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5 Things You Need to Know Before You Head to Havana for the First Time

You’re on an exotic holiday in Tehran. You ask the taxi driver if he can take you to a particular place and he responds with a nod of his head. You get in the taxi and wait expectantly while he gives you a weird look. Nobody told you that a single nod of the head means no in Iran. You’re in a dive bar in Berlin and figure you’ll stay until the bar closes. Nobody told you that the city’s relaxed licensing laws means that many bars are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that you’re waiting for a closing that will never come. There are many curiosities and particularities that are unique to a certain country or city. When you’re heading to Havana for the first time, there are a few things you should know about in order to make your trip run as smoothly as possible.

Technology

Don’t count on being able to use your smartphone while in Cuba, even in a city like Havana. Internet Wi-Fi zones are about as rare as good reviews for Justin Bieber albums. You might occasionally see a group of people hanging around on a street corner, all playing with their phones. Congratulations—you’ve found a temporary wi-fi zone, but you can’t count on this happening. If you usually use your smartphone to find your way around, you need to use a mapping app that allows offline access. Internet in private homes is rare, and it can generally only be found in larger hotels and licensed internet cafes. You won’t be online so much while in Cuba, but that’s hardly a problem. Because you won’t be able to access, download and print items as needed, you should print out your important documents prior to arrival in Cuba. This includes vital things such as a copy of your travel insurance policy and any accommodation/transport confirmations. A hard copy of these documents can be extremely helpful while in Cuba.

Havana First Time

Transfers and Tours

Pre-booking your transfers and tours are generally the best bet, and you’re better off booking a tour that takes care of some (if not all) transfers for you. This means you’re greeted at the airport and are whisked off into Havana. You might find some cheaper tour options upon arrival, but there’s no guarantee of quality. You might find yourself paying what is still a considerable amount of money for a sub-par tour. You might even feel like it’s a borderline scam. Thanks to the lack of internet, it’s not as though you can do much investigation into a tour company’s satisfaction ratings once you’re actually in Cuba. Whatever did we do before Google? It’s better to do all your research before you leave and invest in a trusted and well-regarded company, even if it’s for just for a tour of a short duration—such as a day tour in Havana.

Staying Safe

Like less-than-wonderful tours, there are a number of scams to be aware of in Cuba. This can be the beautiful girl (or boy) who strikes up a conversation with you in a Havana bar and then you end up footing the bill for what turns out to be a costly evening. They might simply sneak out without offering to pay their share. Another scam is someone who approaches you on the street and offers to be the intermediary in allowing you to buy “amazing quality” rum and/or cigars at an amazing price. What you’re buying might be stolen (which is illegal) or of exceptionally poor quality (even counterfeit). You might also never see your money again. Recreational drugs are illegal in Cuba, so never be tempted to partake as the repercussions can be severe. There’s also the fact that a number of sellers might in fact be undercover police officers. You might view it as entrapment, but it’s not as though anyone will have much sympathy!

Drinking and Being Social

Comparable to many Latin American countries, it can be acceptable to drink a large amount in Cuba. It’s not really viewed as a challenge, but merely as a by-product of extensive socialising, particularly in a city like Havana. You will see people sip a succession of rum-based drinks without succumbing to complete and total inebriation. Because, while drinking a lot is acceptable, being obnoxiously drunk is not. It’s one of those weird cultural curiosities, but it’s one of the fun parts about travelling. If you have a tendency to drink to excess, be mindful of how much you consume. If you happen to hang out with a bunch of Cubans, their hospitable nature will ensure that they keep plying you with drinks, but it won’t be considered rude if you decline or decide to stick with water for a while. You’ll want to avoid being loud and aggressive after your drinking sessions, so you can feel free to call it an early night if necessary.

Be Open

People will initiate conversation with you while you’re in Havana. The whole country was closed off from the rest of the world for decades so many residents have a deep, though unobtrusive curiosity about other cultures. Be open to people striking up a conversation while you’re sitting in a bar or strolling along one of the many beaches in Havana. While you should be wary of people who attempt to pull a scam, remember that the absolute majority of people who give you a smile aren’t after anything more than a smile in return. One of Havana’s best attributes is the warmth of its people.

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