Important things for first time visitors to Cuba, by Cubans

Cuba: beaches, mulata, tobacco and rum. That’s it? Or is it just a marketing slogan? Come see for yourself.

In 2016, over six hundred thousand Americans (many of them Cuban-Americans) came to Cuba, an increase of a 33% compared to 2015. Although in 2017 & 2018 the number remained almost the same because of the changes in relationship between the US and the Cuban government, many Americans continue traveling to the island.

If you are thinking about visiting Cuba, here is some advice for new visitors: by someone that lives here.

Best season to visit Cuba

The sun is out practically the entire year. Nevertheless, dry weather and a light winter can be found between December and February. The traditional tourist season is mainly between November and March, including the end of the year, when temperatures are more moderate and prices are highest. For those who want to visit natural landscapes, it is good to decide whether or not to come in the rainy season (May to September), when rivers are high and there is everything is green.

Book a flight and get your VISA

Since 2016, there are up to 20 round-trip flights are landing in Havana daily from the US. It is not difficult to book a ticket online for one of the planes. Among the airlines that travel to Cuba are American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United and Southwest.

Before obtaining the visa (a Cuban government requirement), you need to categorize your trip according the 12 authorized travel categories set by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (a US government requirement). Some of the categories are:

  • Family visit.
  • Journalistic activities.
  • Professional research and professional meetings.
  • Educational activities in Cuba for Universities, including people-to-people exchanges for group travel.
  • Religious activities.
  • Public performances, athletic/non athletic competitions, exhibitions.
  • Support for the Cuban people.
  • Humanitarian projects.
  • Activities by private foundations, or research or educational institutes.
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
  • Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use.

Many people travel under the category of “Support for the Cuban People”, which is very broad. Staying at a private guesthouse and eating at private restaurants classify as supporting the Cuban people, although they are not sufficient.  An example of a trip in Support of the Cuban People by written by the US government is:

> While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropista) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.

U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Frequently asked questions related to Cuba

You can also make good use of the cultural events and festivals season in Cuba (all year in fact) for your option “public performances and exhibitions”. Make “people-to-people exchanges for group travel” when booking a tour via an agency, which can lead to activities that involves interactions between foreigners and locals.

Basics upon your arrival to Cuba

First, let’s start with the Cuban currency (of which there are confusingly two). To avoid be fooled and to save money it is essential to be familiar with the money. There are the Peso Convertible (CUC) and the Peso Cubano (CUP). This former is the one you will use more often for buying food, taxis, accommodation, but you can carry both. The exchange rate is 1 CUC x 25 Peso Cubano.

Credit cards from US banks don’t work in Cuba, so it is recommended to bring cash and exchange it for the Cuban currency. You are able to do this upon your arrival at the airport or at an exchange store or bank. A levy of 10 percent is charged when you exchange your American dollars, so depending on the exchange rate you get in the U.S. it’s often (but not always) better to change USD to another foreign currency first: Euro or Canadian dollar, and then to CUC.

For foreigners, the entry fee to some places like museums and historical sights has to be paid in CUC. Locals have to pay the same number but in pesos, for instance, to enter into the Plaza de la Revolución (Square of Revolution), it’s 8 CUC for tourists and 8 pesos for locals. In situations like this, you may feel that there is a currency for Cubans and another for foreigners, but this is no longer the case.

To getting around in Cuba, you need to know all the options you have. To rent a taxi from one of the Cuban taxi companies or travel in a fancy American vintage car are maybe the most renowned means of transportation. There is a wide range of options for moving inside the city. Private taxis called almendrones is a popular choice. Nevertheless, the taxis colectivos (shared taxis) are the proper alternative if you know exactly where you want to go. They run in specific routes where you normally could see passengers doing hitchhiking and getting in and off the colectivos in a rush. Pretend to be a local and don’t ask anything, only pay 10 or 20 pesos a trip. If you dare, please feel like canned fish in the public buses, jam-packed most of the time (don’t pay in CUC, just give them the smallest CUP coin you have).

In the case of government-run transportation for travelling around the country, the better option for tourists is the company Viazul. These buses are quite comfortable and usually on schedule.

Accommodation and food

If you are travelling via the “Support to the Cuban people” option you’re most likely to want to book a casa particular beforehand, through one of the online booking sites like AirBnB. In the casas you will experience the daily life of locals and contribute to their economy. Often breakfast and meal service are included.

Be careful though: it is common for some “friendly” person on the street to take you to his “uncle’s” or “aunt’s” place, if you look lost wandering in the streets. Keep in mind this person will get a commission from the householder bringing in clients.

Cuban food is worth a try. Some private restaurants or paladares offer nice dishes, but often the food in the casas could be very appetizing and cheaper. The authentic roast pork, the moros y cristianos and the home-made stew ajiaco criollo are delicious. What about drinks? When in Cuba you might as well sample the traditional Cuban cocktails: mojito, daiquirí and the like.

Attractions

There are many places to go for having fun. Cuba has reputation for the beautiful beaches and historical places. The beach is really a economical place to go, if you only want to spend a day in the sand, take a bath and avoid the temptation to purchase cocktails and souvenirs. The coral reefs of Cuba are beautiful, well conserved and suitable for scuba diving if you are into sea sports.

The nightclubs and bars are well-known for being very entertaining places. All of these places offer the Cuban rum and the cocktails, sometimes at a higher price than street bars or stores. There is also a cultural ambience most of the year at the festivals in Cuba. The principal venue is Havana, but you can find cultural activities all over the country. There are many museums in Cuba, ancient squares and marvellous architecture you will see for sure.

For those who like hiking, there are many landscapes to visit. Some guided excursions are booked via companies like AirBnB experiences, Viazul or Ecotur. Some places are easy to visit by yourself, without the necessity of booking a tour, but if you are a novice, please be careful.

Internet

The internet connection in Cuba is limited and still evolving. Mobile 3G internet was only recently introduced and roaming can be quite expensive. Wi-Fi hotspots are spread all over the country’s main cities. You can find it in the parks mainly, and especially in Havana are very common. To navigate you need to buy an internet card in Cuba. Spend 1 CUC for one-hour internet connection card, but you better learn where to buy it, as some private establishments tout the cards for the double. Some street traders sells the Wi-Fi cards at the very park in which the hotspot is located, but try to avoid them, as their activity is illegal.

On the other hand, mobile internet with no restrictions is a newest thing you will notice in Cuba. The people are now getting used to this, as they weren’t able to use it in the past. Although it is a good idea, it is often a requirement to have a Cuban SIM card to be capable of connecting the web by your mobile data.

Decide for yourself!

Of course, not everything you need to know has been said yet; you have read some useful beginner’s advices, though. If hesitant, find further details and decide now. Cuba is waiting for you; don’t let your friends tell you: “I told you should go”. Besides, if you are reading this, it means that you are already thinking of going soon, doesn’t it?