What the Guidebook didn’t tell us

This page will cover the things we found out the hard way. It’s divided into sections; before Cuba, transport, accommodation, and activities, people and other. We’ll update it as we write the blog.

We hope it helps you have an amazing (and safe) time in Cuba!

Before Cuba

2013-06-09 23.15.26

  1. Take a good book. The flights are long and you’ll need it for all that time on the beach!
  2. Flights are much cheaper in June than July. We used Skyscanner to check a few different dates because you can compare whole months at a time.
  3. Buying a flight there and then a last minute flight back when you know what date you want to go is usually cheaper than buying a flexible ticket.
  4. You need a visa. We bought ours from the Cuban Embassy in London but we did meet someone who’d used a website where some people buy your visa for you and send it. The Embassy offers a postal service so use that if you can’t go in!
  5. If you’re travelling lots take a rucksack. It’s much easier to lug around and you’ll look like less of a mug than you will dragging a huge suitcase across Havana. Also you’ll look poorer, which is always a good thing.
  6. Learn some Spanish! There are so many places to learn a few phrases (try the apple store for free apps or the bbc) that there really is no excuse for being the tourist that doesn’t know a word of Spanish so just shouts in English.

Transport

Bike

  1. Trains are horrific. Even if you manage to find out when your train leaves and where from, buy a ticket and get a seat, the majority are delayed or cancelled. It’s far quicker to get a bus. It’s probably quicker to walk.
  2. The Viazul is ok. The toilets probably won’t work but you’ll stop fairly often so it’s not a huge problem. They will smell!
  3. Treat your ticket with the utmost care and attention. If you damage it you will have to buy another one. This applies even when the bus only goes to one place.
  4. You can get motorbikes to lots of places. They will probably have sidecars. They may even have helmets for you to wear. They will not, however, have heat shields on the exhaust pipes. Watch your legs.
  5. When hiring bikes hire the good ones. They will still probably cause severe bruising.

Accommodation

  1. 5* in Cuba is not the same as 5* in Europe. 5* hotels in Havana are overpriced for what they are – really you’re paying for a grand lobby but the rooms are often poorly maintained and not as clean as casas (Hotel Nacional point in case). 4* hotels are just as nice if not nicer, better value for money and the difference is probably a flat screen TV – which since you’re on holiday in Cuba there is no point in watching anyway – and a swimming pool, which were often disappointing in our experience.
  2. Casas Particulares can be lovely. We had some great experiences!

Activities

Cuba has it all – beaches, coral reefs, rivers, jungle, caves, fields, cities – so there’s a huge variety of activities to get up to which we will go into more detail as we go along. But as a guide:

  1. Salsa
  2. Hiking
  3. Cycling
  4. Swimming
  5. Sunbathing
  6. Museums
  7. Horseback riding
  8. Tobacco plantation tours
  9. Caving
  10. Snorkelling – though locals informed us of aggressive fish and sharks which didn’t feature in the guide book, so we chose to err on the side of caution and steer clear.

People

At first glance Cuban culture seems really friendly bar the usual street peddlers and others who may try and swindle you out of some money (although really for European terms getting ripped off here is not that bad).

However, you should watch out with developing personal relationships over there. This is not to say you shouldn’t interact with locals, but even if you feel that you are becoming one of them you should remain aware that due to the political situation and the poverty it has created, the differences between you and the locals remains glaringly visible to them even if it may not seem that way to you. This requires longer explanation and will become clear over the course of our story.

Shopping

Cuba is famed for cigars and rum. Rum can be bought everywhere for a very reasonable price (we recommend Viazul stations and supermarkets as they have a great selection and it’s well regulated). Cigars, however, you are best off buying from the plantation itself. They aren’t difficult to get to and you can see the cigars being made. The plantation we went to in Vinales was more than worth a short horse ride and a few CUC to see. If you’d rather buy them from slightly dodgy looking men in big cities then just be aware that there isn’t really any way of ensuring that the ones you have bought are the really good ones.

Other than this, Cubans have a lot less than the UK in shops so don’t expect to be able to buy stylish clothes everywhere or new shows when yours melt in the heat. You can, however, get toiletries and makeup very cheaply and we found it to be of a similar standard to western brands.

Other

  1. Don’t walk under the balconies! They look like they might collapse at any minute and sometimes they do.

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