Cuba: 10 travel tips for first-timers
1. Stay in a casa particular
If you want to get to know Cuba you’re going to need to get to know Cubans. There’s no easier way of doing this on a two-week trip than to stay in the Cuban version of a B&B, a casa particular. You’ll feel more like a lodger than a hotel guest, sharing the owners’ living space with them and, given the national penchant for chat, engaging with them in next to no time. It's essentially the socialist Airbnb.
2. Forget the internet
As far as the internet goes, Cuba is among the most poorly connected countries in the world, with severe state restrictions on who and where gets access, dreadful connection speeds and no mobile broadband other than wifi.
Unless you are staying in or near a top hotel, don’t expect to be able to connect with your phone at all. You might just be lucky enough to find one of the few public wifi spots or patient enough to queue at one of the small number of internet cafés – where the connection will be screen-gazingly slow and the rates usually exorbitant.
So unless you do all your online research before you leave home, bring a guidebook.
3. Plan your nights out
Leaving a night out to chance can be the making of a memorable one anywhere in the world, but in Cuba the chances are slimmer. Even in the holiday resorts, trying to find ‘the buzz’ or ‘the strip’, you’ll be on a hiding to nothing – there just aren’t enough venues and those that there are, in most towns and cities, are sparsely spread.
Find out in advance where the night spots are, be prepared to spend some time travelling between them – especially in Havana where they are greater in number but dotted sporadically over a huge area (you’ll probably need to use taxis). If you find a venue you like, stick with it.
4. Know your pesos: men and monuments
The confusing dual currency system in Cuba has spawned a whole family of local scams so it pays to get to know one set of banknotes from the other. Cubans get paid in pesos, also referred to as national pesos; the faces of peso banknotes are printed with head-and-shoulders-pictures of Cuban heroes.
You’ll pay for most goods and services in convertible pesos, twenty-four times more valuable than national pesos; depicted on these banknotes are national monuments but their values are printed as pesos, just like their counterparts. The words pesos convertibles only appears in a smaller font below the value.
Paying in convertibles and getting change in nationals is the most popular trick and there are a few spin-off scams along similar lines. Just remember, twenty-four men equal one monument.
5. Eat out in paladars
Eating out in Cuba is no longer as bad as you’ve probably heard. The reputation for the same, unimaginative, mono-flavoured cooking wherever you went was largely deserved until a few years ago when draconian restrictions on the opening and operating of privately-run restaurants, known as paladars, were lifted.
A nation of sleeping chefs and restaurateurs have now awoken from their enforced slumber and unleashed a wave of mouth-watering menus and creatively-designed venues. Stick to paladars, rather than state-run restaurants, and you should eat well.
6. It’s going to be harder if you’re from the US
US sanctions have not embittered ordinary Cubans against Americans – on the contrary, as a US traveller in Cuba most of the locals you meet will be delighted to see you in their country.
However, whilst President Obama may have done what he can to end the 55-year standoff between the two countries, until Congress lifts the economic blockade of the island you’ll need to be prepared for the practical consequences of visiting a country with which US companies are still, in the most part, forbidden to do business.
At the time of writing, this means, amongst other things, travel is only permitted under the terms of a US travel license and there are no scheduled flights. There's also a 10 percent fee for buying Cuban currency with US dollars, your US credit and debit cards won’t be usable and your US cell phone won’t work either.
7. Always stash some cash
Cash is king in Cuba and you should never rely on credit or debit cards or travellers cheques for payments. For the majority of goods, services and businesses plastic is useless, whilst for all private enterprise, including paladars and casas particulares, only the paper stuff will do.
Always withdraw money when you can. Cash machines are scarce, those accepting foreign cards even scarcer and problems with them are frequent; not all banks can process foreign currency transactions and the opening hours of those that can rarely extend to the weekend or past 3.30pm in the week, especially outside Havana and the beach resorts.
From a security point of view it’s not ideal, but whenever you withdraw cash you’ll likely save yourself some hassle if you take out enough for at least a few days, especially on a road trip into the provinces.
8. Keep your cool on the streets
If you are discernibly foreign then you are going to get some attention on the street. You’re likely to get pestered rather than hassled but after a while it can get tiring. Keep your cool – looking and sounding uninterested is usually enough to deter most street hustlers, known as jineteros.
Bear in mind that if they’re selling cigars they’re probably going to be fakes, and if they offer to take you to a paladar or casa particular their commission will be secretly added to your bill. Then again, some people really do just want to chat – so keep an open mind.
9. Be mindful of talking politics
Many travellers to Cuba want to know what Cubans really think about their country’s politics, Fidel Castro and communism. If you’re interested in politics and Cuban society, don’t be reticent about striking up such conversations.
In a country where every block has a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, the eyes and ears of the Party and informing on your ‘unpatriotic’ neighbours has traditionally been a state-sanctioned obligation, some do not feel comfortable being openly critical of the regime.
Be sensitive, and understand that tour guides and hotel staff, as employees of the state, are less likely to voice any strong criticism of the Government.
10. Tip the right people
Lawyers become tour guides and doctors wait tables in Cuba – mostly for the tips that so significantly top-up their salaries (the average state wage is equivalent to around $18 a month). Tip waiters, hotel cleaners and baggage carriers, car park attendants, toilet attendants and tour guides, and be aware of the differences between people who own their own business and those who work for the state.
For example, a taxi on the meter means the driver works for the state and a tip is appropriate; most taxis don’t have a meter as they are privately owned and paying your fare, which you should negotiate in advance, is enough. Similarly, the hosts at a casa particular wouldn’t expect a tip, though if they employ cleaning staff a tip for them is always a nice gesture.
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