12 Tips for US Travel to Cuba (Part One)

Avoid Havana Bad Time!

Los Fornos Centro Havana

Although visiting Cuba may (for the time-being) seem novel and exotic to U.S. travelers, everyone else in the world has been traveling to Cuba for decades. Consequently, there is a well-worn Cuban trail of tourist traps and pitfalls, but these can easily be avoided with some advance preparation. With this in mind, here are our expert tips to Avoid Havana Bad Time.

1) Travel to Cuba with a purpose (its U.S. law!)

U.S. Government regulations as of January 15, 2015 require U.S. travelers to Cuba to have one of 12 specified reasons for authorized travel. You can check them out on the U.S. Treasury Department Cuba Sanctions webpage FAQ.

One of the best ways to travel to Cuba is to attend some kind of cultural seminar or special cultural event or happening. This will give a structure to your itinerary and put you into a network of “regular Cubans” as opposed to only interacting with Cuban Government tour guides, or worse, the Cuban tourist hustlers called Jineteros (pronounced hee-neh-tare-o).

For example, through ARTempoCuba we offer customized art tours to Cuba where a team of art historians and curators will teach you about Cuba’s great contemporary art and artists. They also offer week-long seminars in Havana to study printmaking, painting, and photography courses as well. We can also arrange week-long courses for things like Spanish language, Salsa dance, conga playing, or music appreciation. Just be certain that you are honestly qualifying under the U.S. Treasury Department guidelines on the FAQ mentioned above.

2) Travel to Cuba as independently as you can while complying with U.S. laws.

Don’t be fooled by the big U.S. Cuba tour operators offering supposedly “unique people-to-people” tours.  Almost all are packaged group bus tours for Americans to visit Cuba, and are exactly alike. They will show you a Cuba that is laminated and vacuum-sealed. Though they’re called “people-to people” tours most of the only “people” you’re going to interact with are Government tour guides, drivers, screened guest lecturers, and carefully invited “guests”.

When choosing a tour operator, our advice is this this: go with a smaller independent travel provider who specializes in your area of interest.

3) Allow Yourself Plenty of  Travel Time in Cuba.

We’ve seen many people who try to pack too much travel into too few days. As I’ll explain below, Cuba moves at it’s own inexorable pace. In Cuba, a travel day, where you travel between cities, for example, inevitably takes up the whole day. We recommend that you plan for 5 nights in Havana and never less than 2 nights anywhere else. The colonial town of Trinidad, a UNESCO world heritage site on Cuba’s southern coast deserves 3 nights. Be sure to add full travel days between destinations farther apart than 100 miles.

4) In Cuba be prepared, have patience, and expect to un-plug from the grid.

Settle down Hot Rod. Life moves at a slower pace in Cuba. It’s partly do to societal limits and inefficiencies, partly do to cultural customs, and often due to the heat and humidity.

Expect that plans may go wrong: the rental car agency won’t have your reservation; the bus from Havana to Trinidad could be delayed; the line to change money could stretch a half-block long; and especially, you might not find anyone that speaks English. Any of these and more can happen. And all of it will work out fine. Be patient and flexible.

Welcome to what Cubans call La Lucha, the daily struggle against the inconveniences and annoyances of Cuban life. Even going through Customs and Immigration upon arrival at Havana’s José Martí International Airport can sometimes be a multi-hour experience. So just take a breath, and be patient. Bienvenidos á Cuba!

If you have any receipts, itineraries, or other paperwork that you might need for your trip, bring them with you – already printed-out. It is not a simple task to print something out in Cuba, especially if you need to connect to your Dropbox via your smartphone to do it.

Pack your bags to be as self-sufficient as possible. In Cuba there are no giant pharmacies, mega-camera stores, computer stores, much less any Apple Stores. Bring any medicines, hygiene products, camera and personal electronics equipment, and any supplies you might need for any seminars or events with you.

Instead of creating frustrations and hassles for yourself, expect to be disconnected from the web for your entire stay in Cuba, except for a few hours now and then when you might be able to connect via a slow and expensive hotel WiFi. Enjoy your forced digital detox.

You’ll be OK. We promise.

5) Avoid Staying in Hotels When Possible –Stay in a Casa Particular (a Cuban B & B).

Generally, the hotels in Cuba are over-priced for the quality of the accommodations, and seldom reach the standards to which U.S. travelers are accustomed. Instead, stay in a licensed Casa Particular which is a B & B privately owned and operated by Cubans.  Comparing category-to-category and price-to-price, the conditions in a Casa are usually superior to those in a hotel. A 5-star Casa Particular will provide much better accommodations than a 5 star hotel for a better price.

All Casas offer home-cooked food service, and it’s often quite good. One meal you should definitely take every day at your place of lodging is breakfast. There just aren’t many breakfast places in Cuba, so eat it at your Casa.

Casa Particulars are also very safe. The licensing requirement that the Cuban Government places on owners of a Casa Particular, makes the Casa owner legally responsible for your physical safety and that of your belongings. And the penalties are severe. Many middle to high-end Casas have in-room mini-refrigerators, hotel-style digital strongboxes, and of-course en-suite private bathrooms. Even without the strongbox, you can safely leave your valuables and documents locked in your suitcase in your locked room in your licensed Casa Particular. If you’re still uncertain, you can always give them to the Casa Owner for safe keeping (get a receipt, even if hand written), and I promise you that she will defend your valuables with her life. To know whether a Casa Particular is licensed look for the symbol of the government issued seal which looks like this.

HavanaVIPtours Casa Particular Service
There are Casas Particulares for all tastes and budget levels from luxury penthouses with their own private swimming pools, to moderately priced private apartments, to economical private rooms in someone’s home. You can check out some examples of Havana Casa Particulares here on our site, and there are many online services for Casa bookings.

Hint: when booking through an online service avoid bait & switch scams by either demanding a satisfaction guarantee, or by pre-paying for only the first two nights of your intended stay so that you can find another place and move if you’re dissatisfied.

The best Casas enjoy high demand, so reserve well in advance for at least the first few nights of your arrival. If you’re going to travel from one city to another in Cuba and haven’t pre-reserved a Casa at your next destination, the Casa owner where you are initially staying always usually has a network of trustworthy Casas around Cuba, so ask his or her help.

6) In Cuba Dine in Paladars (privately owned and operated restaurants).

With the exception of breakfasts (which you should eat in your Casa Particular) the food and service you’ll enjoy in a Paladar is much better than in Cuba’s government owned and operated restaurants. Do your research to find quality places. On ARTempoCuba.com you’ll find twenty of Havana’s Best Places to Eat and Drink selected by our team of Cuban curators and artists, complete with contact info and mapped locations. While there are many more Paladares to choose from, you cannot go wrong with our recommendations – they are where we eat ourselves.

That’s it for the first part of this two part post.  Go here to read the second part.

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