by Alyssa Ramos
Even though I’m a compulsive travel researcher, there were definitely a few things I learned about traveling to Cuba when I got there that I couldn’t find on the web. Unfortunately, most of them were learned from my own travel fails, but luckily at least now you can avoid them!
Traveling to Cuba is different than many places because tourism is not fully adapted yet, and there is a lot of history that needs to be understood about why it isn’t, and what in the world is going on over in that time capsule.
So here are some things to prepare you so you don’t have any awkward or awful travel fails like I did in Cuba!
1. Not Knowing any Spanish
Guess what’s not spoken in Cuba? English. So if you think all of those college Spanish courses are going to help you in Cuba, you’re wrong. Well, they might help a little, but knowing general phrases will help you a lot more.
I created a handy-dandy cheat sheet of the most common phrases I used and heard to help you, called “Hablo Español, Pero Muy Poco”. If all else fails, revert to sign language.
2. Not Knowing About Visas
If I hear one more person say, “So, anyone can just go to Cuba now, right?” I’m going to punch myself. That is not what lifting the embargo automatically means. You still need a visa and you need to qualify for a reason for the visa, and it can’t be “to just go”. “Tourism” and “free time” is still “prohibited” for U.S. citizens. (the “quotation marks” are because I did both and didn’t get in trouble).
If you want to fly out of the U.S. you need to “prove” your reason for traveling to Cuba is either; “Educational Purposes”, “Religious Activities”, “Exhibitions”, “Humanitarian Work”, “Support For the Cuban People”, “Journalistic Activity”, or “Family Visit”. (Read better details here)
Or you can just fly from another country like Canada or Mexico.
3. Not Bringing Your Own Toiletries
They also do not, I repeat, DO NOT, have the over-the-counter medications you are used to just grabbing at CVS, which means if you get food poisoning from the pizza, you’re screwed. Bring stomach and headache medicine, and if you don’t use, give it away because they will be extremely grateful for it.
4. Checking Your Luggage
5. Not Bringing Enough Cash
If you run out of cash in Cuba, you’re screwed. You cannot use your debit card or credit card there, and if you try to rob a bank the punishment is probably death without trial. I did see a Western Union but if you already ran out of money that means you won’t be able to pay for wifi or a phone call to get someone back home to wire you more.
I suggest portioning out your money per day — a certain amount for food, drinks, transportations, and necessities…like wifi.
6. Not Knowing That There’s Two Currencies
ALWAYS ASK if a price is in CUC or pesos if it seems too high!!! I took one of the dinky Coco taxis because they’re supposed to be way cheaper than a car taxi and ended up giving the guy $21 CUC because I didn’t realize it was in pesos. Well, I kind of did, but he was nice, and I was drunk, and that’s half of his monthly salary so I didn’t say anything.
7. Not Negotiating Taxi Fares
The first thing you’re going to want to do is jump in one of those classic 1950’s cars when you get to Cuba, right? Well, you definitely should, but just beware that they vary the prices. The cool looking cars are more expensive than the normal looking ones, but should only charge you around $7-$10 per ride if you’re in Havana.
There’s an actual tourism company called HavanaTur that owns a lot of the 1950’s taxis, and they charge a lot more than private drivers so try to avoid those. You can also hire a driver for the day for around $50 CUC and they will go with you wherever, wait for you, pick you up, etc.
8. Assuming You’ll Have Wifi & Cell Service
Nope. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. First of all, cell service is a complete no-go (unless you buy a pre-paid phone there), and second of all, the wifi will make you feel like an internet-crack fein. You can only get it in small amounts, and it’s hard to find, and expensive.
Many of the bigger hotels have it like El Presidente, Hotel Nacional, Hotel Saratoga, and Parque Central, but you have to pay around $7.50-$8 CUC per hour and you are usually limited to one hour. I did find out on the last day though that you can buy the internet cards for cheaper at one of the little cell stores around town, so, you’re welcome.
9. Eating the Pizza
As my uncle warned me, “Don’t eat the pizza, the cheese is made from condoms.” While I don’t think the cheese is really made from condoms, the pizza was the one food out of all the crazy Cuban dishes I tried that made me sick. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the milk they use for cheese there. Cows aren’t exactly abundant and I don’t think the whole soy-product trend has caught on yet either…
10. Getting Hustled
EVERYONE tries to hustle tourists in Cuba. From tour companies, to taxi drivers, to even charities, EVERYONE will try to up-charge you and charge you for things that aren’t necessary in general.
For instance, we had a driver who was getting paid $50 CUC per day, but once they saw that we were paying a production company (who also hustled the shit out of us) $1200 for “production permits” to do a magazine photoshoot, he suddenly demanded an additional $30 CUC and claimed it was $50 to rent the car and $30 for the driver, even though we had been using him for three days at $50/day. Unfortunately for him, there are a lot of drivers that would gladly take $50 CUC per day.
11. Not Leaving Havana
12. Not Knowing What Areas to Stay In
There’s a good chance you’ll be recommended to stay in Havana Vieja. It’s the touristy area of Havana, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you should know that’s what it is before making a decision. The area to the east of it is called Centro Havana, which you might think is a bad area of town at first because of the crumbling buildings, but that’s how most local areas are.
East of that is Vedado which is considered the nicest area, and you’ll see why when you see the blocks and blocks of massive mansions. They’re also mostly deteriorating, and typically house multiple families, but some homes have been restored and you can rent a room out in them for around $35 CUC per night.
Miramar is east of Vedado and also a nice area but a bit far from the most central attractions which are mostly in Havana Vieja. If you have time, you should also try to stay a night or two in a beach town like Santa Maria or Varadero.
13. Not Knowing the History of Cuba
Do you know why Cuba is still filled with classic 1950’s cars? Hint: it’s not because everyone is an avid antique car collector. It’s because the Revolution caused the U.S. embargo that shut down imports of cars after 1958. They don’t have any other options.
Cubans are also very proud (which is probably why the Castro’s won’t let the whole Communism idea go…FYI it DOESN’T work), so not having a little knowledge about their past might potentially offend them.
14. Not Comprehending Communism
I somehow managed to keep my mouth shut in Cuba but you better believe I got an earful from my Cuban family when I came home with souvenir painting of Che. He was so cute tho.
15. Potentially Offending People
For the first week I felt like I was offending people by just being there. Hotel concierges seemed insanely annoyed with my daily internet card purchases, people glared at me when I’d take photos of buildings, and I even got snapped at a few times for saying “I’m Cuban but I was born in the U.S.” Apparently no matter what your heritage is, if you were born in the U.S., you are American, and that’s it.
But the travel fail I made was not understanding the impact that Cuba’s political history has had on Cubans, and how that picture I took could have been someone’s crumbling home that they aren’t happy about. I also did not have to suffer through a life of hardships the way they did since I was born in the States, so now I can see why it would offend them for me to claim being Cuban (even though I am).