Everybody who visits Cuba needs to obtain the tourist card. If you are flying to Cuba with certain airlines, like Air Canada for example, you will receive the tourist card on the plane, for free. Sometimes, you can ask for it at the desk counter of Air Canada, in Toronto or Montreal Airports. There is no need to apply for a Visa at the consulate, unless you are sure the airline won’t provide it. Besides the travel card, you will need to have a travel health insurance also. You have to make sure that it covers Cuba, as only certain insurers work with the Cuban National Insurer. Sometimes, you will be asked to show the insurance when you get to immigration.
For me, the immigration process was very fast, less than 2 minutes. If you are American, you can ask them to stamp your tourist visa instead of your passport. They won’t mind doing this.
Due to the American Embargo you can’t fly to Cuba directly or via the States. From Europe there are two main options to get to Havana: a direct flight from Madrid or a connection flight through Toronto or Montreal. I chose the second option, which offered me a 20 hours layover in Toronto, enough time to explore the city.
Prepare to pay a lot for the flight and book ahead! Flying to Havana has never been cheap. I paid for my ticket £650, bought with 6 months in advance and combining many short European flights. Usually, expect to pay around £800 – £1000 for a ticket in high season (December – February).
Cuba is one of the few countries in the world that have double currency: the national peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC). The convertible peso is what tourists are using and it equals 25 national pesos. It can be very confusing at the beginning but once you arrive to Cuba you get used to it. I would recommend you to take with you euros and sterling pounds because the American dollar has a 10% tax charge. You should only exchange money at the CADECA (authorized state exchange offices). You will recognise them by the long tourist queues in front.
You should also pay attention when you get your change back after paying at a restaurant or in the market. Familiarise yourself with the coins and the notes so that you can tell if you are given back the change in national peso instead of convertible peso.
Change a small amount of national pesos too, so that you can enjoy some of the street food in Havana. Outside Havana, from my experience, they are useless for tourists.
Cuba is not a cheap country. Because of the dual currency and the lack of economical ways of travel, you will need to be prepared to spend at least 75 CUCs a day. A room in a casa particular will cost you around 30-35 CUCs in high season and 20-25 CUCs otherwise. If you want to stay in one of the iconic hotels of Havana, like Hotel National, Hotel Inglaterra or Hotel Parc Central, prepare to get out of your pocket up to £150 a night.
A meal in a restaurant will be between 10-20 CUCs. Cocktails are usually around the same price, everywhere you go: 3 CUCs. You can try to find local restaurants, where the Cubans eat. There, you will be able to have a full meal for only 3-4 CUCs (the equivalent in the national peso).
When you get in a cab, agree on the price before and don’t be surprised if on the way, it will stop and pick up other people too. Usually a journey between Old Havana and Vedado will be around 8-10 CUCs.
5. The cultural experience
Cuba is a country like no other you have visited before. At soon as you land and get into the airport you will feel that you have stepped back in time, 60 years ago. I come from an ex-communist country and for me, a lot of things seemed to be familiar and a lot of other things started to make sense.
I think Cuba is one of the few countries in the world where the time stood still. People are living here a simple life, without the technology that we are so used to back in our world. Can you imagine there is barely any internet access around the country?
Cuba is also a country of music and dancing. In every city, people gather in the evening in the main square, and dance till after midnight. It’s a lot of fun to watch then, even join if you feel your salsa is good enough.
The colonial architecture of Cuba will blow you away. Every house is painted in a different colour and has the beautiful columns in front that support the structure. You will often see locals playing domino under these columns, in front of their homes.
6. Travel inside Cuba
There are two main ways of traveling around Cuba: you either book an organised tour which will have transport included or, if you are backpacking, travel by bus. Viazul is the bus for non-nationals and a one way ride from Havana to Varadero for example, will cost you 10 CUCs. It is recommended to take the Viazul bus and not the local one, for safety reasons. Viazul has air conditioned buses, comfortable, same as the National Express ones in the UK. I found it very easy to book a ticket online, which is advised if you travel in high season. All you need is a little bit of Spanish. Make sure that you print your reservation and bring it with you about an hour before the departure.
I would also recommend trying the almendron, a collective taxi service that collects and drops off people on a fixed route, just like a bus. The difference is that the alemendron is not a bus but a 1950s old car. As a tourist, you will pay the same price as the locals but in CUCs. If a local will pay 5 CUPs, you will pay 5 CUCs (unless you travel with a local and let him or her do the talking). It’s a unique and fun experience.
7. Food and water
Unfortunately, Cuban food is now known to be one of the best in the world. The dishes here are very basic and are based on pork, chicken and fish. They usually come accompanied with side dishes like yucca mash (which is delicious), beans and salad. In my experience, the home made food is much better than the restaurant one (even if I did have some nice meals in restaurants too). Expect for the meat to be usually over cooked. One thing I will recommend you to try is the lobster. The prices for lobster vary between 11 – 15 CUCs and you can be sure it will always be fresh and delicious.
When you travel and stop in a service along the motorway, your food options will be limited to pizza and sandwiches with ham and cheese. The ham in Cuba is a bit strange; I would recommend the cheese options only.
Buy water from the local restaurants that sell pizza and sandwiches as they are much cheaper than in the shops.
People in Cuba are very friendly and helpful. I’ve met wonderful Cubans that showed me around, introduced me to their friends, and welcomed me inside their families. Most of the people you will meet in Cuba are genuine, but in central Havana pay attention to jineteros, they will not try to help but scam you.
The owners of the casa particulares where I have spent all my nights in Cuba were amazing people, each of them trying their best to offer me the best Cuban experience I could get. One of them even asked his girlfriend to bake cookies for me, for breakfast. They always welcomed me with a big smile and even if their English was limited, we still understood each other and I had a great time at their houses.
9. Stay safe!
As a general rule, make sure you don’t take any unnecessary risks. I felt Cuba to be one of the safest countries that I have visited so far. But even so, keep an eye on your belongings and don’t keep expensive things on display, especially in Havana.
In the centre of Havana especially, there are a lot of jineteros (scammers) that are targeting tourists in order to gain a few dollars. If you are offered to be taken to a party by a stranger refuse politely. It is easy to spot a jinetero, they will approach you in English and offer to help you with directions, or tell you a sad story. Don’t believe them. I was in old Havana, negotiating for a taxi when this woman approached me with her sad story. I ignored her and by the time I got into the car she was screaming and crying that she wants the shoes from my feet.
10. Get involved and enjoy Cuba!
Don’t go to Cuba in an all-inclusive holiday where you don’t leave the hotel and spend all your time at the beach! Go and explore the real country, talk to the locals and make time to spend in their company, getting to know and understand the way they live.
Bring with you essential items that you can hand out to children and people you interact you. Toiletries like toothpaste and deodorants are very welcomed, same as the school supplies.