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Cuba: A travel guide
Member Name: berrydelight
Advantages: Unspoilt, exciting, new opportunity
Disadvantages: Laid back attitude, dual currency
**Why visit Cuba?**
The following review is not intended as an overview of Cuba as a country but as a practical guide for anyone considering visiting this wonderful, culturally rich country. Cuba has experienced a huge rise in the number of foreign visitors and in 2010 saw its largest ever number of tourists. This is likely to be ever growing, travel restrictions are slowly being relaxed and the economy boost foreign spending can provide is being recognised.
Although many people flock to the all inclusive costal resorts they really are missing out on the real Cuba, the colours and vibrancy of Havana, the rolling Caribbean hills of Pinar Del Rio, the sleepy 1950's revival in Trinidad and endless white, unspoilt beaches along their coastlines. Although travelling here is not easy it is certainly rewarding and below should help arm you with useful on the ground information.
**Getting there and around**
The majority of travellers from the UK come as part of an organised package with flights, tourist visas and accommodation included. Obviously what everyone wants out of their holiday is different but having spent several weeks in Cuba staying in one resort for your whole trip is a wasted opportunity. If you are cautious about travelling one of the many organised trips is a good option with scheduled stops, planned activities and the company of other travellers. Alternatively myself and two other female travellers backpacked around the West of the country, felt very safe and despite some frustrations travel was relatively simple.
If not travelling as part of an organised tour bear in mind you need a travel visa and give yourself 3 weeks to organise one, it is also worth noting that in order to get your tourist visa you need 3 nights booked accommodation for when you first arrive in the country.
You can fly from all major UK airports into Havana but travelling from the US is only possible through non-direct flights, i.e through Mexico.
Travelling from destination to destination is best done on buses (Viazul) or private taxi. The website for Viazul appears up to date and the prices very reasonable but be warned do not trust the website or guidebook times. On two occasions we missed the only bus of the day, best to get there the day before, book and confirm travel times.
Private taxis can work out very cost effective especially if more than two of you are travelling. The guidebook provides indicative prices and some Spanish will be helpful for negoigatiing. If the rate is very low its likely to be a collective which means you may go to multiple locations, with multiple pick ups before proceeding to your final destination.
A truly Cuban concept Casa Particulars are essentially rooms to rent to tourists in family homes. A very comfortable and very cheap option when travelling the service standards in the Casa well surpass any of the 4* hotels I stayed in. You can expect to pay between $20-$30 per night for two people in a clean room, often with air conditioning and private bathroom in a quaint family home. It is possible to turn up in any town without booking and still be directed to a good Casa although those contained in the standard travel guides are a good start. As the Cubans are very family and community orientated if one is full you will no doubt end up staying with their cousin or brother and still receive the same warm welcome.
As this is the main source of income to the proprietors you can expect second to none service. In addition to you room you will be offered breakfast $3-$5 per person and dinner $8-$11 per person. The food will outstrip anything you could have in town and is therefore highly recommended.
Cuba operates a dual currency system. Despite the best efforts of popular guidebook Lonely Planet we were not really prepared for firstly just how difficult obtaining cash could be nor the realities of the dual system.
If you are coming to Cuba and not staying in the main tourist resorts or Havana be warned that your best bet is to exchange the majority or all of your cash at your arrival airport. You cannot exchange the cash until you reach the country and therefore expect some queues. Although credit cards are accepted in the main resorts the connections are not always reliable and therefore you could end up stuck so always carry some cash on you, safes are provided in all hotels and as long as you are careful and aware you should not have any issues.
There are two currencies in Cuba, the Cuban Peso (CUC) and the Peso (MN). To make the situation more confusing for visitors both currencies are indicated by the $ sign. Tourists can only change into CUC at the airport. This is what the majority of your transactions will be in. The average Cuban salary is around $6 CUC per month and at time of writing $1.5 CUC equated to £1. If you are sticking to the beaten track you will not have much need to utilise the (MN) currency but should you wish to involve yourself in the real Cuba, benefit from significantly cheaper food then
At time of writing $1.50 CUC equated to £1.
* Night in a Casa Particular - $25
* Main meal - $8
* Cocktail -$3
* Beer - $2
* Bottled water - $2
**General Tips to Remember**
* Cash - can only be changed at the airport. Change as much at the airport as you feel comfortable doing, it is far easier to secure it in the safe than try and find a bank outside the cities. Be careful of scam artists trying to induce you to exchange your CUC's for MN. One they are not as widely accepted and you will be greatly disadvantaged on the exchange rate.
* Customer Service - expect queues, lack of information and at times a complete lack of any notion of service. This will improve in the resorts with time but some knowledge of Spanish will help in the mean time. A sense of humour and relaxing about 'Cuba time' also helps!
* Food - unless you are eating in Casa Particulars the food is often more miss than hit but on the whole relatively safe. Expect the staples of rice and chicken and some fruit. Vegetables are limited.
Summary: A beautiful country with challenges but abundant rewards