1.) Don’t expect love at first sight. Cuba is like an onion–don’t let the dirty, decaying outer layers keep you from getting to the heart.
2.) Everything is negotiable. From souvenirs to hiring a taxi. Go low when they go high and you’ll meet in the middle.
3.) Bribery works. Want to get up on a rooftop at sunset to take photos? Five bucks can get you there. Havana has a boom town feel these days, as in, anything goes.
4.) Cuba is in the Internet dark ages. Buying a Wifi card ($1-$4 for an hour of access, depending on where you buy it), does NOT mean you’ll have service. You might… for a moment–if the clouds part correctly and Venus is aligned with Mars–but you’ll likely get kicked off before your Instagram picture can post. Instead of being frustrated, just disconnect completely. It’s actually quite nice.
5.) Be willing to tip and gift. You can make a Cuban’s day (maybe even week or month) with a small tip or gift. When a local guy helped us get on the internet one night, we gave him $5 and I thought he might cry. Since the average Cuban salary is $30 a month, that’s understandable. A few bucks to a darling grandma made her day. I brought flash drives and felt a little like Santa Claus when I gave them out at random.
6.) Bring more cash than you expect to spend. Havana isn’t cheap—taxis, bottled water, coffee, food–especially if you eat at “top” restaurants mentioned in guidebooks or on TripAdvisor. After our first two awful and expensive meals, we started hitting street cafes run by enterprising young Cubans who combine whatever fresh ingredients they can get into interesting, inexpensive options like “BLT with Eggplant Sandwich – $3.” We used a book called “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Havana” to find these places and just kept our eyes open too.
7.) Beware the bell peppers! After eating a vegetarian pizza, I puked all night. Apparently, peppers can retain their food poisoning elements even when cooked. I was very careful with what I ate and drank ( no ice, fresh veggies, fish, unpeeled fruit) but this one got me good.
8.) BYOTP–Bring your own toilet paper. Unless you are fond of wiping with newspaper…or nothing at all. Toilet paper is a precious commodity in Cuba and if public bathrooms have it at all, there’s often a charge for it. The small tissue packs we brought got us through just fine.
9.) Expect the up-sell. Our AirBnB rental had water, SIM chips, Wifi cards, cigars, wine, cerveza, soft drinks, and eggs for sale–at about double what they cost in the market. This entrepreneurship didn’t bother me until we were charged us $3 for milk for our coffee.
10.) Think “no expectations” rather than “low expectations.” Be ready to roll with whatever comes your way. Talk to locals to see how they live. Visit a supermarket to understand how much they live without and what an embarrassment of riches we have in the U.S.A. Cuba is a country of contradictions and this will help you appreciate its decaying beauty.