Cuba is a land of surprises, there are many aspects that are different, not seen somewhere else, or simply very characteristic to Cuba only. Find out what they are before you travel...
1. Two currencies - CUP and CUC - There are two currencies in Cuba. The CUC ( Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). There's a common misconception that CUC is the currency for tourist while the CUP is the local currency. In fact you can use both currencies and pay in both. I was certain that tourists could only pay in CUC as I was told so by a local Cuban - let's call him Jose, who helped me to find a way & invited me for a drink. Find out more about this adventure in my article here. But chatting very recently to Marissa from @mimaincuba it turns out I was wrong, and so was Jose, or perhaps he had other motif to tell me that. But also many other people (bloggers included) who write about Cuba and repeat the same message! I now rely on information from Marissa more... and perhaps back in 2016 when I visited Cuba Jose was right?! Anyhow, 1 CUC is equivalent to about 25 CUP. In general as a tourist you will be paying in CUC and the prices will be quoted in CUCs not CUP but you will be able to pay in both. Confusing? Don't worry, you'll be fine!
So when receiving change when you are given CUP you will know which currency to use.
I was given this example by Jose who then in 2016 assured me that CUC is only for tourists : a local bus in Havana accepts only CUP and as a tourist you will not have CUP to pay for the ticket, hence no ride. (I did not try myself but was told that by a Jose).
2. Tourists Safety - overall Cuba is a safe place to travel. Its people are very friendly towards tourists, and I did not feel unsafe at any point of my trip. I heard rumours that there’s a law protecting tourist e.g. if a local would steal from a tourist they would face really severe penalties. I think it’s a tourist rumour and people are simply nice and friendly. I could not find any valid legislation validating that rumour. However, you can see from my other article how friendly and helpful Cubans are. (link to the article in point 7)
3. No transport infrastructure - if you are looking to travel through the island, the infrastructure is not the best. You can use Collectivo which is a shared taxi, there's also an option of a bus (but takes longer). Collectivo can be arranged by your casa owner. Unless you are on an organised trip with transfers that would be covered. Driving, in my opinion, is not the best option either - no matter how good a driver you are - the traffic seems insane. Firstly the roads are a bit bumpy, secondly there seems to be very little road signs, and drivers simply know where they are going. Unless you know the island this might be a challenge. And I would not recommend relying on Sat Nav, it's highly likely that it will not work. Also I observed traffic on a crossing in a town, and I could not figure out what are the rules of priority! Even my husband who is a great driver, said he would think twice before driving here. If money is not an issue, you can rent a car / taxi to drive you round the island but it comes at a hefty price tag.
Photo: Classic car taxi in Havana
In Havana you can walk around majority of the old town, but you definitely want to hop on and drive in a classic car taxi - it's just a fun experience to do and convertible adds more glamour to the ride!
4. No adds, no mass marketing, which is a breath of fresh air. It felt a bit like a rehab and I enjoyed that a lot. You don't have adds on billboards, or road signs - I found it really relieving. In fact it made me realise how much we are bombarded by brands every day. Driving on the motorway and not seeing a single add was a delight.
5. Cubans think they live in a happy country, they don't see the dictatorship. Even if we think they are unhappy and live in hardship, they don't perceive it that way. Don't try to convince them otherwise, they still believe in their happy existence. It is slightly different for younger generation who has more access to the Internet as well as chatting to tourists and they imagine the possibilities. Cubans are aware they don't have high speed Internet, but they are not sadden about it. On the other hand, every poor person has a council / social flat so there is no homelessness on the streets like you see in India or even in London. Therefore, Cubans believe that the Socialism is a good political system. My impression of Cuba was that people are happy, even though they may not have much, they enjoy every little they have.
Photo: Streets of Havana - no marketing.
6. Cuba has more to offer than Havana, so explore beyond the city. Although Havana is a magical city, Cuba has a lot more to offer than the capital city. Vinales with tobacco plantations, beautiful Trinidad with colonial architecture, smaller towns e.g. Spiritus Sancti with its own unique charm. Further to east side of the island Santa Clara with a lot of history and Che Guevara mausoleum. Crowded with tourists Varadero does not have to be the first beach option choice. There are other beautiful beaches in Cuba as well.
7. You will feel welcomed Cuban people are very friendly and helpful. You will feel welcome to their country and feel as if you are visiting a good old friend. People smile back and are willing to give you a helping hand when they see you are e.g. lost. For more funny & friendly encounter with local people check my other article "Local Encounter in Havana, Cuba" here
8. Money exchange, be wise with your money. US dollars are not accepted as legal tender and are not the best currency to exchange. If you can, do not take US $ as that incurs 10-13% commission when exchanging to local currency . On the other hand Euros, Pound Sterling ££, or Canadian $$ are good currency to bring and available to exchange in hotels.
Also cash is king - there's very few ATMs so make sure to bring enough money to cover your stay. Some of the hotels accept credit cards, but in general in shops you will be asked for cash.
9. No INTERNET - it is available only at the hotels, and the speed is very bad so if you are lucky, you may be able to download your emails but that's about it. I welcomed the time when we did not have internet and were on the Internet detox. On top of not having the Internet available all the time, in Cayo Santa Maria we did not have phone reception at all so for a week our phones were tucked away in hotel safe, and it was the first time in ages we did not have to charge our phones for a week.
10. Food - it's modest but good. A great treat is to have a lobster as it is very cheap and really tasty! You can have lobster almost every day if you fancy just because it does not cost a fortune, it is also fresh and very often caught the same day! If you are staying in a hotel or resort the choices will be better than say at a local restaurant or cafe but still you can see effects of embargo and the choices are more modest. Someone I know told me that the food in Cuba was hit and miss, to which I thought to myself "what did you think?" It is not a a wide variety of food you can find in America or Europe and the food in restaurant can be called 'basic' but it is good. What I absolutely loveeeeed as well was avocados!!!! They were so good and moist I can't think I had better one anywhere else! It might be only me, as no one else brags about them.
Photo: Lobster heaven - could not have enough!
If you like snacking, bring your own biscuits, crisps, healthy bars (my emergency) etc. as you will not find these products in Cuban shops. Wine and champagne / prosseco are very expensive and available in hotels only, however local Cristal is a good beer but mojitos and daiquiris are everywhere and they cost peanuts!
11. Best beaches - Cayo Largo del Sur is said to have the best beaches, which is in the South of the main island. I stayed at Cayo Santa Maria which is on the north side of the island, a small island that can be accessed by a long bridge from the mainland (check out google maps). I thought we had an incredible beach, but I guess it is a matter of preference and everyone will have different opinion. The beaches at Cayo Santa Maria were wide, and beautiful, they also were not crowded. I must admit these were the best beaches I've been to so far. So no matter where you stay in Cuba, you are very likely to have a great beaches and amazing time!
Photo: Cayo Santa Maria beaches
So here are my 11 tips, look up my other articles on Cuba to learn what more can you expect from Cuba or how to plan your journey. If you have any questions that I did not cover, feel free to ask in comments below.