Cuba – survival guide

safety

Cuba is considered to be a very safe country. You can hear them say repeatedly ‘don’t be afraid, you are in Cuba!’ And we did feel very safe indeed.


people

Cubans are a friendly and happy nation. Whatever you need just ask without hesitation. They are very happy to help and will look for any opportunity to chat with you! W felt very welcomed there!

Only very touristic zones may feel that money not kindness rules there (Viniales village).

Taxi drivers are a huge exception from all. They are a nasty bunch thinking only about money. They will hunt for you wherever you move and try to rip you off! They are veeery annoying! Unfortunately as tourists are banned from Omnibuses Nacionales and the only choice are infrequent and booked in advance buses… or taxis. Be rude as they are and haggle a lot with them. Aim for half the price they want.


language

Spanish is what you need here as the entire nation uses it. Be prepared that you won’t understand much at the beginning unless you are from Tenerife. Once you get used to their weird (shortened words) pronunciation, you will be fine.

English is widely spoken in touristic places. You will have no problems in communicating in hotels, restaurants, bus stations etc. Although if you want to go off the beaten path and use local buses and local eateries learn some Spanish. Cubans love chatting with newcomers as they bring lots of news with them.


money

Money is relatively easy to obtain from Cadecas (though you have to be prepare09d for long queues and short opening hours and have your passport with you). Cadecas are also the places where govermnent-employed and retired people get their salaries/pensions paid. There are also ATMs in touristic places and airports but those give you a really bad exchange rate. We haven’t seen any privately owned currency exchange place.

Don’t bring US Dollars with you as you will be charged an extra 10% vat on the exchange. You can easily exchange Euros, British Pounds, Canadian Dollars. Not sure about Peso Mexicano – we didn’t bring any.

Don’t be afraid to haggle with stall sellers and taxi drivers. Some accommodation prices can be bargained too.

See more about budgeting your stay in Cuba here.


budget accommodation

To get the most of Cuba do not use hotels or hostels. Use casas pariculares (these are registered/homes that rent rooms to foreigners). To find one just look for the blue arrow sign, ring and say ‘busco alojamiento bien economico para esta noche’ if you want a cheap sleep. It may feel a bit weird just to go into someones home, but shortly you notice that it is a hotel but with a soul. I wish everywhere was like this!

Standards in Cuban casas particulares are really good. Rooms are comfy and clean and with extra commodities. Linens are clean and fresh. Hot water is a standard. Wifi is a luxury in Cuba, so do not expect it at all, not even the internet itself. (If you need Wifi you need to book a pricey hotel, or at least go near one – there are usually some password sellers around)

It doesn’t pay to book your accommodation. On the spot you get better rates than through booking sites (there is no commision involved). Book only if you are traveling around Christmas, Easter, public holidays or for a peace of mind if you wish. If you show up in he evening with you bags be sure you will get plenty of offers from hunting casa owners


transport

Transport in Cuba was something that played on our nerves a lot at the beginning. With time we learned how to deal with it and how to bend the system.

Long distance:

there is a luxury line called Transtur that you can learn all about at the airport – we didn’t even bother.

another of your options is Via Azul – unfriendly personal, booked-out seats, infrequent service. We gave up on this too

there is a Omnibus Nacional service but unfortunately all foreigners got banned from them as they complained about the service quality and timetables. You need a Cuban ID to buy the ticket. Your pretty eyes won’t help

Oh, and all the terminals are in different parts of the town, so happy hopping!

there are trains that run once daily or once in 2 days or don’t run if they happen to break. Their destinations aren’t great too

and finally, there are taxis! Plenty of them! Once you get to any station (terminal) you get hunted as a prey. And as the tickets are all sold out and busses infrequent they quote you with higher prices than the bus. They are saying that they will drive you to the address of your casa. Smart! But note, that most of their cars won’t offer you AC and reclined seats in standard as they use oldsmobiles!

Public transport in towns
(guaguas) is efficient and frequent but always loaded. It is also very cheap – 1CUP ! (Bring your CUP otherwise you won’t be let in as they can’t accept CUC). The only trouble with it is finding a bus stop and the bus you want to take. You have to talk to the locals or your hostel/ hotel receptionist or casa owner. Bus stops are unmarked. Buses usually stop near the intersections (esquinas). Pay the driver as you enter. If they have no change, won’t return it or you go for free, depending on the driver’s mood. Bring 1cup coins or notes.

Short distance guaguas and camiones are small lorries accommodated with some seats or just bars to hold on to in the later. The ride is bumpy but fun. These provide transport on short distances from towns or between villages.They usually have some timetables. You can catch those on the town exits usually on a designated bus stop – ask the locals which one, they will happily indicate it to you. Prices vary depending on the distance and popularity of the route from 1to 20cup. Ask locals for the ‘precio de pasaje’ before you board. Pay the driver as you leave.

Taxi collectivo takes from 5 to 9 passengers depending on the car size. You can rent the entire car or share your ride with fellow travellers. They charge for a whole car either way. Bargain the price!

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traffic/roads/pavements

There is only one motorway on Cuba leading to and from Havana and it’s unfinished. Roads are in good state, most meeting European standards. Some mountainous roads are very steep. Traffic is literally nonexistent. Most of it are taxis, buses and some private cars, guaguas and horse drawn carts (even on motorway!)

Historic towns will usually have cobbled streets.

Pavements have a lot to wish for. They are better obstacle-wise than in Mexico but could have been better.


photography

There are usual ‘no photography’ signs on the airports and public buildings. Do not photograph armed policeman or security workers. There is some but not much objection from the stalls sellers. Museums and churches are no flash places


mercado municipal / mercado

In Cuba it does not really exist. Some towns will have and organized local but it will usually be half empty and sad. You can find mercados agropuecario – fruit and veg ones that will usually be just a private run ‘negocio’ or a group of them on the same street. Don’t expect a lot of them. The choice is usually nonexistent. You just take what hey happen to have. Some stalls will sell only one type of veg or fruit, or just some cake


Shopping in Cuba

Apart from Havana do not expect a shopping spree. Even here you will be limited to the supplies they have. Smaller towns will only have

bodegas (basic need products as rice, flour, oil, beans etc – not much of an interest if you cannot cook for yourself),

Panamericanas (some tins, alcohols, bottled water and drinks, sweets, cheese, choriso, cosmetics) – all with prices higher than in Europe), and local stalls with scarce fruit and veg,

Rapiditos where you can buy alcohol, matches and cigars

and panaderias (bakeries).

Making basic hiking supplies even for a day hike was damn difficult there! Bring all the dry/processed food supplies you can – check customs rules before.


dress code

There is no particular dress code here. Churches as always require covered legs and arms.

And as a general rule, the cheaper clothes you wear the less you will be charged for many things where the price is not set.


eco-cuba

Cuba is rather clean, some exceptions can be found in Havana around big garbage bins and ruined houses. Rivers are clear and swimable. We haven’t notice garbage piles outside the towns. Some random litter can be found though.


eating and drinking

Best choice is to eat at your casa particular. Some will offer a full board, and some just the late dinner and breakfast. Dinner is usually around 10CUC but if you say to your casa owner that you are on a tight budget they can make a really simple and yummy dinner for mere 2-3CUC with freshly blended juice included!

There are plenty of touristic restaurants in city centres – expect nearly European prices there.

For cheaper eats, leave touristic zone and blend with locals. Depending where you are it is easier or harder to find the local eateries. These have very basic decor and amenities. The menu hangs on the door or inside. Expect your glass to be made of a glass bottle bottom. Try pan con tortilla, aroz saltedo, puerco con yuka, jugo natural and cafe negro.

Veggies and fruit are scarce to buy. You have to walk several streets to get anything. These are usually sold of a pop up stall or a donkey drawn cart that comes and goes.

Rum is cheap, easily obtained. Get it in small metal both, usually called Rapidito, rather than in Panamericana if the price matters to you. Havana Club is the must here.

Buying a bottled water can be a real pain here. You can get it in Casas de agua, Panamaricanas and Bars. Prices vary. You can pay from 0,7CUC to outrageous 2CUC for 1,5l bottle. 5l bottle works out way cheaper – usually 1,9CUC

As a general rule eating  out is way cheaper in poor districts and always away from main touristic attractions. Check the prices here.


annoyances

Taxi drivers are the most annoying thing that happened to us in Cuba.

Expect veeeery long wait at the luggage belt at the airport and in Cadecas.

Flights are regularly delayed and there is a disinformation at the airport.

You feel constantly separated from the locals by the system.

 

things you want to take with you:

  • anything you want to give away – some little gifts. Toys and candies for kids – parents want to buy them from you! But on the other hand don’t overdo as in some places Cubans turned into tourist aimed beggars and won’t let you pass undisturbed. If gifting do it discreetly and to those that really need it.

  • sunblock and sunglasses

  • hand disinfectant

  • purifying tablets for water – if using tap water

  • camera  – Cuba is veeeery picturesque and photogenic

  • action camera to capture the atmosphere on the streets

  • Euro, British Pound, Canadian Dollars are accepted in all Cadecas

  • hiking food supplies such as cereal bars, nuts etc

  • if you want to wrap your luggage – get a spare shrink wrap – we searched for it half a= day in Havana without success

 

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