So you’re packed and off to Cuba, visa and passport in hand!
(PAUSE. If you’re scratching your head about a visa – go back and read this post about how to get to Cuba.)
So what’s left to know about visiting this destination?
Here’s a few tips for my fellow Americans:
Bring Euros. You get a slightly better exchange rate to CUC (Cuba’s convertible peso) from a Euro than the American dollar. They say the Euro is actually interchangeable, but I found everything to be in CUC and would recommend having them on you.
Exchange them. I heard again and again to exchange your money at the airport. Maybe you do get a better exchange rate, but I couldn’t deal with the 1.5 hour wait time to trade over my dollars. Time is precious (especially if you’re only visiting for 4 days) so we opted to take our money to the nearby hotels (Hotel Saratoga to be exact) and did the exchange there, with no waiting.
Download Galileo. This app is a godsend for navigating the tiny streets of Old Havana. Make sure to download it before you leave for Cuba – but wait to activate your free trial until the day of your departure. You’ll download the complete map of Cuba, and then use it offline without needing the internet!
Prepare to disconnect. I went all five days without using the internet / Google / Instagram / Yelp / Foursquare / email / talking to my boyfriend. And honestly it was the perfect digital detox. If you’re not going for a very long time, I encourage you to embrace the cut off. It’ll force you to talk to other people and sharpen your sense of direction.
If you really really really need to connect, buy a WiFi card and stand around the hotel lobbies to log on.
Do your research. I’ve heard so many people talk about how poor the food is and what horrible dining experiences they had while in Cuba, and cannot express how important it is to go prepared! If you know where to eat, you’ll never go hungry ;) I honestly never had a bad meal on my entire trip! I shared all my best restaurant recommendations (for breakfast, tapas, dinner and drinks) online here.
Spanish is optional, but preferred. I don’t speak any Spanish, let’s just make that clear. Other than a few basic terms (Hola, buenos dias!) I’m pretty lost. It’s true that Cuba is a mostly Spanish speaking country, but we did find a lot of locals who could speak English – cab drivers, waiters, tour guides and even a few fellow club goers could hold full conversations in English. So you should be okay if you can’t keep up in Espanol.
FOR ALL MY LADIES – The cat-calling is aggressive. Like muchos aggressivo. Cuban men just can’t get enough of the female tourist, and they’ll make it known as you’re wandering the streets. Granted it was just me and another girl friend of mine on this trip, easy targets for this kind of thing, but still we found it surprising. We never felt unsafe, more just frustrated and annoyed. But damn is it good for the ego.
Be open-minded. Socialize, dance, chat, and interact with as many people (locals or fellow tourists) as you can. I had some of the most intellectual conversations with English-speaking locals, on everything from how Americans are viewed by Cubans, what they want their future to be like, and what the hell communism really is. We also connected with other tourists, from Canada and Germany and plenty of fellow New Yorkers, and had great experiences with them, swapping recommendations over mojitos.