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Without a booked stay and without any idea of the island, we decided to travel to Cuba for 21 days, almost the whole December of 2017.
Read our full experience in Cuba here
Visa & Travel Health Insurance
If you travel from the Netherlands to Cuba you will need a VISA. You can issue one in the Cuban Embassy in Rotterdam. It takes 30’minutes, costs 22euros and you can pay through a debit card. You need to carry your passport and your ticket with you. You can issue a VISA for someone else besides yourself for another 25euros. You can also ask for a visa sent by post, but it takes longer and costs a bit more.
Ask your airline if they can offer you one, before boarding at the airport.
We decided to go to Rotterdam since our airline wasn’t offering this service at the airport. Of course, in Charles De Gaulle Airport in France, a bit before boarding, the people who didn’t own a visa were denied service.
In Cuba you are not covered by your health insurance, even if you own the European health card, you are outside of Europe anyway. To be safe, it makes sense to arrange tourist insurance coverage from your health insurance provider or others, so you will be able to be hospitalized in case it’s needed, or visit a doctor in an emergency. This insurance is usually cheap and it lasts for a specified period of time.
Money, Debit and credit cards
In Cuba there are 2 currencies. One of them is used by rich people and tourists, it is called CUC and the exchange rate is 1CUC = 1$ (0,8 euros). The other one is CUP where 25CUP equals 1$.
In order to understand the money value there, consider that a lawyer or a doctor in Cuba, gets a salary of maximum 30CUC per month and a good pension reaches 11CUC per month.
Be very careful when you exchange money
There are a lot of ATMs you can get cash from, and they exchange the amount you want from $ to CUC with a small transaction fee (1,2$ for 300CUC).
The cards you can use are VISA or MASTERCARD. No Maestro, no debit cards or American Express.
You CAN'T use debit cards like MAESTRO in Cuba ANYWHERE
In case something goes wrong and you run out of money, or you lose your cards, you can ask a friend to send you money through Western Union, in a resident’s name. If you are lucky your host will offer to help you without any extra change, as our sweet Mercedes mentioned that she will be there for us at any part of our trip even if we don’t stay at her place at the time.
If you carry Euros and you need to exchange them, the right way to do it is at the bank or at the public money exchange offices. When you visit the bank make sure you are city-dressed because otherwise they won’t allow you to enter the bank, “Sin Camisa” = with a t-shirt.
If you run out of money because you can’t use your debit card, and you didn’t account the scamming then there’s a solution. If you own a credit card, you can call your bank and ask for a raise in your cash allowance. Make sure you bank account has enough money left as warranty for the bank.
A very big part of your budget will be spent on transportation. We were aiming to use the public local transport but when you arrive you will find out that it’s not the best way possible. We were moving around mostly by taxi or “chauffeurs”, Cuban drivers, who had free time and a car and were suggested by the locals.
Riding a classic car costs 30CUC per hour, money well spend if you are with company to share the amount.
Taxi drivers hardly ever use the meter, and they are the worse people in scamming. The prices for the same distance, either by kart or taxi were, 2, 3, 5, 6CUC within the same week time.
Before you pick a taxi to anywhere, short or longer distance, make sure you agree with your driver on the price, or else, you’ll end up paying double or triple the price as a tourist.
Whenever you feel that someone is trying to scam you, ask for a policeman or a police station so you can solve your issues there. Cubans are terrified of the police and this is your only insurance on the island. Policemen are usually in every corner in groups from 2 to 5 under the sun, looking around for signs of trouble, overlooking the trafficking or the sales under the table, that is taking place all around.
If you feel lucky and you want to move around the island with the public transport, keep in mind that it’s never on time and that it doesn't matter how many people are allowed on board. Cost wise it’s really low, (1-3CUP, 10-30 cents) but it’s almost certain that you will disembark lighter, missing half of your stuff with no chance to get them back, or missing your stop because the driver didn’t feel like stopping.
Internet in Cuba
In Cuba it is not allowed to have internet at home or in private places, with only a few exceptions. Even if you find a room to rent in a house with a router, you still need to buy a card in order to connect.
There are specifically WIFI parks, around the public buildings or the big hotels. In these parks, there are routers on poles resembling coco palms full of coconuts, and below them, a lot of people all around the clock with laptops, tablets or mobile phones. You can’t miss them.
Wifi park in Havana
Wifi park in Alamar, near the "shops"
Routers on the wooden poles in Guanabo
Despite being poor, ALL Cubans own modern cellphones (mainly SAMSUNG) in order to communicate with their migrated relatives and to surf the internet.
The price is by the hour and it depends on the type of the card, it’s either 30’,1h, or 5 hours.
We found the cheapest ones in a public office behind Hotel Nationale for 1CUC per hour, where we had to present our passports in order to buy them, and the most expensive hour was for 5CUC in Hotel Nationale. The usual tourist price is 2CUC per hour and you can buy the cards from the locals that sell them illegally around the wifi parks, bought either from smaller public offices or stores named “Tarjetas”.
If you manage to find internet cards with 1CUC per hour, buy as many you can, because usually a native buys them and resells them to tourists for double the amount. Make sure the EXPIRATION DATE is far ahead, also be extra gentle when you scratch the card in order to see the code number, because they are sensitive and easy to ruin.
With the cards you can connect to the local wifi, and then in a private Cuban network set by the government which gives you access to the internet, so remember that your data is not secure or completely private to you.
Cuba has blocked plenty of websites and services like PayPal and Skype. If you want to make a Skype call, or a video call in Messenger/Facebook or Whatsapp you need to have a VPN pre-installed in your computer.
You also need a VPN to access AirBnB, in case you need to book a room. You can't book without it.
Food, Water and Drinks
The local cuisine is called creole cuisine and it’s usually pork or chicken escorted by black rice (wild rice) and black beans. There’s also fresh fish, shrimps and lobsters. More than 50% of the restaurants offer simple pizza and spaghetti so they call themselves “Italian” while the people who work there are not even remotely Italian.
Bottom line the food is simple, fresh and in big quantities, but very limited in taste.
”Italian flavors” and local cuisine
The classic Cuban breakfast costs around 5 - 10CUC per person
All the restaurants are open since really early in the morning to offer Cuban breakfast, fresh juice, coffee, eggs toast with ham and cheese, slices of bread with jam and fruit.
If you want to buy the ingredients to make it yourself, it will be tricky since when you find them, they are usually sold in big quantities(5 kilos of ham or cheese) or they are only sold to the locals because of the shortage (eggs, mango, potatoes).
In the vegetable section you may find cabbage, tomatoes, garlic and onions, and the fruit will usually be pineapples, bananas and lime. Apparently if you want to enjoy a coconut you probably have to get one from the palms, since nobody is selling them either in the stores or the street karts.
Tap water is undrinkable and in most places salty or kept in tanks. You can find bottled water in selected places and it’s usually more expensive than beer.
Mojito and Cuba Libre is everywhere, any time. Either at the beach, in karts on the street, in bars, or restaurants for 2-3 euros, while Havana Club rum is sold in gas stations, in the market, at the bakery, in small stores and it’s price starts at 1,9euros per 350ml.
You can also find Coca cola, imported from Mexico and way different in taste than in Europe. Red bull, Pepsi, Heineken and Sol are considered luxury products for the locals and you can almost find them everywhere in reasonable prices – for the tourists (a can of coca cola costs about 80 cents, a can of κουτάκι Redbul 2.8CUC).
The local beers are Crystal, Bucanero and La Presidente. All of them very tasty and always served cold!
Cigars and cigarettes
Cigars is a painful story, since everyone wants to sell you some and hardly any is genuine. No matter where you rent your accommodation, the host always has a cousin or a friend who can get you “the best cigars in a nice price”.
Prices vary and depend on where you’re buying them from. They are sold separately or in small packages and besides the famous brands you can also find local brands preferred by the people, also makeshift cigars sold in the streets but also, prohibited “originals” folded in newspapers and hidden in between their clothes.
“Hello my friend, where are you from, want a gift for your friends?”
Don’t be fooled and buy from the street, or from people you don’t know, since you can easily find yourself smoking banana leaves or whatever was left on the floor of the factories.
It’s better to buy cigars from the official stands and pay a bit extra, either way they are much more expensive in Europe, instead of finding out when you return that you’ve been deceived by the Cubans again, as it happened with us.
We asked from our last hostess’ father to get 4 cigars, and he came back with 4 very good imitations – presented as original, something we found out after we returned, with google’s help.
You can find cigarettes almost everywhere, at the bakery, at the super market, cafes or restaurants, and you can choose if you prefer 5CUC for a Dunhill, 4CUC for a Lucky Strike or local brands like Hollywood (1,2CUC), Popular (0.6CUC) and Upmann (0.5CUC) either normal taste or menthol.
There’s no tobacco, rolling papers or filters, so if Cubans see you rolling, they will assume it’s a marijuana cigarette, since they don’t have something similar in the stores. If you prefer a specific brand or rolling tobacco, you should bring enough with you, for the duration of your trip.
Why it would be difficult if you don’t speak Spanish
Most Cubans don’t speak English, but they are familiar with a few common Greek words (goodmorning= kalimera, jerk= malaka) as well as comantande Tsipra, since most of them have a cousin or a friend who lives in Athens or Piraeus or Kavala, Greece.
If you don’t speak Spanish, not just elementary but basic level (they speak really fast), it will be hard and you are probably going to lose quite some money to cheating and mischief. Bargaining in Cuba is ingrained in the culture, mainly by the biggest scammers, who are, you guessed it, the taxi drivers.
Did you just book your tickets to Cuba and you leave in two months? Duolingo is your best friend. Start learning Spanish, it will save you time, money and trouble.
Except the tourist areas and a few Cubans who are married to foreigners, or who have graduated as translators, it is really rare for the rest to understand English.
If you speak Italian it will be easier to communicate since places like Guanabo seem more like an Italian colony and Italian is spoken in every corner.
Sex in Cuba
In Havana in Santiago Cuba, in between the wrecked buildings, Che’s and Jose Martin’s wall-paintings, the super markets with the empty shelves and the lack of hope, there are two things that you will find plenty, prostitution and sex-tourism.
In a country with the least occupation choices and the worst living conditions for the majority of the population, women and girls seek sexual occupation in hotels, bars, on the street, or wherever there might be a tourist.
In Cuba foreign men (Italians, Americans, Australians, Canadians), gray-haired people over 55 years old, order Cuban women as easily as ordering a drink. Tourists from all over the world book trips or excursions of sexual intent within Habana.
Despite the fact that the government prohibits the promotion or the legalization of sex-tourism, the Cuban authorities and the government officials look the other way since this kind of tourism brings visitors and foreign currencies in the country.
In Cuba you will hear the word “jineteras”Jineteras are young Cuban girls usually with African descent, who study or work during the day and during the evening work as prostitutes at the hotels and bars.
For dinner, a drink and a few dollars they will escort you during the day or they will accompany you to dinner and afterwards they will offer you their sexual services if you want.
Jineteras infront of the Capitolio with European gentlemen
You can find them literally everywhere after sunset, at the parks, in front of the capitol along with their pimps, at the clubs or even walking down the street. Be careful and always ask for an ID card. It has to be a new type, like a credit card, and for her to be an adult otherwise you might be in trouble or even in jail.
As jineteras exist, so do “jineteros”, muscular men with chocolate skin who offer their services to middle aged tourists of both sexes. You will identify them immediately walking down the streets and the beaches, showing their abs and their expensive headphones.
During our trip we didn’t meet any Greeks but we did find two unique people on our way back to the airport. There we heard an interesting story.
They have been to Havana to dance in a club, and a young lady asked them if they want to dance with her. They said they would gladly. After a while the girl asked if they wanted to join her in her room to have sex and they accepted. Then she said to one of them:
- But it’s 150CUC for sex
and the guy replied without hesitation:
- No, no I don’t want money, you’re a pretty girl, I’ll do it for free.
And this is the right attitude if you want to avoid to pay for sex in Cuba.
Cheat and Mischief
Scamming in Cuba is rarely hidden, it’s dealt more as a common practice in front of you, and most of the times you can’t do anything about it.
The taxi driver in coco-taxi, switched the meter in front of me and asked for 15CUC (13 euros) more, for a silly distance.
At a restaurant we saw 2 different menu catalogs, one for locals one for foreigners, so for 2 dishes of quite bad food we payed 35CUC (32euros) while the locals siting around payed 70CUP (2euros) for the same food.
At the beach, we payed for our sun loungers twice, since the second guy claimed that the first one wasn’t a hotel employee, and that we should have been more careful.
Two Australians we met at the beach, mentioned that they received change in CUP instead of CUC (1CUC = 25CUP). Always check the bill and your change but also the currency itself.
The bugs of the Caribbean
Despite the fact that you are in an island of the tropical circle, except the mosquitoes that you can prevent by wearing AUTAN - or AFTER BITE if they got you off guard, you won’t meet any bugs, you haven’t seen before.
In the evening close to places with grass or canes, you’ll hear the dolby digital-cicadia really loudly (they are big and black) and in your room you’ll find tiny flying brown roaches but they are harmless and they avoid approaching you. What you need to be careful of is not to carry them with you in your suitcase back to Europe.
Dragonflies and hummingbirds are flying during the day time, while dozens of bats and night-birds fill the sky after the sun is down. What is really annoying 24/7 is the hundreds of flies, that usually come in swarms on you and your food when it’s not a windy day.
What you will miss in Cuba
The first thing you’re going to miss in Cuba, if you decide to stay in a town or a village is peace and quiet. All their cars are old and noisy. Cubans are very loud people, they keep the music volume high and they have no sense of quiet time. Gift yourself plenty of ear plugs and an eye-mask for the light.
In Cuba you won’t find basic products that you can find in any super market in Europe, like sponge or dish-soap, pasta except cannelloni and lasagna and maybe a pre-made spaghetti. Cookies, butter, eggs, cheese except the local soft cheese and gooda, ham except jamon and chorizo. Saving foam, razors, q-tips (cotton sticks), band aids, sanitary napkins, painkillers, face creams, sunblock, kitchen paper, tissues, hard candy and chewing gums and in general, 90% of the products we know, simply do not exist.
Even at the biggest super markets for tourists the products are limited and they are basically chocolate, rum, corn flakes, mashed potatoes powder, condensed milk and tin food (peppers, peas, pork, corn).
Nestle is the king of luxury edible products like: ice creams, chocolate, instant coffee (milk or not) and broth cubes.
Don’t travel without a sunblock, diarrhea pills (immodium), painkillers, autan, after bite, hydrating cream and anything else from the list above, that you might need.
Don’t carry fancy clothes, expensive electronics and jewelry. Try not to stand out, because the Cubans are not discreet, they will stare at you a lot, and some of them will hustle you by asking you to gift them your clothes or shampoo, shower gel, or whatever you carry. When you go out, carry only the amount of money needed and your credit card.
Leave your passport at your hotel since no policeman will ask to see your papers. You might see them in teams of 5 in every street corner but they are not there for you, remember in which country you are.
What to bring to Cubans
Anything you might bring to the Cubans they will appreciate it. Just because they can’t find any luxury items in the country, even a cheap t-shirt from ZARA will be considered an ultimate gift! If it shines, sparkles, if it’s fake gold, bright colors and fabrics it’s in their top choices.
If you can’t carry a lot of weight, you can bring them cookies, chewing gums, tuna or fish tins (since these items are sold in their super markets but they are locked in display cases) music, tv-series (they are up to date with the movies), European products (cigarettes, perfumes, shampoo), scarves and chocolate (except nestle).
What is prohibited to carry with you and what is it allowed to take with
In Cuba what is usually prohibited to bring along is pornography (porn) and books with revolutionary content. Nobody will search you explicitly, but in case it happens you don’t want to be in trouble with the police.
Of course it’s prohibited to carry drones and other high tech devices.
When leaving, you can take up to 3 liters of Rum, up to 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars, or 200gr loose tobacco, honey (in a logical quantity) and perfumes.
You can’t keep the currency as a souvenir, unless its a very small amount.
Of course if you keep in your suitcase everything you bought, nobody will actually search you. You’ll be checked the first time you’ll land in a European airport, only for the products you bought after your check-in and you were carrying on board.
If you want to travel to Cuba and you need more details or clues about the places we stayed at or traveled to, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’ll be glad to give you all the valuable information and our contacts there. Send us an email at [email protected]
Read our full experience in Cuba here
Ride with the kart/carriage
Corals and shells
Gymnastics every morning in the park
The magical beach of Santa Maria
Blue beaches around Guanabo
We want to warmly thank Athena Coroneou for the translation