on cigars. Seriously, they can smell the first-day confusion on you. More often than not, they will really be selling you rolled banana or tea leaves. For more information on cigar scams check out this awesome lowdown by Two Scots Abroad.
Heading into Cuba, I was told that there was no public wi-fi. I nodded knowingly, thinking that “no wi-fi” meant that you would have to try a couple cafe’s before finding a place that offered it. The naïvety of this is painful. Wifi really is not accessible for free to the general public yet, so if you want to use it you will have to purchase a card and find a hotspot to use it. Etecsa offices sell these cards for $1.50 per hour and the internet hotspots are usually set up at local parks. Prepare to wait in painfully long lines to buy a card.
The photos you’ve seen of Havana online make it look like an absolute dream filled with pastel convertibles, ocean-side highways and whitewashed colonial buildings. As soon as you reach Centro Habana, that is pretty much the reality. The city centre is clean and classic, totally justifying all of the tourism the city attracts. But you also need to be prepared for the other side of the city, which is full of poverty. Havana is not all restored Plymouths and cute old men playing dominos in fedoras. As soon as you wander away from the city centre you will see more crumbling buildings, garbage, and poor living conditions. The glitzy side of the city is obviously more appealing, but it’s also important to see how people are really living there. I cannot stress this enough, but MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A MAP. The city is pretty tricky to navigate and we spent our first six hours exploring the random backstreets of Havana in search of some kind of classic sights. My control freak, guidebook-loving self died a little that day.
And that, chicos y chicas, is really all of the information I needed to survive Cuba. Part of the adventure is learning as you go, so I’ve given you the bare basics that will get you through until you become a pro yourself. Although I’m not totally ready to give up my unplanned, happy-go-lucky alter ego, Cuba really is a place that I encourage researching at least a little beforehand to make your time there go smoothly. Indulge in food recommendations, own that print-out phrase list and for the love of mercy, pack a guidebook!
Fellow Cuba travellers, what are your painstakingly crucial tips?