Travel to Cuba became a possibility in 2014, when then-President Obama announced United States-Cuba Normalization. Since then, U.S. tourism to Cuba has more than tripled. This comes as no surprise, since Americans hadn’t been able to visit Cuba for 50 years prior.
Now that travel to Cuba is an option and people are flocking to the beautiful country “stuck in time,” you might be tempted to hop on a plane and head to the Caribbean’s largest island. And who could blame you? From antique cars to fascinating architecture, incredible food to the tight-knit communal culture, there is so much to experience.
The fact is, travel to Cuba is unlike travel to similar destinations in many ways. Planning will serve you well here, and help your trip go off without a hitch. Read on to discover ten things you should know before you go!
1. TRAVEL TO CUBA REQUIRES A “TOURIST CARD”
To some, this requirement gets a bit confusing. In order to enter the country, you need a “tarjeta de turista” (translation: tourist card) – in addition to your valid passport. This “Cuban visa” can be obtained from travel agencies, airlines, tour operators, or the Cuban embassy of your country. Requirements and length of visa validity do vary, so be sure to check applicable policies before you travel. To be sure all of your bases are covered, also double check your country/government’s website(s) for specifics on any other entry requirements.
IMPORTANT: Once you have your tourist card, do not lose it! You won’t be able to leave Cuba without presenting it!
2. SPANISH IS THE NATIVE LANGUAGE
Glaringly obvious, right? We know. But, pointing out a potential language barrier makes our list for a couple of important reasons:
- If you don’t speak the language at all, you should consider at least learning a few basic words and phrases. Should you find yourself surrounded with people who do not speak your language, you’ll be glad you learned how to ask for directions, find the bathroom, order food, or call for help.
- As many tourist destinations tend to be, locals here are often even friendlier (and perhaps more helpful) if you show them the respect of trying to communicate with them in Spanish.
3. BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT DEPENDS ON WHAT YOU WANT TO DO
Travel to Cuba is definitely impacted by weather. To decide what time of year is best for you to take your trip, first think about what you want to do while you’re there.
If slightly cooler, less humid weather is up your alley, stick to traveling between mid-November and March. But be aware – “cooler” and “less humid” are popular destination qualities, resulting in this usually being a busier time of year.
May and June are the wet season – which brings in more humidity – so prepare to sweat it out a bit as you enjoy Havana nights! Regardless of the summer heat, many travels visit Cuba during this time, as it’s tobacco harvesting season and prime time to hit the beach.
June/July through November will land you in the midst of hurricane season. Don’t panic! Cuba isn’t known to get clobbered by hurricanes as often as their Caribbean counterparts. In fact, they’ve only been some way affected by hurricanes 70 times since 1871. Bonus: If you visit in August, you might experience Carnaval!
4. MONEY MATTERS: CASH VS CARDS AND CHECKS
Money matters are worth doing your homework on here. Cuba operates a two-currency system – with both currencies looking very similar. You’ll find Cuban pesos (used by locals), and convertible Cuban pesos (or CUC, with one CUC being roughly equivalent to $1 US) used by tourists. In this nearly 100% cash economy, you’ll need cash – but you can’t purchase it outside the country, so be prepared to secure it upon arrival.
IMPORTANT: As a tourist, it isn’t likely you’ll be charged anything but CUC when you shop. But to be safe, always check your bills (since they look similar to regular Cuban pesos), as CUC is around 25 times the price of the local peso.
5. PACKING ACCORDINGLY ISN’T LIMITED TO CLOTHING
After considering the weather, the length of your trip, and the activities you want to partake in, you’ll have a good idea of what clothes to pack. But travel to Cuba requires some additional thought when packing. Things to consider bringing:
- Books or magazines, for long bus rides
- Any music (and music playing device) you may want that can be accessible offline
- Basic first aid kid
- Snacks, if you want any (you might be hard pressed to find anything other than fruit between meals)
- Any favorite branded necessity – Cuba hasn’t yet experienced an influx of major brands, and most businesses are owned independently by locals
- Outlet adapters
- Baby wipes (in case you get stuck without toilet paper!)
- Sunscreen (you will be in the Caribbean, after all – and it can tend to be expensive to buy locally)
- Any medications you may need (particularly if you have any allergies)
6. TRAVEL TO CUBA MAY NOT ALWAYS INCLUDE INTERNET ACCESS
Prepare to unplug. Trips to Cuba will not be soaked in internet service. While you might find an occasional internet cafe or intermittent hotel wifi (paid for with vouchers ranging from $10 to $30 for 30 minutes), internet is not a given in most places. A few of the more major cities now have wifi in public plazas, but you’re likely to find groups of people crowded together to try to find a signal. If you think “Oh, no problem! I’ll pay for data roaming on my cellular plan,” think again. With no unregulated internet access, your roaming data will not work in Cuba. Tip: Download anything you think you may need (maps, digital guide books, movies, etc.) before you go.
7. PLAN YOUR TOURS IN ADVANCE
See #6, above, and you’ll quickly realize that you’re going to have a difficult time searching for tours (and other activities) in a country without much internet service. Planning before traveling will also allow you to budget for transportation, excursion costs, and any additional lodging or food you may need or want.
8. BRING YOUR APPETITE
Travel to Cuba wouldn’t be travel to Cuba without one of Cuba’s most notable traditions: Cuban food. Beans, rice, root vegetables, chicken, garlic, spices, and pork are staples here. While you’ll find a very Cuban spin on these simple foods, you may not find quite as much variety as you’re used to at home. Pack some snacks or extras if you need, or envelope yourself with tasty Cuban simplicity during your trip. NOTE: As a country, Cuba is both clean and hygienic. However, bottled water is suggested for drinking, since tap water isn’t recommended.
9. INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO OLD-WORLD LIVING
Perhaps you’ve heard Cuba referred to as the “country that time forgot.” This isn’t a slight against the charming Caribbean country. On the contrary, Cuba is full of old-world charm, shops and businesses owned by individuals (rather than large corporations), and advertising doesn’t run completely rampant. Imagine a world of billboards, signs, TV shows, and buses that aren’t saturated with ads!
The downside to the old world Cuban charm might be this: If you prefer large chains, big box stores, superstores, and the like, you won’t find them here. Similarly, if your preferences are markedly toward brand named items (Diet Dr. Pepper, for example), you may be met with many challenges in trying to find such items. TIP: Pack any can’t-live-without items and bring them from home, just to be on the safe side.
10. CUBA’S BEST DESTINATIONS AND ACTIVITIES
Islands and island countries aren’t typically massive in size, but what they lack in size, they make up for in history and culture! When you decide to travel to Cuba, include some of these sights on your must-see list:
- “Old Havana” – A UNESCO World Heritage Site rife with exquisitely preserved Cuban history. Wander down cobblestone streets, take in the neoclassical buildings, stop by the Plaza de la Catedral, visit Ernest Hemingway’s restaurant hangout Bodeguita del Medio, and experience Plaza Vieja – one of Havana’s most vibrant and interesting gathering spots.
- Catch a baseball game – you may be surprised to find yourself in a stadium larger than most MLB venues in the United States!
- Go bird watching and see how many of the 350 species of birds you can spot.
- Enjoy the sea – lounge on the idyllic beaches, or dive into some snorkeling or deep diving.
- Drive down The Malecon, Havana’s 7km-long sea-facing drive. You’ll never see a view as enrapturing as sunset from The Malecon!
- Uncover the natural side of Cuba.
What tips would you give someone traveling to Cuba for the first time? Share them with us in the comments below!