Cuba is a strange land… it’s like stepping into a time warp – 1950’s American cars cram the streets, diesel fills your lungs and stings your eyes, restaurants run out of food and they operate on two currencies – one for the locals and one for the tourists. There are not many hotels, so you live with the locals in their homes, power and hot water come and go, there is a black market to access the internet yet I have never seen more tourists in one place in my life!
A country that was not quite prepared for the influx of tourism (predominantly from the USA) who since October 2016 now have 120 flights a week and counting… Cuba is stuck at the cross roads of old and new, embracing change whilst still clutching to its revolutionary past, trying to move forward in its backward world, but still retain its charm and character. Here are a few tips you should know before you go!
Organise your Tourist Visa before you go
Even if your airline tells you that you can organise your visa whilst on board the aircraft, this is only for certain nationalities. Although it is expensive, organising your Cuban tourist visa before you leave your home country will save you a lot of hassle. Certain airlines will not allow you to check in unless you have this visa in advance.
Convert Euro not USD
If you are going to convert cash in Cuba, Euro is the preferred currency with fairly good exchange rates. If you are converting USD, you will be charge a 10% surcharge. AUD cannot be exchanged in Cuba.
Changing Money at the Airport
When you arrive into Havana, the arrivals hall is a bit of a free for all. It’s confusing and there are no signs. If you wish to change money at the airport, the foreign exchange windows are outside the airport – the lines are usually HUGE! Try heading upstairs to the foreign exchange counters near checkin. Quite often the queues here are much shorter.
Taking a Cab from the Airport
The taxi area outside the arrivals hall is a free for all – there is absolutely no order to it – it’s elbows out, fend for yourself and hail a taxi. Yellow cabs have a set fee of 30 cuc into the Old Town and Havana Central. Cash only in local currency.
Cash is King
Do not expect your credit card to work here. Visa is the only accepted credit card and trying to find somewhere that will accept it is pretty tricky. Certain debit cards wont work when trying to withdraw cash. Bring your cash with you and exchange it.
Changing Money in the Bank can Take Hours
The queues to exchange money are usually 50 or so people long and wind down the street. The locals have preference over you and you are expected to just wait. The approximate waiting time is around 4 hours. Find a bank in the quieter back streets – not in the tourist centre.
It may sound strange, but surprisingly no-one has maps and the tourist information centres opens at odd hours, only for a few hours, or sometimes not at all.
Stay in a Casa Particular
Hotels in Cuba are overpriced and mostly stuck in the 80’s. The best way to experience local hospitality is to stay in a Casa Particular. These are local homestays with families who offer you a private room in their house. A great way to make new local friends, try local cuisine, practise those language skills and truly live like a local. Did I mention they are cheap? Currently around $30AUD a night.
Don’t expect your mobile to work or to have WIFI
Mobile phones generally don’t work in Cuba – some international sim’s do, but do not count on being connected to the outside world. Wifi is almost a foreign word. Internet is not available for tourists, although black market hot spots are now starting to crop up. The going rate is $5USD an hour for a terribly disjointed connection.
Restaurants Do Run out of Food
Chances of finding what you want on a menu to actually be available, can sometimes be quite slim. Depending on what time of the day you eat and what day you eat, restaurants in Cuba run out of food regularly.
Supermarkets are Not What They Seem
Supermarkets in Cuba are usually filled with empty shelves and only three items – water, shampoo and rum.
Eat Before you go to the Airport
When it is time to say adios to your time in Cuba and venture back to Havana airport, make sure you eat before you get there – or take some food with you. With only two food outlets, choices are limited. They regularly run out of food, and again, you queue for about an hour to get a soggy spam and cardboard cheese sandwich.
For exciting local experiences to have on your travels in Cuba, download the Crooked Compass Travel App!