Cuba travel tips for planning a trip to Cuba
By Andrew Bell, one of the photographers guiding our upcoming Cuba Photo Tour
Cuba is a wonderfully fascinating country to visit, filled with the friendliest people, fuelled by music and dancing, and set against a backdrop of beautiful landscapes and classic architecture. New stories emerge around every corner and down each side street and alleyway. The warm Caribbean sun offset by cool, crisp mojitos. Cuba truly is a photographer’s paradise. To make sure you can concentrate on soaking it all up and capturing that perfect image, here are our top 10 Cuba travel tips.
- Pack Lightly
It’s always warm in Cuba; even if it rains it’s rarely ever cold and even the most up-market restaurant in Cuba has a casual dress code, so don’t over-burden yourself. Lightweight clothes, shorts, t-shirts, good walking shoes, and some toiletries are all you’ll need. (And, of course, your camera, if you’re joining us on a photo tour!)
- Be Organised with Cash
Cuba has a closed currency, so you can only exchange funds in-country. Although there’s a bureau de change at the airport you’ll find the queue is often very long and slow moving. Also, thanks to the continued US embargo, there’s a surcharge on changing US dollars. Change funds at a hotel, or visit one of the Metropolitan Banks around Havana to change money. If possible bring Euro’s or British Pound as these tend to have favourable exchange rates.
- Switch to Cuba Time
Be prepared to slow the pace. Locals are used to waiting and queuing for pretty much everything. No one is in any rush to go anywhere (except the taxi drivers!). Things happen, when they happen. Relax, unwind and bring your patience.
- Go Local
Some of the best experiences, bars, food and fun can be found away from the tourist centric locations, tucked away on backstreets or in quiet neighbourhoods. Don’t be afraid to visit some of the local’s bars; listen for the sounds of salsa, rumba and reggaeton flowing from sidestreets and follow the sound to some of the coolest night spots.
- Practice Some Spanish
Spanish is the first language in Cuba and although a lot of people, especially those involved in tourism will speak some English, you will often find people who don’t. Even those who do speak English will appreciate it if you make even a little effort to communicate in Spanish. Learn a few words, or bring with you an offline translation app, or good old fashioned phrase book.
- Be Water-Wise
So you’re on an island surrounded by water, but what is there to drink? Well, tap water is a no-go, as is anything labelled “filtered”. Look for sealed bottled water (which is sold everywhere very cheaply). Remember to use it for brushing your teeth as well as drinking. If you’re looking to hydrate throughout the day, you can’t go far wrong than our favourite local beer; Crystal. It’s fairly low alcohol, crisp, clean and refreshing and no risk of an upset stomach.
- Drop off the grid
When we first started travelling to Cuba you were lucky if you got mobile phone reception at all. These days most major hotels offer paid for internet and wi-fi hotspots are popping up around Havana and in some other major cities, but there’s no such thing as data roaming. Consider disconnecting from emails and social media and embracing off-the-grid living.
- Be discreet
The average salary in Cuba is $20-30 a month; most people who are employed by the state (and that’s the majority of Cubans) will earn no more than $45 a month! Whilst there’s almost zero crime in Cuba, it’s always best not to tempt fate. It might be best to leave the expensive jewellery and watches at home.
- Find Original Souvenirs
There are a lot more independent shops and vendors around Cuba now than ever before and while competition is a healthy thing, you’ll find many shops are selling the same, or very similar merchandise. If you’re buying some gifts to take home, or souvenirs of your trip, shop around and don’t be afraid to haggle.
- Travel with the Pros
Cuba can be a fairly complicated country to navigate, especially if it’s your first trip. Travelling with a company who have years of experience working and touring in Cuba, with great in-country contacts will help ensure you have an amazing trip and find those little extras that make your stay truly special. You could, for instance, join – ahem – us! We might be a little bias, but we truly believe our Cuba photo tours will give you that Wow! Factor and unlock some of the hidden Cuba that you just won’t find on a regular tourist coach trip.
Do you have itchy feet after absorbing our Cuba travel tips? Check out our 10-day tour in Havana & Trinidad!
And for some more photography-specific tips, check out a Photographer’s Guide to Photographing Cuba, by Photography Talk.