Heading to Cuba soon? Read this brilliant guest article full of Cuba travel tips written by my friend Adam Tiffany, the man behind this great article on Central America. All photos are also courtesy of Adam!
At the beginning of 2016, Cuba was propelled into the firing line of package holiday companies and hoteliers the world over, with a decision by the United States to remove a trade embargo imposed on Cuba that had been in place since the 1960’s. This subsequent action naturally initiated a knock on effect to begin the inevitable race for the backpack to arrive before the suitcase, the hammock before the sun lounger and the flip flops before the crocs. So earlier this year, terrified by the fact this dream destination of mine was in the grasps of becoming America’s very own Benidorm, I made my way to the starting line in Havana.
Unfortunately, the starting pistol misfired, jamming repeatedly, time and again, throughout Cuba. How can I put this politely? Well, in its own beautiful and frustrating way, the country runs about as smoothly as an old Russian Lada and has the efficiency of an American Hummer. So for the mental health of backpackers worldwide who are about to embark on this journey, here are 12 useful tips and advice that weren’t online before I got there!
Cuba travel tips to read before you leave
1: Cheapest ways of getting there
The cheapest flights I have found are from Mexico’s Cancun to Havana return, which at time of writing cost £160 ($207) return. From London, around £480 ($622) return, and from the U.S, Houston to Havana return was $311 (£240).
Tourist Visas for Cuba lasting 30 days are obtained from your airline desk before your flight at a cost of around £13 ($16.87) alongside a simple form to complete before boarding. Surprisingly easy!
Cuba operates a complicated two currency system, CUC and CUP, which a Cuban guy told me would take me 6 months to get my head around, and I still have no idea how it works! The CUC is pegged to the U.S dollar and mimics its value exactly 1:1, and is worth 25 times more than the CUP. CUC effectively is the tourist cash which you will nearly always use, CUP is the people’s cash you will nearly never use. You should only withdraw CUC! A 10% additional currency exchange rate is hit to people converting U.S dollars. You can only obtain Cuban currency inside Cuba, and on top of this, you can’t exchange Cuban currency anywhere outside of Cuba.
4: Getting cash
Slowly but surely, Cuba is getting ATM’s, but do they work? Well, for me and my girlfriend upon arrival in Cuba, using 4 different types of debit/credit cards, no. We fortunately found a cabbie who would take us downtown to try other ATM’s, however, there are only two types of ATM’s and they didn’t work either! Fortunately all banks (which close at 3pm and on weekends) will give you cash as long as you have your passport and accept Visa or MasterCard and are accessible in any major town. If you land on a weekend or after 3pm, ask to go to ‘Hotel Nacional’ in central Havana, where a guest service is on offer where a cash withdrawal does work for visa cards.
There are no hostels that I’m aware of In Cuba. This may be because outside business in Cuba is very rare due to strict and hugely expensive tariffs implemented to any foreigners trying to set up business by the government.
What they do have are a type of accommodation called ‘casa particulars‘. These are guest houses (usually family homes) that are government approved accommodation for foreigners, and at the price of a hostel with the luxury of a budget hotel, they’re great! This accommodation usually includes staying in a large private room with a double bed (often with another single bed), air con and an en suite bathroom. The going rate is £13-15 ($/CUC 15-25) for the room including breakfast and can be negotiable. This is also an excellent opportunity to gain advice on places to go next. Booking is never needed as the casa’s are plentiful everywhere, just keep your eye out for the blue symbol! My favourite casa was in Playa Larga, Roger and Meby were the friendliest cubans we met, cooked the best lobster and gave us free mojitos on arrival! Cannot reccomend staying here enough!! Email and telelphone number and adress are below.
6: The irresistible WIFI question
Don’t panic! Cuba has the Internet! Well, probably 1% of Cuba. WIFI zones are found (if you can find them, we found just one in Havana but I’m sure there’s more) on random streets where huge amounts of people gather to use it. It’s quite bizarre to watch. To access it, when it works, you simply buy an access card off a vendor nearby costing around $7 per hour.
7: Public Transport
Buses are expensive in contrast to the nearby Central American prices. Expensive in backpacking terms means expect to pay £3 ($/CUC 4.5) per hour of travel. Most businesses are government run so there is very often no competition to hamper prices down. Viazul is the main bus company and has bus terminals covering the entire country in most major towns/ cities and are pretty good quality. However, remember where you are in the world, because on our return to Havana to catch a flight the bus never arrived so we ended up having to go up the motorway in the back of a dumper truck!
Hitch hiking is normal in Cuba. Taxis aren’t extortionate, however they will try and charge more if they can get away with it (a surprise to most readers I’m sure). The Airport to central Havana should cost around 20 $\CUC, central Havana to Viazul bus terminal should be around 8 $\CUC. There’s also plenty of possibility of getting an old American classic car taxi to take you there too! Just wave them down!
8: Hiring transport
Hiring a car is possible but you will need to book ahead as there are simply not enough cars for demand! Car rental prices are on par with most western prices. Seemed a lot harder to try and book the American classic cars though.
Hiring motorbikes is a lot easier outside of Havana (where it was near enough impossible to find a bike hirer with stock) and are £13-16 (CUC/$18-21) per day depending on length of hire. These bikes are only 50cc automatic mopeds and there is no other option, but will carry two people at decent enough pace if you’re trying to save money. Surprisingly, we hired one from Playa larga (we caught the bus from Havana to here and got a bike easily and hassle free even on return) all the way to Trinidad and back carrying the both of us without any mechanical problems at all. Also it’s nice to note that the roads are in very good condition and that other road users are not maniacs either…. for once.
9: Food, Alcohol…and Cigars
Cuban rum…. It’s fantastic! It’s also CUC/$3 for a 700ml bottle! This makes it around the same price as water. For the food, main meals in restaurants can vary from CUC/$4-10 but don’t expect any culinary wonders. The families usually offer an invitation to join them for home cooked dinner in the casa particulars costing around $/CUC6-8 per person. Lobster dinner is a favourite and will probably be the biggest lobster dinner you will ever have! This is usually your best option. For budget backpackers, the fruit is phenomenally cheap and probably the tastiest fruit I’ve ever tried. The cigars need no introduction, but for prices, cigars can range from anything from 1$/CUC to 10 $/CUC.
The diving is the cheapest I’ve ever found, CUC/$25 per dive! (Playa Larga) This beats Koh Tao in Thailand and Utila in Honduras, the two places regarded as the cheapest places worldwide to dive. What’s the catch? There is none! In fact it’s one of my favourite dive sites to date!
11: What I’d recommend
Catching a bus from Havana to Playa Larga and then motor biking from Playa Larga to Trinidad via El Nicho national park. This is minimal information because I always think it’s best to make your own individual plans so this can be used as just a blueprint perhaps. However El Nicho national park definitely needs to be on your itinerary.
12: What to avoid
Varadero. Varadero represents Cuba about as much as adding coca-cola to rum and naming it a Cuba Libre represents making a decent cocktail. It’s a socks and sandal hotel metropolis basically.
I hope these Cuba travel tips that I’ve mentioned helps in some way and you discover Cuba is everything you imagine it to be. For me, it looks exactly how it did on the postcards; the old American classic cars were everywhere, the rum was cheaper then water and the people were as warm and welcoming as the Caribbean climate itself, and for the time being, cements itself firmly as one of my all time favourite destinations.