Saturday, May 14, 2016

Information for Visitors

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


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. 

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.  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 unless you anticipate major expenditures, 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.  

3) Tips at restaurants and for guides and driver for excursions are at your discretion.    On group tours, a common practice is to give per day 5 CUC to the guide and 3 CUC to the driver. At restaurants, 10% is the norm.  Some restaurants show a 10% service on the bill, but you should ask what that is for.

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 and requires a quad band GSM phone.  Most people on short trips do not need a local phone but they are useful if you have a private guide or are arranging your own program, reserving seats in popular restaurants, etc.  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 inexpensive 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. 

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.  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 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.  There are also internet centers and wi-fi hot spots that require a Nauta scratch card from the center, ETECSA, a hotel or a reseller.

From another Lonely Planet site:

Link to map of wi fi hotspots in Havana

Addresses of wi fi hotspots and hotels etc with wi fi for all of Cuba

Additional wifi and phone information in FAQs 25 and 26 at

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 or look for a hotel or beach shop to for rentals.  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 most Cubans are not comfortable with handing out gifts on the street, be it candy, pens or baseballs because it encourages a culture of begging.  If your schedule includes schools, retirement centers, clinics or social service institutions, donations in cash or kind are welcome.

10) Bring 25 to 50 business cards 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.   Charter carriers and cruise lines provide it for an additional cost.  Some airport terminals have an insurance kiosk before immigration.

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

12)   Visa  Your Cuban tourist card will be provided by your carrier, air or sea.

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

Opera de la Calle  "Music of the Street" offers a people to people opportunity for a surprising and thoroughly engaging 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.  [See program of the show here]

Ready for more music?  The Jazz Cafe facing the Melia Cohiba Hotel has a rotation of quality performances at 9:30 and 11 p.m. or try the jazz and night clubs on La Rampa.  Popular tourist options like the Tropicana Cabaret and the Buena Vista Social Club sell tickets through Cubanacan desks at international hotels.  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 by Amistur and San Cristobal that include a guide/interpreter and transportation.  At least one month advance notice is recommended.

My personal focus is the Irish and Irish American heritage of Cuba that 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.

The best analysis I have read of where bilateral relations stand is by Fulton Armstrong of American University. "U.S.-Cuba Normalization: Entering a New, Challenging Phase",  Fulton served as a senior professional staff member responsible for Latin America on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from July 2008 to October 2011.  He was National Intelligence Officer for Latin America – the U.S. Intelligence Community’s most senior analyst – in 2000-2004 and served two terms as the Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council (1995-97 and 1998-99).  You can download his 16 page paper 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

The Smithsonian Magazine published a useful summary history "How Cuba Remembers Its Revolutionary Past and Present"

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.

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”.   


No comments:

Post a Comment