CUBA 101

Stuff you need to know before arriving in CUBA – because it’s a process itself!

Getting to Cuba

I flew from Mexico and I managed to get a visa at the airport during check in with Interjet for $25 USD (cash only) and this is a piece of paper that you need for passport control that’ll have your passport details written on (it’s acceptable here) so make sure you keep this safe as you’ll need this when you leave the country.
This visa lasts for 30 days and apparently you can renew it whilst in Cuba. .. but i would imagine it’ll take a while for it to be renewed as everything runs slower. Also, you will need to have valid travel insurance – my tour company had my details so they informed the Cuban government but some were asked at passport control.

So after going through the Mexican process to leave the country, I land in Havana which is a small airport and one might be assume it’s would be a fast immigration process. No joke – it took me an hour as you queue for customs, then you have to join another queue to get your bags checked (literally another security protocol).
THEN, due to the coronavirus, there is a medical checkpoint where they ask you if you’ve been to China and they will do temperature checks if they think you have or just let you walk by to get your luggage.
Being a small airport, usually baggage handlers are quick but at this place; NO they are slow!!
But before you can even exit the airport, you need to fill out a blue customs form that’s only found by the part of ‘Something to declare’ so you have to go back in to get this. Otherwise, they will not let you leave the airport. 

At this airport, they do speak English but it’s a nightmare to get out of a small airport.

Money Exchanges

A VERY useful fact is that Cuba has a rule where ALL money exchanges and banks charge the same so you might as well exchange it at the airport to pay for taxis or at least the first day while you’re in Havana since many places only take cash. At Terminal 3 – there’s lots of ATM’s inside and outside on the left (when you leave the doors to go outside with your back facing towards the airport). If you’ve got money to exchange, the exchange point is outside on the right.

Note that I’ve noticed the exchange rate is greats for the following countries:

  1. Canadian dollars 
  2. GBP 
  3. Euros 
  4. Japanese yen (I think this is the only exchange point that can do Japanese yen as others will only do the above) 
  5. USD – this is the worst currency you can exchange now as it’s like for like meaning $1 USD = $1 CUC BUT what makes it worst is that they know reduce it by 13 % so you are losing out.

I would recommend to exchange your money at your home countries for Canadian dollars  or GBP to get the best rates.

ATM’s 

This is very important especially if you’re coming from the US – US cards do not work in Cuba so make sure you bring ample of cash.
Tip: don’t exchange all your money at once as if you have lots leftover, you have to exchange it back when you leave as Cuba has a bizarre rule about CUC’s not leaving the country and you won’t be able to exchange this back home.

I have a UK card and I had issues with the ATM where my cards got declined. As I couldn’t connect to WiFi or any type of 3G for a while – I found out that it was because my magnetic strip wasn’t activated. But luckily, I brought cash so I had enough to keep me going until I find another atm in the city and had time to activate the magnetic strip.

For those who might be too young and only recalls the chip and pin; magnetic strip predates chip& pin – cards use to use a magnetic strip that had all your account data but the issue with this is that it was easy to copy meaning a lot of fraud activity took place. Nowadays, banks are aware that there are countries that are technologically behind (like Cuba) and don’t have systems to process chip and pin so bank cards still have a magnetic strip that stays dormant. This is only activated when you tell your bank that you’re going to certain countries in which they should know to activate it and deactivate it when you return. Or if you have a digital bank, you can activate it yourself on the app but it’ll deactivate itself within a set time period as the risk of a card being copied it high. 

An issue I have with this activation, is that you need access to the internet or WiFi. Some people may assume that within modern society, internet access is everywhere. But not in Cuba, I have 2 sims from Mexico and Uk and both of these DO NOT work, many places don’t have WiFi and it’s a ballache to try and purchase WiFi. More on that later…

Leaving the airport / Arriving at the airport 

There’s Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 that fly internationally and I can only speak only about Terminal 3 that houses airlines such as interjet, delta, Air France and some others.

By the looks of it, you need to go down a floor to Arrivals to the money exchange bureau if you have CUCs to exchange as you won’t find anywhere outside of Cuba that will accept this – make sure you allow extra time to do this as queues can be long. Also, it’s worth noting that if you have a small value of CUC left, you can use this up in the shops and little cafe on the third floor BEFORE you go through customs. Otherwise, once you go through the gates, you can’t use CUC – only USD, EUR and Canadian dollars. 

Going through customs is a little slowly as they take another photo of you and keep the visa paper that you brought before arriving to Cuba.

Getting a taxi 

You’ll be overwhelmed with taxi companies and negotiating the rate. All I know is that for me to get from my hostel to the airport, it should be 25 CUC /$25 USD. 

I booked a tour which included airport pick up which was a very convenient task that they included as you WILL be overwhelmed with people shouting ‘taxi’ etc and there have been stories where they will take you the LONG way round or they don’t know the street of your casa – it’s such a long winded process and they may try charge you a high rate so make sure you haggle.

Weirdly, my taxi driver got an email with my passport photo from the tour company to ask if he picked up the right person. I did not send a copy of my passport to the tour agency and the driver told me in his broken English that Passport Office sent it to the Tour Company and then to me? It’s very confusing but it seems like the Cuban government wants to know exactly what travellers are up to as you will get asked about your passport when you buy wifi cards or book a day boat tour…

Reasons why I picked a tour company 

So I’ve had friends that travelled Cuba on their own and it’s not a cheap country but they’ve also said that it’s EXTREMELY slow. If you don’t know Spanish, it’s hard to get around. I’ve picked my friends brains on how much they spent in 10 days in Cuba and they spent between $1100-$1500 USD depending on what food, accommodation but also this included bus tickets etc.

Now, that is a lot for me for 10 days but I’m still eager to go to Cuba so I decided to look at tour agencies in which I kept finding agency brokers (where an international agency advertised but they actually work with a small independent agency who carries out the tour). I like to try to pick a tour company that gives back to the community somehow but equally has a good reputation. But during my research, there are many tour companies that charges from $625 usd upwards. Now thinking about this, I opted for 8 day tour with an extra 2 nights which includes all my accommodation, breakfast and airport pick up. I used Cuban Adventures and this is a direct link for you to book it yourself as I went through another agency to book this. There are other companies like G Adventures and Intrepid that carries tours too but they tend use the local tour companies and get them to wear their branded t-shirts (I bumped into a LOT of people when I was moving around). Also, if you’re America, you will need to let the tour companies and wherever you stay know as there are separate restrictions on where Americans can stay or visit.

Also, an odd thing I came across if that payment had to be split so I paid $425 USD online and had to pay 200 CUC in cash to the tour guide as apparently, Cuban banks are really difficult about amounts of payments so this is the way the tour guides can get paid. 

Other parts of the tour would be on top –  I would need to cover is additional excursion costs, lunch, dinner and snacks. 
IN TOTAL: not including my flights – I spent about $1100 includes excursions, tips, food and drinks. So for me, this was actually a good deal AND I had the transportation sorted which is the worst part of planning travel plans right?

Internet

My Mexican and Uk sim did not work here. So I was disconnected for a while but it’s hard to connect. Apparently, you have to get a WiFi card which is so difficult and tedious – then they ask you to produce your passport. Shops, public places and restaurants mostly requires you to have an ETECSA card.

I got the ETECSA card that when you purchase, they only allow 3 persons at a time, if you’re a foreigner you need your passport and there’s a limit of 5 cards per person. One card = one hour. The card has a username which is a long number and then you need to scratch off the password to start the timer. Now I’ve had a problem logging off as it still clocks my minutes whereas others had success from turning off the WiFi setting off completely. 

In saying that, it’s nice to go off the radar but I have a family and friends that worry about me so I had to at least send them a quick message to say the situation and explain that if they don’t hear back from me by X date… then they should worry about me. (Yes I can be quite dramatic).

Tipping

This country expects tipping wherever you go. Even going to pee to the toilet, they expect a cents so here’s a quick idea of what they expect (minimum) but you tip what you can and if you can tip more, you should as it does go a LONG way here.

  • Toilet person: they might not even have toilet paper but yet they still want a coin. This can be 20 cents or something – no need to be 1cuc unless you are out of charge.
  • Musicians/people in costume in the street: probably expect 1 cuc but if you enjoy the music or they play more songs, give them more.
  • Restaurants: You decide what you want to give but the idea is a minimum of 10%.
  • Tour guides: day tour guides probably expect at least 5 CUCs or more (depending how long your tour is) but if you are doing overnight tours then they would want more. I think my guide at the company suggested 25 CUCs and don’t forget to tip the driver which should be about 15 CUCs +.

Casa Particulars / Accommodation

These are guesthouses as they do not have a hostels like the rest of the world (even if they have the name hostel in the title – it’s not). There are separate guest houses for local people and foreigners so it makes it a little harder to wonder in and check availability. As mentioned previously, the internet pretty sucks so finding guest houses is hard. If you stay in a guest house in Havana, you would ask them if they know a place in Vinales and they would call them to see if they had availability then give you the address.  This is the proper old school way of travelling and also a ballache. (Another reason why I booked a tour because the accommodation was all sorted).

Religions

Cuba is open to all religions and cultures. I knew there would be a lot of churches as there’s a big Christianity community but did not realise there were Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and a Mosque. One of the Cubans I was befriending was telling me that the Muslim religion is quite high next to Christianity but they would say the number one religion would be the Santería religion. Santería is an Afro-American religion that developed in Cuba between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. It arose through a process of syncretism between traditional Yoruba religion and the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. The Cuban friend was telling me that when we see men or women dressed in all white (which I have seen quite a lot of) but they decide to wear white in the first two years of practising this religion in adulthood as it’s understood that this helps cleanse and purifies the soul before going further with the religion. I do apologise if this is incorrect as I am only sharing information that has been shared with me.
Apparently, there are still serious Santería who still believe in sacrificing animals and you may come across a sacrificed chicken or other animals on the corner of the street. I do not believe in sacrificing any animals so I am not going to lie – this religion freaks me out.

I will be posting more on my experience in Cuba so please follow me so you stay up to date.

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