Don’t let your first trip to Cuba be filled with stress because of all the unknowns. We knew the moment we stepped off the plan we were in for an adventure!
We stepped off the plane and from the first breath of tropical Cuban air I knew this was going to be an adventure!
The last place in the world we ever thought we were going to visit was the island of Cuba. A tropical island with picture perfect white sandy beaches, aqua blue ocean, warm weather and warm people, why in the world not?
To put it simply: Gretta is American and grew up thinking Cuba is not a vacation destination. For over 50 years Americans have not been allowed to visit as a straight up tourist due to complexities in politics. So it came as a surprise when my brother called the family together for a destination wedding in Cuba! Good thing Gretta’s Canadian Permanent Resident card arrived just in time.
A quick history lesson for those living in a bunker since 1959: The United States put strict laws in place not allowing American tourists to visit Cuba. It had a little something to do with a guy named Castro, a revolution, expropriating US Assets, severing ties with the United States, Cuba becoming a communist country run by a dictator and inviting Russia to set up nuclear weapons about 90 miles off the coast of the U.S.A.
Those type of things will get a country in trouble with the United States every time it seems… but let’s put ALL that aside for a moment.
Turns out that Cuba is one of our new favourite islands, but not for the reasons you think!
Your first trip to Cuba can be stressful because of all the unknowns. Let’s take care of that right now with our first-timer’s guide to Cuba.
Caveat: If this is your first trip to Cuba and you are a Canadian doing one of those all-inclusive resort Cuba deals this list is for you.
Everything You Need To Know For Your First Trip To Cuba
“Hey, It’s Cuba”
Get ready for many “Hey, it’s Cuba” moments. Just roll with it and remember you are indeed in a different culture and country. Don’t expect everything to be just like back home. However, it can still be one awesome tropical vacation… just don’t be too nit picky about everything. It’s no cruise ship or Hawaii 5-star vacation and that’s why there are so many great deals to be had.
We aren’t in Canada anymore kids.
Random topless women on the beach, no toilet paper or paper towels in the airport bathroom, different fruit, no peanut butter, people smoking like it’s the 1970’s again, and jamming as many people as possible into a taxi are just a few of what may end up being your “Hey, It’s Cuba” moments.
Cuban Money And How It Works
Cuba has two currencies. The Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Most Cuban’s use the peso but we the tourist get to use the CUC. The simple answer is the country has a big currency problem and their solution is two currencies. Bring Canadian cash and exchange it at a local bank or the airport for the best rate.
We exchanged our money at the hotel “bank” with a guy in a T-shirt around a corner in a small unmarked room who couldn’t speak English. It was truly the oddest thing for my North American mindset. However, I just rolled with it because, “Hey, it’s Cuba.”
You will not find ATMs and very few places will take your credit card, so bring whatever you think you will spend in cold, hard cash.
Do not bring American dollars as this currency is subject to a 10% penalty. Yes, these two countries are still fighting.
Safety Tip: Your room should have a safe. For peace of mind use it for all your valuables. I even stuck my laptop in ours.
Cuban food can be quite tasty. Unfortunately, the resort visitor will not be eating true Cuban food. The food at the resort is often made in bulk and lacks the true flavour of the country. It’s not “bad”, it just doesn’t have the richness of spice and sauce that we are accustomed to in North America.
It may be hard to find ketchup, ranch dressing, mustard, bbq sauce, or peanut butter, so if you can’t go without those beloved condiments for a week, you might want to think about a vacation elsewhere. (or you could just pack small versions of these items in your checked luggage.)
Arriving In Cuba
On your first trip to Cuba, if at all possible, try to arrive during the daylight hours, especially if you’re traveling with kids. Not only will everything be brighter and less disorienting, but your kids will still have energy. And really, that’s easier in itself, isn’t it?
Cuba has picking up and dropping of tourists down to a science. After sailing through the 1960’s communist era customs booths you will run into a swarm of vacation representatives. As long as you know your resort’s name, you can easily find your rep. They will direct you to your very own coach bus that will safely take you to your resort.
Cuba 5 Star Resort
5 Star Resorts in Cuba are typically more like a 4 star as far as North American standards go (especially when it comes to food, mattress comfort, english speaking staff, etc.). They are still wonderful resorts and an awesome vacation can be had, but there is a difference in star ratings when compared to say a 5 star all-inclusive resort in Hawaii. We stayed at Melia Marina Varadero and had a wonderful time. Not without it’ s “Hey it’s Cuba” moments, but still an awesome family vacation.
Ask the staff at the resort to call one of those 1950’s classic convertible American Cuban taxis for you. They are everywhere thanks to an American trade embargo that began decades ago. Negotiate a fair price and go for an evening ride with the family, they will love it.
Cuba Tipping Etiquette
Arrive in Cuba with your loonies and toonies. Canadian currency is gladly accepted for tips and you don’t have to worry about the exchange. The other option is 1 and 3 CUC for tips. We generally tipped 1 CUC per person for meals in restaurants and 1 CUC per day for maid service.
Throughout the day look for opportunities to allow your kids a chance to give out tips. The resort staff will love interacting with your children. A simple high five or “Hola” goes a long way and I’m sure if your kids are like mine, they will latch on to a favourite staff member and come home and rename their fish after him.
The “chambermaids” also appreciate tips with items that are not easily available for purchase in Cuba. Items like feminine hygiene products, hair bungees, baseball gloves, hats, balls, bandaids, crayons, children’s Tylenol, smelly soaps and cologne. I know it might seem weird to you, but they truly appreciate these hard-if-not-impossible-to-find items.
Plugging In Electronics in Cuba
Most Cuban resorts are used to Canadians and our electronic plug-in needs. The outlets themselves work with our North American style, but be careful as they are 220v instead of our 110v. Just look on the plug on your particular item and it should say 110v-220v. And you’re set!
The Cuban Language Barrier
Interacting with the Cuban resort staff will be one of your most enjoyable and equally frustrating experiences of your vacation. If you keep a good attitude about it and relax, it’s actually quite fun.
In our resort it was quite funny as I found myself expecting the staff to know a little English and they expected me to know a little Spanish. What quickly ensued was two people having a rousing 1 on 1 charades match off.
At minimum, I recommend being able to say “hello”, “please” and “thank you” (hola, por favor and gracias). I also know the random phrase in Spanish “I can swallow glass and it doesn’t hurt me”, which is not all that helpful but does get a good laugh.
If you need to have a conversation with a resort staff member in English, just ask for “guest services” or a director and they will be able to help you.
Things To Do In Cuba
If you’ve got the money, just stick with the activities that can be booked through your resort. We love vacations with lots of beach and pool time so staying at Melia Marina Varadero was perfect. Tennis or golfing are good options, but we opted for the pool and ocean fun almost every day. A 20 minute sail boat ride was included in our package and we loved the experience of being out on the water.
Snorkelling near Varadero:
If you are vacationing in Varadero and want to save some money for a snorkelling tour then grab a taxi and ask them to take you to “Zone de buceo y snorkelling”. It’s in the direction of the airport. Only 10 CUC per adult and 5 CUC for kids to go on a shoreline snorkelling tour. And the round trip taxi fare will be around 40 CUC, but you get to fill the taxi to the brim. We got 6 people in the back seat! Another “Hey, it’s Cuba” moment. Booking through the hotel will cost around 70-80 CUC per person.
Scuba diving, skydiving, cave exploration, jeep tours, fishing, and catamaran rides are among other activities offered in and around Varadero.
The Cuban Sun
Don’t be fooled! That sun has the power to ruin your vacation. Bring lots and lots of sunscreen. You need to reapply WAY more than you think. Take a break from the mid-day sun, especially on the first couple days. I know it’s tempting, but just get out of the sun from noon-3. You are eating lunch during that time anyway.
Bring lots of Aloe Vera as well for the day after you ignored this warning. It’s the classic mistake on any first trip to Cuba.
Do not let your kids persuade you from reapplying that sunscreen. Sounds of torture will emit from your room as you attempt to apply aloe vera to their burnt bodies before bedtime. Yes, I am writing from experience.
Best Time To Visit Cuba
If it’s winter in Canada, it’s the perfect time for your first trip to Cuba. Cuban summers mean hurricane and rainy season. Even better prices, but why bother going when Canadian summers are beautiful?
Can You Get On The Internet In Cuba?
Yes, Cuba has the internet and wifi… but does it work all the time? Is it fast? Nope. Buy a 1 hour internet access card at your resort or the airport and just be patient. “Hey, it’s Cuba.”
You really should consider a visit to Havana on your first trip to Cuba. The only decision in this matter is whether to take a bus tour or hire an English speaking taxi to take you there. Havana is full of rich history and beautiful people. Getting off the resort will pay huge dividends in your experience of the Cuban culture and you will leave the country with a deeper love of it. Inquire at your resort as to the options to visit Havana.
Can American’s Visit Cuba As A Tourist?
Visiting Cuba for an American is a hassle and somewhat legally murky at times, but for those Americans determined to travel to Cuba it can be done! Cuba remains the only country in the world off-limits to U.S. “tourists”.
Although, it’s recently become much easier for Americans to legally “visit” the island just 90 miles off the coast of the U.S. for reasons other than straight tourism. That being said, it’s not the most straight forward way to go on a family vacation.
The most important thing to know about getting in and out of the country is proving your trip in some way directly helped the Cuban people or had a legit educational component to it. There have been more and more educational tours popping up for just this reason.
Check out our first night in Cuba or was it just a bizarre dream? You decide!
So informative! Hilarious at the same time. My husband and I are traveling for a week to one of Varadero's many Melia properties. We'll be staying at an adults-only resort though. We loved every bit of your "writing from experience" and can't wait for our "Hey, it's Cuba" holiday to begin! Lots of good-to-know bits of advice, especially ketchup and aloe vera ;) Thanks Jay! And happy new year! -
Hi Sarah! Glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful. I hope you have an awesome Cuban vacation and take those "Hey it's Cuba" moments in stride. If you want a good laugh, then you'll enjoy our first night in Cuba story :) https://www.travelingislanders.com/first-night-in-cuba/ Happy New Year to you as well! Please let us know how your Cuban vacation went. -