10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Traveling to Cuba

Cuba Travel Safety
by Celinne Da Costa Jun 24, 2016

1. Cuba has two currencies.

There’s the Cuban peso (CUP, otherwise known as the national coin), and the convertible peso (CUC), which is equivalent to 25 CUP and on par with the USD. Basically, tourists have a separate currency from locals and yes, it is confusing.

2. Because of that, it’s not as cheap as you’d think.

Since tourists have their own currency, prices can be raised to meet foreigners’ buying power. For example, a museum entrance can cost 8x more for a visitor than for a local. Relatively speaking, Cuba is still affordable, but expect to pay significantly more than Cubans.

3. There are really strict tourist laws.

The government has put a lot of laws into place to restrict contact between visitors and locals. Cubans are forbidden to “harass” tourists, so unless you initiate the conversation yourself, your communication with locals is probably going to be reserved to those working in tourist services. And these laws are actually enforced — in fact, it’s too easy for a local to get a ticket for seemingly benevolent behavior such as approaching tourists or giving them a ride.

4. Flexibility is not just a suggestion.

On my first day there, my local friend told me: “Cuba is the country of lines.” This couldn’t have been more true. Due to the lack of technology to help speed things along, everything is a process in Cuba: from exchanging cash, to checking in at the airport, to traveling from city to city — and if you’re on a budget, you’re going to have to take buses everywhere due to the lack of infrastructure. If you want to avoid stress, it’s important to strike a delicate balance between planning your destinations and activities ahead of time, while also remaining flexible to the possibility of making some changes on the fly.

5. You’re going to have to forget about amenities.

Toilet paper and soap are rare luxuries — even in nice places. The water runs when it feels like it (read: lots of cold baths with water scooped out of a large plastic bin), and air conditioning comes at a high price. My best advice is to always pack toilet paper, a fan, and hand sanitizer, and emotionally prepare yourself for some occasional discomfort.

6. There is no advertising anywhere. Because Communism.

Considering how many ads we are bombarded with daily across most of the world, it was jarring to see how barren of marketing Cuba was. Many locals haven’t even heard of the name McDonald’s or Starbucks. The only “advertising” that existed was propaganda: there were images of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and other communist leaders everywhere, as well as messages endorsing communism and socialism.

7. Most Cubans genuinely don’t think they’re living in a dictatorship.

It’s unsurprising yet still shocking to see how biased Cuban history is against the U.S. and favorable to the Castros. While the U.S. views Cuba as a repressive dictatorship, Cubans themselves don’t see it that way; although many — especially the younger generations — seemed to be disgruntled with the current government, I encountered very few Cubans who viewed the state as a dictatorship.

8. If you’re a woman, you’re going to get cat-called.

Trust me, I do not exaggerate when I say this: as a foreign woman, it is really difficult to walk a few blocks without being cat-called by a local. This comes in the form of hisses, clucks, kissy noises, and everything in between. It took me a while to accept that culturally, this is supposed to be a compliment. But still, be prepared to be consistently creeped out.

9. There is so much more to the country than Havana.

When I first read about Cuba, I mostly learned about Havana and its surrounding locations that are accessible by day trips. I realized when I arrived there that the country has SO many beautiful places to visit, and getting from one to the other is a process since the infrastructure is so limited. When visiting Cuba, I would recommend staying at least 15 days to really see everything, and even that won’t be enough.

Some of my favorite places were the valleys of Viñales, Trinidad — a Spanish colonial town and the oldest in Cuba, dating back to the 1500s — and Playa Ancon, which is a crystalline beach near Trinidad.

10. You’re going to feel very welcomed.

One of the first things I noticed traveling through the country was how much the Cuban community seemed to look out for one another. The people I met were some of the kindest, warmest, and overwhelmingly appreciative people that I’ve ever met traveling, especially when it came to welcoming visitors. I’ve never felt so genuinely wanted as a tourist in another country.

One of my best memories was chatting with an elder street vendor, who gifted me a pair of earrings simply for stopping to speak with him. His payment, he said, was to visit him when I returned to Cuba. Another time, my friend’s relatives invited me to have a homemade lunch with them at their farm. Yes, they seemed to have little, but they welcomed and fed me. At the end of the day, Cuba had some quirks that I had to get used to, but as I left, all I felt was joy over the experiences I had there.

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