You’ve heard all the stories about an exoctic island in the Caribbean called Cuba.
One that is known for hot blooded salsa dancing, revolutionary heroes, and mojitos that can help you write prose like Hemingway.
Is Cuba really a destination worth all the hype?
I say Yes. And I say it loud with a fiery twist of my hips.
I visited Cuba on a group tour with Intrepid tours, and spent a few days dancing it up on my own in Havana!
Cuba was a vacation filled with memorable moments and deeper insights into happiness and how I wanted to live when I returned home.
Cuba leaves a long lasting impression like that.
So I say go, and go now, before it becomes another overpopulated tourism destination that has lost a part of its original magic.
Before you go, I have a list of pros and cons to help you better prepare. Don’t miss my previous Cuba travel posts on:
- How to Travel to Cuba On A Group Tour (and have fun)
- 5 Amazing Cities in Cuba to Visit That Will Imprint Your Heart
The Pros & Cons of Cuba Travel
The Pros of Cuba Travel
1. Accommodation in Cuba
Accommodation options are plentiful and easy to find. The best way to enjoy Cuba is to stay with families in Casas Particulars.
These are your Airbnb version of private home stays that offer tourists an authentic experience and the personable homeowner’s much-needed income.
2. Safety in Cuba
I felt totally safe in Cuba as a whole. There was no real foul play or underhanded activity and certainly no threat or fear.
Cuba has a clean reputation for having almost no gun crime, violent robbery, gang culture, drugs or dangerous no-go zones.
We didn’t have to be on watch of our belongings and I never once needed to worry about putting padlocks on my bags, which was a first for me.
The others on our group tour also spoke about not having to worry about bags or padlocks. This says a lot about the country!
When we went out we didn’t worry about being pick pocketed.
In fact, there were times where I left my clutch on tables in clubs whilst I hit the dance floor, only to have courteous Cubans telling me it was left there.
In my opinion, if they had a chance to take something without you knowing they still wouldn’t because integrity and respect is important to them.
3. Colonial Architecture
You could spend your whole time in Cuba admiring the traditional Colonial buildings, along with the statues and sculptures.
In particular, the colonial architecture in the old town of Havana was most impressive for its rich colors and vastness.
But my favorite was Trinidad, known for being one of the best-preserved colonial cities in the Caribbean with its cobbled-stone streets.
4. Cheap Cigars
If trade and transport overseas were possible, I would be profiting from a cigar selling business right now.
My travel buddy bought a box of 5 cigars for $10! This would sell for $60 back home.
5. Rum that gives you no hangovers
I don’t know if it was because I danced up a storm (hardcore sweaty style salsa with these fast-paced Cubans) whilst I was drinking that kept the hangovers away or because of the damn fine local distilled rum!
Either way, I grew a liking to the fact I could sip on mojitos all night long and still enjoy fresh days to follow!
6. Cuban Music
Cuban music is electric and sets your soul on fire!
It permeates Cuban culture through the sounds of salsa, merengue, rumba, afro-drums, jazz and reggaeton.
You will find musicians in bars, restaurants, on street corners and in their homes. When it comes to music bands- the bigger the better!
The band groups usually consist of anywhere between 8 to 12 members. With the variety and quality of sounds, the music alone is enough to draw you to Cuba.
One of the best places to hear traditional Cuban music is at the famous Buena Vista Social Club in Old Havana, connected to the documentary film, also called Bueno Vista Social Club.
I spent my last night of the 3-week trip here and it is one not to miss.
You get to interact with the musicians and dancers and collectively everyone brings the performance to life.
7. Salsa Dancing in Cuba
With its distinctly Cuban flavor, the country is one of the world’s most vibrant salsa-dancing destinations!
The locals dance with firey passion, smooth sensuality, stunning athleticism and exuberant energy.
If you are fortunate to come across a group of salsa goers busting their moves in the street for fun you will find their performance is far better than the paid shows in the hotels.
The street dancers are astounding.
Dancing is a huge part of Cuban culture, as they love to have a good time. So for those who want to get in on the fun, go to a salsa lesson at Salsabor A Cuba Dance School in Central Havana.
For the Salsa Junkies, you won’t want to leave! I still yearn to party hardy throughout those magical Havana nights!
The Cons of Cuba Travel
8. Cash is King
Cash is king in Cuba.
American credit and debit cards are not accepted anywhere and you must pay for everything in cash.
Leave your US Dollars at home; the government slaps an extra 10% charge for use of this currency.
For travellers outside of America, there are ATMS but you will be stung with high transaction and conversion fees. You will also find the odd merchant to swipe your card but the same hefty fees apply.
The best way to make sure you stock up on cash is to do so at the airport when you arrive. The currency conversions there are the best and well worth the wait on the long lines.
Allocate anywhere from 30 to 90 mins to make it to the customer counter. Be sure to cash up and keep a tight hold of it scattered in various places.
9. Dual Currency
Having the two types of currencies is a head screw.
Cuban Convertibles (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP). Travelers and locals share the same frustrations of having to deal with the dual currency.
For travelers, make sure you practice your divisions or bring a calculator.
For locals, they can’t join you for a drink unless you’re paying. There is no difference in price for locals and travelers.
A cocktail costs 5 CUC and for the average Cuban they earn only 25 CUC per MONTH!
This is the equivalent to $25 US Dollars. 5 Cocktails down and that’s a whole wage spent in just one happy hour.
10. Cuba Travel is Not So Cheap
I expected Cuba to be a cheap holiday but had no idea the CUC was 1 for 1 for the Australian dollar.
Whilst it was still cheaper for food, drinks and accommodation than Australia it was not as cheap as say a trip to South East Asia.
Comparing it to South or Central America, it is expensive!
Whilst there is the history of bad blood between America and Cuba that relationship is slowly changing with Americans visiting more and more and throwing money into the country because for them it is a cheap travel destination.
Despite the differences, it still made for a reasonable and valuable holiday.
11. Backpacker unfriendly
If you’re backpacking to Cuba and think you’re going to stay at a cheap hostel to save money, you won’t find one.
On the flipside, keep in mind it is a communist country so your money is better spent supporting the locals and their home stays.
All the major resorts and hotels are owned by the government, and it’s pretty much illegal for locals to have their own.
12. Cuban Beaches (but depends where you’re from)
Aside from being bias, I have to say it is hard to match our beaches so I must confess the beaches were not a highlight for me.
The snorkeling spots are nothing to rave about and I wouldn’t be planning a trip to Cuba just for the beaches.
If you want to only spend a week or two on the beach- then opt for a beach holiday somewhere else.
Concerns of Cuba Travel
From my experience, there were not any major concerns traveling in Cuba.
We didn’t feel like the Cuban people were out to take us for our money, but during our stay in Havana, it was obvious street hustlers were hoping to get a dollar or two from tourists.
This doesn’t mean you can’t walk the streets or shouldn’t stop you from connecting with locals.
For the most part, Cubans are friendly and want to help.
You can spot a hustler if they approach you on the street to lead you to their “favorite restaurant”, show you an “authentic” cigar or offer you a guided tour.
These red flags may leave you with fewer dollars in your pocket.
My tour roommate, Ruby and I took to the streets to go to a restaurant for dinner in downtown Havana. We noticed two local men around our age who were dressed and looking sharp to go out were approaching us.
They convinced us to go to their “favorite restaurant” and insisted on joining us.
They ignored our vehement “NO!” and followed us up the stairs.
We sat at a table and the waiter told us he had a table for four. These two guys had told the waiter they were with us.
It was one of those awkward situations where we were a little scared to stay but also scared to leave in case they followed us.
They spoke very little English and we spoke very little Spanish and our hand gestures kindly commanding them to leave was not understood or perhaps, chosen not to be.
It started to become quite hysterical and we were in fits of laughter, as the Spanish guitar musicians were playing right behind our table with their happy faces nodding at the four of us like we were a double date.
In the end we chose to see the humor in it and realized these guys just wanted us to pay for their dinner and drinks.
Despite their creepiness, I happily paid for them.
I figured if I was living their harsh life I would want to be wined and dined too. I could afford to shout to these guys dinner in good faith.
It was my good deed of humanity and it made for a memory I will never forget.
The other concern is being charged double the price for water or snacks from the store.
A common scam to watch for is being given back change in CUP instead of CUC. If you make sure you are savvy with the different currencies and conversion rates, you are sure to stop them in their tracks.
Be prepared to bargain and remember it is all part of the experience.
The key to deal with these minor scams and still enjoy your trip is to have empathy.
Understand that life in Cuba is hard and these guys aren’t picking your pocket — they’re working the street and they’re just trying to make an extra buck or get a free dinner. Joke with them and have fun with it.
Anything is possible in Cuba
In Cuba, anything is possible, but nothing is guaranteed.
Organised tours don’t always go to plan.
Travel schedules can run late. Pre-booked dinner reservations can turn into cancellations. WIFI cards for purchase are at times sold out. The task of buying bottled water can turn into a treasure hunt.
Things are not orderly, organized or on time.
Travel in Cuba proved anything was possible and made us appreciate being out of our comfort zone and able to adapt to the culture surrounding us.
You soon learn how to find alternatives or make positive use of a situation.
The unexpected offered far more exciting experiences than what was planned.
Cuba Travel Logistics
Getting around in Cuba is fairly easy and accessible.
I was on the Intrepid Tour for most of the time, so I didn’t have to deal with on-going public transportation.
However, there were times I did and know enough to share.
Getting taxis in Cuba
Taxis are easy to get and you can possibly score a private taxi with a local in his 1950’s classic off the meter.
Car taxis are metered and cost around $1 CUC and start at $1 CUC per km in cities.
Some taxi drivers offer travelers a flat rate off the meter so it goes in their back pocket. The meter goes to the government to be divided up.
Collectivos (Classic Car Taxi) run on the longer distance routes. These are usually the pre 1959 American cars with a friendly driver and bench seats.
An enjoyable and cheaper way to get around is with the three wheel bicycle taxis or “Bici Taxis”.
If you want to see Cuba with a different view, take a ride.
It is fit for 2 or a possible squeeze for 3 in a double seat behind the driver. Some even have a boom box with salsa tunes blaring.
The men pedal power with all their might and stamina, totally deserved of your change!
Many of the provincial cities have horse carriages on fixed rates to trot you around the city centers for a scenic route.
If you care for horses, you may pass on this option, as they look extremely undernourished.
Buses in Cuba
Over-crowded, hot, sweaty, the bus can be a challenging way to get around.
The bus trip I took was my first and last. They run a fixed route stopping at bus stops but if you don’t know your stop it is hard to get assistance.
Make sure you get as close to the back to exit through the rear. When you are moving to pass people, always say “permisso” (excuse me) and hold onto your bag.
For the extra few CUC I would stick with one of the taxi choices.
This is the transport of difference.
Our Intrepid Group took a public truck ride for the last venture in Baracoa from town to the airport, which was a hilly and bumpy ride.
Camiones (trucks) are cheap and usually travel on a more relaxed scheduled where they can either run late or arrive early.
You stand up in the back or sit squashed on a bench seat in between standing locals. Jam-packed in like Sardines, be sure to hold on tight and have sweat dripping down your face.
Best way to enjoy this is with a carefree attitude. Smile, laugh and strike up a convo with the locals. Of course a little Spanish will help!
It is a great novelty experience if anything and must be tried at least once!
Visa Requirements for Travellers to Cuba
For tourists outside of the US, you can enter on a 30-day tourist visa. This is also known as a Tourist Card.
These can be purchased through a travel agent who is authorized to sell the card. The most convenient option is to book a flight with the card included in the price of the ticket. (Some airlines include this)
This Tourist Card is green and can also be extended in-country for a further 30 days.
Visa Requirements for US Travellers to Cuba
US Citizens are allowed to visit Cuba only if their trip fits into one of the 12 categories permitted for travel according to the General License for Travel by the US Dept of Treasury.
Travel for pure tourism is still prohibited for United States travelers under the 1960s US Trade Embargo against Cuba.
The Trump Administration have made things a little more challenging for American travelers.
If US travelers select the appropriate category of travel they can buy their pink Tourist Card through the Cuban consulate, an airline or at the airport.
The most popular category is “People-to People” travel, which requires a schedule of educational activities when you travel to Cuba as an American.
For all US and non-US citizens flying direct to Cuba from America must buy a pink tourist card which can be purchased with the airline ticket.
Cuba is a transformative travel trip.
By being fully immersed in a culture where they value humanity over materials, I came to realize that wealth is a feeling.
How you feel determines the quality of your life, not what you have.
Take a trip to Cuba to experience cultural wealth and feel exceedingly rich in heart and soul.
Booking a Trip to Cuba
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Have you visited Cuba? What are some of the pros and cons to Cuba travel that you discovered?