The island of Cuba is the largest in the Caribbean, with spectacular mountains and countryside, beautiful beaches, historic towns and villages. The capital city, Havana, lies in the northwest of the island and has a population of just over 2 million. Santiago de Cuba lies at the foot of the Sierra Maestra mountains on the southeast coast of the island and has around 500,000 inhabitants.
The Cuban people are known for their open hospitality, warm personalities, spontaneity and friendliness and through our tailormade or group holidays, you will have an opportunity to experience all of these firsthand.
Cuba has a sub-tropical climate for most of the year although Santiago de Cuba in the eastern region does tend to experience warmer temperatures than in the west. Dry season runs from early November to late March, with the rainy season taking effect from mid July to October.
This information is intended to provide you with some useful pointers for your trip to Cuba. It is also useful to travel with an up to date guidebook. If you have additional comments or suggestions, or if any of the details we have provided are inaccurate, please do let us know.
- Travel to Cuba, Visas and Health
- Getting around Cuba
- General information to help prepare you for your trip
- Accommodation in Cuba
- Local Culture, Laws and Customs
- Travel Essentials
TRAVEL TO CUBA, VISAS AND HEALTH
Getting there – We ask our clients to book their flights independently as it gives much more flexibility and ease of booking. We can however advise you on different airlines and suggested routes so please do ask us for advice and also let us know your full flight details once booked. By booking flights or any travel independently, you assume full responsibility for these travel arrangements i.e reconfirming flight schedule, organising alternative travel in the case of delay or cancellation.
Cuban tourist card (visa) – the majority of foreign visitors require a tourist card (the required travel visa) to enter Cuba. The tourist card is valid for 30 days from the date of entry to Cuba, and can be extended for a maximum of a further 30 days at a local immigration office in Cuba if required. We are official suppliers of the Cuban Tourist card and can issue it to you – please ask us for more details. If you are flying from or via the USA, irrespective of your nationality you will have to purchase a visa direct from a US approved travel company. Ask us for more information.
Sanitary and Customs Declaration – The Cuban government requires every traveller (foreign and resident) entering Cuba to complete a sanitary and customs declaration. You can access the digital form, which is available in both English and Spanish, online by clicking on the following link: https://www.dviajeros.mitrans.gob.cu/inicio. On the homepage, click on the ‘Form Request’ button and complete the fields in the form as indicated. The form asks for general information about the traveller, immigration, sanitary and customs information. Once the form is completed, a PDF file with the QR code will be sent immediately to the e-mail address you have given in the form and you should print the PDF file and take it with you to present on arrival into Cuba. The form is free of charge and can be accessed and edited at any time. The new digital form is now mandatory for all travelers entering the country.
Entry to Cuba rules in response to Coronavirus as given on the British government website. Please ensure you check this page for full and up-to-date information regarding entry to Cuba: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/cuba/entry-requirements#entry-rules-in-response-to-coronavirus-covid-19. If you are from another country, you should check your own government’s information and advice.
Entry to Cuba
From 15 November 2021 there will be no obligatory PCR test on arrival. Sanitary authorities will continue to be present at the airport and may do random PCR tests, particularly for anyone displaying symptoms. Completion of a Health Declaration (Declaración Jurada de Salud) will continue to be required for all travellers.
Demonstrating your COVID-19 status
Cuba will accept the UK’s proof of COVID-19 recovery and vaccination record. Your NHS appointment card from vaccination centres is not proof of vaccination and should not be used to demonstrate your vaccine status.
Health – please check well in advance with your local health centre or travel clinic to ensure that you have all necessary vaccinations and that you are fit to travel. If you have any medical conditions, allergies or dietary requirements, please ensure you let us know before you travel. Please also check the latest health and travel advice for Cuba on your local government website. For those based in the UK, please visit: http://travelhealthpro.org.uk/locations/cuba/.
Only drink bottled or boiled water, and never drink water straight from the tap.
Travel insurance – please ensure you arrange comprehensive travel insurance for your trip including repatriation costs, as this is a requirement of the Cuban government for all foreign visitors entering Cuba. Please note that you may be asked to present a copy of your policy on arrival. Your policy must also cover all covid related issues such as extra costs if you have to stay longer than planned.
GETTING AROUND CUBA
Domestic flights operate between the major cities in Cuba which offers a quick and easy way to travel a long distance. However, domestic flights are often subject to delays, rerouting or even cancellation at short notice so you should bear this in mind when making travel arrangements. Checking in at some Cuban airp0rts can be confusing as it may not be obvious which flight you are queuing for, so always check at airport information to be sure which check in desk(s) you need.
Viazul is a national bus network which connects all of the cities/towns in Cuba making it easy to explore the island and is a more economical way to travel around Cuba. If you have booked your Viazul bus travel with us, you will have received the bus tickets from one of our local Cuban representatives before you are due to travel. On arrival at the bus station, it should be easy to work out which bus is the one you are travelling on as the bus will have the destination marked on a sign either above or in front of the driver. When the driver is taking your tickets before you get on board, he will also reconfirm that you are travelling on the correct bus. Viazul buses have air conditioning so it is recommended to take an extra layer with you on board in case it is chilly, particularly for longer journeys. Some of the larger bus stations can be very busy, so it is recommended that you get there in plenty of time to check out which stance the bus is leaving from and where to check in your luggage as this has to be done before you get on the bus.
When you check in your luggage, you will get a luggage receipt. Your bags are sometimes taken from you by staff to load onto the bus when it arrives, but sometimes you will be expected to take it yourself. Each bus station is different. When you arrive at your destination, the driver will unload your bags and then will ask to see the luggage receipt to double check that it is your baggage before you take it away.
Car rental is another option but please be aware that the roads in Cuba are not in the best condition and have many potholes. The lack of signage on the roads also makes it easy to lose your way. Caledonia can help book a hire car on request. Due to the recent shortages of fuel on the island, it may be tricky to fill up the car in some areas.
Official taxis (Cuba Taxi) are generally available outside the terminal building of the main airports and are usually metered. Unofficial taxis will also be available at each airport, and whilst these will be cheaper than the official taxis, we do not recommend that you travel in them as they are not licensed to carry non-Cuban passengers. Caledonia can also arrange arrival/departure transfers or transfers between cities – again contact us for more details. Cuba also has trains in operation, which is widely known as the most unreliable form of transport in Cuba as well as being uncomfortable, and it’s not a mode of transport that we would recommend.
Cuba is essentially a cash economy. You may find it useful to bring all of the money you will need for your trip in cash, to avoid bank charges when withdrawing money. Otherwise you can use local ATMS and exchange facilities in the main towns, cities and airports.
There is one currency in Cuba –the Cuban Peso CUP, referred to locally as moneda. As Cuban currency is not traded internationally, you cannot purchase Cuban currency before you travel will be able to buy it on arrival at the airport, and in most banks or CADECA exchange bureaus. CADECA is the national network of state controlled money exchange bureaus and they are found in all airports and main towns/cities throughout Cuba.
However, you will find that everyone only wants payment in EUROS. This is because the street value of euros is currently 3 or 4 times higher than the official, so one euro is like gold dust. Bars, restaurants and other places you are likely to visit on your trip will be happy to take payment in euros and will give you a favourable exchange rate, so you are much better to pay using small euro notes than in local currency. It is best to take 5€, 10€ and 20€ notes as change may be tricky for larger denominations.
If you are changing money at a CADECA or anywhere else, please be sure to see the cash being counted out slowly in front of you, and check the amount again before leaving the counter to avoid any incorrect sums. Ask for notes in smaller denominations as many shops and restaurants will find it hard to give you change for a larger note. It isn’t easy to get hold of small change so you might find it useful to have smaller amounts of money for taxi journeys and snacks/coffees.
When you are leaving Cuba you are expected to exchange any leftover CUPs before you go through immigration and not to take Cuban currency out of the country. Duty free and air-side facilities such as cafes and bars now only accept payment by euros, dollars or sterling or debit/credit card and not cash.
British Pounds Sterling (£) can also be used in Cuba, but the exchange rate is not as good as the Euro. For those based in the UK, please note that Scottish bank notes are not accepted at all, so you should always bring English notes. The American dollar ($) is not legal tender anymore.
Please ensure that all notes you bring with you are clean, unmarked and untorn. Old, torn or damaged notes are not usually accepted.
You can use credit or debit cards to withdraw cash from bank machines but please note that this is subject to charges from the Cuban bank, as well as charges by your own bank. Debit and credit cards that have been issued by a bank which is connected to the United States may not be accepted in Cuba, so please ensure you check with your bank whether you will be able to use your card in Cuba or not. It is also a good idea to advise your bank of your travel plans as they can block the use of your card if they are unaware that you have gone to Cuba, and may think your card has been stolen and is being used fraudulently.
There are numerous ATMs and Cadeca exchange bureaus in the major cities. There are no ATMs in smaller towns or in the countryside, so you will often need to go into banks to get money if you are off the beaten track.
Banks are usually open Monday – Friday 08.00 – 15.00, and often on Saturday mornings too, but this is not always the case so please check locally. You will need to take your passport with you as a form of identity. To join a queue in a Cuban bank, you need to identify who is at the end of the queue by asking for ‘el ultimo’ (the last one) when you go in. The concept of queuing in Cuba may be different to what you are used to, and you may find that the person before you in the queue is actually sitting down and not standing in what appears to be the queue. When someone new comes into the bank and asks for ‘el ultimo’, you then raise your hand and so your place in the queue is established. You can then sit down and wait!
GENERAL INFORMATION TO HELP PREPARE YOUR TRIP
Spending money – For general spending, we recommend you allow the equivalent of approx. £25 or US$40 per day for lunch, water, drinks, nights out, and other incidental expenses.
Tipping – Most people will expect to get a tip in Cuba, from your chambermaid in hotels to your guide and driver on transfers and excursions. Current salaries in Cuba aren’t really a good reflection of how much one should tip, as a Cuban salary is far from enough for anyone to live on. Many Cubans look at other ways to make extra income each month by whatever means they can.
The following is a rough guide for suggested tips whilst you are in Cuba, but please remember that you should only tip where you feel that you have been provided with a good service and a tip is deserved. Tipping is optional and by no means compulsory.
- In Restaurants – 10% of the total bill is perfectly acceptable.
- In Cafes – round up to the nearest CUP$ amount
- Toilets in public place – we recommend leaving a small tip in coins.
- For 1-2 people travelling together, we would suggest giving CUP$75 to your driver for a short transfer such as an airport transfer; CUP$150-$200 to both your guide and your driver on half day private excursions. For a full day excursion, we would suggest CUP$250 to your guide and also to your driver. If you are with the same guide or driver over several days, we would suggest anything from CUP$1,000+ to your guide and your driver. However, you are entirely at liberty to give whatever you feel is appropriate.
If you are part of a larger group (6+ persons), CUP$100 per person would be a suitable amount for a half day tour and if you are on an extended tour, allow a bit more per person per day.
Electricity/wiring – Even in the best kept buildings in Cuba you may see random wires hanging out of walls or dodgy looking plugs/sockets – this is all perfectly normal in Cuba so do not be too alarmed! The power supply in Cuba is mainly 110 volts although in some places they have 220 volt sockets. Cuba uses two pinned flat pronged plugs (same as North America), so please ensure you take the necessary adaptor with you.
Mobile phone – If you are taking a mobile phone to Cuba, please be aware of the extremely high charges for using data whilst roaming, and for making and receiving telephone calls. If you would like to use your mobile phone in Cuba, please check that you have international roaming enabled by contacting your network provider before you travel.
Email facilities are very limited, but can be found in most major hotels and in the Cuban national telecommunication centres, ETECSA. A 1 hour internet card normally costs around CUP$175. However, you should be prepared for very slow connections and a lack of internet facilities in most parts of the island. Wi-Fi can be found in some of the larger hotels which can be accessed by buying a card. WIFI can also be found in some of the main squares in cities, but you need to be resident in Cuba in order to have a Nauta account which gives you access to this network.
Making a telephone call from Cuba is very expensive, but you can do so by purchasing a telephone card from the ETECSA telecommunication centre or in one of the hotels, and using a public telephone. CUP$500 will give you around 4 minutes talk time to the UK and Europe. The code for international outgoing calls from Cuba is 119 + country code + the number you wish to dial. You will need to omit the ‘0’ if the number you wish to dial starts with 0.
Toilets – It is always very useful to carry some toilet paper and antibacterial gel with you when you are out and about. Some public toilets will have an attendant to give you paper but many don’t. Some don’t have running water or soap. Remember to leave a small tip for the attendant if you have change. Also remember to put toilet paper in the bucket provided rather than flushing it.
ACCOMMODATION IN CUBA
Hotels – Some of the star ratings given to hotels in Cuba can be misleading and are not always consistent. It is also quite common for hotels to overbook their rooms, so we sometimes have to make changes at the very last minute. We will always let you know as soon as we are advised of any changes to your booking.
Homestay accommodation – This type of accommodation is pretty relaxed and informal and is a great way to meet local people and eat good home-cooked food. All our homestay accommodation is licensed by the Cuban government and is regularly inspected. You can be reassured that you will be staying in homes which offer a professional level of service, as well as a friendly welcome and a safe environment.
Your hosts may not speak much English, if any, but they will be friendly and will ensure you have a pleasant and memorable stay in their home. We know almost all of the homestay hosts personally, and many have been welcoming Caledonia clients for several years. Breakfast and evening meals are not usually eaten with the family, as they will eat separately from their guests.
Although your room may not have an external window (very common in Cuba) it will have air-conditioning or an electric fan if you prefer. Hot water should be available for showers and you will have either your own private bathroom or share one with another guest room. You will not be sharing a bathroom with your hosts. Please be aware that water may be limited as all homes use a roof tank, not a mains water supply, so try not to have overlong showers or leave water running unnecessarily from the tap.
You will be able to come and go as you wish during the day and you will usually, although not always, have your own front door key. Please remember that power failures are quite common and the water may be cut off for short periods at a time – this is perfectly normal in Cuba.
Your hosts will be able to arrange for your laundry to be washed and ironed for a small charge (usually around CUP$100 for a small bag). Just ask them about this when you arrive.
When you arrive on the first day, your host will ask to see your passport and you will have to sign an official book which is then submitted to the local immigration office. This is normal procedure for all legally registered homestays. Your host will not need to keep your passport any longer than it takes to note your details.
Please note that it is quite common for taxi drivers to take you to the ‘wrong’ address when you arrive, telling you that the homestay/hotel is not expecting you and then to take you to another address where they will earn commission for bringing you there. You have a confirmed booking at the address we have provided and the hotel/your host will be expecting you, so be firm!
Main Cuban meals will usually include some of the following: rice, beans, potatoes, chicken, pork, fish, vegetables, simple salads, fruit juices and fruit. Basic foodstuffs in Cuba can be hard to find, but if you are staying in homestay accommodation with meals, your host will provide good home cooking during your stay. Seasonal fruit and vegetables will be used for meals and there is no problem in providing meals for people with special dietary requirements as long as we know in advance.
LOCAL CULTURE, LAWS AND CUSTOMS
Culture – In the cities, it is common for people to constantly approach you offering to show you around or to take you to a bar/ accommodation/ somewhere to eat. Be aware that if you agree, you may be charged extra for your drinks/room/meal and will also be expected to pay for your “guide” too. If you do not wish to be accompanied, be firm and politely decline the offer. Cubans are very friendly and love to talk to people from overseas. Whilst this may seem a bit strange at first there will rarely be any problems as the majority of the Cubans who want to chat simply want to do just that.
Women should also be aware that in Cuba it is normal for men to overtly compliment women they don’t know, and to make comments in the street (indeed Cuban women expect this). It is just part of the culture, and smiling and walking by is a perfectly acceptable response.
Noise levels – you will find it absolutely normal in Cuba for TVs, radios and music to all be blaring at all times of the day, for dogs to be barking, cockerels crowing, cars horns tooting, people shouting in conversation and in general to be in a much more noisy environment than you may be used to. You may find a set of earplugs very useful, particularly if you are a light sleeper.
Local laws and customs – Cuban law allows for the death penalty, and courts hands out very severe penalties (in excess of twenty years) for all drugs related offences. Pack all of your luggage yourself and don’t carry any items that do not belong to you or packages with contents you are not familiar with. If you are carrying prescribed medication it is advised that you have a letter from your GP with you. Ensure your luggage does not contain any items that are prohibited (http://www.aduana.co.cu/) as these will be confiscated on arrival. GPS devices may also be confiscated.
Visitors must not take photographs of military or police personnel or installations. Avoid restricted areas, although please note that they are not always clearly sign-posted.
Cuba has some of the lowest crime statistics in Latin America. Although Cuba is very safe in general, opportunistic bag snatching and occasional muggings can take place, so be alert. We advise that you travel with precaution by taking care of your valuables and not leaving your possessions unattended. Try to avoid carrying your passport with you, and carry a photocopy on you instead.
The emergency services can be contacted on the following numbers:
Police 106 / Ambulance 104 / Fire Service 105
If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, you can contact one of the International clinics located in the majority of tourist areas across the island – see List of Medical Facilities in Cuba. In Havana, the Cira Garcia Clinic offers such facilities to foreign nationals. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment. Please also let our local representatives know of your situation so that they can support you as appropriate.
Should you be robbed/mugged and need a statement for insurance purposes, please ensure you report the crime to the police and get a statement from them at the time. It will be very difficult to get a statement from them at a later date.
A lost/stolen passport must be reported to the police as soon as you notice it is missing. A police report will be supplied which is proof of theft/loss. If this happens outside Havana, the domestic airline carrying you to Havana must be alerted in advance so that they are aware before departure that you will have no passport, as this is required proof of identity when checking in. You will then need to contact your embassy or consulate – see below.
Please contact your relevant embassy or consulate in Cuba for emergency assistance whilst there – see Embassies in Cuba
Clothing – Take light and comfortable clothes and footwear. Cuba is a tropical island and it can be very hot and humid, particularly from May to September. You can dress fairly informally at all times (shorts, jeans, dress, T-shirts, shirts) although you may like to bring something smarter for special events and for going out at night. Some of the live music venues will not allow people to enter in shorts or trainers, so men should bring a pair of long trousers and shoes/sandals for going out. You should take appropriate footwear for excursions, especially where there is hiking.
Toiletries/Medicines – Although cosmetics and general toiletries (soap, shampoo) can usually be bought locally, we recommend taking any toiletries that you will need with you, as there can be a shortage of such basic items in shops. We have also given a list below of items we recommend you take with you:
- Insect repellent
- Handheld fan
- Toilet paper / tissues
- Antibacterial hand gel
- Sanitary items
Medicines – we recommend you take items such as plasters, anti-diarrhoea remedies, painkillers and antiseptic lotions as well as any prescribed medicines that you will need for your entire journey.
DONATIONS / GIFTS
As you may already know, not everything is as readily available or affordable as it is for us at home. If you would like to take gifts/donations out with you, items such as any light clothing (good quality second-hand clothes are perfectly acceptable), perfumes/colognes/body lotions, deodorants, multi-vitamins, sachets of cold/flu remedy, aspirin and paracetamol are all extremely useful and will be gratefully received.