There were MANY lessons we learned in Cuba, but six major ones I hope everyone can learn from our first-timer visit.
- THE TAXI DRIVERS SWINDLE: If you know basic Spanish a.k.a. can count to ten, speak it and know you can always haggle down the price. We didn’t understand how much we were being swindled until a few days into the trip, each of us had easily spent almost $20/day on rides. If you’re looking to save extra money, have your map on you at all times and be ready to walk. Locals can pay 1 CUC ($1 USD) and tourists will pay 6 CUC ($6 USD) for a couple minute ride, specifically in Havana. With a twenty minute walk, you can usually reach where you want to go and save a $15 car ride. If you’re staying right outside of Havana, I’d suggest talking to locals about the bus schedule (since there were no timetables anywhere), we spent about $0.35 on a bus ride to get into town instead of $20 via taxi.
- HOSTEL FRAUD: Our first AirBnB location did not exist. If we had looked into it, we would have found that the phone number was a German area code and it did not work. Addresses in Cuba are always located by its cross streets. For example, Industria 353, Industria y San Miguel. If an address does not have a street name “y” another street name, you will have a very difficult time finding it. Because it does not exist! If you go through AirBnB for reservations, talk to your host directly and make sure they have plenty of good reviews, as always. All of our reservations were made last minute, otherwise we would have probably had better luck reserving a Casa Particular many weeks in advance (if not months) before tourism season from December to March.
- RESTAURANT TRAPS IN DOWNTOWN HAVANA: Calle Obispo is pleasant to walk down and get a few souvenirs, but unless you’re looking to spend a lot of time and 15+ CUC ($15 USD) for a meal, look elsewhere. Our online research beforehand said food would be less than 5 CUC, but that’s only true if you stray away from the busy streets. Highly recommended! Almost all of the restaurants in downtown would sit us and have us wait almost an hour before even drinks were served. Often, I suspected they were splitting tips with the live musicians that rounded up the tips, meanwhile. One more reason to avoid touristy restaurants is because they would wait until you’re ready to order before mentioning that there’s only shrimp or fish dishes left, often narrowing the whole menu down to a couple dishes. Not cool!
- SIM CARD NECESSITY: A couple locals suggested I just not have a phone while being there, which I thought I could do. Since we went in a big group, staying in two different hostels, communication between the two groups was necessary. I have T-Mobile and knew I would charged $0.50/text and $2/min on phone calls, and I used it sparingly, never using data. After two weeks, the bill was astounding. Still painful to say. (Luckily, I’m just writing it.) $550. Just to be safe, I’d suggest getting a SIM card at the airport that costs around $100. I hear the line can be long, but the other options would be spend hundreds or not having a backup phone at all.
- AMERICAN DEBIT CARDS: As you’ll find out everywhere else on the Internet, you can’t pull out cash…unless you go to the International Bank in Miramar. It’s a ten minute taxi ride from the center of Havana. Don’t bother trying any ATMS, even in the center of the tourism: American debit cards do not work at ATMS or normal banks. Many other American tourists we talked to ran out of money because it is not a well-known fact that the International Bank can help them. DO NOT COUNT ON PULLING OUT MONEY. If you’re not in Havana, even if you are, it’s totally an unnecessary concern to have during the trip. Blog on Cuba budgeting coming soon.
- SAFETY IN CUBA: Violence is not an issue in Cuba. The streets are safe to walk at night. The biggest issue, I’d say, is people charging extra for services which can be avoided if you’re aware, which you are since you’re reading this article. And as anywhere, be smart about your things and watch out for pickpocketers. Enjoy the locals’ company and have a drink with them along the Malecon at night!