Know Before You Go: Cuba

Alternate title for this post: ‘Do As I Say, Not As I Do’. We had an absolutely incredible time in Cuba but before I tell you about our adventures, we’ve got to cover all the misadventures so you can avoid the (many) mistakes we made! Some of them were avoidable while others just come with the territory so buckle in… here’s everything you need to know before you go to Cuba.

Visiting & Visas

There are currently 12 permissible reasons for US citizens to travel to Cuba. Pre-approval is no longer required, but you should still plan to keep records and receipts for up to five years after your trip. Travel purely for tourism is technically prohibited, but there are varying opinions on how stringent these restrictions truly are. GQ had this to say regarding the permissible reasons for travel:

“If you plan, on your visit to Cuba, to hear live music, you can confidently check off “public performances” as your reason for travel. If you plan to stay in a “casa particular,” accommodations provided by a private family, you can check off “support for the Cuban people.” If you plan to visit a museum, you can check off “educational activities.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide if you fall into one of the allowable categories. We had to sign an OFAC certification at our departure airport and that was the extent of any paperwork or proof required from us regarding the reason for our visit.  If you do believe that you qualify you’ll need a visa. Check with your airline on how to obtain yours as some will direct you to an outside agency while others will sell them to you directly.

We flew Delta and knew we could buy ours at the airport for $50 a pop. Where or when at the airport we weren’t exactly sure, but we figured it would be obvious when we arrived. Since we were able to get our boarding passes online and weren’t checking bags we breezed through security and headed straight to the Delta Sky Club. When we mosied down to the gate to board the agents were frantic. “We’ve been paging you!!! Do you have your visas???” They had run out of visas at the gate and had been searching for us hoping that we had already gotten them. It. was. a. whole. thing. They had to get someone to bring them an emergency supply and then we filled out our little cards while seven flight attendants watched, begging us not to mess up (no pressure!). So my advice is to do your research, give yourself plenty of time at the airport, and get your visas before your mimosas. Once you’ve got your visa find a safe place for it as you’ll need to keep it with you at all times.

Currency Concerns

I’ll cut right to the chase on this one: we didn’t bring enough cash to Cuba. Like had to change our itinerary didn’t bring enough cash… no bueno. This was our biggest blunder, caused us completely unnecessary stress, and was 100% avoidable so here’s what you need to know:

Credit and debit cards issued in the United States do not work in Cuba (yet!). Even if you do have a non-US based card I saw very few credit card machines or transactions. That means that every cent you’re going to spend on the island needs to come with you in cash on the plane. Cuban currency isn’t available internationally so you’ll need to purchase it once you arrive. Although there are two types of Cuban currency, we used the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) our entire trip. You should be aware that there is also the Cuban Peso (CUP) and you’re allowed to use it, but you likely won’t. Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) are pegged to the US Dollar so 1 CUC = 1 USD. However, if you exchange USD in Cuba you’re charged a 10% penalty in addition to the ~3% exchange fee so you really get roughly 87 CUC for 100 USD. Knowing we’d be penalized for exchanging dollars we decided to bring Canadian dollars based on exchange rates at the time.

After figuring out what currency we wanted to bring we had to decide how much to bring. We guesstimated our costs and came up with a low-end and high-end budget. We decided to convert the low-end amount into Canadian dollars and bring the cushion amount in USD. We figured that if we didn’t end up needing the extra funds we wouldn’t lose money on exchange fees by unnecessarily exchanging the cash into CAD and then back to USD.

So what happened? We forgot to bring our cushion amount. I am terrible about carrying cash and I was already super uncomfortable carrying all of our CAD cross-country. Not wanting to take out more money until absolutely necessary, we decided we’d wait and use the ATM at the airport in Miami before our flight to Havana. Then we forgot… probably something to do with that whole mimosa at the lounge debacle.

In truth, we weren’t too far off, and we probably could have made do, but we didn’t want to spend our entire trip worrying if we could afford another round of mojitos or not. One of our biggest cash expenses was going to be a resort that required us to pay in cash on arrival. We decided to stay two nights instead of three, and instead stayed at a much more affordable “casa particular.” That small tweak was enough to get us through our trip with plenty of money for mojitos, cigars, and rum (but not sunscreen 😉).

A miscellaneous aside: I was scolded (by another tourist nonetheless) for entering a bank in shorts and a tank-top. I didn’t realize until after the fact that there are signs outside the banks that prohibit shorts, exposed shoulders, and open toe shoes. On the other hand, it doesn’t appear anyone follows those guidelines (locals included). Just something to be aware of since it certainly caught me off guard!

Dwelling Decisions

We stayed in a hotel, two casa particulars, and a resort in our time in Cuba. If I had it to do again I’d skip the hotel in favor of a casa particular. Why? The hotel was much more than we’d normally spend on lodging in the states (even NYC!), but the accommodations and service weren’t on par with what you’d expect for the price. Casa particulars are basically the OG form of Airbnb where you’re hosted in a family’s home similar to a Bed & Breakfast. Although there were a few exceptions (and I’m kicking myself for not remembering their names!), we found the staff to be generally unhelpful at our hotel when it came to assisting us with tours and activities while the local knowledge our homestay hosts had couldn’t have been more valuable. One of them was such a savior that we honestly took to calling her our Cuban fairy godmother. The one benefit to staying in a larger hotel is that they tend to have internet access, although in our experience that only applied to the common areas and not the rooms.

Something to note: due to restrictions on spending USD in Cuba if you book a hotel you’ll either be paying through a non-Cuban travel agency or in cash upon arrival like we did at the resort we stayed at. Roberto used both Cuba Travel Network and Airbnb to book our stays. Just letting you know it isn’t quite as straightforward as booking directly with a hotel as you might in the US or Europe. Also when we had to book a last minute casa particular in place of one of our nights at the resort we weren’t able to do it through Airbnb from a Cuban internet connection. We were able to find a workaround by proxying into our desktop computers at home, but it’s just another complication to be aware of.

WiFi Worries

Man oh man do we take our access to the internet for granted… what’s that old saying about how you don’t miss something till it’s gone? Internet access in Cuba is a true luxury. You have to purchase internet cards in 1-hour increments to even access the internet in the few places it is available. We were lucky enough to have it in almost all the places we stayed, but once you’re out and about there’s no such thing as a Starbucks to pop into to get online for free. What you’ll find are these internet access points that aren’t marked as far as I could tell but are not hard to find. You’ll be able to identify them because like moths to a flame young people and tourists alike flock to these corners to get on the world wide web. People were often selling internet access cards in the vicinity of these access points, but we weren’t confident they were real/hadn’t already been used so we stuck to official sellers. You can buy the cards at ETECSA stores for about 2 CUC, but like everything else in Cuba, the lines are incredibly long. Hotel lobbies will also sell them to you (typically with a markup). If you aren’t a guest at the hotel they may require you to buy food or a drink in order to purchase the card but a cold Cristal definitely beats waiting in line for an hour at ETECSA. Last word of advice: since internet access is such a commodity be sure to log off when you’re done surfing so you don’t unintentionally waste all your minutes. You can do so by going to http://1.1.1.1/.

Medical Matters

There was a point in our trip where Roberto was convinced I was going to have to have my feet amputated on the island (he has a flair for the dramatic). To be fair, our cab driver had just offered to take us to his house so his wife could bandage me up, so he wasn’t the only one who was worried. I had gotten blisters on our last night in Miami and they were refusing to heal with all the walking we were doing. Traveling with basic medical supplies is the adult thing to do and we had arrived in Cuba without so much as a band-aid. While we passed by this beautiful pharmacy museum multiple times, I never saw an actual pharmacy or drugstore so be sure to bring any and all medical supplies you may need.

You’ll also need to have proof of health insurance to enter Cuba and chances are your American policy won’t cut it. Delta automatically included a policy for a $25 surcharge in each of our tickets and our boarding pass served as proof of that. If your airline doesn’t provide insurance you can buy a temporary policy relatively inexpensively. We were never actually asked to provide proof, but you’re better safe than sorry… especially since it was looking like we were going to need our coverage for a minute there.

Safety Sensibilities

We felt totally safe in Cuba despite the fact that we walked all over town at night. Any sort of negative experience you’ll face is much more likely to be a tourist scam rather than any crime or violence. I mentioned the two currencies Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP) briefly. In our experience, you won’t need to use CUPs to pay but you do need to be able to recognize them. One of the biggest tourist scams in Cuba is charging in CUC, but giving change in the less valuable CUP. How can you tell? The Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) have monuments on them, while the Cuban Pesos (CUP) have historical figures.

Lastly, just be aware of tourist scams in general. We hired a driver who ended up leaving a bad taste in our mouth after he tried to take us to his contact in Viñales despite the fact that we had already booked with a different provider. Be really clear with drivers on where you’re going, the cost (is gas included?), etc. so you don’t end up in an uncomfortable situation like we did.

Transportation Thoughts

I’ll be sharing our full itinerary next, but we visited four towns in our week in Cuba. Although there are domestic flights between a few places on the island we relied entirely on taxis while we were there. We debated renting a car, but ultimately decided against it after reading some horror stories about cars frequently not being available and less than ideal driving conditions (this article actually made me LOL… it is just so quintessentially Cuba). We had done zero planning ahead on how exactly we’d get around so once on the island we got rides a few different ways. The driver that had taken us from the airport to our hotel in Havana offered to take us to Viñales. Even though our tour company had offered to arrange a cab we went with our driver to save a few CUC (don’t forget we were short on cash!). We ultimately wished we had just arranged a ride with our tour company (see above). For our ride out of Havana, we used this website. It’s also a good resource for getting an idea of what a ride might cost, but I’d argue their listed prices are the max you should pay. You can likely get cheaper rates once you’re there or with drivers you find on the street. Our casa particular hostess arranged a rideshare another time (we split the cost with another couple going the same way), and then we finally took our first “legal” cab arranged by our resort. If you’re a planner I’d use the website to pre-book your trips (don’t be afraid to try and negotiate), but we found it relatively easy to arrange once we were there in part because…

Language Lessons

I happen to be married to a native Spanish speaker so I was lucky enough to have a built-in translator for the entirety of our trip. I know it’s a cliche, but learning or even attempting to learn the local language goes a long way. More than once I sent last minute requests for tours or cabs in English only to be turned down. When Roberto would subsequently call and speak to them in Spanish they always managed to work it out and squeeze us in. My hunch is the language connection helped us out, but the kid is charming and has great lashes so it’s really anyone’s guess. The few times I had to fend for myself I felt totally self-conscious, but whenever Roberto explained to our guides/hosts/waiters that I was learning they were all kind and patient.

“This is Cuba, Honey” a.k.a. TIC

After waiting in an impossibly long line (oh the lines!) to exchange our CAD into CUC we arrived at our hotel in Havana where we were promptly met by a woman at the front desk complaining that not only had they not had hot water for the last few days, but now they had no water at all. On our way back from our day trip to Viñales our driver ran out of gas. We waited in a long line (like I said) at the gas station only to find out that they were out of gas. So we drove house to house until we found someone who would sell us some “gray market” gasolina. When we woke up at our casa particular in Trinidad and didn’t have power Roberto immediately alerted our hostess. Señora Addys just laughed and said, “This is Cuba, Honey… what do you expect?” And so TIC was born. Anytime anything went wrong Roberto and I would just look at each other and laugh and tell ourselves TIC… which made it a little easier to laugh when Roberto actually got a tick. Or why we weren’t the least bit surprised when we arrived at our Airbnb in Santa Clara only to find out that it had been double booked and they didn’t have room for us. All this to say that if you’re traveling to Cuba you need to be prepared to roll with the punches. You’ll find that in many cases the infrastructure in Cuba is frozen in time and you need to be ready to put a smile on your face and adjust your plans accordingly. On the other hand, the Cuban people are wonderful and they’ll do their best to make it right (although it’s often out of their control). We had no problems with water. We found gas (eventually!). We ate breakfast on the patio in the sunlight when the power went out. Our hostess in Santa Clara made arrangements with her friend’s BnB who took great care of us. It will all work out, but expect a few bumps in the road!

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