Cuba is one of the countries were nothing goes according to your plan. I also found it a bit difficult finding information online before I left, because everything changes so fast and information is only valid for a short period. The whole accommodation thing is also a bit confusing. Because of this, I made a small guide based on my own experience – this is the information I wish someone told me before I left!
We applied for a tourist visa through a travel agency in Norway a month before departure, and we got the visa in the mail after a few days. We didn’t have to send in our passports, which made quite easy. When we arrived at Havana Airport, immigration also required to see our travel insurance documents, so be sure to remember these!
What to bring:
As I lost my luggage and had to survive without it for three days, I learned the hard way that you can’t buy anything in Cuba. We spent too much time looking for the simplest toiletries, and what we found were priced way above its value. Bring everything from shampoo to sunscreen and all the clothes you need.
Flights and airport:
We travelled with Lufthansa/Air Canada, and I had to take four different flights to get to Havana and travel for more than 35 hours. I guess we had a bit bad luck with our tickets, and I guess you can find better ones. We chose the cheapest option and paid around 7-8000 NOK. The problem is that you have to transfer in Canada, because there are no regular flights from the US to Cuba (just imagine how easy and cheap it had been transfering in Florida…).
If you fly in to Havana, you can take a taxi from the airport for 25-30CUC (you don’t have many options, really). You don’t need to pre-book a car. The drive is about 30 minutes. When you are leaving Cuba, you need to pay an airport fee of 25 CUC (remember this!).
When you are looking for hotels online before you go to Cuba, you will soon figure out that this isn’t the way to do it. Most of the hotels you will find online are ridiculously expensive – and probably not worth the price. We decided to stay at a “Casa Particular” in both Havana and Trinidad. Casa Particular is actually a home stay – but the people who rent out the rooms are authorized and it was more like a Bed & Breakfast than a real home stay. In total, we stayed in six different casas, and all of them were very clean and professional. You will also be able to see how Cubans actually live, which is very interesting. I wish we spoke Spanish, because that would have made the stay much more interesting, since we couldn’t really communicate with the casa owners.
You can find casas in different standards. We stayed in casas ranging from 20 to 30 CUC, and I guess you can find both cheaper and more expensive ones. Our most important criteria were a central location. We stayed in casas with and without air-condition, with private and shared bath rooms etc. – but air-condition is absolutely recommended!
I would recommend pre-booking a casa if you are going in high season. We ended up staying at six different casas (with nine nights in two cities), which was a bit stressful!
There are ATMs in Havana, so you don’t need to bring money for exchange. In Havana Vieja the lines for the money exchange are very long as well, so it is easier to use ATMs. If you exchange from USD to CUC, they will charge you 10%, so if you are exchanging you should use another currency. I don’t think you can use MasterCard in Cuba, though. Cuba has a two-currency system, CUC and CUP, but as a tourist you will only use CUC. 1CUC = 1USD.
Contrary what many people think, finding decent food is not a problem in Cuba, as hundreds of restaurants have popped up after the new privatization laws in 2011.
There are restaurants everywhere, and most of them seem to offer the same food to the same prices. For a meal you will usually pay between 5 and 10 CUC. On the menu you will find chicken, pork, beef and seafood accompanied by rather boring vegetables and rice. We ate seafood every day, because this was high quality food compared to everything else. I ate lobster almost every day – it was tasty and very cheap, about 10 CUC. Notice that there is nearly no food at the supermarkets. We were craving some snacks, but couldn’t find anything but street snacks like churros.
To get around in Havana and Trinidad, we took a bicycle taxi or a regular taxi, depending on the distance. The prices vary, but you should bargain hard. We experienced the new taxies to be more expensive than the old ones (and of course, when you are in Cuba you should cruise around in an old car as often as possible!).
For longer distances, you can either rent a taxi or take the public bus. From Havana to Trinidad we used the public bus company Viazul. To be guaranteed tickets you should go to the Viazul office one day ahead, and be prepared for a long line. The price is 25CUC. The journey itself takes 6-7 hours, including a stop or two. The buses are comfortable and air-conditioned. From Trinidad to Havana we shared a private car with one more person, and this was a “modern” car (from the 80s) with air-condition and we paid 25CUC each person (this must be bargained). With a car it only takes about 4-4,5 hours. If you go by car, remember to agree on the quality of the car and a maximum number of people to share it with. Seven people in a car from the 60s may not be the most comfortable and safest way of travelling.
Taking the bus may be safer than a taxi in general. The traffic is crazy in Cuba, especially considering the bad quality of most of the cars and all the horses in the roads. We saw one ugly death accident and several small accidents, so safety first!
Internet is very difficult to find, but you can pay to use the Wi-Fi at the expensive hotels. You can also go to Internet cafes and use the computers there, but the internet was very slow when we tried it.
Most people do not speak English, even at the casas. Bring a Spanish dictionary and learn a few phrases, and everything will be much easier.
Feel free to ask questions!