14 things I wish I’d known before visiting Cuba

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Cuba is the destination on everyone’s lips at the moment. More and more direct routes from the UK are opening up (search for your flights on Cheapflights.co.uk), which means getting here is easier than ever. We may think we know what to expect from a holiday in Cuba, but really there are some things that make this island pretty different to any other destination. Take a look at these 14 things you should know before you go…

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It’s normal to exchange money at the airport

Thou shalt not exchange money at an airport. It’s one of the commandments of sensible travelling, because airport exchange rates are always stratospheric. However, in Cuba, you don’t really have a choice, since you can’t buy Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) outside of the country. There are two currency conversion booths directly outside the terminal building – one on the right of the exit doors and one on the left – and they offer exchange rates that mirror those in the rest of the country, so you don’t have to worry about getting ripped off.

Exchange rates rocket in hotels

Unlike the airports, hotels take the Scrooge route when it comes to setting exchange rates. It’s easy and convenient to swap currency in a hotel, but you’ll get more for your money if you make the effort to leave the air conditioned comfort of the lobby and wander down the road to find a cadeca (change bureau). The exchange rates in all cadecas are identical.

Cuban market transactions

Baggage reclaim takes time

The baggage reclaim hall at Jose Marti International Airport shares its philosophy with Guinness – good things come to those who wait. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself waiting a good half hour or more for your luggage. Pop a hand fan in your hand-luggage as it can get a bit hot in there too.

Cash points can sometimes run dry

Cash points don’t always live up to their names in Cuba. In towns like Trinidad, on the south of the island, it’s not uncommon for cash machines to run out of notes.

You can’t always get hold of Coca-Cola

Despite a key ingredient of a Cuba Libre being Coca-Cola, you can’t always get Coke in Cuba. Big hotels are likely to stock it, but smaller guest houses and bars still sometimes struggle to get stocks of the sparkly caffeinated stuff.

Some stores are not open to tourists

Looking to buy a quick bottle of water or snack? It’s not always that simple in Cuba, especially once you get outside Havana. In places like Cienfuegos, on the south coast of the island, you’ll find a number of shops that look like grocery stores or kiosks that don’t serve tourists. These red herring stores are actually ration shops. Every Cuban is entitled to buy rations of certain groceries, like rice and bread, at cut prices. Only locals can shop in these stores.

It’s cash before card

Most cash machines in Cuba dispense their cash before they give you back your card. It’s the opposite way round in the UK. This means it’s easy to walk away from cash machines and leave your card behind.

Busker and a man in Trinidad, Cuba

It’s not easy to connect to the internet

The internet isn’t on tap in Cuba, like it is in the UK. You can only access Wi-Fi in hotspots. There are hotspots in most of the big Cuban cities now. One can be found on the steps of the Casa De La Musica in Trinidad, while another can be found outside the salsa club in Vinales. To access a hotspot, you need to buy a pre-paid internet card from telecommunication provider ETESCA. There are offices across the country. A card entitling you to an hour’s Wi-Fi will cost two CUCs.

You’re not allowed an early night

There’s no fighting for your right to party in Cuba. No matter how good your intentions are, it’s almost impossible to have an early night. Pop into El Floridita in Havana to sample a daiquiri and somehow you’ll find yourself staying for another – to watch the salsa band play its last few songs, for example. My advice – pop a packet of Pro Plus in your luggage.

The Che Guevara Mausoleum is closed on Mondays

I made the mistake of visiting the Che Guevara Memorial in Santa Clara on a Monday. Yes, you can still get up close to the sculptures and statues, and the symbolism of the site still knocks you right between the eyes, but you can’t get into the museum on the first day of the week.

Exchanging CUCs back to dollars or pounds isn’t always easy on the way home

While it’s pretty straightforward to exchange your dollars, euros and pounds for CUCs on your way into Cuba, changing your CUCs back again isn’t always as successful. On my last trip I had roughly £20 worth of CUCs that I wanted to swap back, but when I got to the change bureaus inside the departures hall they had run out of both dollars, euros and pounds. I just haaaad to spend my remaining CUCs on rum in the airport shop…

cuba

It’s compulsory to salsa

I’d expected to find silos of salsa in Cuba. I’d pictured it penned-in to salsa schools and certain clubs. But the fact is that the country is splitting at its seams with the dance form. It’s everywhere. The driver who took me back to the airport had his favourite salsa tracks blasting out of the radio and he was doing his own form of seat salsa. Because of this passion for the dance, you can’t go to a club without someone trying to teach you how to do it. Standing on the toes of a well-meaning instructor (male or female) is an initiation into the country.

You need to take change to the toilets with you

Spending a penny isn’t just a euphemism in Cuba. Most toilets are presided over by attendants who hand out paper in return for tips.

Musicians always ask for tips

Salsa bands, guitar players, and singers do the rounds of the bars and restaurants in Cuba, day and night. And once they’ve performed a set, no matter how short, they’ll approach every table in the room for tips. If you’re dishing out a CUC every time, you can soon whittle down your budget, so make sure you always have a few smaller coins on you when you sit down for a drink or bite to eat.

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14 things I wish I’d known before visiting Cuba was last modified: March 15th, 2017 by Sarah Holt
Author: Sarah Holt (32 posts)

Sarah has been a travel writer for the best part of a decade. Her travels have taken her from the peaks of the Swiss Alps to the depths of the Bolivian silver mines. She’s also a published author. She recently left the 9-5 to do life her own way. Follow along her adventures on her blog Backpacks and Yoga Mats.