Cuba is definitely worth a visit, as it’s very different compared to many other places in the world. And due to that, there are some things that are good to know when heading there for the first time. Here’s a little collection of hopefully useful tips!
Water: Buy it when you can, as it’s more difficult to find than you would think. Rum is plentiful and available everywhere, but bottled water is not that easy.
“No hay”: Two small words that you will become acquainted with in Cuba. Translating to “don’t have”, “no hay” is a common phrase in both shops and restaurants as well as hotel bars. When deciding what to order, it’s good to have a few choices ready in mind, since most things on the menu are most likely not actually available, and even mint can run out, making mojitos impossible. Oddly, “no hay” never appears to apply to rum…
Food: A lot of people claim that food in Cuba is not so great, but things are clearly changing at least in Havana. Yes, beans and rice are still present in many meals and some things like getting oregano for your pizza are unheard of, but especially in smaller non-government-owned restaurants the food is inventive and tasty, even Instagram-worthy. Yes, hipsters really have spread all over the world. Seafood, beef, chicken, and pork are all quite easily found, but vegetarian-friendly options (not to mention vegan) are a lot more scarce. And really be prepared to pick something else from the menu, since most of the time not all of the choices on the list are available. A reminder of the fact that there aren’t many things that are abundant in Cuba, even if you have the money. If you’re big on snacking and/or eating things like chocolate, remember to pack some in your bag: convenience stores and vending machines do not exist in Cuba.
Drinks: As mentioned above, the one thing there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of is rum, especially Havana Club. Exhorbitant amounts are consumed in mojitos, daiquiris, and Cuba Libres by tourists and straight from the bottle by locals. Back in Soviet times it was claimed that vodka was kept cheap to ensure the people stayed drunk and happy…could there be a recurring theme here, perhaps?
Money: Cash is king, and as a tourist you will be using a currency referred to as CUC. Locals, however, use a different currency, CUP. One CUC is worth roughly about 1 US dollar but about 250 in CUP, so understandably tips left be tourists are highly appreciated. If you stick to the main touristy places, prices and payments will be in CUC, but if you stray off the beaten path or happen to otherwise run into prices in CUP, it’s good to keep in mind that there is quite a big difference in value. That might explain why the prices in local markets seem extravagant at a first glance. CUC are only available within Cuba, so come prepared with Euros or dollars to exchange. In general, tourist prices are not super cheap but not exhorbitant either.
Buying things: There’s not a lot of shopping to be done in Cuba, and sometimes it might be difficult to buy even the basics, no matter how much money you have on you (see points “Water” and “No hay”…). So it’s a good idea to bring with you all the little things you might need, like first aid stuff, an umbrella, toothpaste and toothbrush, books to read on the beach, insect repellent, shampoo, sunscreen, etc.
Language: English works fine at least in Havana and Varadero, but it doesn’t hurt to know some Spanish.
The internet: Seriously does not exist for the most part, and if it exists, it’s not free. For example, the internet access that was mentioned in the description of the five star hotel in Havana meant that a guest can purchase vouchers for internet use for the price of 2 CUC per hour (equivalent to about 2€). If you want to get online out on the town, look for locals (and often tourists as well) hanging out with their phones in hand in a certain area of a plaza or park.
Weather: Hot and humid, bordering on steamy, as one would expect in the Caribbean. Rains can be torrential, so come prepared with an umbrella and a few pairs of shoes (some of which may not survive the muddy and sometimes garbage-filled streets of Havana…). On the other hand, sunscreen is also a must. And remember to pack enough: it might be impossible to find and if you are lucky enough to come by some, the price will not make you smile. Same goes for insect repellent.
Safety: Even though the streets and dark alleys of Havana may seem dangerous in the evening (like most things, street lamps are a bit scarce), Cuba is very safe for tourists in general. Locals refer to the police stations as scary places and do their best to avoid any contact with authorities. Crime rates are really low, but of course common sense is needed as always: you can hold you camera in your hand but don’t go throwing money around and expect people to pick it up and return it.
People: Cubans are friendly and seem quite content with life; at least there are a lot of smiles out on the town. Especially in Havana, the locals are quick to start up conversations with foreigners on the streets and seem genuinely interested in what others think of their country. However, if someone offers to guide you to a good bar or other place, beware that you will most likely be expected to offer your new friend a drink or other means of payment in return.
Organizing things: Don’t try it by yourself, as most likely it you’ll never find the correct desk / office / phone number. Also, be prepared to wait patiently in line if you want tickets for something, like a visit to a cigar factory. And of course, you need to buy those tickets in advance at a travel agency. As a general rule, patience is key. Things will happen at their own pace, so there’s no use in rushing it. If you’re staying in a hotel with a concierge or similar, use the services and save a lot of time and nerves, especially in Varadero. You would not believe how difficult it can be to try to rent a bike or book a fishing trip by yourself…
The Car Ride: Ok, so the one thing you don’t need help organizing is a ride in a classic car. The well-restored ones are highly prized by their owners and function as official taxis that also offer tours around town. Prices vary somewhat, but a one-hour tour in Havana for four averaged around 35-40 CUC. The less-well maintained cars aren’t officially allowed to operate as taxis for tourists, only locals, but if you happen to catch a ride in one anyway, the rates are clearly lower.
Music: There is music and rhythm everywhere. Live bands play on streets, squares, and rooftops as well as inside bars, restaurants, and cafés. Latin beats abound and you’re likely to hear more interpretations of Oye Como Va than you would care to within one lifetime. However, the live music feels like an integral part of Cuban culture, not just plastered on for the tourists, and a lot of the musicians are truly good at what they do. Just remember to keep a few small notes handy at the end of the set when the tip basket rolls around.
Cats and dogs: If you love animals, you’ll have plenty of photo opportunities with the dogs and cats wandering around the streets of Old Havana and in other places as well. If you don’t…well, tough luck, you’re gonna see them all over the place anyway. And as a positive point, they don’t look all scragly like strays but rather surprisingly healthy.
Fidel and Che: It’s impossible to visit Cuba without running into these two, who are still regarded as heroes and liberators. Official government-run establishments have the appropriate slogan posters on the walls and there are plenty of reminders of who to thank for the current way of life. However, compared to communist Vietnam, the amount of propaganda is not very substantial and appears more as pieces of art.
The Beach: Varadero is by far the best place to hit the beach in Cuba, and one of the best in the Caribbean overall. 20 km of pure soft white sand and turquoise waters on the northern side of the island, about 90 km east of Havana. You can fly there direct and just enjoy the sun and sea at one of the numerous all inclusive hotels, but that means missing out on actual Cuba: the Varadero peninsula is off limits for most Cubans and is focused solely on collecting income by servicing tourists. So while the beach is definitely worth a few days, it’s a good idea to combine Varadero with some more genuine experiences, like a couple days in Havana or other areas of the country.
This is by no means an exhaustive overview of life etc. in Cuba, but hopefully there are a few good pointers for those planning on heading to this interesting land!
For tips on bars, restaurants, sights, etc., check out the following: