Cuba is arguably the hottest destination in the world right now, with many making plans for travelling to Cuba. The country has always exerted a magnetic pull and never more than now, with the thawing relations with the U.S., many are putting Cuba at the top of their travel lists. Obama’s recent visit to the island comes after a more than 50 year trade embargo; just a few weeks before, his administration announced new Cuba travel rules that relaxed the requirement that Americans travel on a pre-arranged group itinerary. In May this year, the first cruise voyage from the U.S. in more than half a century will arrive from Miami.
Going on a tour or a cruise is probably the easiest way to visit Cuba – tourism infrastructure is still patchy in many places, and the logistics of transport, accommodation and access to money are taken care of for you. If, however, you’re looking for a more authentic experience, travelling to Cuba on your own is a better option. This is the comprehensive guide on how to travel independently to Cuba.
Travelling to Cuba: Getting there and away
The majority of travellers will fly into Havana, Cuba’s capital. Direct commercial flights from the U.S. are planned to begin later this year but as of the time of writing, the easiest and cheapest way to get to Cuba is to fly through a gateway city, like Cancun or Panama City. We flew via Panama City from Mexico City, with a 4 hour transit at Tocumen Airport.
As of May 2015 the CUC$25 exit airport tax has been scrapped. During my recent visit (March 2016) there was no exit tax payable.
Travelling to Cuba: Tourist card / visa
When checking in for your flight to Cuba, ask your airline representative where you can purchase your tourist card for Cuba. In Mexico City airport, we were directed to a Copa Airlines counter airside and given a little form to fill out. No fuss, no mess. Total cost? US$20, paid in Mexican pesos. If you’re a citizen of the following countries you don’t need a Cuban visa: Malaysia, China, Russia and a host of other Caribbean and Eastern European nations.
Travelling to Cuba: Money matters
There are two currencies used in Cuba, the CUC (sometimes called the “kook”) and the CUP, or moneda nacional. Both are sometimes confusingly also called pesos, and both are in use by the locals; the difference is that they use CUP to buy basic items like fresh veg and fruit, ice-cream and peso pizza, and CUC to buy things like pasta, chicken, televisions, etc. As a tourist in Cuba you will use the CUC in 95% of all transactions. The CUC is pegged to the USD and CUC$1 buys CUP$25. You can exchange money at the airport, banks and cadecas, or currency bureaus in major cities. Be warned, though lines can be long and they all close at lunch.
No American-issued credit or debit cards will work in Cuba. If you only have American accounts, then make sure you travel with enough cash. The best currencies to bring are Euros, Canadian Dollars and British Sterling, in that order. If you bring US Dollars they’ll attract a hefty 10% fee on top of any spreads (around 3% when we were there) so avoid US Dollars if you can. There are ATMs scattered around Havana and bigger cities like Trinidad; however it’s a matter of luck whether they are out of cash or broken or simply located inside a bank that has closed for the day.
Anecdotally, travellers seem to have more luck with cash advances on Visa credit cards compared to Mastercard, and very little luck with withdrawing money on debit cards, whether Visa or Mastercard. The wisest course of action is to bring a mix of money – enough cash to cover your trip in one or more of the three currencies above (Australian Dollars are not accepted so leave those at home), and a pre-loaded Visa credit card in case of emergencies (your bank will charge you a cash advance fee each time you use this).
We travelled with Sterling for our everyday cash requirements and a cache of US Dollars for emergencies, plus some UK-issued HSBC and Australian issued Mastercard credit and debit cards, just in case. We only needed to use cash during our 10 day trip, averaging about CUC$110-CUC$120 a day for a couple. We stayed in casa particulares throughout, ate at relatively nice restaurants and at casas, went to a few museums, travelled by private taxi, collectivo and Viazul bus, and bought some cigars and did a couple of activities like horse riding in Vinales.
Travelling to Cuba: Booking accommodation
The best accommodation options in Cuba are the casa particulares, or homestays. Instead of staying at packed, rundown state-owned hotels, you can rent a room from locals for between CUC$25-CUC$35 a night. Casas are big business in Cuba, and most offer privacy, air conditioning and an ensuite. While not necessarily of the highest design standards (there is a trade embargo happening here), all the rooms we stayed in were clean, safe and welcoming. The casa owners are helpful and warm, and in that inimitable Cuban way, can resolve anything for you, including taxis, activities, laundry, food, etc. Best of all, staying at a casa gives you direct access and insight into Cuban life.
The best way to book a casa is to call or email them directly. You can find casas listed on Cuba Casas, Cuba Junky, or Hostels Club. Rumour has it that there are now casas listed on AirBnB, but friends travelling from the U.S. and Thailand recently couldn’t book them. As all of the AirBnB listings are made through an intermediary because local Cubans can’t access PayPal or card payments, which is how AirBnB takes payments, I’d suggest avoiding AirBnB for now – there’s nothing worse than paying up front of a room to an intermediary only to have no contact to refer to when you get into a new country!
Finding a casa in places like Trinidad or Vinales at the last minute shouldn’t be difficult, especially if you arrive by Viazul bus, as owners will greet bus arrivals with business cards and flyers of their rooms. I would however recommend that you send off enquiries for rooms in Havana early, especially if you are looking to stay in hot spots like Havana Vieja or Havana Centro. In looking for casas in these areas a month out, none of the places I’d emailed had vacancies and I’d ended up staying in Vedado instead. While more established casas are listed on Tripadvisor, there are casas popping up all the time in Cuba, so don’t worry too much if you booked into a place that doesn’t yet have a review. Be sure to confirm your rooms at least a day in advance – call, or ask other casa owners to call on your behalf, as rooms do get given away. If that does happen (as it did with us in Trinidad), another room will be found for you at a different establishment. Where possible, ask to be met at your arrival point, or request an airport transfer to avoid being led to the wrong casa when you first arrive.
Travelling to Cuba: Getting around
There are three options if you want to get around Cuba on land – private taxis, collectivo or shared taxis, and buses. Of the latter there are two options, the state run Viazul bus and Conectando, which runs pick ups from selected hotels in Havana on selected routes. Viazul has by far the more extensive network. You can book Viazul tickets online if you have a non-American card; this is an easier option than buying tickets in person at the ticket office a day in advance, given that the Viazul bus station is an inconvenient 5km away from Havana Vieja. Collectivos or shared taxis to Vinales or Trinidad from Havana can be found at the Viazul bus station as well. At the time of writing a one way collectivo ride Havana-Vinales was CUC$20 per person; ask your casa owner what the going rate is. Finally, the most convenient way to travel is by private taxi, which can be arranged by your casa owner. We caught one from Havana to Vinales for CUC$80 – the cost is for the whole trip, so if you have a group this may work out to be the best option. Private taxis will pick you up from your accommodation, so you don’t have to head out to the bus station.
Travelling to Cuba: Internet access
A year ago, Cubans had no access to wi-fi and the only options for tourists were either state run internet cafes or expensive wi-fi in upscale hotels. When we visited in March 2016, there were wi-fi hot spots in both Havana and Trinidad, easily identifiable by the large crowds gathered around a nondescript area. To get online, you will need to obtain an Etesca internet access card. Ask around to see where you can buy one – there are Etesca branches located in the major cities, but queues can be long, so be prepared. The official price is CUC$2 an hour but if you purchase through a middle man to skip the queues this can be more expensive. The speed isn’t great, and every now and again the signal may cut out, but you can get online. Booking rooms, activities, tours or flights are best done the old-fashioned way, face to face via your casa owner, a visit to the Cubanacan or Infotur tourism offices or through the telephone.
Travelling to Cuba: Eating out
Supermarkets sell snacks, biscuits and drinks, and you can pick up cheese, sausauges and bread from the local shops. For fresh fruit and vegetables, head to the agropecuaria, or wet market – both CUP and CUC are accepted here. There’s less opportunity to self cater in Cuba, as most rooms at casa don’t come equipped with a kitchenette, however if you’re after a home cooked meal you can and should ask for a dinner or lunch cooked by your casa owner. Of the many meals we had in Cuba, two of the top 3 were the meals eaten at our casas. You can specify what you’d like to be served – one night, tired of the heavy food, we asked for vegetable soup, rice and fried plaintains, and it was one of the freshest, most delicious meals we had throughout our trip. Most casas will also offer breakfast for CUC5 and I recommend you taking them up on the offer, as we had little luck finding many cafes or breakfast appropriate places open in the mornings in Vedado and Havana Centro.
Another option is eating at a paladar, or private restaurant. Usually limited in size and seating, paladars have sprung up like mushrooms all over Cuba especially in Havana. They range in price and quality, and most require a reservation given their small size. Ask your casa owner for recommendations and make sure you book ahead of time.
For those on a budget, you can get peso pizzas or ham and cheese sandwiches from street stalls for about CUC$1. El Rapido is a popular fast food chain selling fried chicken, burgers and chips. Ice-cream is also a local favourite and you can usually get a scoop for under CUC$1 – the most famous ice-cream shop of all is Coppelia, just look out for the queues.
Travelling to Cuba: Challenges
To travel independently to Cuba is to voluntarily sign up for some unique challenges due to the 50 year trade embargo and an economy rooted in communism. For example queuing, for everything, sometimes for a long time, is a fact of life in Cuba. You will join a long, snaking line to change your money, buy an internet access card, buy a bus ticket (but not to board the bus!), sometimes you will even have to wait to enter a shop! Queues are the norm for all Cubans, so join the line – it’s a great opportunity to strike up a conversation with some locals.
The trade embargo means that shortages of goods still exist and you often hear “no hay” when you ask for a specific item off a menu. Where supplies do exist, they can run out. So don’t buy more than you need and don’t waste what you buy, especially food. Escalating prices of goods have locked out some items from ordinary Cuban’s reach, so where possible, make sure you pay the fair price instead of whatever is asked.
Travelling on the road, you’ll notice that seat belts, when they work, aren’t mandatory. Cuban drivers aren’t hell hounds, but road rules tend to be suggestions rather than definite guidelines to be followed. Don’t stress about it – there’s few cars on the road (only 40% of Cubans own a car) and drivers generally don’t speed. The two bus journeys I took with Viazul departed and arrived on time, though boarding was chaotic, there was no assigned seating and a number of people who boarded the bus last had to stand for the journey. The rest stop however, was an absolute pleasure, with clean bathrooms, fresh juices, food and alcohol available.
Above all, when things don’t go your way (and at some point, they won’t because es Cuba), do as the Cubans do and be patient and resourceful.