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10 Tips for Traveling to Cuba

By Ted A. Henken

Despite the recent economic reforms in Cuba and the normalization of relations with the U.S., the island is far from being a predictable tourist destination. Here are a few things to consider when planning your trip to Cuba.

1. Cubans and Americans, a Love-Hate Relationship

Despite half a century of mutual governmental antagonism, Cubans are exceedingly hospitable and inquisitive, and love to engage with Americans. Thus, friendly and gregarious people will become even more so when they discover you're from what they affectionately refer to as "La Yuma," i.e., the U.S. This means that you shouldn't expect to be called a "gringo," a word Cubans actually don’t use, or a “yankee," a term only used by the Cuban government.

However, Cubans are every bit as proud of their country and culture as we are of ours (which is not to say that all necessarily support their government). In fact, they often suffer from a similar "superiority complex" as many Americans do, so your conversations with them are bound to be rich and dynamic, but also hopefully more enlightening than heated.

2. Cash is King

Bring lots of cash as it's still virtually impossible to use your American credit or debit card in Cuba despite Obama’s efforts to facilitate such financial transactions. Some hotels have developed workarounds that allow you to pay with a credit card via the Internet, but I wouldn't count on this as you don't want to end up scrubbing dishes in the kitchen at your hotel's restaurant to cover your bill or having your bank account frozen back in the U.S. — as happened to my colleague after he tried paying the hotel bill with his Chase check card.

You will, however, have to change your greenbacks into Cuba's invented tourism script, known as CUCs, convertible pesos, or chavitos which are pegged to the dollar but exchange at the painful rate of 87 cents on the dollar. At the same time, it's important to be aware that Cubans are paid at their state jobs in a twenty-four times less valuable currency known as CUPs, moneda nacional, or simply pesos.

You should not change your money into CUPs unless you plan to go native/off-the-grid and learn the fine art of saving your centavos and waiting in lines. However, one fun and very practical thing you can do only with a 10 CUP bill is take a ride along with a bunch of Cubans in a máquina or almendrón, Cuban slang for the old American cars used as collective taxis.

3. No Internet, No Problem?

Internet access in Cuba is among the lowest, slowest, and most expensive in the western hemisphere. Penetration rates hover somewhere between 5 and 27 percent of the population and an hour online costs $2, or 10 percent of the average monthly wage of $20. Even if you have the money and are staying at one of Havana's nicer luxury hotels, access can be spotty and frustratingly slow. At the same time, and partially in response to their being largely cut off from the Web, Cubans have not taken their state of disconnectedness lying down.

Recent years have seen an explosion of critical-minded blogs, the development of "el paquete" (an island-wide digital data distribution system that rides on back of thousands of USB drives), and digital apps especially designed for Cuba's largely off-line but GPS-enabled cell phones. There are also local area "mesh" networks like the S-Net where Cubans can wirelessly engage in gaming with one another and classified websites like Revolico, Cuba's underground answer to Craigslist.

As part of this surging digital scene, you should keep an eye out for one of Cuba's thirty-five newly inaugurated wifi hotspots, which are hard to miss as they are set up exclusively in public plazas and parks. They typically attract hundreds of zombie-like customers transfixed by the glow of their digital screens at all times of day and night.

4. Indy Media, A La Cubana

Added to the burgeoning digital data and distribution scene described above are a fascinating array of emergent Cuban Indy media projects including 14ymedio, OnCuba, Havana Times, and Periodismo de Barrio. Aiming to shatter the monopoly of Cuba's propagandistic, state-controlled mass media and respond to Cubans' rising demand for serious news, information, and analysis, these sites emerged recently taking advantage of a loophole in Cuban law that criminalizes most private printed media as "enemy propaganda" (Catholic Church publications are an exception) but is less clear about media in cyberspace.

5. Diplomatic Relations Do Not Equal "Normal" Relations

While we have indeed reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba, normalization is a much longer process. The embargo is still in force, as it is controlled by the Republican-majority U.S. Congress. This means that, while official relations are thawing, they are still tenuous, guarded, and frozen in specific areas, so it's best to step lightly and draw a line between government policy (ours or theirs) and your own "people-to-people" travel.

6. Don't Forget About the Auto-Bloqueo

You are still very likely to see loud condemnations of the U.S. bloqueo (blockade) shouted from Cuban billboards. This fact should not blind you to the internal embargo that the Cuban government has set up against citizens' exercise of many fundamental freedoms, entrepreneurial talents, and open access to information and uncensored communication. In other words, the Cuban government shares the blame as it has long cynically used the U.S. embargo as a pretext to deny Cubans basic rights under the "state of siege" and "rally around the flag" arguments.

7. Casas Particulares (Private Homes)

Ditch the hotel (which are probably all fully booked anyway) and use Airbnb or a local service like Hosted in Havana to reserve a room in a private Cuban home. The island has long been home to a thriving network of BnBs but only recently has it begun to get air. The entry of Airbnb turns out to be a rare win-win-win-win. You get to have a more authentic Cuban experience by staying in a private home and interacting with a Cuban family, that family gets hard currency directly in their pockets, the overloaded Cuban tourism industry can welcome more visitors, and Obama can claim a small victory for his new policy of empowerment through engagement.

8. A Taste of Capitalism

The Cuban paladar was born in the early 1990’s during the crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, known euphemistically as the "special period." Desperate for income in hard currency, Cubans set up tiny mom and pop restaurants in their own homes catering to foreign tourists. Since Castro’s reforms, the paladar phenomenon has exploded with Havana becoming home to a wide variety of privately run top flight restaurants and see-and-be-seen bars and hotspots. Start with these: L'Atieler, Doña Eutimia, Starbien, and La Cocina de Lilliam.

9. Self-Certification

Even if you have one, two, or even three passports, in order to go to Cuba you must fit into one of the twelve categories of traveler allowed by Uncle Sam - which include categories like student, journalist, researcher, etc. The list decidedly does not include "tourist" but does include the slippery category of "people-to-people" trips and tours, which allow you to use your imagination when planning your trip.

Still, so far such "P2P" travel requires you to go with a travel provider on a package trip with a set program. The good news is that whereas before December 17, 2014 you had to apply for a license beforehand from the USG, now you simply have to certify that you fit into a proper category, pack your bags, and get on a plane. While you're in Cuba, don't forget to take a selfie and send it along to presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio's office!

10. Rum & Cigars

It is now once again legal to return from Cuba with these legendary products. However, each traveler is limited to bring back just $100 worth of these such goods. I'd wait to buy rum in the airport lounge as prices are the same everywhere in Cuba. The brand Santiago de Cuba (carta blanca or añejo) is a nice alternative to the standard but always good Havana Club (3 años is your best bet for mixing and Reserva or 7 años añejo are best for sipping).

However, for cigars you may get a better deal buying them at the cigar factory itself. Note that only cigars and rum purchased in Cuba itself are allowed into the U.S., so no imports from trips to third countries. Also, it is illegal to resell Cuban cigars once stateside as they are intended for personal use or gifts Cuban artwork is exempt from this $100 restriction. Cubita coffee is also a nice gift along with the small black demitasse cups and saucers that are often sold with it.

Bonus Points

Your best bet for Havana nightlife is La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, or the Cuban Art Factory, an edgy art and party space in a converted factory with musicians, painters, art installations, foreign celebrities, and other assorted beautiful people mingling to drinks and music. Both Paul McCartney and Mic Jagger were recently spotted partying there.

The 50 peso ($2.50 USD) cover charge and inexpensive drinks make it essay on the wallet, also making it one of the few clubs where Cubans and foreigners, rich and poor, old and young mingle seamlessly. The innovative place shows just how creative Cubans can be not only in creating an art space but also as savvy business entrepreneurs. The independent cultural emporium is the brainchild of dreadlocked Cuban musician X (Equis) Alfonso.

For cartography, I use the essential foldout "StreetSmart Cuba" map put out by VanDamMedia Inc.

*****

*****

Ted A. Henken teaches at Baruch College-CUNY, where he is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies. He is President ex-officio of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, and his authored and co-authored titles include Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape (2015), Cuba in Focus (2013), and Cuba A Global Studies Handbook (2008). Dr. Henken blogs at http://elyuma.blogspot.com and tweets @ElYuma.

[Photos courtesy of Salim Virjil and Richard Smallbone]

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