If you’ve been reading my posts about Cuba and would like to travel to that country, there are a few
things to keep in mind.
Despite the Obama Administration’s recent announcement of further relaxation of the ban on U.S. citizens spending money in Cuba and expanding the number of airports that offer direct flights there, Americans still need special permission from the Office of Foreign Asset Control to enter Cuba.
But if you can’t wait, here’s what you need to know before you go.
Getting There: Fly to another country (Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, Jamaica, etc.) and get a flight to Cuba. I flew first to Jamaica, purchased my ticket (I had made a reservation beforehand but I don’t think the price would have been different) and left for Havana the next day.
Visas: You’ll need a visa to enter Cuba. Not to worry, it can be purchased from the airline or on arrival. It costs about $30. Your passport will not be stamped.
While you’re there: Since U.S. issued credit cards are not accepted for use in Cuba, cash is your best option. Unfortunately, U.S. dollars carry a 10% service charge when you change them for Cuban Convertible Dollars (CUCs) so that $100 will be only worth $90. I brought mostly Canadian dollars but I could have brought UK pound or Euros. I did have some U.S. as backup, which I changed eventually. You can change funds at the airport, banks and Cadecas (exchange bureaus).
We used CUCs for most of the things we bought – from souvenirs to food. But if you plan to take the bus, for example, you’ll need pesos, the currency Cubans use.
If, at the end of your trip, you have CUCs remaining, you can change them back.
Departure tax: Speaking of leaving, you will be required to pay US$25 departure tax. No exceptions.
Transportation: Cuba has a good system of transportation including road, rail, air, buses and taxis making it pretty easy to get around.
Cuban Food: I wasn’t very impressed with the food we got at some of the restaurants but what we had at paladars, those small, family-run eateries, was exceptional.
Cuban Art: If you buy art while on your trip, you’ll need to get a license from the Registro Nactional de Bienes Culturales to take it out of the country. The license costs 10 CUCs for 1-5 pieces from the same artist. If you don’t get the license from the Registro, you can get it from a Registro Specialist at the airport but it will cost you more – 7 CUCs per. Without a license, you will not be allowed to leave with your purchases.
Cell phones: Your U.S. cell phones won’t work in Cuba and calling out can be pretty expensive, about $3/minute. If you really need to call home, head for a major hotel.
Email: If you need to send emails, go to a major hotel and, for a fee, you can send emails or surf the Internet. You’ll need to bring your passport for identification.
Cigars and Rum: Don’t forget Cuban cigars and rum are not allowed into the U.S., so enjoy them while you’re there. Also, make sure if you purchased anything that’s stamped or tagged Made in Cuba (Hecho en Cuba) that, if possible, you remove the tag. That would be a dead giveaway to U.S. Customs.
Bear in mind, Cuba is a Communist country and almost all activity by its citizens and visitors is monitored.
When we arrived at the airport, we had to let the immigration know exactly where we would be staying and a few days later, someone did come to the casa particular to check that we were there. Cubans aren’t allowed to have American visitors in their homes.
Neighborhood watch groups (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) which were set up to keep watch and report on any internal and external threats to the revolution, still patrol neighborhoods to sniff out illegal activities – whether criminal or political.
Used to being connected 24/7 in the States, my first day was an adjustment but it was great to disconnect and focus on being on vacation and enjoying all that Cuba has to offer. And there’s a lot. We spent a week in Havana only and there was still a lot we hadn’t seen.
If you remember these things, you’ll have few surprises when you get to Cuba.
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