Cuba is a wonderful country. Everything just is and goes slightly different. That is actually one of the main reasons that makes Cuba so wonderful!!
Here is some of my personal advice on things you might want to consider to bring along when visiting this wonderful country, or might want to leave home, or need to be aware of. It’s a matter of managing expectations and being prepared so that you will be able to enjoy it the most. You may find some tips a bit general, which may be useful or considerable for other countries as well.
Cash in Cuba
Cubans pay with different money than tourists on Cuba. Tourists pay with Cuban Peso Convertible (CUC). In this way the government controls the complete cash flows on the island between Cubans and tourists. Check out this website or this website for the latest exchange rates and calculator.
There are no ATM’s and only some resorts and hotels accept credit cards (not American Express). CUC’s cannot be purchased out of Cuba. So where to get cash?
- A number of large hotels, in exchange for some extra commission. Hotel Nacional is one of the few places in Havana, which I can personally recommend.
- CADECA currency exchange booths at the international airports and for example in Varadero.
- Large banks offer cash withdrawal, often charging around 10% commission.
Bring enough money to be able to pay cash for accommodation, food, fun, etc. And bring Euros, not Dollars. For exchanging Dollars to CUC you will pay an extra fine of 10%. There are talks going on that this might change soon, now Obama went to Cuba, but at the moment this is still the case. I suggest you save your cash in different places in your luggage, handbag and on your body. You will not be able to get Euros back for CUC at the end of your trip, so you will have to spend all your cash there!
Update July 2019: apparently there are now some ATMs and there is a possibility to exchange CUC back to EUR when leaving Cuba
Clothing & shoes
Since Cuba has a topical climate with high humidity all year, it does not matter so much when you will be going, one thing is for sure: you will sweat! Between May and October the temperatures are the highest (25°C or 77 °F and up) and it is likely to rain almost every day. This might be a few showers a day, but it might also rain for days, whole days long.
Between November and April temperatures are more pleasant (average 22-25°C or 71-77°F) but it may also rain. It’s a big island so temperatures may vary per region. The obvious advice is to bring clothes and shoes suitable for these kind of temperatures. Those who forget to bring some long sleeves and pants/trousers/leggings will regret it. Very comfortable for the cooler days and evenings, against mosquito bites and for activities such as horseback riding. I saw only one (half empty) clothing shop on the whole island.
A pair of sturdy sneakers or walking shoes might be nice to wear during outdoor activities. And bring an umbrella because they are not so easy to find locally and you will be so happy with it when it rains for days… Do not expect a large umbrella to pass hand luggage security check though, so better leave it at your last accommodation. In addition do not forget your sunglasses and suntan spray!
As always: try to travel light. Dragging your heavy big hardtop suitcase 100 steps up to your casa is probably not high on your list of holiday highlights… However, as you might want to change shirts or dresses every day, or maybe even twice a day (since you probably sweat the moment you step out on the street), this can become quite a dilemma. If a backpack is not your thing, or your back might just not be happy to carry 20 kilos, something like this bag might be a suitable solution for you. Lighter than most suitcases, easy to roll, carry, grab and store. After trying this type of bag once to Cuba, my hardtop suitcase more or less retired.
Cuban Food & drinks
Shops are often –in our Western perspective- shockingly empty. I have seen many places where you cannot get much more than some bottles of water, a few sandwiches and fat snacks like chocolate and potato chips. The average lunch offered is a grilled cheese sandwich or a slice of cheese pizza. Often that is it, simply not much more available. Also, often shops are closed after 15:00h and during weekends. Especially when you are road tripping this may lead to a daily reoccurring hungry stomach on the go. And you know how certain people can get when they are hungry… Exactly, that’s not what you want.
So my advice would be to bring with you a number of packages of your favorite snacks such as breakfast or granola bars. Or crackers and some peanut butter for example. This might seem of minor relevance to you now, but think about it again when you are driving for hours with a growling stomach. Dry, pre-packed food is the best, not fresh because it is in most countries not allowed to bring in. Please check the latest custom regulations for Cuba to ensure you do not bring in anything illegal.
If you would like to try lobster, grab your chance on Cuba; great taste and costs only a fraction of what you would pay in Europe, Canada or Asia, only around $10. The best lobster I ate was in Havana on Plaza de Armas at a restaurant called La Mina. I also had a very tasty chicken at our casa in Santa Clara, and there was even a tiny hamburger place called McDunald on the main square
A cool place called La Vitrola – Tapas y Copas, located in the same corner as Factoria on Plaza Vieja, serves some nice croquetas, along with a view on the live band on the terrace across the street.
The mangos on Cuba are absolutely divine. You can see them hanging on the trees. It is hard to find a casa that does not serve mango juice and slices of mango for breakfast.
But when I am super honest I have to say: do not expect too much top notch gastronomic delights. Realistically speaking there is scarcity on the island, so Cubans are used to prepare meals with the ingredients they can get (or afford). No spicy burritos as in Mexico or juicy steaks as in Argentina. The average Cuban kitchens seems to lack herbs. Cuba cannot be compared to a country like Italy, where food is one of the main highlights. They do their best. I guess somehow accidently we did not encounter many good places on our trip, there must be some very good restaurants on the island. My general impression is that most Cubans focus on other enjoyments such as music, rum, etc.
Cuba is a rum lovers’ paradise. Mojito’s are very popular, in some casas this will be offered as a welcome drink. The price for a rum mix drink like mojito can be as low as 1.5 CUC per glass. That’s about € 1.35 or US$ 1.50! For a glass of wine you will be easily charged up to 4 or 5 times the price of a mix drink like mojito. We loved the cocktails at Floridita in Havana. Relatively expensive yet a nice experience we kept coming back for. It used to be Hemingway’s favorite hangout.
For tea lovers I would recommend to bring a package of your own favorite flavor/brand. Often there is not much more than peppermint flavor or something, especially in casas the choice is very limited. There is no Coca Cola or Pepsi either, Cuba has their own soda brands.
Medicine are not easy accessible on Cuba. Please be smart and bring at least some mosquito repellent spray or roller, anti-itch salve and medicines against inflammation after insect bite. Better be safe than sorry! My friend had a severe allergic reaction to mosquito bites in Havana and the humps itched terribly. Out of Havana center there is an international pharmacy (Clinica International Cira Garcia at Calle 20 and 40 in Miramar) but it is not easy to find. My friend had to live with dozens of huge itchy humps on her body for weeks. Inconvenience is an understatement.
I would also suggest to bring some general medical stuff with you, such as painkillers, anti-headache, anti-diarrhea and anti-nausea pills (Paracetamol, Ibuprofen, etc.), bandages, etc. One casa owner asked us for Ibuprofen because her husband’s leg hurt so much and they did not have any. Make sure you have a health insurance and/or travel insurance that covers Cuba. Bring along your insurance policy number and 24/7 phone numbers from both your own insurance and that of your travel company. In times of need you will be glad you did.
Leave your expensive, flashy jewelry at home. It may attract negative responses or worse. It is not recommendable to go out on the street on your own after sunset, especially in certain parts of cities like Havana and females alone. Take a taxi and agree on a price before departure. Keep your camera in your bag and hold your bag carefully. Lock your suitcase or backpack when out of your sight. Park your rental car on a secure place. In Havana a good place to park your rental car is the roof top parking lot of the hospital at Belascoain/Malecon, for some small payment to the guard. While on the road, don’t stop for hitchhikers or fake road officers (uniformed and whistling).
Are you female? Will your boyfriend, husband or father join you? To our experience this company will save you a lot of obvious flirting men crossing your path. If you are traveling alone or with females only, you are likely to hear a lot of “pssst chica”, “hey bonita”, “hola guapa”, etc. This is meant friendly by the -often gorgeous- Cuban men. But if this happens with almost every move you take for some ladies this may feel overwhelming, annoying or even scary. Enjoy, ignore, take a taxi at night or join a group tour…
You might want to bring back home some nice souvenirs; a bottle of rum or a box of cigars maybe? Be careful where and from whom you buy. Cigars of famous Cuban brands are surprisingly hard to get on Cuba. Most are produced for export, which benefits the Cuban government big time.
When you visit a factory or plantation, the quality will be better, employees (guiding you from the road to the plantation and back) often try to sell them personally to tourists as well. The best time to visit a tobacco plantation is January, when the leaves are harvested, dried and rolled.
Cigars offered on the streets are often of poor quality. There is a possibility to buy cigars and/or rum at the airport departure hall of Havana International Airport, but if you buy them before security, they are usually confiscated by the authorities. After airport securities prices are much higher.
Books & music
Cuba is one of those countries that is awesome when the sun shines, but when it rains there is not so much to do. There were days that we could not do much else than reading in our casa. There are no big museums like in London or New York. The only time we saw books for sale was on the second hand book market on Plaza de Armas in Havana. So modern books and/or other reading material that you brought from home might light up those rainy days a bit… Sometimes travelers leave some of their books in casas, in exchange for another or luggage space.
Cuba is a country of music. On almost every terrace there is a live band to sing a few songs for the guests. Of course some bands are better than the others. But for sure all of them know how to play the song ‘Guantanamera’. Up to the point where you cannot hear the damn song in any longer haha. After the performance a band member will go around the audience to collect some cash. Usually the band also offers CD’s for sale with their picture on it, which often does not contain their own music or does not work at all.
Cocktail bar Floridita in Havana has good live bands. Casa de la Música in Trinidad is entertaining. If you want to go dancing in a bar or club, ask your casa owner for advice. A big benefit of group tours on Cuba is that your guide will know the good places and will hold your bag when you want to hit the dance floor. And yes, of course bring your earphones and smartphone or MP3 player with your favorite music. The types of music installations in rental cars varies, some have AUX, other a CD player, barely any USB connection, some only radio.
Giveaways & paper
Cuba loves children, in many cases casa owners have kids or grandchildren. You might notice that these kids have nothing or only a few toys to play with. Cubans are not rich people. You might want to consider bringing some small giveaways. Crayons, coloring books, bubble blowers, balloons, yo-yos, gumballs… The kids will love it. And it does not have to cost much! Go to Action and buy a few things.
We also brought a bunch of pens and fridge magnets for adults, which they really appreciated. It is not uncommon that tourists also decide to donate their clothes to Cubans. Do not bring anything expensive, no presents of significant value, as this might cause trouble with authorities.
Bring not only paper to write on, but also a roll of toilet paper and paper handkerchiefs might be smart to bring… Often we found only a tiny roll of toilet paper in our room, which can cause very inconvenient situations. Especially when your bowels are acting strange.
Prints & maps
On Cuba you probably have no or barely any access to the magic internet. This is quite an experience for those who are used to utilize their smartphone, tablet or laptop to look-up all kinds of stuff on a daily basis. During our trip we had access to internet once, during the few days that we spent in the only hotel that we used, but it was terribly slow and my email provider did not allow me access as it did not trust the attempt to connect. You will have to ask a local or call home to get the latest weather forecast. It might also be smart to save some stuff on your smartphone, for example print screens or certain Spanish words in Google Translate app.
Make sure you have good maps, especially when renting a car on Cuba. This Cuba Road Guide is the best we could find. It’s available from Cuba Incentives, who can also arrange Cuban visa papers and rental cars. The map is in book format; I would advise you to stick the map pages to one big map on forehand. For road trips you will need maps of the island and the main highways, but also of detailed streets in cities so you know exactly how to drive from the highway to your casa or hotel and the other way around.
Print detailed maps how to go from A to B, but also accommodation reservations, addresses and contact details, travel planning, etc. Basically everything that you otherwise would have looked up online during your holiday.
If you are not well prepared, this is likely to cause severe delays, frustration, etc. Cuba lacks clear/enough direction signs, therefore maps are crucial. Of course it also helps if you speak some Spanish to ask for directions, but you will be surprised how many people will not know or provide incorrect directions. We experienced this when trying to find our way out of Havana to Maria La Gorda. In Havana use the Malecón as starting point, or ask a taxi driver to lead you to the highway. More tips about renting a car in a future blog.
Visa & Passport
Make sure you check out the latest requirements to access Cuba as a tourist applicable for your country, for example with CIBT. The most common visa requirement is a tourist card. Dutch people can order one easily via Cubavisa.net, a website of Cuba Incentives. The tourist card costs app. 25 euro. You can also order the Cuba road map (mentioned earlier) via this website.
Camera & chargers
And of course: bring your camera! Cuba is a very photogenic country. But watch it carefully. In some streets and neighborhoods you might want to keep it in your bag. And bring your chargers, it is not like you can buy them on a street corner in Cuba. In most places I could use my European two pin flat plugs, in a few others I had to use my US plug. See for example this website for more information.
There are plenty of large forum websites like Lonely Planet and on TripAdvisor with many tips. The above is the practical advice I can give you based on my own personal experience. I hope you will find it useful!
Prepare and go with the right expectations. I believe that will be the best way to enjoy your Cuba trip the most. For more information, check out my other blog posts about Cuba with lots of tips:
- more general considerations in blog post Accommodation and Transport in Cuba
- specific information in blog post My favorite casa particulares in west and central Cuba
- Havana Highlights of the capital of Cuba