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.
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This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.