For my birthday this year I was able to visit Cuba, something I’ve been wanting to do ever since the US embargo was lifted. The timing of a photography workshop in Havana at the same time made it a perfect excuse! I had an amazing time, and hopefully I can provide some information for the many friends who have told me they too are planning on visiting.
It really is time-travel back 60 years ago. The cars! It’s the first thing everyone asks about. And it’s true – they’re everywhere! Though on closer inspection it is quite apparent that they’ve been barely held together all this time. The shiny pristine ones often seen in photographs are few and far between. The architecture, too was amazing to see. Such beautiful buildings, yet so decayed and crumbling. Much of the city was under scaffolding – I would guess that the renovations are being made in preparation for the 500 year centennial celebration in late 2019. I wish I had made it to other places throughout the country, but it being bigger than I expected and not knowing how to arrange travel ahead of time, I spent my entire time in Havana, mostly in the old city.
Currently visas can be purchased in the airport for $50, however the paperwork requires a *reason* for entering the country (a professional meeting, education, etc.). The workshop was my reason, though honestly, no one asked the name of the workshop, nor the sponsors, and no one inquired as to the dates or location of the workshop.
I stayed in Havana at various hotels (or “casas particulares” as they call them) while visiting. They’re something between an Airbnb and a European hostel. As there is as of yet no banking between the two countries, paying in advance was a bit of a challenge. The owners of the first hotel I stayed in have citizenship in Germany, and so I had to send a Western Union (! I didn’t realize those still existed!), to a German bank. Only the first night’s payment was required in advance, and I’m sure there are some hotels that may be paid at the time of arrival. Thankfully they were also kind enough to arrange for a taxi from the airport, and include the taxi far in the hotel bill, as the lines at the airport currency exchange were extremely long.
I do speak Spanish, but I’m sure you could get on well enough even if you don’t. Hotel staff typically speak English, and the taxi drivers speak enough to offer their services to the major sights about the city – whether or not they stick to their offered prices is another matter altogether!
It wasn’t necessary to bring an kind of electrical converter. The houses are wired with both 120 and 220 volt electricity, and outlets are marked. So just be careful which plug you use! Some of your electronics can even be plugged into either (for instance the Apple cube works on either voltage), but be sure to check.One of the best things I found was having a private tour guide. I happened to meet mine unexpectedly (through the cleaning lady at one of the hotels), but it was nice to not only have a driver to various locations about town, but also someone I could ask questions of and find out more about life in Havana from a local’s perspective. It was fascinating and eye-opening to say the least!I’ve never understood the fascination with Che Guevara, but he’s everywhere down there! Murals on highways, buildings, clothing – all over the place.You are required to have health insurance while traveling in Cuba. For Delta passengers this was a $25 fee included in your airline ticket price. This also means you must carry your ticket with you at all times, as it is proof of insurance.Internet is nearly non-existent! WiFi is available at limited places, generally the larger hotels. In order to connect, you need purchase a card with login number and password, which will get you 60 minutes of connectivity. Internet cards were available for as little as $2 at the telecom building, but you have to wait in an hour-long line. You might find kids on the street selling them for $3. Or The Hotel Parque Central sold them for $4.50 and included a drink so that you could sit and take care of emails and whatnot. But there are still days when the WiFi just isn’t working, so you’ll have to be patient!
Generally when I travel I sign up for an international plan with my phone carrier, however at the time this wasn’t an option for Cuba. It was still possible to make phone calls, you’ll just be paying extravagantly for it.
There were rumors regarding how much each person is allowed to purchase or bring back into the US. I will tell you what I know, but again, things are likely to change as time goes on. You might need to check some of these things before your own travel.
Remember that there is no banking between the two countries, so all currency exchange must be done in country and with cash. Your credit cards and ATM cards will not work. (I’ve heard that not only will they not work, but that your accounts may also be frozen. I didn’t try, so I can’t confirm that myself.) The individual limit for changing of money was $5,000. Depending on the length of your stay or the size of your party, this may require some pre-planning on your part. My forms upon returning indicated that $800 was the limit for items purchased being brought back into the US.
If you have particular questions, leave a comment! I’ll be happy to make updates or send a private message. Though I’ve tried to share everything I can remember there may be some things I’ve forgotten! The embassy’s website is also a good place to go for updated information.