First, if you’re like me, it’s occurred to you that much of what makes the place so interesting could be washed away by a sudden influx of American visitors. It’s true that Old Havana and Trinidad are UNESCO World Heritage sites. But they are potentially prime real estate as well.
If your interest is architecture, you should know that some buildings along the Malecon, Havana’s sea wall, have already collapsed. Others exist only as facades. Even complete restorations, should they occur, won’t change the fact that the buildings are small by modern standards–not a good omen. Safety vs. authentic restoration vs. cost issues are likely to arise as well.
Centro Habana, also quite rich in Art Deco architecture, does not appear to have any protected status.
All of this argues in favor of going as soon as possible.
On the other hand, if your interest is a vacation in a sunny place with friendly people, good music and food, there are plenty of other places to go. Cuba is popular with Canadians because its an inexpensive destination. It can be cheap for Americans as well, but if you decide to go with a group tour, it won’t be.
For Americans, getting a permit, known as a “license” to visit Cuba is a bit of work. Having done it four times, I’d say it’s no worse than doing your taxes. And just like your taxes, you can have someone take care of everything, but it will cost you. $2500-4000 seems to be the going price for a 7-10 day trip, not including a flight to Miami. This isn’t robbery but it’s about double what you’ll spend if you handle things yourself. I’m assuming a Holiday Inn level hotel; you can rent a room in someone’s home for much less, or stay where diplomats stay for much more.
Obviously, I don’t know how the Obama administration’s plans will play out but based on reader comments accompanying recent articles on Cuba, there are some misconceptions about our nearby neighbor.
With this in mind, some Q&As. I’ve been to Cuba 4 times over 15 years so I’m certainly not an expert but I’m completely comfortable making arrangements and going over there.
Q: Is it illegal for Americans to visit Cuba? This may be splitting hairs but as I read it, it has never been illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. What is illegal is the disbursement of funds (you can go but you can’t spend money) which I assume is why licenses to travel are issued by Department of the Treasury.
Q: Will Cuban authorities stamp your passport? Yes and no. The Cuban government is well aware of the current situation and will put a Post-it note in your passport with the stamp. When you leave, they’ll remove the sticky note. However, you may still be asked to account for your movements, so if you fly to Havana from Mexico and then return to the US via Mexico, you could be asked why you entered and left Mexico, twice. I can only relate my experience which has been that nobody asks and with the prospect of restored diplomatic relations it’s even less likely.
Q: How long is the flight to Cuba? I haven’t flown directly from the US. From Cancun, it’s an hour. From Mexico City, 1.5 hours.
Q: Can I book a flight to Havana, from my home in the US? You can book flights from Mexico to Havana on Interjet, with a US credit card.
Q: Can I book a place to stay in Cuba, from my home in the US? Yes, if you’re interested in a home stay, aka “Casa Particular”. Try My Casa Particular.
Q: What do I have to do to get a license to travel to Cuba? See the OFACs current information. The way I read it, you may not need one. There are so many categories that fall under a “general license” which you do not have to apply for at all, that a case could be made for almost any cultural pursuit.
Are you a student of music? Art? Tobacco plantations? I’d spend a few minutes jotting down your interests and what you hope to learn. “Specific” licenses are still issued and I have always referenced documenting Art Deco architecture. I’ve never been turned down but sometimes the OFAC will ask for a detailed itinerary–which has come in handy for my own use, actually.
Q: I can’t use American dollars in Cuba? Used to be, the dollar was king but due to some past friction with Cuba, US dollars are no longer usable. They can be exchanged at CADECAS around the country. Again, due to some hard feelings, exchange rates from US currency aren’t great.
Since Cuban pesos aren’t any good outside the country, it makes sense to convert money as needed. Note that lines at the CADECA can get pretty long. It’s a Communist country. Sometimes, you can pay a person in dollars and they will exchange them later. I did this with a taxi to the airport once.
Q: Do all Cubans speak English? Despite a world renowned education system, many Cubans don’t speak much English but if you have high school Spanish, that’s enough. The worst problem I ever had was trying to explain how I got there because I couldn’t remember the Spanish world for airplane (avion.)
Q: Will I run into English speakers in Cuba? Remember, the embargo exists only between the USA and Cuba. The country is open to the rest of the world. You’ll meet many Canadians and even a fair number of Americans.
Q: Will I find stuff like Coke and Pepsi? The previous question gave this away. Anything that can be bought in Mexico or Canada will likely find it’s way to Cuba. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, yes; McDonald’s restaurants, no.
Q: Are Cubans hostile to Americans? If I may generalize, Cubans are lovely, friendly (and surprisingly cheerful) people. On my first trip I was in a restaurant where 3 elderly musicians were playing. One of them told me they had performed on the Ed Sullivan show! Many Cubans have relatives in the USA and you may be asked to post a letter once you’re back home.
Q: Is there a lot of crime? Other than obvious black market activity, I’ve never seen any. The cities are very well policed and one can only imagine the penalty for hassling a tourist. Occasionally, you run into somebody who sees you as a meal ticket and is maybe a little too friendly. Not a big deal, although one time I ended up taking a 2-day detour to the Bay Of Pigs which I had not planned (long story.)
Q: Is there a good time or bad time to visit? There is a dry season and a hurricane season so it’s pretty easy to work out when to go.
Q: If I injure myself or get sick, will the Cuban medical system patch me up for free? Not anymore. Cuban medicine is respected worldwide but in short supply. These days, you are required to purchase medical insurance before entering the country. This can be done from home or at Jose Marti Airport. The last time I bought insurance, it was around $30-50 for an individual.
Q: There are two kinds of currency, convertible pesos and non-convertable pesos. The guidebook says stick with convertible pesos, but have a few of non-convertable for situations where they are the only ones accepted(?) I didn’t find anyone who wanted non-convertable pesos. If you get some in your change, that should be plenty.
Q: How is Cuban food? Delicious but I’m told it’s not one of the world’s great cuisines (may change if the embargo is lifted.) Cubans live on things like rice, beans, pork, fried bananas, etc. But everything is available on the black market. It can be difficult to find a place that serves tourists what ordinary Cubans eat.
Q: Is it safe to drink the water? Supposedly, but I’ve never tried. Bottled water is cheap and plentiful.
Q: Are all the cars really old? The majority of cars in Cuba are pre-1959 American models. It’s a photographer’s paradise and it’s comical when new books are published on the “discovery” of these much loved cars because they’re found everywhere. OTOH, foreign diplomats have always had new cars and new cars are available for rent.
Q: Should I rent a car? I’ve seen warnings about this but I had a great time with a rented Suzuki Samurai. I don’t know current costs and you will need to leave a cash deposit, but the opportunity to cruise Havana’s Autopista, a freeway with almost no cars (and some horses) is a unique experience. Road maintenance is awful and it probably doesn’t make sense to drive at night, but if you’ve driven in Manhattan, you should be ok.
Q: Are there gifts I can bring that are difficult to get in Cuba? Sure, but check online to see what’s most desired. Instead of things like soap or pens, what people seemed to really appreciate were thumb drives. But this may have changed….
Q: If the Obama administration lifts the embargo, is it possible a future Republican president might reinstate it? No. Once the first American company breaks ground on a major project like a new hotel, no politician will want to tell them their investment has been wasted.
I hope you found this helpful and if and when you go, you have a wonderful time!