Cuba has so much to offer - dancing Salsa, drinking Mojitos, smoking Cigars, listening to Street Musicians, driving in Oldtimer Cars, relaxing at the white-sand beaches and swimming in crystal clear waters.
Due to its history and isolation, the tropical island of Cuba developed a unique culture and lifestyle that attracts thousands of tourists per year. Recently the country has opened up and since talks with the USA have started the number of tourist increased even more. People from all over the world want to experience this unique society before it gets tainted by american influences. Traveling in Cuba is different than in any other country we've experienced. Here is an overview about things you need to know about traveling in Cuba.
The budget way to stay in Cuba is in Home-stays / Guesthouses. The so-called Casas Particulares. In average they cost around 25 CUC (Cuban convertible peso) per night. In more touristy places such as Viñales or Trinidad they costs around 30 CUC per night. We only had great experiences with Casa Particulars. Nice hosts, big room, hot water and everything was spotless clean.
You can eat in most Casa Particulars. Breakfast is usually 5 CUC per person, and dinner around 10 CUC. For dinner you can mostly choose between - pork, chicken and lobster (langouste) and it includes local side dishes like rice, beans and vegetables.
Your hosts in these Casa Particulars are also your personal travel agents. During our travels we relied on Casa particulars to organize all our day trips, our taxi colectivos and we went with their suggestions for a casa particular at our next destination.
You have three options for getting around in Cuba - privat taxi, bus or taxi colectivos. We always went with the taxi colectivos as this has the best ratio between time and price. Our casa particulars organized our rides to our next destination. The taxi colectivos offers a door to door service and there are 4 people in the car. Its a great way to meet other travelers. We think that the door to door service is way better than the Viazul bus, especially because of the time you save. Here are some comparisons between taxi colectivos and Viazul bus.
Havana to Viñales
Taxi colectivos: 20 CUC per person. / 2.5 hours
Viazul Bus: 12 CUC per person & 10 CUC for the Havana taxi to get to the Viazul Bus Terminal / 3 - 4 hours
Viñales to Trinidad
Taxi colectivos: 35 CUC per person / 6 hours with change of Taxi colletivos in Havana
Viazul Bus: 37 CUC per person / 9.5 hours
Trinidad to Havana
Taxi colectivos: 30 CUC per person / 3.5 hours
Viazul Bus: 25 CUC per person & 10 CUC for the Havana Taxi to your accommodation / 7-9 hours
You might ask yourself why the taxi colectivo from Trinidad to Havana is almost the same price as from Viñales to Trinidad even tough it's a shorter distance. Our host at the casa particular explained that the taxi drivers orient themselves on the prices of the Viazul buses. If they are a bit cheaper than the Viazul buses, a tourist will always choose the taxi colectivo because it's faster and door to door.
Money is an issue in Cuba. Your ATM card (maestro or plus) will not work. A credit card like Mastercard or Visa will work at most ATMs. Be aware that your bank might set a limit for the amount of cash you can extract with your credit card. However you can't pay with credit card. Only in some fancy hotels it might be a possibility.
Change your cash at an official Casa de Cambio or Street Money Changer
An official Casa de Cambio will always charge you a 3% fee if you change your money. If you want to change US Dollars there is an additional 10% fees for US dollars - therefore 100 USD are only 87 CUC. This 10% fee only applies to US dollars not to Euro, Pounds or any other currency. However not all currency can be changed - check beforehand.
Expect a long line before any Casa de Cambio and be prepared to wait an hour. Locals told us lines are shorter right before the Casa de Cambio opens and before they close. But either way you still have to wait.
You can also change your money “illegaly” on the streets. If you have US dollars - this way you avoid the 3% fee from the Casa de Cambio and for 100$ you get 90 CUC. We've heard you can get better deals but have not encountered them. Our hosts from the Casa particulars helped us find a good street dealer. This way we got a better rate and didn't waste time waiting inline at an official Casa de Cambio. However, this is not without risk - beware of counterfeits!
WiFi / Internet
WiFi is not omnipresent like in most developed countries and this also makes traveling different. For example you can't book your next accommodation in advance over the internet. You have to do it over the good old telephone.
WiFi hotspots can be found in every town at the squares/parks. In addition there are also WiFi hotspots in the bigger hotels. You can easily see if a square/park has WiFi or not - everywhere people will be starring into their phones. These networks are provided by the government communication provider ETECSA. A internet prepaid card for 2 CUC will give you 1 hour internet access. Don't forget to logout once you you're done using it, or your credit runs out. Don't expect the internet to be stable, really fast or the login to work smoothly. Its Cuba!
Internet cards can be bought at a ETECSA office. But there will be long lines. Alternatively just start a conversation with the tourist at the front of the line and ask him to buy a card or two for you. 🙂 This worked for us. There are also street hustlers at the squares that sell you internet cards for 3 CUC. Our casa particular hosts were also able to sell us internet cards for 3 CUC.
We found an illegal WiFi networks in a park of Havana. People were on their phones but there was no offical network around. We asked the locals and they brought us to the lady in charge. For 1 CUC per hour, she tipped the password into our phones. The WiFi speed was of the same quality as a ETECSA network. However you can't logout and log back in again. After one hour you are still connected to the illegal network but can't access the internet. They must have some kind of system to track the usage.