I recently traveled to Cuba on a cycle tour with one other Canadian and an American couple. It was a truly a spectacular trip not only because of the tour we were on but also because of the group I was traveling with. I realized how we Canadians, because of our proximity to Cuba, have become familiar with the trials and the splendor of Cuba travel. If you are Canadian and like and or can afford to travel, chances are you have visited Cuba. This is not the case for our neighbors to the south.
To most US citizens, Cuba is a totally unknown entity. There are particularities about Cuba travel that really don’t occur anywhere else in the world. I was fascinated to travel and cycle closely with my American group members and experience Cuba through their eyes.
It made me realize that Americans need a wee bit of a primer before they travel the very short distance to Cuba. Here are my five top tips for anyone but mostly US citizens making their very first trip to Cuba.
Five Top Cuba Travel Tips
1. Cash is king in Cuba, particularity if you’re American. You will not be able to use any US credit cards and debit cards on the island. Don’t take US currency, Canadian or Euros are best for exchange. Take more money than your tour guide recommends. I have never ever traveled to Cuba and realized I had taken too much money. I have made the mistake of believing the amounts recommended by others and have ended up wandering around Cuban streets looking for a bank that can accept my Canadian debit or visa card. Some hotels will also be able to supply you with cash but you will pay a hefty transaction fee.
2. Cuba has two currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) – this is the currency used by tourists and it is loosely based on the US rate, the other currency is the Cuban Peso, it is the currency used to pay Cubans and is valued at about 25:1 to the CUC.
3. Cubans are very well educated, and they are also very proud but poor. The US embargo has had an enormous effect on the island. It is at times extremely difficult for the average Cuban citizen to get items we North Americans take for granted. Sun lotion, razor blades, diapers, tooth paste, toothbrushes especially for kids, feminine hygiene products. headache tablets, deodorant, band aids are always in short supply.
If you can, take a big supply of these things with you and donate it to people you connect with on the trip. Don’t worry about how or who, it will become clear during your time in Cuba. If you are at the end of your trip and you are still unsure about who to give these items too, ask someone at your hotel or casa. They will know. People new to Cuba, almost always tell me they wished they knew more about what to bring and how desperate the need is in Cuba for these items.
4. Be generous with your tips. This is how Cubans survive. The average monthly salary for a Cuban is about equivalent to our $25 dollars.
5. You will need a visa to travel to Cuba. Unfortunately, the ability to travel to Cuba independently is no longer available, but for now you can still travel to the island with an approved tour company and you must obtain the visa through the company. Keep the tourist card with you once you arrive on the island, you will need it again on departure.
One last and extra tip about Cuba. Go and be prepared to fall in love. Cuba is like a lover, beguiling, bewitching, frustrating and totally, totally wonderful. Its people are passionate, kind, smart, and increasingly entrepreneurial, the island resonates with music, art, and unspoiled beautiful beaches. It is like a Caribbean Island that was frozen in time, but now slowly, achingly slowly thawing bit by bit.