14 Tips for Your First Trip to Cuba

May 20, 2019

This post feels like it's been a long time coming, but better late than never, right?! I wanted to put together a little something for you guys on what we learned on our first short and sweet trip to Cuba. Honestly, it's a completely different world over there and we had done a lot of research before we went, but it we still had to piece mill a lot of it together, so I'm hoping that by putting these simple tips together, you'll be a little more prepared than we were so you can have the absolute best time during you trip.

I also, want to point out that it's incredibly important to respect the Cuban culture when visiting and remember that most Cubans have never left the island and probably never will. The wages made in Cuba are far smaller than even minimum wage here in America. Our tour guide explained that someone making a pretty good living wage in Cuba equaled about $100 per month...PER MONTH!!! It's a crazy thing to wrap your head around, but more the reason to make sure you respect the culture you've stepped into for your vacation. We enjoyed our time there immensely, but while the views are gorgeous and the throwback cars are cool, this is their home and I think it's extremely important to keep that in mind.

Ok, now let's move on to the most valuable tips we learned while in Cuba!

1) Exchange your USD into Euros or Canadian Currency

We were a little late to the party on this and REALLY wish we had done so. By exchanging your cash beforehand you will save 10% during the exchange process in Cuba due to the trade embargo. You will always have a 3-5% fee to exchange regardless. Most places only take CUC (their main currency) and no cards, so make sure you bring enough cash with you to do the activities, restaurants, and purchases you'll want to take advantage of while there. You can always exchange it back into USD if needed, but will still lose the original fee.

PS - We kept a few dollars and coins for ourselves as a fun keepsake!

2) Shopping...Don't Be Afraid to Barter

There are some really fun markets and we ended up going to one of the largest open markets in Havana as part of our excursion and I'm so glad we did! While there's a lot of duplicates and people asking for your business as you walk by, there are a lot of hidden treasures as well! If you head straight to the back right side, you'll find a whole area lined with original local paintings along with the artists.

When we travel, I like to bring back a piece of art for our home. It's my absolute favorite souvenir, because I get to look at the pieces every day and it's a constant reminder of the memories we made. We found these beautifully, vibrant paintings we'll be framing and hanging in our family room and they were only $80...TOTAL. We bartered down from $90 because we took 3. We also found a great straw beach bag for $20 and a little instrument set for our nephews for $15. Everything was very reasonable, but definitely always barter by suggesting a price. They mark up big time, because they know a tourist will pay.

3) Restaurants/Bars

It can be difficult to do this on the spot because it can be hard to understand the locals unless they know English well or you can speak Spanish semi-fluently...AKA...not us. So, I'd highly recommend downloading the app CityMaps2Go for ease of navigating Havana. This will still give you search ability while in Havana and tracking of where you are without internet access, plus it's FREE! You can also save places you want to go ahead of time or while you're there and keep notes in each favorited spot as to why you want to go or why you thought it was great after the fact!

Because of this app, we found the most incredible rooftop bar and restaurant called Paladar La Guarida. The view was incredible overlooking the old and central Havana while we munched on pork tacos and their signature basil cocktail (I had 3...whoops..jk it was VERY intentional!) If you do want to eat a full meal, I'd highly recommend making reservations, but if you're looking for the best view in the house, opt for apps and drinks and hike your way up the multiple staircases to that roof top...trust me, you won't regret it!

We also hit up Floridita, known as the original home of the daiquiri and Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar. While, it was very cool, it was also PACKED and the daiquiris we had were ehhh at best. Keep in mind, Cubans LOVE their sugar over there, so be prepared for most mixed drinks to be extremely sweet.

The last place we ate at before heading back to the ship, was Mercaderes. This was recommended to us by our tour guide and the food was fantastic! I'd say it was definitely on the pricey side and they're gearing their menu to the total foody tourists. We go to sit out on this romantic little lowly lit balcony overlooking the old cobble road. The ambiance was fantastic and they actually take CUC, USD, and cards! Be weary of using cards, we were told you just never know what they're actually charging and you don't easily have access to the internet to check. Overall we had fantastic experiences and wish we could have tried even more.

4) Download the Havana Map ahead of Time

This is the app I was referring to in the previous tip. This saved us countless times and we were only there for a day, so I can only imagine how much it would help if you're there for longer. CityMaps2Go allows you to have access to the map of Havana and your location so you can easily know exactly where you are an where you need to go at all times. Make sure you're on airplane mode the whole time so you don't drain your battery or get insane charges from your carrier. The app is extremely user friendly and even has ratings of restaurants, hotels, etc, within Havana that you can access offline while there. THIS IS A MUST!!!

5) Cabs WILL be Expensive

The cabs are expensive and they will charge you literally ANYTHING they want if they're not metered. So, lesson number one: ask how much before you get in. Lesson number two: BARTER. You can easily walk to the places a few blocks away, but you'll probably need to cab it here and there. Especially for the experience of riding in one of their iconic vintage cars.

We paid $25 for a longer cab ride to Hotel Nacional for Ryan to get some of his treasured cigars (he's obsessed). We also cabbed in one of the little yellow "lemons." That was metered, so no bartering. Our last one, which was a huge mistake on our part, was from Floridita to Mercaderes from a guy standing outside Floridita and as soon as we got in the car, we could tell it was sketch. I took out my map app and watched as they took us around the world it seemed to go what should have been 5 blocks. Once we got out, he asked for $40!!! This was NOT in a "cute" car AND was supposed to be a couple minute ride. We went back and forth with him and gave him $10. So, if you learn anything here, ALWAYS ask first!!! We're lucky that was the worst of it, but definitely be aware that they'll try to nickel and dime you here.

(Here's a clip from our ride in the pink vintage cab we took for $25 and had a fantastic experience in!)

[video src="https://frizzandfrillzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/img_3522.mov" ]

6) Do an Excursion through Your Cruise or Travel Agency

Since travel to Cuba is still an over all very new experience for most, I'd highly recommend booking your excursion through your cruise or travel agency, we went through Royal Caribbean. The reason I say this, is because you don't want to be at the mercy of someone who may not be reliable to get you back in a timely fashion. They also rely heavily on reviews and holding onto the relationship with the cruise line. Our tour guide was incredible! She was peppy, knowledgeable, and professional. Our tour was called "Havana Aromas" where you got to do a little tasting of Cuban coffee, Havana Club rum, and a Cuban cigar (this one was machine made, so on the cheap end for Cuban cigars). We REALLY enjoyed this part!

We then went to the biggest cigar factory in Havana and got to see each individual step of the manual cigar making process. Every cigar here is handmade through and through. Beware that some of the factory workers may try to approach you attempting to sell some of the cigars off their line (HIGHLY ILLEGAL), so please just say no. Lastly we went to the open market I was telling you about earlier and we absolutely LOVED it.

The only thing I wish had been different was that we were in an enclosed bus for the entirety of the tour to get around town and you couldn't put the windows down for pictures. That was difficult for the photographer side of me who loves good quality photos of architecture...and y'all...the architecture is GORGEOUS!!! Remember however, with the good comes some bad.

A lot of beautiful buildings would stand directly next to a building that was crumbling apart. There's quite a bit of poverty in Cuba and while I know I'm talking about a lot of the positives, I don't want you to think it's all sunshine and unicorns. The average well paid Cuban makes about 80-90 CUCs per month. That's would roughly be about $100 per month as I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Cuba has a long way to go to get where it needs to be for its people and tourism, but I'm hoping we can make it back sometime in the future and see they've made some strides for the Cuban population.

7) Bring Your Own Toilet Paper

Toilets are hard to come by and when you do find one, there's normally someone monitoring the door and charging for the use of it or for toilet paper. There are also rarely toilet seats, so get to working on those squats ladies and gents!

8) Eat Small

If you want to make the most out of your time there. I'd recommend having smaller shared portions at restaurants, so you don't fill up all at once and can tr as much of the local cuisine as possible. I normally like to do this in general, but the hubs is typically against the tapas train. However, he's very glad we did this here! Even being there for a single day, we got to try food/drinks at 4 spots!

9) Bring Your Own Water from Your Cruise/Hotel

WATER!!! Stock up where you can on bottled water. Restaurants do not automatically serve it, and neither will your tour. Cuba's water supply was extremely low when we went. We took one bottle from the cruise and even with that, by the end of the day, we were both extremely dehydrated.

10) Cruising? You CAN Go Back To The Ship

We weren't sure with our Visas if we'd be able to go through customs after going back onto the ship, but found out that it's not a big deal at all! Security was also no where near as tight as we thought it was going to be, so that was a huge surprise. If you're on a cruise, the cruise will provide you with the paperwork for your Visa, which costs $75 for the day.

11) Bring a Small Purse/Belt Bag

Even though I didn't feel like we were going to get pick pocketed at any point, I was glad that I brought my purse that would stay closed and tight up under my arm when walking. Ryan also bought a thin belt bag that just hid under his shirt instead of having his wallet. We didn't go anywhere where we felt this was super necessary, but there are some busier spots and beggars who will get in your bubble of personal space. In my opinion, it's just always better to be safe than sorry.

12) Buying Cigars/Rum

This is my hubby's territory, so for the first time EVER on the blog, he's going to tell you his biggest Cuban Cigar buying tips.

Casa de Habanos are the only places you will want to buy cigars unless someone roles them in front of you. There are going to be a ton a people claiming they have a brother, sister, cousin, etc. who works at the factory and that they can get you a high end cigar for pennies - 99% of these are fake and will probably make you sick. The Casa de Habanos are government run so the pricing from one location to the next is almost always the same. They are usually found in hotels or major tourist centers. We stopped at several - Hotel Nacional de Cuba was probably my favorite and had the best selection of both boxes and singles. Their outdoor patio is also a great place to grab a drink!

If you are trying to determine a budget for cigars, I would suggest using yulcigars.blogspot.com. It is constantly being updated with costs of a wide variety of cigars. If you like, you can even bring a printed off list with prices - I found this to be a good way to easily communicate what I was looking for.

Highly suggest taking a tour of one of the factories in Havana. Our tour took us to the Partagas Factory where we got to see the entire process from freshly harvested leaves to the boxed end product. This tour also helped us meet the "Educational Activities and People to People Travel" category for our Visa.

There is not an exact limit to how many cigars you can bring back. The only restriction is that they can only be for personal use - From talking with others, the equals about (100) cigars max per person. If you think you will be close to this number, make sure to get receipts from the Casa de Habanos - If you don't, you may be charged with an additional duty or even have your cigars confiscated. With us not coming directly home after we got off the cruise, I decided to bring Ziplock bags and Boveda (two way humidification pack) to ensure the cigars did not have a chance a drying out. The cigars can get quite expensive and this is an easy way to protect you investment.

13) Off Line Translator

We downloaded one, but we actually didn't pull it out once. Overall most Cubans can speak enough English for you to communicate fairly easily. There were a few times however where we had a little difficulty communicating, but really nothing that big of a deal. If you have a very basic understanding of the Spanish language, you'll be able to get by just fine.

14) Comfortable Shoes With A Non Flexible Sole

If you're planning on doing more walking than cabbing, then normal sandals aren't going to cut it...trust me. Most of the streets are cobblestone and a lot of them have piles of rubble and trash. You will either want a close toed shoe or a true walking sandal, like Birkenstocks, Chacos, etc. We only walked a lot towards the end of the night and of course, yours truly wore thin soled fashion sandals. MISTAKE. I could feel every rock, bump, crack in the road, etc. Here are a few sandals I'd recommend now that I know:

I hope you enjoyed this post got a few tips you can use in your upcoming travels! Make sure to subscribe so you can always stay up to date on my latest travel adventures and tips! I also tend to live over on my Instagram a lot, so that's where you'll find content on the daily. Head on over and don't be afraid to say hi! I'm seriously so glad you found me and our little community! Talk soon! ✌️

All the Love,