Do's and Dont's for an Amazing Trip to Cuba
by Meredith Jackson
Cuba'>Cuba is a spectacular country, full of vibrance, color, and complexity. Despite its history of political and economic complications, the Cuban people possess an inner joy so pure and strong, it is contagious to all who visit the enchanting island. Cuba is relatively new to the tourism industry and, as such, vacationing in Cuba can be a bit overwhelming for a first time visitor. I first went to Cuba to study for a semester in university, and quickly fell in love with the island, returning again that same year. During my 4 months in Cuba, I learned several valuable insights that can help make your vacation in Cuba absolutely splendid. So, here we go— some Do’s and Don’ts of Cuba!
Do be patient
Cuba is a country with serious technological and economic disadvantages, thanks to the decades long blockade from the United States and the fall of their main ally, the USSR, in 1989. As such, things in Cuba take a lot longer than people from North America and Europe are used to. And when I say a lot longer, I mean a lot longer.
Expect to spend at least two hours in any restaurant. Plans made at a specific time will almost always occur an hour or more late. Just relax and let things pass. Don’t get frustrated, and learn to expect delays. Cubans savor every moment of life and don’t get flustered about punctuality. You should do the same.
Don’t rely on a credit or debit card
Cuba’s access to technology is constantly changing, and the use of credit and debit cards is becoming more widespread. However, it would be completely unwise to rely on this as your sole means of money during your trip. ATMs are few and far between, queues at hotels to take out cash can last hours, and the vast majority of businesses still do not accept card. Get a hidden money purse before your trip, and travel with most or all of the cash you suspect you’ll spend while there. A debit or credit card should be your backup, not your primary form of payment in Cuba.
Do enjoy the rum and cigars
Cuba is famous for its highly sought after rum and cigars. You should take full advantage of this during your vacation! Havana Club and Santiago de Cuba are the two best brands of rum, and can be bought cheaply in any store, restaurant or bar. Cigars are also easily accessible, but beware of street vendors selling fakes at extremely high prices. Buy cigars from your hotel or a reputable store to make sure they’re the real deal.
Don’t respond to catcallers
If you are a woman traveling to Cuba, you will undoubtedly be met with an onslaught of whistles, catcalls (called “piropos”), stares, and advances from men. Age, race, and attractiveness are seemingly not factors in attracting this kind of attention- all that matters to the chorus of Cuban catcallers you will encounter is the fact that you’re obviously foreign. These advances were never threatening or made me fear for my own safety, but they were incredibly annoying and nearly constant every time I left my house. Whether you’re flattered, disgusted, or annoyed, it’s best to simply ignore these advances. Don’t respond physically or verbally, and they will leave you alone sooner or later.
Do visit the museums
Havana has a rich history and culture, and the museums in the city are one of the best ways to learn about Cuba in depth. The Mueso de las Bellas Artes has enough art to keep you entranced for days. The Mueso de la Revolución features interesting information about the Cuban Revolution from the Cuban perspective. You’ll leave both in awe of the country’s incredible past.
Don’t limit yourself to tourist traps
The vast majority of tourist attractions and activities are in Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, and Capitolio, the neighborhood which surrounds the Capitol building. While there are tons of great things to do and see in this part of town, it’s not even close to everything Havana has to offer! A bit outside of Capitolio is the neighborhood called Vedado. In Vedado you’ll find some of the coolest bars, clubs, and art museums anywhere in the city. And a bit farther out, you’ll find the beautiful beaches of Playa del Este- a must see if you can’t make it to the beaches of Varadero. Whatever you do, make it a point to see the more residential sides of Havana. The contrast between how the Cuban people really live and the touristy vibe of Old Havana will startle you.
Do as the locals do
In Cuba, time is not an object. The locals love to lounge on the Malecon (the long wall by the sea), play dominoes for hours, and dance salsa wherever the music is playing. You should do the same! Learn dominoes, watch a neighborhood game of baseball, chat with a friend on the Malecon at sunset. You must try to dance salsa, even if you feel silly. There will always be a friendly Cuban to guide you and no one will judge you, I promise.
Don’t only travel in 1950’s convertibles
One of the most attractive aspects of Cuba, for some, is the abundance of souped-up antique convertibles from the 50’s and 60’s. However, you are going to be paying a pretty penny each time you take a spin in one of these. If you’re on a budget, save this ride for a special occasion, and stick to the less glamorous “almendrones” for regular travel. Rides anywhere within the city shouldn’t cost anything over 5 USD (and if they do, you’re getting scammed, hard).
Do get out of Havana
Havana is an incredible city, but its not all Cuba has to offer. Going to Cuba and only seeing Havana would be like going to the US and only seeing New York City. Not a complete trip at all! Try the glorious beaches of Varadero, the Che memorial in Santa Clara, and the mouth-watering fresh seafood in Cienfuegos. If you’re really up for an adventure, make the trek to Santiago de Cuba on the eastern tip of the island. The culture and accent have interesting, notable differences unlike anything you’ll find in Havana.
All photographs were taken by the author.