You’ll need a passport, and if you’re staying more than 72 hours you’ll need the tourist card you can get through the Cuban consulate in your country, your tour agency or airline. It’s not wise to expect you can just pick one up at the airport. The card costs $15 US. In the “occupation” space, you may want to avoid the hassles brought on by claiming to be a journalist, government worker or member of the military..."artist" works. The cards are good for 30 days and are renewable.
If you’re on an… unofficial visit from the U.S., make sure Cuban Customs officials don’t stamp your passport, since visiting as a tourist (spending tourist dollars) isn’t allowed. The Cubans are happy to oblige. On your return to the U.S., get rid of all your receipts, don’t bring back souvenirs — no cigars! — and whatever you do, don’t try to lie to U.S. Customs officials. They hate that. If they ask, answer honestly. You’ll get a stern scolding, but chances are you won’t get hit with a serious fine.
Not a U.S. citizen?
If you are a citizen of any country other than the U.S., getting to Cuba is pretty much as simple as catching a flight from your nearest airport. (Tramp steamers notwithstanding). Most international carriers have service to Havana or Varadero, although you may have to endure connections in the Bahamas or other way stations. The farther in advance you buy your ticket, the less expensive it’ll be (and the better chance you’ll have of getting the dates you want in peak season). Check out the Internet for charters, bucketshops, and other last-minute cheapo deals.
It’s still (absurd or not) mostly impossible to fly to Cuba directly from the U.S. except or unless one is on a formal study tour. See below for more on the subject. Many Americans opt simply to travel from a third country such as Canada or Mexico. U.S. travelers must ensure they have separate tickets to Cuba and ask Cuban customs authorities to issue a temporary stamp instead of stamping their passports.
Americans and others have responded to the arcane rules of the embargo with creativity and ingenuity. There are few interests not catered to by a variety of educational tours, groups and seminars. Seeing Cuba this way has an upside: easier access to lodging, translators, and occasionally, cheaper rates. You’ll also find like-minded fellow travelers as well as volunteer opportunities. Some outfits are listed at left.
Similar rules apply to ships traveling to Cuba. Some Euro cruise lines offer packages, but since these outfits can’t legally dock in the U.S. within 6 months of touching Cuban shores, the pickings are slim. If, being the Diva you are, you want to take your own boat, or hire a skipper, it’s entirely possible. A little asking around any mainland marina will usually locate a willing guide in short order. You’ll generally find a warm bienvenidos from Cubans and a number of marinas that cater to foreigners. Again, if you’re from the U.S., you won’t be spending any dollars and you’ll have to bring your own food etc. etc. You’ll just have to be… resourceful.
- Brush up on your Spanish, but be prepared for a very distinctive Cuban-Spanish accent. English, the language of tourism, is your next best bet.
- Keep in mind that to travel to Cuba, you’ll have to go via a third country, such as Canada or Mexico.
- Bring lots of American dollars. Cuba has become a two-tiered, black market-based economy, for better or worse, and the mighty dollar rules.
- Book a tourist hotel room in Havana, if you’d like, but it is much more fun and economical to crash at “homestays,” extra rooms in local homes.
- If you take a chance and go on the sly, do not come back with some primo Havana cigars for Uncle Joe. (That could look like you’ve been trading with the enemy, an offense — albeit rarely prosecuted — good for a $250,000 fine and 10 years in the clink).
Unofficial Recipe for Getting In and Around Cuba
The service can be laconic but it’s a cool way to meet Cubans. Take the especial for “express” service, the regular train is called the lechero... you don’t need much Spanish to know we’re talking “milk run”. Express time between Havana and Santiago is about 17 hours or so. Foreigners must pay in dollars for longer runs at the local Ladis office. Booking ahead is a good idea.
Local buses fall victim to gas rations so their schedules can be… sporadic. A 12-hour trip can end up taking a couple days. The locals also stop a lot, of course, and can get hot and crowded… bring water. The tourist lines are more reliable.
Taxi: The government tries to regulate the taxi industry by dispatching official Tourist Taxis: newer, smaller cars with plenty of gasoline. But check out the less expensive unofficial taxis: funky old pre-revolutionary American Chevys and DeSotos from the ‘50s. You may run out of gas, but hey, that’s part of the adventure. And you may meet a former doctor or engineer who has chucked aside his lab coat to become a cab driver to take advantage of the tourist economy.
Hitching: Most Cubans get around by hitching rides in the back of trucks that stop at informal pick-up spots along their routes. The stops are everywhere — just look for a handful of folks milling around by the roadside and join them. When the truck stops, jump on board — and expect it to be crowded. There’s no fare, per se, but it’s nice to chip in a few pesos for gas.
Your (former) Soviet Yak 40 plane may have broken seat belts and saggy chairs, but chances are, it’ll get you where you’re going. If you’ve got the dough, this can be a great way to get around and it’s actually pretty cheap. There are several local lines offering service to all major Cuban cities (see listing on left). Keep in mind, though, that flights are often fully booked for days and it can be a challenge to book a reservation while you’re in Cuba, particularly if your Spanish is lacking. If it’s possible, it’s best to book your tix before you go.
You can stay in faded splendor at an old hotel for the usual hotel rates — $70-$100US or take your chances with a homestay for $6-10US. Homestays — extra rooms in local homes — are a great way to meet Cubans and get a better look at real life. You might end up in a really cool place...or not. View before you pay. And instead of taking up the first offer you get at the bus station, head into town and ask around there.
For food, your best bet — even if you don’t speak Spanish — is to remember these simple words: Dónde está un paladar, por favor? Paladares are back rooms of homes that have been turned into ad hoc restaurants serving delicious rice, meat and vegetables. You can score a great meal for $3 - $10. The Cuban government turns a blind eye to the grass-rootsy paladares, knowing the income helps people get by in difficult economic times.
In Cuba’s two-tiered economy, all things tourist-related run on U.S. dollars. So bring lots of cash in small bills. You’ll rarely, if ever, need pesos. And if you’re from the U.S., forget about using credit cards.
Telephone service is dodgy. Even if you manage to find a phone, there’s a good chance it won’t be working. Hotel phones are your best bet.
|Cuba: the 411|
|Cuba Solidarity Campaign||British-based campaign for Cuban sovereignty, with links to movements around the world|
|CubaWeb||Web links, hotel listings, car rentals, events, advertising and news in Spanish and English.|
|Cuba Solidarity||Run by the National Network on Cuba, an umbrella organization of groups opposing the U.S. embargo and travel ban.|
|Granma International||Online version of Cuba's daily newspaper in Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, German, Italian.|
|CubaNet||A non-profit fostering free press in Cuba|
|Caribbean News Agency||Dispatches from the Caribbean News Agency|
|Global Exchange||A human rights organization dedicated to promoting environmental, political, and social justice around the world. They offer "reality tours" to teach participants about the history and current state of the country. Destinations include Cuba, Iran & more.|
Trip Guide: Cuba
Getting There, Getting Around
Despacho 103 Colonia
Havana tel 33-4543
Varadero tel, fax 66-7096
Ladis (Rail): Havana
Insurgentes Sur no.421
Complejo Aristo Edif.B
06100 Mexico D.F.
161 High Holborn
London WC1V 6PA
Paseo de la Habana no.28
1 ed 28036 Madrid
- Cubana Rap
Carilda Olivar Labra
- Santería Priestess
- Exiled Activist
- Trip Guide: Cuba
Practicalities, Packing, & our Fave Books, Flicks, Music