In June I was lucky enough to travel to Cuba with my mum and little sister. We spent two weeks sipping on cocktails and lazing around in the sunny resorts of Havana and Valadero. It was lush and I throughly recommend that everyone goes at least once in their life.
Unusual for us we rocked up slightly unprepared. A combination of a hectic schedule (I had just come back from Croatia and mum had just celebrated her 50th before we went) and excitement meant that we didn’t have chance/a moment’s thought to make a proper plan.
In this blog post you’ll find some things that we wish we’d prepared for, things we’re glad we did and things we’re still dreaming about (mmm mango). Give it a read before you go to make sure you make the most of your holiday:
1) Take lots of cash
Cuba has a closed currency so you won’t be able to convert it until you’re over there. You’ll have to take a fair amount with you because, as we soon discovered, a lot of places (apart from hotels and big businesses) don’t take credit cards.
Be careful what kind of money you take as well. The banks and hotels will pretty much convert anything for you unless you’re trying to trade-in Bank of Scotland pound notes… We found this out the hard way and ended up with over £100 in redundant Scottish monies. Fab.
2) Don’t expect things to be Disneyfied
Cuba is rough and ready. The hotel resorts are pretty pristine but places like Havana are very much a living breathing city. You can see how booming and glorious it once was in the buildings and the architecture but there is no denying that the American embargo hit the island hard.
It’s a little bit dirty and dishevelled but that’s the beauty of it all. Embrace it and immerse yourself in the Cuban lifestyle.
3) Plan lots of excursions
The tourism industry is the second biggest contributor to Cuba’s economy, generating over $2bn a year. As a result, their hotel resorts are very impressive (and very pretty), but if you’re not the kind of person who can spend a whole two weeks lying by the pool or sunning it up on the beach, then you need to look into booking a couple of trips.
We stayed in two different hotels while we were over there (one in Havana and one in Valadero). Although we enjoyed our time there immensely, after a couple of lazy days in the sun we started to get a little restless. Luckily our hotels operated a transfer service to the centre of the town, as well as a fair amount of additional day trips and activities (at a price of course).
While we were in Valerdero we visited the Bay of Pigs museum, a beach on the caribbean coast, a sugar mill museum, a crocodile sanctuary, and even went on a catamaran ride to a tropical island. The trips, although a little pricey, are definitely worth looking into.
4) Invest in a guide
Unless you understand Spanish through and through, or know the history of Cuba inside out, then you’re going to really struggle to fully appreciate all the attractions and museums. Even when there are signs detailing the significance of the site, they’re often very brief or, of course, in Spanish.
Booking trips with onboard reps or hiring a guide while you’re out there is therefore highly recommended.
These guys are more than wiling to tell you all about their homeland and I guarantee you will come away with some facts about Cuba that would put even the Lonely Planet guidebook to shame.
You won’t have to worry about a language barrier either, as the reps are accomplished English language speakers. We were so impressed by all our guide’s knowledge and enthusiasm, but one guy in particular really stands out. And that was the Captain of our catamaran. As we boarded the boat, we found out him animatedly chatting away with passengers in French, German, Italian, Japanese as well as English and, of course, Spanish. His language skills absolutely blew us away.
5) Tip readily
It’s very much a part of the culture, so it’s worth keeping some small change on you at all times. Don’t expect top notch service if you’re not flashing the cash. Just saying.
6) Be ready to negotiate
When you’re at your hotel find out the average amount you should be paying for taxis and other amenities and use that to set your pricing threshold.
Most taxi drivers are more than willing to negotiate their fares so don’t be afraid to give it a go. Some stall owners will do the same. But if you’re trying to haggle for cheaper rum, then it won’t happen. Havana Club is the same price everywhere. Boo.
*** Also, while we’re on the subject of taxis: yes, the old cars are quaint but no they are not as fun as they look. See below:
If you want to enjoy the novelty of riding in one of the old American cars, then make sure you pick one that’s a) open top and b) in good nick. My normally-safety-conscious mother did not go by this rule and we ended up in a few old bangers and coconut cabs, which were slightly terrifying. The suspension was nonexistent, seat belts were nowhere to be found and, in the case of the old bangers, they, unsurprisingly, lacked some much needed air conditioning.
7) Take lots of mosquito spray!
Mosquitos are everywhere and they are relentless. Waa.
8) Finally, make the most of the fresh fruit and seafood
You won’t find this kind of produce fresher anywhere else. Their mango is so sweet, juicy and succulent and their seafood is super fresh and cheap (think lobster and crab for prices that would make an English fishmonger’s jaw drop in disbelief). Make the most of it while you can.