Every now and then one destination arises throughout the world as the ‘place to visit’. It is pretty safe to say, Latin America is beginning to churn out a lot of these places of late. One of them definitely is Cuba. Probably the most Instagrammable destinations in the world due to its current state, Cuba is embalmed with its Latin-Caribbean blend, colonial mansions, rustic streets and traditional past. If you didn’t know any different you could almost think Cuba has that mythological sense to it.
Cuba has been left alone for years, stuck in time. Due to the revolution and stand off with the United States, Cuba has been isolated from the rest of the world. This has kept things how they were 50 years ago. It really is like going into a movie. What is happening now though, is that these relations are being patched up, and Americans can visit Cuba on special visas since 2015. This has got everyone else thinking, how long will Cuba stay authentic?
Anyway, so Cuba is buzzing at the moment, and travellers are flocking in the worry it will soon be ‘Americanised’ once the USA starts helping out. Think of Puerto Rico now from what it once was, that could be a comparison to make. Cuba is stuck in time and has its original Latin flair. So if you want to go smoke some of the world’s best cigars, drink the best motto’s and revel into traditional Cuban culture, the time is now to go.
Before you do that, take a look at some points I’ve made. It is a reality of how things work there, it isn’t as easy as one might think, especially as a solo traveller. Still, Cuba is fascinating so don’t let any of the difficulties stir you.
Hostels in Havana Only
In Havana if you’re looking for cheap stays, hostels will be the best bet. If you want to book these online, you’ll find that Hostelworld or Booking bizarrely have non to show. Head over to Hostels Club and you will be in luck. You’ll find hostels for as cheap at $10USD per night. The hostels will be a bit different, most of them actually being apartment rooms or extensions to peoples houses with dorm beds. Apart from that though, outside of Havana hostels are practically non existent.
Casa Particulars are places you will stay in and around Cuba if you’re not in fancy hotels or hostels in Havana. They have the same concept as Airbnb; you stay with a family renting out a room. Normally, it is the room you rent, not the bed and this costs around $30USD. So, if you are doing that then try find some travel buddies along the way. Check out one of my Facebook. groups for Cuba to help you out. Also, in case you’re worried about the possibility your belongings getting stolen, don’t. The Cuban government can immediately shut down the casa particular in question if that is the case
Currency, Exchange and ATM Issues
Okay, let me break it down for you. There are two currencies in Cuba. Due to the boom of tourism, the Cuban government introduced CUC, which is tied to the US Dollar. 1 CUC is 1USD give or take. CUP, is the local Cuban pesos that, if you can get your hands on it, you’ll be in for a cheap old time. The further East in Cuba you go, the better your chances. If you speak Spanish or look Latin you’ll have a chance too.
Bizarrely, if you take US Dollars into Cuba you’ll be penalised 10% for exchanging. The best currency to change is EURO’s, Canadian Dollars, Pound and Mexican Pesos. As for using ATM’s, MasterCard’s are not recommended even though sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. You can go into a bank and exchange, but ATM’s are temperamental. Take cash and use an international bankcard that allows ATM Withdraws. Official currency is CUC.
Tourists = $
The Cubans aren’t dumb, they know why we are here. More so, they know we may have the luxury of having an amount of money however big or small, to which some of them will want. I was walking down a street in Old Havana, when I asked to kick a group of teenagers football. One of them shouted “para un dollar”. I was shocked and saw more cases of this even when travellers were asking for directions. Saying that, not all locals will be after your money, but if you have some that are hanging around you longer than expected, be wary.
Basically the government controls the internet usage. If you want to get online, you’ll need to purchase wifi cards at ETESCA centres, costing around 2cuc per hour. Queues are normally long and slow. Bring your I.D and cash. Then after that, you’ll be able to get online via wifi parks and spots. It’s really old school, but many treat Cuba as a digital detox.
Latin America is a bit laid back, and Cuba isn’t the country that will be changing that way of life anytime soon. Things happen when they happen here. Queues seem to be everywhere in Cuba from supermarkets to banks. No-one really cares or has any urgency. It can be a frustration, but that is just the way it is. Bring your patience.
Cubans speak very little English as a whole, so for this one you’ll have to know some Spanish or chances are you’ll be ripped off. Take a pocket handbook and learn some phrases as it will go a long way in comparison of knowing nothing at all. Cuba isn’t the easiest place to travel otherwise.
There are many and that’s what attracts us! First of all, the classic vintage cars are everywhere and not just limited to one spot. You can hire these cards for a novelty ride or take a taxi in them. The latter will cost more than a more modern imported car. The car shells are still 50+ years old, but inside you’ll find air conditioned and a fully modern electrical system.
The cigars are the best in the world here, but make sure you either get the official ones from registered stores or actual tobacco farms. You may get approached on the street to buy cigars for cheaper but normally they are fake, often made of banana leaf rather than tobacco.
La Bodeguita Del Medio is a famous bar in Old Havana that is featured in the movie Miami Vice. Barack Obama recently visited too. Drink ‘the worlds best mojito’s’ whilst enjoy a quirky small setting, with Latin music acts often adding to the bustling vibe here. Just like here, Floridita was famously visited by Hemingway, a famous novel writer. Just down the road, this place is popular too.
It Ain’t All Yanks
Giving everyone seems to be rushing to Cuba before it gets in the clutches of the United States, right now in latter of 2016, it isn’t flooded with American tourists, YET. Right now, you’ll find many Germans, including families and also lots of tour groups from Italy.
Comida y Beber
The typical Latin American meals, meat rice and salad are no different in Cuba. You can get pizza slices, ham sandwiches and burgers, but really there isn’t much variety. Try ‘Ropa Vieja’ though, it means old clothes but doesn’t taste like them! Shredded beef and brown rice, delicious!
As for alcohol, the main bars in Havana, Mojito’s will be 5CUC. However, street drinks you can get these for 2CUC, beers for 1.50 CUC and well you get the picture. Stores too, they sell bottles of Havana Rum for as cheap as 7CUC. That’s a litre, so pre-drinks maybe worth it!
Appreciate that you are seeing a country stuck in time and unaffected by the rest of the world. That even resembles in your safety too. Cubans haven’t been exposed to wanting modern technology or materials yet, so really they don’t care for what you have. After speaking with some locals in my broken Spanish, it is clear they want change and progression. For them, it is time to make money and for them to also have modern elements of todays world that most other nations enjoy. The locals are friendly, inquisitive and above all else patient.
It Looks Real Rough
Parts of Cuba can look real run-down. I’m talking like comparison to some of your worst neighbourhoods. Normally, that would bring a bad vibe to its environs and you would think bad things would happen. It’s a stark contrast though, you will get looked at as a foreigner and all your senses are telling you that you’re in a bad spot, but nothing ever seems to materialise. I think the fear from the locals is there, that if tourists get messed up, change will never happen for them.
The Triangle of Trips
If you’re on a quick trip to Cuba, many people tend to stick to the West. Havana, Vinales and Trinidad are the ‘triangle of trips’ that many take and tour operators promote. You get to sample Havana’s Old Town, the rural Vinales and the Caribbean-colonial approach in Trinidad. This wouldn’t be a bad start to visiting Cuba for the first time.