Cuba, la linda! J’adore Cuba: It’s so beautiful and varied and one of the top destinations of 2017; this year it felt like everyone and their grandma was travelling to Cuba. To make your time here a little easier, I’ve made a guide of all the things you should know before visiting Cuba, enjoy!
Getting there (Flights)
The cheapest flights from Europe tend to be from Germany and with Eurowings, you could fly £300 return (“nein!”) from Cologne to either Havana or Varadero. Even if you won’t be starting from Germany, I found a great Ryanair flight from London to Cologne for £10 (all of this hinges on you travelling light-i.e. hand luggage only!) I only ever travel with hand luggage and because Cuba generally tends to be warm, you can get away with taking less clothes. Eurowings also only allows hand luggage.
Use Skyscanner to search for the cheapest flights, then close the window and book directly on Eurowings, Skyscanner charge a commission, so always go directly onto the website of your chosen airline. Varadero is all about the resorts and is the probably the most touristy part of Cuba; it’s a two-hour drive from Varadero airport to Havana and the beaches are stunning, even if the whole place does have a “gated community” vibe. Once you land at Varadero, befriend any stray travellers because each taxi to Havana is $75, so you wanna fill that bad boy up! I preyed on the only two stragglers I saw at the airport, a Chinese traveller and an English traveller, both solo..step aside! None of us had Cuban money, but we changed our foreign currency at the airport to get enough for the taxi ride. We shared a taxi to Havana for $25 per person and the driver dropped each of us directly to our homestays and hostels. He even drove me past the iconic Che building in Plaza Revolución and asked if I wanted to get out to take photos ❤ There is a public bus straight from the airport but the last one leaves absurdly early (maybe 5pm) and is always full. The public buses tend to pass sporadically and I wouldn't rely on this as timetables can't be found there or online, you'l just have to ask people there (the signs leading to the bus company's office lead you on a wild goose chase) or if you can't find any other travellers to share with I would stay the night and enjoy the beach.
Entering the country (legally)
You will need to obtain a visa from your local Cuban embassy. I only needed a photocopy of my passport (not even the real thing lol), my flight itinerary and a postal cheque for £17 (apparently due to corruption the embassy doesn’t accept cash). I had to go a few times to get everything in order because there’s NO INFORMATION ANYWHERE ONLINE. I heard crazy shit like “You’ll need your first day booked in a fancy hotel and a receipt of your health insurance,” damn son, not since Obama got into office. Some of the fancier airlines do include the visa and/or can sell it at the airport, but gurl you flying with Eurowings, you lucky if you get room to breathe for that £300.
Cuba has its own version of Airbnb: You rent a room in the house of a Cuban and they’re called casas particulares; on average the rooms tend to be $20 per night and you rent per room, not per person. This is why it can be harder and more expensive for solo travellers because you will be forced to pay the full amount for the whole room, whereas with others you can split the bill. But, as of recent years, Havana actually has quite a few new hostels at $7 per night (say whaaat) and I stayed in two separate hostels around the city and then met people to share the casas with later, I was quite lucky, but there were more solo travellers than I initially thought there would be. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any hostels outside of Havana but staying with Cuban families is its own unique experience and if you speak Spanish can be a good chance to learn about them and their country.
Cuba has a dual currency system: the CUC is tied to the US dollar and the CUP.
Back the fuck up: I’ve heard some people say “oh CUC is for tourists and CUP for Cubans”, but it’s not really like that. I used both currencies and Cubans will normally use CUC for bigger purchases and CUP for smaller ones. 1CUC is 25CUP so it would be incredibly tedious paying for something expensive in CUP, as you would have to count out a million coins and notes. On the other hand, if you were making small purchases with CUC, such as coffee or pizza you would just be throwing money down the drain if you’re not paying in CUP. For example, when I first arrived in the capital, I used to go for my daily cup of Joe in the centre of Havana and ended up paying 1CUC, which is obviously the lowest denomination, in CUC, you can’t get cheaper than 1CUC, unlike in pounds where £1 can be split into 100p, $1 into 100 cents etc. When I changed my CUC to CUP (aka got wise) I then would buy coffee for 1CUP (1/25th of 1CUC), so 1CUC= 25CUP this means that:
($1)1CUC(25CUP)= 25 cups of coffee ($1 is 25 coffees, remember CUC is tied to the dollar).
So when I was paying 1CUC for my coffee in Havana, I could have bought 25 coffees for the same 1CUC, outside of the tourist centre.
1CUP= 1 cup of coffee (1/25th of 1CUC/ 1/25th of $1)
So essentially with $1 I could buy 25 coffees or 10 pizza slices (hey, why don’t they teach maths like this at school??)
Ask the family you’re staying with where your local money-changing place is and bring a map so they can show you where your local la cadeca is. To change your money, take your passport and go to the cadeca and change your pounds/dollars/Euros for CUC, then change at least one-third of your CUC into CUP. You can’t change foreign currency directly into CUP. CUC and CUP look quite similar, so I used to keep CUP in my pocket and CUC in my wallet so as not to confuse the two. With street food purchases and coffee I’d just grab loose change from my pocket and then for bigger stuff, I’d whip out the old wallet.
Do not bring American dollars as there is a 10% charge for changing this currency; Euros, Pounds and Canadian dollars are a far better choice, though I always prefer to withdraw from a cash point as rates tend to be better. MasterCard, being an American institution won’t always work in Cuba so bring VISA and emergency cash in a few different currencies.
Where to visit
Havana is the capital and has lots of colourful, crumbling buildings, it’s massive though and you’d need to take buses and taxis to get around! There is a hop-on, hop-off tour which costs $10 for the whole day and will take you to all of the main sites; taxis in Havana are expensive, so this is probably the easiest and cheapest method of travel. There’s a beautiful beach nearby and a shuttle that will take you there from the centre for $5 return. Be sure to ask your hotel or casa where the meeting point is.
Trinidad is the music capital of Cuba, all those street musicians you imagined playing jazz and people dancing in the street, yea they all left Havana. Said it was becoming too hipster. They then moved en masse to Trinidad, which also has colourful buildings, lots of live music, a plethora of dance clubs and lovely beaches nearby.
Viñales is where the majority of Cuban cigars are made and you can do an amazing tour of a tobacco plantation on a horse, whilst smoking a cigar and having a chinwag with your guide, who is teaching you Cuban Spanish. True story.
Santiago: the east, I hear this city is so vibrant and has an amazing dance scene. Being close to Haiti the customs and traditions are different, I never visited the city but I am dying to go back. The flights from Havana to Santiago are expensive and cost $100 each way, bit much when I’d paid £150 from London to Havana! But, I met a traveller who’d gotten a flight directly from Madrid, Spain to Santiago, Cuba, so that could be an option too, if you wish to travel by bus/taxi up the country.
You could also visit Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara, which are all situated in the centre of the country, but I’d only make a trip here if you’ve already visited the cities mentioned above.
Food: Not gonna lie, Cuba taught me the meaning of hunger and I came home a few pounds lighter (in pocket and in weight). Forget diets, just come on holiday to Cooba! I jest, but there just seemed to be a huge lack of casual food places except for the takeaway pizza joints ❤ I used to eat a mini pizza for lunch which cost 10CUP (bruh $0.27) for lunch and then I normally ate at restaurants for dinner (even then $3 max).
Water can be really expensive for tourists and anything more than $1 is overpriced. I survived on bocaditos de jamon y queso which do get a bit tiring, but seems to be the only street food available, after pizza. My casa hosts recommended some great some great places to eat at and I generally found the food in Cuba to be of really high quality (when I found it!!). The food in your casa will be the most delicious food you find in Cuba. It will include a starter, a main, dessert and often a drink too, alcohol not included. It can cost from $6-$10 and the portions were MASSIVE, USA stylee. I think they think that’s what tourists want, but I often thought that the casa meals for one person could easily have satisfied the population of a small village (peopled with little Settits perhaps).
Netflix: and chill? Nah mate, not much internet in Cuba, but I would suggest the Cuba Libre documentary series on Netflix. Cuban history is so fascinating and I loved learning about it before going. I’d also recommend the film Soy Cuba, which documents Cuba in the 1960s. On the plane ride there, I read The Handsomest Man in Cuba, which I loved! Essentially, one woman’s escapades cycling up and down the island (badass!) After coming back, I also read My Life by Fidel Castro.
Public transport is a myth and you will have to hire private “taxis” which you can find through your casa owner. They’ll be all, “I know a guy that can take you to Havana, it’ll cost $X” and it’ll be their next door neighbour who owns a car that is old enough to be drawing its own pension. It may or may not fall apart en route, but logistically it’s easier than getting public transport and only costs $5 more! And they drop you off right outside your casa.
You can actually access the internet in Cuba now; take your passport to one of the ETECSA kiosks and buy internet by the hour. They are normally situated next to WiFi hotspots and you use the code from your card to log in. Each city has a few hotspots and they’re not hard to find as you will literally see 100 people swiping and scrolling on their phones in the main plaza. It cost $2 per hour, but you can buy bundles of 10 hours (guilty as charged).
$100 and you could fly one hour south to Cancun and you can get a flight from Cancun to London (£250) or return with Eurowings to Europe (£300 return).
Cuba is surprisingly expensive; for 10 days I spent around £425 ($549) which is loads when you think about the fact that I barely eat, don’t drink much alcohol and am pretty much allergic to spending cash. Anyway, it was definitely worth it, I loved loved loved my time here and I’m desperate to go back. The people are amazing, the landscape is beautiful and the cities are unique, Cuba is by far my favourite country and I can’t wait to go back!