Last summer my partner and I jumped at the chance to see the Buena Vista Social Club on their farewell tour. The show was so good that about a month later we saw them again and invited two of our friends to come with us. Little did we know, a few months later, out of the blue, these same friends would invite us to join them on a trip to Cuba. We decided that day that we had to take advantage of this opportunity and go with them. Three short months later we found ourselves in the amazing time capsule that is Cuba.
Our first step was to research everything we could. Even in this information day and age, that proved to be a lot tougher than we expected. The following article is a compilation of a bunch of the stuff that we learned on our trip.
One of the first things we did was to check on our passports. My passport was due to expire a few days after our projected return date. I wanted to make sure I had a better cushion than that. In fact, a little more research led us to find out that according to the U.S. Department of State "U.S. Citizens traveling on passports that expire in fewer than six months have increasingly been denied airline boarding or been detained upon arrival in certain foreign destinations." I didn't want to be kept from entering the country or get stuck not being able to leave the country. My passport took about 6 weeks to arrive.
My partner and I used the Lonely Planet Cuba Travel Guide. This guidebook was a great source of information. Our planning was a bit of whirlwind. Reading through this book a bit more closely beforehand could've helped us to make the most out of our trip. One helpful section in the book has travel plans based on the length of stay. One thing the book didn't have though, were large city maps. It only had maps of neighborhoods, which brings me to the next item on the list.
When traveling to Cuba, bring along anything that you think you might need. Don't count on being able to buy it there. Bring along both print maps and download PDF maps to your phone. We did not have cell service or GPS. There is wifi service available in some hotels, restaurants and bars, but it is spotty and unreliable. To access the wifi we had to buy scratch cards and enter the code into our web browsers. The cards worked for others in my party with the same model phone, but never worked for mine.
Other Useful Items to Bring
Again, if you think you'll need it, bring it. Here is a short list of items we found or would've found useful.
Toilet paper and Kleenex travel packs
Spanish English Dictionary
Cigar accessories (check on TSA regulations for traveling with lighters)
Outlet travel adapter European 110/220
Plastic Baggies/Dry Bags
Copies of Passports, Credit Cards, Health Insurance Cards and Emergency Contact Info
Copies of all Reservations
American (or your country of origin) Embassy address and phone number
Toiletries (pretty hard to come by, especially feminine products)
First Aid Kit and Meds including pain killers, Nausea/Vomitting/Diarrhea, probiotics, etc
Wet naps including the camp shower ones (our hotel lost hot water and then all water intermittently)
Rechargeable battery packs
Comfortable Walking/Hiking Shoes
Pens, Pencils, Sketch Pad and Journal
Waterproof camera or phone case
Travel bag with cut proof strap
MOLLE Web Dominators
Nalgene Collapsible Flask
Extra Suitcase or Expandable Suitcase
Deck of Cards and Travel Games
Kindle and/or Books
Poster tube for bringing back art and paintings
*A Note on Bringing Things Back
At the time of our trip we were allowed to bring back $100 per person of Cuban Ccigars and alcohol combined. We had to have receipts for everything and make sure that the cigars were sealed in their original box with the factory hologram. Cuban cigars imported from other countries are still not allowed through US Customs. The Customs agents asked if I had proof that I had been to Cuba. When entering Cuba they stamped my Visa instead of my passport. On the way back out of Cuba they collected the Visa. Luckily, I had saved my airplane ticket stub as a keepsake. They still checked the cigar box very closely to make sure it hadn't been opened before they let me continue on my way. Receipts and documentation is also required for artwork if it has cultural or historical significance.
A While back I travelled to Thailand. I spent months learning as much Thai as I could before the trip. Once there, most people's English was much better than my Thai. I figured things would probably be the same and that I could get by on my four years of grade school Spanish and medical Spanish background. Yeah, not so much. English is not a commonly spoken language in Cuba. Many of my conversations quickly devolved into Spanglish and Charades.
Learn Cuban History
As an American, I don't think about Cuba on a daily basis. For Cubans however, the impact of the embargo has had far reaching impacts into their lives and is something that is ever present in their minds. While most seemed Cubans seemed optimistic about more American tourists coming to Cuba and very optimistic about President Obama's upcoming visit, this is something that which Americans need to be aware. Also be aware that you will see Anti-American and Anti-embargo billboards.
Learn the Different Currencies
Cuba has two different currencies, the Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP) also know as Moneda Nacional (MN). The CUC has an exchange rate of 1:1 with both the US dollar and the Euro. The MN has an exchange rate of 24 to one CUC. We had a brief moment where we thought we had $75 worth of CUC when we actually had $75 worth of MN or about $3..
Another point to note on currencies US credit cards are just now starting to be accepted in Cuba (we never saw anywhere that took them on our trip) and there are few and far between places to exchange money. Even fewer places that will exchange US dollars and they routinely charge a 20% transaction fee on exchanging US dollars. We converted $1500 into Euros for the two of us and brought that in cash with us for 7 days in Cuba.
Be sure to get smaller denominations of bills and coins for tipping. There are plenty of opportunities to tip servers and musicians in Cuba. Keep in mind that most people there earn about $20 a month so a little bit goes a long way. And if you tip at the usual American rates you will burn through your cash on hand very quickly and might not know when you'll have another chance to exchange money. Don't exchange money with people on the street. Sometimes even banks have been know to cheat people. We found hotel lobbies to be the best place to exchange money.
During our trip we used 5 different currencies: US dollars, Euros, Mexican Pesos, CUC and MN. Yes, that was confusing. We downloaded an exchange rate app before our trip which proved to be quite helpful.
Travel Agents and Visas
We went through a Mexican travel agent. The benefits of this were that she was able to get our Visas right away and our hotels and tours were booked before we got there. Because of this we didn't have to carry as much cash into the country. The travel agent also arranged for taxi drivers to tour us around all day for some of our tours. We've also heard cases of people applying in the US for Visas to Cuba and waiting for months with no word on if they've been approved or not.
The other side of this particular was communication was an issue at times. For instance, my name was misspelled on my plane ticket, which caused a little bit of headache getting into and out of Cuba.
Be Prepared for Things to Not Make Sense
We were told that after we landed in Cuba there would be someone from the travel agency that would be waiting for us with a sign with our name on it. We went outside, searched all around and didn't see anyone. Our cell phones of course didn't work, but there were pay phones. We asked the staff at the airport about them and they responded that we needed a card to use the pay phones, but they didn't sell the cards at the airport.
At our hotel our room was on the 16th floor. The elevator would forget what floors were pressed as soon as the doors opened, meaning that someone else on a different floor could hijack your elevator if you didn't re-press your floor soon enough. There were no numbers on the floors, so we had to run around the hallway to check the room numbers and back to elevator before the doors closed. We got tired of playing elevator roulette and two of us decided to take the stairs down. Again the floors weren't marked and the bottom three floors were blocked off.
For the flight back we arrived at the airport 2 hours early. We should've arrived 3 hours early. As we checked in and got my name and ticket all sorted out I checked and saw that there were three flights to Cancun and ours was the last one, scheduled to leave at 4:40 pm and was on time. We went through Customs and Immigration which took about an hour and then went up to our gate to wait for our flight. There was a flight scheduled to leave for Cancun at the gate next to ours, one hour before that was loading. As we watched that one load, we thought it was a little odd that no one was waiting at our gate. As my partner got up to check on our flight, the flight attendant at the next gate over asked if we were going to Cancun. We said yes, but that we were on the next flight. She said were on that flight and that it was the last flight to Cancun that day. We double checked our tickets and indeed we were now on the earlier flight. The counter attendant who had been super helpful with getting my name sorted out, hadn't mentioned that we were on a different flight. There was no announcement nor did anyone page us over the loudspeaker. We were the last ones aboard the plane, which took off about 10 minutes later. If we had missed our flight, we would've been stuck in the airport and overstayed our visa.
Cuba is an incredible place that I highly recommend visiting. If you're planing a trip check back here again because I'll be updating this article with links and pictures as well as writing other articles about the trip itself.
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