Cuba is a luscious country in virtually all aspects and proof that the Socialist System was designed for application in a tropical climate. No matter how hard you work, as long as the sun keeps shining and fruits fall from the trees, life is good. Here are some practical travel tips for Cuba.
Cubans are happy people, much more so than we give them credit for. Cuba ’embraced’ the system almost 60 years ago and everyone knows that it mostly does not work, yet somehow everything works. A lot of Cubans leave – or want to leave, but most who do, return after a few years. La Vida es tranquilo en Cuba – Life is quiet and peaceful in Cuba. The stressless Caribbean lifestyle of “limin’, carefully mixed with over the top creativity and practical innovation, makes for a unique travel destination as Cuba leaves nobody untouched.
By popular demand I have put together some basic tips on traveling there. More will follow later, but these will help you to get there and back within legal requirements, as well as help with your initial adjustments.
When traveling to Cuba, a US citizen or legal resident is required to get a licensed reason for traveling there. As with anything dealing with governments, the theoretical general license requirements (12 general licenses) appear much more serious than the practical applications. Here is what the US government states on its website.
Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel. Individuals who meet the regulatory conditions of the general license they seek to travel under do not need to apply for an additional license from OFAC to travel to Cuba. The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
United States New Embassy Location:
Calzada between L and M Streets,Vedado,Havana, Cuba
Telephone +(53)(7) 839-4100
Emergency After Hours-Telephone +(53)(7) 839-4100 and dial 1 for the emergency operator
Fax: (+53) 7839-4247
Cuba’s Entry Requirements
1. Arrange for a Travel Visa with www.cubatravelservices.com
The online price is currently $50 per person. Airport service in obtaining the Visa is available but is 50 to 100% more expensive. The Visa will be ready for you at the airline’s check in desk. Keep the stub on you while in Cuba and hand it back in to Cuban immigration officials at departure.
2. Mandatory Health Insurance If your airline does not include the mandatory health insurance in your ticket, you will have to purchase it separately and keep proof on you during the entire stay in Cuba. Southwest Airlines includes the insurance in the ticket price and your proof of insurance is your boarding pass.
In the arrival hall of your airport in Cuba you will have to show your proof of insurance to health department officials, after you pass through immigration.
Money Exchange: CUC(kooks or Pesos Convertibles) and MN (CUP or Moneda Nacional or Pesos)
Your US Credit or Debit Crads still don’t work in Cuba, so you have to bring cash to pay for your vacation, except for what you have reserved ONLINE. Now, there is absolutely no reason in Cuba why you should get a better exchange deal in the streets than at a bank or Cadeca.
Also, arriving at a Cuban airport you can stand in a long line at the arrival money exchange or choose to walk to the departure hall exchange, which has no lines! Just a tip.
The CUC stands for Cuban Convertible Currency. The bills have statues on it and actually do say Pesos Convertibles. Now don’t be confused, because the convertible peso is ONLY convertible in Cuba, nowhere else. So only bring your money and exchange what you need and if you’re comfortable with the idea of bringing large bills, do so. It saves a lot of time. I took $100 bills because the exchange activity may take forever if you bring $10 or $20 bills. Every bill gets thoroughly inspected.
The MN, or Moneda National Peso, exchanges at 24 (selling) or 25 (buying) to the Convertible peso. Tourists think that the MN peso is off limits to them, but that is not the case. You can buy things with it and thus save a lot of money. You can buy them at the Cadeca or the exchange bank at the same time you exchange your dollars to CUC.
Advice: get about 20CUC worth in MN and use this to buy ice cream, snacks, fruit, home made cookies, bus or even taxis etc.
If you’re getting confused on the money thing, always remember the CUC features buildings as visuals, while the MN features people. Oh and always have some small pesos in coins for bus, bathroom etc., because change from bills is not always available.
The CUC is officially pegged to US Dollar at One to One. However because it’s US you pay a 10% embargo penalty on top of 3 to 4% exchange commission. So you end up with a CUC peso that represents 86 to 87 cents on the dollar. If you can, take Canadian dollars or Euros and you only pay the commission.
Tip: To avoid mistakes keep your CUC and MN separate.
City Bus: avoid traffic hour times and have local pesos (MN)
Cross Country Bus: Cheap but make reservations online http://www.viazul.com/
Rental car – relatively expensive and not always a safe choice
Share Cab options for point-to-point mid distance travel: Ask your hotel or AirBNB hosts to connect.
Private taxi: official taxi, gypsy taxi, fixed route taxi, Coco taxi, pedi cab, horse and carriage – negotiate with the drivers.
• Buy food at the market in NM. Eat in NM restaurants. Buy, rent or borrow a bike. Everything is negotiable. Speak a little Spanish, although Cuban is very much a dialect you won’t fully understand even if you’re fluent in Castilian Spanish. Book a casa particular online, don’t wait until you’re there. Use MN whenever you can.
How to figure out if something is priced in MN or CUC? Often prices are clearly indicated, sometimes not. If something seems pretty expensive, like we thought in Matanzas at the Montserrate Panorama deck, it is probably in MN. 24 Pesos for a half a chicken in a street side restaurant means MN, which equals 1 CUC. As a tourist you will mostly pay in CUC. Reason is that everything that Cuba imports is to be paid in CUC and products and services directly related to imported goods are in CUC as well. Not an exact science, but more a rule of thumb. Also avoid tourist areas as much as you can if you’re budget conscious.
Public transportation you pay in MN, going to the movies will set you back about a dime, a sandwich about 15 cents and an ice cream about 0.10 CUC or 2.4cts in local currency.
Live like a Cuban and on average you pay 24 times less than a tourist, and then remember that it still is cheap even if you pay in CUC. We never spend more than a $100 USD a day during our vacation.
When you tip, always tip in CUC. 10% is more than adequate (don’t forget for the past 50 years Cubans only saw visiting nationals from nations that don’t have a tip culture). Cubans prefer a 1 CUC tip over 30MN which in reality has 20% more purchasing power for them.
Shaking the Money Tree
As a tourist you are a money tree to Cubans. Actually, in all our travels we have learned that most tourist destinations have that same attitude, Italy being the worst in our opinion. (An official exchange in Florence, Italy last year gave us Euro 612 for $1,000 USD!!!)
But remember Cubans are very creative, also in the art of “scamming” or hustling. If you understand that, you earn their respect and a smile or laugh.
But in order to recognize a scam, you need to know how things work in Cuba. For example when someone comes up to you politely asking for some milk for her child or baby, it’s good to know that the state provides for milk until the child is 7 years old. If, with that knowledge, you’re still willing to help out, you’re just a good person, knowingly falling for the scam.
Always remember to keep your cool and that people pulling scams on you in NO way represent the Cubans. A very tiny small minority specializes in scamming tourists and Cubans want nothing to do with this. But if you get into a situation, always remember that if you don’t play along with the scammer, you will not get harmed, because the country is incredibly safe.
Just learn to play the game and have fun. Street hustlers in Cuba are called Jineteros and you can recognize them quite easily. They speak English well, they are well dressed usually with a gold chain, well educated and usually approach you with: “where you from frien”…
They hustle money from you mostly in an indirect way by getting commissions from restaurants, taxis, shops and hotels they guide you to.
The best thing to remember is that even if you’re “scammed” into eating a $20 CUC meal in an overpriced tourist trap, that should not have cost half the amount on the receipt, you’re still probably cheaper than a quick lunch at Fridays in the States. Just know better next time and keep a bruised ego at bay.
Wifi in Cuba is mostly concentrated in city park areas and around the larger hotels and resorts. Whenever you see a bunch of people sit down and working their Smartphones, you have found a WIFI zone. You can buy Cards for $2 a piece, good for a little over an hour of online time. Installing Whatsap and Cuba Messenger ap on your phone may help you communicate more easily.
Good luck with these practical travel tips for Cuba and have fun.