I have been trying to write about Cuba since returning in December. It has been hard for me as I am still processing the experience; in a great way that is. Maybe a part of me does not want to share as I want to keep it pristine. Even though I want you to experience the Cuba we experienced, I kind of don’t want anyone to go there. Selfish right? I have a feeling that once the doors officially open for American tourists, all that makes Cuba great will change, and not in the most positive ways. I will hate the day I see a chain store or coffee shop on the corner in Havana. Or worst a hotel with an unmentionable name plastered on the front. My advice to you is to go earlier than later! This is only the first post about Cuba, and it is about the basics for the country, what we experienced. I will write about the cities in a separate post.
We have been talking about going to Cuba for years, and the opportunity never presented itself, and the logistics of going about getting into the country a round-about was not appealing. When an opportunity to take a peer-to-peer landscape/travel photography workshop came up, we jumped on it. With flights from the East Coast into Havana, it made it even easier and more approachable for us.
Once the workshop and flights were confirmed, all that was left was the planning and I mean planning. I read a lot of blog posts as well as a couple of books on the country, so I felt over informed actually. There is a lot of information out about getting in and out of Cuba, as well as to what to expect once there. Honestly, I felt after being there only a couple days, that the blogs I read were not in the same country. What Cuba did all these people go too was a question we asked ourselves often. Our experience was completely different from anything I read online. The only book I read that was the most accurate as well as the most current was this one.
Flights – it has been easy for everyone except Americans to get into Cuba. Unless, they went the round about way through Canada or Mexico. Now it is a piece of cake as most airlines are starting to fly into Cuba, even more since we went. When we decided on this trip only JetBlue was flying into Cuba. The day we landed was the first day Delta and American also started service. We flew JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale, and it was really simple as well as affordable. We booked the flights, they emailed us the forms we needed to fill out before arriving at the airport, and we thought we were done. NOT! We got to the airport and they did not have the forms; not a big deal as we filled them out, again, at the airport. Next time we will fly Alaska as they are partnered with Virgin America (our preferred airline) and we earn miles with them.
Getting into Cuba – keep in mind tourists have been going to Cuba forever; just not Americans. If you are a US citizen, you still need to be going for one of the twelve reasons listed below. The rule change back in 2015 allows American citizens to visit without prior permission of the US Office of Foreign Assets Control as long as your visit falls under one of the 12 approved categories. Seriously, straight-out tourist travel to Cuba is still not permitted. You can go for it if you want; but, if they decide to ask you at immigration for the paperwork, good luck. When we arrived, they asked why we were there, how long for and then took our photo. They never asked for the endless paperwork we had to prepare, but at least we were prepared. I heard from someone recently that they tried to come into the country and were asked for their traveler’s insurance documents. They didn’t have it, and they had to buy it on the spot. When we left Cuba, we did get pulled aside and questioned about why we there, what we did, where we went, what we took photos of, etc… I am not going to lie it was a tad scary especially after they came onto the plane asking for our passports again. My advice is to do what makes you comfortable.
These are the categories per the White House:
- Family Visits
- Official business of the US Government, Foreign Governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Professional research and meetings
- Educational Activities
- Journalistic Activity
- Religious Activies
- Public Performances, workshops, clinics, altheltic and other competitions
- Humanitarian Projects
- Activities of Private Foundations, Research or Educational Institutes
- Support of Cuban Families
- Exportations, importation or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain Export Transactions that may be considered for authorization under regulations and guidelines.
Travelers Insurance – we were advised that we had to have it when entering and while in Cuba. We purchased it, and it is not crazy expensive. We were never asked for the paperwork, but again we wanted to be prepared and not encounter any surprises. The company we used was World Nomads, they were great, and it was very reasonable.
Health Insurance – yes, this is another requirement, but again we were not asked for any paperwork upon entering or leaving the country. A portion of our airline ticket covered an extra health insurance package so I am assuming that may be why they never asked. Again, better safe than sorry.
Vaccines – we were advised by our doctor to get the typhoid vaccine before going into Cuba, and we did. No need to worry about eating and drinking while away. Here is a list from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While we were at it, we updated all our vaccines to cover any other countries, we may want to travel to in the next ten years.
Customs – we had heard it could take upward of 4 hours to get through when arriving into Havana. Guess what? It did. Be prepared, and most of all be patient. Getting through customs was easy, it was the waiting for bags that took a long time. One of the luggage carousels stopped working; then they had to switch bags to another one, then they switched back once they fixed the original one. Then they started taking bags and placing on the floor around a corner. Lesson learned if you see bags being put off to the side, check as yours may be there. They also decided as we were on our way through the gates that they wanted to run one of our bags through the inspection; back we went for more screening. Be prepared for anything, don’t be an ass and remember you are in their country.
Money – if you bring in US dollars the fees for exchanging will be anywhere from 10 – 20% to exchange. As well, they do not take credit cards for US banks. We brought in Euros and exchanged them at the bank which was around the corner from our casa in Havana. The fee was not more than $5.00, and we exchanged a lot of money. Budget about $100 per person per day for everything from meals to transportation. Havana was more expensive than we thought it would be but smaller towns outside of the area weren’t. Keep in mind if you run out of money there are no ATMs for Americans. It is different if you are from another country. Budget wisely.
There are two currencies in Cuba: the Cuba Convertible Peso (CUC) or the Cuban Peso (CUP). Tourists will be given CUC. There are some stores or markets that will not take the CUC as well. You will find out when you try to buy something, and there was no budging on this.
Internet – oh, the internet, what would we do without you. Survive, is what we found out. There is the internet and you will know where it is when you see groups of young people mostly, looking at their phones. Usually, it is near main squares or in the big tourist hotels. We would go into the hotel, have a coffee or cocktail and check in. To use the internet, you have to buy a card which we purchased at this hotel in the business center, or you can purchase from ETESCA Communications (the lines are LONG at this one). We bought two of them for about $5.00 US each and still had a ton of time left on them when we came home. Just a heads up, Lenny could get email but for some reason mine would not come in; I lived! As well, some apps do not work for instance Snapchat for US phones did not, but I could post endless photos on Instagram.
Food – everything we read said the food was terrible; no salt, no spice, no flavor, rice, and beans, bring your hot sauce, etc… I am not sure where these people ate at because we had great meals. There are two types of restaurants in Cuba, private ones called Paladars and then tourist ones who are partly owned by the government. Every meal over two weeks was very good, except for one, which was at a tourist spot in Havana. All of our breakfasts we ate were at the casa particular where we stayed, as well we had a couple of dinners, and you cannot beat a home cooked meal. We also ate at some road stop equivalents to truck stops, and they were good. Now if you are gluten free, vegetarian, or vegan you will have a harder time, and you need to keep this in mind. There is a lot of meat (beef and pork) as well as seafood; we ate a lot of lobster and ceviche. As well, we always had fresh vegetables and fruit with every meal. Breakfasts at the casa particulars we stayed at usually served an abundant breakfast with fruit, freshly baked bread, eggs, coffee, and juice.
Water – most places said the water was filtered, but we still drank the bottled water. Though we did shower and brush our teeth with the house water. This was our first time traveling to a latin country where Lenny never got sick. He usually always gets a stomach bug.
Mosquitos – again, not sure where all these people were that blogged about Cuba, but I am a mosquito magnet and only came home with three bites. Usually, I am chewed up alive, even at home. This was the first time traveling to a warm climate that I did not get bites. Our guide said it was because the government controls the mosquito population as they do not want Zika there. We did bring three types of repellent and only used this one, maybe twice.
Sunscreen – bring it! It is hot and the sun is stronger than you think. Lenny thought I was crazy and kept saying we could buy it there. We never once saw it in a store. If you have a carry on then buy it at the airport once you get thru check-in or buy a travel sized kit. This is the one I use and travel with – love it.
Toilet Paper – another thing Lenny thought I was crazy to bring; but it was the one item that almost everyone wrote about. Many places did not have, or you would have to pay to use a bathroom and they would give you a square. We brought a roll as well as some of these wipes. Guess what? Just about everyone from the group ended up borrowing.
Safety – we were very surprised at how safe we felt in Cuba. Not a problem at all walking around with camera gear, not one person bothered us or asked for money. No heckling, etc.. We have both traveled in Mexico as well as SE Asia and never felt this safe. They take tourism very seriously in Cuba, and crimes are not tolerated.
Gifts – when I say gifts, I mean trinkets to give people who live in Cuba. We brought so much stuff from candies to mini nail polish. Do not bring trinkets; I mean gifts. This is a poor country, and they rather had a few extra pesos instead of the hottest new nail color or chocolate from the US.
What to Pack – after everything we read that was a must to bring, we packed too much. WHAT were we THINKING, WE ARE SEASONED TRAVELERS!! Next time we will only bring a carry on as well as our cameras. This will also eliminate extra time upon arrival. You need lightweight and casual clothing. If you run out, every Casa will do laundry for you. Bring travel sized cosmetics, shampoo, sunscreen, etc… as you cannot get these things there so easily. It is hot and humid, ladies, you do not need full makeup. Natural is beautiful.
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