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Travel essentials

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Costs

In general, Cuba is not a particularly cheap place to visit. An average weekly budget for two independent travellers sharing a room, who eat out and go out at night regularly, stay in cheap hotels or Cuban homes and move around the country using buses and trains, works out at around $425CUC – equivalent to £272, Can$429, US$425 or €323 at 2013 exchange rates. However, with some considerable effort and a willingness to sacrifice some quality and comfort, it is possible to get by on much less. The key to living on a shoestring budget is to stick as much as possible to national-peso goods and services, though often you’ll be obliged to pay in convertible pesos.

Given the prevalence of fresh-food markets, street vendors and house-front caterers, all of which accept national pesos, the biggest savings can be made when buying food and drink. Stick to the above and you can survive on just $40–50CUP per day, equivalent to less than $3CUC. In the more likely event that you eat in restaurants, paladars or casas particulares, $20–40CUC should cover breakfast, lunch and dinner.

You’ll have to pay for accommodation in convertible pesos, since national-peso hotels are for Cubans only; casas particulares can be let to national-peso-paying Cubans or convertible-peso-paying foreigners, but not to both. You’re unlikely to find a hotel room for less than $25CUC, though some of the older, more basic hotels that cater to Cubans as much as foreign visitors offer lower rates. Rooms in casas particulares, which are always doubles, generally cost between $20CUC and $35CUC, though for long stays in some places outside the capital, you may be able to negotiate a nightly price below $20CUC.

The cost of public transport is most flexible within the towns and cities, where local buses cost next to nothing, but most foreign visitors use taxis or tourist buses. When travelling long distances non-Cubans are, on the whole, obliged to use convertible-peso services, whether on buses, trains or planes. If you travel by Víazul bus, expect to pay between $10CUC and $50CUC for most journeys (for example, Havana to Varadero is $10CUC, Havana to Trinidad $25CUC and Havana to Santiago de Cuba $51CUC). Long-distance private taxis can sometimes work out cheaper than buses if you share them with three or four other hard-currency-paying travellers, with a 100km trip costing as little as $5–10CUC each.

Though museum entrance costs are generally low, often only $1–2CUC, most places charge a larger sum, commonly between $2–5CUC, for the right to take photos, and as much as $25CUC to enter with a video camera.

Crime and personal safety

Crimes against visitors are on the rise in many Cuban cities, particularly Havana (including some violent crime), so it pays to be careful. That said, gun crime is virtually unheard of and murder rates are estimated to be way below those of most Latin American countries, though official crime statistics are kept under wraps by the Cuban government. In the vast majority of cases, the worst you’re likely to experience is incessant attention from jineteros, but a few simple precautions will help ensure that you don’t fall prey to any petty crime. While there’s no need to be suspicious of everyone who tries to strike up a conversation with you (and many people will), a measure of caution is still advisable. You should always carry a photocopy of your passport (or the passport itself), as the police sometimes ask to inspect them.

The most common assault upon tourists is bag-snatching or pickpocketing (particularly in Habana Vieja), so always make sure you sling bags across your body rather than letting them dangle from one shoulder, keep cameras concealed whenever possible, don’t carry valuables in easy-to-reach pockets and always carry only the minimum amount of cash. A common trick is for thieves on bicycles to ride past and snatch at bags, hats and sunglasses, so wear these at your discretion. Needless to say, don’t leave bags and possessions unattended anywhere, but be especially vigilant on beaches, where theft is common.

Other than this, watch out for scams from street operators. Never accept the offer of moneychangers on the street, as some will take your money and run – literally – or try to confuse you by mixing up national pesos with convertible pesos, or palm you off with counterfeit notes. Exercise extra caution when using unofficial taxis, particularly when riding in a cab where “a friend” is accompanying the driver. Although you’re unlikely to suffer a violent attack, you may well find yourself pickpocketed. This is a particularly common trick on arrival at the airport, where you should be especially vigilant. Even if you are on a tight budget, it’s well worth getting a tourist taxi into the centre when you’re loaded with all your valuables and possessions.

Some hotels are not entirely secure, so be sure to put any valuables in the hotel security box, if there is one, or at least stash them out of sight. Registered casas particulares are, as a rule, safe, but you stay in an unregistered one at your peril.

At airports, thefts from luggage during baggage handling both on arrival and departure are a significant possibility, so consider carrying valuables in your hand luggage, using suitcase locks and having bags shrink-wrapped before check-in.

Car crime

Though car theft is rare, rental-car break-ins are much more common. Take all the usual sensible precautions: leave nothing visible in your car – including items you may consider worthless like maps, snacks or CDs – even if you’re only away from it for a short period of time. Furthermore, thieves are not just interested in your personal possessions but will break into and damage cars to take the radios, break off wing mirrors, wrench off spare parts and even take the wheels. To avoid this, always park your vehicle in a car park, guarded compound or other secure place. Car rental agencies will be able to advise you on those nearest to you, or, failing that, ask at a large hotel. Casa particular owners will also be able to tell you where to park safely. If the worst happens and you suffer a break-in, call the rental company first, which should have supplied you with an emergency number. They can advise you how to proceed from there and will either inform the police themselves or direct you to the correct police station. You must report the crime to be able to get a replacement car and for your own insurance purposes.

Women travellers

Though violent sexual attacks against female tourists are virtually unheard of, women travellers in Cuba should brace themselves for a quite remarkable level of attention. Casual sex is a staple of Cuban life and unaccompanied women are often assumed to be on holiday for exactly that reason. The nonstop attention can be unnerving, but in general, Cuban men manage to combine a courtly romanticism with wit and charm, meaning the persistent come-ons will probably leave you irritated rather than threatened. If you’re not interested, there’s no sure-fire way to stop the flow of comments and approaches, but decisively saying “no”, not wearing skimpy clothing and avoiding eye contact with men you don’t know will lessen the flow of attention a little. Even a few hours of friendship with a Cuban man can lead to pledges of eternal love but bear in mind that marriage to a foreigner is a tried-and-tested method of emigrating. Aside from this, women travelling in Cuba are treated with a great deal of courtesy and respect. The country is remarkably safe and you are able to move around freely, particularly at night, with more ease than in many Western cities, and you should encounter few problems.

Emergencies

Should you be unfortunate enough to be robbed and want to make an insurance claim, you must report the crime to the police and get a statement. Be aware, though, that the police in Cuba can be surprisingly uncooperative and sometimes indifferent to non-violent crime – they may even try to blame you for not being more vigilant. You must insist upon getting the statement there and then, as there is little chance of receiving anything from them at a later date. Unfortunately, the chance of your possessions being recovered is equally remote. The emergency number for the Cuban police differs from place to place, though t106 has now become standardized in most provinces.

Following any kind of emergency, whether medical, financial or legal, you should, at some point, contact Asistur (t 7 866 4499, in emergencies call 24hr t866 8527, wasistur.cu), the tourist-assistance agency. It has branches in most provincial capitals and can arrange replacement travel documents, help with insurance issues and recover lost luggage as well as provide a host of other services. In the case of a serious emergency, you should also notify your foreign consul. US travellers should contact the US Interests Section in Havana (t7 833 3551).

Electricity

The electricity supply is generally 110V 60Hz, but always check, as in some hotels it is 220V, and in a significant number of casas particulares there is both. Plug adaptors and voltage converters are almost impossible to buy in Cuba, so if you intend to use electrical items from the UK or the rest of Europe, Australia or New Zealand, then you should, as a minimum, bring a plug adaptor and maybe voltage converter too.

Entry requirements

To enter Cuba, citizens of most Western countries must have a ten-year passport, valid for two months after your departure from Cuba, and an onward or return plane ticket. You’ll also need a tourist card (tarjeta del turista), essentially a visa, which are valid for a standard thirty days for UK, US and Australasian citizens, and ninety days for Canadians, and must be used within 180 days of issue. Although you can buy tourist cards from Cuban consulates outside Cuba, some tour operators, airlines and travel agents can sell you one when you purchase your flight. Consulates can usually sell tourist cards instantly, but in some countries you may have to wait for a week. In addition to the completed application form, you’ll need your passport (and sometimes a photocopy of its main page) plus confirmation of your travel arrangements, specifically a return plane ticket and an accommodation booking, though the latter is rarely checked. The charge if you go to the consulate in person in the UK is £15, in Canada Can$24, in Australia A$60, and in New Zealand NZ$30. For travellers flying via Mexico, tourist cards are available at Cuba-connecting airports for US$25. Postal applications are usually around twice as much. You will need to show your tourist card at customs on arrival and departure.

Once in Cuba, you can renew a tourist card for another thirty days for a fee of $25CUC, paid for in special stamps, which you can buy from banks. To do this consult a buro de turismo, found in the larger hotels, or one of the immigration offices in various provinces. There is an office in Havana dedicated specifically to visa extensions. When renewing your visa you will need details (perhaps including a receipt) of where you are staying.

Should you wish to stay longer than sixty days as a tourist (120 if you are Canadian) you will have to leave Cuban territory and return with a new tourist card. Many people do this by island-hopping to other Caribbean destinations or Mexico and getting another tourist card from the Cuban consulate there.

For full details of import and export regulations, consult the Cuban Customs website: whttp://www.aduana.co.cu.

Embassies and consulates in Cuba

There are no consulates or embassies in Cuba for Australia or New Zealand. The local Canadian Embassy and the Australian Embassy in Mexico provide consular assistance to Australians and New Zealanders in Cuba.

Canada Embassy

Calle 30 no. 518, Miramar t7 204 2516 & 2382, wcanadainternational.gc.ca/cuba.

South Africa Embassy

Ave. 5ta no. 4201 esq. 42, Miramar t7 204 9671 & 9676.

UK Embassy

Calle 34 no. 702–704, Miramar t7 204 1771.

US Special Interests Section

Calzada e/ L y M, Vedado t7 839 4100, whavana.usint.gov.

Insurance

Travel insurance covering medical expenses is essential when visiting Cuba. A typical travel insurance policy usually provides medical cover, as well as coverage for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid. If you do take medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.

For all insurance issues within Cuba, including the purchase of policies, contact Asistur (t7 866 4499, wasistur.cu), the tourist-assistance agency. It has branches in most provincial capitals (listed throughout the guide). Asistur may be the logical place to buy a policy for many US citizens as US insurance providers generally don’t cover Cuba.

Internet

Getting internet access in Cuba is still not particularly easy or cheap and wi-fi barely exists at all outside of the upmarket hotels. There are cybercafés in all the major Cuban cities and resorts but usually just one or two, and in many towns there are none at all. Finding somewhere with a reliable, fast connection is an even greater challenge. The hotels offer the fastest and most robust connections but their rates can be exorbitant, commonly between $6CUC and $10CUC an hour. ETECSA, which runs the national telephone network, operates Telepunto centres where you can get online; there’s one in most provincial capitals, but connections are often painstakingly slow and, particularly in Havana, you’re sometimes better off at a hotel. Currently, charges in Telepuntos and Minipuntos are $0.10CUC/min with a minimum charge of $6CUC, giving you an hour online. Note that wherever you access the internet, you may occasionally be required to show a passport.

Having always been keen to control the flow of information to the Cuban public, the government has, unsurprisingly, restricted its citizens’ access to the internet. However, though internet connections in private homes are illegal, some Cuban homes do have them, and anyone can go online in Telepuntos. Locals also have access to Cuban-based email accounts, and there is an increasing number of Cuban homes using email, mostly casas particulares. All hotels now have email addresses and online booking, but most restaurants do not.

Laundry

There are few public laundry services in Cuba. Most foreign visitors do their own or rely on the hotel service, although if you are staying in a casa particular your hosts are likely to offer to do yours for you for a small extra charge, usually $2–3CUC.

Mail

There’s a good chance you’ll get back home from Cuba before your postcards do. Don’t expect airmail to reach Europe or North America in less than two weeks, while it is not unknown for letters to arrive a month or more after they have been sent. Theft is so widespread within the postal system that if you send anything other than a letter there’s a significant chance that it won’t arrive at all. You should also be aware that letters and packages coming into Cuba are sometimes opened as a matter of government policy.

Stamps are sold in both convertible and national pesos at post offices, white-and-blue post office kiosks (marked Correos de Cuba) and in many hotels ($CUC only at the latter). Convertible peso rates are reasonable at $0.75CUC for a postcard or letter to the US or Canada, $0.85CUC to Europe and $0.90CUC to the rest of the world. However, if you request national-peso stamps, which you are entitled to do, at between $0.40CUP and $0.75CUP for postcards and marginally more for letters, it can work out over fifteen times cheaper.

All large towns and cities have a post office, normally open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 6pm. Most provincial capitals and major tourist resorts have a branch with DHL (wdhl.com) and EMS (wems.coop) courier services. Some of the larger hotels offer a full range of postal services, including DHL, EMS and the Cuban equivalent Cubanacán Express (wcubanacan-express.cu), usually at the desk marked Telecorreos. What post offices there are in smaller towns and villages offer services in national pesos only and are more likely to be closed at the weekend.

If you’re sending packages overseas, stick to DHL, by far the safest and most reliable option.

Maps

In general, Cuban maps are infrequently updated, a little unreliable and hard to find. The exception is the national road map book, the Guía de Carreteras ($10–12CUC), which covers the whole country and also carries basic street maps for many of the major cities – invaluable if you plan to make any long-distance car or bike journeys around the island. You can buy it in bookshops, tourist gift shops and some branches of Infotur. However, some minor roads are not marked on this or any other map and there is still a gap in the market for a fully comprehensive national road map or street atlas. Geographical and orienteering maps are nonexistent.

Opening hours and public holidays

Opening hours in Cuba are far from an exact science and should generally be taken with a generous pinch of salt. Office hours are normally 8.30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with one-hour lunchtime closures common, anytime between noon and 2pm. Standard opening hours for state restaurants and paladars are from noon to 11pm. but it’s not unusual for places to close early, depending on the level of business. Museums are usually open Tuesday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm, and many also close for an hour at lunch. Those open on Sunday generally close in the afternoon. Expect museums, especially in Havana, to keep longer opening hours in July and August and sometimes in January, February and March too. Shops are generally open 9am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, a minority closing for lunch, while the shopping malls and department stores in Havana and Varadero stay open as late as 8pm. Sunday trading is increasingly common, with most places open until noon or 1pm, longer in the major resorts. Hotel shops stay open all day. Banks generally operate Monday to Friday 8am to 3pm, but this varies. There is no culture of siesta in Cuba.

National holidays
Jan 1
Liberation Day. Anniversary of the triumph of the Revolution.
May 1 International Workers’ Day.
July 25–27 Celebration of the day of national rebellion.
Oct 10 Anniversary of the start of the Wars of Independence.
Dec 25 Christmas Day.

Phones

The chances are that it will be cheaper to use your mobile phone than a payphone to ring abroad from Cuba, though US travellers may encounter added complications. However, if you are making a call to a Cuban number then it’s much more economical to use a payphone.

Mobile phones

Cubacel, part of national telecommunications company ETECSA (wetecsa.cu), is the sole mobile phone service provider in Cuba. If you intend to bring your own handset to Cuba you should check first whether or not your service provider has a roaming agreement with Cubacel, either by contacting your own provider or consulting the list on the ETECSA website. Most of the major British, Australasian and Canadian operators now have such agreements. Though restrictions on US telecommunications firms were lifted in 2009, allowing them to establish roaming agreements with Cuba, none have yet done so.

Renting or buying a mobile phone

The alternative to bringing your own handset is to rent or buy one in Cuba, which may be a necessity if your service provider does not have a roaming agreement with Cubacel or you have the wrong kind of mobile phone, though this is unlikely since the Cubacel network supports GSM phones, by far the most common type. There are over 35 Cubacel offices around the country, including representation in most Telepuntos and a few hotels. You can rent a handset for $6CUC a day. They offer temporary as well as permanent contracts to visitors and residents alike, but you are more likely to use the pay-as-you-go deals using prepaid cards. The prepaid service costs a daily rate of $3CUC for line rental and call rates within Cuba are $0.35CUC per minute or $0.09CUC per text message. You will also be charged receive calls if someone rings you from a land line. International call rates are currently $1.60CUC to anywhere in the Americas except Venezuela, $1.40CUC to Venezuela and $1.80CUC to the rest of the world. Prepaid cards are not widely available so make sure you stock up at Telepuntos.

Payphones

There are various kinds of payphones in Cuba, and several distinct ways that you can make and pay for calls. National rates for payphones are reasonable, starting at $0.05CUC/min for calls within the same province. International rates are exorbitant at $2CUC/min to the US or Canada; $2.60CUC/min to Central America and the Caribbean; $3.40CUC/min to South America; $4CUC/min to Spain, Italy, France and Germany; and $4.40CUC/min to the rest of the world.

Prepaid phone cards

Prepaid cards, known as Chip cards and priced in convertible pesos, can be bought from post offices, hotels, travel agents, some banks, Telepuntos and large walk-in phone booths known as Minipuntos. They only work in Chip card phones, most of which are coloured blue and found in hotels, Telepuntos, Minipuntos and other tourist establishments. They are available in denominations of $5CUC, $10CUC and $20CUC, and are straightforward phone cards which, once the credit has expired, are useless and can be thrown away.

Propia cards are sold in both national and convertible pesos and are compatible with all phones besides the Chip card phones. International calls are only possible with the convertible peso versions. There are an increasing number of phones aimed specifically at Propia users. They are grey and have no slot for coins. Propia cards are rechargeable, reusable and valid for six months, effectively phone credit accounts. Rather than inserting the card in a phone, when calling you enter the unique account code found on the card.

Coin-operated phones

The new generation of coin-operated phones, grey in colour and with a digital display, are an easy and cheap way to make a local call – international calls aren’t permitted. They only accept national peso coins, in denominations of 5¢, 20¢ and $1CUP, and can also take Propia cards. Coin-operated phones can be hard to find and tend to be located outside in the street and rarely in call centres. There are also still some rusty old analogue payphones, especially in small towns, which only accept 5 centavo coins, have no digital display and have a slim chance of working at all.

Making calls

To make a call within the same province but to a different municipality you may need an exit code (código de salida) for the place from where you are making the call. Exit codes are available from the operator. If you are calling from a prepaid card phone simply dial t0 followed by the area code and number and this will put you through directly.

Some interprovincial calls are only possible through the operator. If you’re consistently failing to get through on a direct line, dial t00 or t110.

You may see Cuban telephone numbers written as, for example, “48 7711 al 18”, meaning that when dialling the final two digits you may have to try all the numbers in between and including 11 and 18 before you get through.

Making an overseas phone call from a private phone in a house has its own special procedure and can be quite confusing, not to mention very costly – use a payphone if at all possible.

Time

Cuba is on Eastern Standard Time in winter and Eastern Daylight Time in summer. It is five hours behind London, fifteen hours behind Sydney and on the same time as New York.

Tourist information

The national tourist information network is Infotur (winfotur.cu), and has desks in many hotels and at the larger airports and branches in most major cities and resorts, though many are rudimentary affairs. The friendly staff are generally willing to help with all sorts of queries, though they do try to steer visitors towards the state-run tourist apparatus. They carry a few basic guides and maps but are generally low on free literature and printed information. You can, however, book hotel rooms, rental cars, organized excursions and long distance bus tickets through them. Officially they do not supply information on paladars or casas particulares, though the staff are often willing to help with their own recommendations.

The three principal national travel agents, Cubanacán, Cubatur and Havanatur, have offices in most major cities and resorts and effectively double up as information offices, particularly in those places where there is no Infotur office. Though their principal aim is to sell you their own packages and organized excursions, the staff are accustomed to supplying any kind of tourist information. These agencies can also book hotel rooms and are usually the most convenient place to book Víazul bus tickets. Be aware that all information outlets and travel agents in Cuba, including Cuban websites, are run by the state and are unlikely to offer impartial advice on, for example, accommodation deals or places to eat.

With very little printed tourist literature it’s well worth checking the internet for tourist information. The official Cuban sites, wcubaweb.cu and wdtcuba.com are worthwhile but foreign sites tend to be more reliable. Among the best are wcubaabsolutely.com, particularly good for Havana, and wcuba-junky.com.

An international network of tourist information offices is run by the Cuban Tourist Board. There are branches in several Latin American and European countries, including the UK, as well as in Canada and China.

Travellers with disabilities

Most of Cuba’s upmarket hotels are well equipped for disabled travellers, each with at least one specially designed room and all the necessary lifts and ramps. However, away from the resorts there are very few amenities or services provided for people with disabilities, and in fact, you rarely see anyone in a wheelchair in the street in Cuba. Transport may prove the biggest challenge: the crowded public buses are not modified for wheelchair users, while the tourist buses do not have ramps. Using a taxi is the best option, as accessible car hire is difficult to find. Several taxi companies have people carriers that can accommodate wheelchair users.

Working and studying in Cuba

Working in Cuba as a foreign national is more complicated than in most countries, and anyone thinking of picking up a casual job on the island can pretty much forget it. All wages in Cuba are paid by the state in national pesos, so if the bureaucracy doesn’t stop you the hourly rates probably will. The majority of foreign workers here are either diplomats or in big business, and the only realistic chance most people have of working is to join one of the voluntary brigades. Studying here is easier, as Spanish classes are offered at universities, by tour operators and also represent a significant niche in the private enterprise market.

If you plan to study or work in Cuba then you must have the relevant visas organized before you arrive. Students must have a student visa entitling them to stay in the country for longer than a month; these can be arranged through the Cuban consulate, though sometimes language schools can assist you with this.

Work

Working holidays in Cuba are organized in the US by the Venceremos Brigade (wvenceremosbrigade.net), in Canada by the Canadian Network on Cuba (wcanadiannetworkoncuba.ca) and in the UK by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (wcuba-solidarity.org.uk). Known as brigades, these organized volunteer groups usually spend two or three weeks working alongside Cubans on agricultural projects, living on purpose-built camps. There is a strong pro-government slant to the experience – which also involves visits to schools, hospitals and trade unions – but the opportunity to witness working conditions and gain a sense of the Revolution in action is nevertheless unique.

Study

There is an array of organizations that send people to Cuba to study, mostly to learn Spanish. You can, however, take Spanish classes independently without too much hassle. The most obvious place to go is the University of Havana, where the Faculty of Modern Languages has been running courses aimed specifically at foreign students and visitors for many years. The most basic Spanish course is an intensive one-week affair, with two-week, three-week and month-long options. You can also combine Spanish studies with courses in dance or Cuban culture, or even just study Cuban culture on its own. The university provides full-board on-campus accommodation for two weeks, including the cost of lessons. Courses start throughout the year on the first Monday of every month except August. For more details go to wuh.cu/cursos-de-espanol or contact the Oficina de Servicios Académicos Internacionales at t7 870 4667 or t0584, [email protected]. Similar courses are run at just about every principal university in the country, most of them found in the provincial capital cities.

Aside from the universities, the best way to arrange a proper course of Spanish classes in Cuba is through professional organizations based outside the country, like Caledonia (whttp://www.caledonialanguages.co.uk) or Cactus Language (wcactuslanguage.com).

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