May 2015- If you want to avoid your personal Cuban Crisis – plan, plan and one more time, plan your visit. Here are essential tips on visas, rooms, money and more.
Peak tourist periods, which you may want to avoid as the streets get jam packed, is from November through March and in July and August. The November-January period is drier and pleasant, and February to April are prime months for the beach. The hottest, wettest months are July and August, with hurricane season in September and October (though hurricanes can and do arrive earlier and later in some years).
During peak periods, hotel and room rates are at least 20% higher and fill up months in advance. March, April, October and November are the months with the nicest weather and the least rain.
Visas and tourist cards (as of May 2015)
The Cuban government advises you to obtain a visa, in the form of a Cuban tourist card, before arriving in Cuba. (The cost varies, but usually runs around US$15-$20.)
Get your visa through a travel agent or the Cuban consulate or embassy nearest you. Here’s the full list. Processing can be on the same day or can take up to four weeks depending on whether you’re applying in person, the consulate involved and the passport issuer.
At some Cuban consulates, such as the one in London, you can apply by post by sending in a form downloaded form the internet, a copy of your passport, payment and a stamped self-addressed return envelope.
The highest-rated travel agent on Trip Advisor selling tourist cards is VISACUBA. A card costs £15 with a £10 service charge.
Visas upon departure are available if you are flying into Cuba on certain carriers from specific airports:
Lima at the LAN check-in counter (note that TAM, a LAN affiliate, does NOT offer tourist cards for its service from Quito)
London Gatwick from Virgin representatives at the airline’s customer service desk
Juan Santamaría International Airport in Costa Rica at the TACA Airlines check-in counter
Cancún International Airport in Mexico from the Mexicana customer service desk
At the boarding gates of Tocumen International Airport in Panama City
At the boarding gates of Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City
Once obtained, your Cuban Tourist Card is good for 30 days and is extendable for a maximum 30 days for a US$25 fee. (Only Canadians can stay a maximum of 6 months.)
You’re supposed to carry the tourist card with you, and present it when you exchange money, but I was never stopped or checked for it.
You need travel insurance for Cuba, and to send a photocopy of your policy, to apply for a visa.
Book Rooms Ahead of Arrival
Book as soon as you can. The best choices fill up months ahead of time, and hotels are fully booked months ahead of peak seasons. Canadian, French, German and now American tourists are inundating Havana. If you’re at all adventurous, I advise booking a casa particular, a room in a private home. See below for more on the pro’s and con’s of that option.
By law you must book at least ONE night’s stay before arrival. Cuban immigration authorities didn’t make a fuss over my booking, but if you want to play safe, as I did, get your hotel or casa particular to email you a booking confirmation that includes your name, the dates of your stay, and the hotel/casa’s name, address and contact number.
At this moment, in 2015, the typical casa particular isn’t able to take deposits or charge for cancellations, so it won’t cost you to book ahead at least for one day to show immigration. Plus, your casa hosts can book your ride from the airport and quote prices, saving you from being hassled in the arrivals lobby by drivers.
Choosing a Casa Particular or Hotel
Living in a casa particular provides a window on life in Havana. You can book online, but I strongly advise following up the online confirmation with an email and a phone call. Most casas can’t accept deposits or booking fees, and there are cases of “lost” bookings or simple miscommunication. Internet access is still spotty and expensive in 2015, though improving, so don’t assume you emails have gone through, and expect delays in replies.
The pro’s of staying in a casa particular include:
A friendly host family gives you great insider tips on what to see, where to eat and tricks for how to get around cheaply, provides you insight into offer cheap breakfasts and dinners for US$5-$10 (decent local food rather than mediocre tourist-priced meals). The better-run casas are able to book taxis and cars with driver and organize tours.
You live in a cool retro home, with stunning Spanish tiles, ironwork and wooden shutters, and witness the family and neighborhood interactions of evening chats with a cigarillo and some rum, and lots of conversation. Hosts are never intrusive. You can interact with the hosts as much or little as feels comfortable.
Home-cooked meals at casas particulares (usually only breakfast and dinner) are the best cheap-and-tasty options, though they are limited to chicken and pork as main courses. (Beef and seafood are usually reserved for government-run or pricey restaurants.) The side dishes are repetitive, mainly arroz con gris (rice and beans) or deep-fried or boiled plantains or yams.
A bit of a roll of the dice as there are no industry standards. You’re basically bunking in someone’s house! Compared to a hotel, the beds might not be as comfy, the sheets and towels below par, the shower not as strong.
Most casas particulares don’t have wifi, or won’t allow you on their wifi, or at best have spotty coverage. The best bet is go to internet cafes popping up in town, or a nearby nearest hotel lobby for paid access.
Most casa particular hosts don’t speak English; and many cannot organize tours as they are still new to private enterprise. Again, go to top hotels, such as the Hotel Saratoga’s tour agency.
If you decide to book try one of these websites in addition to Airbnb: Cuba Junky is one of the best sites as there seem to be pretty accurate reviews.
Best District or Neighborhood in Havana to Stay Check Google Maps to see how far the location is from the must-see or must-instagram areas of Havana Vieja but beware – often you trade convenience for street noise. Havana Vieja has more run down yet colorful can particulares is best if you prefer to walk to all the major city sights (click for self guided walking tour). Havana Centro to the north and west, is a little cleaner and fronted by the Malecon seawall and walkway and another tourist favorite. I first stayed in Vieja, too noisy and dirty for me, and moved to a lovely, serene casa particular Vedado, a quiet suburb further west with wider and quieter tree-lined avenues as it’s really convenient with taxis and a regular route of collectivo (shared taxis). It’s too far to walk, about 1 hour, eastward to the touristy area near Plaza des Areas in the Vieja section. Check out the photos below of common streets in the area for some ideas of how they compare left to right – Havana Vieja, Neptuno St in Havana Centro (Central) and Linea St in Vedado. The map of the districts is below. From Vedado, I went in daily to Vieja on a colectivo taxi on the Linea route for only 10 CUP (about 25 US cents) and got amazing shots just by hanging around.
Prepare for arrival
Have a return ticket to show immigration officers upon arrival. When you fill out the arrival form, list your employment as ANYTHING except unemployed or you’ll be targeted for questions and intrusive customs checks by officers.
Immediately convert your cash to CUCs, Cuban Convertible Pesos used by foreigners, upon arrival at the ariport (read more about the in’s and out’s of Cuban currency below) because you need cold hard cash to stay alive in Cuba, starting with that taxi ride. Forget your credit cards except at the largest hotels.
The taxi ride from Jose Marti airport to most areas in Havana (including Old Havana) should cost 20 CUC, certainly no more than 25 CUC.
What to pack
Basic daily items most of the world takes for granted are not available in Cuba, so pack carefully.
Bring an English-Spanish dictionary. Few Cubans speak English. Once internet access improves and get cheaper, which is anytime now, you can use a translation app on your smart phone instead.
All essential personal-care products – wet wipes, dental, facial, hair and body care (especially sunblock or sunscreen), mosquito spray, sanitary products and makeup. (Locally-made, good quality shampoo and conditioner is sold at government-run upmarket grocery stores if you are desperate).
Contact lens solution.
Medical supplies: insect repellents, pain killers, antibiotic creams for cuts or scrapes, bandages (ALL of which you can give away before you depart Cuba), pain killers.
If you are staying in a casa particular, you might need to bring a thin towel, facial tissue and a roll or two of bathroom tissue.
There are a few useful and easy-to-pack gifts, essentials the rest of us take for granted. Topping the list are AA-, AAA-size batteries and over-the-counter painkillers and antibiotic creams. For kids, pens and colored pencils. For women, sample-sized facial creams and nail polishes, or small bars of luxury soap.
Electric power in Cuba is the same as in the U.S., so pack the same two- or three-pin plugs and adapters you’d need to use there. Electricity is 110 Volts.
Planning and booking tours
Infotur, Cuba’s official tourist bureau, has accurate, current information on events, tours and attractions (museum opening and closing times, cigar and rum tours) and provides some basic services. Trust Infotur more than this website, or your guidebook, as information changes. There are two offices in Old Havana along the pedestrian-only Obispo road. Through them, you can book a pricey but reliable private car and driver for Havana or for out-of-town travel.
Buy a map of Havana at the airport or from an Infotur office. It’s essential to getting around, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. Unfortunately the paper that the 10 CUC map is printed on is awful and rips easily, and the ink rubs off. But the map itself is really clear.
Plan ahead and book early when dealing with large tour operators at hotels. With a wait of 15 to 30 minutes processing time per booking, due to lack of online services, there’s a chance you’ll miss out on the tour you want. I waited 2 hours behind four people at the lobby of Hotel Saratoga.
If you’re looking for last-minute bookings, it might be worth paying higher prices for private or small group tours. Havana Tour Company proved responsive to calls from within Cuba, and has an informative website listing options for tours of the city and Pinar del Rio.
The website of Authentic Cuba Tours is also worth checking out.
Also note that large tourist buses will pickup from most hotels but the wait can be lengthy. When booking tours, get a number you can call in case you need to check for delays or no-shows (it happens!) as operators are independent of hotels. Buses are generally decent but can run the gamut in terms of cleanliness. So try to get an idea from the operator – the bus for my half day tour to Pinar del Rio had an onboard toilet that stank to high heaven.
One more thing: Bring a portable filter or stock up on BOTTLED WATER at your hotel or casa before you tour the city. Sorry to sound like a mommy, but you can’t trust the tap water in Havana and bottled water can be a bother to find. It’s often sold out at grocery stores and you don’t want to spend time looking for and lugging it back. I bought in bulk from my casa particular; a small 500 ml of water or larger 750 ml costs the same at 1 CUC, which is also what you pay for a canned soda or a bottle of local beer.
For more information about getting around on your own, see my rundown of transport options. And for some advice on avoiding hustlers, read my post about mingling with Cubans.
Cellphones and internet
Internet access is the one radically changing area in the modernization of Cuba. Watch this space or an update – I have no info if SIMS available for tourists – none were when I visited in 2015. My friend Jorge told me cell service is ridiculously pricey so that Cubans speak in short form and curtly on the cell to save money.
The internet was limited in the casa particular I stayed at (had to ask permission when I was desperate changing flights). Access will vary depending where you stay but most casas did not provide internet. Check before you book, but the best bet if you’re staying at one is to buy a per hour access at the nearest hotels. The Melia Cohiba in Vedado was my den of internet iniquity and the $18-for-two-hours service was atrocious – slow, unreliable and ate up minutes even while not connected! Local calls were free, at my casa, though.
Cuban currency rules for visitors ( as of May 2015)
Currency rules in Cuba are not too complicated but a visitor needs to bring sufficient amounts of currency to the country, and get familiar with the country’s dual-currency system. Most importantly, change your cash at the airport exchange upon arrival – you’ll need it and won’t get charged more than at other bureaus as the daily exchange rates are set by Banco Centro de Cuba and posted on http://www.bc.gob.cu.
There are two exchange bureaus at the airport, one on the Departures level and one in the Arrivals Hall, outside the restricted security zones, so you can exchange money after you arrive and before you depart. Be warned: service is very slow, and lines can be long with so many visitors.
The CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso/Pesos Convertibles, moneda or “coop” for short, is pegged at equal value as the USD and almost exclusively used by tourists. The CUP (Cuban Peso Nacional or Monedo Nacional), commonly called pesos and sometimes “coop”, is mostly used by locals. Cubans get their salary and pay for their daily use in CUC and it’s perfectly legal for tourists to use it – mostly for colectivos (shared taxis) and at local markets and street food stalls. Most tourists don’t plan to eat or shop like a local, or just unaware of the CUP as most hotels, museums and tourist shops and services accept only CUC. You can exchange CUC, not foreign currency, for CUP at some local banks, or when getting your change from shops.
Bring enough cash to cover most expenses
As of my visit in May 2015, it remains the easiest, most common means of transaction in Cuba. Credit cards are seldom accepted outside major hotel chains or top restaurants. Effectively all credit and debit cards linked to a US Bank are not accepted, even if your account resides in another country. Visa debit cards not issued by US banks are supposedly accepted at ATMs (mine did not work) and can be used to withdraw CUCs with a 3% service fee at cadecas and Banco Metropolitano.
The most commonly accepted foreign currencies – British Pounds, Euros, Canadian and US dollars, Swiss Francs, Japanese Yen, Mexican Pesos, and Danish, Swedish or Norweigan Kroner. Lesser known denominations are not accepted (they’ll bust a gut laughing at your Malaysian Ringgit). But avoid using US currency for the CUC as there’s an extra 10% service charge.
Learn how to tell the difference, or risk vendors accidentally-on-purpose slipping you CUPs into your change. With a 24 CUP to 1 CUC exchange rate, that’s a huge hit.
Easy rule of thumb to spot differences: the CUC bears illustrations of monuments, while the lower-value CUP most often has portraits of revolutionary heroes, and the “Banco Central de Cuba” text running across the top of the notes is much larger. When negotiating with vendors especially those serving locals, check if prices are in CUC’s or CUP’s.
Use CUPs to live cheap!
Use CUPs for local cafes (hole-in-the-wall takeout counters or stand-up dining usually selling fresh rolls, sandwiches, local dishes such as ropa vieja), fresh juice stands, bakeries/panaderias; shared Taxis, local buses; local produce at fresh market stalls (meat, vegetables, fruits) and fruit stands.
I used CUPs to live cheap. Two CUP (or ten US cents) buys a breakfast of excellent espresso and a plain roll; 5 CUP (a quarter) for fresh juices, and about 50 CUP (a dollar) for a sandwich or watery bowl of of ropa vieja.
Use CUCs for all tourist-foreigner related services and goods
Use CUPs for local cafes casas particulares, club entrance fees, hotels, restaurants, tours, bars, cafes, taxis, alcohol, export-grade coffee, cigars, rum, beer. Imports and even local luxury items for locals – washing machines, local beer, cigars, rum, locally made chocolates – are priced in CUCs. I gave some to a lady who wanted to buy sweets for her grandson at the chocolate museum as locals are paid in CUPs and have a hard time getting CUCs if they are not working in the tourism industry.