Nearly 3 million visitors went to Cuba in 2012 – from Canada, U.S., South America, Europe, Asia, Australia… well, just about everywhere. It’s a beautiful, diverse, dynamic and complex country that welcomes tourists with increasing services and amenities. And beyond tourism, Cuba is a fascinating society in transition. Citizens around the world know they can visit Cuba without any restrictions other than the normal visa process, but most U.S. citizens do not believe they can. This is a myth.
U.S. citizens can legally go to Cuba under several programs:
• Academic/Cultural/Volunteer Tours (search: travel to Cuba, trips to Cuba). I recommend educational/cultural/agricultural trips organized out of Mexico by www.globaljusticecenter.org
• Under the “General Licenses” law of the U.S. Treasury. You do not need to apply; you just need to qualify. If you qualify as a “professional” or other category, you can fly to Cuba from Canada, Mexico, Europe or elsewhere. Read the U.S Treasury rules here.
• Via charter flights, if you have family in Cuba.
First, I want to answer some of the most frequently asked questions, and then provide links to explore. To view my YouTube photo slideshow of Cuba, with music, click here.
Will they stamp my passport?: Cuban immigration will not stamp your U.S. passport. Instead, they issue a paper visa which you return upon departure. There is an exit tax ($25 cash), so make sure you hold back some Cuban currency to pay this at the airport.
• Health insurance: You are required to buy health insurance. Your U.S. health insurance or credit card travel insurance will not apply.
You can and must purchase Cuban health insurance. It is available for purchase at airport arrival before getting in line for Immigration. For $3/day, it’s a bargain should you need it.
• Money: You should bring sufficient cash for your stay. All major world currencies can be exchanged for Cuban CUCs (roughly equivalent to $1 US). You will be charged a 10% premium for converting U.S. dollars, so you may want to consider having a different currency to exchange. Currency exchange should be done at the airport. There are banks and exchange houses in the major cities. Your U.S. credit cards cannot be processed in Cuba. For more on Cuban currency, read my last blog.
• Accommodation: You should arrange beforehand where you will stay and have a print out of your reservations to show if asked by immigration or customs. Hotels like The National (where the ghosts of Batista-era mobsters and celebrities are capitalized upon) or the Seville (a Mercure-Accor hotel in old town Havana where Graham Green is reputed to have written “Our Man in Havana” – Room 501) may be worth the tariff, but for a “real Cuban experience,” I recommend the privately-owned “casa particulares“. Google that term for plenty of listings and reviews. Figure $25-$40 per night for a double room with its own bathroom.
• Food: “I’ve heard the food isn’t good…” say most Americans, who ironically hail from a country that invented and exported high-carb, high-sugar, high-processed, diabetes-inducing fast “food.” The typical Cuban diet is basic but real – rice, potatoes, a little green, a little meat or fish; the pervasive ham sandwich on white bread; pizza. But there are fine restaurants with world-class chefs, excellent seafood, fruit drinks, fabulous desserts and some of the best coffee in the world.
Searching For Resources:
Before I went to Cuba in April 2013, I searched “Google” to find as much contemporary information as I could. I didn’t find much and erroneously concluded there wasn’t a lot about Cuba online. But there is! Like any online search, it’s a matter of what keywords or phrases you enter, and each one will give you a different set of results (websites) corresponding to that word or phrase. Be creative in your search terms, and remember that the embargo and blockade are unique to the U.S. government. Here are some places to begin:
General information sites:
Cuban Tourist Board in Canada
Tripadvisor.com - recommendations and ratings from fellow travelers; browse site
Lonely Planet – fabulous forums – Buy their latest guide!
www.cuba-junky.com – resources and self-guided walking tours
Cuba Travel Agency & Tour Operator
Many academic articles on the various complex aspects of Cuban society: http://www.globaljusticecenter.org
Search major newspapers in the UK (Guardian), Canada (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal), Australia.
Exploring Havana is easy – Monteal Gazette
Travel Cuba – The Montreal Gazette
Tripadvisor.com: Activities in Havana
11th Havana Biennial Attracts Americans – NY Times.com
20 great things to do in Havana – Time Out Travel
Where Is Cuba Going? – NY Times.com – Excellent, lengthy article by a U.S. journalist married to Cuban living in the U.S.
Beginner’s Guide To Cuban Travel (from Australian news)
The Truth About Socio-Economics in Cuba – great article by Chris Turner in The Walrus.
Best Blog about Life in Cuba, by U.S. travelwriter Conner Gorry, who has lived there since 2004. She just started Cuba Libro, Cuba’s first English language bookstore-cafe. Read about it in the Washington Post.
Read about the Havana Book Fair, attended last February by about 5 million people!
And, just so you know – and because I’m so excited I must share it! – I will be returning to Cuba this fall to teach workshops on digital publishing and marketing, More on this soon! (May we all live so long!)
Obviously, I am by no means an expert on Cuban travel, so if you have comments, questions, recommendations or personal experiences to share, please add to comments. I appreciate you sharing my blog and I love hearing from you! Muchas gracias!