With the anticipation of change hanging over its unique appeal, Cuba has accelerated to the top of travel wish lists worldwide, and understandably so. This is a place of magical contrasts, from the battered but beautiful buildings, to the crumbling but classic-cool cars. It intrigues and delights at every salsa-fuelled spin, whether you’re walking the cities’ charismatic streets or sinking your toes into the white sands.
In late March, I headed to this enigmatic island to countenance the clichés for myself. Over 10 days, and with a mid-range budget, I navigated my way through Havana and its surrounding provinces. As an independent traveller, Cuba wasn’t exactly easy but it was infectiously fun and full of reward for those who choose to explore it without the comfort of a package deal. If you’re thinking of heading to Cuba before it inevitably changes forever, this how-to guide should hopefully equip you with all the practical knowledge you’ll need to plan your own adventure.
When to go, and how long to go for
Cuba’s high season runs from November to March, and then from July to August. May, June and September are considered low season due to the increased chance of rain and potential threat of hurricanes. The vast majority of the country enjoys a tropical climate, with both wet and dry seasons, so whilst it’s sometimes prone to enthusiastic showers, it’s wonderfully verdant for it.
How long you decide to stay depends on how much of the country you’d like to explore and, of course, how much time you’ve got to do it in. If you’re limited, you should consider flying between destinations, in which case the longest journey you might make would be from Havana on the northwest coast to Baracoa on the eastern coast, taking two and a half hours. This same journey takes almost 17 hours by bus, and around 12 in a hire car.
You’ll need at least three days to get familiar with Havana’s main neighbourhoods, and it’s a good place to start and end if you’re here for seven-10 days. Three nights in Havana followed by an all-inclusive week on Varadero’s sands is a popular formula, however you could make a round-trip and explore Havana’s nearby provinces over the same time period, and squeeze in some beach time. With 10-14 days you could fly into Santiago and get a good idea of the Oriente (Cuba’s most easterly region) and, if you’ve got two to three weeks to hand, you’ve time enough to sight-see across Cuba’s whole length, starting in Havana and winding up in Baracoa.
Where to stay
As there’s a lack of mid-range hotels in Cuba, the accommodation choices here lie in three distinct camps; high-end hotels, all-inclusive resorts and rooms in private houses (casa particulars). Some of Havana’s top hotels are steeped in history, and so worth visiting for a mojito or two if you’re not staying the night. For example, in Havana, Hotel Nacional has hosted the likes of Nat King Cole, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway, whilst Hotel Sevilla has the stories of mafia heavyweights, such as Al Capone, echoing within its ornate walls.
Casa particulars are private homes with a room or two which they rent out to tourists. Most can be identified from the blue, double-headed-arrow-like sign that they display outside their doors (sometimes with the words “arrendador divisa”). There’s no shortage of them but the best ones do get booked up in advance so, if you have your heart set on somewhere in particular, be sure to confirm a room well in advance (months ahead if you can) via e-mail or phone, particularly over the high season.
Casa particular prices range from 20-50 CUC$ per room, per night. If you’ve rocked up without a fully confirmed itinerary, fear not, casa particular owners are happy to call around to find you a place to stay at your next destination. They’ll either give you an address to go to, or the owner of your next accommodation will meet you off the bus, holding up your name on a piece of paper. Whilst this might seem like a stab in the dark, casa particulars tend to follow a similar theme, and most are well cleaned, with a private bathroom and hot water.
Cuba’s brightly coloured cars are no secret, and you can expect to gaze and gawp at all manner of vintage American classics as they thunder down the streets or pose by the plazas. Some operate as private taxis, which you can flag down to take you to a specific destination for an agreed price. Others operate as collectivos which carry as many passengers as they can within the city, and will drop you in a general area of your choosing (for example, a street intersection or near a plaza, rather than a specific address) for just 1 CUC$ per person.
Taxis also come in the form of old-school Russian Ladas and modern European models (sometimes painted yellow, reminiscent of iconic New York cabs). Whichever shape or form, an official taxi should always clearly display some kind of “taxi” sign. Some taxis are state run and so have meters, although in most you should agree a price before getting in. It’s worth noting that an airport taxi can cost between 20-25 CUC$ and can be arranged through your hotel, resort or casa particular upon confirmation.
For longer journeys, taking a taxi can be economical if you’re in a group, although not necessarily as comfortable (or as air-conditioned) as the coach options available. Víazul is Cuba’s most well-connected service, and as such a good first port of call, although you have to physically go to their offices a day or two ahead of your journey to purchase a ticket (make sure you take ID with you). Cubanacán runs the alternative Conectando service, which collects passengers from various hotels. You can purchase tickets for their journeys through an Infotur office, or with a representative in a participating hotel.
It’s also possible to hire a car but it’s relatively expensive and the road rules can leave you guessing. If you do decide to hire a car, make sure you take a compass – Cuba’s roads are notorious for their lack of signage, so you could end up in quite a quandary. Whist a train network does exist, Cuba’s trains are slow, uncomfortable and unreliable.
Eating and drinking
Since the Cuban government allowed thousands of state-run restaurants to move into the private sector back in 2014, the dining situation in Cuba has vastly improved. Privately owned restaurants are known as paladars and there’s plenty to choose from, whatever your budget. The more expensive establishments tend to offer more variety on their menus, whilst others stick to Creole cuisine. You’ll find attempts at international favourites, such as pizza and spaghetti, but don’t expect big things. There are some vegetarian restaurants around, but otherwise non-meat eaters can get by adequately on soup, omelettes, rice, salads and toasted cheese sandwiches.
Casa particulars offer breakfast for an extra cost (around 5 CUC$ per person), which usually consists of eggs, sausage, bread, fruit, coffee and juice. More and more paladars are adopting the brunch tradition, however it’s by no means as prolific as elsewhere in the world. When it comes to snacking, you can call on street food vendors for chiviricos (fried dough), churros, corn on the cob, potato chips and the like. Supermarkets don’t exist as we know them, instead you’ll discover smaller, sporadically placed supply shops selling bottled water, alcohol, dried pasta, some tinned and jarred goods, and a limited selection of crisps, biscuits and nuts.
You may be pleased to learn that the rum rumours are true, and you can’t move for a mojito in Cuba’s towns and cities. Whether you’re in a bar, cafe or restaurant, there’s nearly always a cocktail menu to work your way through. The rums of choice are Santiago de Cuba Anejo and Havana Club, and both can be bought in the supply shops or at the airport upon departure for a similar price. Cocktails aren’t always served with extravagant flourish, and a fluoro straw is often the nearest you’ll get to a cocktail umbrella. Still, they taste great.
Cuba has a dual currency system; Cubans get paid in national pesos (MN$), whilst tourists use convertible pesos (CUC$, pronounced “cook”), which are 24-times the value of national pesos. They look incredibly similar, and so chancers are known to perform the popular trick of giving tourists their change in national pesos instead of what was paid with. Make sure it doesn’t happen to you by knowing the difference; national pesos depict the portraits of Cuban heroes, whilst convertible pesos are decorated with national monuments and say ‘convertible pesos’ in small print, just below the value.
You won’t be able to get your currency ahead of time in the UK, but when you arrive at the airport in Cuba. Havana’s airport has a currency exchange just outside the arrival doors and the best currencies to change here are Euros, Canadian Dollars or Sterling (US dollars incur an additional 10% commission). If you’ve arranged an airport pick-up, your driver should be expecting to wait for you if there’s a queue. Sometimes the airport collection taxi charge is a little higher than the drop-off to accommodate this.
Cash is definitely king in Cuba, so be prepared to pay for most things using it – private establishments such as casa particulars and paladars don’t take cards at all. Cash machines and currency exchanges aren’t as frequent as you might like, but they do exist. It’s worth noting their locations in the cities you’re planning to visit in advance, so that you can stock up and stash if you’re heading somewhere without one – a likely scenario if you decide on a road trip into Cuba’s more rural areas.
Advice for the streets
As an independent traveller in Cuba, you are a target for jineteros (hustlers). Their friendly and charming approach means it’s easy to get caught up in their spiel, fooled into thinking you’ve made a Cuban friend for life. Whilst their services can be useful (in finding a restaurant or a place to stay perhaps) you’ll pay a hefty hidden commission for their assistance. You may also find that their initial amicability soon descends into awkward pushiness so, as cynical as it sounds, be careful who you trust, particularly if they approach you first.
Women travellers have the added irritation of street hecklers, and whilst Cuban women are well used to piropos, foreigners have less robust filters to the constant kissing sounds, whistling and intended compliments. Ignoring them is a good start but sometimes a rebuffing glare (or more) is required. Despite this annoyance, Cuba is a safe place for female travellers as violent crime is rare and the streets are considered safe, even at night time.
Get ready to switch off
You can kiss goodbye to live Instagram updates whilst in Cuba, which is a pleasure for some and a panic attack for others. The Internet in Cuba is subject to heavy state restrictions and frustrating connection speeds, and that’s if you can find it at all. Some of the high-end hotels offer Wi-Fi but you can’t rely on it working once you get there, and you more often than not have to pay for the privilege. As you won’t be able to access handy apps, such as street mapping, it’s important to bring a guide book of some description to help you plan ahead and find your way around.
Good to know
Emergency services: 106 (emergency and police) or 105 (fire)
Currency: convertible pesos (CUC$) and national pesos (MN$)
Time difference: Cuba is five hours behind GMT/UTC
Flight time: around 13 hours, usually including one stop
Religion: Nominally Catholic
Tipping: 10% is normal in restaurants
Electricity: 220V/50hz two-pin European
Visa requirements: A tourist card is required and valid for 30 days. These are often included within your flight package but if not, they need to be either ordered online in advance (£15 plus postage and a service fee) or collected in person from the Cuban Embassy in Holborn, London (£15, cash only).
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