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Cuba is the country evolution forgot. Time gobbled it up in the 1950’s and spat it out as a fascinatingly dilapidated preview of it’s former self. Roads lead to rundown remnants of a once glitzy heyday – an era where the rum ran cold and US ties were tight. A period that for varying reasons, was never going to last.
But last it did, sort of. Havana’s grandly disheveled buildings with their rusted-raw metal and multicolored pastel paint peeling off like semi-healed scabs are constant reminders of those opulent pre-Revolution days under the corrupt pro-America Batista government (you can read about the pre and post Cuban Revolution here). The catchy Cuban beats, dusty streets and lack of Coca Cola remind you this country has seen a lot these past 60 years. Its citizens have been pulled like rag-dolls from one commercial extreme to a communist other.
But what they haven’t seen until very recently is the Internet. No matter how many times I told myself I wouldn’t be able to Google or check my emails properly, I still had trouble getting used to it when I was there. How do these people find good places to eat in Havana? Turns out, there’s really only one. How do these people know when salsa festivals are on? Apparently they pick-up-the-phone and spread the word. How inherently simple…how old-school. And yet for Cubans, being completely disconnected from the outside world is a way of life. I suppose it’s rather liberating, really. Confronting, yet liberating. It leaves you with plenty of time to kill. And what do Cubans do in their free time? Congregate on the streets for Salsa-dancing and party in their Casa Particular’s with Cuban music blaring. Which is awesome fun until it’s midnight on a Monday and you want to catch some shut-eye but you can’t because your next-door-neighbors are singing at the top of their lungs!
For me, all I can say is thank you Lonely Planet (and the couple of rare English-speaking locals we hung out with after meeting them on our first night when we were aimlessly walking the streets) – I don’t think we would have made it without you. But Lonely Planet didn’t tell me everything I needed to know before I went. The rest I picked up along the way…
**2020 UPDATE – Times, Are They Really-A-Changin’? Hmmmm not so much.**
If I’m honest, nothing much has changed on a daily basis for Cuban citizens between my first visit five years ago to my last in 2019. The country has had an embargo lifted by one US Administration only to have financial restrictions slapped back on by another (scroll to the bottom of the post to read more about this). Moral of the story, the following tips still hold true!
Cuba Travel Tips
Cuba Travel Tip 1 – Cuba Isn’t Cheap…
I hate to break it to you, but Cuba uses two currencies. The first is the internal currency, or the Cuban Peso, and the one locals use for every day purchases. The second is the tourist currency, or the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). Guess which one most eateries, markets, taxis and sights use? The CUC to USD conversion is pretty much equal, and if you’re hanging around the old-town and tourist areas you’ll be paying the US equivalent for everything you buy/do as well. Cuba is most definitely not cheap like other Caribbean countries. You can find decent-ish meals for CUC$4-6 but you need to know where to go [insert trip pre-planning printouts here].
Cuba Travel Tip 2 – Don’t Go To Cuba For The Food…
Which brings me to my next point. There are lots of reasons to visit this confronting yet fascinating country (the people, the history, the art, the museums, the generally raw and playful vibe of Havana) but the food isn’t one of them. Food has been in short supply in Cuba since the early nineties following the collapse of the Soviet Union (it’s primary source of trade). Today, most restaurants offer staple plates of blandly marinated and grilled something (either chicken, pork, beef or prawns) with some tomatoes, refried beans, onions and lettuce on the side. So, if you’re a foodie traveller don’t expect gourmet.
Cuban Travel Tip 3 – Bottled Water Is The Holy Grail…(And Rum Is Waaaaay Cheaper)
Trying to find bottled water is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. A very cold, wet, refreshing needle in a very large haystack mind you (including tourist areas). Rum on the other hand is sold in abundance on every street corner. It’s even sold individually in little plastic poppas for the equivalent of about 30 cents AUD… a lot cheaper than bottled water (sold at about CUC$2! So you have a decision to make. Either stick to Havana Club for your daily hydration or stock up on water when you come across someone actually selling it!
Cuban Travel Tip 4 – You Can Exchange USD In Cuba and Other Money Tips…
Contrary to popular belief, Cuban banks and currency exchanges at airports will change US Dollars just as they will exchange most international currencies. You also don’t need to bring all of your cold hard cash with you on your person when entering the country (as I was stupidly told). There are many ATM’s throughout Cuba that take most cards EXCEPT MASTERCARD. If you’re in dire straits you can go to a bank and get money out from your Mastercard, but be prepared to wait in lines upwards of 30 minutes (especially at Lunch time, that’s when all the Cubans seem to go). If your getting money changed over, the smaller the note, the better, as many operators don’t like taking notes above fivers. Further, be prepared to get stung a steep $75AUD on airport tax. It’s CUC$50 in and CUC$25 when leaving.
Cuban Travel Tip 5 – Cubans Really Do Drive Around In Old “Yank Tanks”…
Due to the trade embargo and collapse of the Soviet Union (of which Cuba had tight economic and social ties), cars have been in such short supply that a lot of folks still cruise from A to B in old Chevrolet. Sure they cough and splutter their way through the city, contributing some hefty carbon-emissions to the Earth while they’re at it, but they’ve got to be the most recognizable symbol for Cuba since the Che Guevara flag. You can rent one of these cars (with a driver, trust me you’ll need it) at CUC$60 for three hours (CUC$60). These friendly drivers will take you on a tour around the city, stopping off at famous sights like the Capitolio, the Tobaco Factory to stock up on your Cuban Cigars and the Plaza de la Revolucion. The best way to book one of these tours is to ask your Casa Host or Hotel Reception to call for you.
Cuban Travel Tip 6 – #10 – Casa De La Musica Isn’t Worth Its Chops….
Apart from having a CUC$11 cover charge (and making you check all bags in for an extra CUC$2, you kind of expect something pretty special. Alas, this popular nightclub slash live-music venue isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I f you’re expecting edgy salsa and jazz bands like Bamboleo and Los Van Van then you best teleport yourself to places like La Madriguera or Jazz Club la Zorra y El Cuerv because the best you’ll get here is Miley and Taylor. And the occasion Cuban version of One Direction…
Cuban Travel Tip 7 – Cubans Know How To Have Fun…
Did you think a country where you could buy a one-litre bottle of Havana Club Rum for the equivalent of $5 AUD would be a boring place? From festivals to baseball games, there’s always a party somewhere in Cuba. Monday, Tuesday Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday – it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, life is lived on the streets. People sit in doorways, peer down from balconies, and front doors are left wide open to let the groovin’ beats permeate the streets. If you walk about 500m in any direction you’ll probably stumble across a Cuban band in a square playing old songs from the Buena Vista Social Club and couples, both young and old, having the time of their lives dancing to the tunes. Fun is contagious in Cuba. You can’t escape it.
Amateur Baseball Game Cuba
Salsa on the Streets of Cuba
Cuba Travel Tip 8 – Supermarkets are Scarce…
Supermarkets are an alien place in Cuba. First of all, they are very hard to find. Second of all, if you do find one hidden on a street corner you will quickly realise the produce is even more limited than the shop itself. You’ll notice the entire left hand side is dedicated to Rum, Cigars and Cigarettes. There will be a couple of smaller aisles in the middle sparsely stocked with cleaning products, communist chocolate (which tastes horrible by the way) and select package item offerings like cereals, pasta etc (nothing commercial, mind you). Then of course is the right hand side, where freshly-baked bread, bakery treats and home-brand ice-cream tease you on those nights you might have had one too many. A word of advice: it’s pretty difficult to cook your own meals in Cuba, so if you’re looking for a cheap snack then buy fruit or bread from the many mobile street vendors. Or you can purchase some peanuts wrapped in a little white paper cylinder for CUC$50 cents from the dudes off the streets in the toursty areas. It’s become a booming trade.
Cuba Travel Tip 9 – Backpacks Only…
Casa Particular’s are notorious for having the steepest stairs known to man, so if you feel like a full-body workout every time you check into a new place in Cuba then by all means, bring the roller-suitcase. If you don’t want to break out in sweats (and possibly risk your own life by falling down said stairs), then stick with a backpack!
Cuba Travel Tip 10 – Be Prepared to Get Harassed by Locals…
Let me preface by saying Cuba is not an inherently violent place. In fact, little to no violent crime is ever reported. BUT, If you’re a woman traveling alone (or with another lady) and you’re a WASPY blonde tourist-type with a DSLR slung over your shoulder then you can be as sure as death and taxes that people will be staring no matter how conservatively you dress. What’s more, you’ll probably be told you’re beautiful by every single male you pass on the street; and every third will try and converse with you. To be honest, the amount of attention I received from intrigued onlookers in Cuba was the most I’ve ever received in any country I’ve been to (and I’ve visited Morocco, India etc). All I can say is keep your wits about you, be positive, listen to your instincts and just take it all with a grain of salt. It’s harmless. Annoying yes, but harmless nonetheless. There’s not much you can do to minimize this attention other than to try and befriend some locals (or other travellers) and hang with them like I did.
Cuba Travel Tip 11 – The Street Fumes Are A Slight Choking Hazard…
No matter how hard I try, I will not be able to prepare you for the overwhelming stench of the car fumes accosting the streets of Havana. The old town is particularly bad, with its tall buildings and narrow streets acting as a giant dome that traps the pollution from the old Chevrolets and silently shoves it up your nostrils. I’ll admit there were times I wished I had a face mask or some kind of breathing apparatus. But that may have been me just being precious…
**2020 UPDATE – Times, Are They Really-A-Changin’? Cuban Tourism and the Economy**
These days the Cuban government is becoming less stringent on the traditional “communist” ideals – restrictions on international travel have been lifted, people can buy and sell their houses and cars and even open small businesses to make their own money. But it remains to be seen how quickly this will help the economy, as the government still trends towards slowing progress down in favour of a kind of slanted “socialism”. The main issue for the government is how to prop-up this “new economy” when the actual economy only grew by 1.4 percent last year – all the while still trying to maintain free education and health systems as well as food security, housing and job programs.
When the Obama Administration lifted the trade embargo with Cuba in 2015, there was a lot of hope for a “new economy” of self-employed workers, but five years on, the “cuentapropismo” class accounts for just 13% of Cuba’s workforce. In contrast, the Trump administration has all but undone any positive relations forged by re-imposing new financial restrictions intended to deny financial investment in or assistance to Cuban businesses and institutions, including some tourist hotels and resorts.
So what has actually changed in terms of daily life in Cuba, four years on after my first visit? Not much at all, if I’m honest. And so these travel tips still hold true today. Although Cuban’s now have access to internet on their mobile phones (a HUGE deal), it is on the painfully-archaic 2G network which is patchy, at best. As the nation continues to struggle with its turtle-speed economy (and broadband network), one thing is growing exponentially – tourism. Trips have doubled in the last four years.
So the time really is now to visit this curiously-cool place if you still want to see the fascinating country still in-flux.