Cuba Travel Basics

View from San Francisco Cathedral in Old Havana

View from San Francisco Cathedral in Old Havana

Although things are opening up between the US and Cuba, it’s still not all that easy to get there as an (official) tourist. NYT recently updated the rules on traveling to Cuba, but keep in mind, they are evolving, so keep checking.

As of now, you need to go with a group to qualify. We went on a people-to-people tour, which sounded cheesy, and sometimes was. It was also interesting. We got a closer look than we otherwise would have.

Going on a qualified tour takes care of the visa. And boy was I excited to get the stamps in my passport. I was a little worried at first, because the visa is a piece of paper they slip into your passport, and they check it *everywhere*. But upon departure, the immigration officer took my piece of paper, then stamped the entry and exit date. Voila!

Going on a group … generally, not my thing. I like the freedom to go where I want, and I have no interest in following a guide with a brightly colored umbrella herding a flock of American sheep. Yet here I was. Our guides with Group IST were terrific. They planned a nice itinerary with stops at artists – known and unknown – schools, clinics, wildlife sanctuaries, etc. They also recognized that G and I are wanders, and let us do things away from the group, trusting we wouldn’t get lost or otherwise hurt ourselves. My advice: look for a small group, where you can have more flexibility, and look for a like-aged group. Not surprising, our group had a good smattering of older folks. Many were very interesting, but it also meant they might have different interests.

Charter flights. Right now, you still need to take a charter flight to Cuba. It’s a pain. You’re required to check in something like 3 hours ahead of time (why?). And there are delays. The rest of our group had a delay getting to Havana, and then apparently had a 13 hour delay in the Havana airport, trying to get back to Miami. Ugh.

Bring small US $. Right away at the Havana Airport, I went to the ladies room and was confronted with two unpleasant truths: the toilets in Cuba don’t have seats. It’s just a bowl. Sigh. And the bathrooms have attendants, which means tipping them in small bills. Good thing I had a $1 on me. Think of Cuba as one big strip club in that way – you’re leaving $1 everywhere, handing off to the taxi driver, the porter who gets your luggage, the person who plays the piano at the bar, everyone.

Bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Fortunately, everywhere I had to go was clean, although mostly seat-less. Just in case, bring your own TP. Travel sized tissues do nicely. As do individually packed hand wipes. Query: why doesn’t someone invent a collapsible toilet seat cover for international travel? Just telescope it out and over the bowl, then fold away and stow in your backpack ….

Havana's famed Malecon

Havana’s famed Malecon

Sunscreen. You can’t bring too much or apply too often. Just walking around Havana in late December, I could feel my arms and shoulders roasting. Freckles were proliferating like no one’s business. Yep, in old age, I’m going to be able to point to that brown spot as resulting from Cuban sun.

What not to bring:

Credit cards and ATM cards. There’s no access to the US banking system, so even if you see a rare ATM machine, you won’t be able to access your funds with it. Kinda weird, bringing a bunch of cash to Cuba, and having only that cash for the whole trip.

Bring Euros. Talk to your bank to see if you can get exchange dollars for Euros. While the formal exchange rate of dollars to cucs is fixed, in reality, you are penalized for dollars. Or is it a commission? You will get $.87 cuc for a dollar. Expect a fairer exchange rate for the Euro. At today’s rates, you’re essentially exchanging dollars for Euros to get an even 1:1 dollar to cuc rate. Minus the commission for the euros of course. It’s worth the hassle if you’re going to be in Cuba more than a few days.

Bring your smartphone for the camera, just don’t expect Internet access. You can buy a local phone and buy access, but it’s spotty at best. And your US phone won’t be able to access the local wi-fi.

Cans of Cristal offloaded from the truck, ready for pick up

Cans of Cristal offloaded from the truck, ready for pick up

Booze. We bought two bottles thinking booze would be pricey, and we would save money just buying mixers. Nope. This isn’t China or Russia. Booze is cheaper than in the states. And you can get Havana Club for cheap.

There’s no wine, really, so if you’re a wino, you’re out of luck. Some Spanish or South American wines in the state stores. That’s it. As for beer, Cristal and Bucanero are everywhere. Perfectly serviceable, especially for the tropical weather.

Nice shoes – no need. And Old Havana’s cobblestones will give you a hard time. Sure the Cuban girls might be tottering in heels and skin tight dresses, but you’re clearly a gringo, so just own it. Same goes for clothes. It’s hot, so make sure your clothes are comfortable and hand washable. As for makeup, pack only the essentials, then think about what will melt in the heat and prune back.

Final thought: food is good, but pack a few snacks. You never know when a protein bar will come in handy …



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