Cuba Tips, Tricks, and Misconceptions

So, it’s illegal right?

Nope – see my other post about legally traveling to Cuba.

What about money?

The money situation in Cuba is a mess for tourists and Cubans alike. For Americans, there’s one extra bit of hassle – you won’t be able to access your US bank through ATMs or credit cards, so you need to bring cash for your trip. Cuba can be as expensive or inexpensive as you make it, but you could bring $100 per day and come home with plenty of leftover cash. 

Some websites haven’t gotten the message that there’s only one Cuban currency (at one point, there are two – the CUP and the CUC). The CUP is the only physical currency in circulation at this point. The MLC (a digital currency, notionally pegged to the dollar) isn’t relevant for tourists.

If you’re in Havana, you can plan to do almost all of your spending directly in dollars, though you’ll likely get pesos as change. Be sure that the money you bring is in good condition, without tears and marks – since bills eventually wear out, Cubans are nervous about getting left holding the bag when a bill reaches the end of its life. Bring a mix of $1, $5, $10, and $20 bills. 

It’s worth having a few pesos for small purchases. The official exchange rate is a bit of a joke, so you’ll want to do your money changing on the black market. The folks from your accommodation will almost certainly be happy to help – you can check ElToque to get a sense of the current black market rate. Many restaurants will give you your bill in USD and pesos. If you were especially concerned with saving money you could be strategic about your use of dollars versus pesos. But please don’t be that person. Be generous, tip well.

Can I post on Instagram?

The really important question! Yes, definitely! Cubans are just as online as everyone else in the world. Cuban wifi is a bit complicated, and not all accommodations have wifi. The wifi system involves pre-purchasing connection time, then loading them onto an account or entering a code.

Many articles on the web still refer to “wifi parks,” where Cubans would gather around to use wifi hotspots in parks and town squares. While there are still public access points, that social behavior seems to have gone away entirely in the favor of cellular data – it’s fast and affordable. In addition, many websites claim that private homes can’t purchase internet connections, so rely on wifi extenders from parks. That’s not true either – DSL service is available for private homes.

For most folks, I’d skip the wifi and use the tourist sim card available through SuenaCuba. It can be ordered in advance and picked up at the airport. Provided your phone is unlocked and has a sim slot, that’ll get you 6gigs of 4G or 3G data, along with texts and phone calls. You can add more data as needed. 

For folks without a sim slot, the travel eSim service Airalo has just started offering Cuba support. It’s a little pricey, but it’s a good option for folks with eSim only devices. 

I have an eSim-only iPhone, but it’s not currently unlocked, so instead I got a very cheap Android phone to use for the trip. I set it up as a hotspot for my iPhone, and just kept it in my bag. That worked really well. 

Cuban internet has some filters in place, though they’re fairly random. There are also some US-based websites which will block connections from Cuban IP addresses. For these reasons, it’s worth having a VPN setup on your devices. I tried ExpressVPN and it worked fine, but I ended up using a self-managed Wireguard installation instead. 

The internet does tend to slow down in the evenings, but in general speeds are ok. I’m not sure I’d want to do a lot of Zoom calls, but it’s fast enough for email, browsing, and scrolling through the ‘gram. 

If you’ve got a Cuban sim, I’d recommend signing up for La Nave, the local Uber alternative. It makes it easy to hail a taxi and select a destination, without having to negotiate a price.

Health and Safety

In terms of physical safety, there’s not much to worry about in Cuba. In terms of personal health, most websites will recommend sticking to bottled or filtered water. I suspect the water in Havana is actually pretty OK, but I did bring a water bottle with an integrated filter just to stay safe. Bottled water is available as well, though you might need to try a few shops before you find one that has any on hand. I drank drinks with ice at restaurants without worrying. Food hygiene in general seems good. Just do normal Smart Traveler stuff and you’ll be fine. Bring toilet paper and soap – your accommodation will probably have them, but nowhere else will. 

The air quality in Havana is relatively poor, so if you’ve got sensitive lungs you may want to wear a mask. There’s also a lot of smoking, including indoors.

Other Tips

While the private stores do have some snacks available, bringing a few granola bars wouldn’t hurt.

Donations are super appreciated and useful. Consider bringing an extra suitcase of items to leave behind – either work with a local organization like Corazon Con Cuba or an international group like Not Just Tourists. Or just ask your accommodation host what you can bring.

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