Cuba remains a communist country despite recent reforms, and the government does not tolerate any criticism. If you strike up a discussion about politics or the government you’ll likely make people uncomfortable, and you could end up being reported to the police for being a subversive foreigner.
Across the country there are houses where foreigners can stay, almost like an official network of bed and breakfasts. Foreigners are only allowed to stay in the casas that have a blue sign outside, and houses with an orange sign are only for Cubans. Both you and the house owner can get in trouble if you stay in the wrong place.
Most visitors are only allowed to spend 60 consecutive days in Cuba, but it’s important to remember not to do any work if you are on a tourist visa. Journalists come in for particular scrutiny, so be careful who you ask questions and what you ask them about. You might be called in for a police interview if it is suspected that you are working on a report.
Professional photographers and keen hobbyists should also be aware of what they take photos of. It is illegal to shoot any photos of police or soldiers in Cuba. You might get away with one or two surreptitious shots, but if you get caught you might be accused of espionage.
Cubans tend to be loud and animated, especially in Havana. Even if your Spanish isn’t the best, make sure you put yourself out there to get the most out of your trip. It’s certainly not a place to be a wallflower, so join in as much as you can.
There are two currencies in use in Cuba, and they vary hugely in valuation. One convertible peso (CUC) is worth 26 Cuban pesos (CUP), so always check your change to make sure you aren’t getting ripped off.
There are serious shortages of many consumer goods in Cuba, so make sure you bring everything you need with you. You might struggle to find toothpaste and shampoo, or even toilet paper at certain times.
The basic salary in Cuba is very low for most people, and the cost of living is high. Those who work in the tourist industry are likely to rely on tips to ensure a decent standard of living, so don’t forget to tip.
One of the cultural curiosities in Cuba is the attitude towards blowing your nose and spitting in public. In many other Latin American countries no one would bat an eyelid if you cleared your nostrils in company, but Cubans find it incredibly rude. Go somewhere private if you need to.
Everywhere you go in Cuba you’ll find friendly locals offering advice and directions. While some of them are genuine, there are others who will take you to bars and restaurants where they will charge a commission or expect payment from you. Keep your wits about you.
On many occasions you’ll see Cubans passing around one glass of rum and taking a sip or a shot before it’s passed on to the next person. Turning down your turn is a sure fire way to cause minor offence. If you want to make new friends, drink like the locals do and share the glass.