A First Timer’s guide to Cuba
Updated on February 2nd, 2023
Are you considering travelling to Cuba? If so you need to be aware that things are not as straightforward as you may think. Having visited a number of times, here is my summary of everything you need to know before you visit for the first time.”
Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos & Viñales, Cuba
In 2016, I wanted to learn Spanish through an immersive course & with everything you hear about Cuba changing & opening up, I felt a sense of urgency to be there soon. The two came together & I spent 2 weeks living in Havana & learning Spanish, followed by 2 weeks practising on my travels in Trinidad, Cienfuegos & Viñales. To learn more about my language course see my post 2 Great Places to learn Spanish in the Caribbean. In 2018, I returned to Havana & Viñales for a yoga retreat, so thought it would be good timing to revisit this guide & see what has changed. You can also read more about my amazing voyage of self-discovery at Mhai Yoga with the Retreat Insider in my posts.
What do you need to know?
On my first day at the yoga retreat we were given the word of the day, ACCEPT. It can take a while to grow into this one, but it is totally apt for anyone here to get to know & embrace the word. Once you learn to ACCEPT in Cuba you will love the country & get back huge rewards for your efforts!”
I’m not going to discuss the history or politics surrounding Cuba, but I first visited in Oct 2016 & left just a month before Fidel Castro died. Being back in 2018, I found little has actually changed. This beautiful country & its people remain as stalwart & proud as ever & I left feeling once again energised & revived, purely from spending time in this amazing place.
As with everything in Cuba, this is not straightforward. There are 2 types of currency, one for Tourists – the Convertible Peso (CUC) & the Peso (CUP), used by locals. A Cuban gets paid on average 40 pesos per month. That’s 16 CUC & puts things into perspective when you consider that beer in the cheapest bar was 1.5 CUC. Although wages are low there is a lot of supplementation made by the government. Healthcare & education are free & each household is provided with “rations” of food & supplies each month to cover the day to day essentials.
Most of the time as a tourist you will use CUC but it is useful to have a few CUP available, especially in Havana if you are planning to use the local transport (taxi collectivo – see below) or buying drinks or food from the local places. At the time of writing (May 18) the exchange rates are approximate:
1 CUC = 25 CUP
UK£1 = 1.3CUC
US$1 = 1.0 CUC
Cash is king here & you will rarely find anywhere that takes credit cards. It’s also not possible to get any Cuban currency outside the country, so everyone arrives without cash & needing to change money at the airport.
It is best to take cash with you to change, there are ATM’s in the cities but as with everything here they are not always working, come with queues & can’t be fully relied upon. When you are bringing cash into the country UK£, EUR€ or Canadian$ are all best. Note if you have US$, you will be charged an extra % to change it.”
Beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to the exchange rate, so if you can get money, take it & you may have to put in big efforts for this, depending on where you are. For example, when I was on the yoga retreat we were staying in Tarara, a residential beach area outside Havana & as I was short of cash, I had to spend 20CUC to get a taxi to the nearest cash machine to top up. As I said, nothing is simple!
Changing money is done at a CADECA. Expect the whole money changing experience to take an entertaining 20 minutes at least, particularly if, like me, you enjoy people watching as you will be queuing. Things are not quick or efficient here, Accept!
Before you arrive in Cuba you will need a Tourist Card (I got mine in the UK through Trailfinders). If you are travelling via the USA you will need a PINK card, if you are not, then the usual card is fine. The card is valid for 30 days & cost UK£15 each but you will be charged a processing fee if using an agent (UK£20-40). Be aware that if you are entering the country more than once in a trip (on my return from the Bahamas I spent 1 night back in Cuba) you will need a card for each entry. You can get 30 days extended when you arrive but my friend did this & it took time & cost a lot of money.
On my second visit, this was more challenging as I was travelling from the US Virgin Islands, via Puerto Rico & Panama, with no fixed address. I read that travelling through the US is more of a complex procedure & I struggled to get information on where I could get my visa as the rules recently have changed (again!). After a trip to the airport while I was in San Jose, Costa Rica to try & secure the appropriate paperwork, speaking to airlines, immigration, more airlines, I was assured that I could just pick one up in Panama ahead my flight. Ideally, I would have liked it beforehand, but this worked & the airline (COPA) provided them for US$20 at the departure gate. A huge sigh of relief followed once I finally had the document in my hand!
Arriving By Air
Most people will fly into Havana so a few things to note from my experience:
- You will need to complete a customs form from one of the security guards or on the flight before you can leave arrivals (when I arrived the first time nobody was offering these but I noticed some people filling them in after waiting for over 1 ½ hours for my bag).
- Be prepared to wait… a long time… and it’s hot! The first time I waited for my bags for over 2 hours & I wasn’t alone. Bags would come through & then nothing for 15 minutes, then more bags. It’s painful, so be prepared to have your patience tested & you may be pleasantly surprised. Accept.
- At least then you don’t have to queue for a taxi. To Havana Vedado where I stayed, it was 25 CUC in the official (government-owned taxi). Others paid 30, you may get it for 20 if you strike a hard bargain. Always agree on the price upfront.
- Do use a government taxi when you first arrive. My arrival at the yoga retreat was organised by them with an airport pick up. When I arrived at 1am, the taxi driver was taken to the police station as he wasn’t legally allowed to pick up there. As this was my second visit to Cuba, I understand the way things work & was so tired that I took it in my stride.
But arriving to a new country, not speaking the language brilliantly & then spending your first hour at the police station (& having them make notes of your passport) through no fault of your own is not the ideal introduction. Accept!”
The bus system in Cuba is very good although as with everything slightly confusing & not efficient. You can buy tickets at the bus stations & I would recommend getting them at least a day before you are planning to travel. In Cienfuegos, I went down to ask about buses, the office was closed, I waited for 30 minutes, it was still closed. It turned out that the girl wasn’t feeling well so had left. For me, it was a minor inconvenience, but others had their backpacks with them & were waiting to travel. Accept.
My advice would also be to choose a taxi if you are travelling to Havana as the bus station is some way out. By the time you have organised & paid for a taxi from the bus station to your accommodation, you may find you are paying more for your travel overall. If you are arriving in the smaller towns, – let your casa (the local home where most people stay, see below) know (by phone) which bus you will be on & they will send someone with a sign to meet you.
Riding in the taxis is lots of fun in Cuba as this is your chance to get into the big old cars – especially when you take the private ones. Enjoy the experience but put your safety concerns to the back of your mind. Don’t expect seat belts and old cars come with lots of problems.
In one taxi in Trinidad the driver had to pull my door shut while we were moving because the latch was dodgy. In another, I noticed he was reluctant to stop at traffic lights & kept slowly rolling forward for as long as he could. It turned out when we did stop that the engine cut & the keys fell out, while we were moving! Accept!”
The best thing about the old cars is that you can fit a lot of people in them – 7 not including the driver was our record, including some on laps. Although on my recent trip we were randomly stopped for having too many people in the car (5) after a night out. This made it the second time I was stopped by the police in Cuba & made people slightly reluctant to get in a car with me! Accept!
With taxis it’s important to know the differences – especially in Havana:
Local Collectivo Taxis – these are taxis primarily for the locals. All journeys will cost 10CUP per person (or 0.5CUC but don’t expect change if you have something bigger). They only run on certain streets, so you need to find out where these are in your neighbourhood. Hailing taxis is the same international language of sticking your arm out but if you look like a tourist be prepared that it could be a long wait. They will only stop if they have room for you. I don’t look Cuban & I really struggled to get anyone to stop for me.
Once, I was lucky enough to be standing at the exact spot where people were getting out, so it was hard for them to refuse me. The other time I was out with my friends & despite one of them being Cuban we were refused several times…until I hid behind a bush & then we got a ride straight away! Accept.”
Local Private Taxis – these you can hail & they will happily stop for tourists, but you will usually need to be in a recognised tourist area for this. If you are in Central Havana the best spot is north of El Capital building or outside Bar Floridita in Havana Vieja. Unsurprisingly, there are no meters so make sure you agree on the price upfront & they are negotiable. From El Capital to Verdado where I lived in Havana the least I paid was 7CUC, the most 10CUC. If you are staying in a casa, choose a recognisable landmark to be dropped at just to make your life a little easier with explanations & negotiations.
National Collectivo – these are used for anyone who is going longer distances & my recommended way of travelling around the country, especially if you are heading for Havana. The taxis will take you door to door, but you do share with others going in your direction. Expect them to be full so if you are the first pick up make the most of it & get in the front. Also, don’t expect the timings to be accurate about when you will get there.
I went from Havana to Trinidad which I was told would take 4-5 hours. Unfortunately, the driver had to drop a parcel off & he didn’t know where. After stopping to ask 20 or more people on the way, I had been in the car for 2 hours & we hadn’t left Havana! The journey in total took 8 hours. Accept!”
On my second visit, I needed to go from Viñales to Havana airport & wanted a collective taxi. However, as I was needing to be at the airport for midday, with the time I needed to leave it would have been too early & unpredictable if picking other people up, so I had to spend much more for a private taxi.
Tourist Cars – by this I mean the beautifully restored old cars which you see on all the tourist videos of Havana. We got the chance to ride in one for the journey to the city while staying at the yoga retreat & loved every minute! If you get a chance, do it!
What to bring
– Everything you need for your trip, these things are hard to come by.
– when I was staying for 2 weeks in my casa this was not a problem, however, in all other casas, this was not provided. It can also be something you are asked for on the street so if you want to bring a few bars they will be gratefully received.
– although toilet paper was provided in all the casa, I would recommend always having tissues. In public toilets, even in nice restaurants, they have an attendant who provides the paper. Here, also expect to be lucky if you have a seat, a lock, or sometimes even a cubicle door (in one place there was a wooden door, but it wasn’t attached – we had a discussion on who moved the wood & who didn’t. I used it as a shield, make if that what you will!)
– for all of the above reasons.
– although rare, I had a few people asking for them on the streets.
Where to stay
Because of the difficulty getting out of the airport, I would recommend having your accommodation booked before you arrive, at least for the first night. This is easier said than done as doing anything online is difficult (I always arrange my trips online but with Cuba, I found this impossible). Also, for me, my accommodation was sorted out as part of my Spanish course package and Yoga Retreat. Most arrangements require a phone call, ideally in Spanish to arrange.
I would recommend this to anyone wanting to experience the real Cuba. Going rate from my experience was 25CUC for a room with breakfast & I paid 35CUC when dinner was included. You can pay more but, in each house, I got my own room with air-con & a private bathroom.
The owners of the casas are very proud of their homes & very welcoming. They will happily organise your ongoing transport (see National Collectivo Taxi above), bikes if you need them, tours & give you all the information on the local area. It helps if you speak Spanish just in case they don’t speak English (some were fluent, others didn’t speak any English. This was great for my language progress though).
The owners also know everybody & once you are in one casa, they will phone a friend in your next destination & help to organise your next room. If they don’t know someone, they know someone who does. Once you are in your first casa, you are in the “system” and this makes all your onward travel much more straightforward.”
I heard numerous times the phrase “Anything is possible in Cuba” & in my experience, it’s true (unless “anything” is efficiency, wifi, communication with the outside world…;)). Accept!
Hotels are an expensive option & government-run. I understand for a room in a hotel you pay the usual international prices & get what you expect but with the usual Cuban inefficiencies thrown in – no wifi, maybe cold showers etc.
Breakfast I always ate in the casa & suggest you make the most of the spread, between that & the heat I never needed lunch. You can expect any combination of fried eggs, toasted sandwiches, pastries, fruit (bananas, papaya, pineapple, watermelon), fruit juice, coffee or tea, bread with honey (in Trinidad this came from the owners own bees) and sometimes if you’re lucky, pancakes.
The food in Cuba has a bad reputation but I have to say everything I have eaten here has been healthy & well balanced (& if you decide to visit Mhai Yoga, vegetarian & always delicious!). If you are used to the heavy reliance on salt & flavourings you may find it disappointing. This is due to the political & economic restrictions on availability for imports making many ingredients we are used to being impossible to access. While on the yoga retreat we visited a farm which is fully organic & supplied the retreat & many local restaurants. It demonstrated how the attitude to food here is changing but also how self-sufficient the Cuban people need to be. It was a fascinating insight.
For dinner, my advice is that if you love food, are comfortable with the element of surprise & eat most things, if it’s offered, have dinner in the casa. For me, this is the closest you will get to the Cuban food the locals eat. You can expect pork & chicken & occasionally fish or beef, always rice & vegetables & salad (if you like avocado they are amazing here & literally we had one the size of my head!).
Cuban food is not fancy, it’s not spicy & it’s basic but they are good rounded meals & if you enjoy food, they love you!”
Bear in mind though you will generally be asked if there is anything you don’t eat, they will accommodate this where they can but don’t expect a choice. You get what you’re given, you eat it or you don’t. If you do, you will mostly enjoy it. Accept! If you are fussier with your food I would suggest you choose the restaurant option.
I was travelling on my own & in most places, eating in the casa meant I ate on my own & quite early. You can tell them what time you would like to eat but make sure you are there on time.
In Cuba queuing is a national pastime & you queue for everything – cash, bank, shops, wifi… not to say Cuban people enjoy it. Practically everyone tries to jump the queue if they can – most have a reason to get in front & it’s sometimes accepted, often rejected but they always try.
Being in a queue is sometimes the place to watch Cuban people go about their business the best. When in a queuing situation take your patience & your sense of humour, stand & enjoy, but most of all Accept!”
This is not generally available in Cuba & requires 2 things – a Wi-Fi card to access the Internet & an area where you can get reception (& don’t be over hopeful with the speed). A card can be bought at an ETECSA building or kiosk wherever you are. You can sometimes buy them on the streets for generally the same price. The going rate is 3CUC for 1 hour or 12CUC for 5 hours. Make sure you check the expiration date. Mine had run out with 45 mins to go… it’s precious!
There are 2 things to note with the cards:
- Look for a panel that you scratch off (password) and if it needs scratching you’re ok.
- Check the date – if it is well in advance it’s good.
All those I bought on the street were perfectly fine.
To find your nearest Wi-Fi zone walk around, ask at your casa or stay close to your ETECSA sales office. You will find people gathered (often in parks) where there is Wi-Fi. At night, it is clear when you see the glow of people’s faces in their phones as they connect. Top tip to make things last as long as possible – plan your attack, write emails, social media posts & What’s App messages beforehand so that when you are “in the zone” you can make efficient use of the time you have. Accept.
To call internationally is much more complicated. If you have a foolproof method, please let me know. I tried What’s App, Skype, Facebook & FaceTime. I had 1 conversation that worked with my sister (on Facebook Messenger). After that nothing except the tantalising sound of both of us saying “Hello” before we were cut off.
When I was leaving to fly to the Bahamas, my flight was delayed by 4 hours. It meant that I missed my connection. I was due to be met at the airport & wanted to let them know. I tried everything – my mobile, the public phones, the officials at the airport, the airline staff to try & get the message through. Wi-Fi was not available in the airport. None worked.
This must be the most frustrating aspect of travel in Cuba from my perspective.
What else can you expect?
On my first day in Havana a woman asked me if I dance salsa. When I said “No”, she responded “In Cuba, no salsa, no boyfriend!”. I wasn’t interested in getting a boyfriend. But at least it gave me an understanding of how important salsa is in the country!”
Be aware that after that practically every conversation started with “Do you dance salsa?” & if I said “No” or “Poco!”, every Cuban man is a salsa teacher – so you’re in good hands(?!).
I took salsa lessons in Havana for at least an hour most days for 2 weeks. The going rate was 10CUC per hour for what is effectively a private lesson. Even though I was learning with my friend, we both had our own partners.
I never became very good at it but loved every minute. If you fancy a laugh at a very tall woman (with a much smaller man) & many more arms than everyone else appears to have, you can see the (not very impressive!) fruits of my labour in my Video. To read a tongue-in-cheek guide of my experiences learning salsa, see Havana Salsa Lessons. Learning about Dance & Embracing Life in Cuba.
If you want to see how it’s supposed to be done, find a club anywhere you are & watch. To see Cubans all together in a venue dancing salsa is a beautiful, inspiring & joyous experience. Be prepared to be asked to dance & put your inhibitions behind you. No matter how good (or bad) you are you will have a brilliant time.
The best salsa club in Havana is open-air in Vedado – Club 1830
In the more tourist spots English is spoken. However, I would recommend learning at least a little Spanish before you go. If you’d like to learn while you’re there I would thoroughly recommend an immersive course (3 ½ hours 1:1 every morning – it was intense, but my Spanish improved rapidly & prepared me for my travels brilliantly).”
Some people we met paid a lot of money to learn at the university. I paid a lot less & couldn’t fault my experience through Apple Languages. To read more about this & how it compared to my experience in the Dominican Republic, see my post 2 Great Places to Learn Spanish in the Caribbean.
As with everywhere, this happens & if you are obviously a tourist you will get approached. The people are lovely & friendly and particularly in Havana, I had some good conversations in a mix of Spanish & English & really felt I was connecting with the locals. Some of them offered/gave me a CUP with Che Guevara on which is a good souvenir. However, after a 10 minute very pleasant chat they started asking for money for milk for their baby. This is clearly a common theme & happened a couple of times. It put me off my usual friendly & approachable demeanour and made me feel a bit disappointed. But generally, the people are lovely, friendly & grateful for us to be visiting.
Where next time?
Despite all the inconveniences, I loved every minute of both times in Cuba & would go back in a second. I am planning to revisit Mhai Yoga & the next course with Retreat Insider is in Feb 2019… maybe see you there!
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Hi Sue, I’d recommend http://www.cubagrouptour.com/ as a great way to see Cuba. I used them in 2008 after my friend Sarah had solo travelled with them. I booked a 8 day tour in the middle of 2 weeks having a hotel in Havana for a few nights prior to the tour. Great way to see more of Cuba staying in Casas visiting towns. Tour guide was excellent, arranging anything and making the tour flexible. I had not booked anything for my return to Havana, the guide sorted a case at the beach for a few nights, a taxi back to Havana and my last couple of nights accommodation in the capital. As I speak NO Spanish this was a brilliant way to be off the beaten track. Returning to Cuba is on my list.
Thats a fantastic recommendation, thanks Caz. Sounds like a great way to make the first step to Cuba if you don’t speak Spanish or are travelling solo. I’ll look them up!
Thank you so much – really appreciate the feedback
I really hope to get to Cuba next year. Thanks for such great information.
Laureen, thank you very much! Safe travels when you get to Cuba – you will love it! Sue x
Sometimes those travel destinations that challenge your patience, and cause you the most strife, are the most memorable. On my first solo backpacking trip to SE Asia back in 1996 it was fraught with drama and danger, but I look back on it now with the fondest of memories because … what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!
I couldn’t agree more! It’s the challenging times that we face while travelling that are the ones we learn the most & feel we have grown more from. Thanks for your comment. Sue x
Some great recommendations here, I’d love to go to Cuba but I can imagine that the begging can be quite difficult to see. I always struggle when I come across it travelling and have been warned that Cuba is quite renowned for it.
Thank you, Nicole, but I would say that Cuba is one of the places I have seen the least begging. As a result of their political system, there are no homeless people (in theory). I’ve never been to the resort areas but certainly, the lack of beggars (apart from a few who will try & engage with you) is actually notable in Cuba. Sue x