Cuba: What You Need to Know Before You Go
The island country of Cuba is located only 90 miles off the coast of the United States, but it’s borders have been all but closed to the majority of Americans due to the tensions between the governments. For most Americans, visiting Cuba has never been a possibility. President Obama became the first president since Calvin Coolidge to step foot on Cuban soil.
With the tensions slowly ebbing as new policies are accepted, more Americans are considering visiting Cuba. But there are some things that need to be taken into consideration before packing your bags and heading out if you’re a United States citizen.
1: What qualifies for a trip to Cuba?
While American’s are able to visit, Cuba has still not been opened up for tourism. There are 12 specific categories that you still need to qualify into before getting the chance to visit. If you’re there for an athletic event, performing in a concert, or perhaps working on a humanitarian project or doing professional research, along with a few others, there is nothing to worry about. As of this writing, according to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba,
“These 12 categories include: 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 information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.”
The application to visit Cuba allows you to self-declare which category you fit into, and according to American officials, there is little policing. But keep in mind that if you don’t meet the requirements, you’re technically in violation of U.S. law.
2: What can’t I do in Cuba?
Don’t be expecting to visit Cuba for a purely pleasure trip. Tourism is still off limits, so you’re there for business, scientific, or educational purposes. You do need to show that your trip helped benefit the Cuban people. That being said, there aren’t any strict regulations about taking some free time to enjoy a mojito on the beach.
If you visit attractions of cultural significance, converse and interact with locals, and keep a journal of your activities, you’re probably going to meet the requirements. An excellent interactive map of attractions and activities can be found on autenticacuba.com.
3: How can I get there?
Travelling to Cuba until recently meant jumping through numerous hoops. When flying, travelers would have to fly through a third country because of the restrictions placed on the United States. With the new policies and regulations there are multiple flights a day hitting the Cuban airports out of Miami. Even more destinations like New York, and Orlando are hoping to join the ranks.
Luckily, if you aren’t too keen on long flights over the open waters, you have nothing to worry about since the flight from Miami to Havana is only 45 minutes before you’re safely back on dry ground. And, the first cruise ship visit is set for early May.
4: Where can I stay in Cuba?
Since the small country has been run by a single family for many decades, a lot of hotels aren’t up to the standards that American travelers might be used to. Marriott, Starwood, and AirBnB have all announced plans and progress towards official presence in Cuba, but for now don’t expect either the quality or selection of better lodging to which you may be accustomed.
Because of the state of the infrastructure, you can expect to be disconnecting from the real world for much of your stay. Expect to be off the grid while in Cuba. Internet connection is slim to none, while phone service is even more rare. Roaming doesn’t cover the island, so public phones are necessary for emergency phone calls. While there are a few internet hotspots around, don’t expect it to be that fast Wi-Fi that you have at home. In short, keep your expectations low and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised if something better happens.
5: How can I make sure I help the people?
Because of the communist government, it is natural to wonder if the revenue that you feed into Cuba will actually reach the hands of the people. There are a few ways to help the people out. When you’re looking for a place to stay, look up a casa particular. Those are private homes that are willing to take in visitors. Unlike most of the hotels, they are not government run, meaning that a larger percentage of the price goes into their pockets, not the governments. These can be found online, similar to AirBnB. Be sure to check ratings and use all the due diligence you normally, and perhaps a little more.
In addition to having a private place to stay, you can also choose dining at paladars. These are privately owned restaurants where you can enjoy an authentic Cuban meal. They vary in size, so depending on your own preferences you can enjoy a quaint family-style meal or a more formal setting.
With the popularity of places like these the government has said that it plans on closing some of the government owned eateries, meaning there will be more places like the paladars to eat as time goes on.
6: What is there to do in Cuba?
While it’s been stated many times that American’s can’t visit the country for purely tourism purposes, there are still amazing sights to see while you’re there. From the many white sand beaches that surround the island, to some of the historic buildings and plazas such as Plaza de la Caterdal, Old Square ( Plaza Vieja), and Old Havana.
There are also places like the University of Havana, Habana Vieja – which is home to many 20th century homes and buildings, and you might even be lucky enough to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigía, where he lived from 1939 through 1960. There are many more things to do, such as learning how to salsa, watching live music, and enjoying authentic street food throughout your visit.
Of course, part of your “documentation” of your approved status should include taking lots of pictures. Still, be sure to respect any local regulations or taboos about photography.
7: When is a good time to go?
While the door has only just been opened, it seems that more and more people are flooding onto the island. Whether to see it for the first time, as many Americans are, or from other parts of the world wanting to experience it before the country becomes too influenced by the United States.
So the choice is to venture out now and see Cuba before it becomes more commercialized, or wait until tourism expands. Later, there will be more amenities. Now, the cultural experience may feel more truly authentic.
8: Other tips and tricks
There are always little tips and tricks when visiting a new place, and Cuba is no exception to this. Small things like only drinking bottled water, not exchanging the USD while in Cuba, and other such things are what you need to know before going there. Some of these you can only learn after experiencing it yourself, others are common knowledge.
One such thing that you need to be aware of is that Cuba has two different currencies. The locals refer to both as pesos. So when paying for something, make sure that you ask which currency it is. The National Peso (CUP) or the Convertible Peso (CUC) values do vary quite significantly. Become familiar in advance and avoid confusion and misunderstandings on your spending.
Take some snacks with you, but check to make sure that they are allowed. Because Cuba has been isolated from American culture, you won’t find many of the same treats that you enjoy on a daily basis.
Public transportation is the best way to get around, whether in a bus that goes from major cities, or taxis that are around the cities themselves. The taxis will be quite different than what you see in New York or London or Paris.
Of course, if you’re only staying in Havana, it is a very walkable city and you will find everything within short walking distance. Many areas are safe and can be more fully experienced and appreciated on foot.
Because the gates to Cuba have been opened, the younger generations will get to experience history as they open wider and wider. With hope, the more trusting Cuban officials become, the less restrictions will be in place. Of course there is always the concerns about Americanizing the country. There is fear of tourism ruining the culture that has kept them alive for decades. But there is an upside to the influence: the potential for greater prosperity in a country that has struggled with poverty.
Trying to learn some of the language, Spanish, will not only show respect for the local culture, it will make your stay more pleasant. While most of Havana won’t play tricks, there are the scam artists, and even a little familiarity with the common language will help.
According to the U.S. Government, “licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be able to bring back $400 worth of goods and merchandise, of which no more than $100 can consist of both alcohol and tobacco products. Cuba is known for its cigars and rum.” With so much to choose from, it may be difficult to decide which delightful Cuban treasures you want to bring home.
This May Be The Perfect Time For Visiting Cuba
For Unites States citizens in particular, traveling to Cuba now represents a rare opportunity to experience an exotic Hispanic culture unspoiled by Western commercialization. Even with the known inconveniences, it seems to be an opportunity you don’t want to miss.
Cuban Sunset Nick Kenrick