Cuba is a great place to visit. Probably not the best one for a remote worker, but it has everything you need for a short vacation: hot weather, white-sand beaches, crystal clear waters, rich architecture, nice people and (almost) complete isolation from the outside world. In this article, we gathered some tips and things you should know that will help you enjoy the island from day one:
There is (almost) no internet connection
Although things are changing incredibly fast, reliable (let alone free) internet connection is rare on the island. Unless you stay at a fancy hotel, you will have to hit the streets to find some of the “wifi streets” or “wifi plazas” where Cubans gather in masses with smartphones, tablets and laptops to get a their share of slow internet.
Although we recommend you to take advantage of being completely offline during your stay in the country, if you want to use it, you just need to buy a Nauta internet card and access an ETECSA wifi network (ETECSA is the only telecommunications company in the country and it is government-owned).
This service is quite expensive (around 2€/hour) and the network is not very stable, but it’s something. And hey, you are in Cuba. Unless it’s a crucial matter, you are better off putting your smartphone in your pocket and holding a mojito instead.
Cuba is a very safe country…
Rumors say that more than half of the people you see walking around in any Cuban city are undercover cops. Rumors also say that stealing anything can cost you a minimum of ten years in prison. Even if this is not true, it’s something that all Cubans believe, which is probably enough to give you a sense of security and keep the thieves at home.
Truth is, you can walk pretty much everywhere at anytime with no problem, and I am confident in saying that Cuba is probably one of the safest (if not THE safest) country in Latin America for tourists.
Cubans are very proud of how safe their country is compared to the rest of Latin America, and they will insist on it every time the topic arises. Although it is extremely unlikely that you will get assaulted or pickpocketed in Cuba, leaving any valuables unattended is still not the best idea.
…but don’t be foolish
Being a tourist abroad always comes with a risk, and scamming tourists is as frequent in Cuba as it is in any other country. Some of the scams however are actually very funny and elaborate:
Walking around the Malecon in Havana, shortly after our arrival, a couple of Cubans started talking to us. They were from Santiago de Cuba and were in Havana visiting some family. After telling us how they have family living in both the US and Spain (coincidence?), they recommended we hit a spot called “las cooperativas” where we could find real, high quality cuban cigars for half the regular price JUST FOR TODAY. This part was crucial, as they insisted we go ASAP, since they were “about to close”. The whole story is something along the lines of the Cuban government allowing cuban cigar factory workers to sell cigars at their houses for half their regular price just one day per month. And that one day of the month is exactly the same day we got there! That’s what I call being lucky. It’s also crazy how pretty much every other tourist we met was told the same story on a different day…
Anyway, they sell you (obviously fake or stolen) cuban cigars boxes for $250-$300 USD, which is still a lot of money for someone who doesn’t even smoke. Still, if you decide to spend money on cigars, make sure to buy it at an actual store where you can get a receipt to show at customs when leaving the country.
Some Cubans also like to hang around touristic areas and “befriend” tourists. They start off asking you questions like “hey friend, where are you from?” if you continue the conversation, you’re a goner. They will always have something to tell or ask about your country to get you invested in the conversation. They will insist on taking you to visit a place YOU CAN NOT MISS. Next thing you know, you are sitting at a bar with a complete stranger who just ordered something you are (obviously) going to pay. Believe it or not, we have heard this story many times from different tourists in Cuba. In our case, this “scam” only costed us a couple of dollars, while others ended up with a fat check.
Other than this, beware of taxi drivers, especially in Havana as they will try to charge you ridiculous amounts of money for very short rides. If they get too insistent (“Taxi, amigo? Taxi, amigo?”) a firm “No, gracias” should be sufficient.
Staying at homes with Cuban families > Staying at hotels
There are plenty of hotels in Cuba, including the world-famous Hotel Nacional in Havana considered a “Memory of the World” by UNESCO. It first opened its doors in 1930 and since then, its walls have hosted historical figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Alexander Fleming, and Winston Churchill, along with the Havana Conference, a historic “summit” between the US mafia and the Italian Cosa Nostra in 1946.
However, not all of the hotels in Havana (or in Cuba, for that matter) have the same history behind their walls. Most of them are just regular hotels like the ones you can find anywhere in the world, but luckily Cuba has a unique accommodation option for tourists: Cuban families.
No, there’s no Airbnb in Cuba.Update as of June 2017: Yep, there’s Airbnb in Cuba now. A few years back, the Cuban government started allowing Cubans to start their own businesses: set up shops, drive taxis, and host tourists among many others. Of course, not just anyone has this privilege, since they need government authorization for it. Some families can end up making close to $100 USD/day, almost twice as much as what a doctor makes in a month, and more than twice as much as what a teacher makes. Although it’s more expensive than most accommodation options for backpackers in Latin America ($25-30 USD/night), these Cuban houses are in a great condition and you can make sure you will have air conditioning for when you need to escape from the constant heat.
Another perk about staying with a family is breakfast, which are homemade and usually pretty big for $5 USD:
However, the best perk by far is the family itself. They are usually very friendly and are used to interacting with foreigners who don’t speak Spanish. They will give you indications about places to see, scams to avoid, and they will even arrange accommodation options at other houses around the island. But they are also great people to talk to if you want to know more about the country. We learned a lot more just by talking to one of our host families for one hour than we probably did during our whole stay in the island. Send us a message if you want some recommendations, you have to book in advance!.
Don’t get confused with their two currencies
Cuba has two official currencies: Peso Nacional (CUP) and Peso Convertible (CUC, national and convertible pesos) and something they share in common is that both of them have no value outside of the country. This means that it is very hard to get Cuban pesos prior to your arrival, and you better spend/exchange your leftover pesos before leaving the country, otherwise you might end up with an expensive (and useless) extra souvenir in your backpack.
The Peso Convertible is somewhat the currency for tourists and “luxury items”, which for most Cubans, whose salary ranges between $20 and $40 USD/month can be pretty much anything. The Peso Convertible’s official (fixed) exchange rate is 1 CUC = 1 USD, which makes it the “peso” with the highest value in the world. However, we do not recommend you arrive on the island with US Dollars, since there is a 10% tax on it, so try to bring Euros instead.
The Peso Nacional, on the other hand, is what most Cubans use for daily life. The exchange rate between the two currencies is around 25 CUP = 1CUC although some stores use their “own” exchange rate. This is how both pesos nacionales and convertibles look:
Photos by Banco Central de Cuba
Take a good luck at them before arriving and make sure no one gives you change in the wrong currency! Raul Castro announced a few years ago his plans to unify the two currencies, so maybe by the time you visit the country, this won’t be a problem.
Sometimes, prices don’t specify in which currency they are, especially at places where tourists don’t usually shop, eat, or drink:
Cuba can be both expensive and incredibly cheap. Two individual pizzas and a couple of juices can cost around $18 CUC (or $18 USD) at a touristy place in Havana, while you can get the same dinner at a “restaurant for Cubans” for more than ten times less: 2 pizzas, $12 CUP each = $24 CUP, plus two juices = $10 CUP. Total = $34 CUP. That’s $1.36 USD for a two-person dinner. Not bad, huh?
If you are from the United States, make sure to bring lots of cash (try to exchange them into Euros first like I explained before) since your debit card will be useless at Cuban ATMs. Any card related to any US-financial institution won’t work in most cases. Also, having someone send you money through Western Union, Moneygram, etc. won’t work either, since foreigners are not allowed to withdraw money. In this case, you will have to make a Cuban friend who will withdraw it under their own name.
Last observation: In Cuba, you are going to find less backpackers and more families and couples on honeymoons than in the rest of Latin America. But that doesn’t mean it’s less interesting or fun. Keep these tips in mind and enjoy this unique country!