I'm Christina Lyon, a coffee sipping, piano playing, beach loving, word-obsessed freelance writer and musician. I'm on fire for helping freelance writers get paid and small biz owners succeed online. When I'm not reading or writing, I play music and explore the beaches and wild trails along the California coast.

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Cuba Travel Guide: What to Know Before You Go

Christina Lyon

Cuba is alive with electric, vibrant energy that pulsates through the streets, radiates from friendly locals, and washes in with the Caribbean Sea. It’s no wonder why Cuba is a major tourist destination. With any travel destination, you’ll need to plan ahead and familiarize yourself with the culture. Start here to learn how to travel to Cuba as an American. Otherwise, let’s go over what you need to know before you go in this Cuba travel guide.

Cuba Travel Guide: Accommodations

Cubans are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met, living life with their doors wide open for neighbors, friends, and strangers to drop by and say hello. This open culture has created a busy accommodation industry in which locals make money by renting out rooms to tourists.

Casa Particulars are a great option if you want to immerse yourself with the locals and get a truly authentic Cuban experience. Furthermore, you’re supporting local businesses rather than government-run hotels. Casa particulars are abundant and easy to book in advance via Airbnb.

However, if you’re an on-the-fly traveler, land your feet and chat with the locals about finding a room for rent. I recommend booking at least your first night in advance, from there ask your host if they’ve got rooms available or know friends with rooms available. This is a great way to get to know your hosts and familiarize yourself with the locals.

Should you stay at a casa particular in Cuba?

Absolutely! Casa particulars are charming and comfortable, often with colonial decor and an intimate atmosphere. Each casa I stayed in had air conditioning, a fan, clean linens, and a refrigerator with water and cervezas available for purchase.

Best part of staying at casa particulars? Getting sightseeing advice and helpful tips from locals. You could research for months in advance online and still not find travel tips as good as your host can give you.

When checking into a casa particular, it’s customary for the host to log passport and visa information from each guest staying at their home. The casa owners are obliged to report all guests to the Cuban government, so don’t be alarmed when your hosts want your personal info, it’s the law for them.

One of the casas we stayed at in Viñales, we had a separate guest house all to ourselves, and it’s pink! Need I say more?

Part of the breakfast spread at one of the casas — not pictured is a loaf of bread, sweetbreads, cheeses and marmalade, and a jug of juice, all for only 5 CUC! You will not go hungry if you stay at a casa particular!

The view from the patio of our first casa in Havana, where our hosts served us Cuban coffee and offered advice on what to see and where to eat

The inside of our casa particular in old Havana was stunning. Learn more about casa particulars in this Cuba travel guide.

Getting Around and Transportation in Cuba

It’s important to know what a fare is worth before handing over bills to a taxi driver, another token of info your casa hosts can offer insight on. In Havana, walking is a great way to get around but if the heat has you weary, take a bicycle taxi. For as little as 4 CUC, sit back and take in the bustle of the busy city while seizing the opportunity to interact with another local.

Colectivos

If you’re traveling from Havana to another city, a colectivo is a great option. A colectivo is similar to an Uber pool, (without the digital communication). Wherever you’re going in a colectivo, strangers will be accompanying you to either the same destination or one along the way.

Usually, the driver will pack the car with travelers, it’s close quarters and often without AC, so cross your fingers that you end up riding with some cool people, otherwise just bring your headphones or take a nap.

I took a colectivo from Havana to Trinidad and back, and both rides I ended up with friendly travelers that I genuinely had a great time chatting with. It’s another authentic Cuban experience that you won’t want to miss out on.

How do you arrange a colectivo? Ask your casa host. Trust me, they’ll know someone and be happy to help you arrange a driver to pick you up. They’ll then give you an hour time slot that they’ll be picking you up at. In both cases to and from Trinidad, we only had to wait a half an hour for the driver to arrive and we were on our way.

Taking the bus

The bus is another way to get around in Cuba. Be sure to book tickets at the Viazul station a day in advance. There is a downside to taking the bus outside of Havana, first you have to pay a taxi to take you to the station to buy the tickets, then taxi back to your casa, then taxi back to the station the next day to catch the bus. If you add it all up it ends up being about the same cost as a colectivo in many cases.

Safety in Cuba

Is Cuba safe? This seems to be a hot topic and a popular question anytime traveling to Cuba comes up in conversation. After traveling to this country, I’ve found that there are a lot of myths about Cuba. Truth is, Cuba is safe! In fact, this question is more dangerous than Cuba is because dangers are lingering everywhere you go in the world. Travel smart, travel safe, trust your instincts, and use common sense.

The magic of the Cuban lifestyle is that everyone communicates openly and outside at all hours of the night. Because of this high volume of social activity, there really is an infectious energy in the air where you never quite feel like you’re alone.

Aside from street vendors fighting for your attention or hustlers trying to guide you to an event to get a commission from the entry fee, I never felt like I was in danger. That said, there are certain things to be aware of: don’t follow anyone who wants to sell you cigars or take you to an event (trust me, they will be offering you discounts), don’t whip out a wad of cash on a busy street, and don’t wander down dark alleyways alone in the middle of the night. Can I say this is any different from any other country I’ve traveled to? Nope.

Cuba is safe if you are smart. Of course, things happen, but the point is that Cubans are wonderfully inviting and warm people. Use your best judgment.

Social interaction on the streets of Havana Cuba

The three major no-no’s (all of which I violated)

Alright, I’m gonna tell you not to do any of these things, but if I’m being completely transparent, I did all of them and made it out ok. I still feel obligated to dissuade you from:

Drinking the water

The drinking water is unsafe to consume. I drank the water, but through a LifeStraw 2-Stage filtered water bottle. Bringing a filtered water bottle was crucial to minimize plastic waste and save money on buying water. That said, make sure you get a strong filter like LifeStraw’s. Also, the bottle is not insulated so it doesn’t stay cold, throw it in the fridge overnight to keep it nice and cold. Tip: Don’t bring a pink bottle. I repeat, don’t bring a pink bottle! 

I bought the pink one because it was the least expensive, and never anticipated the amount of guilt I would feel after being repeatedly asked by Cubans if they could have it for their daughters. At one point, a woman was pleading with me for it. I felt horrible and found myself hiding it as much as possible.

If I could give my water bottle away to everyone, I would. My boyfriend reminded me that I needed it to drink water. Still, this made me feel horrible. Take it from me, if you’re going to bring a filtered water bottle, don’t buy a pink one.

Following strangers

Ok, we didn’t really follow anyone all the way to a destination. We started when a woman offered to show us the way to the Capitolio. After a few minutes of walking and us chatting in Spanglish, she started trying to sell us on that afternoon’s salsa festival.

We broke off and later found out it cost around 50 CUC to get in, which she was hoping to get a commission from for taking us there. Anyone who wants you to follow them is looking to make a cut from wherever it is that they take you to, which can be cigar shops, events, restaurants, etc. Be smart, listen to your gut, and don’t follow anyone.

Exchanging money on the street

Yes, I did this. Twice. Lastly, the great Cuban money exchange and the inability for Americans to access their bank accounts, (US banks don’t do business in Cuba thanks to the embargo). Fun fact: I didn’t bring enough money to Cuba. Yes, I’m that person. I ran out of money in Trinidad and had to dip into my emergency reserves of USD. This got me through, but I paid a high exchange rate and had to be very careful with my money.

Furthermore, when I ran out of money happened to be on Santa Semana (Good Friday), meaning the Cadeca (exchange bank) was closed and I only had USD to spend. Cue the dim lighting, suspenseful music and mysterious Cuban man emerging from the shadows.

“Necessitas dinero?”

“No, we’re ok,” I said.

“No we’re not, we don’t have any money,” Steve whispers beside me.

My stomach starts turning and all of the warnings flash in my mind like neon signs glaring “DON’T CHANGE MONEY ON THE STREETS!!!”

“Maybe, how much for 100 Euro,” I ask. (You can use Euro in Cuba)

The man gets out his phone and types 87 on the screen and shows it to me. I’m in dire straights and have no option but to trust that this money is not counterfeit. We make the trade and I immediately go to a corner store to buy something. The woman takes the money, all was well and we moved on.

I’m not trying to make this man seem like a threat, but we had been thoroughly warned by every casa owner and tourism office not to exchange money on the street. It worked out and I actually did it one more time, but don’t be me… sometimes it’s no fun being me when these things don’t pan out.

Drying tobacco leaves in a tobacco farm on our cigar tour in Viñales, Cuba.

What to bring with you

Don’t leave the house without these items, they will save you and you will probably not be able to buy them there! Some of them you may not absolutely need, but if you find yourself in a predicament in Cuba where you need something, it’s better to bring it than go without it and suffer — and trust me, if you drink the water, eat something bad, or get a brain-splitting headache, you will regret not being prepared. Why? The shelves at Cuban stores are basic, to say the least.

There are fewer goods imported, meaning less options for you to buy the things you’re used to easily grabbing from the store at home. Here’s what to pack:

    • Toiletries – I carried on, and packed all of my shower essentials, curl cream, hairspray, lotion, deodorant, etc.
    • First Aid – Bring travel-sized bandaids, tums, Advil, Neosporin, painkillers, and stomach aid in case you get sick. I actually did not bring enough Advil and found myself in a world of pain and the pharmacist didn’t understand that I was asking for Advil. By the time my pain went away, I was able to talk to a different pharmacist from the same place the next day who brought out some Advil for me. Long story short, bring enough supplies for the duration of the time that you’ll be there. Or, be fluent in Spanish. 🙂
    • Snacks – I brought pre-packaged snack-sized trail mix, granola bars, dried fruit, and banana chips. These snacks seriously saved me and came in handy as we were always on the go!
    • Wet Wipes – the bathrooms are not quite… glamorous. You’ve been warned!
    • Mosquito repellent, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.

Wi-Fi in Cuba

I wouldn’t recommend relying heavily on Wi-Fi or Mobile Data to get you around. Fortunately, you can use google maps offline if you put in your location while you have Wi-Fi.  You can purchase an internet card at any location with an ETESCA sign, (usually at liquor stores and convenience stores).

Honestly, this card didn’t help me at all because you have to find a hotspot to use it. How can you tell where there’s Wi-Fi? You’ll not see Cubans on their phones like we are here in the states. So, when you stumble on a mass of people huddled over their screens — you’ve found a hotspot. Sign in and do your thing. Another tip for finding Wi-Fi: go to a fancy hotel, sit at the bar and order a drink, and get the info from the bartender about how to login to the network.

Communicating with locals

If you’re stressing or unorganized…

Don’t worry! I will be the first one to admit, I am not the best planner. There are many posts about how you have to absolutely plan ahead while traveling through Cuba because you won’t have WiFi to navigate. Personally, I didn’t feel limited by the disconnection because I used communication to make plans.

Not convinced? Let me tell you a little story. We decided to head down to Trinidad a night early, we had no transportation scheduled and no casa booked. I had a nice conversation with the manager of the casa we were staying at in Havana who made a few calls and arranged a colectivo for us that same afternoon for CUC 30 (we were very lucky to get same-day transportation).

When we arrived to Trinidad, I got out of the cab, saw two women talking outside of a house, walked up to them, and within two minutes we had a room for the night. I’m not suggesting that this method works for everyone or every time. However, if you’re like me and don’t plan in advance, talk with the locals, they’re usually always happy to help. This method is actually more efficient at saving time because the spotty internet can actually take an eternity to load anything.

Get all the Cuba travel tips you need in this Cuba travel guide

Drinking a mojito for 1 CUC, you can travel to Cuba on a budget with these Cuba travel tips.

Traveling to Cuba on a Budget

There were several conversations I had with other travelers about how they felt Cuba was more expensive then they had anticipated. Like any country you visit,  tourist hotspots will be significantly more expensive than the less traversed areas of town. A good indicator is to look for where the locals are eating… I guarantee the prices will be lower.

Some price points:

    • Arroz Cubano (black beans and rice) – 1.50
    • A plate of fresh fish – 6 CUC
    • Mojitos, cuba libres, daiquiries – No more than 3 CUC
    • Casa Particular – 25 CUC a night
    • Sandwiches (cubano, vegetarian) – 2-5 CUC
    • Breakfast – 5 CUC
    • Airport to Havana – 25 CUC total (not per person)
    • Colectivos – Depends on the location, Havana to Trinidad was 30 CUC per person.

Horseback riding in Vinales is a great activity included in this Cuba travel guide

Mis dos centavos

Have an open mind. If you anticipate hiccups, you’ll be less likely to get overly agitated. In some regards, you are traveling back in time and the resources that might be ample to you at home are not readily available in Cuba. If you hit a roadblock, be patient, get clever, and find a way around it. Remember, Cuba is an island… so you’re on island time. Expect things to take longer. Old machinery (like buses) might break down. Try to enjoy the ride because you’ll never know what unexpected thing might happen next.

Talk with the locals. Some of the best experiences I had were just chatting with the locals about the Cuban lifestyle, politics and US-Cuban relations. All personal opinions aside, they are not a huge fan of Trump (shocked? Didn’t think so…)

Stay at Casa Particulars. I can’t say it enough, I love casa particulars, and they happen to serve the best breakfast in the world. Will there always be hot water in the shower? Not likely. Will there be hiccups? Sure. Put those expectations aside and let yourself get caught up in the intoxicating and energetic Cuban way of life.

Need more Cuba travel tips? Browse the Cuba archives. If you’re an American traveling to Cuba, start here.

Of all the countries I’ve visited, Cuba is easily at the top of my list. Have you been? Fill me in on your experience in the comments!

December 22, 2018

Travel

*This post may contain affiliate links, and I may receive a commission on purchases made through provided links (at no extra cost to you).

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  1. LOVE this!! Informative on every level. Love the honesty and transparency in sharing your experience. And loved all the pics!

  2. David says:

    I’m going to Cuba next year so this will be really useful! I’ve taken so many notes – I’ll buy a water bottle too! Thanks Christina

    • How exciting!! Have a wonderful trip and yes, the filtered water bottle was great! My only complaint is that it doesn’t stay cold, so I tried to always keep it in the fridge over night. Glad this helped and have a blast in Cuba!

  3. Michelle says:

    Thanks so much for this info ! I am planning to go to Cuba for my birthday in March !

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