15 essential travel tips for Cuba

Tourism is one of the major industries of Cuba, with millions of tourists visiting this timeworn country every year. I made my trip to Cuba with a friend in early 2019 covering Havana, Vinales and Trinidad over 10 days. Cuba marked my 35th country of travel, and one of the trips that I planned for the most.

Since there is limited or no access to internet in Cuba, we booked most of the accommodation and inter-city transport in advance. Whether you choose to wing the trip, or moderately plan in advance, here are my 15 essential tips for a smooth journey.

1. Best time to travel

The best time to travel Cuba is between December and April, when you can really enjoy the tropical climate. May onwards is wet season and should be avoided if possible.

2. Visa requirements

Most tourists need a Tourist Card which is easily available from the airline counters/ travel agencies. For American passport holders, the process is a bit different and tourists can only enter Cuba under specific categories. In addition, you need to have a travel insurance and an outbound ticket to get through customs.

3. Accommodation

Airbnb, booking.com and other apps do not work in Cuba. The most popular form of accommodation are Casa Particulars which are rooms rented out by the locals. I would recommend booking a Casa rather than a hotel to get the local experience. Although Casa owners advertise their rooms on the regular booking platforms, the booking might not be possible through the platform itself. They usually list their rooms  on  casaparticular.com or have their own websites (mostly static).

To book accommodation, we went through Tripadvisor, looked at reviews for the top rated casas, found their websites which had contact details and pictures of the rooms, and wrote to hosts by email with basic details about the travel plans (duration of stay, number of persons, interest in particular rooms, dietary requirements, etc.). The confirmation is very fast (in less than a week) and no prepayment is required. We paid directly at check-in, which is a great option to verify the location and quality of the rooms before paying.

For Havana, we had a nice experience staying at Balcon Muralla and Don Malecon. The hosts spoke English, prepared delicious breakfast and gave us many tips and recommendations for the city. In Trinidad, we stayed at Hostal Palmeros, which was also very reasonable.

4. Transport

You will probably need to book a taxi once you reach the airport. Although there are bus services from the bus company Viazul, public transport in Cuba is really from the 1950s. There are no train services between cities but you can find quite decent and cheap taxi services. There are  collective taxis running between all major locations which pool upto 4 passengers.  A taxi from Havana airport to the city center costs about 30 CUC.

Havana and Trinidad are very walkable so we did not really use taxis in the city. You can also get an experience in their classic cars, which in my opinion are not the most comfortable with roaring engines and no air conditioning. We booked all the taxis to/from airport and collective taxis to/from Havana and Trinidad via taxi.inhavana.net

5. Money

Cuba is a cash economy – rarely will you find a place that will accept credit cards. Take cash with you (as much as you can), preferably euros and pounds, as they have the best exchange rates. USD conversions have the worst exchange rates and are taxed extra (10% penalty fee).

Cuba has 2 currencies – the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is aligned with the USD and the Cuban National Peso (CUP). 1 CUC is roughly 24 CUP. The CUC is used by tourists, so always ensure that when you give CUCs, you also get back CUC and not pesos.

While in Cuba, you can withdraw money from the ATMs at the airport or in the city. I exchanged euros at the airport in the beginning, and later at the money exchanges “Casa le Cadeca” in Havana and Trinidad. Remember to double-check the money exchanged with the receipt you get from the Cadeca.

6. Internet

There is no roaming service in Cuba, hence do not expect to get coverage. Wi-Fi services are available at some hotels. The best way to get access to internet is purchasing internet cards called ETECSA which are usually 1.5-3 CUC for an hour of internet.

The tricky part is that to connect, you need to visit the Wi-Fi parks “hotspots” which are available only in some locations. They are hard to miss – it will mostly be a park in the city centre which stands out with people glued to their cell phones. This is what makes Cuba the ideal destination to truly detox from the internet and social media. The internet connection through ETECSA is quite slow – sufficient to send a couple of messages, but not sufficient to send/upload pictures. Many travel websites are also blocked, so be prepared to travel the ‘old-fashioned’ way – by asking around.

7. Navigation

I have 3 preparation tips which can ease Navigation– Google offline maps, Spanish phrases, and Lonely Planet pdf on your phone.

We downloaded Google Offline maps on our phones before the start of the trip, saved the locations of the casas, and updated recommended places in Google Maps frequently whenever we connected with the internet cards. This helped to navigate even though we got lost a lot.

The Cuban people are extremely helpful and will always guide you. However, many do not speak English, especially the ones not working in tourism. Hence, practicing a bit of basic Spanish phrases, and if possible, downloading the Spanish Google Translate language offline will help.

We also downloaded the Lonely Planet on our iPhones, especially for the ‘search’ feature to look up important places, read the history/interesting facts, and plan our daily itineraries.

8. Food

Cuban food is fresh, but not a luxury cuisine. The concept of supermarkets does not exist in Cuba with packed and processed read-to-eat foods. So carry food (nuts, protein bars, crackers, cereal…). We tried to book a breakfast wherever possible with the casa itself. The breakfasts are usually standard – fresh fruit salad of pineapple, papaya and guava, fresh juice, eggs, ham, cheese, coffee and some bread. If the casa is a bit fancy, they will also provide a basic salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and beet root. For other meals, we usually had a dish consisting of rice, beans, and chicken, although we treated ourselves to comfort food (continental, Italian, tapas…) once in a while.

9. Drinks

Do not drink tap water in Cuba and be prepared to pay a lot for bottled water. Water is expensive – 1 CUC for half a litre, and usually available from vendors in the city, gas stations, and many casas also provide it. You can also carry a filter water bottle but I would still suggest to buy water to avoid getting sick. Fresh fruit juices (guava and pineapples) are refreshing, and of course rum based cocktails – Pina Coladas, Mojios, Cuba Libres (Rum and Coke), Cubanitos and Daiquiris. Cuba is rum heaven, in every sense. You can try rum from different brands other than Havana Club, like Santiago De Cuba and Ron Cubay.

10. Souvenirs

You will of course like to buy souvenirs. There are plenty of souvenir shops in the city. Some common souvenir items are cigars, humidifiers (to keep the cigars in), cigar cutters, rum bottles and the usuals (magnets, key chains, porcelain plates, etc). You are allowed to carry 50 cigars and 1 L of rum out of Cuba per person.

I suggest not to leave souvenir shopping till the end as the duty-free shops at the airport are extremely small and highly overpriced. Make sure to bargain well for the souvenirs and beware of scams, especially while exchanging money. Make sure you pay in CUC and get the change back in CUC as well, not in pesos.

Even better is to buy the cigars if you can from the tobacco farms itself (for example in Vinales) which are free from any preservatives and cost about 3 CUC per cigar, much cheaper than the branded ones.

11. Music and Dance

Experiencing live music in Cuba is a must and it does not take much time to find it. You have live music every night in the streets and in the day, you can find live music in bars and restaurants in the city. Obispo street in Havana has many live music bands playing, and they quite explicitly ask for tips, so make sure you carry change.

If you have time, you can also consider a Salsa dance class offered in many locations and not hard to find near your casa.

If you would like a night out with some fancy live music and dinner, I recommend the Buena Vista Social Club. However, you need to book tickets in advance, which can be done through any hotel.

12. Activities

Cuba has so much to offer that it is difficult to pack everything in a short trip. We had to make Havana as base, and travel to the West to reach Vinales, 2,5 hours away and Trinidad in the East, 4 hours hours from Havana by car.  We could not accommodate Varadero, the popular beach resort town of Cuba in our itinerary due to limited travel time. Below are some highlights and activities for each of the places we visited.

Highlights of Havana

  • El Capitolio and Habana Vieja (old town)
  • Museum of revolution
  • Obispo street
  • Prado street (Paseo de Marti)
  • Havana club rum museum
  • Plaza de San Francisco, Armas, Park Central, La Cathedral
  • Sunset at Don Malecon
  • Vedado (new town)

Highlights of  Vinales

  • Mural de la Prehistoric
  • Activities: Zip lining, Horse back riding
  • Cigar rolling and tour of tobacco farms
  • Indian cave excursion
  • Tobacco factory tour in Pinar de Rio

Highlights of Trinidad

  • Hiking at Topes del Collantes National park
  • Playa de Ancon beach
  • Church of Holy Trinity
  • Plaza mayor

13. Tours

There are many day trip operators from Havana to nearby cities. We did 3 organized tours – an overnight trip from Discover vinales, a hiking tour to Topes del Collantes – Caburni trail in Trinidad, and a history tour of the city of Havana.

The tours can be easily booked through a travel agency in the city or a hotel, even after you arrive in Cuba. They are quite well organized, conducted in English, and gives you a very good insight into the local lifestyle. The tour operators are also open to answering any inquisitive questions  you might have ranging from Cuban politics, history, lifestyle, tax system, to their view on communism and the Cuban government.

14. Nightlife

Cuba is generally a safe country although there was a decent bit of cat-calling by the local men. However, mostly the people are friendly and do not make you feel unsafe.

We tried to stay over a weekend in Havana to experience the nightlife. There are several clubs in Havana, the most popular one being the ‘Fabrica de Arte Cubano’, commonly known as the Art Factory. Be prepared to queue for long (more than 1-2 hours after 8 pm) and beware of scammers who approach you to get a ‘fast-entry’ inside the club.

15. Packing essentials

I cannot end the post without recommending some packing essentials specific to Cuba. Apart from all the basic travel essentials which you should pack, make sure you have a surplus of tissues, sanitizer, wet wipes, bug/insect repellant, and sunscreen. Also carry toilet paper in your bag (yes, many restrooms have no toilet paper!)

To get a sneak peak into the highlights of my Cuba trip, check out the video //Sound On//