Eager to visit Cuba? Some things to know

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Beth J. Harpaz

Street musicians that play for tips from tourists are a common sight in Havana. More U.S. visitors are now visiting Cuba as restrictions begin to loosen.
Kamira / Shutterstock.com

“Is travel to Cuba for tourist activities permitted? No.” That’s what the U.S. Treasury Department website says.

And yet Havana is loaded with Americans, from the Floridita bar, where they pose for photos with a bust of Ernest Hemingway, to the Rum Museum, where they swig rum samples after trudging through dim displays of old casks.

Sure, some Americans follow the rules on sanctioned travel — bringing supplies to Cuban churches or synagogues, for example, on a religious activities license. Others come on approved group tours known as “people-to-people” trips with themed itineraries like the arts.

But the 36 percent increase in American visitors here since U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a thaw in relations includes many travelers who sidestep the rules.

Some travel via third countries by flying to Cuba from Mexico or the Bahamas. Others fly on their own from the U.S., casually filling out paperwork for one of 12 categories of travel authorized by the U.S., without much worry that anyone will check on its accuracy.

The fact is, “there’s been almost no active enforcement” of the tourism ban under the Obama administration, according to attorney Robert Muse, an expert on the legal aspects of Cuba travel.

Few amenities

Add to this the fact that travel experts and upscale magazines are urging travel to Cuba — before it changes. But visitors envisioning salsa in the streets and glamorous vintage cars should also be prepared to manage without ATMs, credit cards, wi-fi, air-conditioning, seat belts or toilet paper.

Here are eight tips for visiting Havana.

If you need it, bring it

I forgot to bring my toothbrush to Havana. It took me three days to find a new one.

Granted, I was in a “casa particular,” a Cuban homestay booked through Airbnb in a rundown part of town. Street vendors sell Che Guevara T-shirts and tropical fruit. But good luck buying sunscreen or Band-Aids.

The fancy hotels sell some things in shops onsite, of course, but Havana just doesn’t have many stores. Even Harris Brothers, a market on Monserrate at O’Reilly Street, isn’t overflowing with consumer goods — though you can buy souvenir bags of coffee.

Public bathrooms aren’t bad, but I was glad I’d brought a roll of toilet paper in my bag.

Hustled in Havana

“Happy holiday, lady!”

This cheerful salutation greeted me as I walked past crumbling buildings and rubble-filled streets in many sections of Old Havana. Blonde, 5 foot 10, map in hand: Yeah, I stood out.

But conversations with overly friendly strangers often devolved into shakedowns. They wanted to sell me cigars or exchange my dollars. Could I buy them drinks or give money for their children?

Violent crime in Havana is rare. I never felt threatened — just hassled.

Don’t look for logic

For my flight home, I got to Havana’s airport at 5:30 a.m., just like the paperwork specified. Too bad the airport didn’t open until nearly 7 a.m.

I also went to the famous H. Upmann cigar factory for a tour, only to be sent to a different location for a ticket. There I was told, “There are no tours today, but we can sell you a ticket for tomorrow!”

And so it went. Havana is not always a logical place.

Money

Are you old enough to remember traveling without credit cards, ATMs and smartphones? Then visiting Cuba will be a trip back in time.

Bring cash to change into convertible pesos, also known as CUCs (not CUPs, the currency used by locals). And budget carefully: There are only a handful of ATMs in Havana, and U.S. bank cards aren’t currently accepted.

On paper, one U.S. dollar is worth one CUC, but the Cuban government takes a 13 percent fee, so you get 87 cents for your dollar. Privately, Cubans may offer 90 cents or more on the dollar; be careful whom you trust.

I have MasterCard, Visa and American Express cards, but none could be authorized for use in Cuba in May. Even when the rules change (or if your card is from a non-U.S.-bank), businesses in Cuba rarely accept plastic.

Limited Internet and wi-fi

Cuba’s offline culture makes trip-planning complicated. It takes days to confirm arrangements because most Cubans can’t check email from home. Automated online reservations are rare.

If you must go online in Havana, hotels sell Internet cards for lobby wi-fi for $4 or $5 per 30 minutes. Even then, though, the wi-fi may not work.

A paper map is essential — drivers don’t have GPS, and there’s no Googling an address on the fly. 

About those cars

Cuba’s vintage cars sound picturesque — until you’re in one with no seat belts, no air-conditioning in 90-degree heat, broken windows, belching smoke, and doors that open in transit.

The old cars aren’t just American. One 20-something driver told me he inherited his 1981 Russian-made Moskvitch car from his grandfather, who was awarded the car for being a good worker.

Havana’s official, government-owned taxis seemed to be in better condition than privately owned cars — though tourists are routinely overcharged. Meters supposedly exist, but I never saw one.

Food and drink

Government-run cafeterias in public places like museums are dreadful. Stick to “paladares” — privately owned restaurants.

You’ll need reservations for the best. Prices are moderate but not cheap; food is good but not outstanding. My best meals were at 304 O’Reilly (the restaurant name is also the street address), which offers trendy, light fare (terrific ceviche, lobster and pasta), and Cafe Ajiaco in Cojimar (Calle 92, number 267), whose owner showcases what he sees as the best of traditional Cuban cuisine.

A safe bet in most eateries is a ham and cheese sandwich — called a Cuban in the U.S., but jamon y queso here. Cafe con leche is uniformly superb, as is tropical fruit.

For a drinking tour, consider Ernest Hemingway’s advice: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” The handwritten quote, allegedly scribbled by Hemingway himself, is framed at La Bodeguita del Medio over a bar mobbed with tourists. The Floridita is nicer: great air-conditioning, icy daiquiris and a bust of Hemingway, perfect for selfies.

The Hotel Nacional’s outdoor bar is lovely, on a lawn with a view of the sea. Have a Cuba libre (rum and cola, but not Coke) or a Cristal beer, then check out the photo gallery of famous guests — mobsters and Hollywood celebs.

Attractions


American-made cars from the 1950s pass by Cuba’s National Capitol Building in Havana. The building, modeled after the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., was the seat of government in Cuba until the communists took power in 1959, after which it fell into disrepair. After renovations earlier this year, Cuba’s National Assembly now operates from the building.
Regien Paassen/Shutterstock.com

Havana’s best attractions include: the waterfront promenade known as the Malecon, Old Havana, Hemingway’s estate at Finca Vigia, and the Museo de la Revolucion, where “Cretins’ Corner” mocks Ronald Reagan and the Bush presidencies. The stunning Cuban collection at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes ranges from colonial portraits to 20th century political pop art.

The show at the Tropicana is on many top 10 Havana lists. If spending nearly $100 to see skinny dancers in see-through bodysuits with sequin pasties and chandeliers on their heads sounds fun, by all means, go. Otherwise, try the music scene at Casa de la Musica in Central Havana.

To learn about the array of hotels, go to the website Cuba Hotel Bookings, www.cubahotelbookings.com.

Hotel rates are lower than in the US. For example, the Melia Havana, which bills itself as a luxury hotel, charges $175 for a room with breakfast ($198 with an ocean view). The hotel boasts the largest swimming pool in Cuba and a cigar bar. For more information, call 1-877-696-6252 or see www.melia.com/en/hotels/cuba/havana/melia-habana/index.html.

Tourists cannot book their own flights to Cuba or easily search for them online — and must use a travel agent. Nor do U.S. airlines offer flights from the U.S. directly to Cuba.

One travel agency, Island Travel & Tours, will start to offer nonstop flights from BWI-Marshall Airport to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport twice a week starting on Sept. 30. Round-trip fares will be $775, but the first two flights are offered at a discounted rate of $695.

– AP