10 handy hints before you hit Cuba
Cuba had long been on my bucket list, so when a friend suggested I extend my already planned America holiday, and pop down to Cuba for the week to join her I said: why not!
However, before a trip to Cuba there are a few useful things to know that I was only vaguely aware of prior to my Cuban getaway:
1. Until the U.S/Cuba embargo ends you will either need to fly directly from Canada or, if coming from the U.S, go through Mexico on a separate ticket to avoid any officials who might cause you a hassle.
2. If transiting through Mexico, give yourself plenty of time between flights as you have to clear immigration on arrival, and then go back through after checking into your onward flight. You just never know what is going to happen. I missed my flight to Havana due to a broken toilet door in Los Angeles delaying my flight to Mexico City by an hour...$700 later and I had organised a hotel room, and had arranged to change my flight to the following day. Pretty expensive lesson. Also, the immigration lines in Mexico City and Cancun can be quite long, depending on the time of day you are travelling, which can lead to quite the hold up. My friend got stuck in line in Mexico City for two hours so bring a good book.
3. You can't purchase Cuban currency anywhere except Cuba, so make sure to bring either some Canadian dollars, Euros or British pounds. Australian currency is not accepted, the Mexican peso is accepted but equates to a poor exchange rate, and you get charged an additional 10% on American currency (I assume it's a Cuban 'up yours' to their frenemies across the ditch). You can exchange currency at the airport, in some banks, and money exchanges called Cadecas. It's always a good idea to carry some form of currency when travelling, but if you do forget or run out, you can withdraw money out of the Banco Central de Cuba using your Australian card.
4. There are two types of currency in Cuba: the tourist currency called CUC, which roughly equates to a Euro, and the local currency called the CUP, which is worth pretty much nothing. Make sure you are always getting CUC back when you make a purchase, not CUP. I took a screenshot of both currencies so I could refer to them, and not get myself caught out by a sneaky shopkeeper.
5. Arriving into Havana is like being slapped in the face with a warm wet gym towel. Being so close to the equator, Cuba's weather is tropical, and ranges from stinking hot to bloody humid, with a touch of rain on the side. Definite must-have items are shorts, thongs, swimmers, mosquito repellent, a poncho, and sunscreen.
6. Like most developing countries, sanitation is an issue so only drink bottled water. Most restaurants use filtered ice so cocktails are fine to indulge in (though your doctor might not concur), which is excellent as they are fresh and delicious, and cost about $3/$4 Australian. If you are ever skeptical in an establishment, a good phrase to learn in Spanish is: 'el hielo se purificado' ('the ice is purified?').
7. Cuba had Airbnb down pat years before it's arrival on the global market. Homestays/casas are one of the best ways to see the real Cuba. Try to book your first, and maybe your second night's accommodation in a casa before arrival. The locals that run the casas are more than happy to help you organise your onward journey. They'll call up friends and acquaintances who also own casas, to see if they have availability (on their phones with cords. No such thing as bad reception). Therefore, if you want to venture further from Havana, you can also organise that through your host. Their camaraderie in helping out fellow Cubans is certainly one positive to a somewhat harsh Communist existence.
8. Spanish is the main language of Cuba, and not everyone speaks English, especially locals not related to the tourism industry, so a phrase book is definitely a convenient tool to have. Or bring someone who speaks Spanish, like I did, a tactical decision that can be quite advantageous.
9. WiFi is pretty much non-existent, except in the upmarket hotels, so do your research beforehand, or take a travel guide with a map of Havana. After a week in Cuba you will either be thanking your lucky stars to get access to the world-wide web again, or be wanting to run off to another tropical island, grateful for the escape from Twitter and Facebook updates.
10. Taxis are relatively cheap. Don't be afraid to barter with your cab driver as they increase the price for tourists. From the airport in Havana, it should be about 25 CUC to central Havana, and 5 CUC for taxis around central city sites. You can catch buses throughout Cuba, but they are often packed. However, if you make your way to the central bus stop about the time the buses depart, local cab drivers organise taxi shares with other travelers for the same price as the bus. Pretty handy for the solo traveler.
There is so much to do and see in Cuba so if you are aware of these practical issues it makes everything easier, which means more time to enjoy amazingly tasty pina coladas and wonderful Cuban music to your heart's content.
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