Everything you need to know about visiting Cuba in 2019
By Meagan Patroni
OK, so the Aussie dollar isn’t getting us much bang. I know. But, it’s well worth saving for that visit to Cuba – one of the last places in the world without McDonald’s or Starbucks. This is just one of the many reasons to consider visiting Cuba in 2019.
We know Cuba for its salsa and as the birthplace of cha cha, but this Caribbean island will take you on a transformative journey. I know it sounds cliché, but with its contrasts and complexities – it forces you to surrender – expect nothing and open yourself up for the ride.
There are a few ways to get to Cuba with airfares ranging from $1,800 – $3,500. At this price you have to remind yourself you are investing in an adventure.
1. Air Canada departs from Sydney and Melbourne taking you direct to Vancouver and onto Toronto. It’s a trek at 32 hours of travel but the cool part is that you’re checked all the way through. Air Canada’s baggage allowance is pretty generous if you are planning to pack all those cute tropical clothes (and food – take your own food).
2. Through the US you can travel straight from Dallas or Miami to Havana. But, since you’re close … why not stop a few days in Mexico City on your way.
3. LATAM will take you through Santiago if you’re up for a South American adventure.
As an Aussie you can get your visa at the Consulate of Cuba in Canberra by sending your passport and ID to their office. But you will pay more this way, about $150.
Otherwise, Air Canada will provide you with your visa before you land in Havana (included in your ticket price). If you are travelling through Mexico, you can get your visa at the Aeromexico help desk for about AUD$35. Through America check with your airline.
Cuba is one of the only countries in the world with two currencies. Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC) is preferred and somehow it’s almost on par with the Euro – how this works is an economic equation I must have missed at school. It’s best to take Euro to change at a CADECA.
You may hear rumours that tourists can’t use the national currency Cuban Convertible Peso (CUP) – but that’s not true. You can, and I recommend you change some of your CUC for CUP at the CADECA (official name for money converter). The CUP will buy you a bit more – especially fruit and veg from street stalls.
Australian ATM cards work in most ATMs across the island. Though, if your bank has an American affiliation, your card won’t work. CommBank, NAB, ANZ and ING cards work. It’s safer to go into the bank with your passport and make a withdrawal over the counter because poor Internet and communications can mean your card registers a withdrawal but you don’t get the cash. Going to the counter will avoid this.
The food situation in Cuba is always changing (and actually getting a bit scary now). With sanctions and embargos from the US, little food gets in. Cubans tend to have a diet high in pork, rice and black beans. In Havana, and certainly in tourist places there are more options – but not a lot. Take snacks and travel with an open mind. If you’re vegan, see my three tips for vegans visiting Cuba in 2019.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re having a digital detox while taking Instagram photos in front of crumbling buildings (people’s homes). With limited infrastructure in Cuba, internet access is possible but only at certain places. You can buy internet cards (tarjets) at ETECSA for $1 CUC each if you need to check in with loved ones back home. Otherwise, this trip will be Facebook-update free.
There is a dedicated tourist bus service in Cuba called Viazul. If you are on a set timeframe, book your travel online well in advance – especially departing Trinidad. Don’t expect buses to run on time. Show up at least an hour in advance to ‘validate’ your ticket – showing your passport and printing a new ticket on the day. Try to avoid cancelling. The website says you can cancel with 7 days notice – but that hasn’t worked for me.
If you are in Cuba for a few days, grabbing a private taxi is a great way to see Havana and even Varadero – the beach resort area an hour away from Havana. You will also want to checkout Vinales, where green Tabaco emerges from rich red soil against a backdrop of mountains. Be sure to haggle with taxi drivers. It’s good value for two people as you can get there for about $80 – the same as if you were on the bus. Don’t haggle too much – fuel is the same price there as here (bloody expensive).
Book your casa on AirBnB before you go – the American-based application doesn’t fully work in Cuba (thanks Trump). Somehow Cuban casa owners can receive your bookings, but you can only book and pay from outside of Cuba. You can also find great stays on mycasaparticular.com – or ask around when you get there.
There are many government run resorts to choose from too – but if you stay in a casa you will be more likely to see what Cuba is like for Cubans – and that’s where the real beauty is.
Visit Cuba with no expectations – especially don’t think you will be staying in posh accommodation, and getting lots for your cash. As a foreigner you will stand out and be considered rich. That is, in true style of socialism (those who can pay more) you will be charged more than Cubans pay for the same product or service. Don’t let this spoil your trip. If you’re like me you will head home changed, and grateful … with a little salsa in your step.
Do you have any tips for visiting Cuba in 2019?