Credit: Kristina Mereigh
With Trump’s threats to rollback Obama’s Cuba Engagement policies, Cuba, known as the “time-machine” is becoming this year’s hot spot for travel.
As per request by many friends and Live.Laugh.Boss Tribe members, I’ve decided to type up some of the tips and tricks that were useful to me in Cuba and things that I wished that I had known prior to arriving.
I have broken down the tips into the following categories: Airbnb, Wifi, Water, Airport tips, Flight fees, customs, money, mosquitos, people interactions, taxi drivers, haggling, food, safety and toilet paper.
During my stay in Cuba, I stayed at an AirBnb with a lovely host. She came every other day to clean, free of charge. She was lovely but there were several facts that did not line up with our booking when we arrived. When booking an Airbnb in Cuba, be aware of the following things:
Pay the couple extra dollars per night to stay in the most modern place possible. Ask as many questions of the host prior to arriving.
2. For safety reasons, ensure that the person managing the AirBnB booking is your host or is explicit about managing the property for someone else, who may not have access to wifi or speak English. Check to make sure that the address listed is the correct address and that the host provides you with the cross streets (taxi drivers ALWAYS ask for them).
3. If your AirBnB promises wifi, the likelihood that it will be available in the home is slim to none as wifi is illegal in private homes and businesses.
Note: Wifi is incredibly hard to find in the country, the most common places to find wifi are in parks. However, it is more often a waste of time to try and find the wifi dealer in the park, as they are unlikely to reveal themselves to a foreigner and people are not going to “out” the dealer. In my experience, it is most likely to be a young person, usually male, between the ages of 12–20something.
4. Water: Water is a luxury in Cuba. Each town gets water at different times during the day, sometimes not at all. Where I stayed, we only had access to water at 6 a.m. for a few hours (or until it ran out) or 5 p.m.
5. Make sure to ask questions of your host about water availability throughout your stay.
Fill up buckets of water so that when you return from a hot and sweaty day of touring, you at least have some available water to wash your face and your hands. I would suggest wearing your hair in a protective style for the duration of your stay, because having water to wash your hair is not a guarantee.
Drinking Water: Depending on where you are, access to drinking water can be extremely difficult. In downtown Havana, you will always be able to find bottled water at restaurants but if your AirBnb or hotel is outside of the downtown area, always stack up on water supplies and buy bottled water in bulk. Some of the folk I traveled with were concerned about brushing their teeth with the water. After struggling to find potable water on more than one occasion, I did not hesitate to brush my teeth with tap water. I have one of the funniest stomachs in the world. I literally travel with more Tums, pepto bismol and omeprazole than any person I know, but I never got sick not even after brushing my teeth. I also read to be careful of drinking water with ice from the restaurants. Honestly, it was so hot that I often never noticed that I just gulped down a glass of something packed with ice until after the fact. Again, I never got sick. Also one of the best drinks I had there was a frozen fresh lemonade, it was amazing and worth the risk! If I could do something differently, I would have paid the $25 bag check just to bring over 50 lbs worth of bottled water to avoid having to search around for it. LMAO!
Don’t bother booking a taxi to meet you at the airport in Havana. There will be plenty of taxis there and they will be much easier to find then trying to locate your taxi driver holding the small sign. The taxi fee from the airport into Havana is standard, 30CUC.
If you want to change money, exit the Havana airport arrivals doors and then re-enter on the departure side, the doors to the right. The money exchange booth will be there.
If possible, ask the money exchange person for small bills and coins. Definitely get some 1 and 5 CUC bills, especially if you are traveling with a group of people. It makes splitting meals and taxi cabs a lot easier and it is hard to get small bills and coins later-on. Not impossible, just harder.
Airport and Flight Fees
Make sure that you buy a ticket that also includes health insurance. You have to have proof of health insurance to enter the country. If your ticket does not include health insurance, you will have to buy a separate health insurance through an agency.
Recommended agency: Allianz Travel Insurance
Visa- $75 Buy at the airport when you check in for your ticket.
Exit Fee- $0 I did not have to pay an exit fee but other Americans that I met at the airport had to pay up to $59 to exit the country when they checked in at the airport. I think they were scammed.
Do not stress about customs leaving the country. It was an easy, breezy process. Despite your biggest fears, they are not going to lock you in a dark room and grill you about your “educational or people to people” experience. Relax. No one that I know had a rough experience with customs. It was a two minute situation tops. Honestly, the customs lady only asked me two questions: 1. Do you speak Spanish?- to which I applied, “no I don’t, although I speak fluently. 2. “Did you have a good time?” After those two questions and snapping my exit photo, it was all over.
– Bring Euros. The current exchange is approximately 0.86 Euro- 1CUC.
– There are two currencies in Cuba, CUC and CUP. I recommend finding a small restaurant to convert at least 5 CUC to CUP. The exchange is 25CUP-1CUC.
– CUC is tourist money and it makes buying things on the street more expensive. The more local shops, food, and gift stores in the towns will take CUP and it will be much cheaper than using your CUC.
– Best thing about Cuba is that THERE ARE NO MOSQUITOS!!! WHOOPIE!!! You can go ahead and leave behind your mosquito spray and deet lotion/wipes, etc. You’ll be fine.
– The drawback is that they do the mass spraying during the day sometimes and they do not announce it beforehand, so that you can flee indoors, so just be mindful.
People / interaction
– People do not speak much or any English outside of downtown Havana. Travel with someone that has a decent grasp on the language, but don’t be an a-hole and rely on them for all of your translation needs. Learn common phrases, verbs, greetings, money, how to order food, etc. Great apps are Duolingo and my preferred language app, ufostudio Learn Spanish (not paid to advertise the app, I just think the lessons are really practical).
– Beware of the nice people that act as tour guides in the streets. They bump into you and then they start to share with you information about how to experience the “Real Cuba”, etc. They are harmless but are likely trying to scam you. They will try to connect with you by saying “my brother, sister, mother, auntie, whoever, lives in Miami or some other US city and then they will try to sell you something cigars, Havana Club rum, or some experience. Best bet: Ignore them and walk away.
Note: Cuban cigars and Havana club rum are more available than water. Do not feel the need to buy cigars from people off the street. They are not cheaper than if you buy them in bulk at the factory. Havana Club rum can be bought at any corner liquor store for as little as 2CUC. You are able to bring cuban cigars and Havana Club rum back to the US so definitely grab some for friends and family.
Taxi drivers are not your friends. Remember, most are paid to take you to tourist spots, restaurants, clubs, etc. They will advertise tourist spots as local experiences where they frequent. Lies. Instead they will bring you to expensive tourist locations, with less than decent food and service.
– Everything can and should be haggled for. Get good at it. Before you go on your trip, look in the mirror and work on your haggle face that you know your grandma is bomb at. Practice: “I said 5 cuc and no more!” Then walk away. IT can be quite exhilarating.
– The places where you cannot haggle are government owned restaurants and big tourist spots.
– Always haggle for your taxis, gifts and food on the street. Again, don’t be a dick about it. IF the prices are already low, then go with it. People need to feed their families.
–Don’t wait till you are hungry to try and find food, the food will always take forever.
– Make sure to buy a Cafecito on the street. It’s worth it!
– If you are a vegan or vegetarian, plan for a more difficult experience than in other countries. I would highly suggest packing some bars and snacks that you can eat, in case you end up having a day where you are particularly struggling to find food to eat. A salad is usually largely topped tomatoes, some olives and pickled cucumbers. The people don’t understand the concept of vegan and it is nearly impossible to find food.
– The best meal that I had was on Santa Maria Beach. The food stands had delicious rice and beans, fried chicken, grilled steak and plaintain chips gallore!
Funny vegan anecdote: We went to a restaurant and my friend was having a hard time finding even one vegetarian option. She ordered fried rice but the restaurant said they were out but that they had yellow rice instead. She said no problem and ordered the yellow rice. As the designated Spanish speaker, I explained to the waiter, that she does not eat meat or anything cooked in meat. The rice came out and it was cooked with big chunks of pork. Everyone at the table was dying with laughter. We asked him to take it back. He looked at us so confused and asked “Why”? I explained again. He then looked at us with that “Bye Felicia” face and said, “Then just pick it out!” He then took the plate away and 5 minutes later returned with “new” yellow rice, on the same plate but this time garnished in parsley without the pork chunks. He said “senorita, this rice was made especially for you by our chef”. We all just started laughing hysterically.
– It is easy to buy fruit, some vegetables, avocado and eggs on the street. If you have a kitchen, it is not a bad idea to grab a few eggs and avocados for breakfast to eliminate the morning hunt for food. The eggs will run you around 1cuc for 4 dozen eggs (not that you need that much) and an avocado will be 5–8cents.
– As a young, female, I never felt unsafe in Cuba. I never felt like someone was trying to rob or attack me. It felt very safe. Just be aware of your surroundings and careful with your money. I created a small money pouch that I tied to my bra and would take out enough money for a particular outing and then take out more as necessary at a bathroom stop.
– Men did cat-call me pretty frequently but it never felt dangerous or malicious. They would hiss at me, their equivalent of “Yo Ma!” but just ignore them and keep it stepping. No one ever followed me or pursued me when I ignored them. People were genuinely respectful.
– Simple answer, always have toilet paper with you. Most restrooms charge for you to get a piece of toilet paper.
Follow Kristina @live.laugh.boss: Live. Laugh. Boss is an online community for young professionals to grow, learn, and develop daily wellness techniques, with the goal of improving both personal and professional lives. As a woman of color, Kristina Mereigh, targets many of her articles towards audiences of color and young millennials in the work field. Live.Laugh.Boss addresses health and wellness holistically by discussing a variety of topics: career/ life development, general wellness practice, mental health, travel, and work-life integration. Kristina Mereigh is currently the Director of Wellness Services at Smith College and has a Masters in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University.
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