Cuba, the largest Caribbean island is famous for many things: white beaches, rum and cigars, music and dancing, history and architecture and old American cars. Since my first brief visit in 2004, tourism in Cuba has boomed, especially in Varadero, Havana and Trinidad. Many people visit Cuba as part of all-inclusive packages to the Varadero beach resorts. A good proportion of those who do venture further afield, do so on organised tours. Whilst, of course, there’s nothing wrong with those travel styles, they’re not for Andy and I as we prefer independent travel. This led us to our recent discovery of how challenging and frustrating independent travel to Cuba can be.
Tips for Independent Travel to Cuba
Our recent trip to Cuba was one of our most challenging travel experiences to date (and we’ve both travelled extensively), so we wanted to help those who prefer to ‘go it alone’ like us. Cuba’s not somewhere that’s easy to turn up and just wing it; you really need to do your research and a bit of planning first. So based on our experiences and the main causes of our headaches during our time in Downtown Varadero, Santa Clara, Trinidad and Havana, here are our 10 tips for independent travel to Cuba.
1. Take Plenty of Cash and Not US dollars
2. Prepare For No Wifi
- Queue for AGES at an ETESCA office to buy the card
- Get pushed and shoved in the rush when the doors are finally opened
- Take multiple attempts to connect to the wifi as so many people are using it
- Lose the connection just as you’re about to confirm a booking
- OR be unable to process the payment as it’s an ‘unsecured’ connection
- OR the wifi credit runs out just as you’re about to pay as it took so long
- Print out Travel Documents – you won’t be able to access accommodation or flight confirmations unless you screenshot them on your phone. I always keep mine safe in my money belt (although I rarely actually wear it).
- Pack a Guidebook – a guidebook, either a paperback or an e-book will be invaluable for ideas for accommodation, food, drink, sights and activities. Dad bought us a great Cuba Lonely Planet Guidebook for Christmas but it was a bit too heavy for our bags. Instead, we downloaded the Cuba Lonely Planet kindle version of it and a Cuba Rough Guide kindle version.
- Download a map app – it’s practically impossible to get hold of a paper map in Cuba and if you do find one it will be expensive. You can’t download offline maps without wifi so your best bet is to download a map app before leaving for Cuba that works offline. We usually use Google Maps, but, this doesn’t work in Cuba; instead, we ended up using the Maps.me app. This was a lifesaver when it came to finding ATMs, restaurants and directions offline! Beware that occasionally it can be slightly out of date although it worked most of the time for us and is enough to prevent you from getting (too) lost!
- Download books, films and music – if you like to have any of these for entertainment make sure you download them before leaving home. You won’t be able to download once you’re in Cuba even if you do buy a wifi card. My Kindle Fire got a lot of use in Cuba.
3. Stay in Casa Particulares
A better option in our opinion is to stay in casa particulares, these are rooms in a Cuban families homes or a private apartment that they own. Staying in these give a fantastic insight into real Cuban life. You’ll find most families warm and welcoming. Usually, the price includes some sort of breakfast ranging from a simple continental to huge feasts of eggs, bread, cake, and fruit. The one we had at our casa in Santa Clara was enough to keep us going all day! Many hosts also invite you to join them for meals if you wish (at an extra cost); if you do this it will likely be the best meal(s) you’ll have in Cuba.
Nowadays, you can book some casa particulares via Airbnb and other similar websites. It’s a good idea to book your first couple of nights in advance before departing for Cuba. After that, especially if you like to be flexible you should be able to find a casa particular pretty much anywhere once you arrive.
Just look out for houses with a ‘blue anchor’ on or near the front door which indicates that the casa is available for foreigners. A ‘red anchor’ indicates they’re only for Cuban guests – they tend to have lower standards and prices.
4. Lower Your Food Expectations
We found the majority of food in Cuba to be very bland; in fact, blander than bland. It didn’t take long for us to become sick of dry meat and rice and ham and cheese. Ham and cheese rolls, ham and cheese pizza, ham and cheese pasta, ham and cheese with ham and cheese – you get the idea?! This is especially true if you’re on a budget; don’t expect many culinary delights unless you’re able to pay a premium at the more expensive restaurants or high-end hotels. Also, don’t be surprised to be told many items are off the menu in restaurants due to ingredient shortages. This happened to varying degrees nearly everywhere we ate.
A few hints which may help your dining experiences and/ or budget in Cuba are:
- Buy budget food at the hole in the wall joints – these take CUPs instead of CUCs and although it gets repetitive quickly you can pick up a small pizza, spaghetti, or sandwich for between 0.40 – 1 CUC.
- Eat in paladars – despite finding the food in Cuba, as a whole, pretty dire, there were a few exceptions. Those tended to be in paladars – restaurants set up in local Cubans homes. We had two or three passable meals in paladars, still not amazing and rather pricey, but they made a welcome change to the usual bland fare. If you eat in a paladar try Ropa Vieja or ‘old clothes’ (shredded beef stewed in a tomato and vegetable sauce) and Lobster Pasta. These were the only two dishes that I thought were quite tasty. If funds hadn’t been an issue I’d have alternated these every night; at least until I got sick of them.
- Pack condiments and snacks – Apart from in Havana, there was a distinct lack of condiments in eateries. We did see ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard in a few shops but they were expensive. A great addition to your baggage would be your favourite condiment(s) to liven up the dull food a bit. In Andy’s case, he wished he’d packed Tabasco sauce and Ketchup. Taking snacks like cereal bars and nuts is also a good idea to save a little cash and fill a gap when you’re sick of the other food on offer.
Another thing you may consider taking (mainly for the English amongst you) is ‘proper’ teabags. It’s extremely difficult to get a decent cuppa in Cuba and nearly all the casas we stayed at had only coffee at breakfast. If you take tea bags, just ask for hot water, milk and sugar and you’ll be sorted.
5. Take a Water Filter
As you’d expect, drinking tap water in Cuba is a ‘no-no’ and bottled water is expensive, especially in touristy places. It was about $2 (£1.55) for a 1.5-litre bottle in Trinidad and elsewhere wasn’t much better. This soon adds up when you’re getting through two to three litres of water per person a day. Of course, you can boil water to kill off anything harmful; we tried this though and it produced a white residue which we didn’t fancy drinking even though it was probably safe.
|Note: Andy later discovered the residue was natural minerals occurring in the water (or to be more precise – limestone). This would have been fine to drink, but it tasted funny so we decided to put up with the cost of bottled water.|
Although we wish we’d taken a water filter to Cuba we haven’t actually tried any yet so can’t make any specific recommendations so be sure to do your research before buying one.
6. Buy or Reserve Bus Tickets in Advance
7. Get Off the Tourist Trail
8. Take a Voltage Converter
9. Prepare to do Your Own Laundry
We didn’t see one single laundry while we were in Cuba; maybe we weren’t looking in the right places but I doubt it. With this in mind, be prepared to do your own laundry. This will typically involve handwashing in the sink or shower so a good addition to your packing is some laundry soap. You can get this in liquid or powder form or you could take a laundry detergent bar like we did, which is great as it doesn’t spill in your bag. We didn’t see this for sale in Cuba so take some with you. To dry your clothes a length of paracord (at least 10-metres) doubled over and twisted makes a perfect washing line.
10. Be Patient and Tolerant
During your time in Cuba, you’ll inevitably become increasingly agitated with the slow, usually poor service, and the queues. This is especially true for government establishments; we think (although we may be wrong) the reason was that the people working have very little reason to help you. They are paid a low set wage unrelated to performance with little risk of reprimand for poor service. Mostly they seem to do as little as possible with no urgency to provide timely and quality service. Potential customers are regularly ignored whilst staff play games on mobiles, chat amongst themselves or do anything except their job. This has the knock-on effect of queues, often very long queues which are really frustrating. It doesn’t help to get annoyed though; instead, just be prepared for it and be patient and tolerant.
Remember that eventually you will reach the front of the queue and get served; if that is, they don’t close first. Yes, that did actually happen to us when waiting to exchange currency at a CADECA. When that happens you just have to try again later! On the flipside, you should receive better service from private casa particulares, paradars and hole-in-the-wall places run by locals trying to supplement their government incomes.
We hope you’ll find these tips useful if you’re planning to travel independently in Cuba and that they help you make the most of your time there. Retha from Roaming Nanny shares 5 things to expect when travelling to Cuba, which gives some additional insight into the country.
We’re travelling as a couple but if you’re a solo female traveller, fellow travel blogger Claire from Claire’s Itchy Feet tells us what it’s like to travel in Cuba as a solo female.
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Have you travelled to Cuba independently? Do you have any other helpful tips to share that we’ve missed?
P.S. After we’d been to Cuba we headed to Mexico, where one of the most authenitc Mexican towns we visited was Valladolid. You can read more via the following link: