Lisa Owen

Cuba ranks high as one of my most unique experiences as a solo traveller. And not because of the sights, but because of how the country works for tourists.

From its use of two different currencies to its extensive use of accommodation in the homes of locals, Cuba will certainly be a memorable, but often frustrating experience. But that’s all part of the adventure!

old car in cuba

Here’s what you need to know before you come to Cuba. This guide will help you navigate your way around the country, and prevent travel mistakes that could prove costly.

You’ll probably need to purchase a tourist card to enter the country

Many nationalities*, such as Australia and many European countries, can enter Cuba by buying a tourist card at the airport you board your flight in.

I boarded my flight in Bogota, Colombia. Before the plane boarded, I was able to buy a tourist card (Tarjeta Del Turista) for $14 GBP from one of the airline representatives at the boarding gate.

Payment had to be made in cash, either in US Dollars or Colombian Pesos (the currency will depend on the country you board the flight in). The tourist card is presented to immigration officials on your arrival into Cuba, and on your exit.

It may also be possible to buy a tourist card in Cuba before you pass through the immigration counters, but it can cost up to $80 USD this way so best to get it before you arrive.

*It is important to check your nationality is included in the tourist card scheme. Different rules apply for US citizens.

There’s two official currencies

One of the most important things you need to know when travelling in Cuba is that there’s two currencies.

Cubano Convertibles (commonly referred to as CUC) are used by tourists and Cubano Nacional Pesos (CUP) are used by locals – however they are interchangeable.

In popular tourist locations such as Old Havana and Trinidad, most prices were quoted in convertibles. In some places, prices were quoted in both CUC and CUP. Pesos were only quoted in very local places such as fruit and vegetable markets, bakeries or local sandwich shops.

However, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the CUC and CUP price. Convertibles equal the US Dollar. For example, 1 CUC equals 1 US Dollar. Pesos are higher numbers. For example, 25 CUP is equal to 1 CUC or 1 US Dollar.

In locations where payment was quoted in pesos, it was possible to pay in CUC but you would get any change back in pesos. For example, if I paid for something that was 5 pesos with 1 CUC I would get 20 Pesos change back.

Remember to always check your change.

Cuba has a cash economy

Cash is the primary method of payment in Cuba and it’s very rare to find places that accept bank cards.

Small notes are best – you’ll find you use your 1, 3 and 5 CUC notes a lot. You can get 1 CUC in both a note and a coin.

You’ll get the best exchange rate changing Euros or Canadian dollars into Cuban convertibles rather than US Dollars.

The good news is there are many money change offices across Cuba. Some are standalone cash exchanges while others are located inside banks. There are several money exchange offices at the Havana airport.

cuban street

You may not be able to withdraw money from an ATM

Not all bank cards work in ATMs (especially not US affiliated cards) so be prepared with cash. I didn’t try accessing money from ATMs as I came prepared with US Dollars and Euros to change instead, but other travellers I met had mixed success using ATMs.

If you are successful in withdrawing money from an ATM, you’ll be charged about 5 CUC per transaction in addition to any fees your bank charges for an international transaction and cash advance. Other travellers told me there are also withdrawal limits to the equivalent of $100 USD per transaction.

You need to queue for everything

Get ready to line up for everything you want in Cuba – you’re on Cuban time. From wifi cards to food, you’re going to have to join a queue.

In Havana, queues are very long and slow moving so I recommend bringing a book to pass the time.

square in cuba

You need to buy a card to access wifi

Wifi is only available by buying a Wifi card from Esteca outlets. Then you have to find a wifi hotspot which is a park or plaza.

Here’s how it works. Buy your card at Esteca offices. They are located in the centre of major Cuban towns. The official price is 1 CUC for a one hour card or 5 CUC for a five hour card. It’s not recommended to buy from street touts offering cards as they will charge a higher price.

Be careful to check that you can scratch off the backing to reveal the password before you leave the ESTECA office. I got a couple of faulty cards where there was no password underneath or the backing could not be scratched off.

Once you’ve got your card, locate a hotspot area. These are located in select parks or plazas. There’s no signage to identify when you’ve found a hotspot area, but you’ll know when your phone detects the network WIFI_ESTECA and you see lots of people on their phones.

You can also locate wifi areas by using the Maps.Me app. Many of the wifi areas are pinned on the Cuba map.

Hotspot areas are found in many locations across Havana, however you may only find only one or two wifi areas in smaller towns such as Trinidad.

Once your phone connects to the signal, it will load up a page asking you for a Username and Password. This can be found on the back of your card. You need to scratch the password panel to reveal your unique code.

Once you type this in, it will take you to a page saying how much time you have left to use. You need to log in each time you connect to the wifi until your time allotment is up.

Credit can be used for a maximum of 30 days from its first activation. The simplest way to disconnect each time is to simply turn off the wifi on your phone.

It is much easier to buy the cards in smaller towns rather than Havana. I lined up for 90 minutes in Havana for a card and in Trinidad I had my card within five minutes.

cuban street

Tourists can only take the Viazul buses

The only public buses that tourists are allowed to take are run by Viazul.

You will not be allowed on board other local buses.

The good news is that Viazul coaches run between major tourist destinations including Vinales, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Varadero and Santiago de Cuba. The bad news is that there are usually only two or three services per day on each route so you have to be quick to get a ticket.

Tickets can be bought in advance online through www.viazul.com You can view the website in English. The site is also a good way to check if the route you intend is possible by Viazul bus. If it’s not, you might find yourself taking an expensive taxi.

For example, Santa Clara to Cienfuegos is not serviced by a Viazul route so I had to pay $25 CUC for a taxi for an hour’s drive.

You need to print out your receipt for each Viazul bus ticket and present it to desk clerk at the bus station at least 30 minutes before your departure. You will then be given a ticket.

The check in process tends to vary across each station. The ticket issue can be prompt or very slow. You may also be asked to give your bag to an attendant (you’ll be asked for a tip) who will load the bags on a cart and take them to the bus. You will be given a luggage tag and you will need to give this to the bag attendant at your final destination to collect your bag.

All Viazul buses have two drivers and you will stop for a 45 minute lunch or dinner break during each bus ride. The toilets are locked on board the bus but you can take a toilet break at the rest stop or at the five-minute break at any bus station stops on your route.

A lot of the American classic cars driving around are taxis

You’ll see a lot of classic cars driving around Cuba – this is due to the trade embargo established in 1960 banning the importation of many goods, including cars, from the USA. It was very difficult and expensive to get cars from other countries in the decades following the embargo coming into place, so many of the cars driving around today date back to the 1950s!

Today, modern cars are still very expensive to import into Cuba, so a lot of Cubans spend the time to keep their old cars running.

You’ll find that many of the classic cars driving around are actually taxis – especially in Havana. So you can get your classic car ride as well as getting from A to B.

street in cuba

You won’t find any supermarkets

There are no Walmarts in Cuba – in fact supermarkets are absent from Cuba. You may find some mini-markets with a small assortment of goods or department stores that sell clothing, electrical goods and have a small corner for food. Items such as meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables are available from specialist stores rather than the minimarket.

The minimarkets seem to essentially sell what they can get their hands on each day so stocks change frequently. In smaller towns, you can see what they have inside by the displays in the exterior windows.

When you enter a supermarket, if you’re carrying a bag bigger than a handbag, you have to leave it in a pigeonhole at the door with an attendant and collect it on your way out.

The best place I found to buy items like biscuits and chocolate bars were El Rapido fast food outlets. The prices were cheap and available items changed daily. El Rapido stores are located in all major towns across Cuba.

It’s a very walkable country

Cuban cities are mostly flat which makes it a great country to get some kilometres on the legs. I walked 10 to 20km most days around Cuba. It was a good way to see the country, absorb the culture, find cheap eats, and stroll through tree lined boulevards and past pastel coloured colonial buildings.

You’ll need to know a little bit of Spanish

A little bit of Spanish will go a long way in Cuba. While some people dealing with tourists on a daily basis will know a smattering of English, it will be helpful to know some basic phrases and words in Spanish to make it easier to get around and communicate.

Cuba is very safe and the locals are friendly

I walked around by myself all day and occasionally at night and never felt unsafe.

While I would often get wolf whistled or catcalled or even approached asking if I wanted to go to a bar, I never felt the approaches were aggressive and I never felt unsafe.

I would just say a polite no thanks but avoid eye contact and move on.

cuban church

Havana’s street signs are on the footpath

In Havana, look to the footpath and in one corner of each crossroad you will see a concrete block with the street number or letter painted on the side.

Across Cuba, streets predominantly work by numbers or letters. For example, Calle 11 or A Avenue.

Addresses will be given to you in the following way. For example, #1117 Calle 11 between Calle 14 and 16. This means the house is located in the part of Calle 11 between 14th and 16th street.

There’s not many hotels or hostels – but you can easily rent rooms

There’s only a few hotels and hostels across Cuba, and you may find your cheapest option is to rent a room instead, especially if you’re travelling as a couple or in  group.

Available rooms are denoted by a white anchor like symbol accompanied by the words Arrenador Divisa.

Many Cubans rent out rooms for tourists – called casa particulars. Each room usually has two beds (commonly a mix of a double bed and single bed), a private bathroom and air conditioning or a fan. You may also have your own fridge and TV.

Breakfast is not included in the price, but the standard charge is 5 CUC per day and usually there was enough food to last me through both breakfast and lunch.

AirBnB is a good option to book your Cuba accommodation in advance as you pay online and don’t have to worry about carrying too much cash on your trip.

It’s important to know though that you cannot book any accommodation using the AirBnB site once you’re in Cuba. You can search for places but you are unable to book online.

Budget travellers can also find rooms to rent and some hostels on HostelWorld.

The food is cheap – if you go where the locals go

You can stick to a budget pretty easily with food – as long as you go where the locals go.

Local spots are easily found – they’re usually where there’s a long queue and they are often slightly out of the tourist areas – although I did find some cheap bakeries and sandwich shops in Old Havana off the main tourist streets.

In Havana, you could get sandwiches for less than a dollar. Most sandwiches contained some sort of meat - usually ham or chorizo – so if you’re vegetarian or gluten free you may have a harder time finding food on a budget.

The food is simple in Cuba, especially outside of Havana, and you’ll find ham and cheese in almost everything.

Cuba offers a wealth of history and culture

From pirates to Spanish colonisation, there’s a lot to learn about Cuba. Old Havana is a good place to start for a history lesson on Cuba. You’ll feel like you’ve gone to Europe rather than the Caribbean with pretty plazas and fortified walls spread throughout the colonial centre.

There’s many colonial towns throughout Cuba where you can see a range of architecture styles from Spanish baroque to French classicism.

Cuban culture is easy to absorb as well. Live music is a prevalent and easily accessible way to enjoy the culture with many performers on the street or in bars across Cuba both day and night.

cuban street musicians

There are two distinct seasons

As one of my Cuban tour guides put it, there’s two seasons in Cuba – summer and hell. Summer is during the North American winter and it’s hot. Hell is when it’s summer in North America. It’s extremely hot, humid and can rain a lot.

Public bathrooms may have no doors or very short doors

It’s rare to find any public bathrooms in Cuba but if you do, they’ll either be missing doors completely or the doors will be very short. You’ve been warned. Having a roll of toilet paper on you will also come in handy.

You can’t put the toilet paper in the toilet due to the small pipes. Put it in the bin beside the toilet instead.

Electrical outlets differ across the country

Best to bring a universal adaptor as electrical sockets can be the European version or the USA version (two or three pronged versions) – or even a combination of both.

You will be asked if you want a taxi or wifi card constantly

Get ready to be asked about 20 times a day if you need a taxi or wifi card. This happened in every single city or town in Cuba.

Women may also get unwanted attention often. I never found it to be aggressive but it did became annoying with a lot of catcalls and comments as I was walking by. The best defence was simply to keep on walking.

Ice cream and pizza are everywhere

One thing I can guarantee in Cuba is that no matter where you are, you’ll be able to find ice cream and pizza.

There’s are pizzerias everywhere and you’ll always see Cubans eating it. But you’ll feel like you never want to see a pizza again after visiting Cuba.

The ice cream shop Coppelia appears to be a national institution in Cuba with huge parlours in each town and you’ll regularly see Cubans eating tubs of ice cream.

With this handy guide under your belt, you’ll be much better prepared for the challenges of navigating Cuba as you uncover its culture, history and charms.

 

Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 70 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors. Instagram: @thelittleadventurer. Facebook: The Little Adventurer Australia.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the Policy Documents available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.

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