So, you want to go to Cuba? Join the queue! Cuba is without doubt the hot travel destination for 2016, not just as a unique jewel in the Caribbean but because everyone wants to “see it before it changes”. Developments are looming following the thawing of relations with the USA, resulting in many non-US travelers keen to get to the island before the Americans (and Starbucks and McDonalds etc.) do. Having recently returned from my first trip there, I suggest that it is not a destination to just show up and travel; not only is the lack of infrastructure unable to cope with rising tourist demand but also because it is simply not internet-ready to enable you to just turn up and figure things out from there.
If you are a first-timer in Cuba, do your research first! Cuba is everything you dream of from the big fifties colourful cars, music on every corner and cigars, to Che Guevara murals and so much more you haven’t yet discovered. Here are my top 5 tips to prepare you for your first island visit.
With a total population of just 11 million and only starting to emerge from decades of a US embargo, realistically, change will not happen overnight. Yet, with so many tourists desperate to see Cuba “before it’s too late”, the island and particularly Havana is struggling to meet demand. With this, comes the inevitable surge in prices. Cuba is NOT cheap if you want to stay in regular hotels. Forget about the rest of central America and the Caribbean. everything from direct flights to accommodation in central Havana will cost. The earlier you book, the better. Most tourists seeking 5-star accommodation are limited to a handful of government-run hotels all of which have been booked up months in advance. When I was considering adding an extra night or two at the end of my Cuba photography tour, most hotels were fully booked and those that were not were charging up to £300 per night!
Alternatively, stay in a Casa Particular, a Cuban guesthouse. This is the way to see the real Cuba and meet the locals. But bear in mind that this is an island where the entire population has been subject to an economic embargo – 5-star Cuba is not quite the same as 5-star Dubai, and staying in a Casa Particular means stepping back in time in terms of fixtures, fittings and home comforts. Arguably, this is all part of the experience. Airbnb has now launched in Cuba which makes it easier to see what you can expect and the bonus with Casa Particulars is that your money can go straight to the locals.
Visas on arrival are available in Havana but given the obvious signs of struggling to cope with demand when I was attempting to leave the airport, I was thankful that I opted to apply for mine before I arrived. They call it a visa but it is more of a tourist card and is valid for one month. I opted to get mine with an online agent where I paid £15 for the tourist card and £5 for for postage/processing. It was well worth it to have it all done hassle-free and ready to go in time for my trip. The other tip is to have a copy of your medical insurance to hand when you arrive at immigration. We were warned they would want to see this as proof that you are covered and although they didn’t ask for mine, it is better to be prepared in case they do.