The Ultimate Guide to Cuba: 6 Things to Know Before You Go


Cuba, with its vibrant culture, stunning landscapes, and rich history, is a dream destination for many travelers. Whether you’re drawn by the rhythm of Cuban music, the allure of pristine beaches, or the intrigue of its storied past, there are essential tips to ensure your visit is as smooth and enjoyable as possible. Here’s the ultimate guide to Cuba with six crucial things to know before you go.

1. Visa and Entry Requirements

Before embarking on your Cuban adventure, it’s essential to understand the visa requirements. Most travelers will need a tourist card, also known as a visa, to enter Cuba. This can often be purchased through your airline, travel agency, or Cuban consulate. Ensure you have a valid passport with at least six months’ validity from your date of entry into Cuba.

For U.S. travelers, the rules are slightly different due to the embargo. You will need to comply with one of the 12 categories of authorized travel set by the U.S. government, such as educational activities, support for the Cuban people, or professional research. Always check the latest regulations to ensure compliance.

2. Currency and Money Matters

Cuba operates on a dual-currency system: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). However, recent economic changes are gradually phasing out the CUC, so it’s essential to stay updated on the current currency situation. As of now, the CUP is primarily used by locals, while tourists might still encounter the CUC.

Credit cards and debit cards issued by U.S. banks are generally not accepted, so it’s advisable to carry cash. Euros, Canadian dollars, and British pounds are the most easily exchangeable currencies. ATMs are available in larger cities, but they can be unreliable, so it’s wise to bring enough cash to cover your expenses.

3. Internet and Connectivity

While Cuba has made strides in increasing internet accessibility, it remains limited compared to many other countries. Wi-Fi is available in larger hotels, some restaurants, and public Wi-Fi hotspots in major cities. You’ll need to purchase an internet card (tarjeta de internet) from ETECSA (the state telecommunications company) to access these networks. These cards typically offer one hour of internet access.

It’s important to manage your expectations regarding internet speed and availability. For a more immersive experience, embrace the opportunity to disconnect and engage fully with your surroundings. Remember that cell coverage in Cuba can also be spotty, particularly in rural areas, so plan accordingly.

4. Embrace Local Experiences

One of the most enriching aspects of visiting Cuba is the chance to immerse yourself in its local culture. While major attractions like Old Havana, Varadero Beach, and the Viñales Valley are must-sees, don’t overlook the value of more intimate, local experiences. Joining group tours in Cuba by locals can provide unique insights into the island’s daily life, traditions, and hidden gems.

Consider staying in a casa particular (a private homestay) for a more authentic experience. These accommodations offer a chance to interact with Cuban families, enjoy home-cooked meals, and gain a deeper understanding of local customs and lifestyles. Engaging with locals can lead to discovering lesser-known attractions and experiencing Cuba beyond the typical tourist trail.

5. Transportation Options

Getting around Cuba can be an adventure in itself. The most common modes of transport for tourists include taxis, rental cars, and buses. Classic American cars, known as almendrones, serve as shared taxis and offer a nostalgic way to navigate the cities. For longer distances, Viazul buses are a popular choice, providing comfortable and reasonably priced travel between major destinations.

Renting a car gives you the flexibility to explore at your own pace, but it’s essential to book well in advance and be prepared for varying road conditions. Alternatively, group tours offer a hassle-free way to visit multiple sites, especially if you’re interested in learning from knowledgeable guides and meeting fellow travelers.

6. Essential Cultural Tips

Understanding and respecting Cuban culture will enhance your travel experience. Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

  • Language: Spanish is the official language, and while many Cubans working in tourism speak some English, learning basic Spanish phrases can be incredibly helpful and appreciated.
  • Etiquette: Cuban people are known for their warmth and hospitality. Greetings often involve a kiss on the cheek, and it’s polite to engage in small talk before jumping into business or direct questions.
  • Tipping: Tipping is customary in Cuba. In restaurants, a 10% tip is standard. For other services, such as tour guides and taxi drivers, tipping is also appreciated.
  • Health and Safety: It’s advisable to drink bottled water rather than tap water to avoid any potential stomach issues. Healthcare in Cuba is generally good, but bringing a basic medical kit and any necessary medications is wise.

Things to Do in Cuba

Cuba offers a plethora of activities and attractions for every type of traveler. Here are some top things to do in Cuba.

  • Explore Havana: Wander through the historic streets of Old Havana, visit the iconic Malecón, and enjoy the vibrant nightlife.
  • Relax on Varadero Beach: Known for its white sand and turquoise waters, Varadero is perfect for beach lovers.
  • Discover Viñales: Famous for its stunning landscapes and tobacco farms, Viñales offers hiking, horseback riding, and exploring local caves.
  • Visit Trinidad: This colonial town is a UNESCO World Heritage site with beautifully preserved architecture and a lively cultural scene.
  • Experience Santiago de Cuba: Known for its rich Afro-Cuban culture and music, Santiago offers a unique cultural immersion.
  • Tour Cienfuegos: Dubbed the “Pearl of the South,” Cienfuegos is known for its French-inspired architecture and picturesque bay.

Cuba is a destination like no other, offering a rich tapestry of history, culture, and natural beauty. By understanding these essential travel tips and embracing the island’s unique experiences, you’ll be well-prepared for an unforgettable adventure. Whether you’re exploring bustling cities, relaxing on pristine beaches, or engaging with friendly locals, Cuba promises a journey filled with discovery and delight.

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