Cuba. By virtue of its turbulent history, the name is charged. Politically, anthropologically, passionately charged. For an American, the word gives off more than a just standard-issue vacation-destination buzz. It’s still quasi-taboo, the forbidden land. Our collective temptation for mischief embodied in a tropical island nation. That gets the blood pumping, right?
Sure, recent developments have mostly eliminated the old stigmas, and even non-intrepid types have Cuba on their travel wish lists now, but the future still remains murky. Right now, an American booking a legal trip to Cuba needs a permit for one of the 12 purposes approved by the U.S. Department of State. Sadly, none of these purposes include, “Just laying on the beach drinking rum and spitting game.”
Which leaves the still-kinda-illegal route. On that tip, most online advice comes from Canadian or European websites and aren’t of much use. If they do come from American sources, they’re often outdated, written ages before Obama’s big visit.
Recently, I visited. It was a short, breathtakingly-awesome trip. This is not an account of that trip (this is an account of that trip). This is a guide to get you to Cuba, without the state department, before the embargo lifts. Cruise ships are on the horizon. With them come Starbucks and Pizza Hut. I’m not here to discuss the cost or benefit of those imports to Cuba. I’m just stating what seems to be fairly obvious: things are going to change.
We’ve already covered how to get to Cuba, really well. And I may repeat a fair bit of what’s on that list. I can only speak to our encounters, our research, and our experiences. Any corrections or suggestions are welcomed.
Actually Getting There
With a quick detour through the Bahamas, my girlfriend and I flew from Newark, New Jersey to Havana, Cuba for around $600 each. Currently, there are direct charter flights from Florida, California, and New York to the island through American Airlines and Jet Blue with many future flights proposed for this fall. But to take those, you have to be state department approved.
For now, the old roundabout move still seems to be the way to go. Fly to Cancun, Montreal, or the Bahamas and book a direct flight to Havana or Santiago. You’ll be surprised at how affordable it is.
The Passport Question
Before you leave your transfer city, be sure to purchase a Cuban Visa ($15). You’ll need that and will more than likely be asked for it at the check-in counter of whatever airport you’re flying through.
Chances are that when you land, they’re going to stamp your passport. You can ask them not to if it makes you uncomfortable and they’ll most likely comply. They also might not stamp it just because. I’ve heard stories of customs agents being bribed or plain slips of paper getting slipped into the passport, but those things don’t seem all that necessary anymore. At least, from what I could tell.
When we entered the airport, everyone from the plane was ushered into a giant room, not unlike other customs situations. Single file lines were formed and passengers entered what I can only describe as a closed-off, plexi-glass-walled voting booth. Passengers either re-emerged at random to pay for insurance, which is very cheap, or disappeared through to the other side.
When I entered, I was questioned about Ebola and my travel history, then handed a visa to fill out. Once the visa was stamped, I was strongly advised not to lose it. Once I found my girlfriend, we discovered that her passport was stamped and mine wasn’t. Luck of the draw, I guess.
The food was f*cking good. I don’t know what you’ve heard or what you’ve come to know as Cuban food, but I really enjoyed every meal. I could have eaten stewed beans and Ropa Vieja (stewed beef) over rice for every meal and been perfectly happy.
We also ate a lot of pork sandwiches. You should do the same. This is probably my best piece of advice throughout the article. As a native of the tri-state area, I also feel inclined to talk about the famous peso pizza. It wasn’t all that bad, considering what you pay for it, roughly 75 cents.
The fruits and veggies were spectacular. A Tobacco farmer explained to us that the rind of tobacco plants are often fermented and saturated with water, this herbal pesticide is used nationwide. The meat, at times, was questionable. The fruits and veggies were flawless.
We stayed at two Airbnb’s. One in the Vedado district of Havana and one in the hills above Viñales. Ranging from $30 a night to $50 respectively, prices have already risen since our visit in April. In both cases, it was advised to only select properties that had active commenters, as most others had the potential to be fake accounts. It was explained to us by our hosts that these accounts were often managed by family members outside of the country.
The houses and apartments we were staying in were simply Casa Particulars or guest houses whose owners were savvy to the changing times. Anyone looking for a place to stay could have knocked on the door and, if a room were available, they would’ve been offered one. Chances are people taking that method would have gotten a much cheaper rate.
In a place like Viñales, that’s not a bad move, every other house was open to guests and the locals were incredibly welcoming, usually offering up at least one meal a day. We spoke to a few fellow travelers who showed up with zero reservations and they had no complaints. In a place like Havana, Airbnb or another online method might be the right move, just for peace of mind.
There are two forms of currency. Know that going in and be prepared to learn on the fly. People who complain about Cuba being expensive probably didn’t realize this or did realize this and were brutally taken advantage of. We were aware of the two types going in and it still took us a few days to actually get a grip on it.
There is the CUP, also refereed to as Peso or MN, moneda nacional. Then there is the CUC, often pronounced as one word rather than an acronym (CUK), refereed to as a dollar or, occasionally, as Peso. At press time, 25 CUPs were equivalent to one CUC. The CUC is pinned to the U.S. dollar and is often within .1 of it on the exchange charts.
Coming from the states, convert your money to Euros or Canadian dollars before leaving for Cuba. You will be docked an extra 10% if you exchange USD in Cuba.
You’ll be given CUC at any exchange booth. Bills with people on them are CUP-issued, those with monuments or buildings are CUC.
Employees of the Cuban state and of state enterprises are paid their basic salary in CUP, often being paid performance-dependent bonus in CUC. Staple goods, veggies, services, and rations not oriented towards foreigners are usually paid in CUP. Luxury goods and services, namely restaurants, and imported goods…anything intended for consumption by foreigners, are generally paid for in CUC.
At fruit stands or veggie markets, expect to pay CUP. At a larger market with higher quality packaged goods, expect to pay CUC.
At most cafés across Havana, a shot of espresso is one CUP. If you look like a tourist or look at all out of place, it is not unreasonable to expect the barista to ask you for one CUC. He or she is banking on you not understanding the system and paying much more than everyone else. If you’re in a very touristy part of town, namely La Habana Vieja, it’s possible that coffee really costs that much. If you’re anywhere else, pay attention to what the locals are paying and follow suite.
Pizza usually costs anywhere from 12 to 15 CUP (around 50 cents), hot dogs are often around that price too. Nowhere on any menu should you expect to see that clearly stated. I paid my 12 CUP and stepped out of the way only to see another group of tourists walk up and spend twenty CUC on a pizza with toppings. I promise you, that group will complain about Cuba being expensive.
We’d heard rumors of rental cars in Cuba, but didn’t find much once we were there. As far as taxis go, what kind of American born person isn’t excited about hopping in a ’59 Chevy and cruising around Havana? You should be, it’s a great experience, but if you aren’t savvy to it, it can cost a ton.
Hopping in a Taxi Collectivo in Havana or Santiago is easy enough. They’re usually only marked by a taxi sign in the front windshield and tend to be the older looking, work in progress, kind of cars. This is a shared ride and will take you wherever you want to go in the city for two CUC.
If you try to discuss the rate with a collectivo driver, he or she will probably ask for 20 CUC, because why wouldn’t they?
If you hop in a more luxury looking convertible or a labeled yellow cab, expect to get where you’re going much faster and to pay upwards of 10 to 15 CUC
Companies like Viazul offer bus rides around the county for anywhere from $10 to $50 CUC. It’s a comfortable ride and super easy to figure out. Swing by any tourism agency or bus station and they’ll explain the whole process to you. The busses usually cost much less, but take much longer than a private ride to other cities. For an extra two hours (but way less cash), a bus was perfect for getting us to Vinales from Havana.
It does exist and it’s actually not bad. Expect to pay two CUC an hour. You can purchase an internet card, with your own username and password, from most hotels or ETECSA booths. To find Wifi hotspots, simply keep an eye out for the crowds of individuals huddled around looking at laptops and cellphones, chances are the service is good there.
Following our time in Cuba, we were both given exit stamps at customs before boarding our return flight. Upon arrival in the states, we were not questioned or pulled aside. We’d spent a brief time on the flight from Nassau to Newark rehearsing which of the 12 pre-approved reasons we’d use for being there, if questioned. When we approached the customs desk, we were simply asked about tobacco or alcohol by the U.S. customs agent. I had ten cigars on me, I honestly told the customs agent about them and was welcomed back to the U.S.
Now, knowing how easy it was coming back, I would have taken advantage of the $400 limit and picked up a few handles of Havana Club in the airport before leaving. Live and learn.