A young woman in Cuba
I'd like to think of myself as being fairly well travelled, having seen a large amount of Europe, South East Asia as well as a few other stop offs along the way. However, travelling Cuba was the biggest challenge I faced yet, and was the most foreign-feeling place I've been to so far. And as a young woman, there were many things we had to deal with that maybe men or couples wouldn't have faced. So if you're thinking of travelling, here are some of the things you need to remember...
First up? Be aware of the heckling
I'm quite mad that no travel blogs I've read have mentioned it. Now, if you've been to Turkey or Morocco, it isn't in comparison to that as they can be fairly aggressive and physical. However, the sheer volume of kissing noises, licking motions, yelling and staring bordered on obscene. It felt almost as if we were walking naked down the street and the men had never seen a woman before. Whilst we felt completely safe and none actually approached us, we worked out that we couldn't go a full 3o seconds without some kind of cat-call; something that is draining if you're walking for an hour. If you're blond, it is all the worse so despite it being completely safe, be prepared for draining comments and stares.
Book your first casa
Many of the guide books said you could just rock up and find a place. However, with the huge influx of tourists this year, many we approached were full, or weren't willing to take us for one night. Luckily, you can use Airbnb now to find a local casa for a few nights (Old Havana, Havana Vieja, is by far the best place to stay) and then you can move on and find somewhere else knowing you have a base. I've recommended two of my favourite casas in Habana Vieja to stay at, and they are rarely more than €25-€35 a night for a double room.
On another note, recommendations for casas are the way to go, and was how we found most of ours. If you ask your local casa to help you book a room in another area or city, they will always know someone and is how to find the best ones, and are more than happy to help.
Be prepared for bad service
Whilst not rude, Cuban people are never in a rush and sometimes take their time in doing something or just forgetting to sometimes. The worst we experienced is the queue to exchange money at the airport. As the only place to do it when you land, you can queue for up to an hour whilst the attendants are leisurely in sorting money. So if you land late, add in time for this. And even if bad service? Don't forget to tip 10%; they'll watch you like a hawk until you do!
Four beauty essentials: Toilet roll, shower gel, bug spray and dry shampoo
The muggy weather means you will be showering twice daily, and to avoid ruining your hair, dry shampoo will help. You will be bitten to shreds the day you forget to wear deet (as we did) and many places have no toilet roll or charge for it.
If you want to see more than Havana, give yourself time
Did you know Cuba is the biggest Caribbean island? We didn't, so when we planned to go to Trinidad within our seven-day trip, we didn't realise it was 7-8 hours long by bus, something that was too much for a short stay. So if you want to see more of the island and head to the UNESCO town then go for longer. Otherwise Varadero, whilst less history, is only a couple of hours away and has some beautiful beaches and sunsets instead.
Gluten or lactose intolerant? You're in trouble!
Their staple diet is a lot of bread and rice, and cheese and milk. So it can be hard if you have intolerances. My one suggestion is to eat at your casa when you can. Breakfast isn't easy to find unless you like cheese and ham sandwiches, yet many casas offer a huge spread for just €5 for a huge spread of fruit and eggs instead.
A few other top tips
- €10 (CUC) = £7.50
- Local food is Ropa Vieja (shredded beef) with rice and veg, flan (creme caramel) and cocktails are Mojitos, Daiquiris or a Cuba Libres for the proper Cuban experience. Most cocktails were €3-€4, food €6-€12. You're going to drink a lot when cocktails are nearly the same as water... (€1-€2)
- Ask for national water when ordering in a restaurant, or will charge more for imported bottle water.
- We spent £350 (€460) which was 8 nights of accommodation, travelling including taxis to the airport and other cities, food, drinks and souvenirs. You can easily be spendier but we definitely weren't watching our money.
Handy phrases to learn
- No thank you; no gracias
- One room for two nights please; unos habitación por dos noches por favour
- How much?; ¿Cuánto cuesta?
- I'm sorry; lo siento
- Thank you very much; muchos gracias
- What time; ¿puedes horas?
- Breakfast; desayuno
- Two mojitos please; dos mojitos por favour
- Bathroom; baño
- Good night; buenas noches
- The morning; mañana