Whether you want to stretch your hips on the dancefloor, enjoy the music in HavanaClub, drink a mojito, hike through breathtaking national parks, do birdwatching or just chill out on amazing beaches; Cuba has it all! Prepare yourself wisely and enjoy this hidden pearl in the middle of the Caribbean sea.
Despite the communistic regime, Cuba is not a cheap destination. There are two currencies in the country; Moneo Nacional (or peso) and the Cuban Dollar. The currency of the Cuban Dollar is about equal to the American cousin and is the currency used by tourists and tourist related organizations. Officially you’re not allowed to use Moneo Nacional and, as the CUC is of much greater value, locals are very happy to help the government maintain this law. However, use the desire of the locals to obtain CUC wisely and you`ll be able to change CUC into Moneo Nacional at exchange offices or with the owners of the Casa Particular you`re staying. It will open up a new world, instead of paying $1-2 for a slice of pizza, you`ll pay $0.20.
Cash is the way to go
Getting cash from the bank is a patience requiring, time consuming activity in Cuba. Unless you enjoy waiting in line for a couple of hours and going through a process of filling in forms and letting them check your passport over and over again, take cash! There are no ATM`s in the whole of Cuba and on cashing in or paying with credit card, large commissions are calculated.
However if you do run out of money, go in the early hours and to banks in small towns or in outer suburbs.
Make sure you`re not dependent of the internet for banking. Internet is hard to find in Cuba, and if it`s there, it`s slow expensive and most websites will be blocked, including PayPal! Make sure you`ve got your payments done and enough credit on your account.
Food and accommodation
Apart from a couple of hostels in Havanna and Santa de Cuba, there are none in the rest of Cuba. Hotels can be found everywhere, but are often (unless last minute booked with a Canadian travel agency) expensive and not that nice. A cheap and fun way to travel is staying in Casa Particulares. Cubans can rent out rooms to tourist in order to make an extra income. There are plenty of casa particulares in every significant town. Just get out of the bus, go to the neighborhood which appeals the most to you and walk around. You`ll recognize a casa by the blue `anker` shaped signs on the door. Knock or ring the bell and ask if they have availability. Take a look in the room and negotiate the price. There is a lot of room for negotiation. Prices depend on location, quality of the room, whether or not having a private bathroom and the amount of meals included. The most I spend on a room was $25 a night, this was located in Havanna in front of the National Ballet and luxer than most accommodations I stayed the last year. The cheapest one was $7 a night, including 3 meals and a private bathroom. This was in a corner of Viñalles. If you`re bus or hitchhike will arrive late and you don`t feel like looking around or accompanying one of the owners that will await for you at the bus terminal, ask your owner to call ahead. They`ll always know somebody who owns a casa at your next destination and they`ll be more than happy to make a call for you. However be very clear about the price you`re willing to pay.
Govermental restaurants are most of the time big, take a lot of time between orders and putting food on the table and are expensive. Go to a paladar instead. It`s the same idea as a Casa particular, but then for a restaurant. With some you`ll not notice the difference. They have tables, menu`s and everything. With others you`ll sit on somebodies kitchen table and enjoy a home cooked meal.
As mentioned before, internet is hard to find in Cuba. Unless you travel in 5 star hotels like moneo nacional it`s not worth making use of internet. It`s slow, costly and a lot of websites are blocked. However, if you want to make use of the internet. You can buy cards at most of the bigger post offices. You`ll have to register yourself, so they know what your doing. Be prepared that email- social media accounts will be blocked, as the providers don`t trust any activities coming from a Cuban IP address.
English is as rare as a game of monopoly in Cuba. Get the most out of your travels by learning a bit of Spanish before you go. Plus during your homestay and while stretching your hips at the local salsa bar, it will give you great conversations with locals about this massively interesting country.
Getting around the island is really easy. There is a good and frequent bus system. The best and most popular one is Viazul. A good and cheaper option is Astro, but foreigners are very rarely accepted on these buses. It`s worth giving it a try. Check local bus terminals for recent prices, destinations and schedules.
Those with a bigger budget and the capability to handle a traffic system in which rules are more like guidelines, could consider hiring a car. Most rental places are around the international airport. Otherwise google is your best friend to search for the latest deals.
People traveling between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, could consider taking the train. Be warned! Trains in Cuba never stick to their schedule, whether it`s departing to late, or just stop in the middle of the journey. If you do want to hit the Hogwarts express, make sure you have enough food and water to survive for 1 or 2 days extra. Do some yoga to get your chakra`s in a row, so you can deal with some frustrations and touch as less as possible when going to the toilet.
The cheapest form of public transport are the trucks. Those who consider themselves as early birds with adventure as their last name, will enjoy this way of travel. Look for `Terminal de Camyones` and ask for recent departure times and destination. Be early on the day of departure, around 6AM in the morning. Don`t be upset if the driver will charge you more than the local people, he might decide not to accept you on the truck. Normally foreigners will be charged around 20 Cuban pesos per 50 kilometers (around 2 dollars). Get your calves stretched and by ready for some hours standing, there`s barely any seats and most of the time more than 50 people are fitted into one truck.
As a Dutchie I cannot leave the recommendation `Biking` behind. Renting a bike or taking your own is a popular, easy and safe way to get around Cuba. Most parts of Cuba are flat, making it smooth to push the wheels around. Already difficulty with fixing a tire? Don`t be scared. Cubans can fix everything! If anything happens to you on the way, just ask a local.
For those who want to put the thumbs up and go hitchhiking, think twice. It`s forbidden for Cubans to take hitchhikers, so you put a local in the risk of getting a fine (which are high for them). Your best bet will be to make friends with other tourists who have a rental. Buy them a beer, use your charm or offer them to pay part of the fuel.
,Macho culture + HIV
Women traveling alone or with other women will experience the true Latino culture. Don`t worry, Cuba is extremely safe when it comes to female travelers. Just consider it as a compliment when guys whistle to you on the street (you`ll have admirers from 7 year old to 100 years old), or when they are very persistent on dancing with you in the salsa bar.
Male travelers should be prepared for the same. There is a high amount of prostitution in Cuba, and don`t be surprised when, what seemed to start as a true romance, ends up in paying a bill. What leads me to another warning. I don`t want to destroy the image of true love, but a lot of men and women have become very creative in their ways to get out of the country. For a lot of them, you`ll be an exit ticket from communism and an entry ticket for welfare.
A lot of travelers are unaware of the fact that Cuba has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world! Be aware of this when you found yourself a little Cuban romance. Take condoms from good quality from back home and pack them in your hand luggage, as compression in the luggage compartment in an airplane can cause a decrease of quality. Safe sex is a must in this country.
For current Visa information, check the norms for your nationality online or with a Cuban embassy close by. Most nationalities can obtain a VISA for 30 days, when having a passport that doesn`t expire within half a year and a proof of return flight or onward travels. Don`t make use of VISA agencies, they will be of no use. If you’re not able to visit the Cuban embassy in your country personally, you can most of the time apply for a VISA by post. Again, for latest requirements, contact the embassy or take a look online
Now you`re reading. Buy your ticket, smile, dance, sing and enjoy!
After a burn-out it was time for a change. I quit my job, sold my stuff and bought a one-way ticket to the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 4 month adventure turned into one year and counting......
Photo by: Vanessa Marques Barreto