Cuba: The basics

After spending 10 days in Cuba this is our basic guide to this wonderful and interesting country. We just wished we could have stayed longer!

Visas and entry requirements

You will need to have a tourist card¹ to enter Cuba.  These cost about $25USD each (at time of writing) and can either be obtained in advance or bought at some airports, we brought ours at Cancun International Airport just before we checked in. It was easy!

Cash and Credit Cards

Whatever you do don’t bring US dollars as the exchange rate will incur a 10% charge! The general advice is to bring Canadian Dollar, Euros or Pounds to exchange once you arrive in the Country.  You can change money at the airport on arrival or at banks in most towns.

We had no issue using ATM’s in Cuba but note that US cards will not work².  If you are a US citizen bring all the money you will need for the trip in the currencies highlighted above.  It is also worth noting that Mastercard is not accepted anywhere! Visa enabled cards are accepted in some places and will work in ATM’s.

Cuba has two currencies!  which can be confusing!  Cuba has a national peso and a convertible peso (or CUC).  One convertible peso is worth about 25 national peso’s.  One CUC is equal to the equivalent of one USD.

As a tourist most things you will come across are priced in CUC and generally you will have little need for national pesos.  We also found that places are reluctant to provide us with national pesos with one bank even refusing too.  The main use of having the national peso is to use local buses in Havana or to buy food from the side of the street as locals do.  We found little use for it and generally got by using CUC.

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View of one of the many beautiful squares in downtown Havana. This photo was taken from a rooftop hotel bar! A perfect destination for a beer and sunset!

Arrival and getting to downtown Havana

Most people arrive into José Martí International Airport Havana, then head into downtown Havana.  Most international flights arrive into Terminal 3 which is modern-ish and easy to navigate.  We did have to wait a bit for our bags (45 mins) but apart from that we had no issues.

Getting from the airport into downtown Havana is not cheap, a taxi will charge you 25 CUC, don’t pay more.  If you can find other travellers to share it is a great way to split the cost. The long baggage wait will help with this!

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Many classic cars are Taxi’s in Havana, you can take a 1 hour tour  in one for $25 CUC

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If you are up for more of a challenge and can speak a bit of Spanish you could attempt to catch a public bus.  The public bus is cheap but does not run from the airport directly.  It departs from a nearby suburb which is about 1 to 2kms away.  You could attempt to walk or catch the connections bus which links the airport terminals.  The connections bus will pass the bus stop for the local bus to the city.  Expect this to take over an hour in total.  As we did not try this option we can’t be sure how easy it is to do.  They are many articles online from people who have tried it though so check them out.

Getting around

Getting around Havana is easy, most places you will want to visit are within walking distance.  The city had plenty of cheap taxis (some more legal than others) as well as a very cheap bus system. With a general lack of internet access trying to arrange transport to go beyond Havana and see more of Cuba can seem difficult.  Here is a brief outline of the main options available;

Long Distance Coach:

The Cuban Government operates a long distance bus network  (Viazul) designed more for tourists than locals.  The Viazul bus terminal is a little out of the way in Havana so you will likely need to take a taxi too it, expect this to cost between $5 -$7 CUC from downtown.

The Viazul bus network links most places that you will want to visit and is generally not too expensive.  If possible try to buy tickets in advance to ensure you get on the bus you want.

Be warned that taxi drives will try and tell you that either all tickets have been sold of the bus you want (how do they know!) or that the last bus has departed for the day.  This is a scam to try and get your business.  Just say you will try your luck anyway.

Collective Taxi:

We are not 100% sure how legal some of the collective taxi are but they are a good alternative to the bus.  We found that going to the Viazul bus terminal in Havana is a good place to be offered a collective taxi service.  If you have 3 or 4 people in your group the collective taxi can work out the same or cheaper than the bus.  Come ready to haggle to get the best price!

Railway:

Cuban has a rail network which we did not use but we heard that it can be unreliable with some trains only running only 1 or 2 days a week.  Journey times can be slow but if you have time and don’t mind getting delayed it might be a fun way to travel.

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A train waiting to depart…hopefully

Accommodation

Budget accommodation is plentiful in Cuba and costs $10 to $30 USD/CUC per night per room. Budget accommodation is basically staying in a locals spare room – these are called Casa Particulars.  Just about every house in Cuba will offer this so it’s easy to find somewhere to spend the night.  Legal and registered Casa Particular’s will have a symbol that looks like an upside down anchor on the outside so try these places first. We also found that most rooms have more than one bed, so to save money as a solo backpacker we recommend room sharing with a fellow traveller.

Once you stay in your first Casa Particular you will have no problem finding accommodation anywhere else in Cuba.  Everyone knows someone who has accommodation for your next destination and can help arrange a place for you to stay.

Depending on the Casa Particular some will include breakfast but others will charge you $3-$5 CUC or you can also negotiate breakfast to be included in your room rate. The hosts will also happily provide you with dinner for about $5-7 CUC. We would highly recommend having at least one home cooked meal. We loved the ones we had and you end up with more food than you could possibly want! It is very meaty though so vegetarians beware.

Internet 

The only way to access the internet in Cuba is via public wifi which can be accessed from hotels and public squares.  Sadly it is not free and costs from $3-5 CUC for 1 hours access depending on were you get the card.  The cheapest options is to buy a card from the not so ‘official’ looking guys who hang around the squares.

The Hustle

With a general lack of information available to tourists you need to be on the watch for the hustle when you first arrive.  Everyone is looks at you as if you are a walking wallet so be prepared for the locals trying to bombard you with services – taxis, restaurants, bars, cigars, tours etc.  They all want to ‘help you‘ but for a price.  If someone takes you to a restaurant be prepared for a large service charge.

The national day of…. 

One of the main scams which someone tried on us was the national day of ‘something’ tactic.  Someone will approach you and ask “when did you arrive” and once you say they will tell you what a great day to arrive as it is the national day of “classic cars”, “salsa” and/or “cigars”. Once they have you interested they will then try and take you somewhere that sells specific items and you will most likely get ripped off.

 

Basic costs

  • Beer: $2-2.50 CUC
  • Bottle of Havana Club rum (1 litre): $3 CUC
  • Mojito: $2-$4 CUC
  • Restaurant meal: $5-$10 CUC (although can be more)
  • Sandwich: $2.50-$4 CUC
  • Coffee: $1-$1.50
  • Water: $1-$2 CUC
  • Accommodation: $10-$30 CUC per night
  • Taxi from airport to Havana: $25 CUC
  • Return bus Havana to near by beaches: $5 CUC
  • Long distance bus to Vinales: $12 CUC
  • Internet (1 hour): $3-$5 CUC
  • Sunscreen: $15 CUC for 125mls (pack your own!)
  • Cigars: $1-$10 CUC per cigar depending on quality

The best thing about Cuba is that rum is the same price as water…

Summary

Don’t let the challenges and potential scams put you off visiting Cuba, we had an awesome time and would love to go back someday.  Just ensure you have sufficient time for all you want to do and take everything you might need and most home comforts and products are almost impossible to come by.

We would highly recommend Cuba to any traveller! So go to Cuba now and enjoy!

Where to next? How about Cancun? –How to survive Cancun as a backpacker

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One of the beautiful beaches you can access from Havana for only $5 CUC return
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One of the many squares in downtown, Havana

 


¹US Passport holders need to provide additional information before allowing to fly to Cuba.  Check with your airline.

²This might change as the US Government allows its citizens to visit.   


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