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Finding reliable information on what travel is like in Cuba was perhaps one of the most difficult obstacles we encountered while planning our trip back in January. It seems like everyone is going to Cuba but there are still a lot of big questions that need answering, especially for Americans. So we have put together a list of Cuba FAQs; it’s a combination of things we had questions about and questions we have been asked since we got back. We just want to make sure that everyone’s trip to Cuba is a breeze!
Wifi, Wifi, Wifi?
It is possible to get wifi in Cuba but it may take some work to access it. For starters, you have to buy a wifi access card. This card will give you a pin and password to enter when you access the wifi network. Don’t lose this card because you will have to enter it in every time you want to access the internet!
Where Can I Buy a Wifi Card?
The wifi in Cuba is run by ETSCA and you can buy the cards at any of their shops. The cards usually cost anywhere from $1.50 to $4.50 for an hour depending on where you purchase them and it works anywhere there is ETSCA. You can also purchase wifi cards at major hotels. In Havana, you can easier purchase a wifi card in the center at the Hotel Sevilla on the Paseo Prado and avoid the sometimes MASSIVE lines at the ETSCA center. You can use the wifi in their lobby or their bar and they don’t ask any questions.
If you do plan on buying a wifi card from an ETSCA center be sure to get there early. We went to one in Trinidad in the mid afternoon and they were already sold out of the allotment for the day.
Where Can You Find Wifi?
Wifi access is surprisingly plentiful once you have the ETSCA card. Usually, you will find wifi hotspots in major parks and open areas. In Trinidad, there is a park by the Train Station where wifi is plentiful. In Viñales there is an ETSCA store right off the main road and you will find everyone congregating there to use it. You can also find it at some of the restaurants just off the main street. As for Havana, you can certainly access wifi in almost all of the major hotels and also in Parque Central in the heart of the city.
What Are Casa Particulares?
Casa particulares are rooms that locals rent out in their homes, very much like home stays or bed and breakfasts. This opportunity was opened up to them 1997 in order for Cubans to make supplemental income. They are highly regulated and you will need to fill out paperwork when you arrive including your passport information and your tourist card. Most casas are discovered through word of mouth, by a local, or increasingly through the internet.
How Easily Can You Find Casa Particulares?
Finding casa particulares is relatively easy in Cuba. Almost every major bus stop is filled with people offering accommodations. Simply talk to the people who have promising rooms, agree on a rate and follow them home. It may seem weird but it is incredibly common throughout Cuba to arrange your accommodation this way.
And once you get one night of accommodation you can easily arrange with your host family to set up accommodation in the other cities you are visiting. There is a vast network of casas so you will generally be able to arrange it through your hosts once you find your first one. One thing to note is that the price you pay at the first casa will most likely be the price you pay at all the others. So if you are a bargain hunter you may want to negotiate the lowest rate at the beginning.
These casas do need to be paid in cash so if you are worried about having enough (as Americans cannot pull cash from the ATMs) you may want to book your accommodation in advance. We realized in Havana after we had booked a casa on Airbnb that Cuba was a little more pricey than we had budgeted for. So instead of worrying about having enough cash to pay for everything plus accommodation, we decided to book Airbnbs for the rest of our trip.
This was a fantastic decision because it freed up our budget constraints (although we did get scammed the last week and were still short on money…) and allowed us to not worry about finding places during our three-week trip. If you do decide to book on Airbnb just know that you cannot do it while in Cuba. You must book out of country. We were lucky to have family who were willing to take their time to book the rooms we found for us. But if you want to avoid the hassle make sure you book in advance!
What is the Average Cost of a Budget Meal?
Cuba certainly ended up being waayyyy more expensive than we budgeted. We were thinking most meals would be around $5-$10 based on what we had read. But either we couldn’t find the right places to eat or prices have just gone up with the increase in tourism. For us, most meals ran from $7-$15 which still isn’t a lot but when you factor in three weeks of that, it can make a difference. In addition, most drinks were anywhere from $2 (beers and some mojitos – like at El Chanchullero) to upwards of $5 or more especially at the famous bars like Floridita and La Bodeguita Media.
While this is still cheap by most American budgets, it ended up being more than we expected. If you are trying to keep to a budget look for local bakeries to pick up fresh baked bread and pizza stands on the street. You can get a personal pizza for about $1 and this is where you will find all the locals eating especially in Trinidad!
In Cuba, there is a distinct divide between locals and tourists and there are several rules that prevent people from taking different types of transportation.
Here is the Breakdown
There are the local buses and then there are the tourist buses. As a tourist, you are not allowed to take the local buses. There are rumors that you can take them if you have a student ID but we have not heard anything but rumors on that front. While it may be tempting to take the local buses as they are about one-third the cost you are better off sticking with the official tourist buses.
The company that runs the tourist buses is called Viazul. The buses occasionally will take longer than the collective taxis as they often have stops at tourist sites. However, these buses have the benefit of having restrooms, padded seats, and air conditioning. The one downside to them is that if you are taking the bus from Havana the station is a ways outside the city so cost wise it might make more sense to take a collective taxi.
Collective taxis are probably the most common way to get around Cuba. These taxis abound and some of them are super cool old school cars, some are old Ford prison trucks fitted out to fit 25 people or some are run down Soviet cars from the 80s. You never know what you are going to get! Collective taxis are officially licensed so it is illegal for a local to just drive you somewhere even if you are not paying them.
Collective taxis are the way to go if you want to be picked up from your accommodation and get dropped off and your next home. You also may be able to negotiate your fare as well. This most likely will depend on how stubborn you are and how much Spanish you speak. Alex and I are not the best Spanish speakers so for our ride to Viñales we definitely paid too much. Be sure to confirm with your driver right away the price too otherwise you might get a shock when they drop you off!
Can You Buy Groceries and Hygienic Products?
You can definitely buy food at the markets in Cuba. HOWEVER, there will not be many options and you never know what they will have available that day. The markets are chaotic and you have to leave your bags with security before you enter. The markets are really the best spot for grabbing rum though so it is worth popping into them to grab it. I, however, would not depend on visiting the markets to cook a whole meal unless you want to head to many different markets to pick up what you need.
As for hygienic products, it is the same. You can find them but it is a pain. We ran out of shampoo, conditioner and body wash on day 2 and in the end we could only find shampoo so we just shared one bottle of shampoo the whole three weeks we were there.
Honestly, because there is so little products available to the locals (except for the rum which they have in excess) we would recommend just leaving what is available for the locals. As the restaurants also buy from the same sources there is not much available for anyone else.
Exchanging money in Cuba is really easy as long as you are willing to wait in line. There are plenty of money exchange places in all the major cities so you shouldn’t have an issue doing that. There are a few things you need to know though…
Bring your Passport
You cannot exchange money without your passport. This is the one time you do not want to leave your passport at home!
US Dollars Vs. Other Currencies
Currently, there is a tax to convert US dollars. While the Cuban tourist currency mirrors the dollar you will lose money if you plan on converting dollars to peso. There is a 10% fee to convert US dollars. In that case, your better option is to bring in another type of currency like the Euro or Canadian dollar or if you are traveling from Mexico, the Mexican peso!
So Crisp and So Clean
Whatever money you decide to bring make sure the money is pristine. They will not accept ripped, severely crumpled or damaged bills in any way. We were unlucky and one of the $500 pesos we brought was just barely ripped and they refused to convert it. So if you don’t want to be stuck with only $5 on your last day with a useless (at least until back in Mexico) $500 bill make sure your money is crisp and clean!
Do You Need to be Fluent in Spanish?
No, but it helps. Most people in Cuba were very friendly and willing to help us out. In fact, our first Airbnb hosts were so friendly that while we only understood about one in every thirty words they uttered they still greeted us and tried to talk to us for ten every time we saw them! This was the trend we saw with almost everyone we met.
*However, in general, do not follow any locals to restaurants or bars. In most cases, this is a scam and they will have you pay for all of their meals and drinks in addition to getting a commission from the bar or restaurant. Also if you don’t pay they have no problem calling the police.
On the whole, though everyone was friendly and always had a smile for us whether or not we understood them!
Which Visa Do I Need?
Perhaps the most confusing thing about visiting Cuba and the most frequent Cuba FAQ we get asked is which visa do I need? The US Treasury Department isn’t very clear on the visa but essentially if your travel to Cuba falls into one of twelve categories you can head to Cuba without actually applying for a visa.
Cuba does not care about these “visas” at all because they are not even issued and they are not part of Cuba’s tourism policy. It all has to do with the United States. Most Americans go to Cuba under the “People to People” visa, however, this may be changing due to proposed new regulations. Be sure to check the Treasury Department’s website prior to travel. However, we were not questioned at all about our travel to Cuba and so far no one I know has been asked about their travels either. At the moment it seems the USA’s Cuba visa program is on the honor system.
Well, we hope that answers many of your Cuba FAQs and that travel to Cuba is seeming less daunting. The country is in fact set up for tourism there is just not a whole lot of information on the internet right now. If any of you have any other Cuba FAQs we would be more than happy to answer them below!
Heading to Cuba soon? Don’t forget to buy travel insurance! Sure you may not use it but its always good to have. We recommend World Nomads which we have been using for years and have always made us feel secure as we travel around the world!
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