The Caribbean nation of Cuba is home to 11 million people, with over 2.1 million alone living in the country’s capital, Havana. This is the city that my family and I had the privilege of visiting this past January. While traveling abroad can be an exciting experience, it’s always helpful to know what it is you’re going into, as well as the best ways to get around. So, here are my top 5 survival tips for visiting Cuba!
1. Download a translator app
Whether you’ve taken years of Spanish like I have, or just the two required in high school, chances are you are not prepared for an entire country to be speaking Spanish. This is where a translator app comes in handy! The one I used for the trip is the Spanish Dictionary app. This app is user friendly, easy to navigate, and has some spot on translations. It allows you to not only search words, but phrases as well. If you’ve had that extra year of Spanish and want to try your hand at conjugating a few sentences, this app has you covered, as each verb comes with conjugations, as well as a list of meanings. The best part? It doesn’t require wifi and it’s absolutely free!
2. Go offline
One of the biggest differences between Cuba and other countries is the extremely limited wifi. If you want internet access, you must purchase a wifi card, which is limited by hour, and that’s only if the wifi is working. I found that most of my time was spent without the wifi. While this allows for a soothing technology cleanse, it can be quite unnerving to be unable to look up directions to that restaurant you wanted to try. My solution? Download everything. Maps, directions, restaurant names, phone numbers, everything. The more you can prepare for a wifi-less journey, the more comfortable you will feel without the crutch of the internet.
3. Stay in an Airbnb
One of my fondest memories in Cuba was watching with shock and awe as mine and my family’s suitcases were secured to an electric pulley system, raised along the side of a building, and through the window of our apartment. By staying with the locals, we not only gained their insight on restaurants to visit and activities to do, but we also connected, sharing stories and laughing through broken English and Spanish while enjoying breakfast on a rooftop. That was by far the most incredible experience I have had thus far, which is why I so encourage using a site like Airbnb to find a host.
4. Don’t drink the water
It was quite odd to order a glass of water at my first restaurant and have the glass be filled from a plastic bottle. There are mixed reviews online, but the general consensus is to avoid drinking the tap water in Cuba. My family and I were lucky enough to be staying with a host that provided bottles of water in the apartment fridge. While we did have to pay for it, along with the other snacks and drinks he provided, it was a relief to not have to hunt down bottled water at a market or mall. While the water is safe to use for bathing and other hygiene rituals, it’s best not to take the risk with the inside of the body.
5. Don’t change US money for Cuban money
Ok, clearly you’re going to have to change American money for Cuban money in order to go to Cuba. Unfortunately, the fees for exchanging American money for Cuban money is higher than it is with other currencies. Wanna save some money? Convert your currency to a different currency first. For instance, we changed our dollars to Euros, took them to Cuba, and then exchanged them for the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUC is worth more in Cuba than the Cuban Peso that the locals use, so you will find that not only are products and services much cheaper, but you will be able to be much more generous with tips and such like we were.
Cuba is a beautiful country, with so much to see and do. Not many get the privilege of experiencing everything the country has to offer. I encourage you to visit Cuba. It can be scary to go outside one’s comfort zone and visit a country that not only speaks another language, but has no wifi, a tool that makes travel much less stressful. If you take that leap, I can promise that not only will you have the time of your life, but you will meet the most kind-hearted, interesting people with some amazing stories to tell.
What countries have you visited? Let me know in the comments!