I made it to Cuba, spending the New Year there. I have to admit that I didn’t totally fall in love with the country — I’ve been wanting to go for a long time, and especially once things have started easing up on the restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, I wanted to go before Starbucks and McDonald’s moved in and things got perhaps way too Americanized.
I’m so glad I went. It was a very unique experience, a place unlike anywhere else. The way it’s been so frozen in time, in a way — both the good and bad aspects of that. The architecture, most of it decaying and crumbling but also many signs of revitalization and new renovation or construction. The old 40s and 50s cars that are still everywhere. Especially I loved the culture, particularly the arts and music which you find everywhere. From the smallest paladar restaurant with 5 tables at lunchtime to the busiest bar on a Friday night, there is live music playing everywhere.
There was much I liked about Cuba, and I’m very glad I went. But I readily admit that I didn’t fall head over heels. And that’s okay — I don’t think we will, or should expect to, always fall in love with every place we visit. I can honestly say that while I’m glad I got to experience Cuba, I don’t have any real burning desire to go back.
And although I received many tips and suggestions from many friends who have been multiple times, and I read up a lot on it, there was still a LOT I learned from my own travel there — leading to the tips I’d like to share here. Let’s just title it, “What I would do differently if I was to visit Cuba again.”
- I would recommend you change $100 per person at the airport. We only changed a small amount for taxi and food the first day, having heard that the exchange rate was not as good at the airport. This is true; you will get a slightly less good rate there, but it’s not significantly worse. I wouldn’t change huge amounts of travel money there, but as we later found it’s not necessarily a quick endeavor to exchange money at the cadecas (money exchange bureaus) in town. If I had it to do again I would change enough to last me a couple of days upon arrival at the airport.
- Speaking of money, anyone planning a trip to Cuba likely knows that you need to take as much cash with you as you think you will need, plus an extra cushion. Although this is changing rapidly, at this point there are still very few places that accept credit cards (especially American ones, which generally don’t work at all in Cuba) and very few working ATM machines. In addition, you will be penalized if you change U.S. dollars, by about 10% — meaning when you change U.S. dollars you will receive 10% less back than you would if you were changing Canadian dollars or Euros. We took several hundred dollars in Euros from on a previous trip to Europe a few months prior.
- And those cadecas. We went to four — yes, count them, FOUR — on our first two days in country before we were able to change our Euros. On our first day, by the time we found the first cadeca we tried (an adventure in itself) at 4 pm, it was closed. Since we had changed very little money at the airport, we ended up changing a bit of money with some dude on the street on the black market. Done all the time in Cuba, but still can be risky. The second day, we tried our first cadeca, standing in line for about 15 minutes….before they closed for lunch. Went to second cadeca and stood in line…only to find out they didn’t exchange foreign money (only the two Cuban currencies — yes they have two, which can be confusing. One, the moneda nacional, is the local peso, and the other, the convertible peso, or CUC, is what is the equivalent of 1 to 1 with the U.S. dollar). We finally went to the third of that day and had success after about a half hour wait in line. All told we probably spent hours finding, and waiting in line, at various cadecas just to exchange money. It’s not easy or fast to get shit done in Cuba.
- It’s pretty well-known that Cuba does not have widely available internet service. In fact, it was only recently (with the slight loosening of restrictions that Raul Castro has been making since about 2006) that Cubans could even have internet service in their homes, from what I understand. Most still only access the internet at work, and it’s a very rare public place indeed that wi-fi is found anywhere in the country. At some of the larger hotels you can pay about 4-5 CUC (1 CUC is $1 USD) per hour for wi-fi access.
A better option, and what I wish I had done on my first or second day, is to buy a nauta wi-fi card. You can buy these pretty easily on the street, especially in touristy areas like Havana Vieja (just listen for the guys hawking wi-fi cards), for about 3 CUC/hour. You can also buy these at official ETESCA stores for about $1 more. Here’s a great article on the most recent internet changes in Cuba, provided by my writer friend (who is married to a Cuban), Julie Schwietert Collazo. Obviously at this price, staying connected and surfing or posting all day isn’t really an option. And quite honestly, a bit of disconnecting is refreshing to me.
That said — as difficult as it is to find out information in Cuba (opening hours, ticket prices, bus schedules, etc.), being able to look things up from time to time would have been extremely helpful. I missed a couple of prime things I wanted to see, such as Hemingway’s house outside Havana, because I couldn’t find out information (and the phone number I did find for the attraction, not surprisingly, didn’t work. A phone for one of the casas where we were staying also didn’t work, which meant we couldn’t check in with the person before we arrived).
TOURS & GETTING AROUND
- Now that I’ve been to Cuba, to be honest if I were a first-timer and had it to do over, I would go on a small group tour. I’m very much not a group tour or organized travel person; I’m much more an independent traveler. However, having now traversed Cuba as an individual traveler, I would highly recommend going with a small cultural group tour. We spent so much time simply getting things done such as changing money, buying bus tickets, trying to find out information, etc. Between that and having a nice overview and real introduction to this pretty closed-off country, I would highly recommend travelers go with a small group.
- If I had it to do again and I didn’t go with a group, but still independently, I would for sure book a short tour on the first day. A couple of hours or half-day orientation around Havana would have been both immensely and helpful, as well as a load of fun — especially in one of those cool, vintage 1950s cars that are all over the place. There are a couple of tour companies you can book with, like Havana Vintage Cars or Old Car Tours (disclaimer: I know nothing about these companies, just found them online). Also, another writer friend of mine, Monica Narang, stayed at a casa particulare that offered such tours, Casa Vitrales.
- Speaking of getting around, when I arrived I spent the first four nights and days in Havana, then also the last day and night as we were flying back out of Havana. If I had to do it all again, I would spend far less time in Havana and get out to other places. Many spots in Havana that you want to see are pretty crowded and touristy (Old Havana), and it’s the city with the most hassles. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty worth seeing there; but in my opinion, a couple of days is fine. I much preferred Cienfuegos and Trinidad; and I’ve also heard good things about Vinales and other further away spots.
- My last tips are to help you avoid getting ripped off. It’s only natural, that when the average Cuban makes about $30/month and there are so many wealthy tourists around (and believe me, if we are going there, no matter how much money we have, we are wealthy in comparison), that they would want to make a few extra bucks off us. I understand that. Having said that, if you want to avoid this as much as possible here are a few common things to avoid.
In restaurants: There will ALWAYS be a printed menu. Always. If the server just tells you the prices verbally, or gives you a handwritten menu, you are being taken. Every time. Especially if the price seems really high, and it includes a drink, dessert, coffee, etc. These “ofertas” that include it all are pretty common – but they will be on the menu, or at least on a board at the front of the restaurant, with the total price (usually 5-12 CUC). If you are told something different, the server is pocketing the difference. We got taken in by this on our first night, paying 14 and 16 for ofertas plates that we saw on the board, on the way out, for much less.
In taxis, pedi-cabs, etc: Always negotiate the rate before you get in and begin the trip. The main time this is not usually an option is in metered taxis, which we only encountered leaving the airport; and we got taken for an extra sightseeing ride around Havana while our driver “tried” to find our casa, resulting in about $15 more in fare than it should have been. Granted, this was likely in large part because the driver saw my boyfriend’s Mac laptop and probably figured we were good for a bunch of extra money. At any rate, negotiate a rate ahead of time, and whatever they quote you to begin with, you should always respond back with an offer of several CUCs less.