It’s been a week since we came back from our big trip to Cuba.
We had been planning this holiday for about 6 months, deciding on our itinerary, noting down things to do, places to see and dishes to eat.
In that time, we did our research. We read every guide book we could get our hands on and dozens of blog posts, we talked to friends and colleagues who’d visited, saved pictures on Pinterest, pinned everything down on an offline map…
And yet somehow, there was still so much about Cuba that surprised us.
As my friend Kristin put it when she was sharing her top Cuba tips ahead of our trip – no matter what you expect, it’s not quite what it’s going to be like, but it’ll be amazing regardless.
So here are a few things to keep in mind on your first trip to the Pearl of the Antilles.
1. It does look just like the pictures
Seriously – everywhere in Cuba is just gorgeous.
From the pastel-coloured, half-crumbled streets of Havana, to the breath-taking landscapes of Vinales and the island’s white-sanded beaches, every single bit of Cuba is simply gorgeous.
2. Everyone runs a business from their front room
Seriously – Cuban are so enterprising. They make the most of whatever situation they’re put into and whatever space they can get hold of.
There are people running restaurants in their living room (the paladares). People selling coffee / souvenirs on their door step or through their window. People running flower businesses from their building’s entry hall…
Most of those are regulated by the state, extremely good value for money and an incredible way to get a look into what Cuban life really looks like.
3. People will want to talk to you
Partly because they’re very aware that tourism is the best way for Cubans to make money, through network and referal fee systems.
But also because the locals are also incredibly curious and genuinely interested in you, where you come from, why you’ve decided to come to Cuba, what your travel plans are…
As a consequence, Cubans get quite offended if you ignore them when they greet you in the street. So don’t. Greet them back, indulge in a bit of chit-chat and if people try to sell you something, a simple ‘no gracias’ and a smile should be enough.
4. Rum is (almost) as cheap as water
In most restaurants, you’ll actually pay the same price for a mojito or a bottle of water, which is completely INSANE.
And you know, amazing.
5. Health and safety isn’t really a thing
Most cars don’t have seat belts. A lot of staircases and tower-type buildings don’t have banisters. Emergency exits aren’t clearly maked…
And you know what? It’s okay. You’ll survive it.
6. Eating a full casa breakfast is a challenge
If you’re travelling to Cuba on a budget, casa breakfasts (as in, the breakfast served by your casa hosts for a small fee) will be your new best friend.
Your typical breakfast will include a plate of fruit, toast with butter, eggs, a cheese and ham toastie, varied treats (potato or plantain fritters, French toast, pancakes, cheese with guava paste, cookies…), freshly squeezed juice and a lot of strong coffee.
It’s really quite the spread and it will definitely keep you full until well into the afternoon!
7. Cats & dogs are everywhere
A lot of them seem to be semi-stray (some even have an identification card attached to their collar) and most are absolutely adorable.
Over the course of our holiday, I stopped approximatevely 3241 time to pet cats in the street and have been tempted to take one home about as many times.
8. And so are old-school American cars
They come in every colour of the rainbow and absolutely no shock absorbing system.
A tour in one of the iconic, old-school American cars often comes up on the list of must-do activities in Cuba, but a lot also run as regular taxis or taxi collectivos if your budget doesn’t quite stretch that far.
9. Unless you call your bank ahead of time, your card won’t work
Make your life easier – take a lot of cash with you (changing cash is quite easy).
Also make sure you call your bank ahead of time with your travel dates and ask them to lift security locks in case you need to withdraw more money.
It’ll save you a lot of time (and £30 phone calls) to get it all unlocked…
10. Internet isn’t really a thing
There is internet in Cuba, but you have to buy a top-up card (about 5CUC for 1h) and will only be able to access it from the very few wifi hotspots.
Most cities will only have one of those. But despite its scarcity, the wifi was surprisingly fast everywhere we used it, so you know, you win some, you loose some.
11. And neither is public transport
There are actually quite a lot of local buses – but they’re really just for the locals. As a tourist, you can use taxis, cyclotaxis or ‘mango taxis’ for short distances (my favourites!)
Trains however simply don’t exist, and neither do intra-island flights, which means your only options to go from city to city are Viazul buses or taxi collectivos.
Inbetween cities, we only used taxi collectivos. They can be arranged with your casa hosts, run a door-to-door service and are typically quicker and similarly priced as the bus service.
12. Experiencing the real, local Cuba can be challenging
As explained above, Cubans are very aware of the importance of tourism to their economy. As a result, they will go above and beyond to ensure you make the most out your trip.
But they don’t really mingle with you – casa hosts are always happy to cook a feast for you, but they’ll eat separately. Taxi collectivo drivers are often happy to show you around a city but they’ll wait for you in the car while you take in the sights. Locals will happily recommend restaurants to you but will rarely eat there themselves.
Not to forget that Cubans use a whole different currency altogether and most places only accept one of the two currencies, making the divide very ‘official’.
13. No matter what you expect from your first trip to Cuba, it’s not what you’ll get
Cuba will surprise you. The city- and landscapes will take your breath away. The native’s generosity and ingenuity will melt your heart. The music and the rum will never fail to put a big smile on your face.
No matter how much you prepare for your first trip to Cuba, you’ll never be quite ready but you will definitely have an amazing time!