So everyone knows I traveled to Cuba last October. Mostly because I won’t shut up about it ( Sorry not sorry). A year on, with more travel options becoming available to the Caribbean island I’ve been inundated with questions about what it’s really like as a tourist there. With the political changes since my visit some things will have changed, but hopefully most will still be relevant!
While everyone’s experiences will be different, I’ve collated a list of what I loved, hated, and think you should know before your Cuban adventure. As a pinup some of these things might not apply to non-pinups, but most of it will.
A Pinup’s Guide to Travelling in Cuba
Don’t Drink the Water
I repeat, don’t drink the water. Drinking water with unfamiliar bacteria can give you an upset stomach and a few people on my tour got sick. Luckily bottled water is easy to find and relatively cheap. Our tour guide also pointed out which drinks commonly contained tap water or ice made from tap water to help us avoid illness (local knowledge goes a long way). It might be a good idea to consider if foods like fruit and raw vegetables have been washed in unfiltered water too.
I tried to avoid illness by introducing my body to it slowly by brushing my teeth with tap water every night, and I didn’t get sick, but that’s just me. I still wouldn’t have drunk water out of the tap. I did drink this heavenly sugar cane juice near Trinidad. Highly recommend it.
Money can be tricky in Cuba. You can only exchange your money for CUC’s when you arrive, and there are extra costs associated with exchanging American Dollars. American credit cards like Mastercard and Amex won’t work in Cuba, and some travel cards (including Onesmart if you’re from NZ) won’t either.
Taking Canadian Dollars, British Pounds or Euros and exchanging them at the airport in Havanna seems to be the easiest and most reliable option.
Don’t expect everyone to speak English. While Cubans speak Spanish, they speak it with fast a strong accent. I have very, very basic Spanish and understood almost nothing that was said to me haha. Most of the hospitality staff spoke at least a little English, but the Casa owners often didn’t. This isn’t a massive issue if you’re on a tour with an English speaking guide to look after you, but it is nice ( and polite) to know at least “hello, please, thank you” and how to order a mohito.
Health and Safety
Safety Regulations aren’t as strict in Cuba as they are in most developed Western Countries. I found this actually made my trip more fun, but I feel OSH goes a bit overboard on most things these days. Don’t be surprised if there’s no handrail on the stairs, a hole in the floor of the elevator and no 30 minute safety briefing before your cave excursion. Common sense is expected.
Keep it Clean
If you only take one piece of advice, it’s this. Always carry tissues, toilet paper or wet wipes, and hand sanitiser. Public toilets, and even restaurant and bar toilets, often don’t have toilet paper. Sometimes you can buy it outside, but it’s best to carry your own just to be safe.
You can’t flush anything down most toilets there either, so just be prepared to put paper and hygiene products in the bin next to it.
Feminine products can be very hard to find in Cuba, so be well stocked if there’s any chance you might need them.
The Casa Particulars I stayed in all had nice bathrooms, always very clean but sometimes very small. Showers will often be cold and have low water pressure. You get used to it, and it makes it super exciting when you find one with good water pressure! Sometimes the hairdryers will be cold too, so take your own if you require perfect hair every day. I was so sweaty I washed or at least rinsed my hair daily, and settled for easy updo’s , big sunhats and hair scarves. As a result I’d take more shampoo and conditioner than you’d normally use.
PS: it’s super hot and often humid, so maybe don’t insist on perfect hair every day.
It’s hot. Like, really really hot. Unless you’re used to a hot humid climate chances are your makeup will melt off your face. I gave up on wearing makeup during the day approximately 10 minutes after arriving.
Makeup at night stands more of a chance, personally I stuck to face powder, eye shadow, liner, waterproof mascara and lipstick. Matte lipstick lasted better ( my gloss finish one basically melted in the tube). Proper foundation just made my skin feel even more gross and sweaty.
Protect your skin
I don’t sunburn easily, and compared to NZ’s harsh sun I didn’t need to go crazy on the sunscreen, but I did find an aerosol sunscreen very handy for walking day tours in blazing sun. However if you have very fair skin, or burn easily you will need it! Some people on my tour were eaten alive by mosquito’s, once again I didn’t have much of an issue myself but it can’t hurt to be prepared with some insect repellent just in case you’re on the mozzie menu.
I’m 100% glad I went with a tour group. I can’t imagine trying to decipher the in’s and out’s of travelling in Cuba without help! While I went with Locally Sourced Tours and loved being in a small group supporting private Cuban businesses there’s options for whatever your travel tastes are. Our tour guides organised everything, helped us find the shops we wanted to see, stayed out partying with us every night and re-arranged our travel plans disrupted by Hurricane Matthew. They also warned us what would be safe for us to eat / drink and what wouldn’t.
Things you expect in Cuba: sunshine, classic cars, old buildings and rum cocktails
Things you don’t expect: Amazing food, a cinema district and the clash of modern technology with history.
My Favourite Things in Cuba
Swimming in an underground pool in the second level of a cave. Infectious music. The Art Factory gallery turn nightclub. BBQ’d meat and moro (beans and rice) . $2 mohitos. The cave disco in Trinidad. An ocean so warm I can actually walk into it. Mesmerizing art. Constant colour. Hanging out on the Malecon. Dancing in tiny live music venues.
Tropical painted houses. Ornate buildings that are crumbling on the outside, and beautifully restored casa on the inside
An immense cemetery in Santa Clara full of statues, tombs and monuments
Every form of transport imaginable on the same road
(We’re talking horse and carts, classic cars, men riding oxen, orange shaped taxis, tour buses and aging trucks)
Street life – a little during the day, and A LOT at night
The people. Honestly the people are as warm as the temperature, so passionate, generous and friendly
( I was really slack at taking photos of people, so here’s a snap of two of our tour guides while we were racing bicycle taxis through a city.)
Getting back to Cuba is high on my wishlist, and I hope she hasn’t lost her laid back charm and safe vibe since tourism picked up. If you’ve been recently I’d love to hear about your experiences!
With style & sass,