Visiting Cuba? Here’s what you need to know.

10 Jul

Ok, so last week I did a blog post about the best places to eat at and visit where I went in Cuba. This blog post is not focusing on what I actually did, but tips for travelling in Cuba.

I found a few helpful blog posts which told me about the best areas in town to stay and various transport methods. But they didn’t go into enough detail – this blog post will tell you about the process of travelling in Cuba, where I stayed and the websites I used to find accommodation and cultural things I picked up (e.g.: how to navigate the non-queuing system outside banks). Hopefully it should help anyone, especially people travelling alone, in Cuba.

Transport

  • There are three ways to get between towns and cities: Vizazul bus service, Conectando bus service and taxis. Basically, if you’re in a big group or you have cash to spend a taxi is a nice option. But the seats are usually not that comfy and the air con ain’t great. So just bear that in mind!

    I used Viazul on a return trip to Vinales and on the way back from Trinidad. I used the Conectando bus service on the way to Trinidad, from Havana.

    VD30

    Viazul: Right, so the benefit of Viazul is that you can book online which pretty much guarantees you a place on the bus. This is the main benefit. The fares are slightly cheaper than Conectando.

    HOWEVER; the bus station in Havana is not in the middle of town. You HAVE to get a taxi there, and the taxi will cost for 10 CUC each way. So that’s an extra 20 CUC just to get to and from the bus terminal, which is a massive pain, adds time to the journey and makes it actually more expensive than Conectando. On top of this, if you don’t book in advance you have to get to the bus station CRAZY early to guarantee a spot on the bus and even then, you’re not. One couple who wanted to go from Havana – Vinales got there at 5am (bus left at 9am) and didn’t get a seat, simply because priority got given to Cubans. However, weirdly, another couple (Australian) got there about an hour before the bus left and got on. It makes no sense. Most people who got on, however, had got there a good few hours early – the ones I spoke to anyway. So, if you can’t book in advance, get there early. And even if you DO book in advance, you have to be there 60-90 mins before departure otherwise they just assume you’re not coming and they sell your ticket.

    It sounds like a nightmare, but my own experience of Viazul was actually fine. I just heard a lot of drama from a few people. For the most part, people said they’d had a hassle free time using Viazul. The seats are comfy but the air con is COLD so make sure you take a jacket on the bus.

    Actually, I have more negatives for Viazul, but they’re only negatives by Western standards – when in Cuba, do as the Cubans do, etc. The drivers take way longer than the Conectando drivers to get to their destination because they either make a number of stops en-route to pick people up (my trip back from Havana with Viazul took 2 hours longer than my trip to Trinidad with Conectando) and they also just make loads of random stops to pick up their friends / random people / bags of bottles (seriously), to pick up cakes… it’s really odd. But again, it seems totally standard according to Cubans and people who have been in Cuba a lot, so it’s more something to be aware of than something to complain about! It sounds like I hate Viazul, but I really don’t. I just prefer Conectando.

    Conectando: Right, so I prefer Conectando because the seats were comfier, the journey was quicker, they pick you up from really convenient places (hotels in the middle of Havana), they’re usually easy to book a couple of days in advance, the air con wasn’t insane, they don’t pick random people up, you can request stops if you need them and the drivers were nice.

    Conectando runs from Havana to main cities (Trinidad, Vinales, Santiago de Cuba and more) every day. I booked my journey at the Cubanacon (the people who run the service) desk in Hotel De L’Angleterre. However, numerous big hotels in Havana have a Cubanacan desk, just look it up before you go to make sure you get a hotel near you.

    This is because the service will pick you up from outside the hotel you book the bus at. The hotel I booked at was only a 10 minute walk from my casa and you don’t have to turn up really early; once you have a ticket, you’re on the bus. At least, that was the experience of all the people I met! I happened to get a small minibus (still enough room and comfy) but on busy days I saw big buses with toilets picking people up.

    It cost me 25 CUC one way with Conectando, but I was going on a five hour journey and I booked late (the day before). If I were you, I’d make sure you head to the hotel of your choice on your first day in Havana and get the booking done so you can forget about it – and so that it doesn’t fill up (apparently the service is becoming increasingly popular as more people find out about it and as Viazul gets busier).

    IMG_5144

  • I have a few key tips for getting cabs in Cuba:

    1. A cab from the main bit of Havana (most likely where you’re staying) to the Viazul bus station shouldn’t cost you more than 10 CUC. A cab from Havana airport to central Havana shouldn’t cost you most than 25 CUC. Otherwise, you’re getting ripped off.
    2. If you want to see all the beautiful cars (which are also cabs) go to Parque Central, but be warned – cabs from here charge more because they’re so fancy and shiny! Whenever I needed a cab I had the lady I was staying with call one and every time it was a beautiful vintage car that turned up. Way cheaper and you still get a sick ride 😉
    3. You can get cabs long distance too. Check with the driver if he’s willing to take, say, two of you, as some drivers will only take a full car long distance. Which means you’ll be sharing with strangers if you proceed, BUT it does make things cheaper. Usually you can find these group share cabbies through Cubanacan desks or tourist information offices. Otherwise, just approach a cab driver and negotiate prices!

  • Tourist buses I usually avoid like. the. plague. But In Cuba, they were SO useful, especially in Havana, mainly because the public transport is full to the brim and if you don’t speak Spanish the tourist buses are a cheap, quick and easy way to get around.

    Havana: There are two tourist buses running in Havana: T1 and T3 (the T1 and T2 got combined a few years back). The T2 isn’t advertised on the buses or in the leaflets – it seemed to be because they sometimes just don’t put them on!

    The T1 can be picked up from various points in Central Havana, but the easiest place to get it (simply because it stays there the longest and the guides have more time to help you) is Parque Central. You can’t miss ’em. It costs 10 CUC to ride the bus as many times as you like each day – so great value if you want to get out of Havana Old Town. The T1 are open top double deckers, the T3 is a small minibus (more on that later).

    IMG_4494

    IMG_4495

    The maps above are for the T1 and T3. I used the T1 to go to the stunning shouldn’t-miss cemetery I featured in my blog about my Cuba Highlights and it was really easy. The buses (T1) depart every 20 minutes, so keep an eye on the time (or, if you don’t, at least you know it won’t be long before you can get back on again).

    The buses run in both directions just as regularly and they run in a loop – so if you get on a bus that’s going the wrong way you’ll still get where you need to go!

    The T3 picks people up from the final stop of the T1 bus (Restaurant Cecilia) and takes you past Fustalandia and Marina Hemmingway… but that’s all I can remember as I didn’t take it any further. WARNING: when I got off, I asked how long it would be until the bus came back to pick up and they said 90 minutes. Basically, it’s one bus that does one loop and ends up dropping you back at Restaurant Cecelia. I didn’t bother waiting – I just flagged a cab down when I was at Fusalandia and got the cab back to Restaurant Cecilia, knowing it wouldn’t be more than 20 minutes before I could get the T1 back to central Havana.

    Vinales: There’s also a tourist bus is Vinales too; you can pick it up from exactly the same place the Viazul drops you off, right outside the town square. Again – there is one bus so there’s 90 minutes between stops, but it’s a great way to see all the main bits if you don’t have a lot of time or money. Map below!

    IMG_4626

    Basically, the bus takes you up to the amazing views of the fields, it takes you to the delicious Buena Vista Restaurant, the Mural de la Prehistorica and the caves which you can swim in. It’s only 5CUC and, like the Havana bus, you can hop off and on as often as you like.

Accommodation
For the love of god, don’t stay in a hotel! One of the best things about Cuba for me was staying in a casa particular (basically: people’s houses). It’s AirBnB, but the person who owns the house is renting out spare bedrooms to guests while they still live there. They usually offer breakfast, some offer kickass cocktails and everyone I stayed with was happy to share their knowledge of the local area with me.

Yes, you could stay in a hotel. But why stay somewhere where you can’t really talk to anyone local? Cuba is famed for its stunning architecture and you should know that, for the most part, the insides are just as stunning. My casa in Havana was filled with worn-away chandeliers, stained-glass windows and ornate decorations. My casa in Trinidad had stunning white-iron tables and chairs.

Here’s how I found my accommodation:

  • Tripadvisor (look for rated casa, there are plenty, and then Google them or use the email address on the Tripadvisor page. Rather than looking at ‘Hotels’ in Cuba, look at ‘B&Bs’ in Cuba, that’s where Tripadvisor usually lists the casas).
  • Blogs, like this one. Honestly, Google ‘casas in XXCuban city you’re staying inXX’ and go for blogs, not newspapers for genuine, decent reviews. I found the Trinidad Casa through a blog and it’s a good way to get an honest review.
  • Casa Particular also lists some good sites as does Your Casa Particular. I found my Vinales accommodation through the second website, but I met people who used the first and reported good things.

So where did I stay? Summary of each place below!

  • Havana: I stayed at Casa Ana Y Surama. It was STUNNING. Look at the photos below!
    I stayed there for three days when I first arrived, then for one night between staying in Vinales and Trinidad and then one final night after I returned from Trinidad before I went home. Ana, the lady whose house it is, is lovely. She barely speaks a word of English, so when you email her she replies in Spanish and I basically played charades with her.

After a misunderstanding where I accidentally woke her up at 6am, she kindly stayed awake and made me breakfast. SO sweet. Breakfast consist of a plate of yummy fruit, eggs, bread and coffee/tea. It’s included in the price of the room, which was 30 CUC (about £20 ish).

Her home is beautiful, as you can see from the photos. I stayed in two rooms, both with very comfy beds, one with an en-suite. It’s in an AMAZING location (right in the middle of the Old Town) so you get a little bit of noise but not much. Each room also has a fan and air conditioning and the bathrooms have good running water. I loved the place and can’t recommend it enough. Ana’s email is: surama030408@yahoo.es

  • In Vinales you literally get POUNCED on when you get off the bus by people trying to get you staying into their home. Farming aside, tourists are the economy in Vinales, so you can actually turn up and be guaranteed a place to stay.

    I, however, stayed at Casa George y Anna Luisa. Anna speaks English and she’s a savvy business woman. Her home has basically converted from a home to a hotel, with the rooms looking like… well, a hotel. They didn’t have much character.

Her garden however, was gorgeous, with a bar selling cheap cocktails, breakfast and a swimming pool too, surrounded by palm trees. It’s in a good location, but a little hard to find. I can’t complain about the comfort at all, but it felt less like a home than the other places I stayed, which was a shame. Price was 25 CUC per night, with extra for breakfast. If you want somewhere convenient (as I said, she speaks English so it was far easier to ask her for recommendations) then it’s a good choice. But if you want a traditional casa, then probably best not to go for this place. Can’t stress though – it was a nice place to stay and technically can’t complain.

  • In Trinidad I stayed in the home of Julio and Rosa Muñoz. They own a colonial home in the centre of Trinidad which still has antique furniture, a gorgeous courtyard and REALLY GOOD BREAKFAST. Like… seriously good breakfast.

    My room was a good size, but the air conditioning didn’t work. Which was a nightmare. However, when it does work (which it did when I told them about it) I had no complaints – comfy bed, fan and a fridge filled with soda and beer (they’re a cross between my first two casa – a casa that felt like a home but with savvy English-speaking owners who know how to run a business. No bad thing)!

On top of this, the location is amazing and Julio, the owner, is a horse whisper who does horse riding and horse whispering lessons. So cool. Again, it was 25 CUC per night and great value. Visit www.casa.trinidadphoto.com to book.

Money
Cuban money is confusing – at first. Basically, they have two currencies; the Cuban Peso for the locals and the Cuban Convertable Peso (CUC) for tourists. Don’t bother getting the local currency because you’ll be no better off and it’s harder to spend – everywhere deals in CUC pretty much.

The CUC is, ironically enough, tied to the dollar. So 1 CUC = $1. The dollar is usually about 2/3rds the pound… although as I write this the UK decided to leave the European Union and our currency is screwed. But ho hum. The main thing to know is that CUC is the same as dollars.

cuc1
Also: 1 CUC is 25 Pesos. So, if you see a local casa selling pizza for 25 pesos, it’s only 1 CUC. Most of the time they’ll have both currencies written down for you, but y’know, just make an educated guess. A pizza in Cuba for the equivalent of $25 is unlikely…

Most rooms I rented were 25 CUC per night ($25, £18ish). I budgeted around £25 per day to spend (so around $40/40CUC) and that worked out pretty spot on.

  • ATMS: there are a few in Havana but they’re limited elsewhere. Didn’t see any ATMs in Vinales and only one in Trinidad. However, in Havana you’re fine.

    ATMS do not accept Mastercard, only Visa. I didn’t know this and I only took my bloody Mastercard and was skiiiiint for the last few days of my trip. However, when I got back to Havana on my last day I discovered that you can take your Mastercard AND passport to a bank (or currency exchange place) and you can withdraw money using the card that way. If you don’t have your passport, they won’t let you get money out. There is a bank roughly here and a currency exchange place roughly here that offer this service.

    When exchanging cash (you can’t get Cuban CUC in the UK, so you have no choice but to wait until you get to Cuba to do this) you need ID. A driving license is fine. At the airport the queue to exchange money is long – but there’s nothing you can do because you need the cash to take a taxi into town! My tip is to exchange as little as possible (say, £50) at the airport and then wait until you’re in central Havana to exchange the rest as the exchange rates are better in town.

    Try to have exact change on you wherever possible. Cuba is a cash economy but it’s a big inconvenience for them if you try to buy a 1CUC bottle of water with a 20CUC note! Same goes for taxis, tickets (bus or otherwise…) if they don’t have the change you either can’t buy it or they just won’t give the change to you.

    Also, be careful that you don’t get ripped off in restaurants or elsewhere – if you pay in CUC, make sure the change you get is CUC. The CUC and Peso notes look annoyingly similar, but the Peso is worth 1/5th the value of CUC. So keep an eye out as it’s an increasing scam!

Cultural bits and bobs

  • If you plan on queuing for a bank, a money exchange place, the internet etc, you’ll have to queue outside. These places only let you in the building if there is someone ready to serve you.

    Anyway, Cubans do not queue as we know it. What happens is there’s a whole load of people just hanging around the entrance in no semblance of order. The only people who are attempting to make a line are the tourists. So how the hell do you navigate the situation and not push in?

    queues_havana

    Go up to the crowd and say ‘Ultimto’. In Cuba, it’s basically going up to the people waiting and asking who the last person there was. The person (‘ultimo’ as in ‘ultimate’ as in ‘the last’) will usually put their hand up, or someone will point at them. Now all you need to do is keep an eye on this person. When they go in, you’re next. That’s pretty much it.

    When someone else rocks up and asks ‘Ultimo?’, put your hand up and that’s it. You’ll notice that once people aren’t the last person in the queue they just wander off, do their shopping, get a drink and swing by every now and again to ensure the person in from of them is still there. It’s a system that I quite like actually! Beware the other tourists who don’t know what Ultimo means though – they’ll give you a nasty look when it looks like you’re pushing in 😉

  • Tipping in Cuba is pretty much like the UK – you add 10% ish in restaurants, but otherwise you’re not really expected to tip taxi drivers or the people you’re staying with. I did anyway and they’re very appreciative, but it doesn’t seem to be expected. As I mentioned earlier though, if you don’t have change on you, not all cab drivers or shops actually have change so you may end up unwillingly tipping because they can’t give you anything back.
  • Every now and again I heard a bit of Justin Beiber or Rihanna. Once I saw CNN (in a fancy hotel, to be fair). But, for the most part, Cubans don’t really speak English well, if at all, because they just haven’t been exposed to the English language in the same way other countries have. Think about it: no American TV and music and VERY limited internet means most people just haven’t been exposed to the English language.

    So, make sure you get your Spanish basics sorted. Download an app that works offline to help you (I use SpeakEasy Spanish, it’s really good and it’s worth downloading the full version for about £2).

  • Cuba, as I mentioned in my last blog post, is safe. It really is. I never felt threatened at all, despite having men shout and hit on me every 5 minutes (again: not me being big-headed, read my last blog post)! Treat Cuba as you would every country you travel in – don’t flash expensive things around, make sure you’ve booked the taxi or that you pick it up in a public place, try not to wander into the middle of nowhere in the dark… you get the picture.

    But honestly: as a young woman travelling alone, I had no problems, even when wandering around the less touristy parts of Havana.

Other useful things I picked up

  • Internet: Ok, so you probably won’t even need to use the internet in Cuba. But, if you do, you gotta work for it! Basically, Wifi is only available in big hotels and even then you have to pay for it. Mobile data just doesn’t seem to work in Cuba and the fees are astronomical.

    To use the internet, you’ll have to go to the town’s ETECSA building (Cuba’s telecom authority). I used the internet twice (once in Vinales, once in Trinidad) and had to wait a solid hour each time to even get into the building. Just be patient – there’s literally nothing you can do!

    Once in the building you can either pay to use a PC in the building and use it like an internet cafe. Or, you can pay for a sealed code which will connect you to ETECSA’s wifi. You have to sign something and show your passport/driving license to be allowed to use the internet. Once you have your sealed code, the wifi is usually located in a close-by public square; I chose this option because I had my mobile and wanted to be outside! The code is about 4.5CUC and grants you one hour’s internet access. The wifi was actually really fast, I had no issues whatsoever uploading photos.

    Outside the ETECSA building in Trinidad there were guys who were trying to sell sealed code to save people the bother of the queuing. I didn’t do this because I wasn’t totally sure the codes would be useable (although they probably were) and, of course, it costs more than 4.5CUC for a code if you pay a tout!

    Also, despite what you may have heard, nothing is really blocked in Cuba. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – all good. Google is fine too.

  • Banks: there are LOADS in Havana and they’re usually open 9-5 (this one is open until about 7pm). Banks all have guards and you can exchange money, withdraw from an ATM and use your Mastercard to withdraw too. Any good guide book will tell you where they’re located, as well tourist information points and the person whose house you’re staying in!

    For smaller towns (Vinales and Trinidad in my case) there are far fewer banks with more limited opening hours – didn’t see any open on Sunday outside of Havana. So make sure you plan your visit!

  • Drinks: Water will be something you spend a lotta money on in Cuba. Do not drink the tap water! A small bottle of water (500ml) shouldn’t cost more than 1CUC, but if you’re desperate, paying 1.5CUC is as high as you should be going without getting totally ripped off. A liter bottle should be 1.5 – 2 CUC.

Cuba has a few beers that you can get everywhere, but it’s usually Presidente or Cristal. They’re both lagers and Cristal is very easy to drink. A bottle of beer costs about 1-2CUC in the supermarket and no more than 3CUC in a restaurant.

Cocktails are obviously everywhere and anything rum based shouldn’t be too much more than 2-3CUC… although if you’re in a fancy place, you can end up paying up to 5CUC. They obviously don’t measure the spirits either, so it won’t take many to have a good night 😉

  • Supermarkets: THERE ARE BASICALLY NONE. Well, not within walking distance. It frustrated me no Seriously, every now and again I found a sort-of supermarket in Havana where I could get fruit, water and booze… and perhaps a weird cereal, but no milk. All travellers depend on cereal bars when travelling and these are not a thing in Cuba. Once I found biscuits in Trinidad and that was a shock. They just don’t have supermarkets like we do – you have to head to bakeries (again, few and far between) and street traders for sweet pastries or meats.

    If it helps, there’s an ok ‘supermarket’ here in Havana and here (roughly) in Trinidad. Honestly didn’t find one in Vinales, but I’m sure one exists… you’ve been warned!

    IMG_4439

That’s all folks! If you have any questions feel free to comment below and I’ll gladly share what I know.

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