Cuba: Quick and Dirty Travel Guide

Cuba is an island paradise and you’ll feel the time warp as soon as you arrive. Although the country is a bit cut off from the rest of the world in terms of trade and access to information, it is very open to tourism, now more so than ever. It’s definitely a unique travel experience you won’t forget any time soon.

Background

  • Economy: Cuba is one of the world’s last centrally planned Marxist-Leninist states. The economy is dominated by state-owned enterprises, although there has been limited economic liberalization since 2011 that has created a budding private tourism sector.
    • GDP per capita was estimated to be $11,900 USD in 2016.
    • Roughly 74.2% of the economy is driven by services. Industry accounts for 21.5% and agriculture only makes up 3.9%.
    • About 72.3% of the labor force works in the state-run economy, although the number of “cuentapropistas,” or entrepreneurs that are self-employed is growing.

 

  • Money: Cuba has two currencies, the CUC (convertible peso) and the CUP (national currency). The CUC is pegged to the USD ($1 CUC = $1 USD), while the CUP is set at 25 to 1 CUC, meaning each CUP is worth $0.04 USD.
    • Officially, foreigners are only allowed to use the CUC. The CUP is meant for use by Cubans only, although it is possible to find people willing to exchange between the two for you, for a small price.
    • Prices vary wildly depending on the currency you use. If you’re looking for a budget experience, try to get CUP.
    • American bank (ATM) cards will not work in Cuba. Be sure to bring in hard currency to exchange if you bank in the US. Canadian dollars, Mexican pesos, and Euros are preferable to USD as there is a surcharge on exchanging USD.

 

  • People: There are over 11 million Cubans in Cuba, and over 1 million more abroad, mostly in the US. It’s a multi-ethnic society.

 

  • Language: Similar to other Caribbean countries, Cuban Spanish is known for its weak pronunciation of consonants and the swallowed final s’s.

 

  • Cities
    • Havana: The capital city is easy to fly to and is absolutely full of historical sights. Many of the big attractions are a bit worn down, but it’s great fun to walk down the streets, pop into old churches, visit old castles, and ride in a 1950’s car. There are lots of museums on Cuban history as well.
    • Santiago de Cuba: Cuba’s second-largest city is located on the southeastern edge of the island. It has lots of museums and is home to the San Pedro de la Roca fortress. Fidel Castro also proclaimed the success of the Cuban Revolution here in 1959.
    • Camagüey: Roughly halfway between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey is good stopover. Its historic center is the largest in Cuba and a delight to wander through.
    • Holguín: This is the capital of the province where Christopher Columbus first landed in the new world. Tourists visit to see the picturesque Caribbean beaches and to take in the rugged coastal mountains.
    • Cienfuegos: The only city in Cuba founded by the French. It has wide streets, a good market, a castle, and an abandoned nuclear plant. A good stopover on the way to/from Trinidad for 1-2 days. Walking through Punta Gorda, a beautiful 1950’s neighborhood by the water, is a lot of fun.
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El Capitolio in Havana at night.

  • Other Destinations:
    • Trinidad: A wonderfully-preserved colonial town. You can easily spend 2-3 days here looking at the sunset from the clock tower, visiting the Museum of the War Against the Bandits, wandering the cobble-stone streets, and hiking/horse riding to nearby waterfalls.
    • Viñales: Said to be Fidel Castro’s favorite place in Cuba, Viñales is a beautiful mountain town known for its tobacco production. Also home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you have a little money to spend, doing a tour of a tobacco farm is highly recommended.
    • Varadero: An upscale island paradise with 20 km of white beaches. Today, it’s the home of many resorts and a big upscale tourist hotspot. This is definitely the place if you’re looking for a resort experience.
  • Tourist Friendliness: This one is a mixed bag. Cubans are very friendly and often approach you on the street, but it’s almost always with the intention of selling you something. See here for more about the appeal of tourism, but the main point is that most Cubans work for commission by giving hotel, restaurant, and taxi referrals. Cubans are very friendly if you speak Spanish and people that work in tourism speak English quite well, but beware of always being sold something.
    • That being said, once we moved past the selling routine, we found Cubans to be very open, eager to make friends, and fun!

 

Planning a Visit

Budget:

On average, we spent about $70.85 USD/person/day in Cuba, including our flights from Mexico to Nicaragua. We stayed in official casas particulares, one unofficial casa particular, and ate almost exclusively at paladares (cheap local restaurants). We got from city to city by private taxi and negotiated pretty hard with others to get a group discount. Within the cities, we mostly walked around and saw the free sights.

If you exclude our flights from Mexico and to Nicaragua, we spent an average of $27.05 USD/person/day. Most people that visit will spend a good amount more. We’re definitely on the lower end of the budget spectrum and were staying extra cheap to make up for our flights in and out of the country. Our spending broke down to roughly $10 USD/person/day for housing, $7.5 USD/person/day for food, $7 USD/person/day on transportation, and $2 USD/person/day for fun.

Internet in Cuba is extremely limited. 

  • You can buy Wifi cards with 1 hour and 20 minutes of usage time from ETECSA, the government-run store, for about $1.50 USD, but you’ll have to wait in line. These cards are commonly resold for about $3.00 USD. With card in hand, you can log onto the internet using public Wifi spots, but coverage is spotty and expect to be kicked off semi-often.
  • I’d recommend downloading an offline travel guide, Spanish phrasebook, and map before you go. At least book a place to stay in Havana so you have somewhere to go when you land. From there, you can get recommendations from your host, or book online if you prefer.

Transportation

Most people fly in and out of Havana, although you can also fly into Santiago de Cuba and Varadero if you like.

Between cities:

  • There are public bus companies like Viazul, but they’re relatively expensive and get booked full a few days in advance. Their online bookings rarely work, so it’s best to go in person to book tickets way ahead of time. There are other cheaper, more flexible bus companies like Astro, but they’re only available for Cubans. We tried to book there, but were turned away.
  • We found it was much easier to work with unofficial taxis. You definitely have to bargain and it’s always best to go as a group to split the fare as it is a bit expensive, but they’re way more flexible. We ended up paying $30 USD each to go from Havana to Trinidad, $7 USD each to go from Trinidad to Cienfuegos, and $17 USD each to go back to Havana from Cienfuegos. The upside is that you get to ride in a private car, can take photos with the old cars if you like, and they’ll pick you up and drop you off wherever you want.

Within cities:

  • Public buses are the way to go. The fare is usually $1 CUP ($0.04 USD) per person and they go everywhere. You’ll have to speak some Spanish to figure out which bus to get on and where to get off, but it’s worth it.
  • Classic car taxis are expensive ($20-30 USD/ride), but very popular.

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Food

The restaurant scene varies widely in Cuba. There are a lot of high-end restaurants in Old Havana and the nicer parts of other cities that charge US or European prices for a dinner entree (think $20-30 USD/meal) and you can get whatever you want. Seafood seemed to be really popular, along with Italian food. You’ll typically pay at these types of restaurants in CUC.

We stuck to mostly family-run paladares (family-run restaurants) that charge in CUP for budget reasons. Our average meal cost was $2.55 USD/person. The food was decent, although not varied. If you’re on a low budget, get ready for rice and beans, chicken, french fries, and a bit of salad. Pizza is also pretty popular.

Accommodation

This can be pricey in Cuba. A regular hotel will go for $25-100 USD/night and the resorts or higher-places can be even more. You can make reservations online.

Staying at a casa particular (a Cuban bed and breakfast) is a great alternative. Since 1997, the Cuban government has allowed citizens to rent out extra rooms to tourists and the market has exploded. Official casa particular owners do have to pay the Cuban government for the right to work for themselves and are officially licensed in return. Nowadays there’s an official website for booking. AirBnb has also connected with local casa particular owners and you can book from abroad, although be sure to do it several days in advance. Internet access is very limited in Cuba and owners can’t respond quickly. I recommend booking using one of the two links above at least a week before you go.

If you’re traveling to more than one city, ask your first host if they can recommend another casa particular in the next city you want to visit. 

You’ll see a blue and white sign outside of all the official casas particulares. We stayed in 3 in Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad for $20-25 USD/night for the both of us. They were all clean, well-touched up, and our hosts were extremely welcoming.

In Havana, we also made friends with a local shopkeeper and stayed with her family for $15 USD/night for the two of us, with all meals included. This was not an officially licensed casa particular and honestly a pretty amazing deal that would be hard to replicate if you don’t spend some serious time bargaining and speak fluent Spanish.

Health/Vacinations

The CDC recommends you get vaccinations for:

  1. Routine vaccines (measles, mumps, rubella, flu shot…)
  2. Typhoid
  3. Hepatitis A and B
  4. Rabies if you’re visiting certain areas.

When we flew in from Mexico, they didn’t ask for our vaccination records.

 

Get Out There!

Cuba is a blast from the past, but be ready before you go. It really is a world stuck in another time and it’s best to do your homework. Download some apps, book your first casa particular through AirBnb, and tell everyone you won’t have internet access while you’re there.

From there, get ready to enjoy disconnecting from the outside world and getting to know Cuba. We loved the architecture, the public bus system, the people, and learning more about Cuban history. Click here to read more about our 10 days there.

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Sunset over Havana

If you have any questions, feel free to ask!

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