12 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Travelling to Cuba

November 14, 2016

travelling to cuba

Preparing for a trip to Cuba is sort of like preparing for a trip to another planet. Relatively speaking, there is a distinct lack of up-to-date information online and pre-booking anything seems ridiculously complicated.

But this is Cuba we’re talking about; a country that hasn’t played by the rules for decades. Wifi has only just been introduced and is only available to use in public parks or fancy hotels. Cuba’s world doesn’t revolve around the Internet like everywhere else. So things take much longer and tourists have to adapt to this, at times, frustratingly slow pace.

When you arrive in Cuba it all makes sense. The buildings, roads and cars make you feel like you’ve just stepped through a time portal. It’s incredible. Everything is so, so different, and that’s why Cuba is one of the most fascinating places on Earth.

Trust me, you can never over-prepare for Cuba. She’s full of surprises. I know I could have done with being a little better prepared, so I figured some of you guys might too, if you’re planning a trip.

Here are 10 things I wish I’d known about before travelling to Cuba…

1) The humidity

havana, malecon, cuba

El Malecón, Havana

Let’s get one thing straight: Cuba is an island in the Caribbean. Ergo, it is always hot and humid. So pack light. You won’t need clunky boots to go trekking in, or heavy denim jeans to wear at night. Take a pair of light, breathable walking shoes instead, and some shorts and flip-flops or lightweight Converse for the evening.

I brought a pair of ridiculously heavy hiking boots with me because Cuba was my first stop of a longer trip around Central America, where they would – I’d hoped – come in handy. Thankfully they did, but in Cuba they were pointless and very annoying to carry when on the move.

Also, always go for a room with air-con if you have the option. Trust me it makes a hell of a difference!

2) The absolute void of modern technology

cienfuegos central square, travelling to cuba

The central square in Cienfuegos, the town’s only Wifi hotspot.

It’s no secret that Cuba is years behind the rest of the Western world when it comes to technology. The country has undergone decades of communist rule and persistently rejected commercialisation. Nothing can quite prepare you for the reality of this.

There isn’t just a lack, but an absolute void of modern technology in Cuba. There is no private Internet (though one reader points out this is due to change in December) no mobile data, no digital technology whatsoever, basically. In fact, the only places you can get online are the Wifi hotspots in public parks, which were only introduced little over a year ago. You must buy a card for $2 from the provider (there is always an office near the park) which gets you one hour of slow, insecure internet. Alternatively you can skip the queue (which can take up to an hour) and get one for $3 from the guys selling them on in the park.

Personally, I used Wifi now and then, to contact friends and family, but over 3 weeks I can’t have been online for more than 4 hours. The best way to handle Cuba’s lack of tech is to simply embrace it. Disconnect and enjoy your digital detox!

3) The lack of commercial enterprises

havana old american car, cuba architecture, buildings

A typical Havana high street

Usually, the last thing you want to see when you travel abroad is a McDonald’s or Starbucks spoiling the scene. Global commercialisation dilutes a country’s authenticity and Cuba’s communist government has staunchly resisted this.

“Fantastic”, you may say, but believe me it is a double-edged sword. For instance, the moment your phone inexplicably breaks (on the SECOND day of a 5 month trip) and you can’t find anyone able to fix it – no Apple store, no emergency cell phone repair service, no nothing – you begin to curse the “backwardness” of the Cuba economy. Essentially, if you need a quick fix you’re probably not going to get it.

Even if you use the public Wifi you can’t find local business listings online; it’s all word of mouth and following very vague directions to someone’s brother’s friend’s uncle who once fixed an iPhone 4 for a neighbour.

However, I must say, persistence DOES eventually pay off. I found someone able to fix my phone on my very last day in Cuba. I watched him take apart my iPhone 5 screw by screw, until it lay on the worktop in a hundred pieces. Apparently, it had suffered a cola spillage, which was news to me. The guy cleaned it out, replaced the charging port and bing! – my iPhone was alive. If he were online I would link him right here. But, alas, he isn’t, which is the point I’m making here. Who spilt the cola I will never know.

4) That Che Guevara is basically a God

che guevara, cuba, signpost, billboard, travelling to cuba

Che is EVERYWHERE…

I don’t mean to suggest my experience in Cuba would have been better if I’d known just how revered and legendary Che Guevara is there – discovering this first-hand is all part of the Cuba experience. However, I definitely would have done more homework on him, Fidel and the Revolution before I left so I’d been able to discuss the topic with Cubans in greater depth.

Either way though, you could never anticipate just how often the face of “El Ché” appears in Cuba. He is EVERYWHERE; the pin-up of the revolution; the legacy for all Cubans to live by; total propaganda. “Hasta la victoria, siempre” (“we will fight until victory”) is the famous quote that accompanies his iconic portrait. The man played a vital role in liberating Cuba from corruption, and for that he will never be forgotten.

che guevara propaganda, travelling to cuba

Che Guevara popping up…again

I was continuously very careful not to cross the line when prying Cubans for more information on the revolution, for fear of upsetting someone, but I found that most were happy to talk about politics, Fidel and Cuba’s war-torn history.

5) The cash point situation

havana street, cuba

I don’t have a photo of a Cuba ATM, so here’s another of me celebrating Cuba down a random Havana backstreet!

Forget everything else you’ve heard about ATMs in Cuba, because I can tell you this truthfully, honestly, on my LIFE: there are cash points in Cuba and they DO take Visa. They DID NOT take Mastercard when I was there (January 2016).

Also, there are plenty of ATMs in Cuba’s busiest towns and cities, and not once did I encounter one which either did not recognize my card or had run out of money.

I took €700 cash with me to Cuba and with my brand new camera and ultrabook laptop rattling around in my bag I felt like I may as well have had “MUG ME NOW” written on my t-shirt. Fortunately, the crime rate in Cuba is very low since the punishment for crimes against tourists is so severe. Nevertheless I wish I’d known that bringing so much cash with me was not necessary. However, you should take some cash to change into the tourist currency CUC when you arrive. Euros, GBP and CAD get the best exchange rates. USD, unsurprisingly, gets the worst.

One more thing: tell your bank you will be travelling to Cuba. You don’t want to get all the way there to find your account has been frozen because of suspicious activity.

6) The cell phone situation

IF my phone had been working in Cuba, I’d have been able to use my UK SIM but at great cost (see vodafone rates here). There is no pay-as-you-go option for tourists. Only Cuban residents, (someone with a Cuba Identity Card), can legally buy a local SIM in Cuba.

However, you may rent a phone line in Cuba with Cubacel, costing 3CUC per day, but you’ll have to take out a minimum of 10CUC credit to use your phone. If you need a micro-SIM you’ll probably have to cut one from a regular SIM.

Plus cell phones do not come with data plans, so if you’re planning to use your phone to make Whatsapp calls whenever you like then forget it. The Wifi zones are all you’ve got to work with.

7) The toilet situation

Don’t worry, Cuba is not a hole-in-the-floor sort of a country when it comes to toilets. There are perfectly normal toilets everywhere and there is usually running water too. However, Cuba is an island with a far less robust sewage system than what you’re probably used to. So all toilet paper goes into waste paper baskets, which tend to fill up rather quickly if you’re sharing with other travellers or eating in busy restaurants. So be prepared for an occasional nasty surprise. Also, soap is a rare luxury so make sure your hand sanitizer stays with you at all times.

8) The accommodation situation

casa particular, casas particulares, cuba, accommodation in cuba

Living Room of the colonial casa particular where we stayed in Santa Clara

Unless you are able to afford hotels in Cuba ($100+/night) you’ll be staying in casas particulares, like everyone else. Casas particuares are private homes, with rooms rented out to tourists. The standard of these rooms varies a lot (from air con and en-suite to broken fan and damp bed sheets) yet the price during peak season always stays the same: $25/night for 1-2 guests, $30/night for 3-4. This is why travelling in groups of 2, 3 or 4 make the trip so much cheaper.

Before I left I scoured lots of different websites advertising casas particulares but was reluctant to part with any money before I’d even seen the place. The prices for pre-booking casas particulares are much higher too.

casa particular, casas particulares, cuba, accommodation in cuba

One of the better rooms I stayed in Remedios. Came with an en-suite.

So I decided I would wing it and this turned out to be a great decision. Not only were they much cheaper, but often our host would call ahead and arrange accommodation for us if we wanted it. This made things easier and gave us peace of mind. Some travellers have a problem with this since they think it’s all part of a money-grubbing game, but so what if it is? At the end of the day they are helping you and you don’t have to take a room if you get to a place and don’t like it.

Looking for more information on Casas Particulares? Read my post “Everything You Need to Know about Casas Particulares“. Does what it says on the tin!

9) How much to spend on cigars

cuban cigars, cohiba brand

I hated smoking cigars before travelling to Cuba. Any time I ever smoked one it just felt like I was giving myself instant mouth cancer. “Why would anyone do this to themselves?” I thought. Then I smoked one fresh, dipped in honey on a tobacco farm in Viñales and I was hooked.

Pretty soon, you realise you can’t leave Cuba without taking a cigar or two with you as a souvenir. I will be writing all about how to find and buy the best Cuban cigars in an upcoming post but for now let me run you through the basics of buying Cuban cigars.

Firstly, all the cigars sold in the official cigar stores/cafes are expensive, and probably over budget if you’re backpacking. But these prices are in fact dirt cheap when compared with the market value back home. One quality Cuban cigar, say Cohiba or Romeo & Juliet, will set you back around $10. The going rate for a box of 10 is about $80.

tobacco farm in viñales, travelling to cuba

Yep, that’s all tobacco. Picked fresh on a farm in Viñales.

Alternatively, you can buy your cigars from the dodgy dealers on the street who will lead you to their secret stash around the corner. We did this but decided not to buy since it’s generally assumed these cigars are older and of lower quality. However, they are much cheaper. One guy we met bought an immaculate-looking box of 20 Cohibas for $100. We smoked one and to us it tasted fine. But we are by no means experts!

There is a longer, more detailed post on how and where to buy Cuban cigars in the pipeline but if you’re looking for more information then for now I will point you in the direction of this very helpful forum thread on Lonely Planet.

10) The time it takes to travel between places

cuba taxi

Long distances are actually cheaper if you travel by taxi as a group.

Cuba is deceptively large. A 3-week itinerary. for instance, would not allow enough time to properly see the whole island. This is mainly because the roads in Cuba are so shit. Getting from Trinidad to Santiago, for instance, takes 12 hours (and costs $50) and the buses for distances like this are nearly always full of tourists who booked through their hotel.

Nor are the roads well-linked. For example, to get to Trinidad from Viñales, you have to go through Havana first. This means taking 2 taxis and probably waiting an hour for the car to fill up with other gringos.

Bear this in mind when you plan your trip. Journeys take longer than you think and often you end up with much less time than you expected in a place because of it. The earlier you leave the better. Drivers won’t go far after lunch because they don’t want to return late.

You can read more about transport in Cuba in a more detailed post here.

11) How to dance Salsa like a Pro

salsa dancing in plaza de la musica, trinidad, cuba

Plaza de la Música, Trinidad – where the best Salsa in Cuba goes down.

You can’t go to Cuba and not dance Salsa. Literally, you will be look and feel like the most boring person in the country if you don’t get involved. Even if you are a terrible dancer, there is no excuse. Remember, you’re in CUBA! When will you ever get the opportunity again?

Before my trip I attended 3 or 4 classes in Spain and learned enough to confidently step onto the dance floor. I could do the steps, the spins and pirouettes, but generally I sucked big time. But did I give a fuck? Not really. Yes, pretty much any Latino guy was a better dancer than me and I was cutely aware that I might quickly disappoint any señorita I ended up dancing with, BUT I was persistent and improved with practice.

Of course I wish I’d been a Salsa master before I landed but let’s face it, us Brits generally aren’t blessed with grace when it comes to dancing. Still, that is not an excuse to give it your best shot. When in Rome and all that.

12) Some Cuban slang!

There are some words and sayings that the guide books won’t teach you. Spanish slang and colloquial expressions are very rich, colourful and unique to every Spanish-speaking country. These are the best examples of language in my opinion. If I ever catch something which sounds like it might be slang I always ask for it to be repeated. Slang is so revealing about a culture and the humour of its people. Some of my favourite Cuban expressions that I learned on my trip are:

  • “Qué bolá?” – meaning “How’s it going?” or “What’s up man?” but literally translated as “What’s flying?” (the ‘v’ in volar, meaning ‘to fly’, has been substituted for a ‘b’ for some reason).
  • “Un mate” – meaning a French kiss, not the Argentinian hot drink.
  • “Chao pescao!” – meaning “See you later fish” (their version of “see you later alligator”).
  • “pinchar” – meaning to work, not ‘pick’ or ‘pinch’ as it would in Spain.
  • “Tumba eso” – meaning “let it go” or “drop the subject”, literally suggesting you “put it in a tomb”.
  • “Está volao” – meaning “that’s amazing”, but literally translated as “it’s in flight”.
  • “La Yuma” – meaning the USA!
  • “Frutabomba” – meaning “papaya”. Why don’t they just say “papaya”? Well, that means something completely different in Cuban slang.
  • “Papaya” – meaning “vagina”. Told you so.

Discover more Cuban slang here!

havana street, cuba flag

Are you heading off to Cuba soon? I hope this post was useful. If you liked it, please leave a comment and/or share! 🙂

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