Travelling in Cuba is unlike travelling anywhere else in the world. Beyond the palm-fringed beaches, colonial cities and laid-back vibes, there are a few idiosyncrasies that are just so ‘Cuba’ they’ll either make you laugh… or drive you completely crazy.
From simple things like understanding the currency, cheap places to eat and how to get around, these are the top Cuba travel tips to help you prepare for one of the most memorable travel experiences of your life.
1. Know When To Tip
Tipping can be a little confusing in Cuba, especially if you’re from a country where tipping isn’t the norm. Tipping at privately owned restaurants is definitely appreciated and adding just a few extra CUC to your bill goes a long way.
It’s not necessary to tip in your casa particular unless they employ secondary staff or offered top-notch service. A better way to contribute to your host is to allow them to cook at least one meal for you during your stay.
2. Travel In Style On A Viazul Bus Or Taxi
Comfortable Viazul buses are the cheapest and most comfortable way to get around in Cuba and link all the main cities. The air conditioning tends to make them feel a little like Siberia though, so bring a jacket on long trips even when it’s hot outside.
If you’re travelling in peak season when popular routes on the Viazul buses can book up days in advance, you’ll find shared taxis the next best option. Team up with other travellers to split the cost and haggle for the price before setting off. You never know, you may end up cruising through the countryside in a Chevy from the 50s.
3. Don’t Drink The Tap Water
Unfortunately, you just can’t drink the tap water. Bottled water is cheap and easily available but it’s also a huge waste of plastic. If you can, plan in advance and bring something to purify your water – purification tablets or a Steripen are useful and mean you’re not creating a huge amount of waste. Alternatively, drink more rum!
4. Cash Is King & VISA Is Queen
In Cuba, cash is king. Take a fat stash with you to last at least the majority of your trip and exchange it into local currency as you go. Euros and Pounds are the best currencies to carry, while US Dollars are the worst as they carry a 10% surcharge when exchanging.
ATMs and banks are widespread in many of the main cities, but they charge a hefty fee on top of all withdrawals. So, to give your wallet a bit of reprieve, you’ll probably want to use the ATM only once as a last resort. Mastercards also tend not to work so be sure to have a VISA card as a backup if you run out of cash.
5. There Are Two Currencies In Cuba: CUP & CUC
Yes, Cuba has two currencies! Cue complete and utter confusion. But don’t worry; it’s not really as complicated as it sounds. The Cuban Convertible Peso or ‘CUC’ is the main currency you’ll use as a tourist to pay for: accommodation, transport and most food.
The Cuban Peso or Moneda National (CUP or MN) is the currency used mainly by the locals, but as a traveller it’s handy to carry around a small amount to purchase street food, travel on local transport or eat in local restaurants. The main difference though is their values – 1 CUC is equivalent to US$1 while 1 CUP equals just 4 cents – so keep an eye on which one you’re paying with.
6. Hostels Are Different In Cuba
Don’t expect shiny design hostels in Cuba. Accommodation here is totally different to most other places in the world – embrace it! What they lack in sleek modern fittings, they more than make up for in charm, friendliness and authenticity.
Whilst there a few classic backpacker hostels have started to pop up in Havana, the most common form of accommodation in Cuba is the Casa particular. This is basically where locals rent out a room in their home to travellers. Staying in a Casa particular is a great way for you to interact with locals on another level and see how they live behind closed doors. Plus, they generally offer up a delicious breakfast and home-cooked dinner for an extra cost, sometimes using their secret family recipes.
7. Internet In Cuba DOES Exist… Sometimes!
A common misconception is that wifi just doesn’t exist in Cuba. Though it’s definitely not widespread, if you absolutely have to get online, it is possible… just don’t count on it!
Instead of being in a trendy café or bar, Cuba’s wifi hotspots are centred around its parks. To get connected just buy an Internet card from any ETECSA office and login using the details provided. You’ll likely see people holding laptops over their heads and yelling into headsets trying to get the best signal. As most people don’t have Internet in their homes, all their online socialising happens in the parks.
8. Preparation Is Key To Happy Travels In Cuba
Not having the luxury of ever-present internet at your fingertips means you can’t rely on it for last minute advice on where to eat, what to see or off-the-beaten-path attractions you just can’t miss. You’ll either have to discover them by word of mouth, or ideally have done at least some basic research before you arrive.
Alternatively, you could just fly by the seat of your pants and see where those mojito-fuelled nights take you – though a few flexible plans will help you make the most of your time if you’re only visiting for a week or two. Whatever your style of travel, one thing you absolutely must do before you arrive in Cuba is download an offline map to help you navigate your way around.
9. You’ll Find The Best Food At Paladares
Eating out in Cuba can be a little hit and miss. But when it’s a hit, you’ll want to keep coming back. State-run establishments tend to serve up cheap, low quality food, while paladares, which are privately run, generally have much tastier options on the menu.
It can be hard to determine where to eat from the outside, but find the right place and you could be munching on lobster, ropa vieja and a pair of mojitos for just a few CUC. The best way to find a great paladares near you is to ask the owners of your casa particular, or talk to other travellers at your hostel. If you’re on a really tight budget, you can find some pretty delicious street food in Cuba. It’s not always the healthiest option (think moreish pizza for under $1 and mountains of sugar-covered fried dough) but it will fill you up for next to nothing.
10. Get Off The Beaten Path To See The Real Cuba
Well, the secret’s out! Come holiday season, Cuba is the place on everyone’s lips, and the country is changing fast. As a small island nation, the tourist hotspots can easily become clogged with tour groups and buses. But wander just a few blocks away and you’ll find charmingly ramshackle streets, the quirks of local life and hidden paladares that certainly aren’t in your guidebook.
Once you’ve seen the main sights, don’t forget to get lost in the back alleys – that’s where the real essence of Cuba remains untouched.
11. A Little Spanish Goes A Long Way
In the cities that get a lot of tourist traffic, you’ll find many Cubans speak at least some English, but head into the countryside, and you’ll have a hard time communicating in English alone. Try to learn at least the basics of Spanish and if all else fails, come armed with a little patience, your best charades skills and a Spanish phrasebook.
12. Cuba Is A Safe Place To Travel Despite Appearances
Though many cities have run down streets and crumbling buildings that can make them look pretty rough around the edges, Cuba is an incredibly safe place to travel. Even wandering around at night, you’re unlikely to encounter any problems.
Solo female travellers will probably attract a bit of extra attention, but generally it’s just talk. Provided you take some precautions you would in any other country and use your common sense, even solo travellers can easily and safely travel Cuba.
13. Read Up On Cuba’s Past Before You Go
One of the first things you’ll notice when arriving in Cuba is the huge amount of propaganda. From graffiti on the streets to highway billboards and even the translations in city museums, you’ll find political messages everywhere. Knowing a bit about Cuba’s past goes a long way to understanding their present.
Delve into the country’s tumultuous history and political situation and you’ll gain a greater insight into its people and why the country works the way that it does.
14. There Will Be Scams
Though Cuba is generally a safe place to travel, there are a few scams to be aware of before you go. Locals are super friendly and will stop you on the street just to have a chat. Sometimes though they’ll insist on taking you to a friend’s bar or restaurant where you’ll get a ‘discount’. In reality you’ll probably be lumped with a fat bill while your new ‘friend’ will earn himself a nice commission.
Even if they’re after something, Cubans can’t help but be friendly and are often curious about where you’re from – just follow your instincts, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.
15. Basic Supplies Can Be Hard To Come By
Ever been to a bakery full of freshly baked bread, and not been able to buy any of it? That’s just Cuba! Locals receive rations for certain staples which means, as a traveller, you can’t always buy them.
It’s not uncommon to see tiny stores, lined with bizarrely empty shelves, or else overflowing with products that will sell out in an instant. It’s all part of the fun and one of the country’s many quirks so try to stock up on supplies when you can.
Got some awesome Cuba travel tips to share with our community? Tell us about it in the comments below 👇
Author Bio: Freya and Chris are the writer and photographer duo behind the travel blog, The Sandy Feet. They’re always looking for the next adventure, whether it’s hiking the mountains of Central Asia, getting lost in a historic town in Eastern Europe or lounging on a secluded beach in Tahiti. By sharing their experiences in unconventional places, they hope to show that the less explored corners of the world can be just as beautiful as destinations we already know and love. You can follow their day-to-day adventures on Instagram.