Travelling to Cuba? What my experience taught me.

Travelling to Cuba? What my experience taught me.

A World to Live

Hey, my name is Elyse, I’m Australian and after growing up in Melbourne I currently live on the Gold Coast and working in the airline industry. Work – Save – Travel – Repeat! That’s basically become my lifestyle over the past few years.

Cuba was somewhere that I had a strong urge to travel to and once the idea was in my head I needed to get there as soon as I could. I think once the U.S. travel restrictions begun to ease, I was worried they’d start to influence the Cuban culture & I’d get there to see a McDondalds on every corner. This, thankfully, isn’t at all the case. Apart from some Adidas T-Shirt’s and a bit of American music playing, the western ways haven’t taken over the Cuban. We experienced a country that is full of life, love, rhythm and colour.

When thinking back to our time in Cuba the one thing that sticks out the most is how friendly and helpful the locals are, from randomly welcoming us to their country while walking down the streets of Havana, to booking accommodation and transport for us. Majority of people in Cuba speak Spanish and I speak very little Spanish but it was never an issue because everyone took the time needed for us to understand each other!

We spent 10 nights in Cuba and on arrival only had the first two nights booked with just a rough idea of where we wanted to go. I personally think this is the best way to do, giving you plenty of flexibility with where to go & what do to. I promise it’s really easy to get around.

Before I get into detail about where we went, I want to share with you some tips that my experience taught me & will hopefully help you with your Cuban adventures.

Airport: We departed from Cancun airport on a direct flight to Havana. Obtaining a Cuban visa at the airport was super easy. As soon as we joined the check in queue we were approached by staff asking if we required a visa. We did and it was just a matter of him filling in our passport details on the visa form and paying the required fee. Payment could only be made in cash, we paid one in Canadian dollars, $30CAD and another in U.S dollars and that was $20 USD.

On arrival into Havana, after you have cleared customs, there’s a security screening point you’ll need to clear, then baggage collection. We may have just got them on a sleepy day but there’s actually arrival forms that need to be filled out, at no point were these handed out. When we were waiting for our luggage I noticed that heaps of people from our flight were being turned away at the exit and going back to security. I went over to ask and they pull out a form from under their desk that everyone needs to fill out. I guess we needed to read minds that day haha.

Money: Cuba has a two currency system, the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUP is worth 25 times more than the CUC and as a tourist you’ll be using CUC. Before arriving in Cuba I was slightly confused by the two currency system but basically tourist only deal with CUC and I was only ever quoted and charged in CUC.

Only limited currencies can be exchanged in Cuba, the two that generally have the best exchange rate are Euro and Canadian Dollar. You can exchange U.S. Dollars in Cuba but will incur a 10% penalty fee. There are ATM’s, but they aren’t widely available. We had taken Canadian dollars. When exiting the airport terminal, turn left and there are currency exchanges there.

Opposite the money exchange is a taxi rank, to Old Town Havana we paid $25CUC. Everyone was pretty consistent, charging between 25-30CUC.

Accommodation: Our first two night’s we had pre-booked at Hostel Peregrino, in their Old Town property. From there we started our un-planned adventures; the staff at Peregrino were really helpful. We told them roughly where we wanted to go and they gave us their advice and what would be they most cost effective route to take. We took their advice & within a couple of minutes they’d called a couple of their friends and our Viñales transport and accommodation was all sorted.

We stayed in Casas along the way, rooms in locals homes that they rent out to tourist like us. I chose this over staying in hotels because I figured you can stay in hotels anywhere in the world, I wanted a much more authentic Cuban experience. Also staying in Casas is much cheaper, rooms ranged from 20-40CUC per night. It’s also very flexible, as you can book at short notice and no deposit is required. Some advice we were given at the beginning of our trip was to always book the minimum nights we’d stay opposed to our maximum. Then if we wanted to leave earlier or just didn’t like the room, it would never be an issue.

Booking a room was never an issue; our house owner always had a friend or knew of someone that had a room at our next stop and they’d always be more than happy to call and book for us. We also had the Lonely Planet guide that listed recommended Casas.

Transport: Buses run between all major towns and cities all over Cuba. Prices start at 10CUC per person and the most we paid was 40CUC per person, which was between Trinidad and Varadero.

Tickets for the bus only need to be booked the day before you wish to travel, but we booked on the day once and it wasn’t an issue.

If you’re not feeling the idea of a busy bus, there’s also the option of a taxi. Taxis will go to all the same places & if full, they’ll charge each person the same price as a bus ticket would cost. You can organise the taxi door to door as well, this is great if you’ve had your next casa booked for you and you don’t really have any idea of where it’s located. In my experience it was only about 3CUC per person more than the bus would have been.

The first trip we did in a taxi was from Havana to Viñales. It was door to door and we were lucky that the car wasn’t full so we had plenty of space. It was air conditioned and probably saved us about 30 minutes in travel time. So no complaints there…

Our next journey was from Viñales to Trinidad costing us 40CUC each opposed to 37CUC on the bus. The first two hours were great, only 3 passengers in the car & had air con. We had settled in nicely for our 7 hour drive. Then we pulled over at a restaurant on the side of the highway & were changed into another car. Our first driver lived in Viñales, so needed to go back home. It was still only the 3 of us in the car but there was no air conditioning & the back windows didn’t go down. The mid-day sun was beaming in & it was becoming a sweat box!Then about 1.5 hours out of Trinidad we pulled over again, along with two other cars and they shuffled everyone around. We were then in a full car with no air con and very little space in the back seat. We were well over it by the end and wouldn’t consider getting a taxi again. The only benefit was door to door service.

Food & Drink: I had heard terrible things about the food in Cuba but I really enjoyed everything I ate, just the simple chicken, rice & beans was never a disappointment. Don’t be surprised though if you’re handed a 5 page menu and only a handful of things are available. I’m sure over time this will keep improving; with more small business opening up this will only give people the opportunity to try new things.

A piece of advice that was given to me before coming to Cuba was to bring some snacks, muesli bars, nuts or whatever, as these little things are hard to come by. I’m so glad we did, especially when we stopped at a petrol station during our 7hr drive to Trinidad & all that was for sales was ice cream, mayonnaise & alcohol. Huh?!?

Cuban’s make some amazing cocktails and will top up the alcohol content until your satisfied!! Prices generally ranged from 3-6CUC. My favourite was the mojito but a true Cuban cocktail is a Canchanchara. To be honest it wasn’t very nice but gave a good buzz. I loved Cuban beer too, Bucanero & Cristal…. Mmm I miss Cuba. Beer prices were 1.50-2.50CUC.

Shopping: Cuba isn’t somewhere you’d go to shop but in tourist areas it’s easy to find shops and markets. Selling the typical T-shirts, bags, fridge magnet’s etc, as well as some beautiful art work. If you were after some Cuban Cigars, we were told to never buy these off the street as generally they would be fakes.

Internet: Believe it or not there is internet in Cuba! You’ll need to purchase an internet card; on the back you’ll find the login details and there are Wi-Fi hotspots in most big hotels (not at Casas or Hostels) and in public areas. You’ll always be able to tell when you are in a public hot spot because suddenly they’ll be a large number of people on their phones. The cards last for 1 hours and we’d pay between 2-5CUC, depending on who was selling it. The internet was very slow though and regularly cut out. I recommend taking a Lonely Planet guide with you, it helped us out a lot, especially when google wasn’t available.

Medicine & Toiletries: Everything you think you’ll need, take with you. Cuba doesn’t have supermarkets or corner stores that sell things like sunscreen, Panadol, tampons or moisturiser so buying things like this is near impossible! Save your energy and come prepared.

Cuba is a slow paced country with so much to offer. Be open to things being possibly a little bit different to what you’re used to and I’m sure you’ll find the beauty & uniqueness something to really admire.

For a run down of our itinerary click here.

I hope my Cuba “tips” help you out and please share this blog with anyone you know heading to Cuba.

Que Tengas Buen Viaje.

streets of Havana Cuba
Viñales, Cuba, Accomodation
Old cars in the streets of Havana, Cuba
bell tower trinidad cuba
Havana, Cuba. Street sign
Cuba, Viñales Valley


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