Cuba: a survival guide
A trip to Cuba has been in my to-do list forever. The first ever guide I bought was a thick book with all kinds of warnings and how to’s. Scarce to non-existent internet made it almost impossible to book anything in advance and all practicalities such as money changing, accommodation or food seemed to be a complicated affair. Needless to say, I was a little put off at the time, it seemed like too much work and I didn’t even know where to start. Nevertheless, I had this trip at the back of my mind for nearly a decade and this year I just had to cross it off my bucket list. Even if a trip to Cuba is nowadays less complicated than it used to be it’s always better to do extensive research before leaving so here is our own mini survival guide:
It seems that things in Cuba have become a little easier (for better or worse!) for independent travellers like us who will stay as far away from the resorts as possible. Casas particulares which were the only alternative to chain hotels and in the past would be booked through agencies or word of mouth, are now available in Airbnb. The prices might be a little inflated but we didn’t mind this that much as we opted for peace of mind instead of spontaneity.
If you are on a budget you will soon realise that Cuba is not a budget type of destination in the same sense that parts of Asia are. We paid well over 30$ for very very basic rooms in casas. It is possible, however, that some bartering can help and the prices are definitely not set in stone. For our accommodation, we used both Airbnb and a local agency, (our contact was Gretel from CubaBookingRoom.com) which was a great help. We also mixed it up and went for old colonial hostals, basic rooms in casas, an eco-hotel and an amazingly restored ex villa. You can read more on my 14 days in Cuba post. If you book through Airbnb here’s a link for you to save 25$ off your first booking: Aibnb 25$
You will need the local tourist currency called CUC to make your way around Cuba. Remember this is a cash friendly society so a credit card might not be easily accepted. As Europeans, we didn’t have any issues with currency. Our cards (both Visa and MasterCard) worked fine and we were able to withdraw CUC from ATMs all over Cuba and at the airport once we landed in Havana. With that in mind, do make sure that you notify your bank in advance. We didn’t do this, had our accounts blocked and ended up paying a fortune trying to sort this out over the phone. Transaction fees can be a pain and also many ATMs had a limit in notes they could supply. For peace of mind, it is recommended to have some cash at hand (both Euros and British pounds were accepted) and always exchange in Cadecas and not on the street. Lastly, make sure that you withdraw money whenever you see an ATM because they are not always available (or working!) in smaller cities. There is also the local currency called CUP which roughly translates to 24 CUP for 1 CUP. We didn’t use any CUP as we didn’t feel we needed it.
Transport in Cuba is not as hard as we thought. Hadn’t we been the laziest couple ever visiting the island we would have used Viazul but we opted instead for a colourful mix of taxis, either collective or private. Self-explanatory that the collective was a taxi we would share with other people going the same direction, both locals and travellers, and this means of transport turned out to be one of the best experiences in Cuba. We met so many great people and we had lots of fun. It may well be a huge brightly coloured Cadillac or a modest Lada, it can be a pimped up Hyundai with screens playing reggeton video clips (with a one-armed driver – yes this actually happened) or a more traditional taxi cab. The prices vary and they largely depend on who provides the taxi for you. Casa owners are always happy to suggest a friend of theirs and most hostals will know of someone. We paid 90$ from Havana to Varadero, 120$ from Varadero to Santa Clara, 50$ from Santa Clara to Trinidad, 60$ from Trinidad to Cienfuegos and then another 50$ from Cienfuegos to Havana.
If something has changed rapidly during the last few years in Cuba this is definitely food. It has not touched Thai or Mexican standards but it is much more imaginative and definitely more available than it used to be. We had amazing fresh fish in almost every city we visited but especially in Havana we had amazing pizza, great tapas and a mango Mohito I will never forget as long as I live. That being said it can be hit or miss so be prepared that even the restaurants featured in Lonely Planet or Tripadvisor can have really bad nights. What Cuba is seriously lacking is snacking. As weird as it sounds we found it extremely difficult to find something to eat on the go like a simple sandwich or some kind of an energy bar. We did the mistake of not bringing anything with us and we regretted it more often than not