The process of planning a visit to a new country does tend to bring with it a host of questions – especially if you are as indecisive and uncertain a person as I am – but Cuba is one of the trips I’ve had the most about prior to going.
For this reason, and seeing as I now know the answer to all the things I’d wondered while packing and prepping and even while away, I thought I’d write them all down (along with my thoughts on a few things that people asked on Instagram). For one thing, if I go again I’ll have a record of any of the logistical things I’ve inevitably forgotten, and perhaps it might be helpful if you’re planning to go or if you’re just wondering if a trip there is for you.
Hopefully it will also avoid having to go off on too many operational tangents when I write travel diaries of each of the destinations we visited, because some of the key points regarding travelling to Cuba as a whole will be covered here. Let’s get cracking!
How much money will I need?
Look at me go, starting with the bigun. This is a question that I’m never sure about when I travel anywhere, but since receiving a few DMs about budget for this trip and some others I took last year, I thought it might be handy for anyone considering visiting Cuba if I just come out with what we spent.
Our accommodation varied from between £14 a night between the two of us (a casa particular in Cienfuegos – with a private terrace!) to £75 a night between the two of us (a whole apartment in Havana where the host, who lived next door, drove us to his favourite local restaurants and into the city and gave us a phone with a Cuban sim to contact him at any time). The vast majority of casas are priced around the bottom end of that scale, but we treated ourselves for the last two nights.
While in Cuba we spent around £500 each over a 16 night trip on all food, travel and activities (so this doesn’t include flights and accommodation, which we booked before leaving). Travel between destinations – so not local taxis around a place – made up just under £100 of this as we were moving about in that time. We ate breakfast in the casas (usually 5CUC) and dinner either in the casas, or in restaurants that the casa owners had recommended. We didn’t miss any activities we wanted to do on the basis of price. As unhelpful as it is, how much you will spend depends entirely on what you are doing; some days we spent barely anything at all and others we’d find we’d spent £100 in a day if we were doing day trips and booking onward journeys.
Particularly in Havana because of its size, the amount you spend can also depend on where you’re staying vs where you’ll want to spend your time; our first time there we were staying in a residential area around 15/20 minutes drive from the Old Town, and ended up taking a lot of taxis which really added to our spend while there. If you have the opportunity to, do loads of research before you go so you have any idea of what you want to see or do and how close you are to it.
What’s the currency?
There are two; CUP (Cuban Peso) is used by locals and CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) is used by visitors. 1 CUC is worth just under £0.80 or thereabouts and CUP is worth much less than CUC. We took sterling with us and changed it in banks or Cadecas as well as withdrawing from ATMs a couple of times (which I would avoid if possible). Always take your passport with you when changing money in Cuba – it will be asked for every time.
We had heard that it was useful to get hold of some CUP, although even in local places we didn’t find this essential.
Should we tip?
We tended to tip 10% in restaurants and occasionally gave an additional few CUC to guides when they had been really great. This seemed to be okay, although I still don’t fully understand the etiquette; on the one hand, I was told tipping is not a Cuban thing and unnecessary, and on the other, at times we were outright asked for tips as though they were mandatory (Viazul luggage handlers I’m looking at you).
Do I need a visa for Cuba?
UK passport holders will need a tourist card, which is valid for 30 days and for a single entry. You can obtain these by posting a completed form to the Cuban embassy in London but we bought ours from this site which I couldn’t recommend more despite it admittedly looking potentially sketchy – they arrived in 2 days and were £24 each.
Will the language barrier be a problem?
Cuba’s national language is Spanish, and although I can’t honestly say the language barrier was a problem as such for travelling around, it was more of a barrier than the majority of other places I’ve been and meant finding real connection with people we met along the way was more difficult. If you’re wonderful enough to be multi-lingual and Spanish just happens to be one of those languages, you’ll be in a good place. If not, and you have a decent amount of time before you visit, I couldn’t recommend more trying to at least learn some basic phrases (as is a great thing to do whatever country you’re visiting).
Is the internet situation really that difficult?
Yes and no. It’s a pain, that’s for sure, but it’s Cuba – it is what it is.
Few Cuban homes have wifi – bare in mind that 1 hour of wifi costs around a twentieth of an average monthly salary, and to install it in a home could be a years worth of earnings – and we didn’t encounter many restaurants with it either (at least not where it actually worked!). The country has only had public Wifi hotspots for four years and to connect to them you’ll need an ETECSA card; ETECSA being the government-owned telecommunications service. These are available in ETECSA booths in 1 hour or 5 hour form, and queues can be long so it pays to buy a few at a time.
To connect, find a hotspot – that’s why you see large groups of people all loitering around on their phones in a lot of squares and parks – select the ETECSA network, then enter the username and password on the back of the card. It’s not always speedy, but you can do most things – just don’t idle your time away scrolling, do what you need to do and then disconnect so you don’t waste your minutes. I essentially took a break from everything internet and was glad of it.
Do not rely on being able to do any research while in the country; a guide book is well worth bringing (the Lonely Planet one is fab). The app maps.me was a godsend, we just downloaded the Cuba map so it was available offline.
What kind of adapter do I need?
I bought the Boots own brand ‘UK to USA, Canada and The Americas’ adapter (2 flat pins) and that worked everywhere we went. In some places a European adapter also worked (we packed one at the last minute having heard that they might).
What do I need to bring?
Getting hold of things that feel like they should be easy to find can be the opposite in Cuba, so if possible try to take everything that you’ll need. SPF, painkillers, insect repellent, toiletries – if you might need it, bring it with you. If you’re away for a matter of weeks stock up, and if travelling long term it will be beneficial to hunt out anything you’re running short on in the country you’re in prior to Cuba. At times trying to locate a shop can be time consuming, let along a shop that stocks that one item you’re missing; not that it’s impossible, but it’d be a waste of your precious trip time to spend half a day searching out some factor 50.
What clothes shall I take?
It’s one of my biggest conundrums every time I try to pack, and I hate to state the obvious, but this will depend on what you are doing. Cuba has great cities, great beaches, and amazing landscapes ranging from dusty tobacco fields to waterfalls to steep hikes. We did a bit of everything, so I packed some pretty summer dresses but also practical tees and shorts, swimwear and trainers. I love a white dress on holiday as much as the next person, but unless you are just staying in Havana, you might be better off avoiding too many of them; two of my white tops will never recover from their adventure in the countryside.
Where shall we go?
Cuba may be an island, but it’s a large one, so if you’re not travelling long term and able to spend four weeks or so there (i.e you need to work with annual leave restrictions) I wouldn’t presume to cover the length of it. In the end we decided on Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, then back to Havana. Baracoa was really high on our wishlist, but given the distance between it and Trinidad, we just thought we’d be wiping out too much time on travelling if we included it this time. With just over two weeks, our itinerary gave us enough time to get a feel for each place and squeeze in most of what we wanted to do without simply checking a box and departing for the next destination.
How do we travel between destinations?
There are two main options; Viazul, a bus service aimed at tourists, or Collectivo, essentially a shared taxi. We used both for different journeys and they both have their merits.
Collectivo has the edge in some situations because it will pick you up from your accommodation and drop you off at your next one; on the flip side, for long journeys someone with introverted tendencies like myself might not feel strictly comfortable getting cosy in the back of a car with a stranger for 8 hours. Collectivo also tends to be quicker, which may be a factor you’ll want to consider depending on the length of your journey and the times the buses depart. The price has a degree of flexibility with a Collectivo, although whether this is a good thing against a fixed price bus probably depends on whether the driver is flexing it in your favour.
Should we book everything in advance?
We did have trouble getting Viazul bookings a couple of times, even booking them 2 days beforehand, so while I personally don’t like to book buses before landing in the country (I really prefer to do things like that when ‘on the ground’, so to speak), it’s beneficial to try to book in person when you arrive at each destination.
Day trips and activities wise, we booked everything while we were there via our casa owners, usually the evening before – everyone is well connected in Cuba and if you’re staying in a casa, odds are that your host will know someone who can take you pretty much anywhere or even create a bespoke day trip for you.
Is Cuba the destination for me?
I said the first question was the bigun, but I guess this is truly it. I loved Cuba – it’s a beautiful and varied country, and we had a great time. At the same time, I understand why some people feel frustrated by it. It’s overwhelming at times, the infrastructure is poorly set up for tourism, and fending off would-be scammers can get tiring.
If you’re looking for a typical holiday rather than more of what I would call a ‘trip’, you’ll be able to find it, but it would involve staying in a resort and would likely be devoid of anything Cuban. If however you’re willing to get stuck in without judging the country against everything you’re used to at home and like to immerse yourself in the culture of a place as much as possible, I say get to Cuba. My personal advice – and it is personal, there’s no one way to travel – is to keep an open mind, stay in casas rather than hotels, talk to people and embrace it on it’s own merits – of which there are many, which you’ll hopefully see from my posts on each place we went.
And that concludes my somewhat mammoth list of Cuba travel questions. There are definitely things I’ve missed, but I struggled not to make this ridiculously long, so do drop anything else you want to know in the comments. I’ll be doing four travel diaries on Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, with specifics of where we stayed and what we did in each place. Until next time x