10 things you should know before travelling to Cuba
1) Water. If you’re staying at the all-inclusive resorts, then it’s safe to drink the water and eat the ice at the bars, because it’ll be filtered. But never drink from the tap or be prepared for several nights of diarreah and/or vomiting. Be careful of restaurants, especially the kind that are operated out of homes. A lot of Cubans these days have been opening up their houses as restaurants and serving tourists from their kitchens. This is a great way to experience Cuba and an equally great way to get food poisoning. Of course, some people have stronger stomachs than others.
2) If you want to go see one of the big cabaret shows, don’t go if it looks like rain. In Cuba, they haven’t invented umbrellas yet. Your show will be cancelled if it starts to rain. It’s not a big deal, you can get your money back or go a different night. It’s just a lot of wasted time driving all the way out there and then all the way back.
3) They have two currencies in Cuba. The Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso. The locals use the Peso and it’s valued at 25:1 Cuban:American. But the Convertible Peso is essentially a tourist currency and it’s valued almost at the Euro. Tourists are not allowed to use the state issued Cuban Peso and not allowed to shop in the stores where it is accepted. Cuba may seem cheap. You may get a good deal on your hotel or resort, but once you get there, things will be a lot more expensive than they would if you went to, say, Mexico.
4) Everyone wants convertible currency tips. They will solicit. They will beg. They will offer you caricatures, cornrolling, and pictures of themselves to get it. It’s annoying at first, but you have to understand, that while every Cuban has access to free education, cheap housing and everyone has enough food to live on, they have no money for anything else. If you’re Cuban and you want a microwave, you’ll have to separate some rich, capitalist tourists from their vacation dollars to get enough money for it. If you’re going to be dealing with someone on a regular basis, (maids, bellhops, bartenders, servers) it’s probably a good idea to tip them a convertible peso every once in a while. Your service will increase dramatically and you’ll gain access to things you wouldn’t have had otherwise (more interesting alcoholic drinks. More choice on the restaurant menu).
5) If you’re at all like me and bear a somewhat noticeable resemblance to Harry Potter, Cuba will not be an escape for you. They will notice you and they will not hesitate to expose you for what you are. The only difference is that, in Cuba, you will be Harry Potter’s brother, instead of Daniel Radcliffe, himself. Which is a bit of an improvement. Less autograph writing time.
6) Due to the embargo, transportation is hard to come by in Cuba. Hitchhiking is the national sport of Cuba. You will see hundreds of people lining the streets everyday. If you’ve got money, you can get onto their army of Chinese surplus tour buses. If you want a taxi, good luck, you’ll be waiting over an hour, probably longer. Make sure to leave lots of time between going anywhere to make up for lag-times and missing people. Cuba, as well as a lot of those kinds of countries operates under Cuba Time. Cuba Time is a variable and unpredictable system of keeping time. Sometimes you’ll be early; most times you’ll be late. Pretty much all the time you’ll have no idea what’s going on until everything is over.
7) The cigars, rum and coffee are very good and very cheap. You’re allowed to take two bottles of Rum, a pound of coffee and fifty cigars out of the country. Even if you don’t smoke, I suggest buying as many cigars as possible. You will be able to sell them when you get back for quite a tidy profit. (I wish I’d known this when I went). But beware of buying illegal cigars, (ie buying not from official stores) they’re cheaper, but they will, actually, make you sick, and 8 times out of 10, it’ll be a trap by the police meant to bust you and extort your remaining convertible dollars through bribery.
8) The beaches in Varadero are nice, but if you really want that white sand Caribbean experience, consider hiring a boat to take you to one of the nearby tropical islands. But beware of snorkeling offers. They will charge large amounts of money for snorkeling, but only give you limited time in murky waters. Make sure you decide upfront how much snorkeling time your money is buying you.
9) Bring things. A lot of places will tell you to bring goods, medicine, candy etc. and hand them out while you’re there. You can do that. Some people there will love you for it; others will be indifferent to your gift of toothbrush. It’s your call.
10) Everything is cheaper during the hurricane season (August to early November). Less people go during these times (afraid of hurricanes). The prices are lower, but the services will be lower as well. Fewer restaurants will be open. Fewer people will be around to help you. You have to decide if you want to do that or if you want to pay a bit more and experience a more lively, bustling atmosphere. Both options have their charms. There’s something to be said for a nearly deserted resort you have seemingly to yourself and maybe a significant other. But also, don't remember to beware of Hurricanes. They can happen at any time, check a regularly updated tourist report before leaving.
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