When I was planning my trip to Cuba, I found that there was an infuriating lack of information available online. While I’m used to being able to find basic information about transport, visas and things to do on official websites, Cuba is annoyingly lacking in these and I ended up piecing together most of what I wanted to know from various blogs that often contradicted each other or were quite obviously out of date.
So I’ve put together my own ‘know before you go’ guide to let you know what I learned while planning my trip, and while living it! Cuba is chaotic and unpredictable and full of surprises, but we found that it was quite easy to get by once you’ve picked up a few key facts. Here are the important things you need to know…
The Cuba visa that UK travellers need for holidays is called the Tourist Card, and the information online about how to get one is fairly confusing. I found a lot of contradictory information about whether or not you can get one at airports when you arrive, and to get one in the UK in person you have to go to the Cuban Embassy in London which is only open mornings Monday to Thursday. Not so useful if you live outside the capital and have a full-time job.
I ended up getting my visa from visacuba.com and really recommend it – the application itself took me 10 minutes to complete online and the visa was delivered to me in about a week without me even selecting the express service. For the hassle it saved me I was more than happy to pay the reasonable £26 fee.
Did you know it’s impossible to acquire Cuban currency outside of Cuba? I didn’t realise until about a week before my trip when I tried to order my currency from the Post Office and came up blank. Instead you have to get your cash when you arrive from exchange bureaus or ATMs in the airport.
The second thing to be aware of is that Cuba has two currencies – the convertible peso and the national peso. The convertible peso (referred to as ‘cuc’ in conversation) is what you will mostly use – it’s what you get given at exchange bureaus and ATMs and are accepted everywhere. The national peso (commonly called ‘cup’) is the local currency, and you’ll only encounter it at street food stalls or occasionally in independent taxis.
The value of the CUC is pegged 1:1 to the US dollar, and is worth about £0.80. 1 CUC is about 26 CUP, and occasionally you’ll pay in one currency and receive your change in the other. It sounds confusing, but actually this only happened to me once and as long as you’ve made a mental note of the exchange rate it’s pretty easy to check your change.
When travelling around Cuba you have two main options – the Viazul or collectivos (although I did encounter two crazy Canadians who were cycling their whole trip). The Viazul is Cuba’s official bus service (almost exclusively used by tourists), and while they have air conditioning and leg room they are known for being undependable and busy. During our trip we heard of a route that was fully booked for the next four days – no thank you.
Collectivos are your other budget option, and I highly recommend you use them. A collective is basically a shared taxi of varying size (we were in cars that ranged from four passengers to fourteen) that runs along popular tourist routes for about the same price as a Viazul ticket. You might sacrifice some leg room but they’re available pretty much on demand and they pick you up and drop you off at your accommodation, whereas Viazul stations tend to be quite far outside the town centres. And did I mention they’re almost always classic cars?
When staying in Cuba nothing beats the casa particular. This is basically an upmarket homestay, where a local turns part of their home into guest rooms and opens them up to tourists. You’ll generally get breakfast in the morning and often dinner if you request it, as well as all the free advice you could want. They’re cheap, clean, welcoming…honestly I can’t understand why anyone would stay in a hotel when casa particulares exist.
A lot of people we met while travelling had booked their casas on Airbnb, but you don’t have to arrange your accommodation in advance. My friend and I booked our first casa for when we arrived in Havana, and we then gave our host a list of where we were going to be on what dates and she used her network of contacts to arrange accommodation for our whole trip. She gave us a piece of paper with all the addresses on it, and we just passed it to our taxi driver each time we arrived in a new place. This might sound like a risk but our experience was fantastic – everywhere we stayed was wonderful.
If, like me, you don’t have a fantastic sense of direction, sat-navving your way around a new city is the only way to not get lost. I always download offline maps when I travel, but you’ll find that Google doesn’t have a map available for Cuba. I guess things are still a bit complicated between them and the USA. However you can download a Cuba map from maps.me, which is actually my map app of choice when I travel. You can still track your location, save locations and find routes, and we found it invaluable when we were wandering home in the dark after one too many mojitos.
Hope you found this post helpful! Enjoy your trip to Cuba, or if you’ve already been and have more advice to offer, leave it in the comments section!