Monday, June 10, 2019

Information for Visitors

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

Revised 6/10/19


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.   Even with a card, places that accept them are infrequent but include international hotels and government stores selling cigars and alcohol.  

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 normal 3% charge affecting all currencies.  Some people bring Canadian dollars or Euros but unless you anticipate major CUC expenditures, it is not worth the trouble.  If you are traveling independently, $100 per day while on land should be 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.   Because you cannot easily obtain more money, it is always a good idea to bring a buffer.

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 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 ($15 - $20 for a basic non-smart instrument usable for calls and texts) or other big retailers or be purchased in electronics stores at the Miami airport before passing through security ($60+).  

The easiest 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 with no 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, 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. Most hotels have CNN but no international newspapers.  Satellite phones, transceivers and car GPS are illegal to import.

5)  Internet is available on your own laptop, pad or phone in the lobby of most hotels and in public hot spots.  It can be slow and is most useful for e-mail but you can get NY Times and other text based news services.   ETECSA internet centers, wi-fi hot spots and most hotels use the same Nauta scratch card that can be purchased for 1 CUC per hour from ETECSA offices, a hotel or a reseller.  The 5 CUC 5 hour cards are most useful.  Just remember to sign off when you finish.  Most hotels and ETECSA offices also have publicly accessible computers for direct connections but you need a scratch card to use them.

Hot spots can be identified when you see groups of Cubans on their smart phones.  A comprehensive nationwide list of locations is here

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.  For men, sandals with covered toes are OK but most Cuban men wear shoes except at home or on the beach.  Bring snorkel equipment or look for a hotel or beach shop for rentals.  Guayabera and sports shirts and bathing suits 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.   It is already included with your air ticket which is one reason to not throw it away.

12)   Visa  Your Cuban tourist card will be provided by your air carrier.  Cost ranges from $50 to $100 depending on the mark-up.

13)  Souvenirs, gifts   The US government permits you to bring $400 worth of Cuban merchandise into our country, including 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 every evening 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 reviews of clubs, bars and restaurants, check out  (last issue December 2017)  Spanish speakers will find it useful to subscribe to La Papaleta or to access this page or to download this

 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  7-861-1332; Atelier:  Calle 5 # 511 e/ Paseo y 2, Vedado  7-836-2025   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.  A proprietal internet card can be purchased in the business center for use in the lobby.

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

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 establishing normal diplomatic relations, opening the door to expanded travel opportunities.  In May 2019, the Trump Administration reversed gears and shut down cruise and people to people travel.  However, a virtually identical channel still exists for independent travelers and groups through Support for the Cuban People.  The current legal situation is documented here

The single most useful way to stay on top of the rapidly changing scene is the weekly Cuba News Brief 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

FFRD posts a wide variety of articles about university, cultural and people-to-people programs in Cuba here  Write to for our newsletter. publishes perspectives from within Cuba in English, some favorable some very critical

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

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

The Cuba Study Group expresses the views of Cuban Americans who want to transform US policy and also seek peaceful evolutionary change in Cuba.  A weekly newsletter can be subscribed to on its web site .


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”.   


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