Snorkeling in the turquoise waters of Cayo Santa Maria, hiking for long hours in the Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos, lounging on the paradisiacal sandy beach of Varadero, visiting the tobacco factory in Santa Clara (the birthplace of Che Guevara), exploring the secrets of the ancient caves of Bellamar, soaking up the authentic atmosphere of Trinidad while sipping a daiquiri, traditional rum, or Cuban coffee with its beautiful pastel colonial houses in the background, discovering Cuban culture and salsa dancing in Santiago, or getting lost in the maze of labyrinthine streets in the historic center of Camagüey… Whatever your destination in Cuba, the trip promises to be particularly lively and colorful, featuring exciting history, omnipresent music, and beautifully preserved green settings. But to make the most of the charm of this island state in the heart of the Caribbean, here are some things you need to know.
What documents should you bring for your trip?
Bring a passport that is valid for the entire date of travel. Fill out the mandatory D’Viajeros form three days before your arrival. It must be presented in digital or printed form at the airport. You must also accompany it with a paid tourist card (about 25 euros per person), equivalent to the visa required by other countries. Finally, ensure you have insurance that covers repatriation and medical expenses for the entire duration of your stay.
What’s the best way to get around Cuba?
Once you’re off the plane, several options are available to you, some of which are unusual. The most eco-friendly travelers will prefer the bike, while others will give the bus a chance. With the company Viazul, you can travel throughout the country very easily. Just remember to book your ticket in advance during high season to avoid unpleasant surprises. If you’re on a tight budget, the shared taxi (shared with other travelers) will be waiting for you. You can also inquire about car rental in Cuba through this platform for more independence while discovering the country.
Where to stay in Cuba?
While an all-inclusive hotel remains a preferred choice for many travelers, others will opt for a casa particular. Similar to the classic Bed & Breakfast, this option allows you to stay with locals for an unbeatable quality/price ratio. You’ll have the opportunity to meet unforgettable people and learn more about the life and customs of the Cubans, a warm and welcoming people who will be happy to share their daily life and tasty meals with you.
How to get internet access in Cuba? A thorny question…
Internet access is not easy on this island, as wifi is not available everywhere. In this case, you should buy a card with a scratch code from an ETECSA (you can also find them at a higher price at some hosts and hotels). The queue is often very long, with locals and travelers waiting for their precious access. If possible, buy several cards at once or opt for a 5-hour credit initially for more peace of mind. Once you have the card (which can only be used on one device), you need to find a wifi zone (often parks or public places), where the connection might be saturated, often resulting in a bad and slow connection. It may also happen that some phones block the connection. Therefore, contact your phone company before leaving to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Once logged in, you can access Facebook and Instagram, but not PayPal, Skype, and WhatsApp. As a preventative measure, download Imo to use the video call feature for free if the connection allows. Since the connection is unreliable, inform your loved ones not to worry if they don’t hear from you regularly, and compose your emails in a note application or word processor to save time. Then, just copy and paste the text, turn on the wifi, and send it.
Tourist traps to avoid
Cuba is a relatively safe country with a low crime rate. However, pickpockets and thieves are common in tourist or busy areas and can target vehicles as well. Also beware of the Jineteros, touts who are common in tourist places, and additional costs applied by establishments, restaurants, or merchants to inattentive tourists. So, prefer the menu in Spanish rather than in English to get the real price, check that the bill is correct before paying, and always confirm the price before ordering or using a service. Never entrust your card to the staff at any shop or restaurant/bar you visit.
Money in Cuba: how does it work?
Cuban currencies are the convertible peso (or chavito, CUC) and the peso (or moneda nacional, MN). The use of bank cards is less common than in France, even if discussing your trip with your bank to avoid card blocks and allow international payments is useful. Additionally, tipping is always appreciated and recommended for hotel staff, musicians, restaurant owners, and taxi drivers (between 5 and 15%). So, ensure you
have some cash on hand. However, the country is currently experiencing cash shortages, with empty ATMs or capped withdrawals. Pay for as many things as possible online before departure (accommodations, transport, etc.).
Two final tips…
Even though some Cubans speak English or even French, the national language is Spanish. As with any trip abroad, ensure you know the basics and polite words for communicating with locals.