Have a large bottle of water for when you arrive in Cuba. Unless you are heading straight from the airport to a hotel in Havana or an all-inclusive resort in Varadero you are going to be stuck for drinking water. Make your life a little easier and take this off your immediate to do list of changing currency, negotiating taxis, finding a casa, keeping your eyes open in a new country etc. If you are arriving late at night there won’t be any stores open to sell you water or food, being prepared helps.
Bring everything you might need for your trip. Oh yes I mean everything. Cuba is a country of limited resources and what they do have is not always the best quality as they are restricted to what other countries will sell them. Plasters for a blister, birthday candles for a cake for your friend, tampons just in case, a sewing kit for when your dress breaks. These are all examples of things I needed and could not find handy but fortunately other tourists were able to help or I made do with my new Cuban attitude!
Bring snacks and anything you need for food intolerances. I can’t eat wheat and cheese and am used to bringing my own porridge, almond milk and cashew butter for breakfast wherever I travel including within Europe. A Cuban breakfast is typically fruit, bread, biscuits, coffee, juice and scrambled eggs. Lunch or dinner is fruit, rice (different types), black beans, vegetables, soup and a meat; chicken, pork, fish or beef. A version of bread, ham and cheese can be found in most places as a sandwich, taco or pizza! I’d recommend bringing mixed nuts, biscuits and cereal bars to help vary your food intake and to have on hand as snacks. Planning a meal in a more expensive hotel or international restaurant every third or forth night will also help to break what will seem like an endless rice dish and expand your options to more then the four vegetables currently in season in Cuba! Like most travel you will have your eyes opened to another way of eating something for me I ate cucumber that had been cooked and loved it! So much better then the cold, crunchy cucumber eating I am used to in my western world.
Mosquito Repellent. Bring lots and use this everywhere you go. In the morning after your shower, before you get on the tourist bus, after using the pool, before going to bed. Basically every four hours! Outside of Havana we found mosquitoes were everywhere and only the repellent we brought from the UK that had Deet in it worked. The local stuff that is sold in Cuban pharmacies is ineffective. As a guide I used one of these per week I was there for just myself and it also works if you spray directly on a mozzie in your room to kill it!
Bring a beach towel. Towels are in short supply in Cuba and there will be a small towel at your casa/hotel but the likelihood of you having an additional beach towel is minimal. I ended up buying one in Varadero for 12CUC for a whole weeks worth of local beach activities which made sense. If you are staying only at an all inclusive resort in Cuba then check tripadvisor as others will have noted what the beach towel policy was.
Take some sort of gift for locals. You would have heard about how locals used to ask tourists all the time for soap, pens, clothing and sweets when the embargo was strict and imports were scarce. There has been improvement in the past couple of years but on advice from a friend I decided to take a box of basic biro pens with me. My friend was hiking in Vinales, lost she asked for directions and needed to hand over something for an answer from a local. When I was in Trinidad taking photos families asked for something in exchange and I was more then happy to hand over a pen. Cubans don’t do this to be mean or not help, they are just in a country where everything has a value and information for a tourist has a price. At the end of my trip I had plenty of pens left over so I found a school and donated them. My friends and I also went through our bags before we left and any clothing, beach towels, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, bodywash, toothpaste etc that we didn’t need immediately we bundled up and gave to a local family. As long as everything is clean Cubans don’t mind if it is part used, if that family doesn’t want it they will know someone who will.
Tipping. The standard is 10% that you are meant to add to the bill yourself. 1CUC for any tips/advice from hotel staff or if they order you a taxi for example. The average Cubans monthly wage is 20-25CUC, this is paid on top of their ration card which depending on their age/sex will allocate an amount of juice, milk, food, clothing, electricity, toiletries etc to the individual/family. Those that work in the tourist industry can find their government wage decreased as they are expected to receive tips to make up the difference. A lady I spoke with in Trinidad earns 14CUC a month for her government travel booking job. She told us that local fruit and vegetable prices have been inflated to 1CUC for a mango by tourists and it was making providing for her family over and above the rations difficult. Just tip. 1CUC is probably just £1 or $US1 or EUR1 and the impact on a Cubans lift is greater then the loss on yours for the same amount.
Take both American and European adaptors. Everywhere we stayed on the tourist trail had both American and Europe electrical plugs and were wired for 110v and 220v. Typically I found that someone before you will have written the voltage above the plug. If there was no writing is was 90% safe to consider that that the voltage was 110. If all your equipment is from a 220v country it doesn’t hurt to use 110v it is all just a bit slower in charging or your hairdryer won’t work at full heat. However don’t plug in a 110v product to a 220v socket as you will find your equipment won’t cope and will likely create a short that at the least will cause a fuse to overload and at at worst will result in your item dying!
Take the tourist bus Viazul, unless you can drive and understand Spanish then rent a car! The buses are the only business in Cuba that runs on time, are airconditioned, fairly clean to very clean and best news stop every couple of hours for rest breaks so the dreaded bus toilet is locked, inaccessible and not creating an awful smell. As a result the best seats for full recline and no interruptions are the ones directly in front of the toilets and getting to the bus early and lining up if worth it for the long trips. Avoid the back seat as the row might have three seats there is literally no leg room. Plenty of my fellow passengers watched preloaded tv shows however due to my inclination for travel sickness I spent my time watching the Cuban life outside the window which gave me a better understanding of the people. If you are on a long bus journey don’t be surprised if the bus driver stops to purchase some fruit or honey, or picks up additional local passengers to fill the seats. He is likely getting food for his extended family at a better or fresher standard then in his home town and the extra passengers is a hangover from a law in the embargo times where no vehicle was allowed to travel empty to ensure Cubans could get around the country. All of this was missed by my friends that were catching up on their box sets!
Did he say left but mean right? I found body language was key to understanding Cubans and the information they were trying to give me. I don’t speak Spanish and this wasn’t a problem as it is easy to learn the basics of hello, goodbye and thank you for politeness. Cubans were learning Russian until the mid 90’s when they switched to English, however the lack of exposure to English speakers and ability to go to an English country means like my high school French it can be a little hit and miss! Often when asking for directions I found that I was told left but the hand actions were to the right and this was the correct direction. It is easy to get caught up in a rush to get where you are going but it is worth taking a moment of your time and clearly understanding the information you are getting before walking the wrong way! If you are in Varadero at an all inclusive resort the staff are all bilingual and speak French, Spanish, English and German.
The stories about Internet access are all true or are not depending on your mindset! It is incredibly easy to get internet access around Cuba. There are plenty of wi-fi spots, just look for a group of Cubans gathered in an area looking at their screens or head to the nearest international hotel. Buy an internet card for 2CUC an hour, sold in one hour or five hour groups, scratch the code and login with your phone. BOOM! You are online and the timer is ticking. It is true you can’t access the internet from your bed with your eyes half open as soon as you wake up but you can check emails, tweet, instagram and facetime. The only real restriction is that you can’t google the answer to everything at every minute to your day. Over time this actually works in your favour as you have to start using your grey matter to logically work things out or remember what you learnt in school!
Bonus tip! I found the lonely planet of Cuba to be highly accurate and worthwhile taking with you. If you are interested in understanding the Cuban way of life before you land try reading Cuba Diaries by Isadora Tattlin. Isadora lived in Cuba for four years in the 90’s as an expat and even had Fidel visit her home for dinner. She gives a great explanation of how Cubans live and despite being nearly 15 years later my experience was very similar. Not much has changed!