Cuba is probably the most unique country I’ve ever visited. There’s nowhere else I can compare it to. It functions unlike anywhere else in the world which makes it both a fascinating and, at times, frustrating place to travel. It is, however, one of my favourite destinations in the world. I thought I’d jot down some of my observations from my 3 weeks there since, for me, researching information beforehand was a little overwhelming. This is just based on my experience of travelling in November 2018.
Getting your flight into Holguin, to the east of the island, is a really good idea if you’re planning on traversing the entire island. From the UK, and various other European destinations, this is really easy and often cheaper than flying into Havana to the west. In 2018, Thomas Cook flew to Holguin from Manchester and the flight (including the tourist card which usually costs £30+) cost around £200 one way (it’s not clear whether this flight is still running as of 2020). Most people on the Thomas Cook flight will be ferried to the resorts in Guardalavaca but of course, you can instead just head into Holguin and then get transport from there. You can then get your flight back out of Havana or hop over to Cancun in Mexico and fly out of there. By flying into Holguin, it means you can sample eastern gems such as Santiago de Cuba, Batavia, Bayamo and even Holguin itself without having to go back and forth on long bus trips. As a guide, a bus journey from Havana to Santiago de Cuba one way is 15+ hours and $51. From Holguin, it’s around 3 hours and costs $11. You can then make your way gradually west, stopping along the way, without ever having to go back on yourself. Obviously, most countries will just fly to Havana but if you have airlines which fly to Holguin or even Santiago de Cuba (some Canadian airlines do) then it’s worth looking at.
The thing that baffled me most about Cuba before I went was its dual currency system. I had been to countries with dual currencies before (Myanmar, Cambodia) but the two currencies were so different it was always easy to tell which one to pay in. In Cuba, it’s more confusing. It has CUP (also known as moneda nacional or pesos) which is the local currency and CUC (also known as… pesos) which tourists use. As a traveller, you will deal almost exclusively in CUC – most restaurants will take CUC (or indicate that they take both), transport is in CUC, your accommodation etc. CUC is the currency you should get the majority of. However, it’s worth getting some CUP too, pegged at 1/25 to CUC. It’s handy for street food, shops and some other services. For example, I needed to print something in Santiago and they only took payment in CUP. Payment in CUP also often works out cheaper because it’s what the locals use. I got $20 worth of CUP for 3 weeks and this was plenty. Confusingly, most places will use the $ symbol to denote both currencies so you have to often work out which currency the place accepts. For example, if you see a pizza slice advertised as $15 on the street, it’s probably in CUP (70p) rather than CUC (£12).
Cuba primarily functions in cash though ATMs do appear in most cities (though I heard stories of them being broken). It’s a safe country so bringing in cash shouldn’t be a problem. The best currencies to exchange are £ or €. US dollars are not a good choice as they incur a 10% fee when exchanging. At the time of my visit £1 was worth about 1.25 CUC. You can exchange in banks or Cadeca offices (which have better opening hours than banks). Afternoon is the best time to go when there’s usually less of a queue. Exchange your currency for CUC and then you can exchange some of your CUC for CUP if you wish. Take your passport/ID with you. It’s usually better to get smaller denominations (5s and 10s) since places in Cuba rarely have sufficient change. In addition, make sure your notes are in good condition when exchanging at Cadeca. Mostly I was fine but on one occasion in Cienfuegos, the woman behind the desk inspected my £ with microscopic precision and rejected quite a few of them because they had small scribbles or marks on. I’d withdrawn them directly from the cash point in the UK so it was slightly frustrating. I’ve heard it very much depends on who is working behind the counter as to whether they’ll rigorously inspect your notes but in a country where ATMs/card payments often don’t work, you don’t want to take the risk. You can request pristine notes over the counter at the bank before you travel.
As a side note to currency, I read before I went to Cuba about how expensive it was but this never really seemed to manifest itself. It’s not as cheap as South East Asia for example but it’s certainly not an expensive place to travel and I think I averaged around $40-$45 (£31) a day (excluding flights). I booked my casa particulars (see below) on AirBnB and they were all around the £10 mark. Transport was a little expensive but never too bad. An overnight bus from Santiago de Cuba to Trinidad cost $33 whilst Cienfuegos to Havana (5 hours) was $20. Shorter trips (2-4 hours) tended to hover around $10. Beers were cheap, ranging from $1-$2 (70p – £1.50) in bars, even ones where you’d expect to pay a lot more. Mojitos and other cocktails were usually around $3. It was also very easy to find pretty cheap food. As a solo traveller, my bill would often come to around $7-$8 for a meal with a drink, often a pretty big portion with side dishes or salads. A huge breakfast in my casa particular would be 5 CUC and sometimes would do me for lunch as well. Most attractions were cheap, museums and the like costing $1-$2. Some more prominent attractions in Havana and Santiago would be a little more. For entertainment, it depends where you go, but most of the normal live music venues will charge $1-$2 cover. Obviously if you go to the more elaborate places, you’ll pay more. Midway through their set, musicians will often come round plugging their CD (another sign Cuba is still rooted in the past, I don’t even have the means to play a CD anymore) and it’s customary to give them a small tip (in either currency) if you enjoyed their music. Souvenirs were often cheap. I’m not normally much of a souvenir buyer but Cuba had a lot of quirky choices including lots of musical instruments (maracas $4-$10, mini drums and tambourines $3+), Cuban dominoes sets ($3-$10), cigars and obviously everything you can possibly imagine with Che Guevara on. As you’d expect, bottles of rum are also crazily cheap, selling for around $4 in supermarkets.
So, overall, Cuba surprised me with its relative cheapness. Perhaps it’s because I expected it to be expensive or maybe it’s because I was in Jordan just before. Anyway, it’s probably not as expensive as you think but if you got there thinking it’s more expensive than you think it will end up being much less expensive than you think… I think.
Getting around Cuba proved to be relatively straightforward through the nationwide bus service, Viazul, specifically designed (and priced) for tourists. Unless you can pass as a local, it’s rare you’ll be allowed to use the local buses for travelling across Cuba and judging by the state of some of them, I’m not sure you’d want to. As a result, the options for travellers are either a shared taxi (colectivo) – which works out around the same as a bus if you can fill it – or Viazul. I used Viazul for all my journeys and it worked out fine though often it’s not quite as easy as just rocking up on the day and jumping on the next bus. Schedules are quite sporadic. There’s usually a timetable posted in each station. Naturally Havana is the most well-connected but even then there are only 3 or 4 buses a day to the likes of Vinales, Trinidad or Varadero. Considering how many tourists are travelling round the country in high season, buses can fill up fast. As such, it really pays dividends to book at least a couple of days in advance. Sometimes the Viazul station is centrally located and easy to reach (Trinidad, Cienfuegos) and sometimes it’s way, way out of the centre (Havana, Holguin) in which case it’s worth booking your next journey right after you arrive to save you traipsing back to the station.
Staff usually speak enough English to make booking your bus smooth. Sometimes I needed my passport and sometimes I didn’t so it’s handy to have it with you. On a couple of occasions, when I tried to book in advance, they wrote my name on a list and told me to pick up my ticket/pay on the day. I was slightly worried this was a waiting list but on these occasions I never had a problem getting on the bus. In November when I travelled, buses were busy but rarely full. The only route which seemed a lot busier was Havana – Viñales and vice versa. Obviously in peak season, routes are going to be much busier. You are normally required to check in 30-60 minutes before travelling. You’re allowed to take luggage up to 20kg for free in the hold of the bus (the porter will usually ask for a tip). Above this weight and you have to pay an extra fee, depending how much heavier your bag is. The buses – often old Chinese ones – were pretty standard and comfortable. Often it’s the terrible condition of the Cuban roads rather than the buses that will make the journey more uncomfortable. However, aside from the bus breaking down, I managed a 12 hour overnight journey from Santiago de Cuba to Trinidad and it went fine. Just definitely book stuff in advance – you can also book online which I tried for the long journey to Trinidad. It worked fine but you must print your reservation and take it to the station when you check in. Often the website will also describe services as fully booked when they’re not so still check in person at the office just in case.
Based on my research, I was prepared for some really bad food in Cuba but was pleasantly surprised in most cases. It’s pretty simple and straightforward but that doesn’t mean it’s bad at all and I had some really delicious meals, particularly those cooked at my casa particulars. Breakfast is definitely the meal at which Cuba excels. Usually costing 5 CUC, your casa should be able to rustle up a veritable feast. In my casa in Trinidad, I got so much food that I could take some of it away and finish it for lunch. Most casas will provide the same sort of food: bread, omelette, fresh fruits, tea, coffee, fruit juices and some even gave me cakes and sandwiches. Often enjoyed on a terrace or in a garden, it’s the perfect way to start the day. Especially as I’m not normally much of a breakfast person, it was nice for me to finally get the most important meal of the day on a regular basis. If they could ship out a Cuban breakfast to me every morning I’m certain I’d eat breakfast more often.
It’s difficult to know for how long this information will remain relevant – Cuba is not a country that seems like it will change, but there are pockets of modernisation going on. It will be fascinating to see what kind of a travel destination Cuba will be in 5 or 10 years time. Since much of that change could hinge on its relationship with the USA, now really is the time to sample the uniqueness of this intoxicating country.