Cuba is undoubtedly fascinating, surprising and totally different than any other country in the World. My purpose was to see real Cuba, before everything will change and become too “Americanized”. As a solo female traveler, I had faced many difficulties while backpacking around Cuba. It can be a hassle to travel by your own, however if you want to experience real and authentic Cuba, there are some essential information might clear things up for you.
1. Wifi access
If you are looking for a place on the Earth to disconnect with the world and do digital detox, Cuba is definetally a place to be. Internet access in Cuba is still restricted and controlled by the government. There are public Wi-Fi hotspots, usually on the ”plazas”, where you can connect your device via the ETECSA hotspot. First you have to buy a prepaid ETECSA card, which are provide at ETECSA offices and hotels. An hour internet access costs $2 and you are allow to buy 3 cards at once.
2. Eat in local ”paladares”
Paladares are basically family-run restaurants, where you can experience real, homemade cuban food and be surrounded by local people. In 1990, the government-authorized paladares as a way for citizens to earn extra money. However, the limitations regarding the amount of seats for customers, the type of food to offer and number of hired employees were very restricted. Fortunately, everything changed after 2002, when reforms introduced by Cuban President Raúl Castro led to the exponential growth of such places. In paladares, the food is always good, fresh and at the same time, you are supporting the local businesses.
3. Be patient
Things rarely run on time in Cuba. This is the country to slow down and stay patient. When your taxi is late, local bus didn’t show up, ATM machine doesn’t want to work or you have to queue for 30 minutes to get your internet access card, stay calm and practice your equanimity.
4. Learn Spanish
Practice your Spanish skills as soon as possible before traveling to Cuba. You will safe your money, time and energy. Lots of Cuban speak English, however knowledge of some basic Spanish will make your life easier, especially in the countryside. During backpacking trip you will have plenty of opportunities to interact with the locals and it is always nice to communicate in their language. There is nothing more exciting like sit at the one table with local family in the casa de particular and chat with them about history, food and traditions.
5. Two currencies in Cuba
There are two currencies in Cuba: CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) and CUP (Cuban National Pesos).
The most likely currency use by tourists in Cuba is CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). For exchange purpose the CUC is pegged 1:1 to the US dollar. The second one is CUP (Cuban National Pesos), which is not common among tourists. However, when you are independently traveler, be prepare to have some CUP’s in your pocket. If you want to eat like a Cuban, use local buses, taxi collectivos or buy products at local markets, you have to pay in CUP’s.
Due to the fact that there two currencies, which look very similar to each other, it is very likely to be tricked by Cubans. It is common that locals give tourists change in CUP’s, instead of CUC’s. When you do shopping, be aware when you are receiving your change and always count your money.
6. Money exchange
Cuban currency is not a world trade, so you can’t buy it in your country, only in Cuba. The best rate currency to exchange in Cuba are British Pounds and Euros. I would not recommend bring with you U.S dollars, because you will be charged 10% an extra fee in exchange office. Also to avoid paying extra fees in Cuban ATM, take as much money in cash as you can. Every ATM transaction incurs a 3% a foreign exchange charge, so having a cash for your all trip is a great money-saving option.
If you want to get the best currency exchange rate, you should look for CADECA offices, which are located at every city around the Cuba. Also, when you want to exchange your CUC’s into CUP’s, this is the best option for you. However, be prepare to wait in the long line, because this is a place used by locals and tourists. Remember that the worst currency rate can be at your hotel or resort because the currency rate is not regulated by the government.
7. Inform your bank that you are traveling to Cuba
It is essential to inform your bank about your upcoming trip to Cuba and exactly dates of entry and exit. If you want to avoid being caught without cash in Cuba, ensure you have plenty of ways to access your money. Contact your financial institution about using your credit cards in Cuba.
8. Use of debit or credit cards
The debit and credit card payment infrastructure in Cuba is still not a widely developed area.
The card payment infrastructure and travellers’ cheques are still not accepted in Cuba, if associated with US or Australian banks. The only exception is a U.S bank called Stonegate Bank from Florida, which recently started to cooperate with the Cuban government. Their card service do work in Cuba and every transaction incurs a 3% a foreign fee.
If your financial institution is located outside of US, you will have an access to your money at every ATM machine around Cuba. The most likely places to accept your cards are hotels and tourist attractions, all other places you will need cash.
9. Download your offline map
Having an offline map in your phone or iPad, before reaching Cuba is crucial. I would recommend Galileo Offline Map or Maps.me, which are designed for offline use. Both maps are very fast, showing almost every street and marks your best destinations. They are very useful and convenient, specially for Cuba, where Internet access is limited.
10. Use taxi colectivo
While traveling around Cuba, you have lots of options to safe your money on transportation. Taxi colectivo is definitely one of them. It is a simply share taxi, which stops to pick up or drop off passengers around the city and local routes. In this case, your Spanish skills and sense of direction will be very helpful here.
Don’t expect everything to be perfect and clear in Cuba. Lot’s of visitors have to deal with struggles and misunderstandings. However, Cuba is unique and world’s most unforgettable travel destination. It is like no place on Earth, rich with history, music, dance and alegria de vivir, as the local would say.