We didn't know much about Cuba before making plans to travel to the country. We had so many questions prior to our trip and while we were there. It was interesting to see how the Cuban world operates and how different some things are compared to our everyday lives. Here are the top 15 things we learned from our first trip to Cuba:
1. The employees at the airport are very laid back
We thought the security would be strict at the Havana airport, but everything was so laid back. They don't mind if you take pictures on the tarmac or the security check area. The workers were laughing and chatting with each other having a good time as they scanned us.
2. The money exchange line at the airport is SUPER long
We had heard that it would take awhile to exchange your money at the airport, but wow... we didn't expect the waiting time to be this insane. It didn't seem that bad at first as the line wasn't terribly long, but the line moved brutally slow. It took us nearly an hour to get to the counter.
3. You can exchange money at plenty of banks in Havana
If you don't have time to exchange money at the airport, there are plenty of banks located throughout Havana. We were going to use this option if we had to, but ended up having enough money for our weekend trip. Also note that there are 2 types of currencies in Cuba: The Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The CUC is pegged to the dollar and worth 25 times as much as the CUP. The tourists need to exchange to CUC and the banks will automatically give this to you. Beware of scams such as getting back CUP change. More detailed information HERE.
4. Taxi fare from airport to Havana is 25-30 CUC
Before you get into a taxi, make sure you ask how much the fare will be. Most taxis charge 25-30 CUC.
5. Tipping in Cuba really helps the service workers
Our tour guide told us that tipping in Cuba is not expected, but greatly appreciated. The people of Cuba that own a business have to pay a hefty tax to the government, so they make most of their profit off of tips. We've read that tipping 10% is acceptable, but we often tipped 20% or more because the service was outstanding.
6. Taking pictures of Old Havana first thing in the morning is the best time
Havana is packed with tourists, but if you get up first thing in the morning at sunrise, the streets are pretty much empty. You can enjoy the beautiful architecture in a more peaceful setting.
7. Cubans are very friendly and love to have their picture taken
It's true when you hear that Cubans are extra friendly. They love chatting and making you feel welcome in their country. They also love to take pictures and on several occassions asked us to see the images after we took them.
8. Cuban food is average
We're being nice when we say the food was average. We were disappointed with most of the restaurants we went to. We were served stale bread, questionable beef and eggs that were overcooked. We found the best restaurant to eat at was right by our Airbnb, which was Paladar Los Mercaderes.
9. Cuban cocktails are delicious
Even though most of the food was disappointing, the cocktails were fantastic. We loved the Cubanitos, Cuba Libres and Mojitos of Cuba. They were all so delicious and CHEAP. Only 3 CUC per drink.
10. Taking a guided tour of Cuba was worth every penny (or pesos)
Taking a guided tour with Fertours was very helpful and entertaining. Since we were visiting Cuba under the Education visa category, we thought it was best to learn more about Cuba through a private tour. We were taken around Havana in a classic old car from the 1950's and it was well worth the 50 CUC for each person.
11. Staying in an Airbnb (casa particular) was a great experience
We loved our stay at a casa particular. The room isn't luxurious by any means, but it meets the basic standards of what you need and you get to experience the real Cuban culture around Old Havana. We loved meeting the locals on the streets and made a few friends in just a couple of days. The hosts were so kind and welcoming that we were a little sad when we had to say goodbye to them.
12. There are 3 terminals at the Havana airport
When we gave our taxi driver our airline information, he ended up taking us to the wrong terminal. The terminal looked so different from the one we arrived in, so when we told our driver this, he said he would wait for us while we ran inside and checked to see if our airline was there. We were so lucky that our driver waited for us because we were at the wrong terminal. We were with Southwest Airlines and this was in Terminal 2. He drove us to Terminal 2, which wasn't far, but having to find another cab and paying another fee would have been a pain!
13. Arrive at the airport early when departing Cuba
We arrived at the airport 3 hours prior to our departure time and this was absolutely necessary. The check-in line was super long and took over an hour. We suggest packing a book or magazine to help kill the time.
14. Exchange your leftover CUC currency before you leave
If you have CUC left over, make sure to exchange it back to your homeland's currency. There is a currency exchange counter before and after you go through immigration. If you still have some CUC change left over, there are gift shops at the gates and you can buy some cute bracelets and keychains at 1 CUC each.
15. There is no airport tax
There are signs that say Airport Tax in the terminals, but rest assured, you will not have to pay one when leaving the country. Since May 1, 2015, the departure tax is collected by the airline when the tickets are purchased.
Hope our learnings help you on your first trip to Cuba!
Stay tuned for more Cuba posts and if you have any questions comment below.