Cuba is the destination on everyone’s lips at the moment. And with more and more direct routes from the U.S. opening up, getting there is easier than ever. But, before you start your flight search (at Cheapflights.com, of course), there are some things that make this island pretty different to any other destination. Take a look at these 14 things you should know before you go…Search for flights to Cuba
It’s normal to exchange money at the airport
Thou shalt not exchange money at an airport. It’s one of the commandments of sensible traveling, because airport exchange rates are always stratospheric. However, in Cuba, you don’t really have a choice, since you can’t buy Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) outside of the country. There are two currency conversion booths directly outside the terminal building – one on the right of the exit doors and one on the left – and they offer exchange rates that mirror those in the rest of the country, so you don’t have to worry about getting ripped off.
Exchange rates rocket in hotels
Unlike the airports, hotels take the Scrooge route when it comes to setting exchange rates. It’s easy and convenient to swap currency in a hotel, but you’ll get more for your money if you make the effort to leave the air conditioned comfort of the lobby and wander down the road to find a cadeca (change bureau). The exchange rates in all cadecas are identical.
Baggage reclaim takes time
The baggage reclaim hall at Jose Marti International Airport shares its philosophy with the old adage, “good things come to those who wait.” Don’t be surprised if you find yourself waiting a good half hour or more for your luggage. Pop a hand fan in your carry-on, as it can get a bit hot in there too.
Cash machines can sometimes run dry
Cash machines don’t always live up to their names in Cuba. In towns like Trinidad, on the south part of the island, it’s not uncommon for cash machines to run out of bills.
You can’t always get hold of Coca-Cola
Despite a key ingredient of a Cuba Libre being Coca-Cola, you can’t always get Coke in Cuba. Big hotels are likely to stock it, but smaller guest houses and bars still sometimes struggle to get stocks of the sparkly caffeinated stuff.
Some stores are not open to tourists
Looking to buy a quick bottle of water or snack? It’s not always that simple in Cuba, especially once you get outside Havana. In places like Cienfuegos, on the south coast of the island, you’ll find a number of shops that look like grocery stores or kiosks that don’t serve tourists. These red herring stores are actually ration shops. Every Cuban is entitled to buy rations of certain groceries, like rice and bread, at cut prices. Only locals can shop in these stores.
It’s not easy to connect to the internet
The internet isn’t on tap in Cuba, like it is in the U.S. You can only access Wi-Fi in hotspots. There are hotspots in most of the big Cuban cities now. One can be found on the steps of the Casa De La Musica in Trinidad, while another can be found outside the salsa club in Vinales. To access a hotspot, you need to buy a pre-paid internet card from telecommunication provider ETESCA. There are offices across the country. A card entitling you to an hour’s Wi-Fi will cost two CUCs. There’s also a library in Havana that offers dial-up internet for around $6 an hour.
Expect a language barrier (if you don’t speak Spanish)
Spanish is the official language in Cuba, and, while folks at the larger hotels in Havana typically have fluency in English, if you stay at private casas or travel outside Havana, communication may be more of a challenge. Learn a few words and phrases in Spanish before you go, or download a translation app that works offline. If all else fails, be friendly and smile and you will stumble amiably over the language barrier and make a few new friends in the process.
You’re not allowed an early night
There’s no fighting for your right to party in Cuba. No matter how good your intentions are, it’s almost impossible to have an early night. Pop into El Floridita in Havana to sample a daiquiri and somehow you’ll find yourself staying for another – to watch the salsa band play its last few songs, for example. My advice – pop a packet of Pro Plus in your luggage.
The Che Guevara Mausoleum is closed on Mondays
I made the mistake of visiting the Che Guevara Memorial in Santa Clara on a Monday. Yes, you can still get up close to the sculptures and statues, and the symbolism of the site still knocks you right between the eyes, but you can’t get inside the museum on Mondays.
Exchanging CUCs back to dollars or pounds isn’t always easy on the way home
While it’s pretty straightforward to exchange your dollars, euros and pounds for CUCs on your way into Cuba, changing your CUCs back again isn’t always as successful. On my last trip I had roughly $25 worth of CUCs that I wanted to swap back, but when I got to the change bureaus inside the departures hall they had run out of both dollars, euros and pounds. I just haaaad to spend my remaining CUCs on rum in the airport shop…
It’s compulsory to salsa
I’d expected to find silos of salsa in Cuba. I’d pictured it penned-in to salsa schools and certain clubs. But the fact is that the country is splitting at its seams with the dance form. It’s everywhere. The driver who took me back to the airport had his favorite salsa tracks blasting out of the radio and he was doing his own form of seat salsa. Because of this passion for the dance, you can’t go to a club without someone trying to teach you how to do it. Standing on the toes of a well-meaning instructor (male or female) is an initiation into the country.
You need to take change to the toilets with you
Spending a penny isn’t just a euphemism in Cuba. Most toilets are presided over by attendants who hand out paper in return for tips.
Musicians always ask for tips
Salsa bands, guitar players and singers do the rounds of the bars and restaurants in Cuba, day and night. And once they’ve performed a set, no matter how short, they’ll approach every table in the room for tips. If you’re dishing out a CUC every time, you can soon whittle down your budget, so make sure you always have a few smaller coins on you when you sit down for a drink or bite to eat.
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