Everything you need to know before visiting Cuba

HAVANA, Feb. 5th To a first-time traveller, Cuba can seem like a confusing jigsaw puzzle, particularly if you’re breaking free of the resorts and travelling around on your own. The Spanish spoken here is fast and hard to decipher, every street has two different names, and the country’s fickle and highly complicated monetary situation could fill its own guidebook.

To make things easier, here is everything you need to know before travelling to Cuba.

Planning a trip to Cuba

Double-check your insurance

You are required to have medical insurance, including Covid-19 coverage, to visit Cuba and will need to bring the digital or printed proof of your policy. Random checks are made at the airport. If you arrive without insurance, you’ll be asked to buy a Cuban policy at the airport for US$30.

Immigration documents have been streamlined

As of January 1, 2022, Cuba simplified its arrival process with a new online form called D’Viajeros that registers travellers’ immigration and health information. You can digitally fill out the form up to 72 hours before your arrival in Cuba.

Tourist cards for all

To enter Cuba, all visitors need to present a completed tourist card. It’s usually available through your airline (ask when booking) and included in the price of your ticket. If not, you can purchase one through a Cuban travel agency. Costs range from US$50 to US$85. Twenty African and Asian countries require a formal visa to enter Cuba. Check your country’s policies before booking.

Travel in the time of coronavirus

All travellers entering Cuba need to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test completed within the previous 72 hours. Random PCR tests are undertaken on arriving passengers at the airport.  PCR tests for passengers returning home cost the equivalent of US$30 and are easy to procure if you’re staying at a resort.

Independent travellers will have to locate the nearest clinic. There are two international clinics in Havana that perform tests on a first-come, first-served basis.

Note that pandemic-related information is prone to change at short notice. Always check the latest Covid updates online right up until your day of travel.

The money situation in Cuba is one of the tricker stumbling blocks for travellers – even the locals find it complicated ©

Money in Cuba

Cash and currency: it’s complicated!

Money in Cuba is confusing, even to Cubans. Since the country abolished convertibles (CUC) in January 2021 and took the US dollar out of circulation in June 2021, there has been massive inflation and the emergence of a rampant black market. The knock-on effect is a bewildering dual economy.

The official currency of Cuba is the Cuban peso (CUP), but foreign currencies are also widely accepted, especially by private businesses who need hard cash to buy non-rationed goods in MLC (freely convertible currency) shops. As of December 2021, the official euro-to-peso exchange rate was 1:27.

On the black market, it was closer to 1:60 – a humongous difference. State-run enterprises and banks use official exchange rates. However, the prices of the superior services offered by private businesses generally reflect black market exchange rates.

Hence the main dish in a private restaurant in Havana will cost around CUP$500 (US$21). That’s an expensive meal if you’re paying in pesos bought from a Cuban bank. However, most private restaurants will also accept payment in euros using a more favourable exchange rate. Some will even have a separate menu with prices printed in euros.

When buying something from a private business – be it a restaurant, casa particular (private accommodation) or taxi service – it’s usually best to pay in a foreign currency. Always ask upfront what currencies they accept and what exchange rate they use for their published peso prices.

Euros is the most interchangeable currency and the one preferred by Cubans. You can also use and exchange Canadian dollars and pound sterling. US dollars still circulate on the black market, but we don’t recommend bringing them. The best bet, when you arrive, is to keep most of your money in a foreign currency and only change small amounts into pesos for incidentals like museum entry, concert tickets, and tips.

MLC – A currency with no cash form

The Moneda Libremente Convertible (MLC) is a currency approved by the Cuban government in 2020 that can be used in certain shops to buy higher-end goods. The currency doesn’t exist as cash and its value is pegged with the US dollar.

It’s used mainly by Cubans with special magnetic cards. Tourists needn’t worry too much about MLC, although prices will sometimes be displayed in the currency in state-run enterprises such as cigar shops or airport souvenir stores where you can pay with a non-US credit card.

Only some credit cards will work

Credit cards are increasingly popular in Cuba and, in many state-run businesses, they are the preferred (and sometimes the only) method of payment. Despite promises made in the Obama era, credit cards linked to US banks are not accepted. Private businesses almost never have credit card machines, meaning your only option is cash.

Everything you need to know before visiting Cuba

There are plenty of quirks in Cuba you won’t find anywhere else, but the country is really quite casual © ESB Professional / Shutterstock

Etiquette in Cuba

Leave the high heels and tux at home

Dress in Cuba is casual. The only real dress code is in cinemas, theatres, and nightclubs where male patrons are required to wear long trousers and shirts with sleeves or half-sleeves.

Addressing the locals

If you speak Spanish, you’ll find that Cubans mostly use the informal form of address, rather than usted. In the plural, ustedes is used over vosotros. If you don’t know someone, it’s best to address them as señor or señora, though you’ll hear Cubans use all kinds of substitutes, such as socio, hermano, papa, chica/o, and asere.

Where the streets have two names

In most Cuban cities, the streets have two names: a contemporary one that is noted on maps and marked on street signs, and a pre-revolutionary one that is still used widely by the locals.

This can become confusing, especially when locals, unaware of the new street names, start giving out directions or addresses using the colloquial nomenclature. Always double-check addresses and, if possible, get two potential names for the street you’re looking for.

The art of queueing

Cubans have to endure a lot of long waits in boring queues, so they’ve invented a way of doing it that doesn’t involve standing in line. In a Cuban queue, you simply roll up at the bakery/clinic/visa office and yell out to the assembled masses, “Quien es último?” (Who’s last?).

Hopefully, someone in a 400m vicinity will answer your polite entreaty with the word, “yo” (me). That person is your yardstick. As long as they’re still around, feel free to go for a walk, sit in the lotus position or buy ice cream. When they get called up, be on your toes, you’re next!

Ask questions more than once

Thanks to heavy bureaucracy, answers to simple requests aren’t always straightforward – or even correct. Probe politely and ask at least five different people before you make important decisions.

Braving cold buses

Cuba has a countrywide state-run bus service called Víazul that connects all of the main cities and some of the smaller towns. Prices are charged in MLC$ (the same rate as the US$) and tickets must be paid for with a credit card either in person or online.

Everything you need to know before visiting Cuba

Viniales valley

A second service called Conectando, run by Cubanacán, also puts on buses in peak season along some of the more popular routes. Bring a sweater/jacket for long bus rides – the air-conditioning is akin to a chilly day in Vancouver.

Health and Safety in Cuba

Is Cuba safe?

Cuba is one of the safest countries in the Americas in terms of violent crime. Pick-pocketing is more common, but not rampant, and is mostly avoidable if you follow a few basic precautions. Wear a money belt, use safe boxes in hotel rooms, and don’t flash your cash in public.

Beware of forgeries

Never change money with unlicensed traders on the streets. You run the risk of receiving estafas (forged notes).

Bring your own medicines

On one level, Cuba has a good health system (it invented and quickly distributed three different Covid-19 vaccines); on the other, it is perennially short of pharmaceuticals.

Bring all the prescription medications you think you’ll need, as well others you might like ibuprofen or paracetamol. If you’d like to donate some medicines to the people of Cuba, it is currently possible to bring in 10kg of medical supplies tax-free (pack them in a separate bag).

Avoid dodgy cigars

Cuba has its share of jineteros (touts) spinning elaborate stories about super-cheap, high-quality cigars procured by their brother/mother/cousin from the factory. Don’t believe them. Instead, buy your cigars in state-run shops such as the Casa del Habano chain. Cigars sold on the street are invariably factory cast-offs and not genuine.

Driving is not as easy as you think

With light traffic on the road, driving might seem like an easy proposition, but with elevated rental prices and cars often in short supply, it’s not always so.

Add in sporadic signposting, potholed roads, and a wide array of hazards – goats, horses, bicycles, kids, and slow-moving, fume-belching trucks – and you might want to consider getting the bus or, at least, employing the services of a chauffeur.

Sanitary materials

The pandemic has made the provision of antiseptic hand lotion more common. The same can’t be said of toilet paper. Carry your own roll and/or gravitate to four- or five-star hotels when you’re caught short in the city.

Don’t drink the water

It won’t kill you but it might give you a little queasiness or an upset stomach. Fortunately, bottled water is abundant and cheap.