Ever since the U.S. government eased its restrictions on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba, it seems everyone you talk to is either planning a trip there, returning from Cuba or seriously thinking about going. U.S. carriers like JetBlue and American announced direct flight beginning August 31 at very competitive inaugural prices. Canival and Royal Caribbean cruise lines have already begun cruise service and there is talk about reestablishing ferry service from Key West to Havana. But don’t assume Cuba is like any other Caribbean country. Getting there is now easy but navigating the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of this beautiful country can be challenging if you don’t know your way around. Here are some recommendations.
TEN DO’S AND DON’TS FOR YOUR NEXT TRIP TO CUBA
1. Do dress down. You won’t stand out in casual clothes. Cuba is an extremely casual country. Wear comfortable shoes. Leave your jewelry at home. Bring sunglasses, a wide-brim hat and sun screen. It is very hot and sunny.
2. Do engage with the local population. Cubans are among the friendliest and warmest people. They will ask you questions about yourself and share information about themselves freely. As with any other country, don’t discuss the obvious no-nos; politics and religion. Sure there are hustlers or “jineteros” like everywhere else; people may try to sell you cigars (guaranteed to be counterfeit) or offer services. A simple “no gracias” will suffice to discourage them. Cuba is very safe but it is still prudent to exercise caution as on any visit to a different country. But don’t miss out on the opportunity to have genuine interactions with some very nice and gracious people.
3. Do bring enough cash with you to last the entire trip. Credit cards from U.S. banks are not accepted in Cuba. You cannot buy Cuban currency in advance as it is not traded internationally. You need to buy it upon arrival in Cuba. Cuba has two currencies, the convertible peso known as CUCs which is what tourists use for purchases, and the national currency used by everyone else. Officially the exchange rate is roughly 1.00 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) = $1.00 USD. However, there is a 10% penalty charged when exchanging US dollars cash. That means you only get 87 cents CUC for every USA dollar changed. The difference is the 10% penalty and a 3% currency exchange fee. Some Cuba related articles state this penalty will be abolished soon but, as of this writing, it still remains. Euros and other currencies are not subject to this penalty so it make sense to travel to Cuba with currencies other than US dollars. Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal for foreign visitors to use national currency. You should purchase some of these for small exchanges such as tips or bottled water.
4. Don’t patronize luxury hotels. Many “luxury” hotels frequently feature bland food, indifferent service and can be far from the sights. Many of these are rated 4 and 5 stars. These ratings do not adhere to any internationally recognize rating system. A typical 5 star government hotel in Havana is the equivalent of a 2 or 3 star hotel in any other Caribbean nation. The prices, however, are very much in keeping with a standard 5 star hotel. This results in an exceeding poor value for your money. For the past few years the government has allowed private citizens to engage in certain private sector pursuits including renting out rooms in their homes to visitors. These are called “casas particulares” or private homes, “casas” for short. They are similar to Airbnb or your typical Bead and Breakfast establishments. On average these casas go for less than a third of what a regular luxury hotel room would cost. Many are modest but clean and well located for seeing the sights. Most offer a decent breakfast included in the price of the room and any other meal for an additional cost. Besides the price and quality, the advantage to staying in a casa is that you are interacting with a Cuban family and giving your dollars directly to them. Just don’t expect a pool or nightclub show!
5. Do patronize paladares. As the casas particulares have revolutionized the hotel scene in Havana, so have the “paladares” or private restaurants transformed the food culture. Whereas a few years ago capitalist pursuits like selling peanuts on the street was a crime punishable by a fine and possible jail time, today Cuban restaurant culture is experiencing a renaissance. At an average price of US$30-$40 for a seriously good meal in a cool location, paladares now flourish in every city but especially in Havana. Demand is outstripping supply, however. To dine in some of the best paladares you need to reserve weeks or even months ahead of time. One trick is to request a reservation at some odd time like 2pm and later just have snacks and drinks for dinner at one of the music hot-spots in any of the colonial plazas. The best menu selections include chicken, pork and fresh seafood, lobster being the star attraction. Beef, particularly steak, does not seem to be a good choice probably due to the price of meat and its relative lack of availability. The paladares venues vary. Some I enjoyed include a SoHo-chic renovated cooking oil factory attached to an art gallery “El Cocinero”. Another is San Cristobal, a converted early 20th century mansion where President Obama recently dined. Honorable mentions go to Casa DuPont, a seaside retreat once owned by the DuPont family, Dona Eutemia in a little alley off Plaza de la Cathedral and Paladar de Mercaderes on one of the major thoroughfares. But there are so many more! Although it’s fun to explore and take a chance on a good paladar, you are better off sticking to a recommended one or you might end up in one of the rapidly emerging tourist traps. You can tell by looking at some Havana areas that they will soon begin to resemble Bourbon Street. There is undeniably some truth in the saying “see it now before it changes forever”.
6. Do bring back tobacco and/or the superb rum. The coffee is also a good buy at 20 CUCs for like, a ton of seriously good coffee. Effective October 17, 2016, the U.S. government removed the monetary value limitations on what authorized travelers may import from Cuba into the United States as accompanied baggage. In all cases, the Cuban-origin goods must be imported for personal use, and normal limits on duty and tax exemptions will apply.
7. Don’t take pictures of the military or police. This is illegal in Cuba. Not that you would want to anyway but there you have it.
8. Do immerse yourself in the amazing culture, history, art and architecture. This will blow you away. Check out my post on Why you should visit Havana and prepare to be amazed.
9. Do be patient. Things don’t always work the way you expect in Cuba. Customer service is poor. Wi-Fi and connectivity is expensive and slow when you can get it, which is not very often. Government offices open and close on haphazard schedules or don’t open at all. Employees don’t answer the phone, frequently give misleading or contradictory information and can be unhelpful or indifferent. Important venues are frequently “closed for repairs” for years. As an example, a friend told me the bartender at the Nacional Hotel complained that he was stressed because tourists were asking for more ice in their drinks. Apparently the stress was too much for him. Just roll with it and don’t expect world-class efficiency or you may be disappointed.
- Order the terrific beer. Avoid the wine.
- If you’re planning to visit the outstanding music venues, get a good night’s sleep the day before as they open and close late.
- Visit the extensive Colon Cemetery, one of the world’s most impressive.
- Take only licensed taxis. The license is prominently displayed on the window. Taxi’s are metered. When taking a bicycle-taxi make sure to negotiate the fee beforehand.
- Order seafood; fresh, delicious and reasonably priced.
- DANCE! Never mind. You won’t be able to resist anyway.
What other do’s and don’ts do you think are important to know about?