“Hey, didn’t you just get back from Cuba?
Wow, it looks so pretty, and I just love the colors and the retro vibes. It’s like a step back into time. I would love to visit someday!”
Cuba is one of those destinations that everyone claims is on their bucket list, but somehow, always gets postponed in favor of a road-trip across the USA or a shopping spree all over Europe.
Let me apologize in advance for being the "bucket-list" spoiler;
Because Cuba, in our opinion was one of the most "misrepresented" destinations we’d ever been to.
Many tourists (most, in fact) who visit Cuba post colorful (heavily edited) pictures of colonial buildings, the vintage American cars, beautiful tobacco fields, and rave about the retro vibes.
They don’t tell you about the annoying touts, the scams, the tourist traps, the tired worn-down buildings, the sad plight of the locals, and how poorly the country is run, nothing.
All you hear is, “It was an amazing trip! You should be there!”
Don’t get us wrong, Cuba is beautiful, and certainly one of the more interesting countries we’ve visited. We enjoyed ourselves and were overwhelmed by the Cuban culture, the music, its history, and the hospitality of our hosts.
Perhaps "misrepresented" is too strong a word. But that impression that you have in your head based on what you’ve seen on Instagram? Well, it’s nothing like that.
Now, more on the side of Cuba that no one wants to talk about at the end of this post. But for those of you who are set on Cuba as your next vacation destination? Here are 25 things you’ll need know before you go.
1. Forget About Being Connected.
WIFI, or the lack of it. This, is perhaps the single biggest stumbling block most Singaporeans will face.
I use an outdated iPhone 6 (it's 2019 now and iPhone XS is the in-thing), and can't really care less about being connected, but yes, it was painful, even for me.
Talk about a step back in time. For years, access to the internet was restricted and controlled by the Cuban government. Today, WIFI is available in certain spots in the country. To use the internet, you’ll have to search for a “WIFI Zone” and share that connection with a hundred other people.
You’ll first queue between 30mins to an hour for the right to purchase WIFI cards, not more than 3 cards per person. The cards cost 5 CUC for 3 cards of 1 hour each or 5 CUC for 1 card of 5 hours each. You then take a coin and scratch off the back of the card for the password. Scratch too hard and the numbers will come off as well. Now your card’s useless. Our suggestion? Ask the guy at the WIFI shop to scratch it off for you. No prices for guessing, but connection isn’t that great.
Oh, and I haven't come to the bad part. If you forget, or don't know how to log off after you're done, anyone within close proximity to you can steal whatever minutes are left on your WIFI card.
2. Download Maps.Me/Google Translate Before You Arrive
(A typical Retro Cuban convertible/taxi)
Because of the lack of WIFI, forget about google maps. Instead, download Maps.Me, a great offline map that’s just as accurate. We’ve used Maps.Me all over the world, from Lebanon, to Zimbabwe, to Ukraine, and now in Cuba; it’s never failed us.
Unless you studied Spanish, you’ll have to rely on sign language or screenshot pictures in your phone if you want to communicate with the locals. The easier way? Google Translate. It certainly helps when taking taxis.
3. What Are The "Must Have" Experiences?
Take up horse riding in Vinales, the tobacco region of Cuba. You can also be a farmer for a day at one of the many tobacco farms and learn to roll and smoke your own cigars.
Cuban music & dance is considered one of the richest and most influential music genres of the world. Learn Salsa, or watch a local Cuban music performance while enjoying a swig of Havana Club.
Soak up the “old world” feel in Trinidad and Havana. Get yourself lost in a maze of old colorful colonial buildings or pay to be ferried around in a typical Cuban convertible.
Visit the Revolution Museum to learn about the Cuban Missile Crisis, their falling out with the USA, Communism, and discover how all these events led up to Cuba being what they are today. With the fascinating history that Cuba has, you don't have to be the “museum type” to find the Revolution Museum interesting.
Stay with one of the English speaking locals in a traditional Cuban home, have a chat with them and be puzzled on how they survive on a salary, the equivalent of 40 USD a month. You’ll discover a side of Cuba not seen in Instagram.
4. I Have 1 week In Cuba, Where Are The 'Must Go’s"?
We would suggest 2 days in Trinidad (colonial town), 2 days in Vinales (tobacco hills, caves, countryside), 2 days in Havana (Instagram City), 1 day in Varadero (beaches)
5. Which Countries Can I Combine Cuba With?
(Left, Mexico. Right, Miami)
The most flights to Cuba are from Cancun (Mexico) and Miami (USA). These destinations are also the cheapest to fly into.
6. Queues, A Singaporean Pastime
Singaporeans will love this. Because of our experience in queuing for Hello Kitty toys, the latest iPhone, dim sum, bubble tea, and shopping discounts, there’s no nationality in the world that has better queuing credentials than we do.
In Cuba, you too can expect to queue for the most ridiculous things. There are 30min queues for the money exchange, to purchase WIFI, and even to enter a supermarket to buy water.
The source of the queue? Well, they have this weird practice of limiting the number of people that can enter a shop. You and your wife plan on exchanging money? Only one of you is allowed to enter, the other has to wait outside.
7. Take Cash, Forget Cards
("Mural de la Prehistoria", one of the biggest tourist traps in Vinales together with the "Indian Caves". Unimpressive and not worth the entrance fees)
Have a $50,000 limit on your swanky American Express Card? That's useless. And that goes for Visa and Master cards as well.
ATMs exist, but we’d suggest carrying all the cash you need for your trip on you to save time. Cuba is safe enough.
8. Get Everything Done At The Airport (WIFI/Exchange Money)
(The Malecon in Havana. It's a great way to spend the evening strolling along the by the sea, watching the locals fish)
If you don’t want to waste a couple of ours queuing for WIFI or to exchange money, it’s best to do these couple of things at the airport.
There are seldom queues as the rate isn’t that great. But it sure beats queuing for hours under the hot Cuban sun.
9. Welcome To One Of The Worst Airports Ever
We've been to airports all over the world; and yes, we can conclude that the airport procedures in Cuba, are among the worst.
The airport officials in Cuba haven’t got a clue that Singaporeans don’t need a Visa.
We had our travel documents printed out even in Spanish to prove we didn’t require a visa, had already purchased accommodation, flights out of the country, and basically knew what we were doing. Still they confiscated our passports and proceeded to question us for the next 30mins in an authoritarian like manner. This happened each time we entered and exited Cuba.
Imagine if we didn’t print out our documents.
When we were leaving Havana, the same immigration official who let "The Girl" through a minute ago stopped me, asking me why I didn't have a Cuban Visa. Which made me wonder, why did they let her through then? We're carrying the same passport aren't we? And why would they even let us in to begin with only to ask why I didn't require a Visa when I was leaving?
10. One Country, Two Currencies
(The stereotypical colorful streets of Havana)
Tourist have to use CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso, 1 USD = 1CUC), and the locals use CUP (Cuban National Peso, 1 CUC = 24 CUP).
If you eat in the cheaper local establishments like we did, be prepared to get back CUP as change. You can still use it, but it’s just a little more work on the accounting part.
11. Don’t Bring USD Unless You Want To Be Taxed
Cuba and the USA have some bad blood with each other. Exchange USD and expect to get a terrible exchange plus get hit with an additional 10% tax.
For the best exchange rate, bring Euros or Sterling Pounds. Cuba prefers Europeans.
12. Don’t Book Tours In Advance
(Cuba has some pretty nice beaches)
Like Bangkok, everything can be negotiated in Cuba. It’s best to just show up and haggle the prices down. If you stay with a local, they’ll do the necessary arrangements for you.
13. Scam City
Traveling alone? Look out for the "Friendship Scam" where some random people come up to you, act extremely friendly, show you the best places for lunch or drinks, sit and dine with you, then leave you to pick up the bill.
The "Salsa Festival". Many people will tell you how lucky you are that you arrived in Cuba on the biggest Salsa Festival of the year and try to sell you tickets to them. You then arrive at some dancing school or club for lessons, they get a commission, and they disappear.
"Fake Taxi". A taxi always sounds like a good alternative after hours under the Cuban sun. If you don’t negotiate the price beforehand, be prepared for a shock.
Just don’t buy any cigars or entertain any touts on the street. The only thing worth buying is probably a hat if you haven’t got one because of the blistering heat.
14. Don’t Buy Cigar’s In Havana
The government of Cuba makes it mandatory for tobacco farms to contribute 90% of their produce to the government. These cigars are then packed into a nice humidor, with a great packaging and exorbitant price tag. The farms earn peanuts and the government takes the cash. These cigars from the government are blended with chemicals for preservation.
If you plan to take them home, you don’t have much of a choice. But for the experience of simply enjoying a Cuban Cigar on vacation? Just get it from the tobacco farms for 10 times lesser. 4 CUC for a Montecristo.
15. Best Time Of The Year To Visit Cuba
The best time is between Mid-November to March when it’s cooler. May to June is the wet season, and July to Early November is hurricane season.
16. The Fortress, The Tourist Trap
This is perhaps the largest tourist trap in all of Havana. At 9pm every night, a cannon will fire from the old fortress of Havana. Not 9 times, but just 1 time. Bang! And that’s the end of it.
It costs 8 CUC to get a taxi to the fortress, 8 CUC to get back, and 8 CUC for the entrance fee. All for a “bang”. And no, while the views from the fortress are alright, in no way is this value for money. Still, if you’ve never heard a cannon fire, please, visit this and don’t let me discourage you.
17. Budget Autos
One of the key must do’s for anyone visiting Havana is to experience being driven around in on of the many colorful retro convertibles.
Most of them are available at near the Capitol at Parque Central in between Centro and Old Havana, and cost 30 CUC for a an hours drive. If you’re traveling in 4, that’s still affordable. But if you’re traveling alone, 30 CUC is painful.
Ignore the fleet of cars at Parque Central and walk toward the Museum of the Revolution. Just 5mins walk off the main square of Parque Central, you’ll find be able to get prices at just 20 CUC instead, that’s like 30% less!
18. Where To Stay In Cuba?
(For the next few points, I’ll be using Havana and Vinales as a reference point because price wise, they are the 2 extremes of touristy cities in Cuba. Remember, 1 CUC = 1 USD)
Give hotels a miss in Cuba and go onto booking.com or Airbnb to stay in a local Casa (home). These Casa’s are furnished with air-conditioning, WIFI, clean beds, private toilets and even a hair dryer for the ladies. Part of the Cuban experience is living with a local and waking up the next morning for a Cuban breakfast.
By staying in Casa’s, you not only get a more authentic experience, but you also support to locals who earn a pittance of 20 – 60 CUC a month and save yourself money at the same time.
In Old Havana, the main tourist area is Obispo Street. Stay near there because that’s where all the action is, together with the money exchange, supermarkets, and WIFI shop.
In Vinales, stay near the “Cathederal”. That’s where the main area of Vinales is. There are hundreds of Casa’s within 5-10mins walking distance from the street.
19. An Alcoholic’s Paradise