Published on February 16th, 2016 | by Ted Henken
9 Things to Know Before You Travel to Cuba
January marked exactly one year since President Barack Obama expanded the categories of authorized travel to Cuba, thereby inspiring an increasing number of Americans to add the largest – yet previously forbidden – Caribbean island to their adventure bucket list. Jumping on the bandwagon are at least three U.S.-based cruise lines, which have been advertising itineraries that leave from PortMiami this winter and spring. In addition, it looks like more flights will be available later this year between the United States and Cuba, providing even more options for visiting the Caribbean’s biggest island.
To get you ready as you ponder that first trip, Cuba expert and author Ted Henken, an associate professor at Baruch College, offers nine essential travel tips to bring along on your visit (besides your Visa).
1. Expect a warm welcome
Despite half a century of embargo and strife, Cubans love to engage with Americans. They are friendly and gregarious people, and will become even more so when they discover you are Americano. So, return the warm welcome with a smile and a handshake.
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2. Realize that cash is king
It’s still virtually impossible to use your American credit or debit card in Cuba, despite the Obama administration’s efforts. Some hotels have developed workarounds that allow you to pay with a credit card via the Internet, but don’t count on it. Bring plenty of cash, but you’ll have to convert your dollars into convertible pesos (CUCs), Cuba’s invented tourism script – at the painful rate of 87 cents on the dollar.
3. Prepare for an adventure living offline
Internet access in Cuba is among the slowest and most expensive in the Western Hemisphere. Few Cubans have access at home, and an hour online costs $2, or about 10% of the average monthly wage of $20. Even at Havana’s luxury hotels, access can be spotty and frustratingly slow. There are signs of progress: The government recently opened 35 wi-fi hotspots in public plazas and parks. Just look for the crowds and the glow of their digital screens in public places.
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4. Enjoy freedom of the pixel, but not of the press
Cubans who do manage to get online have access to websites that challenge the propaganda flowing from Cuba’s state-controlled mass media. There’s a loophole in Cuban law that criminalizes all private printed media as “enemy propaganda,” but says nothing about media deployed in cyberspace. Examples include 14ymedio, OnCuba, HavanaTimes.org, and Periodismo de Barrio (the first three of which produce some content in English).
5. Remember: Diplomatic relations do not equal “normal” relations
While the Obama administration has reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba, the trade embargo still is in force. Lifting it would require new legislation, which is not likely in the Republican-majority U.S. Congress. So while official relations are indeed thawing, they are still quite “frozen” in some areas, and it’s best to step lightly.
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6. Cubans mean it when they say “mi casa es su casa”
Skip the hotels, which are probably fully booked anyway, and use a service like Airbnb to reserve a room in a private Cuban home. It’s a rare win-win-win-win: You get a more authentic Cuban experience by staying with a Cuban family; that family gets hard currency directly in their pockets; the overloaded Cuban tourism industry gets to welcome more visitors; and President Obama gets a small boost for his policy of “empowerment through engagement.”
7. A taste of capitalism at the paladars
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cubans desperate for income in hard currency set up tiny mom-and-pop restaurants called paladars in their own homes, catering to foreign tourists. Since Raul Castro’s economic reforms that began in late-2010, the paladar phenomenon has expanded beyond private homes, and Havana now has more privately run restaurants and hotspots than you can hit in a two-week trip. Start with these: L’Atieler, Doña Eutimia, Starbien, La Cocina de Lilliam, La Guarida, El Cocinero, El Gringo Viejo, 304 O’Reilly, Casa Miglis, Decameron, Le Chansonier, La Casa, Bollywood, Azucar, La Mulata de Sabor, and Cafe Laurent.
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8. You’re going to Cuba for research purposes, right?
Despite the improved relations, you can only legally go to Cuba from the U.S. if you fit into one of the 12 categories of traveler approved by the U.S. The categories include things like students, journalists, researchers – but “tourists” are still not permitted. Of course, certain “people-to-people” trips are not really tourism, but rather “empowerment through engagement.” In any event, you no longer have to apply for a license to visit Cuba, you just “self certify” that you fit into a proper category.
9. Bring home (a little of) the legendary rum and cigars
You can now legally impress your friends at home by bringing back Cuban rum and cigars, but you’re limited to $100 worth combined. Wait until departure to buy rum at the airport, as prices are the same everywhere in Cuba, but you may get a better deal for cigars at the cigar factory itself.