In 2015 President Obama lifted the U.S. travel embargo allowing Americans to freely travel to Cuba without restrictions. Although Americans are traveling to Cuba more than ever since the 50’s, be prepared for another world, Cuba is different. It is about as different from the United States as you can imagine, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If there was ever a place where, “Forewarned is forearmed” fits, Cuba is the place. With a bit of preparation, and a “go with the flow” attitude, you can enjoy yourself and actually come back with a new sense of understanding about Cuba and its people, and have a damn good time in the process.
HOW TO GET THERE
Under the revised travel rules, US citizens can fly directly to Cuba under the “people to people” exchange, which is basically an honor system of travel declaration, as the government doesn’t police your travel agenda. Choose your reason from the 12 categories by simply checking the box when booking your airline ticket and viola, you’ve completed your first step on your way to Cuba. Most carriers, including Jet Blue, Delta, and American fly to Cuba from the mainland, and you can get your visa from the airlines either the day of departure at the airport or in advance from your airline.
The Cuban government has 2 different currencies for use in Cuba. The Convertible Peso (CUC) is the monetary instrument foreigners get in exchange for their local currency and Cuban Pesos (CP), which is the local currency that the Government pays Cubans and the currency Cubans use to conduct business with each other. It is important to know that the CUC and the CP differ vastly in exchange rates, so make sure that the prices you are looking at are in CUC or else you’ll be in sticker shock over what you paid.
Because the trade embargo is still in place, U.S. ATMs and credit cards DO NOT (underscore do not) work in Cuba, so bring all the money you need (and then some) for your trip. Although drinks are relatively inexpensive, taxis and many restaurants are not. Depending on your travel preferences, expect to spend anywhere from $50-$100 per person per day in Cuba.
There have been a lot of debates about money exchange, but disregard everything you’ve heard and listen up: convert your dollars to Euro before you go! Firstly, the exchange rate between the Euro and CUC is 1:1, and oftentimes, the currency exchanges or hotels won’t charge you a fee to convert from the Euro. As of press time, the USD exchange rate on the other hand was .87 to 1 CUC and on top of that, every place charges you a conversion fee, usually around 14%, to convert from the USD to the CUC, so you’re already down nearly 30%. Secondly, because of the 1:1 conversion, you can spend the Euro most everywhere in Havana and other beach and tourist towns. This tip came in most handy at the airport. As CUCs aren’t available for conversion in the US, you can’t covert money until you land in Cuba, so everybody is trying to exchange money at the airport. The lines at the airport currency exchange are long, and painfully slow (they check passports and record amounts converted). The cab drivers at the airport take Euro but they won’t take USD, so if you have Euro in hand, skip the taxi airport line (that is what I did), hop in your cab and exchange money in town where the lines are shorter.
When you do convert your money, ask for small notes, because some taxi drivers and other street vendors will conveniently not have change, but we know that old trick…
This is where I wish someone had just been straight up about the internet: “Don’t even bother!” Let me put this in context: I have traveled to over 60 countries, and have never had the connectivity problems that I had in Cuba. Not even Myanmar, which is the Mother of All Countries That Lived Behind An Iron Curtain, did I experience the connectivity issues I did in Cuba.
There are so many issues with getting online in Cuba, I eventually gave up and took it back old school and enjoyed being in the present moment. To connect, you have to buy a state issued ETECSA internet card from a vendor for 4 CUC which ostensibly gets you 60 minutes of online time, but….But, you have to be at a place that has Wifi (most places don’t), but you have to hope the Government doesn’t decide to turn off access while you’re at the hotspot. And, we never were able to discern if a card works on more than one device because getting on was spotty at best. And if you do get on, don’t be surprised to find that your favorite site or email is blocked, because in spite of permitted travel, the US trade embargo is still in tact. Make sure you have a VPN installed on your laptop before you go, then try to connect from outside the U.S. with your VPN. Again, service is so random, don’t count on this trick working, but it’s worth a shot.
AIR BNB OR HOTEL
As I mentioned in a previous column, 5 star hotels elsewhere in the world don’t match up to what we as Americans are used to with our 5 star ratings. Hotel rooms in Cuba are expensive and often times fully booked as the influx of travelers outpaces the availability of hotel rooms. But that wasn’t my problem. Even at the best hotels, such as Parque Central, or Hotel Nacional de Cuba the remodeled rooms look like a throwback to the 70’s. Depending on the season at the “5 Star hotels” you can expect to pay over $300 per night (plus Wifi which is generally only available in the hotel lobby) for a what I would consider dank, dark hotel rooms with furniture you’d find in your Granny’s house and devoid of Cuban charm. Remember this is a country working with limited resources, they have to make the most with what they have. And even in Europe, which Cuba is not, 5 stars European hotels are often the equivalent of a 3 star U.S. hotel, so take that, subtract 50 years and multiply that by limited resources and you have your Cuba 5 star hotel room. #RealTalk
Air BNB’s on the other hand, are owned by wealthier Cubans, and even though you may not find the U.S. version of 5 star apartments, many of them have that “Cuban charm” factor, and the rates are infinitely cheaper. Cuba is Air BNB’s fastest growing market, so there is plenty of inventory to choose from. Our apartment, which we loved, was charming, and we paid $132 per night, 3 bedrooms, each with a private bath, so you do the math.
EVERYBODY LOVES FIDEL
Understand before you go that this is a former Communist country and the government owns everything: hotels, cabs, telephones, internet, shops, nothing is privatized. Most prices are fixed, and there is little room for haggling. The answer to everything is “It’s not me, it’s the Government.”
The good news is that Fidel rid the country of poverty after the Cuban Revolution. Cuba has free healthcare, free education and has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. But the government has its hand in everything and Cubans are limited in what they can earn and what they can own. I’m a big SCUBA diver and when the driver came to pick me up, I asked what time the boat left (you usually take a boat to the dive site and jump off the back). He snickered and said, “BOAT! What boat?!! Cubans can’t own boats!” And that was my wake up call. They do things differently there, in fact, I have never been SCUBA diving where we literally walked into the water until we floated then submerged ourselves, and that is the reality of what you are dealing with.
In spite of that, Cubans that remain in Cuba, have an immense adoration of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, their faces are on the money, and everywhere in Cuba. Castro came from means, overthrew Batista, a dictator, then robbed from the rich, redistributed the wealth and nationalized everything. This nationalization created parity among the Cubans, and everyone, no matter the hue, is just “Cuban.” Where they once saw color and division, now, they are simply Cuban (not Black Cuban or White Cuban) and will tell you so. Perhaps we can learn something from their interaction.
Many Americans go to Cuba unprepared and return miserable, deriding the country and its people. With planning and preparation, you can actually enjoy yourself. The Cuban people are kind, open minded to Americans, love “us,” have an infectious joy about them, and love to dance. So book your ticket and see some world and get your dance on!
Lisa Bonner, a travel aficionado, is a veteran Entertainment Lawyer with offices in New York and Atlanta. Her work has appeared in theGrio, Yahoo! Travel, Ebony and Essence. Follow her on social media @lisabonner