Unique Travel Tips for Cuba
By Sydney Tong on February 05, 2017. Read time: 6 mins.
Shift your mindset from vacationer to traveler and embrace the local customs that make Cuba wonderful. Getting out of the comfort zone is intimidating but being fearless creates adventures never to be forgotten.
My favorite memories in Cuba are when I completely let go of the schedule and got lost in between all the brightly colored houses and smiling faces. I loved buying bread or muffins from people selling on their front steps. Riding on Cuba’s eclectic collection of public buses was an adventure and I got to see how kind Cuban people are.
Riding buses jam-packed with people and getting off on the wrong stop is unnerving and you might get lost but you might also discover the best local bar with live music. Be fearless and use this tips to make your trip extra special.
San Rafael Mercado in Havana.
Cuba has two different currencies, the CUC and the CUP. Locals use CUP to pay for the majority of their expenses and CUC is the currency that the government has set up for tourists to use. Anything that is priced using CUC indicates it is marketed towards tourists and will be marked up.
Our other article, "Cuba Explained: Frequently Asked Questions", goes into further detail regarding the discrepancies between the two currencies."Cuba Explained: Frequently Asked Questions"
Trade the CUC for CUP and open up the options of where you can eat, drink and be merry. Having CUP gives access to buy from people's front stairs, balconies, local markets and small shops. You will need CUP to buy from the panaderia (bakery), ride the bus, buy ice cream or anything else that is charged in CUP/MN (Moneda Nacional).
We ate at restaurants that use CUC and cafeterias that use CUP and generally speaking the cafeterias won. The paladars or cafeterias had the charm that makes Havana memorable compared to the touristy places set up and run by the government. Cafeterias have better food and are a quarter of the cost.
You might have to trade a Cuban, restaurant, or the bank to get CUP. Our exchange rate was 26CUP for every 1CUC but everyone exchanges 25-1 because it is easier to calculate. Change can be confusing to give between CUC and CUP so have some of both makes it easier. Having CUP on hand makes it easier to not get completely ripped off.
Do you know the muffin man? We found him.
This man was selling coconut cake for 4CUP!
The smallest espresso ever - hardly bigger than 1CUP.
Bring extra soaps, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, clothes, candies, gum or baseballs to give out to people you might meet. I promise you this is something you won't want to miss out on. You'll be relieved when you have something to give and you'll feel great when you make a new friend. A lot of women asked for soap or shampoo. I don’t know if it is expensive or difficult to find, but it seemed to be in high demand.
Bring a bag of fun-sized candy bars to hand out to make new friends.
This kid was so polite.
Love for baseball runs deep in Cuba.
You have no other choice but to be flexible in this country as a lot of things will not go how you planned or expected. The weather can change at any minute, the city could experience a blackout, everything runs late, or the water could be turned off at any time. A museum could change their hours the day before and not inform anyone of the changes. The city could completely run out of beer or coffee. All of these things happened to us and we had no other choice but to accept it and go with the flow. Allow extra time in your plans for things like this to happen.
The Hemingway Museum decided to change their hours the day before. When we arrived the gates were closed and the guard told us that they aren’t going to be open on Sundays anymore. So we opted to visit the Morro castle instead and it turned out to be a great day.
Interact with people and ask questions, most of the time people are willing to help. Everyone was generous with their time and explanations and helped us when we needed it. We never came across a rude person. We made some friends this way and some really nice memories. Ask questions and ask for permission when taking photos. Show respect for the people and the country and they will open their hearts to you.
We asked one kind gentleman for help when we were trying to find a specific cafeteria and he walked with us for several blocks until he was sure that we wouldn’t get lost. While we were walking around later that evening we ran into him and gave him a baseball for his son and some shampoos that we had brought with us to give out as gifts as a token of our appreciation. He was really kind to us and we were lucky to meet him.
This is my favorite memory in Havana.
These young ladies approached me holding toy cameras and asked if they could take a photo of me. Of course, I agreed and we had a photoshoot. They were very dramatic and loved posing for the camera. They drew me some cute pictures in my notebook and I gave them all the Korean stickers I had.
Cuba is not lacking when it comes to unique methods of transportation. There are classic American cars, bicitaxis, taxi collectivos, and busses. The government provides really nice busses for the tourists to use but has to be more creative on their transportation for locals. A lot of busses are hand-me-downs from other countries or are some sort of vehicle that has been altered into some form of bus. They were really unique and we met really helpful people on these busses.
This bus ride cost 5CUP from Santa Marta to Varadero.
Local buses are much more exciting than the tourist buses.
The panaderias in Cuba are popular and there is always a line several people deep, especially if bread just came out of the oven. We purchased a lot of bread for snacks and breakfast.
There are normally two types of bread pan duro (hard) and suave (soft). Pan suave is gone within an hour after coming out of the oven.
There is a bakery on Neptuno street in Havana that is open 24 hours and they were always pumping out fresh bread. You will need to have MN/CUP ready to buy bread here, around 6CUP for several pan suave and 4CUP for pan duro.
We ate bread every day on our trip!
Every neighborhood has a market that sells fresh fruits and veggies. If you want snacks throughout the day or a Cuban style breakfast, which consists or bread, fresh fruit and coffee, then these local markets are the best. Buy some fresh guava, pineapple, or papaya to take home. All of the fruit is really fresh and reasonably priced, make sure you bring your own bag and some CUP. If you want to take pictures inside these markets, ask permission first.
Buy produce in the markets for extra freshness.
Cubans love for music and dancing is undeniable and the streets, bars and restaurants are filled with lively and seductive rhythms. If someone asks you to dance, then shed the fear and feel the beat.
While we were walking back to our casa a woman asked if we wanted to learn to dance. We mentioned that Gabe's father, Alex, likes to dance bachata. She grabbed his hand pressed play and they enjoyed a dance together.
Don't let these opportunities pass, you are in Cuba. If you enjoy dancing salsa and want to learn more there are several schools located throughout Havana that teach several different styles of dancing.
Dancing Bachata in Havana
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