lauras_rambles_havana_cuba fort malecon

HAVANA, CUBA: 30+ Tips I Wish I Knew Before Vacation

I highly recommend traveling to Havana, Cuba to experience their vibrant culture, ride in a 1950s classic car along the Malecón, and listen to live music while dining on the signature Cuban dish – ropa vieja. As amazing as my experience was, there are some things I wish I knew beforehand. Below are quick facts to help you plan and prepare for your Cuban adventure.

  1. Travel visa was stamped upon entry to Cuba and taken when leaving the country. This is a critical piece of paper that can make or break your return home!
  2. Visa can either be purchased online for $100 and delivered within a week. Or a cheaper option at half the price, is purchasing this through the airline at the airport, however you run the risk of that service desk not being available at the day/time you are traveling.
  3. There is NO fee to leave the country.
  4. As an American, you will NOT have cell service in Cuba.
  5. Presenting an “itinerary” at the American airport before you leave is simply showing them you have a return flight home. So bring a print out (or have it on your phone) of the flight confirmation email. I recommend still writing down your activities for each day of your trip in case they want more specifics.

    landscape-Cuba-3
    View of Havana from the Airbnb.
  6. The U.S. government restricts American tourists in Cuba from patronizing government/military owned establishments. List HERE. I printed out the list and had it with me for reference.
  7. There are two currencies: CUP and CUC. Tourists are only allowed to use the CUC – Pesos Convertibles.
  8. American bank credit/debit cards will not work at the ATMs
  9. Money exchange can happen at the airport. I suggest using the exchange out front where you interact with a person.
  10. If you incorrectly guessed how much money you needed to exchange for your vacation you can try to exchange money with people running tourist gift shops. Be aware there will still be a fee.

    portrait-Cuba-2
    Taking a stroll down one of the side streets.
  11. Rumor has it that you can purchase a SIM card to get data on your cell. There is only one phone shop in Havana that will do this, but this is also where locals pay their phone bills so the line is always super long. You’ll also need your passport to get in the store.
  12. On the plane to Cuba you will be asked to fill out a health questionnaire that you will give to the health care team at the Cuban airport.
  13. We asked at the airport about the alleged health insurance we were supposed to buy, but no one knew what we were talking about.
  14. You cannot take pictures of police, military personnel, or government buildings. You can have your camera confiscated. Also, be respectful when taking pictures, ask locals if you can take their photos and do not take photos of locals wearing all white as they are being initiated into the Santeria religion.
  15. Be sure to book a walking tour and try to schedule this early in your vacation, or else you will have already seen all the sit
  16. You can see all the high level tourist attractions in Havana in about 3-4 days.

    landscape-Cuba-2
    Plaza Vieja was by far my favorite plaza. There were beautiful vibrant colors on all the buildings.
  17. Tipping is customary in Cuba so don’t be surprised when locals ask for a tip when they assist you in a museum or offer to be in your photo.
  18. If using a taxi for a round trip be sure to get the full price up front. Getting there might be cheap but the return trip will be exponentially higher.
  19. From the intersection of O’Reilly and San Ignacio you can walk to any of the four main plazas.
  20. Use the app Maps.me to download a map of Havana, Cuba BEFORE you leave on vacation.
  21. Download Google Translate Spanish/English dictionary BEFORE leaving on vacation.
  22. We didn’t have a problem communicating with locals between our broken Spanish, using Google translate, and lots of gesturing. A number of locals even spoke English.
  23. Be aware of the Cigar and Salsa Festival scams. People will approach you and strike up a conversation that ends with “There is a cigar/salsa festival for tonight only. You can go to the festival at such and such location.” This isn’t a real thing and the cigars they are selling at the “festival” are mystery cigars not using quality ingredients.
  24. Toilet paper in public restrooms is on a BYOTP basis…also be ready for no toilet seat. I recommend carrying a little ziploc bag of TP, just in case. I experienced this dilemma at the Cuban airport.
  25. DON’T drink the tap water. Your AirBnB will most likely supply bottled water for a small fee.
  26. Coco Taxis are a very fun way to get around town!

    landscape-Cuba-1
    Look at how adorable this is! Just like a tennis ball with wheels.
  27. You won’t really see potatoes on the menu.
  28. If you are looking for an “American coffee” be sure to say so since ordering a “black coffee” will get you an espresso.
  29. There are adorable friendly feral cats EVERYWHERE. Havana was a gato paradise.
  30. If you are staying in an AirBnB be sure you have keys, not just for the front door and apartment door, but also for the stairwell. This is in case the building loses electricity you will still be able to get to your apartment.
  31. There are NO streetlights so it gets very dark down the side streets as you leave the main plazas.
  32. The sidewalks are a bit of a hazard, so people normally walk in the street.
  33. Cars have the right away, NOT pedestrians.
  34. Most cars run on diesel, which causes a lot of air pollution.
  35. Every night at 9 pm you will hear (and can go see) the ceremonial cannon being fired.

    portrait-Cuba-1
    Cat paradise! One of the many feral cats.

Would you add anything to this list? Comment below if you have any suggestions for the list or questions for me.

Happy travels,

Laura

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Written by Laura

Professional Medical Illustrator who enjoys sharing her personal travel stories, posting about her plethora of arts and crafts projects, and writing reviews for the finished books from her ever-growing "to-be-read tower."

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