Cuba: getting ready for your trip

Preparing a trip to Cuba is a little more complicated than to other countries due to many factors, such as the scarcity of common things and resources in the country, the system of double currency, lack of internet connection, and many others. It was quite difficult for me to collect all the necessary information while I was getting ready for the trip, so I thought putting it all together might make it easier for those of you who are still planning your first trip to this incredible country.

Here are some things you should start with:

Visa. All foreigners traveling to Cuba need to obtain a visa, or rather a “traveler’s card”, as they call it. It’s not a visa they stamp in your passport, but a document you must request in advance and carry it with you when entering and leaving the country. There are only a few countries which are an exception and their nationals can’t request the “traveler’s card” and must go to the corresponding Cuban Consulate to obtain a visa. Please check the website of your country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, if you have doubts about it.

If you are traveling from Spain, as it was my case, there are quite many agencies that prepare the Traveler’s Card for you. I would recommend OnlineTours, which we found after reading a few forums about how to get this card in the least painful, cheapest and fastest way. You can order it online and after paying 22€ per person + 4€ shipping costs (at least that was the price when I requested it) it takes them a couple of days to send the document to you. I had some limitations about the time of the delivery and the company was also quick to respond and adapt to my needs. You can also obtain the Traveler’s Card in the Cuban Consulate, but after reading a few forums about the queues, waiting times and the efficiency of the process, I simply discarded this option. It’s not even cheaper if you do it through the Consulate, so I wouldn’t recommend this option.

Medical insurance. All foreigners traveling to Cuba need a proof of a valid medical insurance that covers their stay in the country. We thought we might have an issue with it, as our insurance company made a mistake and indicated “Russia” (it also used to be communist, right?) instead of “Cuba” in the certificate they sent us as a proof that we are covered during our trip. We did not have a chance to obtain a new one, as we had requested it last minute – and when I say last minute, I mean that the erroneous certificate reached us by email 15 minutes before we left our home for the airport. Don’t do this, OK? Make sure that you not only have a valid insurance, which we did, but also a certificate from the insurance company proving that you are still paying for it and that it covers you during the trip. Insurance companies are used to issuing these types of certificates so it’s a painless procedure, but make sure that you don’t forget to request yours in advance.

In the end, we were lucky, as nobody checked our insurance upon arrival. Don’t count on it though. I have read in the forums that you can buy an insurance at the airport when you arrive, but if I were you, I’d have it all fixed in advance, just in case – it will save your money and you will not have to worry about the possibility of being stopped at the border.

Accommodation. Airbnb operates in Cuba since September 2015 for US travelers, and since approximately a year ago it’s available for travelers from anywhere in the world. In our case we used it a lot for looking for accommodation there. We were not interested in staying in touristic resorts or luxurious hotels, preferring and more authentic experience and a chance to have more contact with the locals, so if that’s your case too, Airbnb is the right option for you. There are a lot of choices of renting rooms in people’s houses or hostels (although in most of the cases a “hostel” is also somebody’s house in Cuba), and the price range for what we chose varied from 24 to 28€ per night. If you find a place you really like, I would recommend you to look for it outside of Airbnb as well. You may be able to book it directly with the owners and avoid paying Airbnb service fee.

Our initial plan was to book just the first few days and leave the rest for when we arrive. Remember, that access to internet is not always possible in Cuba, so there are a lot of places you simply can’t book online. In the end, we voted for booking everything in advance, and it happened to be a great decision. Looking for accommodation on the spot is certainly an experience, but it will consume a big chunk of your time which you could otherwise use for sightseeing or doing other things. You may also end up with booking places you don’t like, for example, just because you arrived to your next destination at night and you have no time for finding anything better.

In any case, remember that you have this possibility as well, and it’s pretty normal to look for accommodation on the spot in Cuba. Official houses that rent rooms have a sign hung somewhere on the house (you can see it below) that indicates it, and you can simply knock on the door and check if they have anything available. Even if they don’t have rooms for rent they will certainly know someone who has, and will call them or will give you their contact details so that you can go and see it.

Talking about rooms for rent, it’s worth mentioning that most of the private house owners offer breakfast for an additional 4-5 CUC (4-5€) per person, and I promise that it’s really really worth paying for. More about the food in the next chapters though.

Internet. Forget about it, OK? When you are preparing for your trip, just think that you won’t have access to it. Even if you may eventually be able to connect for a moment, the connection will certainly be terrible or won’t last. Therefore, make sure that you prepare and have all the information you may need – addresses, directions, phone numbers, places you want to visit and information about them, your itinerary, etc – printed out and/or saved in an offline format in your phone. It’s useful to explore in advance and note down the names, addresses and phone numbers of the restaurants you want to go to as well. Some of the better places fill up quickly and may have long queues, so it may be worth booking them in advance.

Money. Have cash on you. Although there are some cashpoints where you can withdraw money from your bank account, they are scarce. You can exchange your cash to CUC or “peso convertible” upon your arrival to the airport. 1 CUC is currently more or less equal to 1€. Some places may accept Euro, but you shouldn’t count on that. When you calculate the money you need for the trip, don’t think it’s a cheap country – in most of the cases you will go to places frequented by tourists, which means that the prices are going to be for tourists as well.

Remember that there are two types of currency in Cuba – CUC, or peso convertible, which is what you as a tourist will use in almost all cases, and CUP, or peso nacional, which is what locals use.

1 CUC had a fixed value of 24 CUP when we were visiting Cuba. I would recommend you to exchange at least 10 CUC to CUP at a local official currency exchange office (Cadeca) when you have a chance. Although in 90% of the cases you will be using CUC, CUP will be useful for some specific things, for example collective taxis (taxis colectivos or almendrones), tips for people that may give you advise on the street or buying at a local market, for example.

Maps. My first thought before the trip was to download the offline map of the towns we are going to visit from Google Maps before we start the trip. Unfortunately, this feature is not available for Cuba. There is another lifesaver app though, called Galileo (available for iOS and Android). Once downloaded, the whole map of Cuba occupied only 11 MB! It’s a very detailed map and apart from the main landmarks, it also shows most of the restaurants, pharmacies, petrol stations, ATM machines, currency exchange offices, hostels, hotels and other places you may find useful.

Medicine. Medicine is scarce in Cuba, so do carry all medicine you may need during the trip with you. Some of the medicines I recommend you to have are:

  • your regular painkillers / anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Paracetamol
  • A broad-spectrum antibiotic (just ask for it at your local pharmacy)
  • Physiological liquid in case you have diarrhea and get dehydrated (which, of course I did, and it was a real lifesaver). It’s usually sold dry and you simply need water to prepare it.
  • Antidiarrheals
  • An antihistamine for possible allergies
  • An antihistamine cream for insect bites, especially if you are allergic
  • An antibiotic ointment in case of a wound infection
  • Your regular pills for digestion

Other items I recommend you to take with you:

  • Sticking-plaster
  • Hygienic towels. Toilet paper is not always present, as well as hot water and facilities for showering.
  • Insect repellent. We never really needed it, but there are some places where you will find mosquitos and other insects (or rather mosquitos and other insects will find you..)
  • Sun cream. There’s never too much sun cream if you are going to Cuba. Ours ran out in the middle of the trip and it took us two days and a lot of sunburn to find a place to buy a new one (big hotels or resorts may have sun cream in their stores, in case it helps). Of course, it’s going to be much more expensive if you buy it in Cuba as well.
  • An after-sun lotion in case you get sunburnt.
  • Although in most of the hostels you will find soap, shampoo is scarce. Therefore, if you don’t want to use soap for your hair, having your own shampoo might be useful.
  • Adaptors for your electrical devices. In Cuba, the sockets are the same as in the US (for Type A plugs that have two flat pins) and the standard voltage is 110 V, which doesn’t mean that you can’t plug your devices in if they are meant for 220V – it’s simply going to take longer for them to charge. A lot of private homes have at least one or two 220 V plugs as well.
  • A hand-sanitizer.
  • It may sound obvious, but for people like me, who come from the North, it’s not, so I thought I’d include it.
  • A guitar. And no, I don’t mean it as a joke. I’m going to talk about the music in my next articles on Cuba, but for now I can only say that you can’t imagine how many doors a musical instrument will open for you. And yes, we did take a guitar to Cuba.

And that’s it for now. Do feel free to write a comment if you think that I have missed something indispensable. And enjoy your trip to Cuba – it’s certainly going to be an unforgettable experience.

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