Cuba remains an incredible place to visit, even in this time of great change. Here are 10 tips for an even better trip to Cuba:
#1 Home-Stays in Cuba Are Cheap and Memorable
I booked a room on hostelword.com for about $4 and had a perfectly good rest in the home of a middle-class Cuban in central Havana. Home stay opportunities abound and provide a better opportunity to meet locals and save money than the pricey hotels in Old Havana or the European resort chains.
#2 Leave Your U.S. Dollars at Home
Despite the rapprochement between the USA and Cuba, the dollar is still penalized 10%, so best to leave it at home. The Cuban Convertible Peso is pegged at 1:1 against the U.S. Dollar, but when exchanging U.S. dollars you only get .90 CUC for every USD, so bring other currency if possible (remember – don’t ever count on a working ATM in Cuba).
#3 A Few Words of Spanish Does Wonders
I recounted my experiences talking to locals and while speaking fluent Spanish would have been ideal, that is rather difficult when I only studied German. Nevertheless, I have picked up several words/phrases in Spanish having grown up in Los Angeles and that came in very handy. Take a phrase book if necessary and don’t be afraid of messing up — many Cubans speak no English but will still try to communicate with you.
#4 Use Shared “Peso” Taxis in Havana
I stumbled upon the peso taxis by accident, those classic cars that cram locals in and serve as a quasi-bus down main thoroughfares in Havana. Just jump in these — especially if you are headed toward a landmark and can say that landmark matter-of-factly in Spanish. Price should be as little as 25 cents.
#5 Trade CUCs for CUPs
Trading convertible pesos (CUC) for Cuban pesos (CUP) makes a lot of sense – once you get out of the tourist section of Havana and to where the locals hang out, you will find tremendous values for food priced in CUPs. If you just have CUCs, except to pay a lot more for the same thing. Don’t know whether the price you see is in CUCs or CUPs? Pay in CUPs without asking and you’ll be told if you guessed wrong.
#6 Get Ready to Take a Break from the Internet and Your Smart Phone
The most aggravating thing about Cuba for me was the information blackout — sketchy WiFi, no cell phone signal, and very few sources to even find an internet cafe. Keep in mind that only 5% of Cubans have access to internet. If you need internet, buy it from ETECSA store for 4.50 CUC per hour (these stores are all over the island). There are hot-spots popping up around town, so hopefully Cuba will soon see a day in which iPhones can easily pick up cellular data and WiFi.
More info here.
#7 If a Cuban Local Invites You Home, Accept
I was admittedly hesitant to accept the offer of Abel to check out his house, but I am glad I did – it provided a look at how Cubans look and how a mother and son are coping with a failed economy with few opportunities to get ahead. If a local invites you home, just say yes.
#8 Rum is Cheap in Cuba
I really do not drink a lot of alcohol — it is fattening — but I was astounded at how cheap rum was in Cuba and I am not one to turn down a well-made mojito. Americans are now allowed to import a bottle of rum and Havana Club makes a very nice gift to friends and family who are unable to join you.
#9 Domestic Cuban Flights Are a Pain to Secure, but Possible
My domestic trip on Cubana almost got me in trouble for being a spy — you might be careful about buying same-day connections from origin to destination — but I was able to secure a ticket for a domestic flight at Jose Marti International Airport. You can read about my experience here.
#10 Bring Snacks from Home
Food is horrible in Cuba — overpriced and not very tasty. Even snacks can be expensive if you are in a tourist area. While wandering into more residential neighborhoods and finding cheaper bodegas is an option, bring snacks from home like nuts, protein bars, and candy that will get you through the day.
Read more of my Cuba trip report:
Planning a Trip to Cuba
Los Angeles to Havana in TACA Economy Class
Visa Requirements for Visiting Cuba
Day One in Cuba: A Tour of Havana
Day One in Cuba: An Evening Surprise
Day Two in Cuba: Accused of Being An American Spy!
Day Two in Cuba: Escorted Flying
Day Two in Cuba: The Juxtaposition of Two Cubans
Havana to Los Angeles in TACA Economy Class
10 Tips for Visiting Cuba
Why You Should Visit Cuba Now