12 Things to Know Before Going to Cuba
Cuba has changed and opened up greatly in the last few years. There is more tourism, more legalized privatization of jobs and businesses, and more imported goods from abroad (with the exception of US of course). If you are planning to go for the first time, don't wait; now is your chance to see this beautiful country and experience the warm of the people and the richness of the culture.
Travel to Cuba can be a bit more challenging to navigate if you are not prepared. Here is a list of things to know or plan for:
- Bring cash. Ideally in Canadian dollars or Euros. Exchanging US dollars comes with an additional 10% commission charge at the money exchange (also known as CADECA). You can convert these into Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUCS) at a money exchange. There, you can also ask for National Pesos (Monedo Nacional or MN) to buy certain food in the street, pay for local buses and transport, etc.
- Make sure you are paying for things in the right currency. While the country is phasing out the dual currency, today MN are still being used for certain transactions. One CUC is worth 24 MN. Make sure you are paying for things with the right currency; avoid paying 24 times the regular price for goods and services.
- Bring a non-US affiliated credit card. If you are staying a while and don’t want to bring too much cash, bring a credit card that is not affiliated with a US Bank. Double check; otherwise, you will not be able to withdraw money on your credit card. Debit Cards do not work. If you are really in a bind, Americans can have the money wired via Western Union, to everyone else, make friends with a kind tourist - quick!
- Buy health insurance. All visitors are required to have private health insurance during their stay in Cuba. You may be asked to present this at customs. If you do not have any upon arrival or choose not to purchase any beforehand, you may be told to purchase insurance at the border for the duration of your trip. The cost is between 2 to 2.50 CUC daily (less than $3 US daily). This may be even cheaper than purchasing private insurance from home, but perhaps not a hassle you want to have at the border.
- Be prepared to live with little or without Internet. Write your emails for the month ahead of time. Do not expect to have access to high-speed internet; internet is slow and expensive. If you decide to splurge on internet: Gmail, facebook, and even couch surfing are accessible from Cuba, but do not attempt to log into paypal. They will freeze your account. Internet is available at most hotels through pre-paid cards that cost between $6 to 8 CUC an hour ($7 to $8.50 US). I recommend Hotel Parque Central in Havana Vieja for the location and the speed. The national phone company, ETECSA also has computers with fast internet connections, there is one located on Obispo in Havana Vieja.
- Learn to ask: “Quien es ultimo?” Learn how to wait in line. “Quien es ultimo”, means “Who is last?” In Cuba, there are lines for everything from waiting for the bank, to adding credit to your phone, or even to buying bread or coffee. Without asking first, as a tourist you may line up behind the last visible person in line, only to realize there are actually four or five people ahead of you, standing across the street in the shade. Not knowing your place in line can cause a stir, and you don’t want to be the tourist that created a mess. Cubans may let you go ahead, but trust me, they are not happy about it. Get over your tourist entitlement and wait in the line with everyone else. It’s also a great way to make friends.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers. Cubans are extremely friendly and open, the majority like to meet foreigners to learn about other cultures and to share aspects of their own. That said, be cautious of the locals that are the quickest to approach. A few warning signs are openers such as, “Can I invite you for a drink?; I’m a salsa teacher - Do you want to go dancing salsa tonight?; Or, I know of a salsa festival in Central Havana”
- Relax. You are in one of the safest countries in Latin America. Cuba is one of or perhaps the safest country in Latin America. I spent over seven months living there with hardly any incident. Have your wits about you. Follow the common travel tips that you would use traveling anywhere, and you will be fine.
- Don’t drink the water - The water is chlorinated in larger cities such as Havana and Santiago but to avoid spoiling your holiday, don’t drink anything that doesn’t come from a can or bottle, and be careful with salad and drinks that could be made with tap water.
- Do not put toilet paper (or other substitutes) into the waste bucket. Many of the buildings have been around for hundreds of years. Unless told otherwise, please put toilet paper in the waste-basket rather than down the toilet.
- Bring all your toiletries and some extra things to give away. Toilet paper at times can be scarce, good to bring extra. If you want to bring some extra clothes they make great gifts. Canadian tourists are allowed to bring $200 CDN of goods into the country, but after the first $50 CDN it is taxed at 100%. Also, don’t bring any more electronics that you could feasibly use; it may also be taxed highly.
- Pay your Departure Tax: Set aside 25 CUC to pay your departure tax at the airport.
Additional information for Americans traveling to Cuba
Pick an International Departure City
If you have a permit for one-to-one travel with a U.S approved agency, you can fly from the U.S directly; this will be organized by your agency.
While technically not permitted by the US government, each year thousands of Americans travel to Cuba independently using international gateways. If leaving from the United States, Canada or Mexico are your best options.
- In Canada, frequent flights with Westjet, Sungwing, and Air Canada leave from Toronto or Montreal in the east, and western gateways are available at higher prices from Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg.
- If leaving from Mexico, frequent and inexpensive flights can be found through Interjet departing from Mexico City (D.F) or Cancun. Air Cubana also flies from Canada and Mexico although their air track record isn’t great.
Passing through Customs
If not going with an organized U.S based cultural tour, when you get to the border, watch carefully that the Cuban Customs officer will not stamp your passport, neither on the entry nor the exit. They are used to this, but good to be watchful. That’s it! Que disfrutes de su tiempo ahí! Enjoy your time there!