Once the decision to take my holiday in Cuba was made, the planning and preparation was as usual, minimal. All I knew initially was that I wanted to go for three weeks and I wanted to take my bike.
Here is a countdown to my trip:
6 months before – Book Flights
When to go:
The best time to visit Cuba is between December and April, after the hurricane season is over and before the tropical heat of summer. As a compromise between cheap flights, good weather and a number of events back in the UK I wanted to attend, I ended up travelling at the end of April and into May. It was hot, very hot – but I’d rather the heat than a hurricane.
I flew with Virgin Atlantic who, with their sale, had the cheapest flights I could find. Havana Flights is a good comparison website I used for checking flights between the UK and Cuba, although I booked directly with the airline.
3 months before – Buy Guide Book
However much I would like to say I’m an independent traveller, for me there was just no point in avoiding buying a guide book – they are invaluable for finding out about entry requirements, vaccinations and money to name a few.
As a UK citizen, the entry requirements are –
- a passport valid for 6 months
- an onward ticket
- a tourist card.
The latter can easily be acquired, as I did, through the VisaCuba website. Alternatively you can go to the embassy in London if you are nearby. The only additional requirement for obtaining the tourist card is proof of booking of the first 3-nights accommodation on arrival in Cuba.
Two words – Casa Particulares. If there’s only one piece of information you take from my journal and trip notes, let that be to stay in Casa Particulares. The closest UK equivalent is a B&B.
Booking – The best place for booking accommodation is online. I used Casa Particular Cuba to find a casa and make a reservation. All you need to know are the dates of your stay (3 nights required for obtaining a tourist card), which area you want to stay and your budget. Wherever you decide to stay, make sure that they are fully licensed – essential for obtaining your tourist card
I stayed at Casa Amalia, chosen primarily for its budget and location between Central and Old Havana on Prado which is the main promenade running from the Malecon (seafront) down to the Capitolio Nacional (a must-see Havana site). Although I had made a reservation for three nights (to get the tourist card), I only stayed for two initially. I then made a reservation to spend my last night in Cuba there and asked if I could leave my bike box for the duration of my stay, all of which was no problem.
1 week before – check paperwork
I have found out, through experience, that if you need to replace a lost passport you need a week to do so. (Yes, this can be fast-tracked, but only with determination, perseverance, stress, a bit of luck and in my case, an incredibly helpful mum!). I now check I have the essentials at least one week before I travel anywhere.
So one week before, I collected together my travel documents; namely passport, insurance (travel, camera and bike), vaccination certificate, flight details and tourist card; and made photocopies.
There are a few things regarding money that are specific to Cuba and that you need to be aware about.
Credit Cards – If your bank is affiliated to the United States, it is likely that you will not be able to use your credit card in Cuba. I bank with Lloyds TSB and can verify that their credit cards do work in Cuba. In any case, I would recommend calling your bank to verify this. You will be charged high commission rates for using your credit card, but unless you want to carry huge amounts of cash on you, this is something you will have to live with.
I tended to get cash advances with my credit card from banks or major hotels. You could also use ATMs. I preferred cash advances since there’s no risk of the machine eating your card and i find it safer to hide the cash in my money belt while still in the confines of a bank than in the middle of a busy street.
Travellers Cheques – I was told that traveller’s cheques are not very useful in Cuba since not all banks and hotels accept them. I took Thomas Cook (better than American Express in Cuba) ones just in case, but didn’t end up using them so I can’t confirm how useful they are.
Cash – If you want to avoid paying high commission rates on credit card use and traveller’s cheques, you will want to take lots of cash. Indeed, if you are going for a short stay, this is an option. I took about £250 cash (in sterling) with me to start.
1 day before
Boxing the bike
Bike – I had called up the local bike shop who said they would hold back a cardboard box, which they receive new bikes in, for me. If flying with a bike, it is essential to check with the airline regarding packaging requirements. With Virgin-Atlantic the bike must be boxed and therefore a cardboard box is ideal. If you have concerns about damage, you may wish to consider purchasing a solid one, but for me the cardboard box worked fine and it was free.
To pack, you must removes the wheels and pedals and turn the handlebars to the side. Don’t forget to deflate the tyres or they will burst from the pressure change during flight.
The only problem I had, was a could budge one of the pedals. Several hours later, after many applications of WD40 and extra muscle, I gave up and boxed the bike with it still attached. It didn’t fit so well and the airline said they wouldn’t be responsible for any damage, but the bike made it to Cuba unharmed.
This is the easy part.
Step 1 – collect together everything I want
Step 2 – take out a few things I don’t really need (usually some items of clothing)
Step 3 – shove everything (see Equipment List) in the panniers and bag
Step 4 – wake up in the middle of the night realising I’ve forgotten something (usually trivial, like a toothbrush), go find it and pack it too.