January 2, 2017

Havana, Cuba: Tips for First Timers

Improving relations has made it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. As of November 2016, JetBlue offered direct flights for as low as $99 (one-way) during their promotional period. It only takes 3 hours to get to Cuba from New York City, so a quick weekend getaway is totally doable.

Thanks to @Shopphancie for the cute passport holder

Before getting on a JetBlue flight, passengers going to Cuba are required to check-in at a special counter. I had to fill out a form that asks for the purpose of my trip to Cuba. There are more than a dozen different choices (from religious, to educational, to family visitation, etc), but since I am going as a tourist, I chose “Support for the Cuban people”. I was able to purchase a Cuban Tourist Visa at the very same counter for $50 USD.

Most hotels in Cuba are very expensive and government ran and operated. One of the best ways to save money is by staying at casas particulares – privately owned homes turned into a place to accommodate visitors. Staying at casas particulares supports the locals (because the money serves as an income rather than going to the government), and the owners can provide some tips on where to go and what to do.

AirBnB is a great website for casas particulares in Cuba. I stayed at Casa Animas, conveniently located in Central Havana where our host Isabel made us breakfast every day upon request. To book a casa particular, make sure to sign up for AirBnB using this link and earn $35 towards travel. 


Traveling to Cuba for the first time? Here are some tips:

1. Learn to speak basic Spanish. It is important to take into consideration that not everyone speaks English. I am a non-native Spanish speaker, but I know (and understand enough) to get around. Here are some of the phrases that were useful for the trip:

  • Hola – Hello
  • Como estas? – How are you?
  • Buenas dias/tardes/noches – Good morning/afternoon/evening (or night)
  • Yo habla y entiende un poquito de Español – I speak and understand a little bit of Spanish
  • Cuanto cuesta? – How much?
  • Donde esta……? – Where is…?
  • Donde esta el baño? – Where is the bathroom?
  • Por favor, quiero ordinar….. – Please, I want to order….
  • Llevame a esta dirrecion….. – Take me to this address….
  • Muchas gracias – Thank you very much

Of course, it would be helpful to know the numbers in Spanish as well, as this will be useful when handling money or when trying to bargain for goods.

2. There are two Cuban currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is used by visitors and tourists. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is used by locals.

  • 1 USD = 1 CUC
  • 1 USD = 25 CUP

Visitors/tourists are expected to use CUC, so most prices on the menus are in CUC. But it is good to know that menus with the CUP currency are also available- and CUP menus are usually way way way cheaper. I never bothered to ask for the “local”menu, because everything in Cuba is relatively super cheap for Americans anyway. By paying with CUC, I know I am helping the locals earn extra income.

3. It is possible to get change in CUP when paying with CUC. Make sure to check the bills properly, be able to do basic math to calculate the differences, and to distinguish between the CUC and the CUP. I remembered by knowing that the CUC (tourist money) has tourist attractions as photos and clearly says pesos convertibles; while the CUP (local money) has local people as photos.

Photo by: Those Who Wander Travel Blog

4. Do not exchange USD for Cuban currency. There is a government-imposed tax on the USD that will take a certain percentage off for every USD spent. Meaning, exchanging 100 USD will only give you 87 CUC back, even though the rate goes for 1 USD to 1 CUC.

5. Change your USD to either CAD (Canadian dollars), Euros or British Pound before leaving the US. This will help you avoid the government-imposed tax on the USD, and will help you stretch out your money. Once you have arrived in Cuba, exchange your money at the airport for CUC. Expect long lines and wait times.

6. Do not pay more than 30 CUC per taxi (not per person) for airport transfer. Have an airport transfer arranged prior getting to Cuba (your casa particular host can do it for you). If not, taxis are readily available right outside the airport. Rates go from 25 CUC to 30 CUC.

7. Have a budget, and bring enough cash. ATMs are not readily available, and 99.9% of the credit and debit cards will not work. Most businesses do not take credit and debit cards either, so it is best to have enough cash in handy and to save some for emergency purposes.

8. Do not pay more than 5 CUC for a cab ride around Havana. It depends on the driver and how good you are with your Spanish-speaking skills in bargaining. The lowest amount I paid for a cab ride is 3 CUC (for the whole cab, not per person), and the most I paid is 5 CUC.

9. Internet is not readily available in Cuba. Make sure to plan your trip way ahead of time, since there is a 99.9% chance that you will not have internet access. You will not be able to easily Google where to go or Yelp places to eat. Offline Google maps for Cuba is also non-existent, so prepare to get lost/be off the grid, and enjoy every moment of it.

10. Print maps of the neighborhoods of Havana. This is very useful since you really can’t depend on the internet in Cuba. This is also very helpful, especially if you don’t speak any Spanish. You can just point to the taxi driver the location that you want to go to on the map. Make sure to mark the casa particular you’re staying at as well, incase you get lost.

Click on the images for downloadable maps of Havana’s neighborhoods (courtesy of Moon.com)

Habana Vieja

Habana: Plaza de Catedral and Vicinity

Centro Habana

Vedado and Plaza de la Revolución

Centro Vedado

11. The locals have a fascination with tourists. I travelled with 3 of my girl friends, and we always got catcalled or stared at everywhere we went. At one point, a group of guys literally applauded when we passed by. We just learned to take it as a compliment and ignore it at the same time. We also learned not to entertain them, because they can get aggressive at times. 

12. The mojito and daiquiri originated in Cuba. It is a great experience to try these cocktails to know exactly how they are supposed to taste!

13. Leave all expectations behind. Like all cliches you’ve heard about Cuba, it really is like going back and being stuck in a time warp. If you are used to 5-star hotels, luxurious resorts and fine dining, then Cuba is not the place for you. It is best to keep an open-mind, and to allow yourself to understand the culture and the customs of the people. Enjoy the salsa music coming from almost every corner; observe the Cubans dancing on the street and appreciate their passion; admire the decaying buildings in contrast to the bright vintage cars, and always put a smile on your face.

“North Americans don’t understand… that our country is not just Cuba; our country is also humanity.”

-Fidel Castro

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