This article is a companion to “¡Hasta la Proxima!” in the Second Quarterly Issue of the MockingOwl Roost: Dreams.
In November 2019, I fulfilled a long-held dream of visiting Cuba, something that international politics made impossible for many decades. Currently, it’s the Covid-19 pandemic that is making most travel impossible. Hope for renewed travel opportunities is finally on the way, so it’s not too soon to start planning for your dream trips!
If Cuba is on your travel bucket list, here are my best tips for making that dream possible.
There are specific guidelines United States citizens must follow to be able to visit Cuba, once international travel is possible again. Begin your planning at least 6-12 months in advance to ensure time to get the necessary permissions and immunizations. Take advantage of all that lead time to do your research on what Cuba has to offer, and which cities and attractions most interest you.
Your credit cards will not work, so you must bring cash, which you exchange at a Cadeca (casa de cambio) for CUP, Cuban pesos. However, you’ll receive your CUP in denominations of 20, so pay attention to the next tip!
Exchange your money into as small denominations as possible. Whether it’s food, souvenirs, or tips, you’ll need small denominations of bills and plenty of coinage because – and I can’t stress this enough – no merchants have change for a twenty. Also, banks will likely limit the amount of change they give you, so be prepared to look for banks wherever you go.
You tip if you take a photo of someone, you tip for toilet paper, you tip your taxi driver, you tip your casa familiar hosts, you tip your tour guide. Cuba has worked hard to build its tourism industry, and in general people can make a decent living or are able to supplement their income because of tourism. But it is considered polite to give at least a small tip to anyone who does a service for you, no matter how small, even if only a few coins.
Keep toilet paper or baby wipes handy. Public bathrooms don’t typically stock paper, although some have attendants from whom you can buy paper (for which you need change!). Keep in mind that there is a charge for some public bathrooms.
Don’t count on internet service. You can buy cards that will give you service in increments of an hour, and some casas might allow you to log onto their service. But you might need to find a (jam-packed) special wifi (pronounced ‘weefee’) park where you get online. Service will likely be slow. If you can do without it, just walk away from the internet during your time in Cuba.
Remember that thing called an embargo? Well, it means that trading partners are few. Therefore, diversity of food is hard to come by in Cuba. Gasoline is hard to stock. Auto parts are
hard impossible to come by.
Know instead that Cuba is a beautiful island with warm people, delicious food, and interesting culture. Your meals will be heavy on chicken, fish, and rice because that’s home grown. Focus on enjoying what Cuba has and don’t worry about what it doesn’t have.
Chocolates and other U.S. candy, pens, pencils, and school supplies were appreciated as gifts. We gave them to the people who worked as housekeepers for the owners of the casa particular, not the owners themselves. We gave our extras to our tour guide to distribute as he saw fit to people in poorer areas that we visited.
If your budget affords, find a reputable tour company rather than relying completely on your own research. Some companies will even tailor your tour to the locations or attractions you’re most interested in, if you have a large enough group.
We used Globe Drifters. They came highly recommended. Not only did they have a standard itinerary ready-made, they smoothed the way when unexpected things popped up. The casa had plumbing issues? Fixed by the time we got back from our excursion. The casa wasn’t as nice as advertised? Refund, plus an assurance they’d not be used again. Abel was a fabulous, knowledgeable guide, and Ismael was a talented driver. Their knowledge added immensely to the value of our trip and helped us avoid cultural gaffes. Plus they were a ton of fun!