I loved my trip to Cuba and enjoyed every minute of it. It’s fantastic place like nothing you have seen and known before. But it is not an easy country to travel in. It is not stress free tourism and not meant for spontaneity. This is not meant to intimidate anyone but I would merely recommend a bit of organisation and planning.
The Havana promenade
Almost everyone will need a visa to Cuba. Depending on the passport you hold, the visa fees to be paid may differ but you will probably need a visa. There maybe exceptions for certain Latin American and Caribbean visitors but if you hold an Asian or European passport you will need a visa. You will also need a visa (called a travel card) if you hold a USA passport. Further, a completely separate set of rules apply for citizens of the USA as well as green card holders and other residents when entering Cuba. You will need to confirm your trip is for educational, vocational training or for similar other purpose and will need to record all such activity you undertook. I do not want to go into details for this here but please research rules in your own countries (country of nationality and residence) for travel to Cuba.
Liberation Day celebrations in Plaza Viaja
2. Visa process:
The process of obtaining a visa for Cuba is not very easy. There is not a lot of information available online. I am going to detail my experience which could help someone in my circumstances – I am an Indian passport holder and live in London. The only information available online was incorrect. The information provided stated I could pay the visa fees in cash and provided a list of documents I needed. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Cuban embassy in London (this is on Shaftesbury Avenue) I was told the visa fees is payable only by a postal order. I was also told my bank statements would be required although this was not mentioned in the list of documents. There is a post office near the embassy so I could run out and get the postal order made and come back for the visa. Luckily my bank was also nearby. To make an annoying process even more cumbersome, I was told after I made the postal order, the fee amount originally provided to me was incorrect. So I had to go back and cancel the postal order made and make a new one.
My advise would be to call the embassy in your city and ask for all the information you need. If you hold a passport different from your residence (like me) mention that expressly. Ask for the following information:
- Visa fees payable as per your nationality,
- Any other additional fees payable,
- Requirements for your passport – how many blank pages required and when the passport can expire,
- The detailed list of the documents required,
- Method of payment of the visa fees.
3. Make all your travel arrangements before you land (to the extent possible):
Making travel arrangements after you have landed is not recommended. You will not have easy access to the internet and sad to say, you will probably be overcharged. We tried making bookings at casas months prior to landing in Cuba but found it a very cumbersome process.
Walking to Hotel Nacional to get a drink
4. Tell everyone you are going to Cuba:
General bragging aside, tell the people who need to know. Tell your bank, tell your credit card company, tell your employer (especially if you work in a bank), tell your phone company, etc. There are a lot of regulations still in place so please make sure you don’t fall foul of any.
You need to rethink the way you travel a little bit. Cuba is not the kind of place you can tick off the first ten ‘things to do’ and ‘places of interest’ from Tripadvisor or look up the highest rated restaurant nearby. Your reliance on the internet will need to be reduced considerably because there is pretty much no real access to internet in Cuba. You can get an internet card for CUC 2 which will provide you with internet access for an hour – please note most hotels will not sell you the card for CUC 2 which is the cost price. Hotel Riviera is a good option while the Melia Cohiba sells its for CUC 10 and Hotel Nacionale charges CUC 7. The catch is that to access the wifi with the card you will need to be in a designated wifi zone. Most big hotels are designated zones and coming across a crowd of people frantically typing on their phones is a hilarious sight and a little bizarre. So please do not expect to have access to the internet easily, if at all. Vodafone mobile data does not work on roaming in Cuba although O2 did although its not very good.
Viewpoint at Hotel Jasmine in the Vinales valley
I spent a week in Cuba and I am still not sure how the currency works. The first thing about the Cuban currencies you need to know (the plural used for currencies is not a typo) is that you can only buy the currencies once you are in Cuba. Secondly, there are two types of currency used in Cuba and the one you will mostly use is the CUC.
Since you only buy Cuban currencies once you are actually in Cuba, please be prepared to stand in line (a really really long one) at the airport to change your money. The other alternative is withdraw CUCs from an ATM. Apparently there is an ATM upstairs in the airport if that works for you. As I mentioned in point 3, make sure you have checked with the bank and are able to withdraw CUC with your credit card/ bank card. If you have an USD based account you will (probably) not be able to withdraw money with your bank card and will need to bring all the money you need with you. If your bank account is with an USA bank, check with them to see if you can withdraw CUC with their cards since for instance, American Express cards do not work in Cuba.
Beautiful wrought iron furniture at a French style state owned restaurant in Havana
7. Take a good guide book:
You will need to go old school – back to good and proper physical guide book. I used the Rough Guide to Cuba which I picked up from the library on a whim when I went to get some other books. Once we landed in Havana we realised what a lifesaver the book turned out to be. All tourists in Cuba carried guide books – there is no other way. Of course the Lonely Plant series was pretty popular too. I assume your guide book will have the relevant maps as well.
8. Brush up on map reading skills:
With no internet there is no Google Maps either. I think it was in Havana that I realised how dependant I am on Google Maps which shows my location at very pace. Map reading from a paper map is a lot harder.
Picture taken from the breakfast room of Melia Cohiba
Cuba is a not the country for which you pack lightly. Pack everything you need, you may need, you may think you need, you don’t think you will need but you still end up needing. We walked around a lot and there were no supermarkets we could find and no shops to really go and buy a toothbrush. So bring all your clothes and underwear (and extras as well), toiletries, soap, snacks – you get the general idea. Even the shops that are there seem to be selling cakes or some kind of Cuban snack food but no other every day items that you might need. If you are in a fix, ask a local person and they will definitely be able to get hold of whatever you need or direct you to where you might find this. But be prepared to also not being able to find it.
I am done for now but this is definitely not my only post on Cuba. There are a lot more to come. And please tell me about your holiday plans? I would love to know. Just a hint – we have a whole travel section. Follow us on our Twitter, take a look at our Instagram page (give us a follow too!) and like us on Facebook page also while you are at it! Hope you had a lovely weekend.