Since returning from Cuba as one of the first everyday American tourists to visit the country legally in about five decades, I've been asked over and over again how the experience was. Here's how I've been describing my trip: Fascinating. Exhausting. Eye-opening. Unforgettable.
But there are a few things I wish I'd been better prepared for – which is where this (and next) weeks' posts come in. Here, some tips I picked up from my trip for those of you who also have Cuba on your travel wish list – and want to get there legally. (And if you have your own tips to add, I'd love to hear them in the comments section.)It's not as cheap as you might think: While prices for food, drinks and accommodations in Cuba are still fairly low, traveling with a government-licensed operator doesn't fall into the budget category. You can expect to pay upwards of $400 or $500 per day for most trips (I went with Insight Cuba; another operator, Distant Horizons, has about 45 trips in the works). Prices do cover hotels and most meals, plus a driver and English-speaking guides, charter flight (usually from Miami), airport transfers, and museum entry fees. But keep in mind that included meals are usually pre-fixe or buffet, and hotels are a notch or two below their class level compared to Western countries.
And should you decide to venture on your own to a paladar, which is a private restaurant in someone's home, be sure to ask about prices and portion sizes before ordering. At one paladar in Havana, our group of three ended up with two whole grilled snappers, plus a pork dish and several sides – an obscene amount of food that could have fed at least six people. There was no written menu, the waitress didn't mention it was whole fish, and we were a little taken aback when our combined bill totaled over $150 (in U.S. equivalent). Lesson learned: Ask before ordering.
Don't expect a vacation: What the the U.S. Treasury Department's regulations for "person-to-person" travel really means: Plenty of hours spent in a tour bus, visits to community projects, neighborhood associations and national monuments, and limited free time. It's a great, albeit exhausting, way to get a crash course in Cuban culture and history, and it's nice to have everything organized, without the stress of planning things yourself. But more independent-minded travelers might find themselves getting especially antsy. Check with your operator beforehand, and see if you can take an afternoon or morning off from scheduled activities, which is easier to do ahead of time instead of on the spot.
A warning for high-maintenance travelers: While Havana’s crumbling buildings and classic cars are iconic images of Cuba, the country’s lack of infrastructure comes as a surprise to some. Restrooms in restaurants, museums, and public buildings can be dicey: Toilets are sometimes bucket-flushed, paper is rare (ladies, you should always carry it), and you're supposed to put the paper in those small trash bins in the stalls. Drinking bottled water is recommended, even in higher-end hotels. And hustling is common, especially in touristy areas like plazas and monuments. Don't be afraid to repeat a firm "No, gracias" until they get the hint.
If you need it, bring it: That means everything from toiletries (medication, sunscreen, toothpaste, and feminine hygiene products) to snacks (I went through my entire stash of granola bars and trail mix). Convenience stores, groceries, and pharmacies aren't readily available in Cuba.
Credit and debit cards and cell phones do not work in Cuba: This one has its own category for a reason, folks. You'll need to take enough cash out in the States to exchange into Convertible Cuban Pesos, or CUCs, in Cuba, so make sure you have enough – about $75 per day should be more than enough for activities and expenses you incur on your own. Set aside $25 CUCs for your departure fee.
And forget about using your cell phone for communication; the trade embargo from the U.S. government means it won't work (my Blackberry has a peculiar 8-day gap between e-mails).
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