Top Things to Know Before You Visit Cuba
You’ll probably need a Visa
Most people visiting Cuba will require a tourist visa, be sure to check if you do before travelling and allow plenty of time to get one. Not so long ago getting hold of a visa meant visiting your nearest Cuban embassy or consulate, fortunately now there are places you can get them online and some airlines even include them with your flight. If in doubt, contact your tour operator or airline and ask if they provide one or if you need to get one.
If you’re visiting from the USA there are further restrictions on your travel, you must be visiting for one a specific set of 12 (well now 11) reasons, these are:
Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organisations
Professional research and professional meetings
Educational activities and people-to-people travel; (no longer an option, although we hope it will be reintroduced)
Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
Support for the Cuban people
Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials;
Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing Department of Commerce regulations and guidelines with respect to Cuba or engaged in by U.S.-owned or -controlled foreign firms
Our holidays fall under the “Support for the Cuban People” category and if you travel with us we’ll either include your visa or provide guidance on how to apply for one if you are joining us from the USA.
Some people coming from America choose to work-around the problem by not flying directly from the US, but instead going to Canada or somewhere in South America and then connecting on to Cuba. Whilst this technically isn’t illegal and does solve the problem, it’s more expensive, time consuming and doesn’t seem worth the risk and effort when we’ve never heard of anyone being refused a visa when they’ve applied for one correctly.
Currency / Money
The first thing to know about money in Cuba is: Cash is still King. There are very few places where you can use a credit or debit card other than banks and ATMs, and even these are often either out of order, empty of cash or at the end of a very long queue. So make sure you bring plenty of cash with you.
Until January 2021 Cuba operated two currencies; one for locals and another for tourists, however they are now being unified back to the historical Cuban Peso or CUP.
CUC (pronounced Cook), were essentially a tourist currency and will still remain legal tender for a short (as yet undetermined) period. (We believe August 2021 is the cut-off).
You can’t buy Cuban Pesos outside of Cuba as it’s a closed currency. It’s also not recommended (technically illegal) to take them home with you. We recommend you bring British Pounds, Canadian Dollars or Euros to exchange on arrival as these usually have the better exchange rate.
You can exchange money at the airport on arrival, however there is almost always a long queue, so be prepared to spend your first half an hour in Cuba waiting to get some cash. There are also official currency exchange points (Casa de Cambio or CaDeCa) around the larger cities and money can be exchanged in most banks. You will need your passport and travel visa with you and again, be prepared to wait and wait and wait.
Waiting… and waiting and waiting
Now that we’ve mentioned waiting… The pace of life in Cuba is, let’s say relaxed… Very few people are in any great rush to do anything or go anywhere. Don’t mistake this for laziness, the Cubans are incredibly inventive, productive and ingenious, they’re just not running around like headless chickens the way we might be used to. This can translate to having to wait longer than you may expect to in other countries for things like service at a bar or restaurant. Remember, this is a relaxed culture in a hot, tropical island. One of the big attractions of Cuba is how little things have changed over the decades, so try not to be impatient, relax into a slower pace and enjoy not being hurried.
When we first visited Cuba it was almost impossible to get a mobile phone signal. Payphones were (and still are) common place as many people didn't even have a landline in their home. Things have definitely changed now, although I won’t say that means improved. I loved being completely unreachable, even if that was sometimes inconvenient. Now there’s mobile reception across most of the island and wifi hotspots which you can access by purchasing a pre-paid card and hanging around in close proximity to the wifi location. Just don’t expect it to be a particularly stable or fast connection.
A 3G rollout across the country is in progress, however connection can still be unstable and expensive
Our advice is to switch off, disconnect from the demands of social media for a few days and enjoy being out of touch
Download a map or buy a paper one before you leave because (as above), you probably won’t be able to get Google Maps to work.
Check out our post on getting around in Havana for more information on how to avoid getting lost
Cuba’s economy is hugely reliant on tourism, as such, there are a lot of places to stay. On our tours we try to immerse ourselves as much as possible and so we stay away from large hotels owned by international operators, however there are plenty of those to be found if that’s what you’re looking for and most can be booked online in advance.
If you want to escape those big brand name, cookie cutter clones look for independently owned and operated local hotels where prices will be cheaper
For us though, the best place to stay is with Cuban families in Casa Particulars; these are private family homes, similar to a Bed & Breakfast. They offer great value for money but also give you a great opportunity to practice your Spanish and get to know more about life in Cuba
Practice Your Spanish
Even just a few words will go a long way and ingratiate you hugely. Most restaurants and bars, especially in the cities and tourist locations will have some English speaking staff, however smaller places or non tourist venues may not so it’s worth at least knowing some basic words
Lastly... Cuba is incredibly safe
Not many places in the world are as safe for tourists as Cuba. Firstly the people here are genuinely wonderful, they’re curious about you, why you chose to visit Cuba and what you think of their island. They don’t want anything bad to happen to you because the country is so reliant on tourism for income.
Many places we’ve visited we’ve been slightly self conscious, if not worried about being out alone late at night, especially as often we’re carrying around hundreds or even thousands of pounds worth of camera equipment. In Cuba we’ve never once worried or been given cause for the slightest concern. Walking backstreets and alleyways late at night either alone or in very small groups we’ve only ever encountered friendly people.