Planning A Vacation To Cuba? Well, I Suggest You Read This First.
“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I use an outdated iPhone 6 (it's 2019 now and iPhone XS is the in-thing), and can't really care less about being connected, but yes, it was painful, even for me.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
I would consider myself more of a "beer guy". But in Cuba, I barely touched a drop of beer (well, maybe just one glass) because the local cocktails and rum was so cheap.
Enjoy Pina Colada’s, Daiquiri’s, Mojito’s, Cuba Libra from 2 – 6 CUC in Havana, and 1- 3 CUC in Vinales. Let’s just say any of these drinks would have cost 15 -30 SGD at a restaurant in Singapore.
I had probably 10 drinks a day and that, is in no way an exaggeration!
20. How Much Does A Meal Cost?
We’ll use Havana as a reference point because that’s the most expensive city in Cuba. Still a meal even in Havana can be really cheap. At one of the local establishments, we paid 0.75 CUC for a large pizza and 0.25 CUC for a glass of fruit juice. That’s like 1 USD for a meal!
In most other proper restaurants in Havana, a main course of chicken costs from 5 CUC, fish from 6 CUC, and Lobster from 8 CUC and up. Add in drinks, and you’ll expect to spend 10 CUC per meal per person in Cuba.
Vinales is much cheaper and you can get pasta from 1.5 CUC and chicken from 3 CUC. If you want a coke for instance, remember there are 2 classifications; local soft drinks and international soft drinks. Both are coke, with the exception of one being made in Cuba and the other, the original coke at 2 times the price.
To save money yet get to enjoy good Cuban food at the same time, we shared a 1 CUC meal of pizza and fruit juice to fill up part of our belly’s then shared a proper meal at a restaurant. Same experience, half the price.
21. Is Cuba Safe?
It’s very safe. We felt zero danger vibes.
I would be comfortable with "The Girl" traveling here on her own. To put things in perspective, in Africa, we would likely be back in our hotel room by 8pm, or at least in a place where we could easily get a taxi back. In Cuba, “The Girl” and I were still walking about at midnight looking for a bar to drink.
22. (For Some) Cuba Is Not An Easy Place To Enjoy
A typical Singaporean used to everything running smoothly, having WIFI on hand and experienced no real language barriers in previous trips, will struggle to enjoy Cuba.
If your travel experience is limited to vacations in Europe, Japan, or all-inclusive resorts in the Maldives, I’m not so sure if you’re ready for Cuba.
Forget that perception of Cuba that was conjured by Instagram or Facebook, and you’ll enjoy your day a little more.
23. Getting Around Cuba. Transport Prices.
A taxi to from the Jose Marti Airport to Old Havana will cost 25 CUC. If your visiting Trinidad, it’ll cost you at least 80 CUC from Santa Clara Airport.
To get around Havana, you can expect to pay between 5 -10 CUC for a taxi ride.
Buses are the cheapest form of transport from city to city. A bus from Havana to Vinales for instance, could cost 10 CUC.
Collectivo (Shared Taxi)
Collectivo’s are the sweet spot. They pick you up right at your doorstep, and drop you off exactly where you need to go. Think of it as “Grabshare”. “The Girl” and I got a collectivo for 20 CUC each from Havana to Vinales. It’s more convenient than the bus and way less expensive than a private taxi.
24. Am I Expected To Tip? Do I Need A Visa/Tourist Card
Yes, a tip of 10-15% is expected in Cuba. Small gifts like toiletries, toothbrushes, crayons, pencils and slippers for the locals would be appreciated even more than tips because they are not readily available in Cuba. Even if the locals wanted them, it was cost an arm and a leg.
Some travel blogs tell you to set aside $20 USD for a "tourist card" on arrival to Cuba. That's no longer applicable to Singaporeans and we didn't pay a cent. We validated this with other Singaporean friends who also visited Cuba in 2019.
25. Expectation Setting
The truth is, Cuba is so much more than colorful colonial houses, retro cars and cigars.
Don’t arrive in Cuba with the standards you'd expect in Singapore or on your European vacations.
Forget about how processes run in a developed world, forget about WIFI, guaranteed air-conditioning or even hot water. If you do get these luxuries, or whenever processes run according to what you’d expect them to do, it’s a bonus.
If you don’t, “Welcome to Cuba”. And yes, Cuba is a communist country.
Under the guise of heavily edited pictures, Cuba is pretty. The truth is, Cuba has been “mis-represented” by Instagram.
Up close, the balconies are lopsided. The paint is peeling, and the roads are filled with huge portholes. And no, the Cuban government isn't trying to maintain the “back in time look” for the sake of the tourist dollar. The country is just obviously cash strapped; its buildings and streets are in dire need of "refurbishing", but the government doesn't seem to care.
Violent crime, Cuba is free of; but scams are aplenty.
The old Cuban cars so popular with tourists actually cost more than many new cars in Singapore and are really tough to maintain. The eternal façade of the cars are colorful, shiny and look great in pictures. On the inside? It resembles more of a cannibalized Toyota.
And majority of that 30 CUC you pay? It doesn’t go to the driver, who painstakingly maintained it so you could get a picture and a ride, it goes to his bosses, a single corporation who owns all the convertibles.
With the exception of taxi drivers and some others in the tourism industry, most locals earn an average of 40 CUC a month as dictated by the government. In the countryside, the farmers are forced to give 90% of their tobacco back to the government, leaving a miserly 10% for themselves.
As I puffed on my "farm bought" Cuban cigar, I wondered, “how good is tourism for Cuba? Who’s actually getting the money?” With more and more tourists pouring in, it a means a higher standard of living but not necessarily higher wages for the locals. I don’t know about you, but in 2019, I’d say that earning the equivalent of 40 USD a month is not a life I’d want.
We’re not trying to discourage anyone from visiting Cuba, but simply to embrase the side of Cuba that hasn’t been represented well. After writing such a long post, we’d just like to say that Cuba is a fantastic place to visit with certainly one of the more interesting, thought provoking pasts behind it.
Please visit Cuba, but go, as a blank sheet of paper, and not with misguided expectations.