In 15 years writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet and twice that traveling internationally, I’ve learned that every destination and culture is unique. Yet as singular as each individual place may be, few are as confounding as Cuba. There’s the uncommon history and political project contributing to complexities here, compounded by ongoing economic, immigration, and structural reforms, which continue apace as you read this. But while many aspects of daily life are changing fast, others – like the dual currency system, the US embargo and related travel restrictions, and the Cuban commitment to a social safety net – remain in place.
Taken together, today’s Cuba challenges visitors (both first timers and returning, it’s worth noting) to contextualize what they’re experiencing on their trip. There are also practical considerations to take into account when participating in a people-to-people program. So that you may get the most of your experience on this unique island, I offer these road-tested tips:
Tip 1: A Little Preparation Goes a Long Way
Whatever your particular area of interest – the economy or environment, civil society, gender, health or simply daily life – your trip will be enriched if you read up on the topic beforehand. Cuba is complex, in flux, and its populace admirably well-educated, so meaningful exchanges and dialogue are here for the making – if you’re informed.
Some good places to start include:
Tip 2: Great (and Not So) Expectations
Before you travel, write down what you expect to find, learn, hear, and experience on your trip. As you sit in front of your screen reading this, thinking about or preparing to travel here, what do you see in your mind’s eye?; when someone says ‘Cuba,’ what images or impressions jump out? If you’ll be in Havana only (a completely viable and commendable choice in my opinion), what does that city conjure? Type – or better yet, write – it all up. Once you’re in country, jot down what you’re finding, learning, hearing and experiencing on your program. How do your expectations measure up to the realities you’re seeing on the ground? You might be surprised.
Tip 3: Donate with Dignity
Given Cuba’s resource scarcity, donations are always appreciated, but what to bring that will most benefit people you meet? The following list takes into account what is most needed here either because the items are costly or simply not available and those things that will benefit many over a select few. Before you go, note OFAC restrictions on donations.
- Crank radios & flashlights (important tools during hurricanes)
- Baseballs, soccer balls and basketballs (deflate the last two for travel)
- Basketball nets
- School supplies (markers, notebooks, world maps, glue etc)
- Mosquito repellant
- Adult diapers
- Vitamin C
- Cough drops
- Icy Hot or similar
Tip 4: Embrace the Pace
One of the Quixotic facets of contemporary Cuba is that though change is coming at unprecedented speed, many modern conveniences and conveyances haven’t yet reached these shores, forcing visitors to slow down and be in the moment. This is most acutely felt with the lack of Internet: since the country is on dial up and hotels with Wifi can be counted on one hand, this will likely be your most disconnected travel experience in modern memory. It may take a couple of days to get used to, but most people (even recalcitrant teens!) come to appreciate it. Speaking of teens: you’ll also do well to channel your inner adolescent, since such stamina helps you to take full advantage of your program – day and night. There’s a lot going on in Cuba and Cubans are used to burning the candle at both ends. Conclusion? You might not be getting as much sleep as you’re used to (or like).
Tip 5: Dive into the Double Economy
One of the most confusing aspects of Cuba travel is the double economy whereby two currencies circulate: the Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). One ridiculously pervasive myth is that foreigners can only use CUC and Cubans CUP, when in fact, it’s what each can buy where the difference lies. Cuban pesos are used to buy fruits and vegetables; take buses and fixed-route taxis; see a movie or play; buy the daily newspaper; refill lighters, repair shoes and procure many other goods and services. The most efficient and effective way to learn how this works in practice is to change some CUC into CUPs and use them in your travels; the current exchange rate is 1 CUC to 24 CUPs. As you navigate both currencies, note what can be bought with Cuban pesos vs convertible pesos, remembering that the average monthly salary is 400-600 Cuban pesos. Questions to consider: How do people make ends meet? What happens when families need something only available in CUC? Are there quality differences for those items available in both currencies?
Conner Gorry is Senior Editor at MEDICC Review and author of the Havana Good Time app, available for iPhone/Pad and Android. She blogs at Here is Havana and has two Cuba stories in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2012.