The time is now to visit Cuba, and yet not all of us know much about it. I certainly didn’t, so here are a few things you need to know before you visit.
If you’re visiting Cuba for a holiday lasting less than 30 days you need to show a Tarjeta del Turista, a tourist visa, at the passport control. Getting it is no big deal: you can request it from the Cuban embassy in London either in person or via post. All you need is a passport valid for at least six month beyond the date of your expected departure from Cuba (or a photocopy of a passport if you’re applying via post), your plane tickets and the first address of your stay.
The first accommodation search I did for Havana was (obvs) on Couchsurfing. Unfortunately however, Couchsurfing is illegal in Cuba – something to do with preserving the local economy.
Local Couchsurfers therefore mainly organise meetups, offer you drinks and exist on the social network to direct travellers to the easiest and safest way of travelling in their country.
The cheapest accommodation in Cuba is renting a room in a casa particular, around which the whole Cuban economy revolves. Owners of casas particulares (mostly women as far as I’ve seen) rent rooms in their houses for 25-35 cuban dollars (CUC) per night.
Look at your casa particular host like your referral point in Cuba. A good casa is safe enough for you to leave cards and extra money (in a locked suitcase) and a great dining spot, too: with about 15 CUC (£10) per day you’ll manage to have great breakfasts and dinners in a clean place. A good host will ask for your passport and visa as soon as you get there… And will also be able to sell you discounted Cuban cigars.
Otherwise if you’re into fancier stuff, hotels are way more central but also way more expensive (over 100 dollars per night). They’re not the right place to have a real Cuban holiday and, in all honesty, they were probably considered fancy during the USSR.
3) The commission
One of the first things you’ll hear about Cuba is the locals’ tendency to “rip tourists off”. This doesn’t mean Cubans are bad – in fact, they are amongst the most heart-warming, kindest people you’ll ever meet.
It’s more that in Cuba the average monthly salary equals to a little more than £10, which means everything revolves around who you know to get some extra money in the bank. So if I get you a taxi from the airport for 25 CUC, you will pay 30 CUC because the cab driver owes me 5 dollars of commission for helping him with his business. Don’t be scared of this: all you need is the ability to trade in multiples of five not to pay any extra money.
4) The locals
Girls, get ready: men will make kissing sounds, honk the horn at you, call you “niña”, “mami”, “mamasita” and “linda” or propose to you.
The first thing my host told me was: “If someone starts following you and talking to you asking if you have a boyfriend or if you want to go to dinner with them, say: ‘Yo necesito de nada. Yo estudio medicina en Cuba.’ They just want to get free food from you.” Sure, a girl with an hawaian shirt and a bikini walking towards a tourist bus might not look like your typical medicine student, but my host’s advice sure helped me learn what to expect and keep people at bay.
The guys I’ve spoken to confirmed it’s the same for them, so either offer a bunch of meals or pretend to study medicine. Up to you.
5) What to bring
- Adapters: they’re not hard to find, but if you’re away from Havana you’ll make your life way easier if you bring one from home;
- Mosquito bite prevention sprays: aside from their giant bites Cuban mosquitoes can bring the Dengue fever, which can be lethal;
- Soap/shower gel. Cuba is currently going through a shortage;
- Sun screen. Duh.
Cuban money isn’t easy to find in Europe – I couldn’t find it in London.
Not every card works in Cuba: Visas generally work while Mastercards can be a little more difficult. So bring European money and change it at the airport, however unfavourable the exchange rate.
Cuba has two currencies: Cuban dollars or convertible pesos (CUC) and Cuban Peso (CUP). The latter kind is basically useless, so stock up on CUCs.
A good, original case of Cuban cigars costs over 100 CUC. Here’s when your casa particular host comes into the picture, finding you cigars for 40 CUC or less. How? S/He knows a guy who knows a guy – a guy that works in the plantations and sells cheaper but great versions of the official cigars. Remember you can’t bring back more than two boxes or 50 cigars and that they will need the official Cuban stamp to be checked in.
Say goodbye to your smartphone: Cuba is the land the World Wide Web forgot. The island’s “tech stores” are grey-looking places selling dubious devices. The Internet is a luxury for few Cubans, so be prepared to pay if you want WiFi.
In Havana you can find it in hotels like the Hotel Nacional (for 5 CUC per hour) or go to Calle 23 and join the Habaneros who bought a card from nearby stalls or locals (for 2 o 3 CUC per hour respectively). If you’re looking for an Internet-free holiday, Cuba’s the place for you!
Ye be warned. Now it’s your turn to explore this incredible island, set to change after the recent warming up of Cuba-USA relationships. Hasta la victoria! Siempre!
Photos: Carolina Are