How to Travel to Cuba for Canadians
Travel to Cuba
Yes Cuba is as amazing as you have imagined! Inexpensive yet delicious meals. Hardly any traffic, warm weather, warm water, warm and friendly people. Bottles of rum for $3.60 USD. No Mcdonald’s, or any other fast food you have ever heard of. Live music, lots of dancing, and a super lively night life. All this in Havana which also has super reasonable rates on accommodations. I’m going to review my experience to help you with your travel to Cuba.
Before the Trip
I just returned from a two week visit to Havana and Varadero. A lot of the research I did in advance of my trip turned out to be less than reliable. I am passing on the experiences I had so you have better information than I had. This post is relevant to the date that I posted it so please take that into consideration.
Before traveling I was warned to expect shortages of everything. One guy even said they ran out of toilet paper at his hotel, and that these shortages were common. Upon arriving I found that there is lots of everything. At least for travelers.
In Cuba I found a land where there may not be an excess of stuff. I cant speak for the locals but all the required necessities were available in amounts that made sense for travelers. I did not experience any shortages of anything. People are not wealthy but the system of government does provide basic a standard for everyone. The Casa Particular I stayed at warned us to not give anything to beggars because the social services provide for everyone. The entire time I was in Cuba I only encountered two beggars so it wasn’t much of a concern. I can’t walk on a downtown Vancouver street without passing at least 5 panhandlers.
Building exteriors in old Havana are decayed and rough looking. Most buildings are constructed of cement and bricks. Building supplies are one of the items that are hard to come by so it makes sense that the buildings look worn. Streets are narrow, traffic is typically scooters and bicycles, cars are few. Crime is almost non-existent, however if you plan to walk around after dark use normal travel precautions. Try to walk with a group if you can. The best way to get in trouble when traveling is to be drunk.
I searched for flights using Skyscanner.com then booked through Exploretrip.com to get the cheapet price. The flight to Havana was on AeroMexico with a layover in Mexico City. The return flight was on Cuban air and was direct to Toronto from Varadero. I booked a bus through my Casa Particular for 11 CUC ($11 USD) to get to Varadero from Havana. Varadero is a resort town on the north side of Cuba about two hours away from Havana. Its pretty small, but super modern and very beautiful. Also the water is the Caribbean so it is blue-green, warm, and freaking amazing!
I decided to fly from Canada and avoid flights originating in the US. The US airlines are still pretty confused when it comes to passengers going to Cuba. Anecdotally I found that several US citizens were delayed by their airlines because the staff did not know the rules. For information regarding the legal issues for US citizens traveling to Cuba please refer to the LegalCubaTravel.com website.
Everyone entering Cuba will need a Cuban Visa. The easiest way to get one is to fly through Mexico and get one at a kiosk in the airport. I talked to several US citizens who were delayed because their airline thought they needed a Cuban Visa before entering Mexico. One American was required to get the Visa in the US and paid $75 tUSD for it. Instead get your Cuban Visas in the Mexico City airport. I bought mine in the airport in Mexico City at a little kiosk for approximately $19 USD.
Anyone who is not American will have no problem getting into Cuba. Security and Customs at the Havana airport was minimal. The customs card asks you to declare all your electronic equipment over $1000. I was carrying three cameras, a laptop, and various hard drives and too many adapters so I declared it all. But I found the customs agents totally ignored my declarations and expressed me through. Sweet!
After getting through customs the first thing I did was to exchange some money into the local currency. This can be done at the airport. I will explain this more in the Money section below.
One of the best pieces of advice that I got was to ignore the hotels and use Airbnb to book accommodations. With the increase in tourism over the last few years the price of hotel rooms has skyrocketed. I ended up using airbnb and booking with Jakara hostel. Jakera is a guesthouse that offers Spanish and Salsa classes as well as cultural tours around Havana. I was one of their first Airbnb customers and they were still working out the bugs.
While Jakera is new with Airbnb they are very experienced in all matters with hosting guests. The room I stayed in had 6 beds and amazing air conditioning. The staff was friendly and the front door is locked and watched by staff 24 hours per day. There are many bathrooms and showers as well as several common areas to hang out, study, and make new friends.
I booked through Airbnb so I paid only for accommodations and was not on a “program”. BUT the cool thing is that I was able to pay for Spanish lessons a la carte! I extended my stay at Jakera directly through the hostel and not Airbnb and thus avoided the Airbnb service fees.
The regular programming at Jakera typically has around 20 students of differing levels of Spanish broken into several classes. I took a couple of Spanish lessons and would have taken more except for budget limitations. As far as actual language classes go this was the first time I have ever done any language lessons that gave me hope I would one day be able to learn the language. The instructors have years of experience, and are really great at keeping the class involved and learning.
In Varadero I stayed at a Casa Particular. This is equivalent to a home stay and is registered with the government. The great thing about being licensed is certain standards must be maintained. I needed to provide my passport when I checked in just like any other hotel or hostel. With a Casa Particular its typical to get a private room, which is super relaxing. In Varadero that’s exactly what I got.
There are many Casa Particulars so room availability is not a problem. And if you book with one that ends up fully booked when you arrive, don’t worry. They will call someone and set you up with a different one close by. In Varadero this is exactly what happened to me. I booked one for $30 USD per night, but they were overbooked and set me up a block away. I ended up paying only 25$ USD per night instead. And it was as nice as the one I booked. The family was AMAZING! Breakfast was an extra $5 and was the best included breakfast I have ever had at at a home stay.
Cuba has two currencies. The CUC is what tourists are given. Cubans use CUP. The CUC is kept equivalent to USD. Upon arriving at the airport immediately get some currency changed into CUC. You will need it to pay for your cab. I changed a good chunk of my Canadian money at the same rate as I would have buying USD. Also CUC are only exchangeable within Cuba. So keep in mind that when you leave you will want to take as little with you as possible. Don’t change all your money in one shot because if you have extra when you leave no bank outside Cuba will recognize the currency. Don’t forget to save some for last minute souvenirs.
Once you get into Havana there are banks that will exchange your currency for CUC. I suggest standing in line to convert some of your CUC into CUP which is what Cubans use. When I was there 1 CUC = 25 CUP. Of course this may change at the whim of the Cuban government. But to put things in perspective a banana costs 1 CUP. If you give them 1 CUC you should be buying 25 bananas. Thats a lot of Bananas! Yes they are tiny bananas, but trust me you can not eat 25 bananas. I know, don’t ask for details…
There are several ways to get more money. ATM’s, Banks, and the Cadera where you can exchange money, with draw on your credit card or use Western Union.
Everyone will say that Canadian Credit cards work in the ATM’s. Visa’s should work every time, MasterCards most times. I have no idea why it’s different. I had difficulty using my MasterCard and this caused me to have a bit of a financial crisis. The first time I went to use my MasterCard it was rejected everywhere. At the ATM’s, banks, and Cadera office. Finally a couple days before I left I got it to work at a random ATM. After living on a restricted budget I suddenly felt rich!
No surprise American credit cards WILL NOT WORK!!!!! What do you expect when you have an embargo on a country for 50 years…
Best advice is to bring all the money you expect to spend in CASH!, Then bring more, because once you get suckered into buying some cigars on the street for way more that they are worth, you will be happy to have some extra cash at the end. Remember you can exchange your cash slowly. Being stuck in Cuba with no access to more cash is stressful to say the least. I spend 4 days eating only one meal per day in order to have enough to get out of the country. I would hate for you to have the same experience. A passport is required to change money
The food is awesome. And it’s super cheap. Remember eat local you will pay even less. It’s worth finding where locals eat. You will save money. If you don’t care about expense then you have so many options. I could get an enormous sandwich for 3 CUC. And when I say enormous it is beyond belief.
There are many restaurants that will provide a large meal for about 5 CUC. If you want to get super fancy you can pay up to 10 CUC or more. If money is of no concern then you can pay far too much for a meal that would feed 3 normal people. Beer in a restaurant typically costs 2 CUC. If you are a super touristy place then the price will go up from there. If you find where the locals drink you will pay as little as 1 CUC. This is rare but possible. Especially if you show up with a local.
There is none, hahahahahahahha. Only Cuban’s are able to buy SIM cards. Yes, they will be using the latest iPhones, and Android whatever’s. Typically of Chinese origin. No you can not buy one. The only way to get a working SIM card is if you are a Cuban. Suck it up and put you phone into airplane mode. Use it as a fancy time piece or alarm clock. Get out and enjoy life without Facebook. Go on, I know you can. I believe in you.
Fortunately there is Internet available to travelers. Its not cheap or easy, but it’s available. A Wifi card must be purchased, there are two ways this can be done. You can stand in line for 4 hours and buy a one hour internet card for 2 CUC at the official telephone company office. Or you can skip the line and find a reseller to pay only 3 CUC with absolutely no wait. I opted for the no wait. (In Varadero I paid only 2 CUC at an official telephone company kiosk and there was absolutely no wait). Buying the card will not get you Internet access anywhere. To get a Wifi signal requires a hike to the nearest hotel lobby or gas station that has wifi available for public use.
Remember, you paid the equivalent of $3 USD for ONE HOUR of internet. Avoid Facebook. Check your email, pay bills, do important shit! Instagram will not miss your food or cat photos.
The wifi speeds are not so great. Its enough to do basic stuff, but if you want to upload video you may want to wait till you get back to a faster connection. Uploading a few images is possible but is slow depending on the original size of the image. I opted to not update my blog while online because working with WordPress was just too slow. Netflix is out of the question. The racier sites are blocked by the government. My proxy server easily bypassed the censors. I was able to VPN into my home network directly without any issues from the Cuban censors.
This trip ended up being much more expensive than I anticipated. Then again I did a horrible job doing basic research on what my expenses would be. Food and accommodations are fairly cheap, but averaging the cost of my flights over only two weeks kicked up my daily expenses. The only bribe I had to pay was to a boxing trainer in order to photograph a class of kids learning to box. My spending on Fun was considerably higher than typical, but I included the cigars and Spanish classes into that category.
Here is the entire breakdown of what I spend in Cuba, including the categories where I spent nothing.
|Executive Summary||Totals||Average per day for 12 days|
|Food and Drink||$200.86||$16.74|
Note: The above chart is in Canadian Dollars.
My main reason for going to Cuba was for the photography and its a great choice for that. The trip to be more expensive than I had anticipated, but then I didn’t do much research into how expensive things really were. So I only have myself to blame.
The Jakera hostel I stayed at was one of the most welcoming and the best sense of community than any other hostel or guest house I have ever stayed at. I’m thinking this is because of the amount of time people spend together at the Spanish and Salsa classes helps build friendships.
In the end I can’t wait to return. Hopefully I will be able to speak more Spanish when I do. It would really enhance the experience and allow much better communication with locals.