Things To Know Before You Travel To Cuba

May 11, 2017

On the Malecon in Havana.

Last month, I spent nine glorious days on vacation in Cuba. We decided to go because we wanted to get an authentic Cuban experience before the big American hotels go in and things become overly touristy.

Because American travel to the island is pretty new, there’s a lot to know before you go. Some important basics, and some tidbits I found quite interesting, are below.

On Playa Ancon outside of Trinidad, Cuba.

  • U.S. credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba, so you need to bring all your spending money in cash. The first few days, we were very frugal because we were paranoid about running out of money. It turned out to be a pretty fantastic way to budget.
  • There is little to no English spoken on the island. The exceptions are some tour guides and fancier places in Havana. I knew this heading into it, and was still pleasantly surprised. Having to get by with my rusty Spanish really enhanced the entire experience.
  • Instead of staying in a state-run hotel, rent a room (or an entire house). They call them casa particulares, and it’s a great way to put cash into the pockets of Cuban citizens. You get to experience more of the culture, and it’s super-cheap. We stayed in four different places in Cuba, and they were all home rentals.

The brightly colored casas of Trinidad.

  • Propaganda is alive and well. All billboards are used to spread pro-Cuba sentiment, which sometimes means anti-U.S. visuals. They’re fascinating.
  • Technically, it is still not legal for Americans to visit Cuba as tourists. You have to declare your trip under one of the twelve reasons approved by the U.S. Government, such as “journalistic activities,” “professional research,” religious activities,” etc.
  • Toilet seats are rare, and toilet paper is hard to come by anywhere in public. Our plane landed in Cuba, and the very first bathroom we encountered, even before getting past customs, had no toilet seat and no toilet paper. It was a quick education.
  • Wi-fi is almost non-existent on the island. It’s amazing how many deep conversations you can have when you’re not scrolling through your feeds.
  • Horses are still a popular mode of transportation. Outside Havana, you’ll see horse-drawn wagons as much as cars.
  • Cubans use about $5 USD worth of mint in each mojito. It seems to be the only thing available in large quantities on the island. Drink them often.

A tobacco-drying hut in Vinales.

Dinner at the star-studded La Guarida in Havana.