Exploring the biggest of all Caribbean islands can be a great adventure, but it doesn’t come without a couple challenges. Here is what you need to know before traveling to Cuba!
All the information in one place:
- Finding and connecting to wifi
- The dual currency issue and how to get cash
- Do you really need a visa
- Culinary experiences or – “The R&B diet”
It seems like only a day has passed, since I sat in one of the two wooden rocking chairs, my grandmother has sitting out on her porch. They have been there as long as I can remember and welcome guests to sit down, have a cuban coffee and conversation.
My father’s family lives in a small village about an hour and a half away from the endless beaches of Varadero. A million tourists are traveling tu Cuba year by year, lots of them Russian, Canadian and German, landing on the holiday resort´s own airport. However, most tourists stick to the resort areas with little opportunity to interact with local Cubans beyond their hotel staff. In fact, up until 1997, it was actually illegal for locals to mingle with international tourists. Did you know that? I bet not. Here are some more surprising facts about Cuba!
It Is Easy To Visit Cuba Without Really Visiting Cuba.
Numerous tourist destinations such as Varadero and Cayo Coco were built for the sole purpose of bringing tourists and their foreign currency to the island. Cubans were mostly excluded and what is presented to the tourists, is a blueprint of reality. If you plan on traveling to Cuba, go beyond the typical tourist hot spots. I will map out a couple of great destinations for your trip in one of the next posts!
Here are a few destinations to start with:
- Santa Clara
- Santiago de Cuba
Cuba Is From Another Time.
Life on the island is simple – yet terribly complicated in some ways. The people are genuine and humble. Forced by the circumstances, Cubans appear incredibly inventive. They don’t have much, but they know how to make most of it – it doesn’t always match western standards, but that is OK. One should not expect it to.
No Wifi, No Problem?
It is easy to assume that nowadays wifi is everywhere. You´ll be surprised how difficult it actually can be when you are traveling to Cuba. Until 2015 Cubans were completely cut off the rest of the world wide web. Back then the government decided to install wifi in certain areas of the bigger cities, mostly on main plazas. You’ll have to purchase an internet card for 2$ per hour at an ETECSA agency and find an internet plaza. They’re easy to pick out because you’ll notice many people on their phones and tablets talking to relatives and checking Facebook. Some ETECSA shops have long waiting lines, especially in Havana. If you want to skip the line, go directly to the square, there will always be a Cuban (illegally) selling internet cards for a dollar or two more. That is how they make their living.
Don’t expect the wifi to be super fast. It is nearly impossible to upload high resolution pics, not speaking of watching a movie. Using Skype can be tough, too. I learned that the app “imo” is mostly used by Cubans to connect with family members living abroad and works other than whatsapp and the facebook messenger great if you want to call family and friends. Make sure to download it before you take off to Cuba and tell your loved ones to do so, too.
You might be used to getting around with the help of Google maps and will be surprised to find out that Google´s offline service doesn’t cover the island. No big deal. Check “Cuba Offline Map” and “Galileo Offline” for the same service. Galileo even tracks your movement and brings you back home if you get lost (very handy for a day dreamer like me).
Good news: Rumors are that Cubans won’t always have to go to public wifi spots. Click here for more info.
The Dual Currency Issue.
Cuba’s dual-currency system seems to cause a bit of confusion with some travelers. The official currency that locals use is the Cuban Peso (CUP), however Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the new “tourist” currency that most foreign visitors use in replacement of the Dollar (2004). One convertible is worth 25 pesos. Non-Cubans deal almost exclusively in convertibles. I recommend you to change a couple of your CUC´s to Cuban pesos, it will buy you cheap pizza, bread and bus fares.
The Dollar is the only currency that get’s hit with a 10% penalty when you are trying to changing them for CUC´s. You’re better off bringing euros with you! Money should only be changed at a bank or official Cadeca Casa de Cambio, but there are plenty of people offering to exchange with you on the streets. Be careful, as they might try to rip you off. Even shopkeepers are notorious for short-changing transactions, some taking advantage of tourist confusion and switching CUP for CUC. Be aware and come prepared when you are traveling to Cuba!
Credit Cards Are Useless.
You are used to paying even smallest bills with credit cards? Well, you will have to change your ways when you are traveling to Cuba. This is mostly a cash society, so have plenty of small bills on hand (Important!!!) There has actually been a US-credit card ban for the longest time, nonetheless, I saw a couple of ATM´s in Havana and Varadero that now seem to accept American credit cards.
If you have any experience on the use of credit cards in Cuba, please leave me a comment bellow, and I will be happy to add that info!
Broke in Havana. Read here what happens if you are American citizen and forget to take enough cash to Cuba! True Story.
The Visa Issue.
To enter Cuba, you must have a valid passport, valid health insurance (U.S. insurance companies are not accepted) and a return ticket. I am always prepared to show proof of my health insurance in Spanish, but was never asked for it. Still, make sure you bring documentation just in case.
A tourist card that serves as visa is also required. These can be obtained from the airline or travel agency which you bought your ticket from. I recommend to check if you can buy them directly at the airport or even better: The Cuban embassy in your home country. Should you be living close by, let’s say in Berlin, you can safe quite a few bucks. Friends payed 25€ at the embassy in Berlin. Whereas American Airlines asked for 80$ to go through a travel agency. At the Miami airport a friendly Cuban lady sells the tourist cards for 50$ on a desk right before you board the airplane. Make sure to hold on to your tourist card as you will need it to exit the country.
The is a lot of confusion when it comes to American travellers and the regulations for US citizens. In theory, any traveller coming through the US has to prove the purpose of his trip.
The Troubled Vegan Travellerv(Or Any Other To Be Honest .
Embrace yourself and get ready for the “R&B Diet” – a meal plan of rice and beans. Not that this would be any different from most of the Cuban´s diet. But they do love their chicken and pork and don’t have a glue what “vegetariano” really means. My recommendation: Be patient and practice your Spanish. There will be a lot of explaining to do. And take snacks, lots of snacks. It saved my life about 5 to 6 times (what would I do without my Clif Bars :P).
After this introduction into a yet fairly unknown world, I hope you got curious to learn more about Cuba, its people and culture!
You have been traveling to Cuba before and got some additions to this list? I would be happy to add them! Please leave a comment below!
Safe travels, Jen