Saturday, November 28, 2015

Information for Travelers on Cuba Cruise


Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Riverhead, NY  11901        917-859-9025


See also Frequently Asked Questions on Cuba Cruise web page

1) Electricity in Cuba is usually 110 volts AC, 60 Hz, but in some buildings it is 220 and requires a plug with round prongs or three prongs (not US style 3).  Usually there is a sign if voltage is other than 110.   Happily most electronic gear now has power blocks that handle both.  If your equipment has a US three prong plug, bring an adapter to make it two. 

The Celestyal Cruise ship has outlets for both 110 and 220 volts. It is useful to bring an adapter that will work with European round prong outlets as well as a US extension cord with a triple outlet in order to have enough connections for computers, pads, phones, etc.

2)  Money within Cuba is on a cash only basis unless you happen to have a credit card on a non-US (and non US owned) bank.  OFAC regulations now allow use of US credit cards but bank agreements have not yet made that possible.

You can exchange dollars for CUCs (the currency needed for most purchases) at the airport, in hotels, at CADECAs and in banks as well as at kiosks where cruise passengers disembark.  Because the US blocks Cuba's normal international use of the dollar, there is a 10% surcharge on the dollar exchange rate, plus the 3% charge affecting all currencies.  Some people bring Canadian dollars or Euros but for a mostly prepaid trip, it is not worth the trouble.  $100 per day while on land should be more than sufficient for non-group meals, incidental costs, taxis, etc., unless you plan to buy serious art or original handicrafts or eat at high end paladars with good imported wine.  

Purchases aboard Cuba Cruise for special excursions, in the gift and photo shop and for internet time and phone calls will be charged to your US credit card.

[Update:  Changing money at the first port of call, Santiago de Cuba, has been a bottleneck.  Additional CADECAs are being made available for passengers after they pass through immigration and customs.  If you come through the process quickly, you should have time to change money instead of waiting on the bus for others to clear. You will need a small amount of CUC if you want to pay the $5 camera fee at the Moncada Barracks museum or to buy beverages and snacks. Should you explore the Parque Cespedes central square area on your own after the tour ends, money can usually be changed at the Hotel Casa Granda.   If you wait until arrival in Havana, there is a multiposition CADECA in the cruise terminal to easily obtain CUCs.]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
3) Tips to the guide and driver for excursions are at your discretion.    A common practice is to give 5 CUC to the guide and 3 CUC to the driver or 10 CUC to the guide with a request to share it with the driver.  When you are eating on your own off ship, 10% is the norm. 

4)  Telephone calls between the United States and Cuba are expensive because of the US embargo.  US calling cards are not accepted and there is no way to make collect calls, so you must pay cash for your phone calls at hotels or an ETECSA kiosk.  Prepaid cards for use on public phones are available from hotels and ETECSA.

Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile have announced roaming service in Cuba.  It is expensive, requires a quad band GSM frequency phone and only works when on land or on board while close to coastal cities.  The ship has international phone service but VOIP for people using internet can be problematic.  Most participants on short trips do not need a phone (and may welcome being disconnected).  To function, cell phones must be unlocked quad band GSM, i.e. the kind used on ATT or T-Mobile networks, and require a Cubacel SIM card.  Unlocked phones can be bought on-line from Amazon or other big retailers or be purchased in electronics stores at the Miami airport before passing through security ($60+).  

The only fast place to get a SIM card is at Cubacel offices at airports.  Even there it can take 20 minutes, assuming there is not a line.  The cards cost $3 a day plus prepaid time  That gives you a local number with domestic calls that cost about 50 cents a minute as well as texting.  Charge up the phone with estimated usage and get a 5 or 10 CUC scratch card for back up.  Calls to the US are about $3 a minute but you can receive them without an incoming charge.  If you have a non-US phone, check whether the company has a roaming agreement with Cuba. 

For emergencies, provide friends, family and work with the ship number and your cabin number.
The ship can be contacted with the following numbers: 001 9546 726 798 (Reception) And by fax: 00870 765096512/13

If you must be in regular contact for work or personal reasons, another pre-arranged option is to use a service that provides SIM cards or rents phones; roams on the Cubacell network while on-shore, but it does not offer a local phone number so will only be called from abroad.

5)  Most personal electronics are fine to bring: digital cameras and video, cell phone, I-Pad, lap top, shortwave receiver, CD and DVD players.  Cell phones and pads can have GPS capability but you need to download the app and the Cuba map.  Don't bring a car GPS.  The ship and most hotels have CNN but no international newspapers.  Satellite phones or transceivers are illegal to import.

5)  Internet is available on your own laptop, pad or phone on board and in the lobby of most hotels, but it is dial up speed and most useful for e-mail.  Some international hotels have wireless, which is improving but often still very slow.  

6)  Cuba has adopted daylight savings time so east coasters will not have to change their watches.

7)  Clothing is informal and tropical.   In most situations, men wear buttoned shirts and slacks; women can use dresses, skirts or slacks.  T shirts are OK for sightseeing and personal time.  Shorts are usually worn by Cubans only at home and in very casual situations and can mark you as a tourist.  I wear sandals with covered toes but most Cuban men wear shoes.  Bring snorkel equipment for Maria la Gorda, but it will also be provided on the paid snorkel tour.  Guayabera and sports shirts are available for purchase but pricey.  T shirts are sold everywhere.

8) Bring a few copies of descriptive materials about your school, business or hobby as well as promotional souvenirs from your own community.   Photo books and calendars illustrating your city or state are nice remembrances.

9)  Humanitarian Assistance  I am often asked about providing material help to Cubans, a giving back opportunity offered by some tour organizations.  We and our Cuban hosts are not comfortable with handing out gifts on the street, be it candy, pens or baseballs.  We have arranged for donations to be passed on at the Saturday morning program held at the Cuban Institute for Friendship with Peoples (ICAP).   Another option for material assistance is on your last day in Cuba in Cienfuegos where the graphics workshop has a special program during the summer with Downs Syndrome children.

We are not asking you to do this, or in any way meaning to suggest that is a necessary part of your Cuba experience.  Our goal is to be sure that those moved to help have an appropriate channel and are not fostering the culture of street begging that so far is much less common in Cuba than in other tourist destinations.

Ultimate recipients include orphanages, homes for the elderly, autism and downs syndrome centers, hospitals for children with cancer and schools.  Items that have been suggested include school needs (crayons, pens, pencils, notebooks, educational software in Spanish, flash drives, coloring books, didactic games), baby supplies  (pampers, toys, clothes), senior support (adult diapers, canes, walkers---good condition used is OK), frames for glasses as well as new sheets and towels.

The head of the African Cultural Center who organizes our program at ICAP has requested boxes of pens and name tags that can be used for an international conference she organizes every April.

If you have a special interest in a particular kind of institution, we may be able to have a representative present.

When you board the ship, consult with Jorge Arocha, the person with special responsibility for the P2P program, about bringing gifts ashore.  Cuban customs can be a problem if they think goods are being brought for resale.

10) Bring 25 to 50 business cards for fellow travelers and for Cubans with whom you may want to stay in contact.

11)  Insurance  Cuba requires coverage by its national health insurance even if you have another policy because it cannot obtain reimbursement from US firms. A European company that has an agreement with Cuba's Asistur will provide coverage for cruise passengers for the entire trip.  To purchase, contact your travel agent / tour operator or call a member of the Cuba Cruise Booking Team.
Vicky Tiberio  1-877-494-4408
Cindy Burton  1-855-364-4999 ext. 4411
Holly Varey  1-855-364-4999 ext. 4406
Travel partners (agents and tour operators) should arrange insurance for their clients through the agent portal.

If you have a Starr Assist travel insurance & assistance policy you will have the proper medical benefit coverage to fulfill the Cuban government’s requirement.  If you have any questions on your coverage you may call 866-477-6741 or visit

 (Note: if you are joining the cruise in Havana, you will purchase Asistur insurance from a charter airline or at the airport on arrival from a third country but it only covers you while on Cuban soil.)

12)   Visa  Your Cuban tourist card will be provided when you board in Montego Bay or when you fly to Havana.

13)  Souvenirs, gifts   The US government permits you to bring $400 worth of Cuban merchandise into our country, $100 of which can be cigars and rum.  Music, art and books as well as goods produced by Cuban entrepreneurs can be imported without monetary limitation.

Program, special events and attractions

Detailed Itinerary here, subject to change.

Opera de la Calle  "Music of the Street" offers a people to people opportunity for a surprising and thoroughly engaging independently organized Monday evening in Havana. In one hour an exciting company of 50 singers, musicians and dancers captures many genres popular in Cuba during four centuries, including contemporary style.  Leave the ship by bus at 8:30 p.m. or meet us at 9 at the Arenal Theater, Avenida 41 y esquina 30, Playa [See program of the show here]

Ready for more music? Ask the bus or taxi to drop you at the Jazz Cafe facing the Melia Cohiba Hotel for its 11 p.m. show, or at the jazz and night clubs on La Rampa. Cuba Cruise also offers popular tourist options like the Tropicana Cabaret and the Buena Vista Social Club, or you can pursue the evening independently.  The Jazz Cafe is virtually free.  The $10 cover provides two or three drinks and/or food.

For other cultural events taking place in Havana and reviews of clubs and restaurants, check out , (click What's On)  and   Spanish speakers will find useful   For more reviews of Cuban restaurants

Here is a comprehensive list of restaurants in Havana with price categories  My two favorite good quality and reasonably priced paladars in Havana are Dona Eutimia near the Cathedral in Habana Vieja and Atelier, two blocks from the Melia Cohiba Hotel.  Reservations are advisable and plan on two hours for a substantial meal.  Dona Eutimia:  Callejon del Chorro No. 60-C, Plaza de la Catedral  861-1332; Atelier: XKKW 5Tm Bi, 511m e/ Paseo y 2, Vedado  836-2025   Also interesting is Arte Chef, a teaching restaurant of the Cuban Culinary Association, two blocks from the Melia Cohiba:  Calle 3ra, esq. A,  The Melia Cohiba is the best group and business hotel, but rooms are scarce.  An internet card can be purchased for use in the lobby, but expect dial up speed.

Specialized P2P Programs can be arranged for groups at an additional cost by Cuba Cruise that include a guide/interpreter and transportation.  At least one month advance notice is required.

My personal focus is the Irish and Irish American heritage of Cuba which touches on every port of our itinerary and can include a power point presentation and walking tour in Havana. Click here or go to

There are also opportunities to engage with the Chinese and Jewish communities and with counterparts in music, dance, education, art, medicine, senior programs, child care, small enterprise, etc.   Contact to discuss.

Information about private visits with the Jewish community can be found here but the e-mail addresses don't work.

Links for background

I am prone to assume that everyone who travels to Cuba shares my fascination/obsession with its history, culture and politics.  However I do recognize and respect that your primary agenda may be different.  Take from the following whatever is useful, and that you have time for.

Current Policy Debate

On December 17, 2014, the Presidents of Cuba and the US created a tectonic shift in our countries relations, opening the door to expanded travel opportunities such as Cuba Cruise and the establishment of diplomatic relations eight months later.  The process is ongoing, faster than most experts anticipated and slower than some advocates hoped.  The keystone is the growth of mutual understanding and trust, to which your visit contributes.

Regulatory changes announced in January 2016 were welcome, but less than expected, including on travel.  A good analysis by Professor William Leogrande of American University is here

The single most useful way to stay on top of the rapidly changing scene is the weekly Cuba Central Newsblast from the Center for Democracy in the Americas.  You can sign up here

There are a multitude of blogs written in Cuba with a very wide range of politics.  Get a non-political very personal take from Conner Gorry, a New York journalist who has lived for more than a decade in Havana and opened an English language center/snackbar at

I post a wide variety of articles about university, cultural and people-to-people programs in Cuba here publishes a variety of perspectives from within Cuba in English, some favorable some very critical

A column by David Roberts in a Latin America business publication has a useful estimate of Cuban's real comparative income from the CIA:

A series of scholarly articles is being published by the Social Science Research Council and the Center for Latin America and Latino Studies at American University which seek to understand how things are changing and why

A Cuban American who favors change

Dr. Louis Perez at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has written a remarkable historical essay, "Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder"

And a Cuban American who opposes it

What If...the U.S. Ended the Cuba Travel Ban and the Embargo? By Jaime Suchliki of the Cuba Transition Project, Focus on Cuba Issue 185


Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana (Contemporary Cuba) by Marc Frank, long-time resident and correspondent for Reuters and the Financial Times.  The must read on contemporary Cuba.

If you have time for serious study, the best source is Louis A. Perez of the University of North Carolina.  Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos  puts the last 55 troubled years into a two century long cultural context.  His comprehensive history is unequaled: Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution

A shorter more focused volume The History of Havana  was coauthored by an American, Dick Cluster of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and a Cuban, Rafael Hernandez, editor of the pioneering magazine Temas.

Moon Cuba is the best guidebook to prepare for your visit and carry ashore.

Havana Quartet are four novels by Cuban author Leonardo Padura, translated into English, that use the medium of a detective solving crimes to offer trenchant social commentary:  best read in the seasonal written order, not their publication in English (Havana Blue , Havana Gold, Havana Red, Havana Black.)  A fifth book, Havana Fever, carries the story into the “special period”.                                                                                                                                                 2/25/16

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