Frequently Asked Questions about Cuba
Question 1: How hot is Cuba?
Answer: It’s hot. I took a pair of long denim jeans and couple of long sleeve shirts. I haven’t used any of them once, just ended up carrying this extra load in my luggage needlessly.
Make sure you have a full bottle of waterproof sun block number 30. Do not rely on buying one in Cuba. It’s either not available or really expensive.
Question 2: I’ve heard people often take dollar store trinkets or chewing gums with them to Cuba. What is it for?
Answer: Children of Cuba really appreciate being given anything by tourists and considering that a lot of stuff is too expensive or not available for locals, something as trivial as a chewing gum can mean the world to them.
Question 3: Do Cubans speak English?
Answer: No, they don’t. Spanish is the official language in Cuba and most people don’t speak any language other than Spanish. If you do speak Spanish, you’ll have no problem getting around. Locals in most tourist areas speak some English – sometimes better, sometime you’ll need extra imagination to understand them. Bringing a Spanish to English/English to Spanish dictionary with you to Cuba can easily prove handy.
Question 4: Is water safe to drink and food safe to eat in Cuba?
Answer: As a traveller, vacationer, tourist, adventurer or whatever you consider yourself to be, you should always play it safe when taking a trip abroad. Whether it’s to Cuba or elsewhere. There are certain rules of thumb you should stick to in order to avoid unnecessary traveller’s diarrhea or worse (hepatitis A). Things to remember:
- Don’t eat raw food
- Drink only bottled water
- Peel your fruit yourself
- Make sure meals are thoroughly cooked
- Don’t use ice cubes
Capital health Canada has a great saying that they promote for all travellers to exercise: Cook It! Peel It! Or Leave It! This applies to any travel abroad and it is the safest and most bullet proof method to avoid sickness while on vacation.
The physician at the traveller’s health clinic in your area can prescribe you antibiotics that you can take on vacation with you should you eat or drink something that would make you sick. I took Cirpofloxacin with me to Cuba. It’s used to treat bacterial infections, including severe traveller’s diarrhea. I never got sick, but it helped knowing that my trip would go without major problems should I get infected.
I would also recommend that you take a dose of Medicinal Charcoal with you. Cuba is full of quality doctors and you can easily find them at most hotels, but being able to look after yourself is invaluable.
Question 5: What type of money should I take with me to Cuba?
Answer: Canadian dollars are the best. Don’t take any high face value bills. $20 max. You can exchange them for CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) at the airport or at the hotel.
Question 6: Can I use US dollars in Cuba?
Answer: No. US currency is not accepted in Cuba anymore. Some places will exchange it, but you will be charged an interest of at least 10%
Question 7: Can I use my credit card in Cuba?
Answer: Yes, most tourist places accept credit cards. Hotels, car rentals, restaurants, etc will accept Visa and Mastercard. Credit cards issued by American banks are not accepted. Make sure you are using Canadian issued credit cards.
Question 8: Can I pay with my debit card in Cuba?
Answer: Good luck finding an Interact machine in Cuba. Bring cash with you, don’t expect to be able to withdraw any money anywhere in Cuba. Some places accept it as method of payment. I’ve never tried it hence I can report on what extra charges are involved. I’m pretty sure TD Canada trust (my bank) would be more than happy to throw some fees exchange rates on me for payment in a foreign country.
Question 9: Are there banks in Cuba?
Answer: Yes, Cuban banks are air conditioned but service is as slow as in Canada. At least if you are a client of TD Bank. Actually no, Cuban lines and waiting times are quite bad.
Question 10: Should I tip in Cuba?
Answer: Yes. Do not tip Cubans with Canadian dollars. Leave Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Most Cubans can not or have rather hard time exchanging foreign currencies so you wouldn’t be helping them much with tips in Canadian dollars (or other foreign currency).
Question 11: How much to tip?
Answer: Remember Question #2? You can often use those small items you brought over as a tip (to your maid for example). 1 CUC per day is a fair and appreciated tip to anyone in Cuba. Most Cubans don’t make more than 200 – 400 CUC a year. Yes, I had said “a year”. 1 Peso will make a lot of difference to them and it is usually more than enough as a tip. Once again – do not tip in US or Canadian dollars. They will have hard time converting it into their pesos. Plus it’s just plain weird anyway. Imagine you work as a bartender and tourists from Russia you have been serving all night leave you a tip in Russian Rubles. Don’t tip in foreign currency, end of story.
Question 12: Can I tip with items, instead of with money?
Answer: Yes and it is often better. Many items are either hard to come by in Cuba or are too expensive for locals to afford. Such simple things as calendars are so common in Canada, we keep getting them for free so much, nobody wants them. You always get one from a real estate agent in your area, a car mechanic in your area, an accountant in your area, etc. Soon enough it gets overwhelming and you got more calendars than you have room on the walls. Oddly enough, calendars are a hard to find commodity in Cuba.
Small items, such as (unused) toothpaste, toothbrush, hair brush, bottle of shampoo, pen, etc. will do just fine and will work well as a tip.
If you can leave a piece of clothing, it will definitely be highly appreciated and your room will be shiny clean. Do not leave any recognizable brands, such as Nike as I’ve seen Cubans getting in troubles with the police and having these items confiscated. Having a giant Nike sign on a t-shirt automatically marks that t-shirt as something a Cuban could not possibly buy. Because tourism is a major economy horse in Cuba, Cuban government wants to make sure locals do not bug tourists. Seeing a Cuban with a Nike tee would suggest they had bugged a tourist.
Question 13: Why are there two currencies in Cuba?
Answer: After the fall of communism in Easter Europe and split of Russia, the support and flow of money from Russia was stopped and Cuba was facing major economy crisis. The USA hardened its sanctions against Cuba which made it even harder. Fidel Castro made the best thing he could to save his country – introduced special currency for use by tourist while retaining the original currency for use by native Cubans.
In other words, Cuban Convertible Pesos (tourist currency) is a way to rip tourists off. Because of that, you will end up paying a lot, often times more than you would in other Caribbean countries. So yes, it’s a tourist rip off, but it’s understandable, otherwise Cuba would crash. If you’re an adventurer and wander off beaten tourist path, you may get to areas that are not used by tourists and you’ll get to meet real Cubans. You’ll see the real hospitality and friendliness of island’s natives and you will eat in restaurants where a meal will cost 1 CUP (Cuban Peso). The same meal in tourist areas will cost you 5 CUC (convertible Cuban Peso).
1 CUC = 25 CUP
Question 14: Where can I buy Cuban Currency?
Answer: You can’t buy it abroad. Take enough Canadian cash with you and buy all CUC you need at the airport or at your hotel.
Question 15: Is Cuba safe?
Answer: Cuba is very safe. Even female solo travellers can wander the streets safely at night. However some common sense and reasonable precautions should be taken regardless:
- Do not wear expensive jewelry
- Hold on to your purse tightly in crowded areas
- Have your wallet in front pocket
- Keep your camera against your chest
- Don’t walk alone after dark
Question 16: Do I need a guide in Cuba?
Answer: You don’t, but guides know places you otherwise wouldn’t find. Having a guide with you will prevent other street guides from approaching you and offering their guiding services. Guides can also take you to Paladars – private restaurants that people have in their houses. You can get food comparable to a regular restaurant, but oftentimes much better and for a better price.
Question 17: What is casa particular?
Answer: Casa Particular is a private home that is available to short term rent as a cheaper substitute for a hotel. Casa Particulares are government controlled and have issued IDs. Maximum two rooms can be rented out per Casa. By staying at a Casa Particular you avoid high hotel fees and you get to hang out with real Cubans – owners of the Casa. They will provide advice and guidance and breakfast is often included in price. Plus by staying at a Casa particular you would be directly supporting this Cuban family, rather than a foreign corporation that built a hotel in Cuba.
To learn more about Casas Particulares go to: Casa Particular Complete Guide
Question 18: How much does a casa particular cost?
Answer: Average cost is 20 – 35 CUC per night per room. Room can house two people. Price depends on where the casa is (Havana or Santiago de Cuba are more expensive than let’s say, Santa Clara). It’s also about 5 CUC less during low season.
Question 19: What do I need to stay in Casa particular?
Answer: Your passport. Casa particulares are government controlled and they must take your passport number for their records.
Question 20: I’ve heard you needed at least a 3 day hotel reservation to enter Cuba. Is this true?
Answer: No, not true. You must have an address in Cuba where you will be staying for the first three nights as this information is a mandatory field on your tourist card (Canadian travellers get a tourist card from their flight providers, others may need to purchase it upon landing in Cuba). However it’s not like they check vigorously where you’re really staying. Cuba lives off tourism. You could write any random address from the Lonely Planet guide on the tourist card and it’ll get you in. I’ve always had my casa pre-booked, but many of my friends had nothing and just wrote down the info of a random casa from the guide book, and had no issues entering Cuba. You need to know the name, address and the license number of the casa you will be staying at and write it down on the tourist card. That’s it, welcome to Cuba!
Question 21: Is internet available in Cuba?
Answer: It is available in hotels, but it’s slow and ridiculously expensive. You’ll get the speed of a dial up for 5 CUC an hour. You will barely get anything done, it’s so slow.
Question 22: Are cell phone services available in Cuba?
Answer: Forget it, man. Cuba is the most relaxed country. You will be exposed to culture and people who enjoy their stress free lives. Join them in exactly that – stress free, relaxed vacation. Leave your cell phone at home. It won’t work in Cuba anyway.
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