Trapped in a revolutionary time warp for half a century, Cuba is a beautiful paradox – economically struggling but culturally rich, fiercely patriotic but poetically restless, dourly stoic yet wildly exuberant, dancing to its own salsa beat fuelled by mojitos and the smoke of cigars.
It’s also a country at a crossroads; Fidel Castro has passed, diplomatic ties with the US have been re-established (but may be tightened again under Trump), and the first flights from Miami have landed in the capital Havana. Change is inevitable, its future as intriguing as the past.
Despite recent reforms, Cuba presents a challenge for independent travellers, with misinformation, poor infrastructure and archaic communication muddying the waters. For this reason, group tours are often the easiest option; but for those who prefer to go it alone, here are some tips to help you travel with confidence:
It is now possible to fly to Cuba via the US, with around 110 flights scheduled per day. Australians, however, have traditionally flown to Havana via Mexico City or Cancun, and this remains a fairly straightforward and enjoyable route for travellers exploring the region. A visa, or ‘tourist card’ can be purchased over the counter at the departure airport for US$20 – you can’t board your flight without it. Note that it is unnecessary to obtain this in advance from the Embassy in Canberra, despite advice to the contrary from official circles.
Cuba has dual currencies: Cuban Convertibles (CUC) issued to tourists, and the Peso, worth around 1/26th of the CUC and used by locals. Everything you’ll require – accommodation, food, drinks – is charged in CUC, and even everyday items listed in pesos will be happily sold at an over inflated price in CUCs. It’s imperative to bring enough cash to last the duration of your visit (at least $100 a day) – ATMs are rare, unreliable and don’t accept all Australian keycards, while credit cards can only be used sparingly for over-the-counter purchases. Also note that Australian dollars cannot be exchanged in Cuba.
There are two options for accommodation in Cuba: state-run hotels, or homestays (called casa particulares). Although many hotels are grand and historic, they are often faded and overpriced with notoriously patchy service. Homestays are therefore increasingly popular – there are over 300 listings on Airbnb in Havana alone, and it’s a great way of meeting locals and getting an intimate experience of the country. With a recent surge in visitor numbers, it’s best to book in advance where possible, even in regional areas.
Once again, private enterprise – a recent innovation since Raul Castro took over from his brother – is the key to a good meal. State-run restaurants are lacklustre at best, offering bland staples with a dearth of fresh ingredients. Private dining rooms (called paladars), on the other hand, offer home cooking and friendly service, with lobster a surprisingly cheap item on many menus.
Bars and entertainment
A great night out is guaranteed in Cuba; the rum flows like water, and the streets resound with live music and dancing. Heed the advice of history’s most famous barfly, Ernest Hemingway, who said: “My mojito in La Bodeguita; my daiquiri in El Floridita” – two Havana institutions that still serve superior cocktails for under $5.
Internet has been a long time coming to Cuba; and while wi-fi is now available in hotels, telco offices and hotspots (look for the queues), it’s woefully slow and unreliable, not to mention expensive. This can lead to frustration and wasted hours – so put away your phone and embrace the disconnect!
Safety and scams
Cuba is often perceived as a dangerous destination – but this is actually unwarranted, with violent crime well below that of other Latin American countries. Being relatively poor, however, petty crime does exist; it certainly pays to travel with caution, be aware of your belongings in crowded places and to be sensible when walking the streets.
Unaware tourists can sometimes find themselves targeted by scammers, with the rule of thumb being “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”! Those cheap cigars, offered undercover on a street corner? Fake. Strangers offering to exchange money? Frauds. Broken taxi meters – come on, surely you won’t fall for that?!
There are so many brilliant and wonderful experiences that you can have with locals that are hard to find in other countries. Cubans are incredibly friendly and you are always tripping over good stories and fun adventures.
For instance, on my trip, some charming young men invited my friend and I out for drinks at a bar. While that meant us paying for them – and while they tried their luck; the flirtation was innocent, amusing and relatively harmless. Our reward was a fun night out with some locals who shared their dreams and thoughts about life in Cuba.
The bottom line? Go with the flow. Things may not always go to plan in Cuba, but you’ll certainly have a great time experiencing this fascinating destination in all its complexity.