Cuba was everything I had expected. Vintage cars, stunning beaches, beautiful colonial Architectures and their music makes you want to dance! This is a land filled with colours, visiting Cuba was like going back in time. Now finally, Americans can travel to this beautiful country legally, many suggest you should go to Cuba before it changes. It is noticeable that prices are indeed getting higher than before, but travelling in Cuba by yourself is still not that easy. Here are a few things you may want to know before starting your first trip to Cuba.
A tourist card is required. It can be obtained from the airline or travel agency which you bought your ticket from. Be careful when filling it out, a new one will cost you 25 Dollars! Don’t lose your tourist card, you will need it to exit the country.
Cuban currency is not traded internationally, you will have to convert your money upon arrival. There are two types of currency in Cuba: Tourists will be given CUC (Cuban convertible peso) and CUP are mainly used by Cubans. 1 CUC is worth 25 Cuban pesos. (As of July 2016)
The exchange between USD and CUC is subject to a 10% surcharge (penalty). US visitors may do better by first changing money into euros or Canadian Dollars before converting them to CUC.
Don't just stay in a hotel if a truly unforgettable experience is what you are looking for. Whether you are travelling on a budget or want to further immerse yourself into Cuban culture, I believe your choice should be Casa Particular.
In 1997, the Cuban government announced that Cubans could rent out rooms/apartments to tourists after register their home as a privately owned business. It opens the door for foreigners who prefer to stay with local family, chat with homeowners and learn about their daily lives and the nation's culture. Most casa particulars cost between 20 and 40 CUC per night and meals are usually not included (Breakfast should be around 5 CUC and dinner 10-15 CUC). You will find plenty of them on the internet, so either reserve a room through the website or call the casa owner because many of them don't have emails. (Don't forget to contact the owner 2 days before arrival to confirm your stay.)
Viazul bus is the cheapest way to travel around Cuba, and it is air conditioned. Now you can pay with credit card to purchase tickets online. (Go to the bus station at least an hour before departure. )
The long distance taxi service is actually pretty good. They pick you up and drop you off at your hotel/casa particular. The rates are negotiable, you can also find someone to travel with you to share the cost. Luckily, I was travelling in a 1950s' American car, and it turned out to be quite comfortable. You will see a lot of people hitchhiking, this is how locals get to work and travel between towns. It is common for Cubans to pick up local hitchhikers, but they CAN NOT offer tourists a ride without an official license, this is illegal.
In HAVANA , I strongly suggest you take the one-hour vintage car tour. It was definitely the highlight of my trip. 30 CUC for an hour and the driver will explain to you about the history behind those buildings along the way. Absolutely worth it!
Internet access still remains restricted in Cuba. Don’t expect it to be available at your casa particular. If you’re staying at a resort, you might find WiFi hotspot in your hotel lobby. WiFi cards can be purchased at the reception for 2 CUC/hour.
It's better to download an offline map app prior to your travel. (*I recommend MAPS.ME. It's really detailed and you can zoom in and out smoothly!)
As a consequence of economic situation/trade restrictions, Cuba lacks in its culinary delights. That being said, you can still find good meals here and there, but don't expect it to be a gourmet paradise. If you are tired of the resorts and want to try authentic Cuban food, I recommend visiting the Paladars (Paladares in Spanish). Usually family-run restaurants in private residences. It's a chance for you to taste traditional home cooked meals.
GRATUITIES & TIPPING
Expect to tip almost everywhere you go Resorts, hotels, restaurants, cab drivers etc. A 10% tip will be very welcome. Live music is performed around almost every corner in old Havana, mostly in restaurants. Musicians will come to your table to collect tips or offer you a CD to purchase, so it’s a good idea to have a few 1 CUC notes on hand.
Don't leave coins, unless they are in CUC. Cuban banks DO NOT accept foreign coins for exchanging into local currency.
WHEN TO VISIT
Weather is cooler and drier between Mid November and March, it is considered the best time to visit Cuba. However, these months including July and August is also the peak season for tourism. Prices are highest at these time, reservation needs to be made in advance.
Things get cheaper during low season if you are travelling on a budget or simply want to avoid the crowd. However, the temperature is very high and it rains a lot during these time. Worst comes to worst, hurricanes will ruin your trip.
Is Cuba safe? Yes, I think it is. However, just like anywhere else you still need to be alert and use your common sense. The majority of tourists will not encounter any problems, but it’s always wise to take some precautions because of the minor criminality that exists. (Pickpocketing, false money exchange, and theft of handbags, etc.)
I found Cubans incredibly friendly, so don’t be afraid to chat with them, but be cautious about their intentions.
Don’t exchange currency with someone off the street. When buying anything, make sure your change is in the same currency as what you paid with.
Don’t buy cigars off the street (they’re probably fake).
Don’t drink the tap water and be careful with street food. Bring some medications with you just in case.
Don’t take a taxi without an official license.
Don't forget to bring sunscreen.
For those of you who have Cuba on your bucket lists - You are really not far from getting there. Cuba is just like any other destinations that require enough preparation.