Words: Erin Hardie | Photos: Ryan Platten | This guide is written with Australians travelling to Cuba specifically in mind, however there are many pieces of generic information that may be useful to many other nationalities or people traveling from starting points other than Australia. One of us travelled to Cuba having already been in Mexico for one month, the other came direct from Perth, Australia. We both of us felt underprepared for certain aspects of this trip though as much of the information available at the time of our trip in late 2015 was specific to US visitors. As such we nearly starved in Cuba! (see top tip 2 for why!) Read on for our 10 top tips for Australians travelling to Cuba.
Australians Travelling to Cuba – 10 Top Tips for your First Time in Cuba
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 1: Cuban Dual Currency
Cuba has a dual currency system consisting of the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). The CUC is the currency of the tourist and roughly attracts a 1:1 rate against the USD. The CUP is the national currency for locals. Most prices you will encounter as a tourist will be in CUC but do try to pick up a few CUP if you wish to frequent some more “local” haunts. CUC can be withdrawn via banks and ATMs. Some merchants will provide change in CUP and the national bank will change small amounts of CUC to CUP for tourists. A 3CUP note makes a super cool, authentic and cheap souvenir featuring Che Guevara looking his revolutionary best on it!
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 2: Credit Cards in Cuba
There are banks and ATMs throughout Havana and at the airport. HOWEVER. Although many other travel blogs and forum threads will suggest MasterCard is a viable option it REALLY isn’t. Cuba is monopolised by Visa. At the time of our visit (October 2015) there was just one bank and one hotel in which one could withdraw funds using MasterCard, and these were both shut due to internet and power outages for 4 out of the 5 days of our stay. Our faux pas of bringing 5 MasterCard’s between 3 Aussies forced us into luxurious penury: living at the Hotel Nacional where we could charge all of our meals to a growing MasterCard bill for the duration of our stay and yet remain cash broke!
This post mentions the MasterCard situation as of November 2017 it states that the situation is still reasonably MasterCard unfriendly in Cuba due to many merchants not being able to afford the infrastructure of taking payments via MasterCard. Other than ensuring you have a Visa card also ensure you withdraw plenty of cash. Paying by card in most bars and restaurants is uncommon, even if they have signs saying they can accept this payment type. Again this is due to constant power and internet outages.
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 3: When to Travel to Cuba
Cuba has a tropical climate with a dual season weather pattern. There is a wet season from May to October and a dry season from November to April. The wet season weather can be very humid. Cuba also has maximum temperatures over 30C most days too, and plenty of sunshine hours. This makes it an awesome destination year round but for much of it by day, you can expect to be sweaty! During the dry season the tropical heat and humidity is tempered by trade winds. The best month to visit Cuba is touted as being April. If you are planning on getting out beyond Havana to some of Cuba’s beaches be aware that there is also a hurricane season in Cuba: officially July to mid-November the most affected months are September and October. We visited the beach at Trinidad, Cuba in mid-October and had no issues other than some windy and overcast days. We spent a week in Cuba and this was enough to see most of Havana in 4 days and spend 3 days in the seaside town of Trinidad. We both agree we could spend SO MUCH longer there though! Our tip: take your time, explore slowly and just soak it up!
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 4: Getting to Cuba
For Australians travelling to Cuba from Australia expect to pay around $2,500 for your return airfares all totaled. The flight will route out of Australia via Sydney and take about 18 hours to get into the United States. From here you can fly directly from a number of major United States cities or down to Cancun to then fly direct to Havana in approx an hour. If you search direct flights in Skyscanner you will not find any! Even targeting Mexico as your final destination will have your flight route through the united states. So when getting your visa for Cuba you may also have to apply for a US visa or ESTA also. Cuba therefore makes a great adjunct to a longer trip in the united states or Central America.
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 5: Cuba Visa
On arrival in Cuba we had no issue with our visas despite one of us having just left the United States. As per above we did not travel directly to Cuba from Australia as the route does not yet exist. Our Cuban visas cost approx $25 and took no time to come through. The application process was easy: as Australians travelling to Cuba for leisure we could simply obtain a Tourist Card from either our travel agent upon airfare booking or the Cuban Embassy. If flying direct to Cuba from the United States you will have to also register which OFAC category your visit to Cuba falls under in order to board your flight. For all visa and OFAC information for Cuba plus much more check out the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller webpage for Cuba. One thing that nearly tripped us on entry though was insurance: the officials at immigration to Cuba want to see proof of insurance. Ours was tied to booking airfares with a credit card but ultimately waving this with our passports was sufficient despite a lady trying to aggressively drag us to a desk to make us buy insurance. If asked say yes you have it, look confident and calm and be sure to have plenty of printed documents to wave around at the gate (printed documents are preferable to less tangible things like credit cards, pictures on phone screens and promises!)
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 6: Food and Drink in Cuba
If you are a foodie get ready to adjust your expectations of food and drink in Cuba… By and large Cuba is known for not having the best food. This is largely due to a lack of available ingredients and less connection to global trends due to the relative isolation of Cuba. Ham and cheese are predominant ingredients in much of the available food in Cuba. Beans and rice (known as Arroz Congri) is a staple side with most main meat dishes which are usually simply grilled with minimal spices. In the seaside towns there is fresh seafood, in Havana you more commonly find pork and chicken. This simple food though was generally cheap and never more than 3-5CUC per meal. The drinks however make up for the food. The mojitos are icy and universally available from dawn to dusk and all through the night. Bucanero beer packed a punch of flavour and alcohol percentage. Drinks were cheap from 2CUC and up. We didn’t find Guinness but weren’t really looking either, preferring to immerse ourselves as much as we could into experiencing Cuba for the short time we were there.
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 7: Where to Stay in Cuba
Hands down the internet at large is in agreement on this one: try a Casa Particular! Casa Particular means a private homestay. This is a bed/room in a local person’s house. These are run in varying degrees of personal to impersonal including being able to rent whole houses or find a dormitory style bedroom filled with up to six other travellers. You can book these quite simply online via airbnb and other similar sites. Staying at a Casa Particular is good for your wallet with many options at only 10CUC per night with most options averaging out at 35CUC per night. In a country where many of its citizens are underemployed/impoverished it’s nice to put some money directly back into their pockets also. We stayed at the Hotel Nacional for 3 of our 7 nights in Cuba due to our initial money issues. This was on the luxury end of the accommodations scale and we payed around $150 per night to stay in the Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner honeymoon suite because if you’re going to do something you may as well do it properly! Staying in a hotel does make it easier for directing taxis but you get less opportunity to have genuine interactions and experiences with local people. We also very much enjoyed our other 4 nights in a very budget and then a less budget Casa Particular but had difficulty communicating with one of our hosts who spoke next to zero English.
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 8: Getting to Know the Locals in Cuba
If meeting locals is one of your goals whilst in Cuba you won’t have to try very hard! We found the people in Cuba to be so friendly and welcoming! Staying in a Casa Particular is a number one way to get to know some local people and their perspectives in a very safe manner. But whilst walking around the streets, particularly of Havana, you will probably find locals will approach you or shout out to you. There definitely seems to be a pastime of guessing at a visitor’s nationality and hailing them in that English. We got pegged for aussies heaps and occasionally copped a few German salutations also. One night when wandering the streets of Habana Vieja we came across a group of locals celebrating out on the cobblestones. We’d seen heaps of groups doing the same and somehow we struck up conversation with these guys who promptly invited us to take part celebrating the Anniversary of Che Guevara’s Death (October 8th) with them. We were given hot cups of chicken soup and giant slices of cake and we managed to communicate between us with our limited English and Spanish. It was one of our favourite moments of the whole trip! If you’d like the opportunity to see a national holiday and/or festival celebrated cuban style check out this post for all the dates. A note on meeting locals safely, use general caution when approached on the street as occasionally pickpocketing can happen where one person distracts you in conversation whilst the other takes your valuables. We experienced no such problems though.
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 9: English spoken in Cuba
For Australians travelling Cuba be aware that the amount of English spoken is a bit of a mixed bag. Spanish is the official language of Cuba which we do not so commonly learn during school unlike Americans for example. English-wise we found establishments that serve tourists such as bars, restaurants, market stall holders etc speak enough English that you can order your meals and drinks etc with ease. Accommodations were a mixed bag, ranging from excellent to practically non-existent. At the Hotel Nacional there was of course excellent English everywhere, but in one of our Casa Particular’s our hosts spoke no English. Fortunately they were friends with the neighbouring Casa which was housing our friend and one of their guests spoke fluent English and Spanish and could be called on to be a go-between. Mostly we just felt disappointed that we couldn’t get to know our hosts as well as we would have liked because we didn’t have enough Spanish to delve to deeply in conversation. People visiting from all nations seemed friendly and helpful in Cuba, perhaps Cuba’s welcoming vibe just instantly rubs off on you! Taxi drivers were the other category of communication difficulty: again some spoke great English and some practically none. We had enough Spanish to give a few directions and negotiate prices which meant we were never lost or ripped off. Try and learn some of these types of phrases in advance if you can!
Australians Travelling to Cuba – Top Tip 10: Getting Around in Cuba
Cuba is definitely a destination that can work for any budget. In Havana you can walk to most of where you want to go in around half an hour maximum from one side of the old town to the other. If you wished to walk the length of the Malecon, the famed seaside promenade in Havana, it would take just over an hour to walk the 6 kilometres. There are plenty of cycle taxis around Old Havana too. Bartering for a ride in one can be difficult but worth it if your feet are sore or you are in a hurry. You can expect to pay 1-3CUC for a short journey. If taking taxis around Havana try to negotiate your fare to save money – some of the taxis are metered and work on a 1CUC per km rate whereas some others don’t have a meter and you don’t want to wait until the end of your trip to see what they might demand! This is when having some Spanish is useful to sound confident whilst negotiating! We never paid more than 5-8CUC for a taxi within the Habana Vieja neighbourhood to our hotel.
There was no negotiating on price for airport taxis when we visited: these were a standard 25CUC. If heading out of Havana to another destination in Cuba you have multiple options to suit your budget. If you are time poor and can afford it, you may wish to pay a taxi to drive you to your onward destination. We for example paid a taxi 150CUC to get from Havana to Trinidad in 3.5 hours as opposed to 5+ hours and 25CUC per person on a bus instead. This longer-distance taxi price will again be down to negotiations but our driver was nice and we got awesome reggaeton music the whole way. Some people also hitchhike safely in Cuba but we didn’t try it, although my guess would be that having good Spanish would be a must to do so, especially once out of Havana.
The Australians Travelling to Cuba Essentials Checklist
- Bring at least one Visa bank card
- Bring printed copies of all your paperwork and something that can at least “pass” for insurance at immigration
- Change some CUC to CUP – bring home a 3 CUP Che Guevara banknote as a cheapest ever Cuban souvenir for self or gift!
- Learn Spanish phrases for directions/ have your accommodations address on your person
- Allow at least one week in Cuba, or ideally more!
So that’s our list of advice for Australians travelling to Cuba. We hope you enjoyed it and found it useful! Be sure to check out our follow up post on Top Things to do in Cuba next! If you have some advice to share with Australians travelling to Cuba we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below! Until next time, ¡salud! (cheers!) Erin & Ryan.