lessons learned while travelling in cuba

Border between Matanzas and Havana, Cuba

Border between Matanzas and Havana, Cuba- 2017

Last night, I returned from an amazing 5-day trip in Cuba with some of my really good friends. Luckily people provided us with plenty of tips prior to going and we also picked some up along the way from family (one of my friends has family there) and new friends we met along the way. Here are some of the lessons we learned:

1. Always negotiate prices. 30 CUC may sound like a great price to get you and 3 friends from the Jose Marti Aeropuerto but it's unnecessary to pay that much. You can easily get a cab for 15-25 CUC, you just have to negotiate. Granted, the more American tourism increases in Cuba, the more people may end up paying overall for services, however, everything is worth bargaining. Cuban people working in tourist areas often double prices to increase their profit so it's safe to think of the price they set as a starting point. Suggest a much lower price and work up from there. It helps if you speak with assertion and threaten to walk away, I'm not talking about being rude- "No gracias" can go a long way. Know how much you are willing to pay before beginning to bargain to help you feel more confident about the process.

2. If you are travelling in a group, share photography duty. This ended up especially coming in handy because one of my friends left her phone in a taxi on her way to the airport in Havana. Aside from planning for lost phones, it can be nice to take a break from photographing and simply enjoying the experience of Cuba (this can definitely be applied to other cities/countries). Now that we have returned home, we are able to experience Cuba all over again through our photo-share and my friend that lost her phone still has visual memories of the trip.

3. Do not stay in Havana Vieja. Havana Vieja has great attractions and awesome museums, perfect for a day visit, however, it is ridiculously touristy and prices are sky-high. Havana Centro is within walking distance (~1.5 Km) and will give you a much better feel for the Cubano culture. They have plenty of Casa Particulares there. Also, don't be afraid to head to nearby cities such as Matanzas or Trinidad to expand your exposure to the island.

4. Exchange for a few CUP (moneda nacional), but not too many. Moneda Nacional is the currency of the Cuban locals and accepted on most of the island. It is discouraged for tourists to pay in CUP, however, it can come in handy when travelling to parts of the island that are less touristy. You don't need too many though, as most places usually accept CUC (not to mention, some places will ONLY accept CUP from locals). I exchanged 5 CUC for 125 CUP and that was plenty to get me through 5 days on the island.

5. When staying in Casa Particulares, take your hosts up on the offer to prepare a meal for you. Often times the meals are delicious and prepared with love from the family hosting you. Even better, the meals are usually in the 5 CUC range per person. You can't beat that! We obliged our hosts offer for breakfast one morning and were met with a beautiful spread of tropical fruits (mango, pineapples, and banana), chicken croquettes, eggs, fresh juice, coffee, warm milk, and bread with butter.

Breakfast. mmmm.

Breakfast. mmmm.

6. Bring toilet paper and or Kleenex. Seriously. Everywhere we stayed in Cuba had the tiniest rolls of toilet paper that were thin, flimsy, and rough. Beyond this, when using the restrooms out and about during day trips, most places charged either for use of the toilet itself or toilet paper. It helps to have your own. Your butt and/or nose will thank you. I ended up getting a cold on the island and blew through the Cuban toilet paper- literally and figuratively. On this same note, prepare by bringing some comforts that you may need if you get sick. I had antibiotics with me in case of travelers' diarrhea but neglected to bring items like cough drops which would have come in handy. I didn't have access to much that could comfort my illness so I'd prepare more for next time

7. Find a driver and stick with them, if possible. If you like your taxi driver from the airport and you connect on your journey to your hostel/casa, get their card. Many of the taxi drivers are 24 hours and reliable. You can schedule times with them for future pick-ups or ask for daily prices for them to stay with you. We had a particular driver in Matanzas that took us to/from Varadero and around to the homes of my friends family while waiting in the car. He charged us about 80 CUC for what ended up being a 2-day journey together. Not bad. Feel free to also ask them for tips on places to visit. One of our first drivers upon arrival took us to the Casa de Musica Mirimar (we'd heard this one was better than the one in Havana) and afterwards brought us to a local bar that we had a lot of fun at.

8. Have a map of Cuba downloaded. There are great off-line apps that are available to help you navigate Cuba. Maps.Me and Cuba were names of two that I used. This helped so much in navigation of the cities and there were even times I had to give taxi drivers directions on how to get places. Please plan ahead for this. You won't regret it.

9. Check in with your upcoming AirBnB hosts via Wi-fi. When in Cuba, Wi-Fi isn't always necessary (Especially if you have your off-line apps). What I did find Wi-Fi important for was checking into our next AirBnB. Most AirBnB's will provide you with additional information a day or two before checking in and encourage you to work out the check-in time with your hosts. Since we had multiple AirBnB's while on the island, it was important to communicate with them while we were there. Wi-Fi cards are pretty inexpensive (2 CUC for 1.5 hours of internet). This came in handy as plans changed and we began figuring out our timing in Cuba. Plus, the hosts were appreciative! I'll also take this moment to say that Wi-Fi hotspots were so sparse that it wasn't worth trying to depend on one to be there when you needed it, so best to plan on not using it.

10. Check Dark Rum on your way back to the U.S. This one, I learned the hard way. Even though I'd bought rum in Duty-free and had an easy time getting it out of Cuba, once I left customs in the U.S., the dark rum would not make it through security- even in the Duty Free bags. The reason I was given was that the rum was too dark to be properly scanned in their liquid scanners at security, so I had to relocate to a different terminal, check my backpack, sign a waiver saying I wouldn't hold them responsible if something happened to the Rum, and go back through security. Needless to say, I was irritated at this but let this be a lesson to you from my experience.

There is so much more to our time in Cuba, but these are some lesser discussed topics about travel to Cuba. I'm open to answer other questions folks may have about travel here, keeping in mind that we left the U.S. on July 12, 2017. This was prior to any changes that Trump made impacting travel to the island.

Much Love.

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