Cuba is all the rage these days, thanks to the President’s visit to the island nation yesterday and an increasing list of rule changes that means, essentially, that anyone can go. US airlines are announcing regular direct flights, and at least one cruise ship is putting Cuba on its destination list, even while ferry services are raring to get started running people across the Florida Straits.

So if you – or someone you know – is now dreaming of a Cuba “bucket-list” vacay, read on for some Cuba travel myth busting. Most of what you’re reading out there on the web isn’t exactly accurate.

A typical Cuban car navigates the traffic circle around the Capital (under construction in Feb. 2016)

A typical Cuban car navigates the traffic circle around the Capital (under construction in Feb. 2016)

I know, because my husband and I just spent two weeks in Cuba in February. We sailed over as part of a “people-to-people cultural exchange through sport.” What started out as a one-week visit to two ports of calls (Havana and Varadero) turned into two weeks when foul weather trapped us in Havana’s port for an extra week.

This left plenty of time to explore just a bit and learn the realities about travel and life in Cuba.

It’s time to bust some top-touted Cuba travel myths and tell you a bit about what it’s REALLY like to get around that island nation.

Hint: If you travel to Cuba anytime soon, you will likely also travel under a “people-to-people” cultural exchange. The US government lists 12 official “sanctioned” visit types, including professional research and meetings, educational activities, public performances or clinics, support for the Cuban people, etc. As of regulation changes published by the Gov on March 15, If your travel meets one of these criteria, you can go – as long as YOU say your travel meets one of the criteria. Want to read the restrictions, allowances and facts yourself? Start at the State Department and get ready to navigate a lot of Gov speak for, “you can’t do that, but you CAN and here’s how legally.” The specific list of allowed visit reasons is available in this PDF document.

 

Myth: You need a travel agent who can navigate securing a visa for you.

Fact: Not really. At least, not anymore. As of new regulations hot off the presses on March 15, 2016, if your travel meets one of the criteria, you can book your ticket and go. However, you will still need a Cuban Visa, which will be a card. No passport stamps for US citizens (and for various political reasons, that’s probably a good thing). You can apply for the Visa yourself from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C. in person or via mail, but it takes paperwork, time and money. Most people are still using the travel agent who booked the flight and trip, or are using one of the services you can pay to act as your intermediary.

That said, be aware: A good Cuba-specific travel agent will make it easier to get there and get around, and that in and of itself might be worth finding a reputable travel agency. Especially if you don’t speak Spanish.

 

A street-side market stall offers in-season fresh fruit and vegetables

A street-side market stall offers in-season fresh fruit and vegetables

Myth: Cuban stores and restaurants often run out of food and supplies.

Fact: The state-run restaurants won’t run out of most meals on the menu, though we did encounter a few places where one or two menu items weren’t available that day. However, the independently-run restaurants may very well not have many to most of their menu items that day. Ask to see a menu, and ask what isn’t available that day, before you commit. Some items in the grocery stores and markets, like eggs and bread, do run out as the day wears on, or sometimes even first thing in the morning, so plan accordingly. Shop early if you want to buy your own food. When it comes to other goods and supplies, for example, toilet paper, it depends on where you are and what the demand is for the day. And shampoo and personal care goods can be hard to find and locale. Best bet is to take all that you will need.

 

Myth: Take Canadian Currency

This made sense when the Canadian dollar was trading stronger against the dollar. However, in February when we took our trip, it was 0.74 Canadian to $1 US dollar. By the time you paid to exchange US dollars to Canadian, and then paid the fee to exchange the Canadian dollars to CUCs (the Cuban tourist currency), it would cost more to use Canadian dollars. I’ll have a full description of the Currency nuances in a blog post later this week, but meanwhile, here’s the skinny: There’s a 13% straight fee to exchange US Dollars to Cuban CUCs. It’s in the 5 to 7% range for non-US currency. So, the week before you travel, if you want to save on exchange rates, check out the US Dollar to Canadian or Euro rates, and the Cuban exchange rates for those currencies, and run the numbers to see if it really makes sense – or is even worth the hassle.

That said, the Canadian dollars DID come in handy in Varadero, Cuba. We arrived at a marina there as our first port of call, and faced long one-hour long lines at the one hotel where we could exchange money to use in the city (for instance, to even get in a cab and get into the city center of Varadero where we were staying). One person in our party had Canadian dollars, and the cabs waiting outside were willing to take the Canadian dollars to transport us. We were able to take the cabs and exchange our dollars into CUCs at a spot with a shorter line.

 

Myth: Cuba has no Wi-Fi, so leave your devices at home.

But who needs Wi-Fi when there's so much to SEE?

But who needs Wi-Fi when there’s so much to SEE?

We found the larger, higher-end hotels and resorts offered Wi-Fi access. We paid $2 CUCs for an hour of access at a hotel outside Havana, which we used for our Smart Phones. We could use any App and get to any website we wanted, though at times the service was slow. Once it was even out for an hour, but this was during bad weather when even the electric went out. However, when we used the Wi-Fi access on a hotel-provided computer, we couldn’t access outside websites (Cuba restricts citizens’ access to the outside world’s web – instead they can only get to sanctioned internal sites on Cuba’s intra-web).

And, Verizon Wireless also provides cell service through CubaCell now, so you can text and call right from your phone (even without arranging for international access). We fired up our Verizon smart phones upon arrival and could send and receive regular texts (make sure you are sending plain text messages, as iMessages won’t work) and send and receive calls. However, you will pay a pretty penny for this. Calls cost $2.99 a minute, and the minutes are rounded off and include the dialing and ringing time. So even if you dial out and hang up, you’ll pay for one minute. Texts cost 15 cents to send and 5 cents to receive. It adds up quick, but in an emergency it’s a nice luxury.

 

Myth: Your wait staff/ hotel room cleaner/ concierge/ taxi driver doesn’t want Cuban CUCs for tips – they want American dollars. This was a new one circulating Havana, and it is both true and false, depending on the person. The scuttle-butt we heard is that since Cuba announced it would be phasing out the CUC currency in 2013, people are worried that very shortly the CUC will be worth nothing, despite the government’s assurances to the contrary.  Best bet is to ask your service provider (taxi driver, concierge, etc) if they want a tip in US Dollars. One of our taxi drivers, who we used repeatedly over the course of a week, was willing to exchange our dollars for CUCs he had in his possession, but made it clear that he didn’t necessarily prefer dollars over CUCs. Another taxi driver, who we used over five days, waved his hand (as though to wave the dollars away) when we asked. But we saw one bathroom attendant who had a single dollar bill laid out on her tip tray as her suggested favorite currency.

 

A crowded taxi ride makes for a true Cuban experience

A crowded taxi ride makes for a true Cuban experience

There are so many nuances to getting around in Cuba, and things have a habit of changing rather quickly there. With more Americans already pouring in, rest assured that even some of what I’ve outlined here will change in coming months. That’s one good reason to work with a travel agent, even if it’s just to help get you flown (or boated) in to Havana and set you up in a “Casa Particular” – essentially the Cuban version of a B&B – for a night (and more on a later blog on why staying at a Casa Particular is the only way to go, really, when bopping around Cuba). Travel agents who specialize in Cuba visit several times a year, and develop their own information sheets that they update often. Travel books are helpful for getting a general lay of the land, but the restaurants and even hotels and tourist spots mentioned in them might close, or change their hours of operations, etc.

Coming next: Things they won’t tell you in the guide books & A few other handy things to know.

 

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