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Ok, I admit it. We bought into the hype. Cuba is one of the hottest travel destinations on the planet right now for Americans. Brooke and I wanted to visit this previously-forbidden destination before “the influx of American tourists ruined it.” We combed through lots of website with beautiful pictures of classic cars, fresh mojitos, beautiful Cuban people smoking cigars, and crystal blue beaches. Every article or post we read RAVED about how wonderful Cuba is. Our experience was a bit different. In our Honest Cuba Travel Guide, we will bring you 23 things you should know before you visit Cuba.
#1 Cuba is not “A Place Frozen in Time”
This is the most abused phrase I’ve heard used to describe Cuba. This is a very American-centric perspective. Yes, we closed off trade and travel with Cuba back in the 60’s, but the rest of the world has continued to visit. Most pictures, understandably, focus on the classic cars. The 1950’s American muscle cars are definitely beautiful, but what you don’t see are the rest of the 1980’s Russian cars rumbling around. We also saw quite a few modern cars around Havana.
I take exception to the “frozen in time” phrase, because I don’t picture the 1950’s anything like Old Havana, which brings me to my next point…
#2 Havana is Very Dirty
We did not come to Cuba expecting everything to be clean and sparkly. While parts of Old Havana are quite charming, we did not anticipate what we encountered. First, the classic cars do not have emission standards. So, while they are beautiful to look at and fun to ride in, they pump out clouds of exhaust fumes.
Stray animals freely roam the streets here. On more than one occasion, a stray dog stopped to poop directly in front of us, in the middle of a pedestrian area. Sanitation systems are not well developed, so bags of trash are left to sit in the streets. Think – the French Quarter of New Orleans after Mardi Gras… but with classic cars.
#3 Wander Around Old Havana – It is Safe
We found Havana to be relatively split into the Old Havana section and another section of obvious poverty (see picture above). Our AirBNB sat close to the dividing line between the two sections, near the Capitol building. We spent the majority of our time in the more tourist-friendly Old Havana section. Highlights include visits to the Havana Cathedral, el Museo de Revolucion, Museo del Chocolate, La Conversacion statue, the Malecon, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and random rooftop bars.
Even at night, we felt quite safe in this area. The streets are relatively dark and narrow, but with plenty of people out and about, we never felt concerned for our safety or at risk for being robbed.Most of the locals that we spoke with were very kind and welcoming. Despite my moderate grasp on the Spanish language, we were able to communicate pretty effectively. This brings us to point #4…
#4 Do Not Expect People to Speak English
As a relatively well-traveled American and native English speaker, I have been fortunate to encounter spoken English around the world. I never go to a country expecting them to speak my language. I usually try to learn some key phrases in the local language before visiting a country, but I’ve almost never needed to use them. Cuba is different. Brush up on your Spanish before your visit. Almost nobody we met spoke English. Fortunately, I studied Spanish in high school, and I brushed up a bit using the Duolingo app before the trip.
#5 You Will be Panhandled – Be Firm, Say No
While walking around Havana, we were constantly solicited for cab rides or tours, offered cigars for sale, or flat out asked for money. An attendant at one of the museums took my camera and insisted we allow her to take our picture. She then asked for money to return the camera.
A relatively common tactic was for someone to walk alongside us, and then initiate the following exchange:
- Him – “Where are you from, my friend?”
- Me – no eye contact, continue walking
- Him – “My friend, where are you from?”
- Me – “USA.”
- Him – “Ah, beautiful country. I love USA. Do you have USA dollar for me?”
- Me – “No, I’m sorry.”
This exact scenario played out nearly a dozen times in just a few days. The best option is to simply ignore people who try this and to keep walking. This may seem rude, but engaging them in conversation only encourages them to keep asking for money. Be firm, say “No.”
#6 Today is Probably Not the Final Day of the Cigar Festival
You may have cigar salesmen approach you on the street. A common sales tactic is for them to tell you, “Today is the final day of the Cigar Festival! All cigars half price until tomorrow! Come with me!” They then try to lead you to their homes to sell you full boxes of cigars. I have no idea if the cigars are genuine or not, but literally every day of our visit was “The final day of the Cigar Festival.” There is an actual Cigar Festival that took place from Feb 27 – Mar 3, 2017. We were there a week earlier.
We were also told that selling cigars from ones home is a legitimate practice called a “collectivo.” According to our source, workers at the Partagas Cigar Factory are allotted a certain number of legitimate Cuban cigars to sell personally. The prices we saw were substantially lower than in the reputable cigar shops. Buy at your own risk.
#7 Currency Exchange is Expensive and Time Consuming
Money, Money, Money!
The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC – “kook”) is the tourist currency. The exchange rate to USD is fixed at 1:1, but it carries a (minimum) 10% conversion fee – in both directions. If you exchange $100, you will receive 90CUC. If you then exchange your 90CUC, you will receive $81. Additionally, lines for currency exchange can be VERY long, especially at the airport. When we arrived, the line to convert currency was over an hour long!
Fortunately for us, our cab driver offered to take us to a Cadeca (money exchange business) instead of waiting at the airport. You can exchange dollars for CUC at Cadecas or Banks (10% fee) or at your hotel (12-15% fee). All exchanges require a passport.
#8 There are Two Separate Currencies in Cuba
While tourists use CUC, the locals use the CUP. One CUP is worth exactly 1/24 of a CUC. You will likely see prices written in CUC and CUP. For example, the Museo de Revolucion lists the entry price as 8CUC or 8CUP. When I tried to pay with CUP, I was denied.
The 3CUP note bears the face of Cuban Revolutionary hero Che Guavara. If you can find one, it makes a nice souvenir. A possible scam is for dishonest merchants to give change in CUP, instead of CUC. Check out the images for the differences in the notes.
#9 US-Based Credit Cards Do Not Work in Cuba
Simply put, you cannot use a US-based credit card here. This is typically a way to get the best exchange rate for purchases. Your cards will be useless in Cuba, so make sure to get enough cash for the entirety of your visit. Also, be careful not to exchange too much cash, because you will be hit with the double exchange fee.
#10 Different Airlines Charge Different Rates for the Cuban Visa
After using miles to book a flight on American Airlines, we learned this unfortunate fact. AA charges the highest price for a Cuban visa of any airline. The prices charged by US-based airlines are as follows:
- Southwest: $50, purchased online and delivered at the gate
- JetBlue: $50, purchase at gate
- Delta: $50, purchase at gate
- United: $75 ($50 visa + $25 processing fee), purchase at gate.
- American: $110 ($50 visa + $35 processing fee + $25 shipping fee), purchase online and sent via mail. AA will send instructions.
For Brooke and my visas, we would have to pay $195 (two visas, two processing fees, and shipping). We decided to just wait until we arrived at the airport, hoping to buy them for $50 from another airline. Unfortunately, AA was the only option, and they charge $100 per visa at the gate. I don’t understand why they arbitrarily decided to charge double… seems greedy.
#11 The US-Issued Cuban Visa is Pink, not Green
Cuban visas obtained from other countries are green and cost only $25. The US-version is pink and costs… well, it starts at $50. You cannot board a plane departing from the USA without a pink visa! One couple in the boarding line behind us bought their green visas in Jamaica. The gate agent denied them boarding, and they were forced to pay $100 each for a pink card!
When you fill out your visa, be very careful to do it correctly. If you make an error, or try to scratch something out, your visa will no longer be valid, and you will have to purchase a new one!
#12 The Rum and Cigars are Wonderful
The rum and cigars definitely lived up to the hype! We sampled a couple pours of rum at a restaurant before deciding which bottles to bring home. New customs laws allow travelers to bring back unlimited amounts of rum and cigars for personal use. We brought along a hard-sided suitcase and bottle mailers to protect our two rum bottles and cigars on the return flight. We picked up a box of cigars, a large bottle of Havana Club 7-Year, and a bottle of Ron Santero 12-Year Extra Anejo.
I highly recommend both of these rums! The 7-year is Cuba’s signature offering, with tropical fruit notes and a caramel sweetness. The 12-year has a bit of bite, with nutty and sweet fruit notes, perfect for pairing with a Robusto cigar.
#13 Fabrica del Arte Cubano is Fantastic
Fabrica del Arte Cubano is an absolute blast! This club/restaurant/art gallery/movie theater/exhibition space in the trendy Vedado neighborhood is unlike anything I’ve experience before. The space was created from an old oil factory, and it features multiple bars connected by winding hallways covered in artwork. Turn one corner and you’re in an all out dance club, around another, and you’re in a silent movie with soft jazz music playing. We even stumbled into a legit fashion show put on by a local designer.
Arrive early (we arrived before 8 p.m.), because the place fills up and the entry line gets very long. You pay a 2CUC entry fee and get a paper card. All of your food and drinks go on this card and you settle up before leaving. Grab a drink and explore. When you need a break, stop by the little cafe for some croquettes. Just wander around the space; You’re sure to find something you love here.
#14 Get Outside of Havana
When you’re in Cuba, do not spend all of your time in Havana. Get out of the city and see the beautiful beaches. For around $100, you can hire a driver for the day to take you out of Havana. Most of the drivers gather along the west side of Parque Central. Simply ask for a driver, preferably one that speaks some English.
Our first option was Vinales, but we didn’t want to spend most of the day in the car. We opted to visit Playa Jibacoa along the north coast. The water is a beautiful shade of blue, and we had the beach mostly to ourselves. Our driver also took us up to a hilltop for pictures with the giant Cuban flag.
I highly recommend El Cacique for lunch. The portions are huge, and the food was delicious! After lunch, we drove just a bit further to see the Bacunayagua Bridge, the longest, highest bridge in Cuba.
#15 Book an AirBNB
This may sound a bit suspect, but hear me out. Our AirBNB was actually quite nice and relatively inexpensive at $50/night for our dates. Hotels range from around $150-$300 per night, while AirBNB’s range from $16-$100 for central Havana locations. If you’ve never used AirBNB before, you can sign up for an account using our link to save $40 off your first trip!
#16 Classic Car City Tours are Worth It
For around 30CUC, you can take a ride around Old Havana in a fully restored classic car. There is no shortage of people offering this tour, so walk around long enough and you’ll run into one. Never pay more than 30CUC, even if they start by asking for more than twice that much.
We rode around for about an hour, stopping at Plaza de Revolucion, the statue of John Lennon, and a mojito bar. We also cruised down the Malecon around sunset and snapped a few awesome action shots.
#17 Ride in a Coco Taxi
There are four main transportation options around Cuba – classic car, taxi, coco taxi, and bike taxi. We sampled all four during our visit, and while the classic car was cool, the coco taxi was just plain fun! These three-wheeled scooters have two seats and an egg-shaped, fiberglass body.
We managed to squeeze three riders for the trip to Fabrica del Arte. I loved riding in the open air, along the packed Malecon on a Saturday night!
#18 Have Brunch at El Dandy
The Dandy is a tiny open-air cafe during the day and a bar in the evening. Stop in early to grab a Cafe Dandy (with rum, of course), pulled pork tacos, and fried eggs. The servers are very nice, and the food is tasty and cheap!
#19 Have Dinner at Lamparilla 361
Many people complain that Cuban food is bland. After a couple days, I was ready to agree! Then we found Lamparilla 361, which I can only describe as a spanish-fusion, hipster, tapas bar. Strange, I know, but when you see it, you’ll agree with me. This place was eclectic to the max, and it seemed very popular. We snagged seats upstairs, overlooking the restaurant below. The menu has a huge variety of food and fancy drinks, including a parrot-shaped pineapple drink.
We ordered a steak, some croquettes, and a bowl of carbonara pasta. All were delightful, and very welcome after a couple days of rice and beans!
#20 Mojitos and Daquiris
Visit La Bodequita del Medio, home of the mojito. Enjoy a daquiri at El Floridita next to the statue of Ernest Hemmingway. Both places are overpriced, and a bit touristy and crowded, but the drinks are actually quite good. If you hit El Floridita at the right time, you may get to hear some live music and meet a few fellow travelers.
#21 Offline Google Maps Doesn’t Work
Before visiting a new country, we always download an offline Google map. We use this map to navigate the city and find points of interest. For some reason, Google does not allow you to download an offline map for Cuba. There are a few apps that offer interactive maps for Cuba, or you could use a… paper map. :-/
#22 Don’t Bother with the Wifi
Wifi is extremely limited in Cuba. You have to buy an access card, and then go to a few specific locations to find the connection. Once you find it, and punch in your code, the connection is very slow. Save yourself the headache, and make your plans ahead of time. Better yet, print out this post and carry it along.
#23 Take Lots of Pictures!
This may not be a big “secret tip,” but I needed an excuse to showcase some of the other pics we took. These didn’t fit into any of the categories above, so here you go!
Cuba is a different sort of place. We went in with higher expectations than we should have, based on the upbeat reviews from other travelers. While there is a lot to like about our visit, we didn’t find everything to be as wonderful as described. Cuba is a place that I believe people should visit. Temper your expectations for Havana, avoid panhandlers, and be careful for dishonest salespeople. Most of the people were very kind and welcoming, the rum and cigars were top notch, and the history is rich. Pay a visit to Old Havana and Fabrica de Arte, and take a ride down the coast to a beautiful beach. Go with the right mindset, and you will have a great trip!