I recently travelled to the crocodile shaped island in the Caribbean, my mind overflowing with information I had trawled from travel blogs and videos. But there were many things that surprised me about Cuba. Here are 7 things you might find helpful to know before travelling to Cuba.
- Taxis are expensive
But this doesn’t have to be the case. The whole time I was in Cuba, I saw no meters, so it’s possible to haggle with taxi drivers to get a cheaper price. Unfortunately, my Spanish wasn’t really up to par, so before my friends from Barcelona joined me, there was little I could do to get better prices. The older vehicles are usually cheaper.
The best thing you can do is find out the name of where you are going, and ask a few different locals what a taxi fare should be. When the taxi driver tells you a price five times higher, say the price you were told by the locals. Stick to your guns and you will find a driver willing to honour that price in no time.
- You can drink in public
I loved this. Not because I’m an alcoholic, but because I’m Irish. It was a novelty for me to be able to walk down the street in Havana, drinking a cold beer. You will see people drinking rum from bottles in the park, inches away from the police. I am imagining all the suburban soccer moms reading this with an appalled expression, but calm down. The amazing thing is, I didn’t see a single drunk person in Havana. In general, it was a nice, fun atmosphere.
- Don’t drink the tap water
Okay you can drink it, but even with water purification tablets, it’s going to upset your stomach. We drank it solely because bottled water is expensive there (because only tourists buy it.) Alternatively, you could just drink beer and rum for the whole holiday.
- Use CUP whenever you can
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not illegal for tourists to use the CUP currency. Using CUP has a lot of advantages. You can get government subsidised prices for lots of things. You can buy street food for about €2. Some of this street food is terrible, some is amazing. There’s places where locals stand in their doorways and sell cakes they’ve made for practically nothing.
The good thing is, anyone can sell things in Cuba, and they won’t be bothered by health and safety officers or police looking for their license to sell. For me that’s a good thing because it encourages the growth of hundreds of tiny businesses, without stopping every second person who just wants to make a few dollars to feed their family. To tell the difference: CUP currency has figures on the notes, and CUC has monuments on the notes.
- The Spanish is different
When my Spanish friends speak Spanish, I can understand quite a lot. When I was speaking to some Cubans, I couldn’t understand a single word. This is probably because generally it’s spoken really fast, and certain syllables are almost inaudible. In Varadero, the locals are used to tourists, so they talk much slower so you can understand more. But in Havana I found that people spoke faster and with a stronger accent.
Also, remember to download the Spanish language pack in Google Translate so you don’t have to use WiFi to translate something.
6. You will be hustled
When travelling to a lot of countries, you have to accept the fact that you will be hustled. You’re a tourist, accept it. Cuba is no different. You will have multiple people approaching you for various things, trying to coax you into their unlicensed taxi, wanting you to eat in their ridiculously priced restaurant, selling you WiFi cards for twice the price that they should be, the list goes on.
Eventually you’ll fall for something. Forgive yourself, you’re on holiday.
7. Locals can get in trouble for talking to you
Don’t be offended if you’re hanging out with some Cubans and they tell you to walk ahead of them for a few minutes. This was asked of me on three separate occasions. It sounds crazy, but they can actually get in trouble with police for talking to tourists. The idea seems to be that the police would suspect the local of trying to hustle the tourist for money.
I was talking to a Brazilian guy who said that the police stopped him and his Cuban friend, and didn’t believe that they were friends. They then began questioning both men for ID. At the end of the encounter, the police informed the Brazilian man that it was all for his safety. Ah, invasion of privacy always make me feel so safe. The lesson is, make sure you have ID (driver’s license will do) and look out for the five-o if you’re walking around with locals.
If you’re gonna to Cuba, do a lot research and pack smart. Hopefully some of the stuff I’ve mentioned will help you out. Safe travels wanderer.