When you hear Cuba, what are the first things that come across your mind?Cuba Libre, revolution, Che, salsa, rum, cigars…the list is quite long, right?
In my mind it is always something exotic and colourful. It is a place that inspired Hemingway for one of my favourite books of all times – The old man and the sea. It is a place where Buena Vista Social Club comes from, and heart and soul of the Caribbean.
Cuba was a special and life-changing journey for me and I would like to pass on some tips and tricks to everyone interested in visiting this country. I am two years late on writing this article but I would be more than happy if it inspires at least one person to do this kind of trip.
It was 15-day-adventure. Please do explore Cuba and don’t just go for a summer vacation in a resort or on Varadero. You will be amused by exploring more, I promise.
Before we get to the point, let me list in short some interesting facts about Cuba:
Country name: The Republic of Cuba
Capital (and the largest city): Havana (La Habana)
Official language: Spanish
Population (2017): 11,221,060
Currency: Peso – Moneta Nacional (MN), Cuban Convertibles (CUC)
When to go?
High season: November – March
Low season: May – September
We visited Cuba during the first half of March. High season but with pleasant 30 degrees. Great for sightseeing and for a bit of beach time too. Low season can bring a lot of rain but you can also be lucky to get some nice weather in September. However, you have to count on some hot weather with increased air humidity from the rain season.
- Cuba’s main island is the biggest one in the Caribbean. In addition, country consists of approx. 4000 smaller islands and cays (Cayos) that form archipelagos.
- One of Cuba’s world-wide known brands is its music. Apart from salsa, rhumba and jazz, it is famous for its musical form called son Cubano. It merges Spanish guitar with Afro-Cuban percussion and rhythms.
- Sugar made from sugar cane is the main crop grown in Cuba and its biggest export product. Rum is also made from the sugar cane juice. The second place keeps tobacco, which is used for the most famous hand-crafted cigars, worldwide considered the finest cigars.
- The game of dominoes is extremely popular in Cuba.
- Cuba has 9 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list, 7 of these cultural sites and 2 of them natural
Now, start packing!
Tip number one – Don’t plan, learn to improvise
Cuba is a perfect country for “not” planning your activities. Apart from booking your flight to there and back, you should definitely improvise your trip. If you fly to Havana, a place to sleep the first night is maybe not a bad idea to book in advance in case your flight lands later in the evening and you are too tired for searching a place to stay. Apart from that, wake your inner adventurer up and surprise yourself with each next step. Take more time to enjoy each part of your trip and reduce it when you are not amused. If you book everything in advance, you will probably find yourself regretting for not staying one more night at Cienfuegos and one less at Varadero.
We used a great travel guide from Lonely Planet to organise our activities because internet is not the most available thing in Cuba. It works with expensive internet cards and involves being in a crowded square or some other public place. To check your flight status or to tell your parents that you are fine is ok, but social media – it is time to heal the addiction a bit. There are many different travel guides but we stick somehow to Lonely Planet one. But feel free to explore in this area.
I can warmly recommend the Northern part of the island: Havana – Vale de Viñales – Cienfuegos – Trinidad – Cayo Guillermo and Santa Clara. I regret not going further south to Santiago de Cuba but some other time I definitely will.
Tip number two – Stay in Casa Particular
If you want to experience real Cuba, forget hotels/hostels and all of the familiar stuff from the rest of the world. Find yourself a casa particular and live with locals for a day or two. There are several advantages of sleeping in casa particular. You meet extremely friendly new people who will be more than happy to offer you a breakfast or dinner for a small price. You get best tips for less touristic gems. They can arrange you transport or excursions if necessary and you can boost up your Spanish a bit. Not bad, right?
You can usually find a list of casa particular for each city in a travel guide but they are mostly full due to their popularity. If you want contacts of some less touristic ones, feel free to contact me. I will be more than happy to share.
The good thing is that you don’t even have to book them in advance. In Trinidad we tried with info point but they didn’t find us a nice one so we went door to door until we found one we liked. You will notice, life is not so hectic and you can arrange everything on the fly.
Tip number three – Travel with a backpack
I already mentioned that this was my first big trip. Some beginners’ mistakes were made and the biggest one was to travel with the big luggage. Apart from being heavy and bulky to carry along unpaved streets, it is also problematic to place in a cab. Be smart, take a backpack. You won’t have to carry it for a long time anyway but it will definitely make your life easier for the parts where you do have to carry it. I would recommend 55-65l backpack, maybe the same one you use for hiking.
It is important that fits you well and that it has a rain cover (just in case).
Tip number four – Take cash with you
Before you find yourself without cash and any ATM machine nearby, do take cash with you and withdraw it whenever you have a chance. Currency is Cuban Convertiblea for tourists (CUC) and Moneta Nacional (Peso) for locals (MN). 1 CUC = approx. 25 MN. Take care that you get your change in the correct currency. Casa particular, restaurants, small shops accept only cash. There are many exchange offices but you have to be patient because they can be very crowded and slow. Prepare your documents when changing the money. Without a passport it will not work.
Credit cards normally work in big hotels if you visit Cayos.
Tip number five – Do some good deeds on the way
If you think that helping others is just in one way direction if it is not returned – you are wrong. By helping others you do get something in return. A smile and gratitude. There cannot be a better reward than that. Think about it before this trip.
Most of the people in Cuba have low income. While country opened up a bit for the new opportunities and industry, people still lack some, in our countries, completely underestimated things. You have no clue how happy will be a child that got new crayons to draw with or a new shirt. Poor people don’t tend to beg or bother you to get money. But they bring you almost to the tears with their gratitude for a packed food from a restaurant. Making a small tip in a restaurant (1 CUC) can make a huge difference for waiter’s monthly income.
Bring some school tools and crayons with you, old clothes (by old I mean: still usable and in one piece) and spread some happiness. Do not just leave the unfinished food in a restaurant. Get it packed and make someone else’s day better. It will teach you one important lesson in life too, that happiness isn’t true unless shared.
Tip number six – Life Hacks that you need
While tap water is fine for the locals, for us, not-used-to-it people, it can be problematic. Avoid drinking tap water and drink only bottled one. Make sure that the bottle was properly sealed when opening it. Ice cubes from tap water are inevitable in your daiquiri or mojito but alcohol does its magic here to help you. My recommendation would be reinforcing the stomach with some special medicines before the trip. Last thing you need are the stomach problems on your well deserved vacation.
Unless you decide to go for rent a car, your main means of transport will be a bus, possibly a train but mostly likely a taxi. Try to find taxi cumulativo or a group taxi, usually organised by a tourist office It will take you to the next destination with couple of other fellow travellers. It will both save you some money and get you to know some interesting people like yourself.
For ladies, make sure you take your sanitary pads and tampons with you (even just in case) because those can be complicated to get due to their disposability in shops and pharmacies.
If you like your three-layer toilet paper so much – bring one roll with you on a trip. Toilets work a bit differently there and paper is usually thin because it is never trashed in the toilet but in a trash can. Trust me, it is not that bad as it sounds.
Power plugs are not like the European ones so make sure to take an adapter to be able to recharge your phone or a photo camera.
Bring some basic medicines with you like pain killers and a small first aid kit, insect repellent and a sun cream.
Tip number seven – Give yourself in slow living
You are ready to go now! Make sure to enjoy every moment of your trip to the fullest. Get all of the joys of the slow living lifestyle and relax your brain a bit from social networks. You will once again notice the small joys that really matter and learn to appreciate what you have even more. Stay adventurous but stay grateful too.
I am looking forward to some critics (to make my next article better) and the trip impressions 🙂