With President Obama’s recent groundbreaking trip to Cuba in March 2016 and the gradual relaxation of travel restrictions to the country, for the first time in over 60 years, Americans can realistically think about visiting Cuba for a number of reasons. But what are the important things to know and prepare for before visiting this gorgeous, historic, and Communist Caribbean island nation?
1. Learn some basic Spanish, if you want to have a more enjoyable trip
This is probably a no-brainer for most of you who want to go to Cuba, but it’s especially important to emphasize. Knowing Spanish will go a long way in preventing confusion, bargaining, making key reservations, finding places, and avoiding scams. Unlike most tourist cities in Mexico like Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta or even more traveled places in Central America like Costa Rica or Panama, using Spanglish will only get you so far in Cuba. If you’re lucky, some of the staff at high-end restaurants, hotels, and AirBnB accommodations will speak some level of English, but many taxi and shared cab drivers, wait staff, and your basic Cuban walking on the street (especially outside of Havana) won’t be too good at English.
Even at the beginning of my trip, the customs attestation form at JFK airport at Copa Airlines, where I had to pick which of 12 approved general use license reasons for US citizens I was going to Cuba for, was entirely in Spanish. One of my AirBnB host’s girlfriends only spoke Spanish, which came in useful during a flooding emergency and when our apartment was forcibly sprayed for the zika virus (true crazy story, for a later blog post). I got better cab prices on the street and ended up talking and meeting way more locals, just by having a decent command of Spanish.
Luckily, I retained a lot of my high-school Spanish and use a lot of it for work, so besides some vocabulary and verb conjugation problems I didn’t need to do any prep work. Doing an intro course on Rosetta Stone, the highly-recommended SpanishPod.com podcasts, or having a good offline translation app, like Google Translate, or other apps that help you practice will go a long long way! If all else fails, you can learn basic Spanish phrases from the back of your guide book you have or carry a small Spanish phrase book. Por favor…do yourself a favor and just try to have the most authentic experience possible!
2. Realize Cuba food/drinks, internet, tourist stuff, and amenities have tremendous growing pains, and Cuba isn’t set up the way you are used to for tourism
Most people are shocked to find out that Cuba doesn’t have great food or choices of restaurants. Cuban street food, although cheap at $1-$4 US dollars/CUC, mainly consists of hamburgers, pizza, and fried chicken that are meh at best (although their chicken tends to be better as a whole). Even their best-ranked restaurants, known as paladars, sometime had notoriously bland food and not totally exciting dishes (e.g. avoid the lamb dish at Atelier). I think Cubans aren’t used to the level of salt, spice, pepper, etc. that our Western tongues are used to. The all-inclusive resorts at Varadero, such as the Melia Las Americas, had pretty crappy food overall. Also, Cuba only as recently as 2011 didn’t have many restaurants; only recently did the Cuban government and Castros allow private citizens to open and run their own restaurants. As I can tell, almost no international culinary institutes and few-internationally trained chefs exist. So don’t expect a Cuban foodie paradise and do your research before you go! They have a long way to go re: food quality. Even drinks were of questionable quality. So called “famous” places like El Floridita make weak and crappy daiquiris, and mojito quality ranges tremendously; the best one I had was at the terrace bar at the Hotel Nacional, although it wasn’t the strongest.
As for chatting on Facebook and posting pictures on Instagram to make your friends at home jealous or Skyping with family? Forget abut it…Skype is actually banned. Finding last minute information on hotels, AirBnB, resorts, or Trip Advisor restaurant or tourist suggestions. Really difficult. Internet access is horrible, and usually exists mainly in the lobby or lounges of high-end 5-star hotels, and will cost $5 – $12 an hour for extremely slow internet. Don’t even think of trying to stream any You Tube videos, Netflix movies, or latest episode of Game of Thrones online, although why you’d want to do this while in Cuba is beyond me! I read an interesting article from an avid traveler about how the Cuban government essentially doesn’t have to censor information, like China does with Facebook, You Tube, etc. That’s because the internet is so slow and so expensive in the country that most Cubans can never really get it consistently! Do all your research and download all your information before you get to Cuba, and print out any tickets, hotel reservations, phone numbers, etc that you need ahead of time.
You can purchase pre-paid basic WiFi credit to use at ETECSA internet spots at some major sites and parks in Havana. You’ll see hundreds of people congregate at all hours of the day at these parks (a major one is on the corner of Galiano and San Rafael in Havana), just to do what you and I do on smartphones everywhere in America all the time. But it’ll be slow, inconvenient, and a hassle to do. Be warned! Phone call credit can be bought through scratch-off cards that can be used at pay phones throughout the city, for ridiculous rates of up to $1.60 a minute to the US. If you are lucky you can bring an unlocked phone and try to get a pre-paid SIM card at the airport, although it’s very complicated and I wouldn’t count on it working well
Also, this goes without saying, but bring all your toiletries, shampoos, medicines, condoms, and pharmacy OTC related stuff with you. There is almost no chance you will find it easily in Cuba, even in the middle of Havana, especially if you want a specific brand. It’s even hard to find things like toilet paper and toothpaste sometimes, especially in the middle of the night, unless you are at a hotel. Cubans obviously do have these things, but they are highly regulated in the Cuban markets (even shampoo, hair gel, etc. is kept behind the counter at some places, otherwise it would potentially get stolen). Often times you only have your choice of 1-2 types of item. American versions of toiletries, be they deodorant, or toothpaste, are highly sought after in Cuba because they are more trusted, harder to get, and considered of a way higher quality than the corresponding Cuban version.
3. Reserve everything way ahead of time in Cuba, especially restaurants, apartments, hotels, tours
I booked everything ahead of time as much as possible, and I’m super glad I did, or we wouldn’t have eaten at their better restaurants, and trust me, you’ll want to once you get there and see how bad food quality can be in your standard restaurant you walk into off the street. You should strongly consider making Skype calls from home in the U.S. to make reservations book pre-planned dinners and keeping a note of them on an itinerary and schedule. If you want to go to the more famous and nice restaurants and paladars, like San Cristobal, Doña Eutimia, or La Guarida, you definitely need to make reservations at least 2 weeks in advance for dinner, if not earlier if it’s peak season between December and April.
I would also double check by calling a second time on another day to confirm or check again in person once you get there to Cuba (if you happen to be nearby the restaurant), since some places like La Guarida require a reservation reconfirmation the day before and other places, like Doña Eutimia, completely lost our reservation in the reservation book, even though we made the reservation in person just 48 hours before! You may also have better luck getting reservations more last minute for lunch meals (if they are open in the daytime) or walking in off the street; this worked for us when we went to eat at San Cristobal, where President Obama recently ate and where Jay-Z and Beyonce visited a few years back. We luckily found a great and friendly waiter named George who graciously fit us in last minute, but I think it was only because it was the daytime.
Also for hotels and all-inclusives in Havana and Varadero, casa particulares (which are more similar to local bed-and-breakfasts or the riads of Morocco, where you rent a room in a local Cuban family’s large apartment complex), or AirBnB, you definitely need to arrange and confirm everything ahead of time. We went during the end of peak-season in mid-late April, and waited last minute til about a week before, thinking there was plenty of availability. Almost everything had run out, with only about 4-5 decently reviewed places on AirBnB’s in Havana available at all, and maybe about 4 all-inclusives available in Varadero. I’m almost certain availability will get much much worse as more and more Americans come to the country last minute in the near future. Forget about hostels…at the writing of this list and my last trip (April 2016), the concept didn’t really exist yet and I didn’t see a single one in all of Havana. Maybe, and hopefully, that will change soon!
Last tip: If you are absolutely homeless and stuck in places like Havana or other big towns, you can walk around in the nicer areas of town and look for buildings that have a sign showing upside-down blue anchors, and just knock on the door. These signs indicate that there is a legitimate Cuban government-sanctioned apartment, room, or casa particulare for rent inside. No guarantee it’s available for rent immediately, if you try to walk in off the street!
4. Don’t count on credit cards working in Cuba and bring cash ahead of time, preferably in Euros or another currency and not US dollars
You probably have heard already that it’s important to bring cash to Cuba. What you may not have heard yet is that if you just bring US dollars and try to exchange them to Cuban CUC dollars, you’ll get an awful, nearly 10%+ penalty on the exchange rate, right away! The currency you’ll normally use, the CUC, is tied $1 : $1 to the US dollar, which makes figuring out prices pretty easy at least. But you do not, repeat do not, want to bring in dollars if you can help it, or you won’t get your money’s worth.
My best advice is that you should bring in Euros or Canadian dollars, probably Euros. Bring whatever you are more likely to use in the near future, in case you bring too many and have extra leftover. To give you an estimate, my two friends and I each brought in about $1000 USD worth of Euro for our 8 day trip, and after about 7-8 days there we found that was definitely enough. We each actually had about $200-$350 USD worth of Euro at the end left-over. But that’s mostly because for two of the days/nights, we were at a pre-paid all-inclusive resort, where we basically didn’t have to pay anything for drinks or food.
I would say that if you plan to have a nicer vacation and eat at like 2 higher-end paladars or restaurants a day, go out for drinks at a bar or a club at night, pay for some minor tours and excursions, and a few cabs, you’d probably need at least $100-$125 worth of Euro for each day/night you are there. That’s only if you booked and prepaid for your AirBnB, hotel, or casa particulare lodging already before you traveled. You can definitely get away with a lot less, like <$100 worth of Euro a day, and possibly even as low as $50, although that’s pushing it I think. This is only if you ate bad/crappy street food, bargained down and took shared-transport cabs or crowded buses, and didn’t really go to official bars/restaurants and just drank rum on the Malecon boardwalk, but it’s up to you how nice a vacation you want in Cuba! Cuba is not as cheap as you may think, especially if you are living it up and want good food and drinks in Havana.
5. Understand that local Cubans make way way less money than you and also pay less than you for everything…with a totally different type of currency
When you walk around some of the local neighborhoods and side-streets, especially if you are checking out prices at the grungier stores, sidewalk restaurants, and cafes frequented by locals, you might get confused at the prices. Why is a hamburger listed as $25 and a pizza at $30 on some street signs? That’s because the prices are being listed in local moneda nacional, often referred to as CUP. This is not the Cuban money you are used to getting, that is $1 CUC : $1 USD. Divide that bizarrely high price by 25 and you’ll get the price you are probably used to.
Keep in mind that most locals mainly pay for things all day long in CUPs, not CUCs, and also they are a lot of times getting a discount for it. For example, I saw one popular club called Casa de Musica in Havana, on famous Galiano Street, where the entrance was $10 CUCs (probably for tourists) while the local price was only $75 CUP, which is only $3 CUCs!!! So basically, locals were paying 30% of what others would if you try to pay in CUCs. You may be tempted to try to just get CUPs and pay for everything in that, but some higher-end places only take CUCs and some lower end and local places only take CUPs. It makes it all kinda confusing, and my best advice is just to get CUCs when you exchange; I’ve heard most cacheca/money exchanges, won’t even give CUPs to foreigners but I’m not sure about that.
Your average Cuban is making only about $8 – $15 CUCs a week, or $32 – $60 CUCs a month, according to a few Cubans I interviewed. A gallon of $2 milk may cost them ¼ their weekly salary! I met IT guys who were driving cabs, and even heard of doctors doing that, because they can make more picking up just four $10 CUC taxi rides in a day than an entire week’s worth of work! You can read an excellent article on the average Cuban salary here. Communism in Cuba may have redistributed a lot of land and necessities to people, but it’s not exactly filling the pockets of average citizens. Just accept the fact that you are way richer than them and will probably overpay for almost everything. This is probably the Cuban government’s way of making other things still affordable for the local Cubans so as not to alienate them, while they up-charge the growing number of international tourists that are coming to Cuba every day! Just a guess…
(To be continued in The 10 Things You Must Know Before Traveling to Cuba (Part 2) )