Cuba; What You Should Know
I'm writing this while I wait to board at the Havana Airport. In order to provide some context to the points I make below, I'll share that my trip to Cuba was a personal one. I have family in Cuba that I had never met due to previous restrictions for U.S. citizens. During this trip I was able to spend time with my family and experience Cuba from their point of view which is extremely different than a tourist's perspective. I was able to notice tourists do things that we weren't able to do, due to lack of money or permission. I say we because I completely submerged myself in their way of life and lived by their rules and limitations. This was very difficult to do but incredibly humbling. I will speak more about this in a follow up post. Here and now, however, I wanted to provide some basic tips and information for those looking to travel to Cuba with a bit of a personal spin to them. Cuba is packed with sucker punches!
** Keep in mind Cuba travel is rapidly changing and as of this post some information may have changed.
1. Contrary to popular belief, you no longer need to previously purchase a tour to visit Cuba nor do you need special permission. There are 12 categories to choose from for Cuba travel. If you have an American passport, DO NOT choose tourism. Even though I have family there, I went under the "People to People" category. At first, I was under the impression that when choosing "people to people" you had to present an itinerary upon arrival while also having to present evidence of that itinerary with either pictures, museum and/or tour receipts upon exiting. This was not the case for me at all. I was surprised at how easy it was to go through customs to and from. I didn't have to present or "prove" anything. There was an American family in front of me and none of them had any issues getting through either. It was really just that easy.
2. Visa is obtained at the exiting airport from the U.S. It is $50. I flew JetBlue so I went to their JustAsk desk in Ft. Lauderdale (my exiting airport, I had a layover there from Boston) and they assisted me with Visa. Check with your airline regarding this process as I understand process varies depending on your carrier. I believe JetBlue may be one of the very few carriers who administers the Visa themselves vs most carriers who have contracted third party companies to handle Visa for their customers, which then rises the Visa cost sometimes over $80+.
3. Medical Insurance is a requirement for American tourists to enter the country. JetBlue included this in their airfare, therefore, I did not have to purchase it from a third party. Make sure to check in with your airline about this as well. JetBlue uses ESICUBA which is administered by Asistur. Coverage dates should be through arrival and departure date.
4. The Havana airport has 2 Terminals. It is very small and very SLOW. If there is one piece of advice I can give you is to not check in a bag unless you absolutely have to. I packed only a book bag and was able to head right out. You can expect baggage claim to take longer than an hour. This sounds absurd but trust me, you'll feel the frustration. If you're checking luggage with goodies for the Cuban people then by all means, just be prepared.
5. Once past customs KEEP the other half of your Visa. I can't stress this enough. It is a rectangular document with a perforated middle. They rip half when you arrive and expect the other half upon exiting. You NEED this to be able to exit out. Don't mess around with that Visa.
6. Cuba has 2 active currencies. The CUC and the CUP. The CUP is the "Moneda Nacional" the Cuban Peso, local currency. The Cuban Convertible Peso, most commonly referred to as CUC, is the predominant currency. When you exchange your money you will want to exchange for CUC. $1US= $1CUC and $1CUC = $25CUPs. You can exchange your money at the Havana airport or hotel. Keep in mind they sometimes charge a higher rate to exchange the US $. You can look to exchange your money to the Canadian dollar in the states prior to arriving in Cuba and then exchange Canadian to CUC for a lower rate once here. $1CUC= $1.34CAD (Canadian Dollar). It's a thought. Given higher airport/hotel rates, if staying at a Casa Particular/Airbnb I would recommend messaging your host for suggestions on money exchange. Nine times out of ten they know someone who's able to do it at a much lower rate. That's how I did it. I exchanged $400US for $368CUC, to give you an idea.
7. There is a variety of different taxis you can choose from to get around Havana. There are government taxis that charge in local currency, CUP. These are much cheaper and preferred by locals. Even though I saved money getting around this way it is certainly for the savvier traveler. These taxis usually have set routes, you stand on the side of the road and wait for one to pull up. Nine times out of ten they look like any regular person with an old car picking up hitchhikers, very few have a TAXI sign. Once they pull over you tell the driver where you are headed and they will either say yes, hop in or no, I'm not going in that direction. These taxis usually charge $10CUPs which is less than $1CUC. You can see how much cheaper it is to use this form of transportation. Second option are the Taxis Particulares, aka private taxis. These are "door to door" taxis. They charge in CUCs and price depends on destination. Make sure to establish a rate BEFORE you get in. A general rate to and from Old Havana from airport is approximately $25CUC total per ride, not per person. You can always attempt to talk them down, everything is negotiable here! The other options are the bus, Coco Taxis, little yellow half shelf bike Taxis and the American Car Taxis.
8. Cuba is as cheap or as expensive as you make it. My advice? Bring plenty of cash. American Credit Cards and Bank cards do not work here. If you're having an issue I recommend going to the Hotel Habana Libre or Hotel Nacional concierge to try and resolve this but it is unlikely much can be done as American CCs are still not widely accepted in Cuba. I ran out of cash on the morning of my very last day and tried to take money out from 2 ATMs belonging to the National Bank but transactions were denied. I brought $400US and exchanged it for $368CUC. To give you an idea, I spent $218CUC in 4 days, not counting lodging or museum entrances, the other $150CUC I shared with my family. Keep in mind I travel quite frugally and I got to experience Cuba as a local which by default helped me save money.
9. I would not recommend drinking the water here. Locals drink it as they are used to it but I was told by many locals to stick to bottled water as they suspected I'd immediately get sick from it. That being said, bottled water is hard to find. I assume hotels have them without a problem but I didn't stay at a hotel so for me it was a daily challenge looking for bottled water at different markets.
10. If you're trying to save money I recommend staying in a Casa Particular or Airbnb. Hotels are pretty expensive down here, nightly rates resemble most major American cities. Anything "particular" simply means it's private, not government owned or managed, as most things are here. After Raul Castro took office he has slowly allowed individuals to own their businesses, though many restrictions still exist. I was able to find my Casa Particular through www.hostelsclub.com. My total for 4 nights was $54US. You aren't allowed to book rooms online. Hotels/Casa Particulares will charge a small % of the balance to reserve the room and expect the remainder of the balance in CUC's upon check in. Don't let the word "hostel" spook you. Where I stayed was phenomenal and I was the only guest there!
11. Nightlife. There are 2 different business as I mentioned above, private and government owned. Government businesses (bars/clubs etc) usually have a cover charge/entrance fee. These range from $2CUCs to $15CUCs per person. Private ones, for the most part, do not. I would recommend la Fabrica de Arte Cubano as a great place to check out music, art, dance, culture etc. Check it out here http://www.fac.cu/
12. Souvenirs. If you're looking for some neat things to bring back but don't want to run out of cash doing so then you must visit the market place on Calle del Obispo in Old Havana.
13. English isn't common out here. In Cuba, unless you have a guide or are staying in a hotel, you'll need to speak a little Spanish, bring a dictionary or use an app that works offline.
14. Tipping at restaurants isn't expected as the 10% charge on your bill is for that reason, however, many tourists still do as a courtesy. The Cuban people don't get paid more regardless of that 10%. They are paid a flat rate by the government. Tip at your discretion but that little extra effort on your part will help them out immensely, they really need it.
15. Around Havana you will see the old American Cars giving people rides around the city. They typically charge $100CUC+ per ride. They're pretty popular among tourists. These cars are owned by the driver or the driver is working for the owner of the car. They are considered a private business therefore required to pay a high percent tax to the government due to their involvement in tourism. This being said, tipping is at your discretion. I did not ride one of these mostly because I prefer to walk and $100CUC was pretty steep in my opinion.
16. El Comandante, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul Castro are respected. Government is respected. Period. DO NOT bad mouth the government nor its officials while speaking amongst your group at a bar/restaurant or with locals. The Cuban people will shy away from these conversations and avoid any involvement in "anti government" talk. Instead of bad mouthing or highlighting how hard life is for them, ask them about their country, what do they enjoy, what do they wish could be better. In doing that you'll get a sense of how they really feel. Cuban people are very smart with the country having a 99% literacy rate, don't mistake their poverty for lack of knowledge. They're incredibly savvy and very resourceful. Ernesto Che Guevara is a national hero and is highly regarded as a very important figure in their history.
17. The weather here in December is amazing and the breeze felt heavenly. This is a typical Caribbean island when it comes to weather, so dress accordingly. The summer is their off season as it gets very hot and humid.
18. Renting a car is HARD but doable. If you plan to rent a car depending on when you are planning to visit, you should be making these reservations a month plus ahead of your trip. Car rental agencies are government owned. It is not as easy as you may think and the rates are quite high. Most rentals start at $60CUC per day, not including insurance, which is required. You have to fill up the gas tank before you drive the car off the lot, the roads are crazy and the mandatory insurance doesn't cover everything. Do your research first. If you want to chance it you can always arrive here and ask a local if they know anyone willing to rent out their car and do business that way. Cubans will find you anything you need, for a price.
19. Wifi...plan to be disconnected while you're here. It is EXTREMELY hard to come by. There are vendors on the street who will sell you "wifi". This usually goes from $1CUC to $4CUC per hour. As a tourist expect the higher end of that. There are "hot spots" (usually in the middle of the street or a park) where you're able to connect. Once connected you will notice it is painfully slow and very spotty. I connected once out here and wish I hadn't because I spent 45minutes just trying to nail down my connection vs actually using my phone.
20. American cell phone service out here exists but it's expensive. I have T-Mobile and I was able to text back home but outgoing texts are .50 each and calls are $2.00+ a min. I turned off all my data roaming and kept phone on airplane mode to avoid any secret charges. There is the option to buy a SIM card or local cell and use that to communicate around the island with locals/hosts/restaurants etc. but still quite expensive to reach out internationally. On wifi my iPhone worked fine.
21. Pack accordingly. This is another tip I will stress. Cuba is not a place where you can forget a toothbrush and think "oh that's fine I'll stop by a pharmacy and get one". That is not the case here. Simple house hold items are very difficult to find. I experienced this first hand when I got here and came down with a terrible head cold. I hadn't brought anything with me so I attempted to visit a couple different places in search of some cold medicine but I hit a dead end everywhere. I could barely find bottled water! My aunt gave me "jarabe", cold syrup. According to her, jarabe is quite challenging to find. When the pharmacies re-stock people buy multiple bottles because they are so sought after. I asked my cousin what does he do when he gets sick or catches a head cold, his reply was a simple "sleep and wait it out". Go figure, great healthcare huh? 😏 Another small tip, all inclusive healthcare only comes when a patient is admitted.
22. Departure Tax in the amount of $25CUC as of May 1, 2015 is collected by the airlines when you purchase airfare.
23. Cuba doesn't stay behind on delicious traditional plates. Pork and chicken are the main ingredients to most meat dishes. They are the most affordable therefore, the most used. As far as good places to check out, I recommend eating breakfast at Nely's and lunch/dinner at D'Lirios across from the Capitolio. D'Lirios is a very popular spot serving local dishes. The line can get pretty long. I recommend going for an early lunch prior to the crowds. Also for breakfast or day snack, if you're not afraid of a little street food find the guy selling pastelitos. Crispy flaky treats, yummy!
24. Drink real Cuban coffee if provided the opportunity. I am not a coffee person at all so this means a lot coming from me. I have never liked it. Sinful right? Well, in true local fashion I tried "cafe con leche y pan con mantequilla" for breakfast. For those that are unfamiliar with the phrase it means "coffee with milk & bread with butter". Pretty common way to start the mornings. In my home island of Puerto Rico this is also a pretty common practice. The coffee was delicious and left me craving for more.
25. It is a safe place to visit. Havana felt very safe to me and Cuba in general is regarded as a safe country for solo travel and travel in general. I never once felt at risk or uncomfortable. This being said, always be aware of your surroundings regardless.
26. Electricity. There is a mix of plug types used here. Most Casas Particulares and Hotels use a 110-volt current which is pretty standard with American 2 or 3 prong outlets. However, in more modern hotels you will also find 220 volts that mostly cater to European guests. Depending on where you are staying you may/may not need a converter. It's worth asking your host/hotel. I had my regular 2 prong iPhone charger and it worked without a problem. I didn't need a converter.
27. Last but not least, DO NOT be wasteful. If you have never thought about the amount of water you use during a shower or the amount of toilet paper you use or anything that aids your comfort in excess, this is a good time to practice consciousness and consideration. House hold goods are extremely difficult to come by as I've mentioned before. Water and Electricity are rationed to the Cuban people by the government but once they reach their limit they have to pay very high prices. In the spirit of consideration, it is also important to understand that your host is required to pay a minimum of $34CUC per room (this varies by zone) monthly, whether they rent or not. In addition, a 10% of their total monthly earnings goes to the government as well because they are involved in tourism. This being said you can imagine how difficult it can be to maintain a home ready for guests on an ongoing basis. Be mindful.
Cuba is guaranteed to shatter all of your expectations and "First World" way of thinking. I say this in the most humbling of ways. We, at times, don't recognize our privilege but Cuba will remind you, harshly. If you stay long enough it will test your limits, bring you out of your comfort zone. Again, remember that I lived like my family lived. I spent my days the way they spent theirs. My family is very poor yet rich in culture, knowledge and hospitality. An accurate reflection of the Cuban people. Once there, open your mind, your ears, widen your lens. Come prepared to be blown away by an ever revolving mix of culture, history and government. It is quite the adventure!