Cuba is the new hotspot destination for American travelers. Many say they want to “get there before it gets ruined by mass tourism,” or before the political situation in America affects the recently-relaxed relations between the two countries. Though Americans have been finding their way around visa restrictions for years, it’s never been easier to travel to Cuba. If a Cuban adventure is in your 2017 travel plans, here are a few things you can expect.
8 Things to Expect on Your First Visit to Cuba
1. Your High School-Level Spanish Probably Won’t Cut It
Unless you’re staying at five-star hotels and resorts, most travelers to Cuba will be staying in casa particulares. These are bed-and-breakfast-like accommodations that are run out of the apartments of everyday Cubans. It’s a fantastic (and fantastically cheap) option that gives you first-hand access to the local people. However, in some casas there is very little, or no, English spoken or understood. You can make do with a basic phrasebook and some creative sign language, but don’t expect communication to be easy!
2. Cash is King
If you’re hoping to earn a bunch of credit card rewards points in Cuba, you may want to rethink your strategy. Especially if your credit card comes from an American-based bank. Even the high-end resorts can’t run an American credit or debit card, and no bank can issue cash from a debit card tied to an American bank (as of right now). Foreign credit cards issued from Canada, Australia, and Europe may work, but it’s a crapshoot. Your best bet is to withdraw all the cash you’re going to need for your trip and bring it with you. Scary, yes, but not as scary as having no money in a foreign country! Bringing Euros will also save you the price-gouging 10% fee that Cuban banks charge to change US Dollars, so consider buying these from your bank before you leave.
3. Internet is Harder to Get Than You Think
If you’re hoping to be constantly connected to your email or social media, think again. Outside of the resorts and hotels, access to WiFi is difficult to get. You need to find an ETECSA card, which provides a temporary login and password for an hour at a time. These are usually priced at $2, but on the street or at some hotels they can be twice as much. Once you have the coveted card, you then need to find a hotspot — again, the hotels are your best bet in tourist areas. And if you succeed in logging in, good luck staying connected!
4. Don’t Bother Getting a Local SIM Card for Your Mobile
Some travelers like to have a local phone number on their unlocked phone wherever they travel. Because the (sole) telecommunications company in Cuba is run by the government, getting a local Cuban number means standing in a long line in a government building and struggling to explain what you’re looking for in broken Spanish. And once you have the card, you’ll realize that your casa owners will happily call around on your behalf if you need a driver or a place to stay at your next stop.
5. Music, Music Everywhere
And dancing everywhere. And color everywhere. You won’t sit down to a meal without a live band playing somewhere in the restaurant, and every famous bar blasts rumba, jazz, or salsa beats late into the night. Accompanying this melodious backdrop are impromptu dance parties on bar floors and pedestrian pathways all over the city.
6. Water Pressure in the Shower? Nope.
If your bathing preferences include a shower head that could double as a Thai masseuse, you’ll be disappointed at the casas in Cuba. Most apartment buildings heavily regulate the amount of water used, so you’re left with a stream that might barely get your hair wet through. Unless you’re in a resort, be prepared for a weak sprinkling. On the upside, the water is almost always at least warm!
7. Everything Is a Process — From Changing Cash to Getting a Bus Ticket
One thing to be sure to expect in Cuba? Waiting in line. Whether it’s getting a SIM card, exchanging foreign currency at the bank, or trying to book a Viazul bus ticket from Havana to Trinidad, nothing happens quickly. This may grate on you the first few days, but as soon as you sink into the rhythm of Cuban life, it’ll be all good.
8. You Will Meet Amazing Locals
Of all the places I have traveled, no group has stolen my heart quite like the Cuban people. Despite financial hardships, they are some of the friendliest, kindest, and most gregarious people I have ever met. They shrug off their difficulties and genuinely love connecting with foreigners. From impromptu salsa lessons, passionate discussions about politics, and an eagerness to show off the natural beauty of their homeland, some of my most treasured memories of Cuba revolve around my new Cuban friends.
Do you have a trip to Cuba planned in the near future? Check out my most recent blog post that outlines everything you need to know to get to Cuba!