Guide to Cuba for First Time Visitors
A trip to Cuba evokes past memories as evidenced by retro cars, preserved architecture and lack of the amenities of modern technology. For first time visitors it can be a confusing experience with varying visa rules and currencies used. But once you’ll get used to the Cuban way, you’ll learn to appreciate the way things work here.
A summer getaway mostly composes of sun, good food and lots of beaches. There is a lot of it now being offered in many different countries, but Cuba is not like any other. Here are a few things to do in order to really soak that Cuban sun.
Bring the basic stuff
Besides reasonable amount of bills (preferably UK pounds or Euros as US dollars get charged and normally pass on the cost to you) and forget transacting in cards, the things you need to bring to Cuba are associated to its current economic situation.
- Light clothing is suitable to Cuba’s sunny weather. Temperature ranges between low to high 20s C (68 – 86F)
- Lack of convenience shops means you need to bring basic provisions from biscuits to toothpaste to sanitary pads
- Lack of Internet connection means you need to get your music accessible offline; better yet bring your Kindle or favorite book
- Even though Cuba has excellent medical service, nearest one may be several miles away so bring along a handy first aid kit. Cases of Zika and dengue fever have been reported so bring some protection (pills, mosquito repellent) with you.
Obtain tourist card before entering Cuba
Travelers to Cuba need to get a tourist card (tarjeta de tourista) which is valid for 30 days and can be extended during your stay in Cuba. This can be obtained from a travel agent or your airline’s office prior to your departure. Once you arrive, make sure you keep it as safe as you would with your passport; you’ll need to present your tourist card before you leave Cuba. Replacement for lost ones doesn’t take a short while.
Stay at casa particular
When in a foreign land, the best way to experience their culture (and of course, their food) is by getting to know the locals. casa particular which means “private house” is an accommodation or private homestay that allows visitors to immerse themselves into an authentic Cuban culture. Guests could stay in the same living space as the owner does. Staying with a local family, eating Cuban food, smoking cigars with the home owners and learning about the nation’s culture and history from local people is often a highlight of a trip to Cuba. On normal circumstances, this situation would be awkward but then it all depends on the company. And the company at casa particular is no awkward folks.
Limited Internet connection
Cuba is among the most poorly connected countries in the world so if you want to upload all your travels on Facebook then you might want to do that for later. Lately, as Cuba opens up to tourism, there are more wi-fi hotspots such as in plazas across larger cities. Scope remains limited though.
However if you are checked in to a more posh hotels then there might be a possibility that you can get a connection with you phone. Due to the internet problems in Cuba, you might want to do all your research on all the tourist spots on Cuba at home or simply bring a guidebook with you. Think positively and consider this a chance for you to reconnect to the real world through your own perspective — by disconnecting from your digital world for a moment.
If you plan to have an epic night out with friends, plan this carefully. Unlike many countries, clubs in Cuba are too far away from any hotels and if you are planning to go club or barhopping, we suggest that you don’t considering that the clubs in Cuba are normally far in between. Find a place that you think you and your friends would like and stick to it considering that you would have to spend time, not to mention money, in getting there. Clubs are normally located at the Havana area where they are greater number but, as what were mentioned before, very far in-between.
The currency in Cuba is kind of confusing to most tourists and because of this many tourists have been victims of scamming. Here is a breakdown of how currency works in Cuba. The locals get paid in pesos, or as what they call it, national pesos. The faces of peso banknotes are printed with head-and-shoulder pictures of Cuban heroes.
For the tourists however, you would have to pay for most goods and services using convertible pesos. It is 24 times more valuable than national pesos and it depicts national monuments in comparison to the national pesos however their value is still printed as peso. You will know if it is a national peso or a convertible peso because it will be indicated in the bill itself. The word ;’peso convertibles’ are put in small font below the value.
After paying in convertibles, you will get a change in national pesos and this would be the safest way to have your national peso with you.
Tipping is expected to be given for people who serve you (porters, waiters, or toilet attendants) at a minimum of CUC$1 (“one cook”). You can certainly prepare individual bills in your pocket ready to be handed out, instead of conspicuously pulling out a banknote from wads of bills in public.
How to get the most of your Cuban trip
In a laid back environment like Cuba’s, careful planning is not essential especially if you have enough time to get around the country. Just take your time and allow any spontaneous thing to do like wandering around the streets of Havana or visit its churches. Sometimes operating hours of museums and galleries may change so having an open itinerary helps save your day.
Wear a comfortable footwear and bring enough water as you stroll along the city and countryside.
It also helps if you learn a bit of Spanish:
- Good morning – Buenos días (bway nos dee ahs) Good afternoon – Buenas tardes (bway nahs tar days)
- Good evening – Buenas noches (bway nahs noh chayss)
- Hola (oh lah) is “hi” and you can say that with people you know.
- Por favor (por fah vohr) – and Thank you – Gracias (grah cee ahs).
- Where is – ¿Dónde está? (dohn des tah)
- How much does it cost – ¿Cuánto cuesta? (cwahn toh cways tah)?
- What time is it? – ¿Qué hora es? (kay orah ess)?
- Do you have? – ¿Tiene? (tee ayn ay)?
- I have, I don’t have – Yo tengo, yo no tengo (yoh tayn goh, yoh noh tayn goh)
- A train? – ¿Un tren? (oon trayn)?
- The street … ? – ¿La calle … ? (lah cah yay)?
- A bank? – ¿Un banco? (oon bahn coh)?
- Where is the bathroom? – ¿Dónde está el baño? – (dohn days tah el ban yoh)?
- I’m looking for a hotel – Busco un hotel (yoh kee ayr oh oon oh tel)
- I need – Yo necesito (yoh nay say see toh). Very useful, and you can connect what you need.
- Right – A la derecha ( a lah day ray chah)
- Left – A la izquierda (ah lah eez kee ayr dah)
- Straight ahead – Derecho (Day ray choh)
- At the corner – En la esquina (a lah ays kee nah)
Exploring Cuba is an exciting opportunity as travelers now have that privilege not granted in the past years. Such unique position makes Cuba extra special. But it also means travelers need to do extra preparation to make the most of the trip.