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Cuba has long been one of those mysterious places that travelers have been curious about, especially for Americans who haven’t been allowed to visit Cuba. What’s it like there? What can you expect when traveling to Cuba?

I just returned from a week long trip to Cuba and I’m going to answer all the questions about what to expect and give you my best travel tips for Cuba.

Cuban man walking in Cuba with a Cuban flag painted on the building - travel tips for Cuba

What to expect on your first trip to Cuba

With limited information, you might feel a little anxious not knowing what to expect in Cuba. As an American, chances are good you probably don’t even know anyone that has been to Cuba.

Let me put you at ease and tell you right now that visiting Cuba will be just fine. It’s not much different than traveling to other countries in the world but you should expect some challenges. As long as you know what to expect then you’ll be prepared for your Cuban Adventure!

First impressions of Cuba

Your most likely first impression of Cuba is that the the architecture is amazing but also crumbling, the infrastructure is challenging, and there’s a TON of potholes in the road.

You’ll quickly move past that and feel the warm hospitality of the Cubans, see their friendly smiles, and share in their excitement that you made the trip to see their country.

Cuba is NOT a beach resort type of vacation (although they do have a few of those) but I promise the trip to Cuba will be a rewarding and enriching experience offering a small glimpse into a vibrant culture unlike anywhere else in the world.

Getting to Cuba

With heightened political tensions between Cuba and the United States, U.S. citizens were restricted from traveling to Cuba for six decades. In 2016, President Obama relaxed the travel restrictions for Americans allowing them to travel to Cuba under certain conditions.

There are still some rules Americans have to follow to travel to Cuba but it’s not as daunting as it seems.

  1. You need to have a valid passport with 6 months left on your passport.
  2. You need to choose a category for travel.
  3. Purchase and fill out a Tourist Card (similar to a Visa) at the airport.
  4. Take cash with you to spend.
  5. Avoid spending money that benefits the Cuban Government.

What to expect in Cuba

Your first look at Cuba will likely be at the Jose Marti International Airport. What you’ll find there is an airport pretty much like any airport around the world. You’ll get off the plane, go through customs, and then grab your luggage and leave.

The only thing I found different from other airports around the world is that your luggage has to go through an x-ray machine before you leave the airport. There is one right when you leave the customs area and then again before you exit the baggage claim area.

When you leave the airport you’ll grab a taxi or other travel arrangements if you’ve made them, and head to your accommodations in Havana. Taxis are a set price at $30 a cab no matter how many people are in the cab. These cabs are all modern vehicles painted yellow.

Once you’re getting into the city of Havana you’ll start to notice a lot of run down buildings, many of them needing extensive repair. You’ll see buildings with grafitti, broken bits of concrete, some buildings boarded up and uninhabitable.

The majority of the architecture is colonial and painted in a colorful pastel color. Once you get close to the city you’ll start to notice a lot of classic American cars on the roads and you’ll really start to feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

Language in Cuba

The official language of Cuba is Spanish but nearly everyone speaks at least a little English. English is taught in Cuba’s schools and actually requires all high school and university students to be proficient in English.

You’ll find more English speaking Cubans in the city of Havana since it’s where the majority of tourists travel. In smaller cities in Cuba you’ll still find people who speak English but since the smaller towns don’t have as many visitors then they don’t get to practice their English as much.

Best time to Visit Cuba

The absolute best time to visit Cuba is between November and April. This is the dry season in Cuba and the temperatures are mild. Between May and October is the rainy season as well as hurricane season and the temperatures are hot and humid.

Money in Cuba

Cuba’s currency is the Cuban Peso but the American Dollar and the Euro are widely accepted. You will have a difficult time using a credit or debit card and in fact, cards issued from American Banks won’t work. There are ATM machines in Cuba but these are mainly for Cubans, not travelers.

You’ll have to figure out how much money to bring with you to Cuba before you get there.

This is probably the hardest thing to figure out: what can you expect to spend in Cuba? It all depends on what you want to do but not knowing the costs of everything before you arrive makes it harder.

I suggest planning on spending between $100-$150 a day but you can certainly end up spending less than that (or more!). And whatever you decide, bring extra. Once you’re in Cuba you will NOT be able to get any money out. You definitely do not want to run out of money while in Cuba.

Exchanging Money in Cuba

Since you have to bring a bunch of cash with you to Cuba, you’ll need to exchange that money to Cuban Pesos. Do NOT exchange your money at the airport. If you’ve reserved a casas particulares in advance, ask your host if they are able to exchange money for you. We found all three of our hosts were able to and the exchange rate will be MUCH better than you could get at the airport.

Another travel tip for Cuba is to exchange only some of your money to Cuban Pesos. Nearly every restaurant will accept Cuban Pesos, Dollars, and Euros. When you get your check you’ll see totals in all three currencies. Exchange about half your money into Cuban Pesos so you’ll have some smaller bills for tips or for when you need to buy a bottle of water or for paying for your dinner.

The main reason for this is that there is NO WHERE to exchange your Cuban Pesos back to dollars or euros when you leave. When you get to the airport, they won’t exchange it back. Want to buy a drink at the Havana airport? You would think you could use whatever Cuban Pesos you have but guess what?? They only take dollars and euros which I still don’t understand.

Travel Tips for Cuba

In Cuba you’ll either walk, take a taxi, take a bus, or maybe even rent a car depending on what your Cuba Itinerary involves. Havana’s main tourist area, the old town, is very walkable.

We walked everywhere in Havana and only took a taxi when we arrived from the airport and when we left for the airport to head home. We also took a taxi to the bus station on the day we were traveling outside of Havana.

Cuba travel tips for Transporation

Before leaving home you need to download offline maps for the areas you’re traveling in because it’s difficult to get internet in Cuba. I’m old school and prefer to have a map in hand. One of the things I like to do before traveling is to create a map in Google with all the sites we’re going to visit. That way if I don’t have service or my phone dies I’ll still be able to figure out which direction to go.

Whenever you take a taxi, always negotiate. You’ll get an initial price to go somewhere but if it seems too high, negotiate or walk away. You might find the same price with another driver and if so then you know that the price is pretty standard. But, you won’t know that unless you see what other drivers charge.

You’ll also need to check out the vehicle before agreeing. We had one taxi driver that said yes he would take us from Havana to Trinidad even after seeing that there were 4 of us and we had 4 pieces of luggage. When we got to the car we decided that the vehicle was really too small for all four of us and our luggage and we did not want to be cramped for a 4 hour drive.

Accommodations in Cuba

In Cuba you’ll either be staying at a hotel or what’s known as casas particulares. A casas particulares is a home or rooms in a home that the owner rents out to tourists. For Americans, you CANNOT stay at a hotel that is run by the Cuban Government. And they are almost ALL run by the Cuban Government.

Luckily there are plenty of casas particulares to choose from. Nearly every door you pass will have this sign below above their door. This is what you need to look for if you haven’t booked your accommodation before arriving.

You can find casas particulares on Airbnb before you arrive and you can use your credit card to rent a place IF you book it before leaving for Cuba. This helps to cut down on the amount of cash you need to bring with you. But if you don’t have a place booked before arriving it’s VERY common for people to knock on the doors with the sign and ask them if they have availability.

Infrastructure Challenges in Cuba

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that there are some challenges in Cuba that you might need to be prepared for. Two of those challenges are electricity and water.

Electricity in Cuba

We didn’t have an electricity problem in Havana but when we traveled to Trinidad and Vinales there were blackouts. They only lasted a few hours but you should expect it. Most restaurants have generators so if the power goes out there you can expect it to back on within minutes.

But, your accommodation likely won’t have a generator and if there isn’t electricity that means there’s no air conditioner and it might get a little hot!

Water in Cuba

The only place we had issues with our water was in Havana. A lot of buildings in Havana share a water supply and if someone in the building is using a lot of water then you might not have any for a while.

We ran out of water for a little while in Havana so we couldn’t flush our toilets or take a shower that evening but we had water the next day. Just be prepared and take quick showers just in case. Turn the water off while you lather up and wash your hair and then back on to rinse off.

Internet and Technology in Cuba

Chances are good you’ll be without wifi during your time in Cuba. There are ways to get internet but don’t count on it. Some restaurants do have free wifi so if you want to hop on your phone for a little while make sure you ask the place if they have wifi before going in. We found quite a few places that had internet but it wasn’t always great.

Another way to get on the internet in Cuba is to go to a wifi hotspot. You can find these hotspots in some public areas such as parks and hotels. You’ll know you’re close to a wifi hotspot when you see a lot of people in the park on their phone or laptop.

To access these hotspots you will need to purchase an internet card called Nauta from the ETECSA, the state-owned telecommunications company.

Technically, you aren’t supposed to buy anything that puts money in the hands of the government BUT you will find locals buy a lot of these and then sell them to visitors. They do charge a little more so they can make some money but if you buy from them then you’re supporting the locals. 🙂

Keep in mind that Cuba’s infrastructure is not like other more developed countries. It can be much slower and less reliable and access to certain websites online may be restricted.

Safety in Cuba

You might be wondering how safe Cuba is and I can tell you that it is EXTREMELY safe. You may even find it safer than your own country! Cuba has very harsh penalties for those that commit crimes so you’ll find that you really don’t have to worry while there. But there are some safety issues that you should be aware of.

  1. WATER: Don’t drink the tap water because it’s not safe. You will likely become very sick. Even the locals don’t buy it. You can either boil the water first, buy bottled water, or do what we do and purchase a Grayl Water Filter and Purifier Bottle. You can put pond water in this thing and it would be safe to drink!
  2. SCAMS: Be aware of locals trying to scam you. While walking around, you might be asked if you want to exchange money. It might be totally fine but it might not. I’ve heard some of these people have counterfiet money or that when you bring your money out to exchange they just take off with it and run. We didn’t experience this but we also didn’t exchange money on the streets.
  3. CIGARS: Cuba is known for their amazing cigars so you will likely be asked if you want to buy one. We had a lot of people ask us if we wanted to buy one but the ones people are selling on the street either might not even be real cigars or they might be very bad cigars. Buy your cigars from either a farmer or an official cigar shop to be safe.
  4. BEGGARS: Unfortunately you will see a lot of people asking for money or clothing or anything really. While you might feel bad for the Cuban people, giving them money only encourages them to keep asking tourists for more. It’s hard but you have to realize that you can’t save everyone.

Restrooms in Cuba

I would encourage you to bring a roll of toilet paper with you to Cuba. Yes, accommodations will have toilet paper but you might only have 1-2 rolls and if you’re staying in your place more than a few days it might not be enough.

Plus, you’ll want to carry toilet paper around with you for when you’re out. Not every restroom you walk in will have it so it’s a good idea to bring some wherever you go.

Things to bring with you to Cuba

As you might expect, Cuba does not have all of the same things you have at home and what they do have is in limited supply. You’ll need to make sure you bring everything you need with you so you don’t have to try and find it in Cuba.

And besides, with Cuba having such limited access to things you don’t want to have to buy something that you can easily get at home when you know they have a difficult time getting. No need to take things meant for the Cubans.

So, make sure you bring plenty of medicine with you. This includes all of your normal prescriptions but also make sure you bring plenty of tylenol, tums or rolaids, band-aids, tissue, hand sanitizer, nausea medication, basically anything you think you might need while traveling.

Also make sure you have plenty of soap and shampoo because it might not be easy to find.

Other items to bring when traveling to Cuba

Knowing that the Cuban people don’t have access to a lot of things, we decided to bring some gifts. Our friends that traveled with us asked our hosts if they needed anything from the states and only one of them requested medicines (over the counter items). They did purchase them too.

Other things we brought on our own were small items like dum-dums and gum for kids, coloring books, pencils, and band-aids. They were thrilled to get these things!

Handing out items to the Cuban people in Trinidad

Eating and Drinking in Cuba

The good news is that there is a lot of food options in Cuba and the food is really good. It might be different than what you’re used to because they sometimes might have to substitute a spice that they can’t get or you might find HAM on your HAMburger. Yes, it’s true.

There are a lot of restaurants to choose from and the pricing is pretty good. We had MASSIVE lobster tails with sides for around $10. I can’t even buy a lobster tail at my market for that price!

Sodas in Cuba

You won’t find Coca-Cola in Cuba but you might find Pepsi. I’m a Coca-Cola person so Pepsi wasn’t an option for me. They do have lemon-lime drinks similar to Sprite as well as their own version of cola and other soda drinks you probably will have never heard of before.

Alcohol Drinks in Cuba

The national drink of Cuba is a Mojito and they are mostly really good but you’ll likely find that none of them tastes the same. Some places put a LOT of sugar in theirs, some not enough. Some are more sour, some don’t have as much alcohol while others are REALLY strong.

They are all pretty affordable though. They do have their own national beer and we found it to be really good. The two we found pretty much everywhere was Cristal and Mayabe.

Tipping in Cuba

Check your bill at the restaurant because sometimes a tip or “service charge” is included but it will likely be a small amount. It’s perfectly fine to tip more than that and it will be greatly appreciated.

What NOT to do in Cuba

There are a few things to be aware of that you should NOT do while in Cuba. Some of these are against the law and some of them are just frowned upon. You likely won’t get into any real trouble if you do any of them but just be safe and a good traveler and avoid them.

  1. Do NOT take pictures of the police. They don’t like it and it could get you into trouble.
  2. Don’t bring drugs with you. This should be common sense but Cuba has severe penalties for drugs and you don’t want to end up in a Cuban prison for 20 years. Just don’t do it.
  3. Don’t talk about politics. Especially Cuban politics. You don’t want to criticize their government in any way because that is against the law. Remember, Cuba is a communist country.
Travel tips for Cuba - a man walking down the street in Havana and a blue classic car

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