What To Know Before Traveling To Cuba

Cuba has been a curiosity for most of my life.  It has been a restricted country for over half a century, who wouldn’t be curious?  It wasn’t until 2015 that US citizens got the okay to travel there and I have been trying to find my way in ever since.  At the end of January, I finally checked it off my list, and what a beautiful country it was.  Beautiful and yet, still curious.  Beneath all of what we are still learning of its history and politics is a deeper Cuba, with beautiful scenery and vibrant people, that I would love to return to.

Prior to traveling, I did read up on travel sites and blogs to get an idea of what was in store for me, but I have to report that since travel from the US has been somewhat new, there’s a lot of outdated information that was out there.  It never hurts to double check.

As of when I traveled in January 2017, I’ve noted a couple things that I definitely needed to know before my travels.

CUBA IS STILL SOMEWHAT RESTRICTED

First, there are 12 REASONS to travel to Cuba. You can only get the visa for these reasons:

  1. family visits
  2. official business of the U.S. government
  3. foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  4. journalistic activity
  5. professional research and professional meetings
  6. educational activities
  7. religious activities
  8. public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people
  9. humanitarian projects
  10. activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
  12. certain authorized export transactions

More details on this can be found here.  I went as a journalist considering I have this blog, and came with my promo material in hand but was never asked for proof.  My tickets were purchased through Jet Blue and they did require me to confirm that I was traveling for one of those reasons, as well as sent a follow up email to confirm again that I fit one of the 12 categories.

GETTING A TOURIST VISA

Aside from a valid passport (with pages to spare for stamping), Cuba requires a TOURIST VISA.

Tourist visa applications were actually handled by Jet Blue Airlines.  My flight went from San Francisco to  Fort Lauderdale (Florida), then to Havana.  When I landed in Florida, I was directed to a Jet Blue counter where they had my information in their system, and I just had to pay the $50 fee to process.  Once paid, I waited about 5 minutes by the counter, and my Visa was ready.  They handed my the required paperwork to fill out and I was on my way to the gate for departure.

**Please note, be very careful filling this out (especially the birthdate area where they put DAY first). There were people who filled this out with MONTH first and have had to pay another $50 for a new tourist visa card.

REQUIRED INSURANCE

Flying with Jet Blue Airlines was actually pretty convenient for me.  Aside from having some deals on ticket prices, they were able to handle a lot of the nitty gritty details that were a little confusing at first.  Aside from the 12 requirements and the tourist visa card, they also handle the REQUIRED HEALTH INSURANCE.  While you can buy insurance for the trip from third party organizations like World Nomads (which I believe was something like $50 for a month of coverage) and Roam Right, I was happy that Jet Blue had basic coverage included and I didn’t have to worry about anything.  As was the case with the 12 requirements, however, I was not asked or required to show proof of it while I was there.

CREDIT AND DEBIT CARD WOES

My cousin and I booked our tickets together and paid online (from the states) with our cards, and unfortunately we had issues.  If your plastic has high sensitivity to fraud or you have fallen victim to unfortunate flagging with your company, this can be an issue.  Apparently lots of fraud comes from there and when my cousin tried paying with her highly-sensitive card, it was flagged and unapproved.  You really can’t use that plastic at all when you are in Cuba, so this is basically anything you are booking online- flights, accommodations, activities, etc.  Understand that too many transactions may trigger fraud on your account, even though it isn’t fraudulent.  My cousin tried to re-process the transaction a couple times which flagged her even more and had a hard couple days trying to straighten that out while the account was on hold.

I left all but one card at home, knowing it’s just not usable out there in Cuba, but having one just in case I could use it elsewhere.  Seriously though, it’s all cash there so don’t even bother with the plastic.

CARRYING CASH

So because you can only carry cash and you couldn’t take out additional money while in Cuba, it helps to figure out a daily budget and a little loose itinerary of the things you want to do there.  For the most part, tickets and accommodations were all booked online with a card, so we can figure that out of the budget, but things like food, experiences, and transportation are not, so having a loose idea of where and what you want to do is helpful.  I found BudgetYourTrip.com which gives an average of $72/day for Cuba (including accommodations).  I prepared about $75 per day and had already booked accommodations, so there was some cushion for unexpected activities.  I found that that was a good average because I ended up going to 4 different cities in 10 days, so the transportation costs were a lot more than what the site had planned out.

Cuba also charges a 10% tax on exchanging US Dollars, so some people change their dollars to Euros first before arriving.  I wish I had done that prior to leaving.

There are 2 forms of currency there, and the only ones travelers are allowed to use is the CUC (referred to as “cuk”) Cubans use pesos, and you can tell the difference because the CUC have monuments on them where the pesos have people.  The conversion is basically 1 USD= 1 CUC, but you are still paying that 10% tax so you leave the exchange booth feeling a bit lighter.

** Going anywhere with so much cash on me makes me nervous, especially when thinking of pickpockets or theft that may happen on your travels, so have some common sense when holding all that money.  I separated mine into a couple envelopes and in different places of my bags; one in my wallet, one in a backpack pocket, one in a luggage pocket, one in my cube of t-shirts… etc.  This way, if my wallet was stolen, I would still have other cash left.  Or if someone should try to get in my luggage, maybe they would find the one envelope and not bother looking for others.  I also kept my luggage locked in my room when I wasn’t around.

WHERE TO STAY

There are 2 types of places in Cuba: a hotel and a casa.  Casa Particulars, as they call them, are basically rooms for rent in homes.  Some homes have more of a private space with your own entrance, and some have a more hostel-style to them, with multiple rooms and shared spaces.  The hotels can be pretty pricey per night, I had seen some at $200/night where a casa close by is at $50/night.  As it turns out, I found out a lot of the hotels have owners oversees, so the Cuban government actually prefers you to stay at a casa with the Cuban people.

I actually loved the idea of staying at a casa and having a one-on-one experience with locals.  I had booked my casas with Homestay.com and Airbnb.com and loved both of them.  (Get $40 off your first trip on Airbnb with this link)  (Get $22 off your first Homestay with this link) Our host families were so accommodating and sweet, and really tried to help me with everything from figuring out places to eat to working on my spanish.  In our casa, we had our own bathroom inside the rooms, and we were served breakfast in the mornings.  The breakfasts were a great time to relax and plan the details of the day.

Homestay only took a deposit online, so be sure to bring cash with you for the balance.  Airbnb was booked online, so we didn’t have to worry about that at a certain point.  It’s also helpful to have all these documents printed out ahead of time, including flight  tickets, as you may not be able to check online later for the details, and it’s helpful to show an address or a map when taking to a cab or asking directions.

Our beautiful breakfasts at our casa in Havana. To book this casa, on Airbnb, go here.Rooftop casa above our host family in Trinidad. To book on Homestay, go here.

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

Needless to say, phone service was basically non existent there.  I was not able to regularly talk with anyone and relied on Wi-Fi spots to reach my family via Facebook Messenger.  Even with FB Messenger video chat, I was constantly disconnected and in 8 days only heard “hi, mommy” from my daughter before the chat was disrupted.  We were able to text back and forth, but I just wanted to hear her tell me about her day and wasn’t able to get that far.

Wi-Fi spots were around, and you will find parks full with people just staring at their phones in silence.  You need their ETECSA Wi-Fi cards, which are scratch off with series of numbers to enter and a ticking clock of time which added so much stress to any internet activity.  The cards are about $2 for a 1 hour card and $10 for a 5 hour card.  They are sold at ETECSA locations, most hotels, or just on the street from someone who is selling them.  (Most times if you just hold one up and ask someone, they can direct you to someone who will sell you it.  Totally felt like I was strange drug deal for internet cards at some point, but you get used to it).  A great post on how the internet works can be found here.

** Be aware, some hotels charged me a fee to use their internet hotspot, so on top of the card price I was asked to pay an additional $5-10 to sit in their hotel (even if I was buying drinks at the hotel bar, I still needed that additional fee to use the internet.)

Even with the internet availability, prepare for a blackout.  The fact is that we are so used to having our phones and internet, that going without took some time to get used to.  I wanted to post photos and chat with people but my phone was a brick.

So many numbers to enter… … Even more numbers (and money) when you log on at the Melia Cohiba Hotel.Waiting in line at an Etesca location to buy another card, it was a long line, and they sold out by the time we got to the front.

FINDING YOUR WAY AROUND

This was a little tricky for me because I felt like I was led astray by information online.  Right when we got off the plane the plan was to get on a bus and take it to our casa in Trinidad, about 4 hours away.  I even confirmed this with our host mom, who offered a driver for 60 CUC per person (as opposed to the bus at 15-20 CUC per person).  We declined and tried to find the bus, which according to online sources there was a couple to choose from.  Multiple people at the airport told us there was no busses, and offered the government taxis.  They swarmed the airport finding new customers and negotiating prices.  The first cab driver who stopped us offered us a ride for 300 CUC?!! How it went from a bus that was about 40 CUC for my cousin and I to a cab for 300 CUC was crazy to me.  After wandering around for an hour with no internet to fall back on and feeling that everyone is trying to convince us that there was no busses, we negotiated the ride down to 180 CUC.  I should have just went with my host mom’s recommendation.

The cabs at the airport and all the negotiations going on to get a ride.

The lesson here is that they wanted us to take a taxi, the locals take the bus and we were tourists.  Of course, Cuba is not the only country to set up things to take advantage of the unsuspecting tourist, and this was one time that I just had no patience to figure it out.  After that, we made sure to ask our host families for advice on how to get from city to city, and felt a bit more confident in negotiating rides within city limits.  Also, since there really isn’t an option to hop on your phone and double check schedules and addresses of destinations, make sure you have some things printed out or written down.

The bus station in Trinidad, where you had to write your name on a waiting list to see if you can even make it on the bus for the day that you want to leave.  You show up in the morning and hope there is space for you, if not then hopefully you put your name on the list for the next day.  We ended up getting a ride with 2 other girls (4 of us total made the ride even less) and a driver who was coordinated by our host family.

Luckily, I had downloaded Maps.me head of time.  It allows you to access maps (with routing) without connection to the Internet. Download the full Cuba map before you go and you’ll be able to walk around town with a little piece of mind.

SHOPPING

Not really.

Aside from rum, coffee, music, and cigars, be prepared not to find much else in the stores.  Be sure to bring the necessities.  Pharmacies and medical stores are lacking, so be sure to bring a fully packed first aid pouch with all sorts of medicines should you need it.  I searched high and low for a nail clipper while I was out there and found nothing.  I even went to a mall where I was directed to multiple stores.  I found all sorts of nail polishes, but no clipper.  I ended up borrowing my host family’s clipper because even they were at a loss on where to sent me that I might find one.

This place definitely did NOT have a nail clipper.

EN ESPAÑOL POR FAVOR

Lastly, know some Spanish.  Seriously, I took 2 years of spanish about 30 years ago, so rusty doesn’t even begin to describe what was coming out of my mouth.  I was even mixing up some Filipino Tagalog in my Spanish phrases when I didn’t know the word, and I don’t even speak Tagalog in the Philippines!  I felt terrible the first 2 days as I was having such a hard time with it, but started to remember words and make broken phrases.  I had asked a couple people to repeat something slowly, and that helped a lot.  Also, after walking around separately from my cousin for a time, I was able to work on my Spanish, whereas sometimes my cousin would answer something right away and I was kinda off the hook for needing to speak.  I felt more confident and by the end of the trip felt like it was a complete 180 from when I first arrived there.

I did download Google Translate on my phone as well, which actually helped a lot too.

Our host, Ana, in Trinidad.

Our host parents, Marta and Juan, in Havana.

ON THE WAY OUT…

Lastly, on our last day we had a couple more things that are worth knowing.  There used to be a LIMIT TO WHAT YOU CAN BRING BACK FROM CUBA.  It was $400 worth of goods, with only $100 of that being tobacco and alcohol products.  Apparently, that was changed as recently as October 2016, so you don’t have to worry about that.  There also used to be a DEPARTURE TAX of 25 CUC when you finally exit Cuba and at the airport, that too has been covered by our Jet Blue ticket, and seems to be regularly covered in flight purchases now and figured into tour packages.

Hopefully all of that information was helpful, stay tuned for more stories from Cuba, and feel free to reach out to me if there is anything you would like to know about this trip.

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