Cuba has its own customs and conventions. Take notice, act like a guest, enjoy your stay.
Arrival and Departure
Tourists must obtain a Cuban Tourist Card which allows a stay of up to 30 days. These can be purchased at the departure gate at Mexico City airport. The Cuban Embassy in Australia issues Visas (approx $100) but these are not generally required. Keep the Tourist Card close, as you have to present it when you book into accommodation. You also are required to present the Tourist Card to Cuban Immigration at the airport when you leave the country. Keep 25 CUC per person on hand to pay your Departure Tax (in cash) at the airport too. Check in first and then look for the Airport Tax stand because you need your boarding pass when you pay the tax.
Feb 2016 update: The Australian Government Travel Advice for Cuba indicates that the departure tax is now incorporated into the ticket price.
Take a map. Take a map. Take a map with you. You will probably be able to buy a map at one of the tourist offices (if you like to queue), borrow one from your Casa host (if you don’t mind crumples and tears), or even pick up an Internet connection to show the way from A to B (if you’re lucky), but if you are sensible, you’ll take a good map with you. It is not hard to find your way in the old part of la Habana without directions but as soon as you venture a bit further, you’ll be glad you remembered to put a good map in your backpack.
There are two currencies in Cuba. The CUC (pronounced cook) is widely used by tourists, the CUP is not; hotels, restaurants, galleries, and Artex shops accept CUCs. One CUC has the same value as one American dollar. It is easy to withdraw money from ATMs and this is a better option than exchanging money at the bank because there’s generally a long wait at the bank. Some bank branches pull down the grille in front of the ATM when the bank closes for the day, so money matters are best dealt with during business hours.
Euros are ideal if you prefer to take cash (but be prepared to stand in line for your CUCs). The exchange rate is better at a bank or an Exchange House (CADECA) than a hotel. To exchange money at the bank, you will have to present your passport.
Credit cards issued by banks other than US banks are generally accepted for purchases. Visa Credit and Debit cards can be used at the ATMs, while Mastercard can only used at the bank with your passport. American Express cards are not accepted.
Do not, under any circumstances, think that you’ll pick up a phone or SIM card when you arrive. Unlike Heathrow, there are no vending machines selling SIMs at la Habana airport and I suspect it would take at least two days to buy one at the Cuban Telephone Company (ETECSA) office, based on our experience buying bus tickets. Queues outside ETECSA shops are longer than those outside banks.
To phone abroad from Cuba dial: 119 + country code + city code + telephone number.
There is Internet access at most hotels in la Habana and cities frequented by tourists, however it can be slow and expensive. Generally you buy a prepaid card that gives access for an hour. Some hotels expect you to buy a drink as well. Another option is going to a cybercafé or an ETECSA outlet where you will get way faster Internet at a better price. There is often a queue outside the ETECSA shops but most people aren’t waiting to use the Internet PCs so indicate what you want and you’ll be allowed through.
We took a phone with a global roaming SIM (bought from Woolworths supermarket) but found it was very difficult to connect to the local service. Also, the Internet “goes down” quite often so it’s a good idea to keep important information in a notebook rather than relying on being able to look it up.
Many places only have 110V (60Hz) outlets. However newer buildings and hotels provide both 110V and 220V (60Hz). Hotels and Casas often have a clever power socket that can take different types of plugs. We found that an adaptor to convert Australian plugs into the American type flat prong plug was invaluable.
Consumer goods are in short supply in Cuba but people are generous in sharing their knowledge and insight into local culture and customs. Often (but not always) they would like that generosity to be reciprocated. Pack more than you need for your trip to Cuba and be prepared to leave it all behind. The most common item we were asked for was a pen, and luckily we had a few to spare (your basic Biro does the trick). Outside la Habana, children asked for soap, often rubbing their arms or hands to indicate what they wanted (I took it to be sunscreen or moisturiser at first but a local paladar owner put me straight). Be a bit wary of youngsters in their super-cute school uniforms though. They’re picturesque and have learnt to discretely imply that a ‘modelling’ fee should be paid by happy snappers.
On Being Last
A Cuban queue is a marvel to behold. There is no line, no order, but everyone knows his place. The trick to navigating the queue, it seems, is in being able to utter and understand the Cuban version of “who’s last”. Watch a queue forming and you’ll see how it works. A new arrival approaching a group of people milling outside a bank (or sitting inside the bus terminal) asks “who’s last” and someone already ‘in the queue’ nods or raises a finger to indicate that it is her. Right, the new arrival thinks, I just have to keep my eye on her and as soon as it is her turn, I’m next.
It doesn’t always work this way, sometimes orderly queues form in a way that reminds one of Australia Post, sometimes people push their way to the front, regardless of convention or custom. More often than not, however, there is an invisible queue and if you don’t understand that you’ll never be served.
Third in Line
On some local bank windows in Cuba, you may notice a little calendar with symbols and dates that seem meaningless until you try and convert your home currency to CUCs on Pension Day. The calendar indicates the days that government payments are made, and seeing that nearly everyone in Cuba is paid by the Government, you’re in for a long wait if you try to do your banking on a designated payment day.
Regardless of where you are in the queue (see above) pensioners take precedence until about 10.00am on Pension Day. Unless you’re aware of this, you’ll be perplexed as you watch car after car roll up and wait while Grandma walks to the front door and straight past the Security Guard. Be patient, their favourable conditions don’t last all day and sooner or later these newcomers too will be expected to fall into place with the rest of you.
As long as no business customers arrive in the meantime … but that’s another story.
Alert not Alarmed
Cuba feels safe. We were two fair skinned women travelling independently and felt it was safe for travellers. As long as you are sensible and not prone to ostentatious displays of wealth, you’ll hardly be noticed. You’ll be hassled for sure, but only by polite people who fade into the background when you say “no, gracias” to their extraordinary offers. Street lighting in the old part of la Habana is not good so plan your activities when you are going out at night. Be prepared to take a taxi home and also be prepared for the fact that vehicles are not allowed to enter some parts of la Habana – a CoCo taxi is a good option in this situation. We found that taxi drivers were amenable to the idea of coming back to pick us up at a designated time and they were always reliable. Plan ahead, remind yourself that your are a guest in their country, and stay alert.
And the Food
Cuba is cheap. It’s cheap to move around, accommodation is really reasonable, drinks are dirt cheap, and the food? Well, it’s cheap too
There’s lots to tell about the food, but that’s for another day.