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10 Things to know before traveling to Cuba

10 Things to know before traveling to Cuba

Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations on 20 July 2015.  President Obama has called for the ending of the embargo, but U.S. law requires congressional approval to end the embargo.  In 1960, Fidel Castro seized private land, nationalized hundreds of private companies including several local subsidiaries of U.S. corporations and taxed American products so heavily.  President Eisenhower responded by imposing trade restrictions on everything except food and medical supplies. This caused Castro to expanded trade with the Soviet Union instead.

The U.S. responded by cutting all diplomatic ties.  President Kennedy issued the permanent embargo in 1962.  Today Cuba sits in a virtual time warp trapped in 1962.  Just think of all the things that have changed since 1962.  Color Television, 8 track tapes, ATM machines, the microwave, Debit Cards, the Walkman, the VCR, computers, lap tops, CDs, MP3 Players, and DVD and tablets just to name a few.  President Obama lifted remittance and travel restrictions through Executive Order, but the fate of the embargo rests in the sensitive hands of politicians.  So if you are planning a trip to Cuba here are 10 things you should know.




Things to know before traveling to Cuba

  1. Credit and Debit Cards do not work!

Most places do not take credit or debit cards.  It is rare to find any restaurant or store that has the ability to accept Credit or Debit Cards.

  1. Cell Phone service does not work!

Most cell phone service will not work including the International Calling plans.  Your phone may show you a signal however you will not be able to connect to it.  If you do find a spot where your phone will work it will not connect to the Internet.  You will only be able to talk and maybe text.  Take walkie-talkie radios instead.  The new ones work for 20 miles.

  1. No Internet Service or very slow like dial up

Connections do not have the bandwidth to support applications such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. If you are in Havana, The Hotel Nacional has a Wi-Fi business lounge accessible to all visitors, and Hotel Melia Cohiba has regular Wi-Fi in its lobby as well.

  1. Flights into Cuba do not operate on a schedule!

All air traffic including Commercial Air Planes is controlled and scheduled by the Military in Cuba.  The planes can only land and take off when they tell you too.  Therefore, the time on your ticket may not be when you land or leave.  Be prepared for delays and be flexible.  There is nothing the airlines can do!

  1. There are few ATM Machines

ATMs are scarce, and if you don’t want to wait in an hour-long line to finally reach the machine only to realize that it has run out of cash. You can change it at the airport.  Travelers have advised avoiding the “bureau de change” at the airport though. They’re known to give incorrect change and the rates aren’t as good.

  1. Buying Food & Water

In Cuba, they have something called “Paladars”.  This is where people cook and serve meals at their homes like restaurants.  It is important to make reservations at the privately run Paladars. They offer the best food you can find in Cuba, and the good ones fill up quickly.  Also, don’t drink the water.  Purchase bottled water!

  1. Local currency/money

There are two Cuban currencies, the peso (Moneda Nacional), which is used exclusively by locals, and the C.U.C. (generally called a dollar), which is used by tourists and by locals for nicer things. The C.U.C. is worth about 25 times the peso. One C.U.C. is about U.S. $1.15.  If you can consider changing your dollars to Euros first, which has a lower tariff than the US dollar.

  1. Drugs Laws in Cuba

Cuba has a zero tolerance on drugs.  The United States does not have full diplomatic relationships with the Cuban Government.  Translation, you are on your own if you get into trouble in Cuba.  Cuba has drug dogs that are present in the airport and freely sniff your luggage.  The country of Cuba has become a transit country for drugs destined for Europe.  Cuban law allows for the death penalty and courts are handing out very severe penalties (in excess of twenty years) for all drugs related offenses. Do not take drugs in with you and do not accept from anyone offering you drugs.  You could be accepting from undercover police.

  1. Travel Insurance is required in Cuba

In Cuba, everyone has health insurance.  It is provided by the Government for all Cuban Citizens.  Therefore, Travelers are required to have health insurance.  The Cuban Government does a spot check.  You can be refused entry into Cuba without it or Forced to buy it at whatever it cost. The reason is that if you are taken to a hospital you are responsible for all the bills and you are not allowed to leave until they are paid.  Make sure your Insurance Provider will honor your policy should you need medical treatment in Cuba.  

There was a recent case where a lady needed medical treatment in Cuba but because her policy was from an American affiliated provider they would not help her while she was on Cuban soil, fortunately her injuries were not too serious or require hospitalization – ask your Insurance Provider to confirm in writing that you are covered for everything while inside of Cuba. Remember they don’t generally take credit or debit cards and any medical treatment must be paid for before being allowed to leave Cuba.

  1.  Feminine Hygiene Products

Ladies, please take tampons and sanitary products with you, if the unexpected should happen you don’t want to be stuck.  You cannot get tampons in Cuba and their sanitary products are rather antiquated. Take little packets of tissues, flushable wipes or baby/personal wipes with you; toilet paper is scarce or chargeable away from resorts.

They will come in handy at the airport. Please note that although they have toilet paper at the resorts, Travelers have complained that it is thin and cheap in some resorts.

Bonus Tip!

Gifts and bartering

 There is a barter system in Cuba.  Western items that are hard to get a very much needed and appreciated.  Women’s health and beauty products go a long way.  Items that little girls wear in their hair and things with lace or that are pretty make a good impression. Common household items also go over well.  I have actually heard of a man trade a bar of hotel soap for a cigar once. There seems to be a shortage of canned tuna in Cuba.  It’s one of the most expensive things to eat there.  Otherwise, clothing with American brands on it is popular as is anything to do with baseball.

Other helpful hints:
  •         Count your change carefully
  •         You are not allowed to take pictures of Police or Military
  •         Don’t make fun or joke about Fidel Castro
  •         Don’t blow your nose in public
  •         Take insect repellent
  •         Most Banks only allow 1 customer at a time.  Lines can be an hour long and a Bank or ATM.
  •         Take plenty of spare batteries as they are very expensive in Cuba.  Bring extra memory cards too if you use a digital camera or make sure you have one large enough to take all the pictures you want!
  •         Don’t forget insect repellent it is also very expensive in Cuba
  •         Same goes for Sunscreen and with the Sun you will definitely need it.

Cuba is a safe country. They don’t mess with tourist because of the revenue it brings in.  Be aware of your surroundings and don’t leave anything of value lying around in plain sight and you won’t have any trouble. Just like any place, if you leave your bag lying around, you shouldn’t be surprised if it turns up missing.  Don’t put yourself in a situation where something more serious could develop.  If you are after drugs or looking for women you can find trouble quickly.  

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Bill Collins

Bill Collins is a former Army Officer turned veteran traveler. I have traveled to 34 different Countries mainly concentrated in Central & Latin America and have spent the last 16 years exploring the Caribbean Islands.

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