CUBA: 10 Things you need to know

SnapseedCuba is still that one country which has managed to stay preserved in the 60’s as the world around it changes rapidly. It’s also the reason why it’s on every travellers list.

Here are the 10 most important things you need to know before you visit this magical country –

  1. Currency: Cuba has 2 currencies – CUC and the CUP.
    1. The CUC is the convertible Peso and the only one tourists are allowed to use and hold.
    2. You can convert at the airport itself and it’s a good idea to have enough CUCs on you as ATMs aren’t as popular around the country and cash is king!
    3. You’ll find Cadecas in the city to exchange as well, but make sure you check with a reliable source like your hotel/casa owner to find one.
    4. The conversion you’ll get on Euros or Pounds is way better than dollars. There is sometimes an additional charge on the dollar.
    5. Another things to note for American travellers is that Cuba does not accept American cards at all or even mastercards of any origin, so it’s best you bring enough cash or a non US Visa card.
  2. Casa Particular: Cuba’s version of a more authentic and warm Airbnb. You can book them through booking.com, hostelworld or through a local website for casas . Viejo Havana is dotted with casas you can stay in and truly immerse yourself with the locals. However, not all are air conditioned so make sure you check that if, like me, you need a cool room to sleep in! IMG_5057 2
  3. Vintage Cars: The American legacy before all trade ceased and sanctions were implemented! You see them the minute you step out of the airport – Colourful 50’s and 60’s models zip across the streets. Very few of them have the original engines so it may be worthwhile to find the authentic ones (sometimes a little more expensive) for a ride. You can take an hour or two hour tour around Havana starting from National or Parque Central for about 40-50 CUC an hour and while you may be doused with all the exhaust fumes of nearby cars, it’s still pretty worth it!
  4. Food: Cuban food is all about the meat served with rice, barbecued sea food, pork and so much more! It’s delicious and not all that expensive at Paladares. Unless you go to an upmarket restaurant or one inside a nicer hotel. Some of the best food I had was at Havana (honestly ALL my meals were phenomenal!)-
    1. La Terraza: Gorgeous open terrace with good views of the city with the most delicious barbecue lobster! I hear almost everything off the menu is delicious
    2. Al Carbon:This gorgeous restaurant is run by Chef Ivan who used to be Fidel’s personal chef. The food is delicious and ambience is super eclectic. Makes for the perfect dinner place.
    3. O’Rilley 304: Super tiny cafe which gets extremely packed very quickly with people waiting in lines outside to get it. Go at an off-meal hour and you may be saved from the crowds
    4. 5 Sentidos: Multi cuisine restaurant, when you need to get a pasta after many days in Cuba! Modern decor with multiple options to pick from
    5. El Cafe: For breakfast, drop by this tiny cafe tucked into a residential street with no sign outside but ample crowds. Get there super early so you’re one of the first few to be seated when it’s opened. Their coffee is honestly one of the best I had in my time in Cuba.
  5. Drinks: Rum. So much Rum. As a local told me and I quote ‘the government has made rum so cheap so that we’re always drunk and happy and we don’t question them!’. I can’t say how true that is but Havana Club forms part of every gathering, dinner, family outing and more. Here are some of the best drinks and places I had them –
    1. Strongest Mojito: At the beach! Like most casual drink places in Cuba, this one came with an entire bottle of rum on the side to add to it as one pleases. I continue to stay surprised at this but you’ll see it everywhere- tiny mojito joints in the park or at the beach make virgin drinks and serve it with a side of the bottle leaving you to decide how strong you need it to be.
    2. Yummies Piña Colada: While horseback riding though the valleys of Viñales, we stopped at a little farm hut and were served THE best Pina’s ever. The fresh coconut and pineapple + sugar cane juice squeezed in front of us + a side of the Rum bottle + the best views of the valley!
    3. Most overrated Mojito: I know many people will disagree but my experience at La Bodeguita Del Medio was far from phenomenal. The lines were long, the place way too crowded for the cuban heat, the service too lax and the mojito was nothing extraordinary. Don’t get me wrong, it was good! BUT, you get good Mojito’s at every corner in Havana.
    4. Mass Daiquiri: I only say this because it’s extraordinary how quickly they churn our Daiquiris at El Floridita! They are delicious, quick and the live music in the evenings makes this place one of my favourites in Havana despite being so touristy.
    5. Darkest Cuba Libre: At this underground little jazz bar – La Zorra Y El Cuervo one can have the nicest and strong Libre’s while enjoying some local Jazz.
  6. Cigars: Cuban Cigars are famous worldwide and one of THE most traded items for Cuba. Here are some things I learnt along the way –
    1. You should buy cigars from the licensed shops only if you plan to carry them back home. These ones give you a certificate and you should keep that till you arrive back home in your country
    2. The cigars you buy at the tobacco huts in Viñales locally rolled by the farmers are only a tourist gimmick, they don’t necessarily taste that good or burn well!
    3. Taste a variety of cigars by buying singles are the hotel/restaurants before you decide to buy a pack to take home- they vary from mild to super strong and you’ll only know what you like once you’ve tried them!
    4. Ensure you have a humidifier at home/buy one here to make sure your cuban cigars last
    5. Always check what the custom law is for cigars in your country- they vary and change rapidly
  7. Locals & Language: Cubans are extremely friendly people and a lot of their warmth comes from wanting to know more about your country, culture and ‘how much you make!’. I can’t even tell you how many times I was asked what I do and how much money I make as they quickly tried to do mental math to see if I can be charged more for the service. As a tourist, expect to pay a lot more for absolutely everything! Another thing to note is that most people, especially of an earlier generation, do not speak English so you definitely need to have some common words, questions and sentences of Spanish up your sleeve.
  8. Travelling within Cuba: Travelling within Cuba is largely easy and convenient considering the size of the island. Whether it’s a day trip out of the city or travelling between 2 cities, you can easily find multiple options. You can get taxis to ferry you around within the city or even to go to another city. Collectivos (shared taxis) are a great option if you want to travel inexpensive within Havana as well as between cities. The Viazul bus service is quick, safe and extensive. Make sure you reserve a seat before hand.
  9. Internet & Wifi: Oh the Biggie! To be honest, if you can, take the break.
    1. Finding wifi points and scratch cards isn’t worth the time especially when you’re in this gorgeous country.
    2. If you must, then wifi cards are available at every corner, especially at the wifi-spots marked out. Look out for a booth with ETECSA written, that’s the company which provides internet service. You’ll see a bunch of people hanging about benches and street corners- thats how you know you’ve found a wifi spot.
    3. You can also go to the nicer Parque Central hotels in Havana and ask for a wifi card to use, they are more expensive than the ones you get at the booth but you get a free drink with it and a nice area to sit and surf.
  10. Safety & Common Scams: While Cuba is a safe country, you do have to follow the few basics of not strolling off alone in the middle of the night and turning empty street corners.
    1. I didn’t feel unsafe ever, however as a woman, I did feel a little uncomfortable as there can be a tonne of catcalling and people trying to follow you around. Just say a firm NO and don’t make eye contact. I followed these basics and was fine.
    2. Most people will try to talk to you to either sell you something or a tour or even take you to a nice restaurant where they’ll expect you to buy them food and drinks.
    3. A common scam is people approaching you in the street telling you how the tobacco factory is hosting a discount sale just for that day and you’re lucky to be in the city. Usually, there is no sale and they take you to a shop which they make money on commissions from. It’s best to avoid and say NO and keep walking
    4. People will offer sometimes to take your picture, give you a quick history lesson about the square you’re standing at or give you directions – know that nothing is free and you will be asked to pay up!

All in all, I honestly felt like I was living in a different time and I can’t wait to go back! Comment and share if this helped and if there is anything else you’d like to know.

Check out my stories and pictures from the trip on my Instagram here 

 

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