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First Time In Cuba: Tips To Make Your Vacation Worry Free

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Tired of shovelling your driveway? How about the 100 layers of clothes you need to stay bundled and warm? Yup winter is in full force here in Canada and we deserve an escape to the sun for a healthy dose of Vitamin D. There are a lot of sunny destinations for you to choose from, but if you are looking to enjoy warm tropical breezes, fantastic beaches, culture, rum and more classic cars than an auto show there is only one place for you. CUBA. My first time in Cuba was last year and I’ve compiled a list things that every first time visitor show know before they board their plane. After all, this is a vacation, you deserve to relax, recharge and enjoy yourself.

Beautiful Caribbean ocean and white sand beach at the Iberostar Bella Vista Varadero

Visa and Documents – As a Canadian citizen, you are able to visit Cuba with a valid Canadian passport and do not require a travel Visa. If you are a permanent resident you will need a valid passport from your country of origin and the Canadian permanent resident card. You will also need a tourist card which you will receive once you have boarded your flight or at the airline counter when you check in.

Cuban Tourist Card - first time in Cuba

Clearing Customs – Once you deplane you will head directly to customs clearing. Unlike other countries I have visited each person travelling clears customs one at a time, this includes families with kids. Have your passport and the tourist card ready pre-filled out. It can be a little confusing what you can and can’t bring into the country as many people bring items as gifts for Cuban friends and family. Here is a link to the official Cuba tourism site for Canadians with all the details you need to know.

In addition to their personal jewelry, cameras and other valuables, visitors are allowed to bring into Cuba, duty free, two bottles of liquor, one carton of cigarettes and up to 10 kilograms of medicine. Gifts up to a value of $250 US can also be brought in. Of that, $50 is duty-free; the rest is 100 per cent taxable.

Narcotics and firearms, except for authorized hunting weapons, are not allowed into the country. No restrictions exist on the amount of money a visitor can bring into the country, but amounts over $5,000 US should be declared.

Money and Banks – There is only one currency you need while you are in Cuba and that is the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC as it is called. The CUC is roughly equal to 1.08 US$. When converting CA$ to CUC the actual exchange value will fluctuate with the CA$/US$ valuation. I highly recommend you bring the cash you need with you. Packed securely of course. Here are a few facts you should know.

Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC

  • CUC can only be purchased or exchanged for in Cuba.
  • You can convert CA$ at the airport exchange kiosks, local banks and your hotel. You don’t need to be a guest of the hotel to exchange your money there (handy for Airbnb guests).
  • Canadian issued Credit Cards are accepted at hotels and at some shopping centres that cater to tourists. DO NOT expect your card will be accepted at many places and US issued cards will not be accepted. Visa is widely accepted, Mastercard less so.
  • You can take money out of bank machines using your Canadian issued Credit Cards and Debit Visa

Accommodations – For your first time in Cuba you may opt to buy an tour package which will include flights, hotels, airport transfers etc… A one-stop vacation.  Or perhaps you feel adventurous and an a la carte booking is more your style. Whichever way you go the Cuban people are super friendly and very helpful.

Every hotel has a tour operator desk where you can book whatever adventure strikes your fancy. Private Airbnb style accommodation hosts will also be a trusted source of information and I expect will be able to help you book directly with private operators and guides. Here is a great site with plenty of Cuban vacation rentals you can check out.

Private guest accommodations in Vinales, look for this sign

Transportation – There are many options to help you navigate your way around Cuba from classic cars to driving a Chinese version of a Jeep.

  • Taxis are everywhere and easy to flag down. They take CUC and I recommend asking how much it would be to get to your destination before you leave your hotel.
  • Public transit is available but to be honest I haven’t taken it. Cabs are pretty cheap so that is the option I have gone with.
  • Classic cars are available to drive you around and you can book these directly with the car owner or through the tour operator desk at your hotel. Holiday rental hosts can also help you arrange this.
  • Renting a car is an option, but it can be pretty expensive and I advise you get the insurance on it as well. Here is a site that can help you get an idea of costs before you do your booking.
  • Hiring a driver to for the day or week is also an option and can be done through the rental car agency above, the tour desk operators or arranged privately with a driver. Until you know your way around I recommend dealing with a tour operator like Cubatour as they will most likely also be able to take payment via your credit card.

A classic Mercury drives down the streets of Old Havana Cuba

Medical Emergencies – No one wants to get sick while on vacation, but it does happen so best to be prepared by making sure you have travel insurance before your board your flight. All hotels have doctors or staff on call who guarantee primary care. Every major resort area also has an international medical clinic that handles more complex medical conditions. These clinics are scattered across the country in Havana, Pinar del Río, Varadero, Cienfuegos, Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Largo, Trinidad, Cayo Coco, Santa Lucia, Guardalavaca and Santiago de Cuba.

Cuban Medical Clinic

Saftey And LGBTQ Inclusiveness – “Take normal security precautions” is the travel advisory from the Government of Canada. This is great news for all travellers from Canada and one I can say from personal experience is very true. You will see plenty of police as you drive and walk around Cuba. There are there to ensure everyone’s safety and as a tourist, I never felt unsafe no matter where I was.

Government of Canada travel advisory for Cuba

LGBTQ travellers will be thrilled to know that Cuba is one of the most tolerate Caribbean countries. During my first time in Cuba, I witnessed many gay couples enjoying the sites and sounds in Havana just like they would back here in Canada. Want to hold hands while you are walking around? Go for it.

Food and Beverages – While Cuba is not known as a culinary destination there are definitely some great meals to be had here. Most restaurants are owned by the government, however, in recent years Paladares (privately owned restaurants) have started to open up as the government has relaxed ownership rules. Check these places out as they often have more creative options available on the menu.

Local Cuban food

Cubans consume a lot of pork, fish and some beef. Imports are very limited so don’t expect a huge variety of options and what may be available one day may be gone another. I found my favourite meals were local Cuban dishes. If you want a hamburger stay in Canada.

Never drink water from the tap unless your hotel says it is ok and filtered. Even then I suggest sticking to bottled water and drink lots of it as Cuban is a warm tropical paradise.

What to Pack – While I usually pack as light as possible I learned from my first time in Cuba that sometimes you need to pack it all. Toiletries, sunscreen and medicine are available for purchase but as I discovered they can be hard to find and when you do find them they can be pricey. For example, I never pack sunscreen as I usually pick it up at my destination so I don’t have to check my luggage. It took me 2 days of searching in Havana to find some and when I did it cost me about $25 CA and it was terrible stuff imported from Spain.

WiFi and Mobile – You are on vacation so maybe a break from the internet and those left behind is what you are looking for. Great because calling home using your Canadian cell phone number is expensive as currently. mobile providers do not have a roaming agreement with Cuba. If you need a number I recommend you either buy a local sim card from an ETECA Telecommunications store or buy a WiFi card.

nauta-cards Cuba WiFi cards

  • WiFi cards can per purchased at all hotels and should cost approximately $1.50 CUC
  • Each card is good for 60 minutes of connection time and most hotel lobbies are public WiFi zones.
  • Every city has at least one town square. They are hard to miss as they are public WiFi zones where you can connect using the WiFi card you purchased
  • It is highly recommended to turn your WiFi settings to OFF after every session just to make sure that the connection is closed and doesn’t continue on in the background.

Follow all the advice above and you are going to have an amazing adventure during your first time in Cuba. I did and can’t wait to go back again to explore more of this amazing country. To read all of my Cuban adventure stories just click here and start making your own plans.

Another great resource to check out is the official Cuba Tourism site for Canadians. Bon Voyage.

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About Author

Marc Smith is a former event planner turned vagabond adventurer. He loves strong Americano's, great wine, cold beer and zip lining over tree tops. Formerly of Vancouver, most of Marc's time when not travelling is in Canada's largest city, Toronto. Follow along on his nomad adventures and discover places to stay, things to do and where to eat & drink as he explores the world one city and region at a time.


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