Basic travel guide for first time travellers visiting Cuba

Posted: 31-May-16 11:01

While a trip to Cuba may seem like a great adventure, many first time travellers to the island have more questions than answers. To help you understand what to expect before you go, a travel and adventure blogger went directly to the source, seeking out answers from fellow travellers who recently spent time on the island. They offer some of their best advice when visiting Cuba for the first time.

Basic travel guide for first time travellers visiting Cuba

Known as the Adventure Mom, Nedra McDaniel describes her blog as a lifestyle, travel and adventure blog aimed at enticing others to try a new experience close to home or across the globe. One of those blogs recently printed details what she coins “practical tips for your 1st visit to Cuba”. For advice, McDaniel says she leaned on recommendations from a former college friend, a woman named Joy, whom together with her husband Steve recently travelled to Cuba and have plenty of tips on traveling to the island nation for the first time.

Presented in interview format, the blogger asked the couple whether as Americans they faced challenges in travelling to Cuba. She writes their response was a resounding no. They tell her they simply asked to purchase a Cuba travel Visa from an airport clerk in Panama and paid $20. The couple says they had to enter standard things like destination, passport and travel information but point out the Visa replaced the need for their passports, which weren’t even stamped in travelling to Cuba.

While the couple in the article says they were advised they would have to purchase an airport tax, luckily they did not because at that point they were out of cash and did not have a way to get more money. They do recommend having $20 on you, just in case.

As for the culture, the blogger quotes her friends as saying they found Cuban culture in need of experiences, food and cash. They describe conversations with locals who told them food is limited in Cuba, with state employees relying on a national stipend. Joy and her husband continued by relaying that the locals they met made extra cash taking on additional jobs or selling goods. They also point out they did not see processed food or fast food in Cuba, except for the beer and soda they consumed, and found most locals only consuming fresh, handmade meals.

The couple interviewed for the blog did admit most of the locals they met had never left Cuba, likely due to limited access to the internet, which they felt most Cubans want more of, in addition to television and radio access. They add that it is expensive to travel outside of Cuba, too, and suspect the cost will rise when the travel embargo is lifted.

The couple also explained that many travellers to Cuba come from South America, Australia and Europe, though Americans are now coming in record numbers. They say they paid about $100 for a local to drive them for two-days, an amount which would have taken the person several weeks to earn doing another job on the island.

In recounting experiences that stood out, the couple remarked they were approached numerous times by locals who asked them several questions in well-spoken English, then asked for money. Like with any other travel destination, though, the couple says once they started saying “no” and acting like they knew where they were going, they were left alone.

As for safety, the couple advises not advertising you are a tourist with your camera out, either. They say they never saw any violence while in Cuba and seemed to see a number of police officers wherever they went. One recommendation they did give was to brush up on Spanish phrases before heading to Cuba, including things like “where is the bathroom?”, “how much?” and how to say hello, goodbye and thank you.

Culturally, they also describe a couple of things different from the United States, such as throwing toilet paper in the trashcan instead of the toilet, and seeing people smoke everywhere, which they say automatically cues an ash-tray to appear.

They thought Havana is a small city, but that's incorrect. In reality, they say it is large, the size of roughly Madison, Wisconsin or Grand Rapids, Michigan. They also describe walking a lot so they advise visitors to bring a good pair of shoes. Most of the locals the couple describes meeting were friendly and nice. Overall they say they found a majority of Cubans want to know more about America, and the few that appeared agitated may have been frustrated that they couldn’t speak Spanish.

When asked what they wish they would have known before visiting Cuba, the couple answers carrying cash is essential. They say there are few ATMs available, and estimate a couple spends between $40-$50 each day on food and transportation. While some meals cost less than $10, they found other meals costing up to $50. They also describe paying about $8 for taxis in Havana on one trip, then $3 or $5 for the same distance another time. Their advice is to prepare yourself to bargain and haggle each time you hail a taxi.

As for regrets, the couple say they would have enjoyed exploring other beaches and wish they had made it to Ernest Hemingway’s home, which they describe as a “must-see”. Overall, the couple admits they would have also liked to have stayed longer and visited other outside areas. While they say travelling by private car is a good option, they also say the buses work well, as long as you research them ahead of time.

When it comes to their favourite adventure, the couple tells McDaniel it was their last day when they visited the beach, adding it was a “great way to end our time in Cuba”. They found the directions provided in their travel book were wrong, so their hostess helped them find their way. After a day at the beach, the couple says they took a bus ride back to the city where they walked around, eating and drinking while watching street salsa dancers in a festival. Later, they add, they came upon the famous daiquiri bar featuring the bronze bust of Ernest Hemingway.

In describing their favourite meals, the couple says they tried pizza twice but the best meals included seafood, such as their first meal of shrimp and lobster. They also noted the exceptional drinks in Cuba like the daiquiris and mojitos.

Concluding the blog with more advice for travellers, the couple again points to the need for cash. While, they admit it's possible to survive on $15-$20 per day without alcohol, you will need to purchase things like water, which costs travellers about $5 per day. They add while many Americans take water fountains for granted you won’t find them in Cuba. They say portions of food and liquid are limited, so prepare to conserve what you buy.


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