Cuba travel guide

Cuba information

Cuba is generally a very safe country; strict and prominent policing, combined with neighborhood-watch-style programs (known as the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or C.D.R.) are officially there to keep the streets safe from violent crime, however in reality it is a secret police network. Therefore, a certain degree of common-sense and caution is advisable, especially in major cities. Visitors should avoid coming to the attention of the Cuban police and security services.

Drug laws can be harsh and their implementation unpredictable. The same may be said about the laws concerning prostitution. The importation, possession or production of pornography is strictly prohibited. It is not uncommon to see a dog jogging on the luggage carousel sniffing arriving luggage, especially when arriving from countries prone to drug-trafficking, so be sure to lock and/or wrap your luggage to avoid any problems in this regard.

Tourists are generally advised not to involve themselves in the following three areas: politics, drugs, or pornography/prostitution. It should be noted that there is very little tolerance amongst the authorities for any comments made against the Revolution, Fidel, Che, etc., and an extensive network of informers exist who routinely turn in neighbors who espouse politically undesirable beliefs. As such, it is advisable not to make any such comments.

As far as women are concerned, they will receive a lot of attention from men, especially away from the more touristy centre of Havana. Avoiding cleavage and short skirts will lessen the attention, although by no means stop it. Do not get annoyed by the whistles or hissing sounds, as Cuban women often acknowledge and welcome the attention. Acknowledging it too enthusiastically however will probably encourage the men though and is best avoided.

Cuba is considered very healthy except for the water; even many Cubans boil their water. That said, some travelers drink untreated water without ill effect. The best solution is bottled water and lots of it, especially for visitors who are not used to the 30+°C/85+°F temperatures. Bottled water (agua de botella) is easily found and costs between .65 and 2 CUC for a 1.5L bottle, depending on the shop. It should be noted that the mineral count (total dissolved solids) of bottled water is quite high compared to elsewhere in the world, so if you are planning to visit Cuba for an extended period of time (e.g. as a student or on work permit), it might be a useful idea to bring a small jug/sports bottle water filter with a few cartridges along to further purify the water.

Cuban milk is usually unpasteurized, and can make visitors sick. Additionally, tourists should be wary of vegetables washed in tap water. Despite the warnings, most Cuban food is safe to eat and you do not need to be paranoid.

The island is tropical and thus host to a number of diseases. Some recommend an aggressive program of innoculations when planning a trip to Cuba, but most travelers come with little or none. Hepatitis B and tetanus shots are recommended by most travel clinics. Hepatitis B is generally spread by direct blood or sexual contact, the innoculation course requires three injections over several weeks, followed by a blood test to determine if it actually worked; shorter courses are available. (Interestingly, the hepatitis B vaccine is actually produced in Cuba for world-wide use). Generally tetanus immunization is more important, since tetanus is a risk with any wound or cut, especially in a dirty, contaminated wound.

HIV/AIDS infection is less than 0.1%, however, as always, you should exercise care and make sure you or your partner wears a condom should you become sexually active while in Cuba.

Cuba has one of the highest number of doctors available per capita in the world (around one doctor for every 170 people), making doctors readily accessible throughout most of the island. Your hotel reception should be able to point you to the closest doctor. (So plentiful in fact are doctors in Cuba, that it is not uncommon to see doctors selling paintings, books or other artwork to tourists at the flea market to make money to supplement their meager salaries.)

Finding medication is, however, often difficult. It is highly recommended to stock up on over-the-counter medications before heading to Cuba, as pharmacies lack many medications that westerners might expect to find, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and immodium. Do not attempt to import psychoactive drugs into Cuba. Havana also features a clinic (and emergency room) for foreigners, which offers extremely prompt service.

Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, razors, tampons and condoms are also hard to come across and expensive, so stock up before you leave.

contact

Cuba is, by design, one of the most expensive countries in which to communicate. Incoming phonecalls to Cuba cost about €1 / minute, even through services like Skype. Outgoing calls from Cuba are similarly expensive, and can be as high as €5 per minute for making international when roaming with your cellphone from overseas. Having internet access at your house is illegal, though illegal connections (usually through a modem set up at a school or workplace) can be obtained for about 30 CUC per month.

In many cities the only way for tourists to access the internet is through the government's communications centers. Look for buildings bearing the name "ETECSA", which stands for Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. ETECSA also has internet stations in some of the larger government hotels and resorts.

The connection speed is comparable to analog dial-up speed in Havana or slower in smaller locations, at a cost of 6 CUC / hour.

This is payable by purchasing a prepaid scratch card with a PIN code granting you access for one hour. The same card can be used throughout the country at any ETECSA terminal, allowing you to disconnect after your session and use the remaining time on the card further at the next hotel/city you go to.

WI-FI in hotels and restaurants is certainly uncommon if not non-existent and tourists should not rely on this being available when planning their means of communication.

Many will tell you that Skype is unavailable in the country, yet on a recent visit (Nov 2011) it was possible to Skype the UK and Australia, with video, from a hotel lobby using an ipad and the hotel's wifi.

Granma

news

Has a daily (http://www.granma.cubasi.cu/) edition and an international (http://www.granma.cu/ingles/index.html) version.

Juventud Rebelde

news

Cuba Vision

news

(http://www.cubavision.cubaweb.cu/portada.asp) is the national television station.

Radio Reloj

news

(http://www.radioreloj.cu) broadcasts news 24 hours and states the time every minute on the minute — dos cuarenta y dos minutos...

Radio Rebelde

news

(http://www.radiorebelde.com.cu), another news radio station.

Cuba Holiday News

news

(http://news.thecubaexperience.co.uk), online news channel, with selected news for people interested on travelling to cuba.

Havana Times

news

(http://www.havanatimes.org), photos, news briefs and features from havana, cuba.

Cuba Headlines

news

(http://www.cubaheadlines.com), cuba news headlines. cuban daily news | cuba news, articles and daily information.

news

Most of the radio stations are available live online (http://media-radio.cubasi.cu/).

phone

The country code for Cuba is 53.

The emergency number is 116. The information number is 113.

GSM cell phones will work in Cuba (900 MHz).

Cellphones can be rented at several stores in Havana, including one in the airport. The rates are 9 CUC per day (6 CUC for the phone and 3 CUC for the SIM card), plus about 36 cents a minute for prepaid cards. If you bring an unlocked GSM phone operating at 900 MHz (or quad-band world phone) you can buy a SIM card for 111 CUC, plus your prepaid minutes. If you're staying two weeks or more it makes sense to bring a cheap phone, buy a SIM card and prepaid minutes, then give the phone to a Cuban friend when you leave. Cellphones are among the most desired items for Cubans (bring a case for the phone too, Cubans are very fussy about keeping their phones scratch-free). You will have to go to a cellphone store with your friend and sign a paper to give the phone to your friend. Don't give your friend an unlimited plan that charges to your credit card!

police, fire and medical contact numbers

The emergency number in Cuba is: 106.

respect

Cubans are generally friendly and helpful people. Keep in mind that they make about US$15 a month; if they can help you, they probably will, but they may expect you to return the favor. If you are invited into a Cuban's home for supper, take the invitation. You will really be treated like a guest of honor. It is a great way to get a feel for the culture. Of course, ordinary Cubans are not permitted to host this type of event, but it goes on as a matter of course.

One way to help local Cubans is by staying in casas particulares and eating in paladares. While free enterprise is usually banned, several years ago the government began selling expensive licenses to individuals wishing to open up rooms for rent in their houses, or set up a few tables on their porch and cook out of their kitchens. Not only are the licenses very expensive but the fees must be paid monthly regardless of income, leaving those less fortunate the possibility of actually losing money. Not only is it more interesting to stay with locals and eat in their homes, you're actually directly benefiting them in one of the few ways possible.

Do not push Cubans into a discussion of political issues, as this could have serious repercussions on you and the person to whom you are talking.

Traditionally Cuba is Catholic, but the government has often cracked down on demonstrations of faith. Recently, however, it is less frowned upon since Pope John Paul II's visit, and there are more important issues to deal with. Other religions in Cuba are hybrid religions, mixing elements of Catholicism with others of traditional African religions. The most common one is called "Santeria" and their priests can be recognised by the full white regalia with bead necklaces that they wear. Women going through the process to become priests are not allowed (amongst other things) to touch other people, so if your casa owner is distant and dressed all in white, do not be too surprised. There are many museums in Cuba (especially in the Southern cities like Santiago de Cuba) which depict the history and traditions of Santeria.

scams

A few well established scams exist:

  • Real-looking discount cigars of dubious authenticity being offered by street touts. Quite often though these are indeed genuine articles which have been stolen or collected over a long period of time by cigar workers and are sold at substantial discount on legal and taxed cigars. If you are unable to distinguish genuine cigars then you should only buy from the official cigar dealers. The best people to buy untaxed (illegal but genuine) cigars from tend to be hotel doormen who will not be offended if asked "if they know where you can get cheap cigars" and may lead you to a room in the hotel used for this purpose. If buying untaxed cigars you should not pay more than say CUC 50 for a box of say 25 Esplendidos (around ten times cheaper than taxed cigars a rule of thumb). Be careful that you see the box you are buying open to prove there are in fact cigars in it. Also often stickers are included to allow you to seal the box as if it had been taxed. There is a risk that customs will confiscate these on exit, but for less than 50 cigars it is very unlikely. If carrying more then they should be split between the members of your party. Since the activity of selling untaxed cigars stolen or collection from the factory is illegal and the locals are often very short of money outside the main tourist season it is possible to haggle the prices very low, but since a typical salary for a hotel worker may be the equivalent of USD 20 per month it may seem unfair.
  • "Friendly" locals inviting tourists to bars for a drink (normally a Mojito) or to a restaurant; the tourist will be charged two to three times the normal price, and the spoils split between the establishment and the "friend". In Central Havana area, a running trick is a young local man or couple, in pretext of practising English, to invite tourists to attend a performance by "Buena Vista Social Club" (no, most of the members of BVSC have passed away and the group hasn't performed in Havana for many years) while suggesting to go to a nearby bar for a drink while waiting for the show to start.
  • Short-changing in bars or taxis or giving national pesos (CUP) in change for convertible pesos (CUC). Or, offering to swap 3 CUC or more for a "special edition" 3 peso coin with a picture of Che Guevara (the swap is of a CUC for CUP which is worth about 20 times less). Unfortunately unlike bills, convertible coins are unmarked as such. Get familiarized with the coins as soon as you get them from the bank or CADECA - the ones with a big star or Che Guevara on one side are all national pesos.
  • Water is often sold around tourist areas. Sometimes these bottles have been filled with local tap water and re-sealed (which can be poisonous). You can usually see this tampering on the bottle, but not always, in any case tap water will taste markedly different to bottled water and should be avoided in all cases. If in doubt you should discard the water. In fact, real bottled water (same goes for canned soft drinks) is a luxury even to locals and costs about the same either in national pesos (around 10 CUP) or convertibles (around 0.45 CUC) in stores, local or tourist ones alike - if you get one too cheaply, it's probably too good to be true.
  • Locals offer to swap money at a 'local bank' where the natives can get the best rates and ask you to remain outside whilst they do the deal as your presence would drive the rate up. If you give them your money you will never see them again.
  • Credit cards scams are common and accordingly money should only be withdrawn in reputable hotels or banks. Ideally carry cash with you; CAD, EUR and GBP are almost universally accepted (in order of popularity) despite being illegal to spend.
  • In Havana it is important to always be careful when using money. When taking a taxi, ask someone familiar with the system what the approximate fare should be, as many drivers will try to set an artificially high fare before departing. If in doubt, insist that they use the meter. You can almost be sure that any predetermined fare from the airport is at least 5-10 CUC higher than it should be - insist on the meter.
  • Shop assistants have been known not to give change and go on serving the next customer, assuming the tourist will not be able to speak enough Spanish to question the matter. In addition, some ambiguity exists between whether or not published prices are in CUC or CUP, and many vendors will take CUC when CUP is due and pocket the difference without telling you of your mistake. If in doubt, observe what the other customers are doing before making your purchase.
  • Credit card scams are common. Do not let your credit card out of your hands, and watch as the salesperson passes the card in the machine. If anything seems strange, DO NOT SIGN! Merchants in small shops may take your card to an adjacent bank counter and use it to take out a cash advance. Look closely at your receipts, if the receipt indicates 'Venta' and a dollar or CUC amount, this means that is has been passed as a cash advance (which will be kept by the dishonest employees). Credit card facilities are however generally so limited to non-existent in shops that it is customary and more practical to just pay with cash.
  • Often, real products such as rum and cigars may be switched by employees for fake ones which are under the counter or in a storeroom.
  • Jineteros/jineteras are a problem in larger cities, and will try to sell tourists anything, including restaurants, cigars, sex and drugs. Note that this type of solicitation is illegal in Cuba and most will leave you alone if you ignore them or politely say no for fear of police attention. If you do find yourself in a situation with a more relentless jinetero, tell them that you have been in the country for several weeks, that you are a student at the university or that you are from a third-world country (which you could pass as a citizen of if you're white, Brazil usually works since it's a non-Spanish speaking country, I've also tried Russia; Vietnam or Thailand works well if you're Oriental) and they will probably leave you alone. Many rely on tourists who are unfamiliar with the system and comparatively rich, so ideally you should try to make an impression otherwise. Keep in mind that even if a tout scoops only a few CUCs from unsuspecting tourists a day, he or she will probably make as much as a doctor's monthly salary in just a matter of a week or two.

talk

The official language of Cuba is Spanish, quite similar to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rican Spanish, although the version here is quite different from that spoken in Spain (although quite similar to the one in Canary Islands because many Cubans are descendants of Canarians), Mexico and South America. Cubans tend to swallow the last syllable in a word and generally swallow the 's' sound.

Basic to fair English is spoken in some tourist locations and language should not be a deterrent to visiting the country for non-Spanish speaking tourists capable of speaking English, though basic Spanish would prove useful, especially in more informal settings.Cubans enjoy talking to tourists, especially if you are staying with them in the "Casas particulares" and some knowledge of Spanish will help you understand regular Cubans' experiences.

Instead of the Spanish "Que tal?" for "How are you?", Cubans will say "Que vola?" (similar to "What's up?", generally quite informal) or "Como andas?" (literally means, "How are you walking?").Young Cubans amongst themselves will use the word "asere" which means "buddy" but is generally used between men and is not recommended for use by women.

television

If you're staying at a hotel or casa particular, it's likely there will be a television, and watching Cuban television is a good place to observe Cuba's unique mix of vibrant culture, sports and controversial politics.

The Cuban telenovelas are one of the state's key instruments for addressing sexual taboos and educating young people about AIDS, for example. The locally produced cartoons are the most interesting and uniquely Cuban. They range from abstract and artsy to informative to entertaining.

The most famous of the genre is the children's program Elpidio Valdés, which chronicles the adventures of a band of rebels in the 19th century revolt against the Spanish. The mix of cartoon slapstick humor and images of violent revolution (dashing revolutionaries stealing rifles, blowing up Spanish forts, and sticking pistols into the mouths of goofy Spanish generals) in a program geared at children is simultaneously delightful and disturbing.

There are classes under the heading "Universidad Para Todos" (University for Everybody) with the purpose to teach Cubans subjects like mathematics and grammar through the television. Also one of the channels is called the "Educational Channel" (Canal Educativo), although this uses "educational" in its widest sense, including foreign soap operas and pop concerts.