Over the past two years, traveling to Cuba has become more accessible and open to Americans, and they are arriving on the island nation in droves. But after 60 years of restricted visits, unfortunately, we have very little knowledge about the way of life Cuba has to offer.
I had certain expectations that were lowered once I got there, and in other cases I was impressed by the results. With very little foresight of what to expect, Americans need any information they can get and here are some tips.
1. Cuba looks unsafe, but not to worry.
In some places Cuba looks like what it is: a developing country and run down, and parts of Havana are certainly gritty.
At first, I thought the city was going to be unsafe based on its appearance, but after a day of walking around I recognized my judgments were incorrect. The buildings are unique and oftentimes the inside of the living spaces are colorful and decorated.
2. Bed-and-Breakfast accommodations are authentic Cuban style, but hotels are more reasonable for Americans.
If you want the full Cuban experience then a bed-and-breakfast is the perfect destination, but if you want air conditioning, Wi-Fi and other amenities, then a hotel is the way to go.
For Americans, a hotel seems like a better choice because it offers some of the necessities for an American lifestyle and a 24/7 front desk staffed by English speakers for any questions or concerns.
Wi-Fi is offered in select hotels, and in order to get access you must buy an Internet card with a username and password. The Internet card for one hour costs around 2 CUC each (around $2).
If you try to access the Internet during the middle of the day- you will probably be kicked off because the router is too full and Wi-Fi has the strongest connection in the evening.
3. You should be able to get around with Spanish.
I speak almost no Spanish, so the language was a barrier for communication with the locals.
Most people speak only Spanish, so getting to certain locations and asking simple questions can become a big problem. When someone speaks English, you must speak slowly because talking quickly (normal American speed) can be confusing for the Cuban people. So be sure to download a translator app before your trip.
4. Be prepared for the sun.
There are three major items you will need to protect yourself from the sometimes blistering tropical sun – sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
You should apply and re-apply sunscreen throughout the day in order to avoid a sunburn. A hat will shade your face from the direct sunlight, and it will keep the top of your head from getting sunburnt and keep cool.
Sunglasses are a necessity because the sunlight can harm your eyes and ruin your view of Cuba. Sunburn and sunstroke are the most common health problems of tourists.
5. No tap water- only bottled.
There are some major precautions a traveler to Cuba should take in order to not get sick from the tap water.
First of all, drink only bottled water. Never refill a water bottle from the sink and be careful with the water and ice restaurants give you. I even washed my teeth with bottled water just to be safe.
The most important thing to remember is drink lots of water. You sweat so much with the sun and the humidity and you don’t realize how much you need to rehydrate, so constantly be drinking water. Also, stay away from seafood and foods from the stalls in the streets.
6. No toilet paper goes in the toilet.
This is a major difficulty for Americans because it is a natural habit to drop the toilet paper into the bowl, but in Cuba, where low water pressure is common, they put the toilet paper in the trash. Multiple times I had to fish out my toilet paper so in order to save you the grief, remind yourself to put it in the trash.
7. Understand the culture.
Machismo is the Cuban male culture that includes flirtatious behavior, bravado expressions and sometimes aggression to show male pride. Men calling you beautiful, checking you out and making kissing sounds are very common when walking through the streets. The best way to deal with the unwanted verbal attention is to ignore it.
Furthermore, Cubans are rarely on time. The culture is more focused on people than schedules. For example, lunch would start at 2 p.m. and I wouldn’t get served until 3 p.m. Prepare for everything to take longer than expected.
8. Seasonings are rare in Cuba.
The food is altogether bland. There is very little pepper or salt in any of the foods, so be prepared to have plain food. If you like it spicy pack a bottle of Tabasco sauce or your favorite spices.
9. The money exchange can be tricky.
Cuba has two currencies – the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP). Cubans mostly use the CUP because all tourist transactions are in CUC.
You want to use the CUC because 1 CUC is equal to 24 CUP. Also, 1 CUC is almost equal to 1 U.S dollar. The exchange rate from U.S dollars to CUC includes 10% commission but there is no rate for any other currencies.
But the CUC and CUP have zero value outside Cuba, so be sure to exchange your money before leaving or spend it on souvenirs somewhere on your trip.
10. Confirm and re-confirm plans.
In order to avoid miscommunication and cancellations, confirm and reconfirm plans often. If you book a classic car tour in one of those lovingly restored Detroit-made, 1950’s metal monsters confirm the day before and reconfirm on the day of the event.
If travelers can respect and appreciate Cuban culture it will go a long way towards furthering understanding between the two peoples who have been separated for too long.