I would consider my trip to Cuba incredibly spontaneous – others may call it impulsive or extremely last minute. Tomato, tomaato.
It all started on a miserably cold day at the end of January..
On any given day I have about 10-15 price alerts in my Kayak app and that morning the price of a round trip flight to Havana dropped to $230! So I thought to myself,
“What better time than now to go to Cuba?”
I only had 3 weeks to research and plan my trip and one of those weeks I happened to be on a cruise for my friend’s engagement (too many celebratory cocktails to be planning a trip obvi). The week before my trip, I turned to my fellow travel bloggers hoping to get a good sense of what my “must sees” were for 4 days in Havana and the essential travel tips I needed to know before my trip.
How could I go wrong, right? Yea, no.
There were definitely a few surprises I encountered once I got to Cuba – some pleasant, some anxiety provoking (did someone bring the xanax?!). I’m going to blame it on the fact that I left most of my research until the last minute and that there just aren’t enough blog posts about Cuba out there given that it is still new for Americans to be able to visit. However, it wasn’t until my flight home when I was chatting with the person sitting next to me about all of the things my research had left out, when it came to me..
“Why don’t you just write your own blog post about what you wish you would have known?”
Ergo, I give you the 7 things I wish I had known before visiting Cuba.
1. Toilet seats are completely unnecessary.
Have the Americans been doing it all wrong by having seats on all their toilets? Or maybe we are accustomed to the convenience like so many other things. You would think something so crucial to daily life would come up in at least one blog post in my research. Nope.
PSA: none of the toilets in Cuba have toilet seats on them (well 90% at least).
Apparently they are seen as more of a luxury than a necessity for Cubans. I guess this solves the problem of men leaving the seat up.
Also, there aren’t many signs indicating this, but you should NOT flush your toilet paper unless you want to be blamed for clogging the toilet.
2. They’ll let just about anyone in.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. As an American, you are required to have one of twelve accepted purposes for your visit to Cuba:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines
Looking for more info on the acceptable reasons for visiting Cuba? Click here.
I was extremely nervous that I would be asked to provide documentation for proof of my reason for travel and that if it wasn’t sufficient, I wouldn’t be allowed to purchase a visa. I even prepared a sample itinerary in case authorities asked, but they didn’t. In fact, all I needed to do was tell the airline my reason, which was professional research and off to Cuba I went!
3. It’s more touristy than you might expect.
Maybe I was naive in assuming Cuba wouldn’t be touristy. After all, it’s only been a couple of months that Americans have been allowed in the country. However, although the borders just opened to Americans, EVERY other country has been able to visit Cuba in the meantime.
Therefore, although Cuba is very much still untouched by American influence, it is not free of tourists (and all of the tourist traps that come along with that).
4. You’ll get your “untouched by American influence” experience if you try to use an ATM machine.
When it came to money, I thought I had that one down. I had read that American credit cards don’t work in Cuba and to bring cash with you. Well, let me just clarify that it is not just credit cards – this extends to ATM cards too.
Yes, there are multiple ATM machines in Cuba (I can even give you the exact locations of them, since I had looked them up), but American banks don’t have relationships with the banks in Cuba so your American ATM card won’t work.
If you end up running out of cash while you’re in Cuba, the only way to get money is to make friends with a Cuban and have your friends/family wire money to that Cuban friend through Western Union. Looking for more info on sending money to Cuba through Western Union? Click here.
5. A little CUC can go a long way.
So, since I assumed that although I could not use a credit card, I could still use an ATM card, I was left with only $200 for 4 full days in Havana. Luckily, most meals cost between 8-10 CUC including 2 CUC mojitos! Where I spent most of my money, however, was on transportation. 40 CUC round trip to the beach, 20 CUC round trip to Old Town from where we stayed near Plaza de la Revolución, and 30 CUC one way to/from the airport – it adds up quickly.
Make sure you bring all the cash you think you will need for the entirety of your trip.
- Expect to wait 1-2 hours in line to exchange your money at the airport.
- You can also exchange your money at any of the large hotels in Havana. (So, if one person in your party happens to get into the airport earlier than everyone else, have that person exchange at least enough for the taxi to one of the hotels.)
- You can get better exchange rates on Monday instead of weekend days.
- You can also get better exchange rates with EUR instead of USD.
Check out my post, A Guide to Money in Cuba for everything you need to know from the basics to budgeting.
6. Brush up on your Español!
The more Spanish you can learn before going, the better off you’ll be. Not many of the locals can speak English and in my opinion, you will lose out on a lot of experiences interacting with the locals if you can’t communicate with them in their native language.
7. Bargain away.
I can’t promise you’ll get very far (unless you took my advice from #6), but bargaining is definitely acceptable at all of the shops around Havana. So, bargain away!
There you have it! I hope this post saves you from being surprised by some of the curve balls Cuba had for me.
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