If your idea of a visit to Cuba is sitting on a beautiful Caribbean beach sipping a mojito, you might need to re think that! Our family recently took a 5 night people to people exchange with Insight Cuba, called “Jazz in Havana”. We have had Cuba on our list to visit since a neighbor went with his Senior baseball team 5 years ago. It moved quickly to the top once President Obama announced the normalizing of relations between Cuba and the USA in December. We chose this itinerary because it matched the interests of our family, and was a “legal” trip to Cuba.
While the mojitos we enjoyed in Havana were delicioso, there were several things we had to consider when planning a trip to Cuba. Here are some things we learned about planning and preparing for a trip to Cuba that we hope will help anyone planning a trip to go see it for themselves!
Decide if going to Cuba is a now or later proposition for you
I have a new friend who I've been encouraging to travel more...when I mentioned to him that I was headed to Cuba, he told me he'd go when the cruise ships started calling there. I appreciated his ability to know what he needs! For us visiting Cuba was not a "vacation". Yes, there are beautiful beaches and amazing vistas, (and huge swaths of wild Cuba we never got to see on this trip.) While Cuba was a wonderful host for our tour, things do not run the way resorts in other Caribbean island have learned to operate in order to satisfy the North American market. Resorts and hotels may be state run, or even if run in private partnership, deal with the same challenges the people of Cuba do. One evening while packing, the lights in the hotel blinked off several times for a few seconds. (pack a head lamp) Our hotel was well equipped with generator, but not every place is.
Most restaurants are state run, and food is very simple, often rice and beans and fish or chicken. Steak is rare (not as in not well done or medium, but is rarely served) While the Cuban food scene in Miami has a terrific reputation, in Cuba the lack of excellent food sources makes the food scene there far simpler. We found there was always plenty to eat. But there are some folks who need know their comfort level around food and lodging and decide if a trip is a good idea right now, before things change, or later, when there is more investment in tourist infrastructure. The trade off for going now, is that Cubans are mostly surprised and delighted to see people from the US, and that you get a chance to experience a culture that's still relatively untouched by recent global influences.
Think through the long term ramifications of taking an "illegal" trip to Cuba.
One quick perusal of “Cuba” on Trip Advisor will show that Americans can visit Cuba from several Central American countries quite easily and cheaply and no one reports they are given more than a passing glance by immigration for the gap in their passports.(Unlicensed visitors from the US don’t get Cuban passport stamps, so if you enter and leave Grand Cayman in the same day and then return to Grand Cayman a week later…There’s a gap there) Right now things are opening, but political winds can change here in the US and that gap in the passport may cause hardship later when trying to get security clearances for any number of things later- including military, job, or expedited travel programs. We had reasons to travel legally, and so we chose Insight Cuba for a cultural exchange that matched our interests and our schedule and for it’s reputation for the destination.
If you take a people to people exchange know your itinerary, and be sure it matches your interests.
Tours vary from educational exchanges offered by universities, to nature trips led by leaders in photographic travel market. Because the US Department of Treasury must approve the itineraries and requires participants to participate in all activities for the group running the trip to continue getting the licenses. They require full days revolving around the topic of the exchange. You need to be sure you will be happily engaged in those activities for several hours a day. In our case, Jeff is an avid photographer, with an interest in environmental portraits; the emotion of music and performance lends itself to excellent photographic possibilities. Our eldest daughter is a design student whose own work is based in found and reclaimed materials. The visits to various community projects were inspirational to her because the artists by necessity are using cast off materials to create their work. Our youngest daughter has in interest in history, politics and a planned Spanish minor, as well as plays saxophone in several bands. The ability for her to jam with Cuban musicians (and quite a few talented musicians from our own group!) was a highlight of her experience. So while our family found the whole tour incredibly engaging, some in our group who had specific interests in cigars and old cars, might have found an exchange related to those interests more suitable. A woman we met on our charter is a school teacher and went on an educational exchange sponsored by a university. My neighbor went to play and meet baseball players, and another couple I know took who are ardent birders took a nature trip, with opportunities to connect with naturalist in Cuba. However, our Insight Cuba guides did their best to learn everyone’s interests ahead of time and to make connections for all guests with Cuban people with the same interests at every step of the way.
Know if the group you are traveling with has a reputation for good guiding and authentic connections
Our Jazz in Havana tour was more than capably led by Alfredo, our Insight Cuba Tour Leader, an American of Costa Rican heritage and Yilam, our government employed Cuban guide. They provided a wonderful tandem of logistics and local knowledge that rivals other high end, small group guided tours we have taken. Yilam recalled that our daughter had a desire to bring home a few Cuban Pesos (the local currency tourists don't normally use- see money below) and asked specifically if our daughter had found them before our charter home, and would have made that happen for her had she not. Others in our group had interest in ballet or cabaret or old cars or cigars, and our guides worked together to ensure that opportunities for viewing or shopping or ballet tickets and transportation were arranged. That kind of attention to detail and to the individual needs of tour members is the kind of “high touch” touring that for us, makes the experiences memorable and a good value.
Right now, there are so few licenses granted that most of the operators are excellent at what they do...really, National Geographic and International Expeditions are leaders in the nature travel field, so you can expect their tours anywhere will be top notch. When things open up, this will require more research, as more operators get into the business of offering Cuban tours with little to no experience on the ground.
Expect some major differences in the way you pay for things in Cuba
In the US and other countries we visit, we are used to whipping out our credit or debit cards, but because of the embargo, American credit cards or ATM cards do not work in Cuba. Some cards are starting to advertise use in Cuba, but the infrastructure for "charging" exists in very few places at all. That means bringing all the cash you'll need with you in American dollars and converting it in Cuba.
Cuba works on a two currency system. The Cuban Peso is what Cubans use in their own daily economy. The Cuban Convertible Peso, called a CUC (and pronounced kook) is the only form of currency you can exchange for your dollars. It is tied to the U.S. Dollar and currently, all exchanges are made by the government and a 13 % fee is charged right at conversion. Unlike other countries you'll travel to, you generally won't find some places like hotels charging a far higher rate, it's mostly standardized by the government. After conversion, the 87 CUC you are left with converts exactly to USD, making it easy to figure out the price of things. Things generally cost less than the U.S., obviously, but the tourist items and services priced in CUCs are generally unaffordable to ordinary Cubans. Money is easily changed at the airport or your hotel and the exchange fee of 13% applies everywhere. Because it's not a set fee per exchange, but a percentage, it's best to exchange money as you need it, because changing back usually compels another 13% fee and the CUCs are worthless and unexchangeable anywhere else in the world. There are stiff penalties for Cubans trying to exchange money for tourists or using American dollars.
Customs limits can change, weekly, daily, maybe hourly!
At the time we traveled, we were allowed to bring back $400 per person, in goods from Cuba, with no more than $100 in rum and cigars, but an unlimited amount of art, so long as it's not original art of national importance to Cuba. (Which cannot leave the country) We were asked by an official to open a tube with an original art print in it that we bought at a gallery and pay a small duty on it. (About 3 CUC) A tube with hand screened prints from the museum did not require duty. Again, this is where a good guide is invaluable. If the rules change, they will know and let you know.
Generally, a good cigar is about $25, a bottle of Cuban rum is less, but packing it is challenging (it has to go as checked luggage) Outside of artwork, rum or cigars, there is little that you could spend 400 dollars on in Cuba.
Health and Potty Talk
As far as health, our guides gave us the usual warnings about not drinking the water or eating foods prepared with unfiltered tap water. All of the government and private establishments we visited as part of our tour used filtered water and ice and fresh vegetables were "ok" to eat in all the places we visited. Despite this, about 1/3 of our group had some kind of GI issues. A couple of folks were laid low for a 1/2 a day or so, with a couple older folks requiring a shot (I'm assuming this is an antibiotic?) and IV rehydration at the infirmary at the hotel. They all described the care as very good and attentive with the nurse who was on site at our hotel 24/7. It's purely anecdotal on my part, but those of us from the East Coast with more extensive travel in the Caribbean and Latin America seemed to have fewer GI issues, but that's too small a sample size to be proof of anything.
Because of the difficulty buying even over the counter medicines in Cuba, it's a good idea to travel with your own medical kit. I always do, and here is a link to a post about the way I put my own kit together before each trip. See link here.
Between the public cigar smoking and old diesel engines, the air quality is a challenge to anyone with respiratory issues. I was getting over a cold and normally do not struggle with lung issues, but I had several asthma attacks from reactive airways during visits to smoky clubs and closed in recording studios where smoking is allowed indoors. I was fortunate that my asthmatic daughter had brought along her inhalers (the same my own Dr has prescribed for me in the past) and I was able to use them to arrest my coughing fits. Most government run "tourist" restaurants and clubs do not allow indoor smoking, and so those are good options for people with respiratory issues.
Infrastructure has been neglected in many places due to lack of resources, there are few ramps or accommodations for disabilities and sidewalks and roads are rough. It's really important to look where you are going and have good walking shoes. This applies even to people in great shape with no impediments. Bridges can have missing or broken planks where anyone not looking down could have a leg fall through. Holes in sidewalks are large enough to trip anyone up. I found it a good idea to look ahead of anywhere I was going, upstairs, or along a walkway to see if it met my safety standards before proceeding.
As in most Caribbean places, the most dangerous thing is the sun! Good sun screen and a hat are always good idea! On our tour bottled water was provided every day, and it's important to stay hydrated!
Anyone who follows my work knows that I do not shy away from addressing, ahem, delicate issues. So it's time for potty talk! For some reason there are a lack of toilet seats in Cuba. You may need to visit several stalls to find one or ...err, squat. Most toilets are staffed by an attendant who will expect a few coins, it's a good idea to carry these, along with toilet paper and hand sanitizer at all times, since either soap, water or paper or all three can be lacking at various times. Usually, if you pay a coin the attendant will supply a little paper, but there is no guarantee. Again, our guides were invaluable in steering us to the best equipped potties or at least letting us know what to expect! Like most developing places, anything that wasn't once food or drink should go into a trash receptacle, not into the toilet.
Personal Safety and Security
We found Havana far safer than most metropolitan cities we have visited. We were told penalties for crimes against tourists are very severe, and so we found it very safe to navigate the city as tourists on the nights we were on our own in Havana. While Jeff took photos, our daughters and I wandered on the Malecon alone, and were not bothered by hustlers, or harassed by men for being unescorted and we never felt threatened by pickpockets or muggers, as we might be in other major cities.
One night after the four us finished dinner near the Capitolio, we engaged a man on the street to find us a cab. We had read this would cost us a CUC, and did not mind paying, even just for the opportunity for the interaction with a young man not associated with tourist trade. A friend of his pleaded with him to be allowed to "taxi" us, despite not having a licensed taxi. We agreed to this because we wanted the experience of riding in the unlicensed taxi, which was an old soviet Lada car. It could have been disastrous to do this in any many cities, but we never felt any concern that we would be robbed or kidnapped, or re routed to another destination and scammed. We felt simply that these enterprising young men wanted our CUC, and we were willing to ride in a "cab" with doors that flew open while riding down the Malecon, no AC and cranky window cranks! It was an experience we laugh about today, and one I'm glad I had, but we never felt in fear of being taken advantage of at any time.