Essential Travel Information Before Going to Cuba
Millions of people visit the island of Cuba each year for its mild tropical clime, beautiful beaches, and jazzy "Latin 1950s" feel (not to mention the cigars). The country also has a reputation for being bureaucratic and tight-lipped about itself, and that extends in part to the tourist trade. So here's what you need to know: the essential travel information before going to Cuba.
Essential Travel Information – Getting to Cuba
For U.S. citizens: While the Bush Administration tightened access to Cuba's shores in 2003, those standards have been relaxed to Clinton-era levels under the Obama Administration. No, you still can't vacation there officially as a tourist, but if you have family of Cuban descent, are a journalist, or you want to hop on with an educational, religious or aid organization, you can travel to Cuba to legally*. Check the U.S. Department of State's website for more information.
For everyone else: Both U.S. and international travelers will have to obtain a Tourist Card (essentially a visa) before being admitted to the island. These cost around $30 USD, and will often be lumped into the cost of your plane ticket, especially if traveling from Canada or Mexico, but verify that with your carrier.
Essential Travel Information – Accommodations in Cuba
Depending on where you stay when you travel to Cuba, hotels in Havana can cost as little as $25 USD per night, while more upscale affairs in Old Havana command rates nearing $200 per night. The rule of thumb is to book early – at least a month or two in advance – to secure your reservation.
Essential Travel Information – Weather and What to Pack for Cuba
Cuba is a tropical Caribbean island with temperatures averaging from the low seventies to mid-eighties (Fahrenheit) year-round, so you'll want your sunscreen, bathing suit, sandals, and light apparel. Walking shoes are a must and the rainy season is from May to October, so plan cover-wear accordingly. September and October are also prime hurricane season in that part of the Caribbean (with Cuba in the bull's eye) so check the forecasts regardless.
Essential Travel Information – Money
Cuba will allow you to spend your Canadian dollars, Euros, but not U.S. dollars . Convert currencies to Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) before you go. In addition, any U.S.-issued debit or credit cards are not accepted anywhere on the island. For international travelers, it's still a good idea to change some money before you travel to Cuba, as with most foreign transactions, it will incur significant fees for handling, tax, and commission when you use plastic.
Essential Travel Information – Transit
The country's coach bus service, Viazul, will take you between most of the major cities on the island and are the cheapest way to get around. Taxis are more expensive, but more convenient for short jaunts – taking the form of a range of modern foreign cars, old American Chevrolets, and bright yellow, Pac-Man-esque three-wheeled motorbikes called "Coco Taxis."
Essential Travel Information – Health and Wellness
As of May 2010, all travelers visiting Cuba must have proof of comprehensive health insurance (including apparently, insurance for medical evacuation by helicopter if necessary). Check with your insurance company to see if your policy qualifies, otherwise, the Cuban authorities will happily sell you a temporary insurance plan for basic coverage during your stay for a couple dollars a day.
Otherwise, drink bottled water, as it is not always clear what is potable and what isn't, make sure your vaccines are up-to-date, and keep in mind that there is no pasteurization in Cuba -- lest those milk and eggs hit your stomach harder than you'd like.
Essential Travel Information – What to Watch Out For
While Cuba, and especially Havana, is tourist-friendly, keep in mind that it is a foreign country and you are subject to its unique laws and paranoias. Cuba in particular frowns upon action that seems oppositional to the government, so it's sensible to avoid photographing anything provocative (such as a port, airport, or police station) during your stay. Penalties for perceived anti-government activism can amount to months held without trial and decades of imprisonment -- not exactly the kind of vacation in Cuba you have in mind.
*If you're a U.S. citizen and find yourself unable to obtain permission through the State Department but decide to go to Cuba anyway, be aware of the risks. Though reportedly somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 Americans travel to the country each year without the government's say-so, the fine assessed by the U.S. Treasury for your vacation can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to up to $250,000 (though the average fine is around $7,500). Oddly enough, the official injunction is not against U.S. tourists traveling to the country, but rather against their spending any money there -- a neat semantic trick -- but an important point to remember. Bring cash.