Ms Skinnyfat

A Food & Travel Blog from Singapore

A Guide to Traveling in Cuba

By Tuesday, April 16, 2013 , ,

The famed Malecon 
Cuba is an enigma that draws people in with its exotic charm and then puzzles, and sometimes annoys them with her ways. Broken things are never quite fixed thoroughly and mended only superficially or ignored. We were left to the conclusion that Cubans are either passionate about something or they are simply uninterested. Honestly, that sounds like a pretty damn good way of living your life, unless you're at the receiving end of that crap.

Prior to leaving for Cuba, we had the stereotypical view that it is all about music, rum, cigars and vintage cars (read my previous post here). Well, it kind of appeared to be so, just like in the movies but without the soundtrack (i take reference from Buena Vista Social Club). However, it's not just that. The stereotype pretty much stays in Habana and the bigger cities and the smaller cities are just like any others in developing/ latin american cities/countries minus the connectivity. Deja vu of India and even Malaysia.
Honestly, i can't tell you how it feels like to be there in Cuba. Nothing beats experiencing it for yourself because we write our own stories. Even after coming back from a trip, you may still develop dimensions/understanding of a place that you didn't before. That's the power of travel. So here is me helping you get there so you can create your own memories. Some background and tips next for your planning consideration.
The busy Paseo de Marti 

Safety and Health
Cuba is generally very safe but like any other country, be vigilant and exercise caution and common sense (e.g. not take quiet dark alleys late night, take drugs and the lots). Strict and prominent policing makes it unwise for people to commit crimes. Police presence is seen and felt in the touristy area of Havana Vieja, but once out of the zone, you hardly see any police on patrol.

Scams however, are prevalent in Havana. Single men or couples asking about the time, tempting you with salsa festivals, cheap cigars, cheap drinks, locals learning English and wanting someone to practise with and the list goes on. Politely decline and walk away. Entertain them a little if you're bored, but don't let them take you for a ride. It kinda sucks because Asians really stand out in Cuba and we're the obvious targets for scams. Watch your belongings as well.
A funky modern pharmacy with a traditional facade in Havana 
Healthcare is well provided for in Cuba and the pharmacies are extremely well stocked (trust me, we checked). In fact, medicine is one of their biggest exports and doctors are held in high esteem there.

Playa Ancon, Trinidad
Being in the Caribbean, Cuba experiences a moderate average temperature of 21°C in Jan to 27°C in Jul. We enjoyed a cool, dry and sunny break in Cuba in between our wintry NYC trip in Dec 2012. The dry season is from Nov to Apr. Rain comes in from May to Oct with hurricanes causing disturbances in Sep-Oct. Some areas like Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and many others were badly hit by Hurricane Sandy and many homes were destroyed and basic necessities disrupted. Safety and sanitation were on the top of our minds and we had no choice but to reorganize our itinerary. The original plan was to travel east to Baracoa but we had to do a U-turn at Santa Clara.

Getting there
Visa is required for many countries including Singapore and you can apply at the Cuban embassy. The nearest one to Singapore is in Jakarta (O great.) and they insisted that we have to send them our passports (NO WAY!) Many other visa application websites required the same even though it was stated clearly that only a photocopy of your passport. Like no way. and it's not necessary AT ALL. Read the next paragraph carefully.

For tourists, book your air tickets through a travel agency/airline that flies direct to Cuba and they would provide you with tourist card (included in the price of the ticket). We only realized that after all the scrambling and then Air Canada Vacations told us it was already included. Thank god.

It is also possible to buy the tourist card at the airline desk (through the country which you are traveling to Cuba from e.g. France, Canada, Mexico etc). It costs about US$25. If you lost this tourist card, you can get a replacement for another 25CUC (Cuban Convertibles) but i'm not sure about this procedure. Just DON'T LOSE IT. Period.

Also, do not worry that you will be barred from entering US if you have a Cuban chop on your passport. Singaporeans do not require a separate passport unlike if we travel to Israel. In fact, i didn't get any Cuban chop in my passport. It was stamped on the tourist card instead and taken back when we departed Cuba.

Cuba uses 2 currencies- Cuban Convertibles (CUC) for tourists and the Pesos (MN) for the locals. The exchange rate is 1CUC=25MN. Both currencies are only available upon arrival in Cuba. Euros, Pounds and Canadian dollars get you better rates than USD. There is a 10% exchange commission for the first 3 and 20% for USD (the govt has a love hate relationship with US). For easy reference, 1CUC is about 1 Euros after all that double/triple exchange and commission. 

Tourists can only exchange for CUC at the banks but you can exchange that again for MN at the local money changers (Cadecas). That's when we felt a lot richer because 1 CUC can get us a rather decent meal of sandwich and rice for the 2 of us. SCORE. The locals accept any form of money as long as it's 1.Cuban and 2. It's real.
Huge Cuban Pressed Sandwich for 10MN
The best places to stay at in Cuba are the Casa Particulars (private homestays) but they aren't the easiest to book (especially on short notice or for 1 night stays). The locals open their homes to tourists for some extra cash and in exchange you get a safe and cosy home with authentic Cuban meals  thrown in for cheap.
A typical living room in a Cuban home/casa 
The 2 websites that I would recommend are Cuba-Junky and B&B Vinales. I did most of my booking using the latter and their recommended casa did not disappoint me. Prices range from 20CUC (low season) to 25/30CUC (high season). This is way cheaper than the hotels in Havana which absolutely ripped us off at 80 Euros a night. Hotel Los Frailes was the worst with some screw up with the agent and we ended up paying 110 Euros a night. What pissed me even more was that it wasn't even my top choice hotel.  
To avoid that situation, just book the casas in advance. The more established ones will not screw you over and situations like over booking will not happen. For hotels, i noticed that the final booking always goes through Cuba Travel Network so you might as well just use their site to check the prices. For 1 night stay, it'll be easier getting a hotel room.

What sort of food blogger am i if i do not at least give you a preview to the food that we had in Cuba. Home cooked Cuban meals (also served in restaurants) included the following- Salad, Rice (with or without beans) with choice of meat (chicken/pork mostly) or seafood (fish, shrimp, lobster), Cuban Roots (kinda tapioca-like, less starchy than potatoes) and then desserts (always desserts). One thing to bear in mind is that they are always huge in portions and impossible to finish (at least for us).
Grilled Lobster at Casa in Trinidad 
Cordon Bleu at El Alba, Santa Clara 
Our best meals were served in the casas that we lived in. Yuda makes the best lobster dish in Trinidad and they are HUGE. We only paid 8CUC for a 4 course lobster dinner which also included coffee/tea. Needless to say, we ate at home every night. In Santa Clara, visit Hostal Florida Center for a good lobster and camarones set. My Cordon Bleu at El Alba (a Peso restaurant) was less than 2CUC and was fabulous as well.
Sundae with choice of biscuit, cake and syrup
I don't think everyone can beat the Cubans in terms of their passion for ice cream (not even the Italians). Coppelia, the nationalized ice cream chain, is practically in  every city. Just follow the queues and you'll be at the cavernous structure in no time. The ice cream is by no chance good but for an 8 cents Euros sundae, you shouldn't be complaining. It's artificial, very sweet and it melts in no time but it's an experience that you've got to try. The first time we did in Havana, we paid 2CUC and subsequently we found the peso queue. Remember, you only pay that kinda money for imported ice cream such as Nestle.

Oh and the Cubans don't just stop at 1 Sundae (or 2 for S), they do like 5 sundaes each and they pack the unfinished ones home. Yes the melted ones and all. Amazeballs.
That's what we call a well stocked bar/supermarket
Drinks can be bought on the cheap, never more than 3CUC for a strong (or poisonous) Mojito or Pina Colada. Or visit the liquor store and knock yourself out with the crazy selection of rum and all.

Getting around
We usually do car rentals for our trips so that it'll be easier to visit the various cities and that also gives us more flexibility in our schedule. However, i would advise against that for Cuba. The roads are no good and signs are absent along the way. Forget about 3G because data roaming will kill your bank account. You'd be lucky to even get Wi-Fi. GPS isn't allowed into the country unless you smuggle them in.
Your best bet? Buses for intercity transfers. Viazul provides reliable and comfortable bus travel. Buses are new (and from China). The schedules are available online and the buses come on time as well. Online booking was suspended for a while but resumed before we flew so we got all our tickets beforehand. Prices are in USD (surprise!) and you pay online.
The first experience at the bus station was chaotic with no signs or clear indication of our bus' arrival/departure. They have a ridiculous system of attending to passengers (or not) so go early with your reservation printout and exchange for another ticket to board the bus. Soft copies are not accepted (yes they were very stubborn). Tag your bags at the bag counter (show them your boarding ticket) before leaving them under the bus. Do not pay more than 1CUC for 2 bags (it's a rip off really). You will experience the first time traveler anxiety but good news is, once you get past the first time, you'll be breezing in and out of the station like a pro.

Our newly made Israeli friends used the Transtur service which is also quite good. We've also seen British tourists on that as well.
If you are more adventurous or on a budget and if you know Spanish, you could travel like the locals do in truck buses. A backpacker that we met said that these standing tickets costs a couple of Cuban Pesos.
My pseudo backpacking experience
To sum it all up, Cuba is not a place for everyone and it will scare the hell out of you if you're an amateur traveler (those who go on packaged tours are in this category btw). The tips here should help a little with the anxiety issues. Sadly there they weren't available to me when i was doing my planning (but we survived!). Feel free to drop me a message if you have questions on Cuba or if i have left out any important sections. If you're looking for an adventure, consider Cuba before the US embargo lifts and the destruction of the simple life. 

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  1. We found excellent food on our trip to Cuba, from chicken, to beef, to turkey & fish; there was no shortage of things to eat. We loved seafood and rice & beans there.
    Cuba vacation

  2. Hi! So did u go to Jakarta to get your visa in the end?

  3. hello chanced upon your blog post on traveling in cuba. have a couple of questions:
    1) did you book directly with air canada or though a travel agent specifying that you prefer to travel with air canada? i was trying to book on the air canada website and it didn't allow me to book from singapore traveling to havana.
    2) the usual travel insurances companies (ntuc, axa, aig, etc) do not cover travel to cuba. was wondering which travel insurance company did you purchase from?

    thanks, and hope to hear from you. :)