For the unprepared, Cuba is as frustrating as it is charming.
You cannot use TripAdvisor’s “near me” function to find a good restaurant, massage or bar.
There’s no Google Maps if you get lost.
Guides like the Lonely Planet are your only lifeline when it comes to finding interesting things to see or do.
The tourist offices, if you can call them that, have long lines waiting to see one person while a handful of other staff stand around just watching.
If you get a casa particular owner that speaks English, you should be able to get some inside knowledge for Cuban salsa classes and the best places to catch live music like trova.
But the worst part is how quickly your budget is restricted without enough cashola.
So here’s a quick guide to make sure you’re more prepared than, um, some people I know.
But, honestly, taking a tour is the best advice I can give after nine days travelling in the dark.
Take cash and lots of it. Euros or Canadian dollars are best.
Cuba charges extra to change US dollars.
Many travel cards don’t work in the ATMS or in the banks as Cuba is a “sanctioned” country. Whatever that means.
You can order euros from Australia Post on its website, or in person, and it arrives a few days later.
The best rate seems to be at the airport on the way in. The currency exchange window is just after you exit the Havana airport, near the taxis.
Banks also offer good rates if you go in. If for some reason you don’t have enough cash and the ATMS are not playing the game, you can take your passport and credit card into an actual bank and they will let you withdraw.
A copy of a passport is not good enough.
The CUC – the currency tourists use – matches the American dollar.
You will NEVER have enough change in this country.
The bank and ATM will give you 10s and 20s which seem like low amounts but NO-ONE has change.
You’ll see them running to nearby shops, or even into houses, trying to find someone with change.
My surmising is that running two currencies means people can’t keep enough change in both. If you can get your hands on the local currency, you might have more luck.
But, unless you speak fluent Spanish, I’d be reluctant to try and trade on the black market.
If you get money at the bank or a currency exchange booth, ask for as many fives and coins as you can. Even run into a bank and change a few 20s into $1 CUC coins – you won’t regret the extra weight.
Cuba has $3 CUC notes (I know, weird, right) and $5 CUC notes which come in pretty handy too so get a mix of the smaller notes.
Good luck if you need to phone home. You’ll have as much trouble as ET. And, phone operators in Cuba say the country does not allow reverse charge calls.
For example, have fun calling your bank to find why your card isn’t working when you can only get a card that lasts 8.5 minutes and you’re stuck on hold.
It’s hardly annoying at all listening to a recording saying “your call is important to us” and they’ll answer as soon as possible.
If you line up at the Esteca store, you can buy $10 CUC card and then find a pay phone at a hotel to use it. Hotel Nacional and Hotel Ingleterra are among a handful that do.
If you’re lucky, your casa particular owners might let you use the card on their phone but not all do. They’ve been bitten before.
Ensure you know the right codes to dial out of Cuba and into your own country before you rock up. It’s +61 for Australia.
You know when you go camping and your phone says “no service” until you reach the main road again?
That’s basically Cuba. But the main road is not a long stretch back to civilisation – it’s just a handful of hotels where you can use a wifi card.
Again, you’ll need to line up at Esteca for an hour in the sun to buy a card or you should be able to buy them at select hotels. Get the five-hour one ($10 CUC) if you’re in Cuba a while. Otherwise, they usually come in one-hour blocks ($2 CUC).
The five places in Havana we found with wifi were La Floridita, Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Nacional, Hotel Iberostar and Hotel Sevilla. They say you can get wifi in Parque Central too but I had no luck there.
The Rex is the best spot in Santiago de Cuba – grab a mojito on the top floor and overlook the city.
Another tourist says there is wifi access, again with the wifi card, in one of the Trinidad plazas but I cannot verify that personally.
Something important to know about the wifi cards is that you have to logout.
I was told that you if you don’t logout, the rest of the time on your card will continue and expire.
One way to log out was to log back in and then press “cerrar session” to end.
If you can’t figure it out, ask someone at the hotel where you’re accessing the wifi.
Overnight buses are very basic. No lights. Occasional foot rests still in tact. You’ll get a warning about doing anything other than a number one in the loo.
Check as soon as you get on whether your seat reclines, otherwise you’ll likely end up with a snoring head in your lap within the hour.
And take warm clothes, preferably a rug of some kind, because the air-conditioning that starts off refreshing quickly becomes unbearable. Take advantage of the loo stops at bus stations along the way.
Some bus stations will only let you buy tickets one hour before a bus leaves.
Others will let people book in advance, which means the bus could be sold out when you want to travel.
If you know your schedule in advance, buy the tickets in Havana where you can definitely book in advance.
A cab out to the Viazul station in Havana should cost $10CUC each way. Taxi collectivos can be worth it if you can share with others.
Even taxis over long distances aren’t too exxy.
For example, a collectivo from Trinidad to Havana costs $120 CUC alone but is obviously cheaper if split between four.
And half the time of the bus with loo stops on request.
It’s definitely worth staying in casas particulares both for the experience and the hip pocket.
They usually range between $25 and $35 CUC a night depending where you stay.
Some feel like family homes and some like well-oiled bed and breakfasts.
Expect lumpy beds and average pillows – but most have digital air conditioning which proves a life saver. Cuba is hot and humid.
They will charge $3-$5 CUC for breakfast but it’s usually worth it.
Get a card for the place you’re staying, you’ll need it when directing taxis back there.
They’ll tell you it’s $50 CUC for an hour and $90 for two hours.
But it’s easy to talk them down to about $35 an hour or move to another driver if you’re not fussy on the make, model and colour.
If you’re on a tight budget, like we were thanks to the aforementioned money issues, you can actually just ask them to run you from A to B. One suggestion would be from the ferry terminal to Hotel Nacional along the Malecon at sunset.
Then catch one of the coco taxis – seats in little yellow bubbles attached to a motorbike – back to the Old Town or Centro.
As for other taxis, I can guarantee that walking away will get your a better price. Haggle hard.