Just went to Cuba, less than a month ago.
First of all, it is a beautiful country - I cannot even begin to express how beautiful. People are very friendly and it is the safest place I have traveled to (in terms of walking around, crime etc).
- Money: Cuba has a dual currency. You will be only dealing with CUC (convertible Pessos). Those are kind of... monopoly money, in the sense that they are only available in Cuba and only valid in Cuba. You can convert them at the airport (don't bother in Havana, the line is long), at banks (don't bother either) or at your hotel if you are staying in a big one. The price is about the same in all three.
- American Dollars: you can exchange them but there is a penalty of about 10%. Euros and Canadian dollars are both fine and can be exchanged easily with no penalty.
- Cash vs Cards: In Cuba cash is king. You cannot use Debit cards anywhere. You can use Credit Cards (Visa, Mastercard) in a few places (including big hotels), but you cannot use any Credit Card issued from an American Bank (even if it is visa or MasterCard). It goes without saying that American Express and Diners are not accepted.
- You have to pay 25 CUC on exit of the country (at the airport)
- There are many luxurious hotels and resorts in Cuba, although their definition of luxury may vary to what we are used to in USA / Western Europe. Their 5 star equals more to a European 3 star hotel in terms of rooms. Also, note that because of the humidity older hotels tend to have a certain ... smell, for lack of a better word.
- Always prefer hotels that are partly privetly owned (versus 100% State Hotels). The Melia chain is a good bet, you can find it in most major destinations except from Trinidad.
- In large hotels you will always find a buffet for breakfast / lunch / dinner with various offerings. But keep in mind that Cuba does not import food like we do and thus there are limitations.
- The main things offered in most restaurants are: chicken, lobster (very cheap and big), shrimps, fish, pork. You will not find veal easily as their cows are mostly used for milk / dairy products.
- In the past months there was a law that allowed privet restaurants, which means that a lot have poped up. If you want, PM me the city you plan to visit and I can recommend some places.
Vaccines / Health:
- I did not do any vaccines before my trip, but better to consult your doctor.
- The Cuban health system is supposed to be one of the best in the world. I fortunately did not have to try it out, but I really would not worry to much about it, especially if you do not have any particular medical issues.
- I would propose that of course you took any medication you have to take and some generic ones (for headaches, stomachaches, mosquito bites etc) with you because you will definitely not find the brand you use in Cuba.
Also take any personal care products you need with you (shampoo, shower gel, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, female hygiene etc). Very few brands are available in Cuba and they are quite expensive (not something that you will not be able to afford, but more expensive than at home)
Electricity: 110v and 220v available in most places, most plugs have labels on them saying which is which (very convenient!)
Tips / Giveaways:
All Cubans prefer their tips in cash
Usually 1-2 cuc will do (no need to tip by american standards 15%) for cab drivers, waiters, maids etc. 0,5 - 1 CUC is the norm for band players, toilette attendants and the other one hundred people that will kindly request for a tip (yes, it gets old after a few days!!)
I stand with those who say don't give away shampoos and candy, as you are really not doing any favor to the locals or the country.
I can tell you that those things exist in Cuba and Cubans can buy them - things have changed for the best for them in the past 5 years.
I can point you to several articles that debate the issue of "giveways" by tourists if you are interested, so that you can make up your mind for yourself.
Finally... on rainforests... Sorry! The Spanish beat you to them. For reasons that I can explain (but I don't want to bore everyone else) there is very little of the original wildlife preserved. There are beautiful places / nature but nothing like the Amazon. I can point you to certain places which are easily accessible and you can visit though. Coral reefs, no worries, you will see and they are amazing indeed.
I am going to shut up now, as I can talk about Cuba for ages it seems. If you need anything don't hesitate to PM me!