Travel Tips for Cuba
1. PROTECT YOUR DINERO. Since you can’t use debit or credit cards in Cuba, getting all of your money taken would be a major bummer to say the least. Therefore, figure out a good system for protecting your cash before you go. Gals, this could be an across the body purse, or a cool backpack that’s roomy but not bulky, stylish, and secure, like this one. Guys might need to buy a money belt or get some cool cargo shorts with secure zippers - these are advertised as being “pick pocket proof” - #cool! Also, I always like to stash my money in a few places - i.e. some in my bag, some on my person, and some in the safe where I’m staying.
2. OTHER STUFF FOR THE SAFE. In addition to stashing cash in your house’s safe (most have them), it’s a good idea to put your passport and visa there as well. This way, you won’t risk losing either of these essential documents. We carried copies of our passports and took pictures of our passports and visas on our phones, so that we at least had those should something happen to the originals, and so we could prove our citizenship should we get asked.
3. KNOW WHERE YOU’RE STAYING. Our Airbnb had business cards with the house’s address - very helpfu! I took a pic of it, and carried the card with me wherever I went, even on my runs. In a city of over 4 million people, I figured saying “our house was near the mercado” wouldn’t quite cut it with a cab driver. Speaking of knowing your whereabouts, I like to take mental (and photo) notes of landmarks near my lodging, so I know I’m getting close when walking home or getting dropped off.
4. STASH SOME MONEY FOR A TAXI. Because I don’t like walking for miles and miles in strange cities at night, I always set aside a 20 to pay for a taxi in case I get lost on a walk or public transportation isn’t available. That way, even if too many mojitos are bought, there will at least be money for a taxi. (Because... your Uber app won’t work in Cuba.)
5. SPEAKING OF TAXIS... In Cuba, there are a few ways to get around. One of them is a traditional taxi. This costs around 10-15 CUCs ( or “Cuban Convertible Pesos”) a ride, and will get you from Point A to Point B with minimum hassle. There is a cheaper option called a “maquina.” A maquina is a vintage car that looks like it was taken from the movie The Outsiders. These taxis are regulated by the government to only go on certain streets. (They won’t take you to your house, but they’ll take you to a busy street near it.) Because of this, they are much cheaper than a traditional taxi. But, there are rules to follow when using one. First step, flag a maquina down by standing on the side of the street that flows with the direction you want to go, and sticking your thumb/hand out. Kind of like you’re the Fonz, but too lazy to do the full thumb thing. When the maquina pulls over, tell the driver the area you want to go (again, tell them a main drag or popular square). They’ll either tell you that yes, they go there, or they’ll say no, their maquina doesn’t go that way. This is the taxi equivalent of “No soup for you.” If they are going in your direction the next step is to ask them, “Cuanto?” They should quote you a price equivalent to 30-50 cents per person (pretty cheap), but they make take advantage of your tourist status and quote you a much higher price. In that case, it’s your turn to tell them “nope,” and simply get back on the curb to flag down another maquina. You could also try to bargain with them, or take their price - up to you.
6. WHAT TO CARRY AROUND. There are a few things that are lacking in Cuban restrooms, namely soap and toilet paper, and sometimes a toilet seat and a good cleaning service. That said, I like to carry Kleenex and hand sanitizer with me. Also, some restrooms (in Spanish, “servicios” or “baños”) have attendants sitting outside. They’ll hand you a towel or toilet paper. It’s a good idea to have a few coins on hand to pay them.
7. DON’T DRINK THE WATER. Seriously. This is one I heard from every tourist and even Cubans, from YouTube to people on the airplane to my Airbnb hosts telling me about their casa. The water, for drinking, is simply put, NO BUENO. (Tip - don’t even swallow the tap water when brushing your teeth.) The good news is, water is the biggest bargain in Cuba. We stocked up daily on 1.5 liter bottles (about 70 cents each), and carried them around with us wherever we went.
8. WIFI. If you’ve been wanting to unplug, Cuba is the best place to start as WIFI is extremely limited. The only place you’ll be able to go online is WIFI parks and some hotels, and you’ll need to buy a WIFI card for either. You’ll know you’ve found a park when you stumble upon a spot full of people standing, sitting, laying down... all on their phones. Sometimes you’ll see a ticket window outside the park where you can buy internet cards of different time limits. I picked up a 5 hour card which was more than enough for my 6 day stay. If the park doesn’t have a ticket window (or it’s closed), walk around the park a few times- chances are, someone will say, “You need card?” They’ll know this because you’ll be the only person not tech-necking it up. These parkside “dealers” do jack up the prices, though. A 1 hour card that normally costs 1 CUC will probably go for 2.
Many people asked me if I felt safe in Cuba - they had visions of military police on every corner. Not the case. Cuba is a safe and beautiful country. But, like any place in the world, you just need to exercise common sense and keep your belongings close and your head on a swivel.