Cuba is without a doubt one of my favorite countries in the world. I absolutely adore the kindness and warmth of Cubans (not to mention the RUM, my GAWD). I felt like I was 22 again, and I couldn’t stop smiling. That said, Cuba is certainly not the easiest place to travel. Here are my top tips for maximizing your Cuban experience.
Bring Way More Money Than You Think You Need
Especially if you are American. Here’s the deal: you cannot use American credit or debit cards anywhere in Cuba. Not at any hotels, not at any restaurants. If you have a European or Canadian card, those should still work at a few higher end places, but for the most part, you have to work with cold hard cash. There are two types of currencies in Cuba, essentially the locals currency (CUP), at 25 CUP to 1 USD, but you probably won’t use that at all.
Instead, tourists use the CUC, which is fixed to the US Dollar 1 to 1. HOWEVER, when you exchange your money, they’ll take off a 10% asshole fee if you’re changing from US dollars to Cuban CUC, and then an additional 2-3% service charge. If you have heaps of Euros stashed away, change those instead of dollars to avoid the 10% fee.
I booked and paid for all of my accommodation and most of my transit before I ever left for Cuba. I brought $1400 in dollars (stashed away in my wallet, journal, and tampon box #clever), but started with only changing over $1000. I got 880 CUC from that and spent 770 CUC over the course of 10 days. From the other travelers I spoke to, that’s incredibly conservative spending.
It is worth noting that Cuba is WAY more expensive than you think it is (mojitos are typically only $3 so THAT’S good). It’s easy to think of Cuba as more like Central America, but remember that this is an island in the Caribbean and the prices reflect that. Moreover, it is always better to have more money than you need, as literally the only way to possibly get more money while you’re IN Cuba is to have someone back in the states wire it through Western Union to a Cuban national who is related to you. As well, the lines to Western Union always stretch around the block, so you’d be asking your casa host not only to lie and say they are your cousin, but wait in line until their nose hairs have grown long enough to braid to acquire this money for you.
Don’t Check In Luggage
OH MY GOD PLEASE LISTEN TO ME DON’T FUCKING DO IT. The Cuban airport is undoubtedly where hookers go to die. It is hell. It is poorly ventilated, poorly lit, and so fucking short-staffed. The Cuban airport is infamous for losing bags and having them come out literally hours late. Seriously. Bring lightweight clothing in a 33L Osprey backpack and store it in the overhead compartment. You’ll save yourself a lot of fucking stress.
BYOT: Bring Your Own Tabasco
Heads up, Cuba is going through a pretty massive food shortage at the moment. You’ll definitely still be able to eat, but don’t be surprised if you sit down at a restaurant that has a menu of 40 different items and all they have available are the fish of the day and some lamb ropa vieja. Cuba also has a bit of a rough time acquiring spices (so you won’t be the first person to label the food ‘mediocre’), and on top of that Cubans themselves are not particularly fond of spicy food. I only saw Tabasco at one very Americanized restaurant, so if you need that extra kick, bring your own hot sauce. And if you’re a vegetarian, bring mad snacks. Even if a restaurant has veg options on the menu, they seldom have them available.
Stay At A Casa Particular, Not A Hotel
For starters, Cuban hotels are absolutely nothing to write home about. Even the 4 star hotels are pretty basic...and they cost at least $250 per night. At. Least. Casas are extra rooms in people’s houses that you can rent. It offers you the experience to see how Cubans actually live, and they are far far cheaper than any hotel (although heads up, I’ve never met anyone who went to Cuba and slept on a comfortable bed, regardless of how much the room cost). You can book your casas on AirBnB, and I recommend you do so relatively far in advance as they fill up quickly. Also note that even if a casa looks available on AirBnB, you will probably have to message the host because they put their homes on a few different websites and it may have already been booked. Here is where I stayed:
In Viñales I stayed in this shack on a farm. Heads up that the accommodation is as basic as can be, but it was a fucking stunning landscape and the host, Dago, is an angel on earth. No seriously, I hadn’t been able to change over any of my money and this man hooked me up with dinner, mad mojitos, AND shared his cigar with me. Dago is bae.
In Havana, I stayed at this casa in the more upscale, trendy neighborhood of Vedado. The hosts, Conchita and Amilcar are full on the cutest fucking grandma and grandpa couple I have ever encountered. Two inches from horizontal, but bless them they are still kickin it. The pictures don’t do this place justice at all...it ended up being one of the nicest places I stayed and it was super close to an excellent Cuban-Iranian restaurant, Topoly (which also had solid vegetarian food).
In Trinidad, I stayed here. This room was spacious as fuck, and it was the first hot hot shower I had in Cuba and I was hooked up with a welcome drink which I enjoyed on the balcony. Plus, mama gave me a lovely bracelet upon arrival. Tip: Unless you have mad luggage, you don’t need to take any bici-taxis, even if they fucking harass you and warn you that you will die on the long walk to your casa. Nothing is more than 10 minutes walk away in Trinidad.
When I got back to Havana, I stayed at this gem in Old Havana. The casa is centrally located, is in an elevator building, and the host, Roli, is as fabulous as can be.
Get The Fuck Out Of Havana
If you are going to Cuba for more than a long weekend, get the fuck out of Havana. It’s a lovely city, but it was actually my least favorite part of the whole country. You don’t need more than two or three days to walk around and explore the city. Viñales/Pinar del Rio is the most beautiful region in Cuba, Trinidad has the best cocktails and food, and Santiago de Cuba has the best music. Get the fuck out of Havana.
Get The Fuck Out Of Habana Vieja
I know, I know, the Instagram pictures coming out of Old Havana are dope, but seriously, this part of town is boring AF and closes down by 10pm. Also, I’m not fucking with cunts who try to charge me $4 for a fucking mojito. Central Havana is a bit seedy, and I probably wouldn’t recommend staying there (although definitely party at Casa De La Musica in Central Havana, not the one in Miramar). Definitely check out Vedado, it’s a bit cleaner, and has some great nightlife, including a sweet Jazz Club, La Zorra. Also, the Malecon is popping in the Vedado area. You can drink in public everywhere in Cuba, so buy a bottle of rum and some cans of coke, and just chill by the water with locals.
Prepare Yourself For The Bathroom
Cubans keep their homes really clean, so you’ll be fine there. But note that when you’re out at a restaurant or bar, the bathrooms are gonna be rough. You gotta go Mexican style: ALL toilet paper goes in the trash bin, NOT in the toilet bowl. You won’t find any seats on the toilets (aside from at your Casa) and you’ll want to keep all your extra change. There are bathroom attendants who do very little more than fold toilet paper, listen to Daddy Yankee, and insist you pay them for keeping the bathrooms ‘clean’ (I saw a few Jackson Pollock re-creations made with poo). It’s definitely a bit fucked, but it’s what you gotta do.
Plan. Plan. Plan.
Look, I love flying by the seat of my pants when I travel. I love keeping my options open. But shit, Cuba is not the place to do this. If you don’t plan well enough, you will end up spending far more than you anticipated/running out of money and also becoming incredibly frustrated because the internet in Cuba fucking sucks smagma nutsack. You’ll save mad money if you book your transit and accommodation via AirBnB before (also note that you cannot book AirBnB’s while you’re in Cuba, this must be done back in the States). I took the Viazul bus around the country, which allowed me to meet a lot of other solo travelers, but again, you have to book this well in advance as it sells out quickly. If you’re traveling with a group, definitely hire taxis to take you from town to town. It will end up significantly cutting down on costs.
Practice Your Spanish
Obviously, the more you speak the local language, the better of a time you will have. But this is particularly true in Cuba. Cubans are hands down the nicest people I have ever met. More hospitable than even Mexicans, more smiley than Burmese. Cubans are gems who will always take care of you. Know how to say hello, goodbye, thank you, please, where’s the bathroom, how much, my name is, etc. These small things are greatly appreciated and will significantly enhance your Cuban experience.
Bring Sunblock, Mosquito Repellant, And Tons of Skin Care items
Even in the dead of winter, Cuba is fucking hot and sunny. Mosquitos are also alive and kicking. And lastly, the old cars of Cuba let out an incredible amount of exhaust fumes. The air pollution and the fact that I was drinking pure sugar in the form of Cuba Libres, Mojitos, and Canchancharas meant that my skin bugged the fuck out. Bring your acne creams/moisturizers/whatever.
Skip The Museums
Bless the Cubans. They really tried. But straight up nobody GAF about a hammock that Che Guevara’s friend once relaxed on. The museums are all horribly curated, poorly ventilated, and 95% in Spanish. Want to know about the history of Cuba? Check out the Netflix documentary series “The Cuba Libre Story” as well as the books Waiting for Snow in Havana, Trading With The Enemy, The Other Side of Paradise, and Before Night Falls and spend the rest of your time in Cuba practicing your salsa.
Don’t Talk Politics
Cubans are open AF, but by asking them to talk about their national politics, you are putting them in a really compromised position and even the chattiest of Cathy’s will go quiet at this topic. Know that most people aren’t super fond of the Castros (because #murder), but they just can’t talk about it, because you know, they want to live.
Wear White Linen Pants
You’re in Cuba. It’s your goddamn right.