Traveling to Cuba has been a hot topic ever since restrictions were eased for Americans, thanks to Obama. Over 50 thousand Americans have visited the country in the first half of 2016, a 36 percent increase since last year in that same time period. So many flock to this island, which is full of beautiful beaches, good rum, salsa dancing, nightlife festivities, friendly people and of course, the mouth-watering food.
But before you embark on your next adventure to the sizzling island with its 1950s vintage American cars, there are a few things you need to know before you get there.
Can’t Just Go on a Whim
You read that right, although travel restrictions have relaxed for Americans, you still cannot go there just like that (at least not that easily). There are strict laws that require U.S. Citizens to either have a special license that you can get through the U.S. Government (you have to fit a specific category), or be part of a educational, organised tour. You can also travel to a city in Mexico or Canada (also referred to as gateway cities) and fly from there to Cuba. If you go under the first two options, you’ll need to document your activities, excursions and save your receipts for five years after you return.
You need a visa
U.S. Citizens will need to purchase a visa. 30 day Cuban tourist visas are available at the airport for $20 USD. Once you get there, their immigration officers will most likely stamp your visa, not your passport. Why? Because they don’t want you to get in trouble with the U.S. Government, especially if you did go to Cuba through a gateway city, versus registering under one of these categories. Remember, regular tourism is still off limits!
You Need travel insurance
Cuba requires you to have travel insurance. If you have your own insurance, you can use that as proof. If you don’t, then you can buy a special Cuban travel insurance package for around $10 per day.
Bring Cash, Leave the Cards
American credit cards don’t work in Cuba, so leave them at home. Bring cash, but don’t ever do it. With $100 a day, you can spend your days and nights quite comfortably.
Cuba has two different currencies. Once is called The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), known as the “tourist” currency. The other currency is called The Cuban Peso (CUP), which is what locals use, and worth a lot less. So when you go to exchange money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC. If you plan on converting U.S. Dollars, expect to pay a 10 percent penalty fee. If you have Mexican Pesos or Canadian Dollars, you won’t be penalized. Every $1 USD is equal to 1 CUC which is equal to 24 CUP.
And don’t try to convert your monies beforehand. The only place you can exchange your currency for the CUC is in Cuba.
Forget the Internet
Internet in Cuba exists, but it isn’t fast and it’s not everywhere. As a tourist, you can buy a ETECSA prepaid wifi card that you can use where Wifi exists, such as in major hotels or in public parks throughout the country. They cost about $2 to $6 for two to three hours of service. Some apps and sites are restricted, so don’t get upset when your SnapChat doesn’t load.
Stay in Casas Particulares
You can book a stay at a hotel or resort in cities like Havana, Trinidad and Varadero. But if you’re heading out into more rural areas, then you’ll end up staying with locals in “casas particulares,” which are guesthouses in other people’s homes. Don’t worry, they are registered with the Cuban government, and their owners have to pay taxes in order to operate them. One thing to note is that you cannot pre-book a stay in a casa particular—they have no websites, so you’ll need to ask for availabilities when you get to your destination. If they don’t have any extra rooms, they’ll point you to a nearby casa particular that has a vacancy.
I know, this is a lot to keep in mind, but the experience is phenomenal and you’ll have a blast. Plus, you can come back with some Cuban cigars (legally), as long as your total purchase is under $400. So go ahead and be adventurous. Take a step into the past while you enjoy great music, dancing, food and a culture that’s more welcoming than you can imagine.