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Letztes Update: 24. Mai 2021

The first time in Cuba: what you have to pay attention to

Christian Thieme09This is for all of you who have never been to Cuba: a list of things you should watch out for – i.e. what you shouldn’t miss, what you need to take with you, etc. I didn’t include things that are in every travel guide, but I have added some of my own experiences and some of my favorite sights. The order is purely random and has nothing to do with priorities.

I wrote this article because I am asked again and again “Dietmar, I am going to flying to Cuba. You know your way around there, what should I pay attention to?!” And once it was written down, I knew I wouldn’t have to tell it all over again. Not that I do not like to talk 😉 But I usually forget to include something important, so, instead everything on one website!

By the way: Suggestions, corrections, and more tips are very welcome 😉

Bild: Eingang zu einer Casa Particular in Trinidad
Entrance to a Casa Particular in Trinidad

And here is the list: 15+ things you need to know for Cuba!

  1. If you somehow have the opportunity to eat at a Cuban home (e.g. because you are staying in a Casa Particular – better than a hotel anyway – and they offer to cook for you), then do that! The food in restaurants is mostly below average, good food is only available at home 🙂 Are you interested to get to know more about Cuban food? Here you can find some insights about “The Cubans and their food“.
  2. Update – Food Numero Dos: you can make your own food, there are Casas Particulares with kitchens, but the situation is complicated. There’s not much in the supermarkets, there are some things in the market… but not everything. Eggs, for example, were only available underhand the other day. Markets also have the disadvantage of ripping us tourists off. So in doubt, go into one of the cheap, private bistro restaurants, there you get something for 1,5 – 2,5 Euro per meal (how do you realize it’s a private restaurant? Less but friendly staff).
  3. Although it has become a bit more expensive, but still cheap with ~10 Dollars: the tour bus in Havana (and certainly in other cities) It drives you for about 2 hours through Havana and goes by all the sights. It also passes many districts which you woudn’t see otherwise, it gives you a much better overview of Havana as a whole – the city is very spread-out. However, it is important to bring sun protection (for me it would be a hat, as I am bald…) and 2 beers – you can wash them away during the trip 😉
  4. The Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana – the part with Cuban art (this is the new museum building next to the Revolution Museum). Cuban art is spectacular and is world-class. The entrance fee of 5 Dollars is much lower than that for museums somewhere else.
  5. If you have not yet booked a complete trip and want to travel around a bit, then please contact Baila Habana. Sabine, the boss, not only organizes dance trips but also normal round trips. With her people you can travel for a fair prices with a vintage car through the country. I sent my parents with her across the island, and they were thrilled!
  6. Talking about round trips: Rental cars are great, a bit expensive maybe, but they make you self-reliant. Roads are no problem, important only: book from here, because in Cuba you will get problems of renting the cars – they are reserved contingents for the big travel firms. For bookings, I would recommend the Geely Emgrand EC7, which is Chinese but has a good ADAC (biggest German car club) test. And because it is Chinese, it is simply cheaper 😉 It should drive well, we always have one to get around with summer school (I don’t have a driving license myself and can only judge the car as a passenger, but the drives say it’s good…)
  7. If you want to keep regular contact with your loved ones in Germany, you should use WhatsApp or Telegram. There is some internet in Cuba, details on phoning from Cuba you can read here.
  8. Plugs: you definitely need a US plug for the power, otherwise it won’t work with your smartphone or camera. So, coming from US, you are ok – but from other countries, prepare! And beware, you can only use a hairdryer if it also runs on 110 volts!
  9. Medicines and First Aid: The medical care of the population is reasonably good, but it is difficult – not only for tourists – to get hold of the standard drugs, let alone special ones. Therefore: take everything you need or could need with you, of course, also something against Montezuma’s revenge – diarrhea 😉 Details I wrote down here Medication – everything you need in Cuba!
    Not aspirin or ibuprofen, but paracetamol: Unlikely, but possible is an infection with Dengue, which can lead to internal bleeding, which makes blood thinners like Aspirin dangerous! And leave medicines behind at the end of your trip, helps the people in Cuba.

    Karina Rösner01
    Picture: Thanks to Karina Rösner
  10. Counting Change: always count your change! The goods have to always have a price tag. If they don’t have, then you are usually being cheated. Sometimes it goes so far that the goods are wrongly labeled (happened to me at the airport), therefore: remember prices and get a feeling for the price of the products. Or just relax, it’s not a lot of money you get cheated out of – unless you buy cigars 😉 – but 20 Cents don’t hurt you, anyway.
  11. How much should a tip be? We usually give too much and that raises expectations – and creates more inequality. A rule of thumb like 10% makes no sense if the average income is below 45 Dollars. For a normal meal around 0.50 Dollars, for a good meal 1 Dollar, maximum 2 Dollars tip. By the way: if the menu says that there is already a 10% tip included, then none of it goes to the waiter, the owner takes it all. So still tip the waiter!
  12. For a Mojito, never pay more than 3 Dollars: if it costs more, the restaurant is either excellent or you’re getting ripped off (like on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional, where I had one of the worst cocktails of my life) In general, Cuban cocktails are not good – unless you understand good as “a lot of alcohol” 😉 In general, the following applies when drinking: Cubans drink strong drinks, but drink them more slowly than Europeans (I don’t know about US, but in Cuba, the Cola is just a little colour of the Cuba Libre with a minimum of at least 50% rum). That means you should drink slowly, otherwise, you might have a rude awakening.
  13. Along with taking cash with you: Visa cards work at ATMs, Mastercard was a problem some years ago, but things are better now, banks and exchange offices also give you money with your credit card. However, the issuing bank should not be a US bank. In addition, you should always take cash (Euro, Dollar, doesn’t matter) with you, as the machines sometimes do not work (empty, no internet connection, broken…). By the way: it is always a good idea to take 2 credit cards with you for the case that one doesn’t work, could be that the bank doesn’t deal with Cuba.
  14. Fabrica de Arte: the hippest place in Cuba – it’s not even expensive here. A mixture of galleries, clubs, and concerts, I really like it here. Important: be there before 10 pm, better at 9 pm, otherwise you won’t have a chance at getting in. Negotiate with the taxi for a ride back to the city (as with all taxi rides!). Some other hip places pop up regularly in Havana (where they don’t play Regueton), but it’s not easy to find them – ask cool looking Cubans for information.
  15. Which travel guide should you use? Very simple – always use the latest one, no matter which publisher. So much changes in Cuba so quickly that only the latest one makes sense. And install travel guide apps or maps for the smartphone at home, because of the expensive and unreliable Cuban internet.

    Johanna Doktor03
    Picture: Thanks to Johanna Doktor
  16. To get in the mood: Music – besides the usual (Buena Vista Social Club and Salsa) Descemer Bueno, Raúl Paz, Kelvis Ochoa, Orishas and Interactivo. And moviesStrawberries and Chocolate, Cuba with Sean Connery, and Juan of the Dead – Zombies in Cuba 😉
  17. And last but not least: because sometimes luggage gets lost at the airport – this does not only happen in Cuba, btw! It makes sense to have change clothes in your hand luggage. Because in Cuba it is not so easy to buy certain clothes. I once tried to buy a decent pair of shorts in a normal size, but this was not so easy 😉

So much for my personal tips. I would be happy to add your suggestions to the list, so leave a comment!

Saludos from sunny Havana Berlin,
Dietmar

If you like Cuba pictures, you can also follow us on Instagram or Pinterest!

Christian Thieme11

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