Best time of year to Visit Cuba
Almost unquestionably, the best time to visit Cuba is near to its major holidays. January 1st and 2nd are Liberation Day and Victory Day respectively while May 1st is May Day, or International Workers Day. For fairly obvious reasons, this is a highly respected holiday in Cuba.
It’s worth noting as well that spending ‘winter’ in Cuba isn’t the counterproductive waste of tropical weather it may sound like. From December through to February, temperatures around the mid-high 20s celsius are still standard, if anything it may be a welcome break from the stifling heat of the late summer temperature.
More important to recognise is the distinct ‘rainy season’ and ‘dry season’ periods. The former lasts from May to October and is characterised by regular freak rainstorms and hot, humid weather certainly worthy of the tropics, while the ‘dry season’ lasts from November to April, consisting of quite the inverse. Little rainfall and more temperate climate that nonetheless is great for sunbathing.
Top 5 most unique things to see in Cuba
We’ve already made an article on something quite like this! Though for the sake of not repeating ourselves too much, here’s five more things to see and do in Cuba!
- Old Havana, it’s an absolute must-see. The old colonial buildings decked out in vibrant shades of pastel colours is a nice contrast with the pastel tower blocks in Pyongyang, showing off the vibrant visual style of old style heritage mixed with command economy urban planning. Gentrification in Cuba is as real as anywhere else, but old Havana has escaped far more unscathed than most places.
- May 1st Parade. Nearly every country celebrates May Day at least to some degree. Sometimes there’s parades, sometimes there’s just a day off, other times it’s celebrated a bit more unofficially. Cuba and the DPRK are perhaps the only countries left that can do the holiday justice as it was throughout the socialist world in the 20th century. Perhaps being the only ones left to celebrate it just made them even more committed to doing so, but really, you’ll never see anything quite like it! If you’re a socialist yourself or even just into the aesthetics, you’ll adore it.
- Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara. It’s almost impossible not to recommend this. Love him or loathe him, Che Guevara stands tall as one of the most significant icons of the 20th century and perhaps the most significant revolutionary icon of all time. How much is down to his actual ideals and actions or that one photo that got super popular is not for me to say, but you can certainly feel the weight and presence of his legacy when you visit the mausoleum. It’s worth checking the revolutionary museum nearby, along with the Batista era train that Che personally assisted in derailing during the revolution.
- Bay of Pigs. If you want to go to the Bay of Pigs for its historical legacy, there’s not a great deal to see. It’s mostly just another of Cuba’s super impressive beaches. What it is really unique for is the crab migrations! Thousands or even millions of bright red crabs migrate their way to the Bay of Pigs every year after the first spring rains to lay their eggs. It truly is a magnificent sight to behold, with the historical merits of the location adding as a handy bonus!
- The people. Okay, okay, fair. This may seem like a cop-out, but I stand by it. If you want to count the article linked at this tart, you still got nine suggestions rather than the five you were promised! Anyway, there is no denying that unless you are a Cuban, you cannot truly understand Cuba. Perhaps if you grew up in a formerly socialist country or somehow traveled in from the DPRK you’ll get it somewhat, but otherwise, talking to the locals is the best way to understand it. The incredible history, the unique social system, the planned economy, everything else! All we can get is a brief glimpse and an easy pass with our generous money conversions, the people of Cuba? They’re the ones who can tell you how it really is to live in one of the last bastions of socialism. How could I not put this on the list?
Best swimming spots in Cuba
- Playa Paraiso would have to get the top spot, even if it’s a little obvious for those ‘in the know’. Ranked as the third most beautiful beach in the world by Traveler’s Choice in 2016, the beach is well known for its nearly untouched shores, comparatively gentle waters and surprising distance from the main hotels. Make no mistake, it’ll still quite likely be full of tourists and locals basking in its splendour, but it’s impossible not to rate it highly.
- Cayo Guillermo gets second spot mainly for its distance from the rest of society, which is a much-welcome addition for many. Being on an island certainly helps, allowing people the opportunity to go swimming, diving or even fishing in peace. Nearby hotels are few and a solid four kilometers of mostly untouched beach is certainly nothing to be scoffed at.
- Cayo Largo is another one picked primarily for its distance from society, but with a few other tweaks. It’s located on another fairly remote island but is particularly known as an LGBT friendly beach and has a portion dedicated to those of the more ‘naturistic’ persuasion. If you feel a little too restricted at the other popular beaches of Cuba, it’s a fair bet that Cayo Largo will be able to satisfy your needs.
Food, Drink & Nightlife
Food in Cuba
Being a country with a tropical climate, Cuban food is heavily influenced by exotic fruits, root vegetables and seafood, though that’s not to say that’s all there is to find. Having at one point been a country with many slave colonies, Cuba is host to a variety of African inspired dishes, while the embargo from the US has forced Cuba to look elsewhere in varying its diet and has resulted in quite unique culinary innovations.
From the simple moros y cristianos (black beans with rice) and Yuca con Mojo (casava sauteed in orange juice) to the more complex Pernil Relleno De Moros Y Cristianos.
(the aforementioned moros y cristianos stuffed inside pork shoulder and marinated with sour orange, garlic and oregano) Cuban dishes are widely varied and vary even more regionally, especially depending on what can be produced locally. The comparative lack of import ability means dishes can often completely vanish from the menu if their sources aren’t close enough and especially if not near to a port.
Where to eat the best food in Cuba
Protip, don’t just go to the tourist restaurants in Cuba. Sure, you may be getting a more ‘guaranteed’ dining experience in certain ways, but the real fun is exchanging your tourist pesos for local ones and trying out the eateries for the masses! Since 2011, the government has opened up to the idea of paladares which are locally run eateries, not owned by the state. The quality may vary a little more, but it’s an authentic Cuban experience with much less standardised menus and much more affordable pricing.
The Dona Eutimia in Havana has seen some love from tourists as a homely eatery with good food and the El Cocinero in Vedado has been loved for its trendy rooftop dining experience. For the most homely of all experiences though, it’s hard not to recommend a Casa Particular or local Cuban homestay. Most Cubans would cook for themselves in daily life and few things can compare to the offered breakfasts at these lovely homestays.
Best restaurants in Havana
- La Guarida is an easy recommendation for two reasons. First, it has a wide variety of delicious food at reasonable prices as one might expect. Second, it was the filming spot for Strawberry and Chocolate, one of the first Cuban films to tackle LGBT rights and achieve international renown for it. The decor certainly likes to remind the diner of this fact, so cinephiles will definitely have a good time here.
- BellaHabana in the district of Miramar is a very notable spot for its focus on fusion food, attempting to give traditional Cuban foods an international twist with a particular focus on seafood.
- El Templete is already a delicious eatery in its own right, but what truly sets it apart is its location. Situated directly next to the Plaza de Armas, El Templete has an absolutely stunning view of the nearby areas if you choose to sit outside. Perfect for people-watching as well as seeing those gorgeous 50s era cars rolling on by like a timewarp.
Best restaurants in Trinidad
- Sol Ananda is a truly gorgeous restaurant in Trinidad, located in a house dating all the way back to the mid 1700s. With a curious mix of local and South-Asian cuisine, it does a wonderful job for the taste buds as well as providing a visual feast in its old fashioned architecture and interior.
- Mesón del Regidor is a cafe/restaurant that truly sets itself apart with the entertainment. Local musicians treat this cafe as a regular haunt and serenade the visitors with their latest traditional creations. If you want an authentic Cuban cultural experience while you have an authentic Cuban breakfast, you couldn’t ask for somewhere better.
- Casa El Tulipan may be cheating a little bit since it’s not a restaurant per-se, it’s one of those casa particulars we talked about earlier. All the same, the food produced by the friendly couple who run the home is gorgeous and the home itself features a rooftop terrace with beautiful views over Trinidad. This particular Casa was impressive enough to get special mention in The Guardian with its friendly owners highlighted for their strong grasp of English which will surely lead to some great and fascinating conversations.
Health and Safety
Safety in Cuba and Laws to be Aware of
As far as countries go, Cuba is generally a rather safe one. While petty theft like pickpocketing is reasonably common and should be watched out for, fears such as corrupt and unhelpful police or violent crime are comparatively rare for the region. Exercise regular caution and things should be fine.
Being under the influence of alcohol is obviously going to make you more vulnerable. It is common sense not to wear flash watches and jewellery, and keep mobile phones and cash out of sight. Do also watch out for drinks being spiked in nightclubs.
Try to be aware of Cuban customs laws such as the usual prohibition on bringing in foreign fruits or meats or the more unusual need for import permits on professional quality cameras. Drones may also be subject to confiscation upon arrival but are typically returned upon leaving the country. For the average photographer, this will likely not be an issue.
Vaccinations when travelling to Cuba
Cuba, like many tropical countries, is host to a large variety of potential diseases that can quite easily be avoided with proper vaccines. One should also use discretion regarding possible diseases that cannot be vaccinated against. Cuba is considered at risk of Zika virus at present along with Dengue fever. Check out Passport Health USA for more. This site has useful and up-to date information aimed at UK people.
Cuba for LGBTQ+ Travellers/Gay friendly hotels in Cuba
Despite a rocky history, modern Cuba is considered by many to be a shining example of LGBTQ+ tolerance in Latin America, now possessing a robust set of expanded rights and laws for such citizens. In the capital of Havana, it is especially unlikely to face any active discrimination for your orientation. When outside the capital, a certain degree of caution may be advised. Rural parts of the country still adhere more closely to staunchly Catholic traditions and this is something to keep in mind.
For hotel advice, practically all hotels especially of the higher end variety in Havana can be considered safe for LGBT travelers. For traditional casa accomodation, this may not always be the case. Just keep in mind these are often family run places of varying experience with overseas visitors.
There are several gay and gay friendly bars and clubs in Havana that you should definitely check out if you are visiting the city. These include Cabaret Las Vegas, Cafe Fortuna Joe and Cafe Bar Madrigal. The locals may or may not be open to your advances, that is up to you to figure out. If you are looking to hook up with a local, Grindr is not easily accessed in Cuba, at least at the time of writing.
Travelling in Cuba as a solo female
Cuba has machismo culture and it’s ‘unfortunate’, let’s just say. A common occurrence for female travelers is what’s called piropos, otherwise known as catcalling or wolf-whistling. It’s annoying, it can be seen as threatening, but just ignoring it or responding with “No me moleste” (Don’t bother me) will hopefully get them to leave you alone. As said before, violent crime in Cuba is comparatively rare, but travelers should always exercise the same caution they would in any country.
Applicable to both men and women is to be wary of jineteros or jineteras, who are the common tourist-pests of any country who will sidle up to you speaking English and offer to show you around or take you somewhere nice, all in hopes of getting you to part with your cash. Don’t trust them. They are especially centred around the tourist areas such as the Malecón. They are often very well dressed!
Overall, trust your instincts! In the case of Cuba, also trust the police. Corruption in the police is comparatively low and if anything were to happen, don’t hesitate to contact an available officer.
Travelling in Cuba as a solo male
Travel advice for Cuba as a solo male is a little more simple, with some overlap. In a culture of heavy machismo, prepare for visits to the bar to be met by similar harassment to those who’d go after women too, though probably more just to test your mettle with Cuban rum. Be polite, use your discretion, though probably a good idea not to get good and steaming drunk around a bunch of complete strangers, no matter how much the macho culture may demand it.
I’ll say it again exactly the same as it’s no less true. Applicable to both men and women is to be wary of jineteros or jineteras, who are the common tourist-pests of any country who will sidle up to you speaking English and offer to show you around or take you somewhere nice, all in hopes of getting you to part with your cash. Don’t trust them.
Once again, trust your instincts in all cases! If a place seems dodgy, get out of it. If you feel you need to contact the police, contact the police. It is always better to err on the side of caution rather than pay the price for it later.
Understandably when there is such a large economic disparity, there are some inventive scams going around. For instance, a woman will persuade you to buy her powdered milk or some other product ‘only available to foreigners’ for her baby – only to return it to the shop later and split the money with the shop attendant. It is very common for restaurants to make ‘mistakes’ in bills in their favour, and for incorrect change to be returned for any transaction. Also see below for more about different money types in Cuba, which make potential for all sorts of creative fiddles.
Travel insurance for Cuba
Travel insurance in Cuba is absolutely mandatory and you may be asked for proof of it when arriving at the airport, so make sure you have a printout of your policy with you. Package tours will typically cover this, but even if you’re not on a package trip, just getting it separately should be easy, with many affordable options to choose from.
You must have traveller’s medical insurance which covers Cuba, for the time that you will be there. You should also bring a printout of this as sometimes immigration want to see it.
We are agents for the Cuban Government’s official travel medical insurance company. Please contact us for details on travel medical insurance for your trip to Cuba
Health emergency in Cuba, attending the Doctor
Travel insurance that covers healthcare in Cuba is strongly advised, with facilities outside of the capital likely not measuring up to a first-world standard. Cuba is a marvel in the medical field in many cases, but specialist treatment may very well require an expensive medical airlift. Without health insurance, travelers are unfortunately not subject to the universal healthcare policy granted to citizens and may need to spend a significant amount for their stay in a local hospital.
The Cuban emergency number for an ambulance is 104 and many tourist areas will have access to international clinics that are better suited to their needs. For further information, consult the for-profit tourist healthcare system Servimed. (http://www.healthservicecuba.com/)
Where to get medication in Cuba
Medicine in Cuba is unfortunately difficult to come by, particularly as a result of the severe economic blockades imposed by the USA. While pharmacies are readily available across the country, with the aforementioned Servimed group operating their own pharmacies specifically for foreigners, these may not always have what you need. If you have a chronic condition or illnesses that you may be predisposed to, it would be strongly advised to bring medicine from home just in case. Operate on the basis that you will not be able to find what you need.
It is also worth noting that pharmacies marked turno permanente are open 24 hours, should there be a need to get access to medicine late in the night when other pharmacies have closed. But again, inconsistent and far from guaranteed supply of medicines.
Certainly worth considering is to take some upset stomach medicine with you when travelling to Cuba. It just may happen that you pickup some upset from water or food. This can generally pass within 24 hours if you have some suitable remedy and restup. Best not to let an upset stomach cause you too much annoyance while on a tour.
Bottled water in Cuba
It’s generally not advised to drink the tap water of Cuba. While Cuba broadly speaking does have solid sanitation, risks of certain pathogens do indeed exist and as with all travel, the risk simply being unused to the local water can still give an unwary traveler a case of the runs. It may be a good idea to remember this when visiting restaurants too, as asking for a glass of water may give you it straight from the tap rather than specially filtered. Bottled water is thankfully common in all areas that tourists congregate in, as well as being readily provided at most major hotels.
In higher-end restaurants and bars, you need to specify ‘agua nacional’ (domestic water) when ordering or you are likely to be served with pricey Italian water
Cockroaches are frequently found outdoors at night, and indoors in bathrooms. They look scary but are not at all dangerous. Unless you are Buddhist it is normal to crush them underfoot and throw them in the bin or flush them down the toilet.
Scorpions, centipedes and snakes are rare but very occasionally crawl out of their dark damp hiding places. Their bites can be very painful, and are cause for seeking prompt medical attention.
Dengue fever can be spread by mosquitoes anywhere in Cuba, and sand flies can be very unpleasant on beaches. On both counts it is advisable to use spray repellent against insect bites, especially outdoors in the early evening when there is not much wind.
Travel & Accommodation in Cuba
Why package holidays to Cuba are awful
Do you know how many tropical island nations there are in the world? There’s a hell of a lot of them, but there’s only one Cuba. If you go on the bulk of package holidays, you wouldn’t notice that at all. Sure, Cuba’s beaches are gorgeous and there’s an undeniable pleasure in baking in the hot sun with a Cuba Libre in one hand and a cigar in the other, but is that really experiencing the real Cuba? I wouldn’t say so.
The joy in Cuba is in how unlike any other tropical island nation it is! The unique revolutionary history and culture that remains to this day, the street life, the architecture, the interactions with average, everyday Cuban citizens. To spend all that time in a carbon-copy of the same beachside resort you get at any nation with a similar climate just seems like a waste, so please, do yourself a favour and throw these to the side.
How to get a visa for Cuba
Cuban visas are commonly known as ‘tourist cards’ and can be acquired from a convenient Cuban embassy or from ourselves at Global Village Tours.
Some Canadian airlines issue the tourist card either at check-in or onboard, as part of the ticket cost. Some airlines (e.g. Virgin) sell them at check-in for an inflated price. Some don’t (KLM) and then you’re stuffed, so better and cheaper to obtain ahead of time.
There is no such thing as ‘visa on arrival’ in Cuba, however some countries are exempt from needing one for a set period. The list of these countries is subject to revision pending changing international situations, so consulting relevant and up-to-date sources for this information is strongly recommended.
Your passport must be valid for a minimum of six months from the date you arrive in Cuba. You should carry your passport (or a photocopy) as ID at all times in Cuba. You can carry a printed photocopy of your passport, especially when going out at night. However, you will need your original passport to change money and to register in the homestay each night.
Remember the return flight
You must have a ticket back out of Cuba booked before you arrive. You should bring a printout of the confirmation – sometimes Cuban immigration want to see this.
How to find cheap flights to Havana
Traveling to Cuba, especially from Europe, is always going to be expensive. However! For those of you with more flexible schedules or at least a willingness to wait for the right moment, I’d have to recommend Hack The Flight (https://hacktheflight.net/) as my go-to. Not just for Cuba, but for everywhere! The sheer joy of finding a location you’d never even thought of visiting, but at a price that’s an absolute steal is something truly special. Everyone should check it out!
Remember, USD incur an extra 10% tax when changing, so if you are coming from the USA you will normally get a better deal by changing your money to CAD, EUR or GBP before you leave.
We recommend packing light! Don’t forget swimming stuff and a towel for the beach. Towels and soap are provided in casas however. After landing at the airport in Havana, you’ll first pass through immigration, where you hand over your passport and tourist card (visa). In theory they may ask to see your travel insurance, outbound flight booking and address where you will be staying, so you should bring a printout of these. Keep safe the visa which is returned to you – it is needed to leave the country at the end of the tour.
After your hand luggage is x-rayed, you can usually walk right past the white-coated health inspectors, unless you look particularly sickly. Once you have collected your luggage (it can take a very long time to appear on the belt), you will pass through customs where you need to hand over a completed customs form before exiting. The customs people rarely bother tourists. Upon exiting there will be a huge crowd of people all waiting to meet someone or offer you a taxi ride. Unless you’ve pre-booked transport, you should head for the official yellow taxis. Be sure to agree the price before getting in – it should be CUC $25.
If you want to change money you can do this just outside the terminal building at the money change office (Cadeca). Alternatively there are ATMs inside and outside the terminal building, which should accept non-USA bank cards. Due to changes in exchange rules, there is now (October 2019) a black market in exchanging Euros and US dollars which can give a rate substantially better than the official one. If you’d like to take advantage of this, please ask me.
You should keep a note of the address of your first homestay or hotel in case immigration ask where you will be staying. This will be advised to you by our office before arrival, along with contact phone numbers in case of any problems. Unless you have made specific arrangements to be met at the airport, you should take a taxi to the homestay. All taxis at the airport are official and government-registered but you should agree on the price before getting in. The official price is CUC $25 to anywhere in downtown Havana – don’t agree to pay any more!
Some homestays have a safe in the room. Otherwise you can leave cash in a locked suitcase, or with the owner – they are invariably honest as otherwise they would lose their licence to rent out rooms.
Banking and Currency in Cuba
The main currency in Cuba for visitors is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). You will not be able to obtain CUC until you enter the country. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar at 1:1. The banknotes are $100, $50, $20, $10, $5, $3 and $1. All are the same size, clearly marked “pesos convertibles” and feature pictures of monuments, statues or structures. You may be asked to show ID and give your address when spending $100 and $50 notes. Coins are $1, 50¢, 25¢, 10¢ and 5¢, all silver in colour and showing monuments or buildings on one side and the Cuban crest on the other.
The other currency is the Cuban Peso, known as Moneda Nacional, and sometimes marked as CUP or $MN. The exchange rate is 25:1 or 24:1 depending on whether you are buying or selling, making CUP$1 = CUC$0.04 roughly. The banknotes and coins feature revolutionary heroes. Notably the red $3CUP note features Che Guevara and is often sold to tourists as a souvenir at an inflated price, and the $3CUP coin is almost exactly the same size and colour as the $1CUC coin – but only 1/8 the value. CUP is the currency that Cuban state employees (still a majority of the workforce) receive their salaries in, and that Cubans use for paying for basic things like staple foods, bus fares etc.
The best forms of currency to exchange are Euro, Sterling and Canadian Dollar. These will offer you the best rate of exchange. Most major currencies can be changed (EUR, CHF, CAD, GBP – English notes only; USD cash is subject to a 10% additional fee). Black-market money changing is virtually non-existent
CADECAs and banks also allow cash withdrawals using a Visa or MasterCard and your passport – provided that the machine is working. However if your card belongs to a financial institution with a connection to the USA then they will block the transaction.
ATM machines are plentiful in Cuba now. However, do not count (excuse the pun!) on the machines having cash at all times of the day when you need access to cash. For this reason it is better to bring enough cash with you for the majority of your trip – this is just to be on the safe side. Lunch, dinner and few drinks each day in Cuba is doable in Cuba at about 55 CUC per day. If you intend on drinking imported wine, only eating at top end establishments and bars and buying a lot of souvenirs you should definitely allow extra for this.
ATMs are reasonably plentiful in cities, and accept Visa cards (only). However, as with cash withdrawals, card issuing institutions may not allow transactions from Cuba, or machines may be down due to technical problems. Credit cards are accepted for purchases only in a few state-run shops and high-end hotels. All electronic transactions are processed in US Dollars at a 3% commission over the CUC value, plus your card issuer’s fees.
When leaving the country, keep in mind that it is best not to leave with too much CUC as it is highly unlikely you will be able to exchange it after you depart. If you cannot change your CUC back to your home currency before you get to the airport for your departing flight, there are a few exchange counters at Jose Marti International. There is one at either side of the security section before you go through. However there are often long queues and it is possible they will not have the currency you want. There is another exchange counter in the departure area.
Tipping in Cuba is quite customary, especially for foreign visitors. Salaries are often rather low ($12-25 per month), so even with heavy subsidization, tips go a long way to helping out Cuban workers.
You should put aside at least $10 every day for tips. (N.b. however it is not necessary or expected to tip taxi drivers or casa particular (homestay) owners.)
In some restaurants, 10% service is included in the bill in which case you don’t need to tip extra. If service isn’t included in the bill you could add a small tip of $0.50 – $2 (up to 10% of total bill).
If you have a Cuban guide with you who you feel has done a good job over a couple of days then you might tip them maybe $3-5 per day per person; similarly an appropriate tip for a driver who’s been helpful and friendly might be $2-3 per person per day.
It’s best to tip in CUC. Tips in foreign currency (including USD) will not be turned down but are inconvenient for the recipient to change.
Car Transport in Cuba
Along with the usual fare of private rented cars, public buses and the ever-risky hitchhiking, Cuba has a unique system of shared car transport called Colectivos. These are a cool form of shared taxi found mostly in major cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Typically, they’ll be those fancy older 50s cars with a Taxi sign in the window. Unlike usual taxis, they follow a pre-set route like a bus and allow people on and off at regular intervals, usually charged for tourists at 10 Cuban pesos. Keep in mind that this is local pesos, not the more common tourist peso equivalent that we’ll get to later. They can work out as an extremely cost effective way to travel from A-B. A 3+ hour trip from Viñales to Havana Airport for example might set you back 30 CUC.
There are various types of taxi in operation in Havana.
Most of the old 1950s cars operate as Taxis Ruteros – they operate fixed routes, similar to a bus service, with people sharing the taxi and getting in and out at different points along the route. The fare is a flat CUP$10 (i.e. about 40 cents). Great value, but unless you have a good grasp of Spanish and of the layout of the city you may not end up where you want to be!
The other types of taxi operate the same as elsewhere, i.e. they will take you wherever you want. To avoid being ripped off it is vital to agree the fare before getting in, and it’s perfectly in order to negotiate. Fares are supposed to be around $1/km. It is not necessary to tip taxi drivers on top of the agreed fare.
Also in some parts of town for shorter distances are the three-wheeled cocotaxis and bicitaxis. Similarly it’s important to agree the fare beforehand. The meters on the cocotaxis are often rigged…
Outside the Hotel Nacional are several restored 1950s convertible cars in excellent condition – sometimes the drivers speak English and will take you on a city tour for about CUC$40 per hour.
There are many unlicensed taxis operating, especially at night outside bars and clubs. These are probably no more dangerous than a legal licensed taxi – just agree the fare beforehand as always.
Avoid the modern yellow tourist taxis that line up outside the expensive hotels. They will charge at least 2x the fare of less shiny cars!
Vedado District in Havana
In this part of Havana, the streets are in a grid, with odd numbered streets running NE/SW and with lettered streets running NW/SE. If you turn right out of the casa and walk one block past the Hotel Nacional you arrive at Calle 23, sometimes known as La Rampa, which is one of the main streets in Havana with many bars, cafes and cinemas. The Malecón (sea wall), where many thousands of Habaneros hang out in the evening, runs east/west, to the north of the casa.
If you get lost trying to find the casa, head for the Malecón and look for the Hotel Nacional (with two distinctive lanterns on the roof) or FOCSA (green and cream painted skyscraper, the tallest building in Cuba) which are nearby. N.b. other districts of Havana have separate grid systems, which may also use letters / numbers to name the streets!
There is a small supermarket underneath FOCSA which may have bottled water. Alternatively head down to La Rampa where there are various kiosks (open 24 hours) which sometimes sell bottled water.
Money can be changed at the CADECA at the corner of Calles 23 and J, which is open until 8pm, or in the CADECA in the basement of FOCSA. There is also a CADECA in the basement of the Hotel Nacional, but it has poorer exchange rates!
Produce in Cuba
Best place to buy cigars in Cuba
If there’s one thing Cuba’s famous for that isn’t the revolution, it has to be cigars. And even that’s heavily tied in with Fidel Castro’s love for them, so perhaps it is revolutionary after all. Most notable for this is the Cohiba brand of cigars produced by the state-owned Habanos S.A. which must be distinguished from the Dominican brand of the same name. Unquestionably the best place to get these would be the La Corona cigar factory in Havana, offering a wide variety of cigars for sale and tours of the facility itself.
Best rum to try in Cuba
If there’s any recognised Cuban rum brand, it would have to be Havana Club and for good reason. While there are plenty of knockoffs and okay imports, the best stuff is found in the city that it’s named for. The Añejo 3 Años is a much lauded vanilla and pear rum that’s perfectly suited for mojitos. Standing strong alongside the Havana Club is the Legendario brand and its crowning Elixir de Cuba that features a much sweeter taste than that of the Havana Club fare, likely owing to its extracts of raisin with hints of honey.
Working in Cuba
Teaching English in Cuba
Cuba has a high demand for quality educators so teaching English in Cuba is far from an impossibility! The prime gateway is the requirement of at least a Bachelors Degree to be qualified. After that, it’s simply a matter of building up your skill set and watching for available job listings! Teaching in Cuba is of course exclusively found in the state sector, so conditions for teachers are rather standardised. Salaries are usually up to $2000 USD per month (generous in Cuban currency) with 35-40 hour weekly work schedules. Contract duration is typically between 1-2 years with possibilities for extension depending on performance.
Working with an NGO in Cuba
Volunteer NGO work in Cuba is far from unheard of. So long as activities aren’t overtly anti-government, the Cuban state has typically shown itself as highly co-operative with such groups. Oxfam, CARE and many others operate openly within Cuba attempting to help the more vulnerable elements of Cuban society so getting involved with them isn’t at all impossible. It would be advised to look into any locally based NGO groups that operate in Cuba and contacting them for more information!
Working in healthcare in Cuba
By far the best way to get involved in working in Cuban healthcare is through the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM). Signing onto a course there is free. Tuition is free. Accommodation is free. There’s even a small stipend to help students get by! International students from across the world, including America, are fully welcome to apply and hopefully even move onto job opportunities in the country! Cuba is perhaps one of the only countries that isn’t exactly hurting for more doctors, but it hardly hurts to ask! Specialist skills especially would be in high demand anywhere, along with English speaking doctors who could treat foreign tourists.
WiFi availability in Cuba
Cuba is not the most wifi-friendly of countries, it must be said. Internet does indeed exist, but you aren’t going to be getting a private signal from any random cafe. What you’ll typically need is a ‘wifi card’ from the ETECSA (Telecommunications Company of Cuba SA). These cards can be bought in most commercial stores and at airports, though lines for them have a tendency to be fairly long. These same cards are often sold at hotels, but beware the inflated premium price tag of such a convenience. Be aware as well that these cards can only be bought when you have your passport present, so don’t forget to bring it with you!
Thankfully the costs for this aren’t too exorbitant. It’s currently approximately $1 equivalent per hour of internet access, with this price having gone down considerable over the years. Availability is also increasing, with many wifi hotspots available in Havana, but again, you’ll require the wifi card to make any actual use of them. The rooftop bar of the Hotel Capri has WiFi and is a pleasant place to sit beside the pool.
Wifi is available in many public spaces in cities across the country, including La Rampa in Havana, Parque José Martí in Cienfuegos, Parque Céspedes and the Casa de la Música steps in Trinidad, and Parque Vidal in Santa Clara. Touts hang around these areas selling internet cards as if they were drugs at $3/hour, a mark-up on the official price of $1.00. The same cards will work in the lobbies of some hotels which use the Nauta system; other hotels (inc Hotel Nacional and Capri) have their own systems.
Skype generally won’t work but WhatsApp and Facetime are usually OK. Online financial transactions are liable to be blocked, particularly if a US institution is involved.
Speed can be slow and unstable at times, but is again rapidly improving. Censorship is also a real issue, but this is thankfully not overly pervasive and not even as bad as China. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, it should all work perfectly fine.
Ask us about renting a Cuban SIM with 3G mobile data enabled – it’s not going to work for streaming Netflix but it’s handy if you need to stay in touch with the outside world.
Your mobile phone will normally work for calls and texts in Cuba provided you have international roaming enabled. Prices will be very high however – calls to and from Cuba are the most expensive in the world.
Power voltage in Cuba
Power supply in Cuba is primarily 110 volts, however hotels typically offer 220 volts. Sockets are typically designed to take both American flattened two-pin plugs and European rounded two-pin plugs, so North American or European adapters should work perfectly fine.
Cuban electrical installations frequently defy western safety standards. It is probably best not to examine too closely the electric shower in your casa particular, and definitely best not to touch that or anything else that looks vaguely electrical, especially on lamp posts and in stairways.
How to buy electronics in Cuba
The Cuban electronics industry is overwhelmingly dominated by the Caribbean TRD Retail Store Chain (TRD) which reportedly owned over 50% of the Cuban electronics market in 2017, according to the Havana Times. In the same article that states this, it points out the existence of joint ventures with companies such as Samsung which helps to provide a wider variety of more modern technology which should prove useful to tourists in need.
Future of Tourism in Cuba
Cuba tourism statistics
Tourism in Cuba has been on a fairly consistent rise, stifled only somewhat by the tightening sanctions of the US under the Trump administration. According to Travel Weekly Cuba’s tourist numbers increased by 300,000 between 2017 and 2018, going from 4.5 to 4.8 million, with an anticipated increase again to 5.1 million by the end of 2019! This is a jump of over 60% in the last five years, with the US and Canada comprising the majority of visitors. Cubatrade.org particularly shows that in spite of mounting US pressure, there has been a growth in both regular US visitors and a dramatic growth in Cuban-US visitors to the island nation.
Trends and plans for Cuba tourism in the future
According to Travel Agent Central, Cuban tourism is experiencing a rebound and growing dramatically. Cruise ship arrivals alone grew by 48% between 2017 and 2018 while overall landfall in the country has steadily gone up for a long period now. With the 500th anniversary of the capital Havana’s foundation due in November of 2019, it can likely be expected for traditional Cuban culture, architecture and identity to undergo a proud renaissance in the face of this mass travel growth.