Wednesday, August 31st, 2016 JetBlue launched first U.S. commercial flight in over 50 years to Santa Clara, Cuba! Cuba is a tropical paradise full of passion, music, good coffee, great cigars and fine rum. American travelers will no longer rely on expensive charter flights to reach the Caribbean’s most intriguing island. Cuba is a fascinating mix of cultures and eras, unique in the world. On a stroll through Old Havana, for example, you’ll be popping into 16th century colonial patios or admiring a 1920 Art Deco fasade as Dodges and Mercurys from the 1950s transport the inhabitants. As so many travelers have discovered before you, there is only one Havana!
Cuban immigration authorities require a tourist visa, also known as the tourist card. Jet Blue is selling them over the counter at the check in, and American Airlines partnered with third-party operator to assist customers with the process. The tourist card is valid for one entrance into the country for a 30 day trip and can be renewed with Cuban authorities on the island for an extended stay.
Upon arrival to a Cuban airport’s customs area, a Cuban immigration official will stamp, detach and keep one half of the tourist card. Travelers have to return the other half to Cuban customs when they exit Cuba.
Cuban consular services asked applicants to process the tourist card with a partner agency for charter flights or mail the application at least 30 days in advance. To apply via mail applicants need a copy of a valid passport, a copy of a plane ticket with entry and return dates, a postal money order to the Cuban Embassy for the $50 fee and a stamped self-addressed envelope. Their address is 2630 16th Street, NW, Washington, D.C., 20009.
Travel Medical Insurance
About six years ago, Cuban immigration officials started to require proof of Cuban traveler medical insurance to all travelers, including Cubans living abroad. JetBlue has this cost included in the price of ticket.
American Airlines is referring customers traveling to the island to Los Angeles-based Cuba Travel Services at 305-204-9314. They have a contract to make it easier for AA customers to buy Cuba’s Asistur insurance. Havana-based insurer Asistur has offices at airports in Cuba and sells the insurance for about a $3 a day premium.
Most traveler medical insurance policies only cover medical emergencies. According to the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Cuban authorities refer tourists in the Havana area to the Cira Garcia Hospital — where they only accept cash.
There are two types of currency in Cuba, the Cuban Convertible Peso CUC (kook), which is the tourist currency, and Cuban Pesos CUP (koop), which is the national currency. The CUC is currently pegged at the dollar so it’s on a 1:1 ratio. Exchanging U.S. currency is subject to a 10% surcharge in Cuba.
The easiest place to change money is at a CADECA (exchange bureau) or at a Cuban Bank (BFI is the most reliable.) The exchange rates in all CADECAS and all banks are identical so there is no need to shop around. If you change money at the hotel front desk you will generally receive a worse exchange rate. Make sure that you get a printed receipt when changing money.
Cuba runs a cash-centric economy and it’s essential to bring more than enough cash with you! A minimum of $100 per day is recommended. Access to credit cards and ATM machines is very limited. If you run out of money your next best option would be to have someone wire you money via Western Union to CADECA.
Stonegate Bank‘s debit MasterCard remains reliable. The bank, which has a financial relationship with the Cuban government, requires cardholders to submit a U.S. regulations’ compliance form every time they travel.
Havana is a time warp with hundreds of 1950’s American cars everywhere, including the 1927-1959 options of Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Mercury, Oldsmobile and Pontiac models.
Taxis: Cuban authorities only allow tourists to use specific taxis.
Grancar: It’s the most comfortable option and prices are negotiable before the ride begins.
Cocotaxi: The top of the two-passenger vehicle mimics the shape of a coconut and are common in Havana and Varadero. These are cheaper than taxis. The Business Insider’s Graham Flanagan described it as a fun and quirky alternative.
Yellow taxis: The Russian Ladas are the most inexpensive option.
Bicycles: It is the most popular mode of transportation on the island. Bike Rental and Tours Havana offer reservations online and charge about $15 CUC for a day rental or $25 CUC for a guided city tour.
Horse Carriages: There is a multitude of companies offering tours in Old Havana. The Havana Unique company offers online reservations for their historic daily 3-hour tour at $35.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus: The Habana Bus Tour offers three routes in Havana with about 60 stops. Tickets are about $10 CUP per person and they don’t provide headphones.
Car Rentals: Three car rental companies are still government-operated, so they are not competitive. They only offer compact cars and luxury sedans. The cost of the rental is paid in full when booked. The insurance and a full gas tank are paid on site. Rental cars have a distinctive license plate, so authorities ask drivers to take precautions when it comes to criminals targeting tourists.
Viazul is the Cuban government’s bus company. The buses are air-conditioned, but restrooms maintenance is an issue. Viazul asks passengers to provide identification and be at the terminal about one hour before the time scheduled although they are not always on time. If the ticket is purchased on the web, the company warns it needs to be done at least a week in advanced. A 3-hour bus ride from Havana to Santa Clara can cost about $17 per person. For more information, you can e-mail the company at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fastest and most accessible Wi-Fi in Old Havana is at the Iberostar Parque Central. There are new and old Iberostar hotels located right next to each other. You’ll find ETECSA Wi-Fi cards available for sale to non-guests. You can only purchase 1 hour internet cards for 5 CUC either at the bar in the lobby or on the second floor business cneter. The best Wi-Fi reception is on the second floor, where you will typically find 10-20 people browsing the web. Once you purchase a 1 hour internet card it will work anywhere there is Wi-Fi, as it gives access to the state run internet. You can end your connection session at any point and use the remaining time later.
Where to Stay
Short-term rental platform Airbnb has been in business in Cuba since April 2015. And the island’s “casas particulares,“ the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast, are taking advantage of it. Their site lists over 13,000 registered users offering accommodations all over the island, about about 2,500 in Havana, some 330 in Trinidad, 200 in Vinales, 150 in Santiago de Cuba and 95 in Santa Clara. Most popular hotels are also avilable for booking via CubaTravelNetwork.com.
Where to Eat
With a nearly non-existent wholesale food industry and an agricultural system that can’t keep up with demand, chefs face a shortage of ingredients. Since Cuban officials legalized privately-owned restaurants in 1993, the “paladar” circuit in Havana has been growing. To catch up, mobile phone app A la Mesa Cuba provides a directory that helps tourists find their best options.
Here is a list of some of the most popular restaurants in Havana:
Reservations are required. The tables are set with antique china and glassware and the artwork changes and is usually for sale. The menu is handwritten and it changes every day.
Address: Calle 5ta, No. 511 altos, Paseo and 2nd in the Vedado neighborhood. Phone: 53-7-836-2025
Reservations are required. It has been open since 1996 with a menu that includes Malanga Gnocchi and Watermelon Gazpacho with Grilled Shrimp. It was the site of the film “Fresa y Chocolate” in 1993.
Address: Concordia No. 418/ Gervasio y Escobar, Central Havana.Â Phone: 53-7-866-9047
Reservations are required. Italian chef embraces nouveau cuisine with main courses that include the Duck Le Chansonnier, chicken breast with a tamarindo sauce.
Address: Calle J, No. 257, in the Vedado neighborhood. Phone: 53-7-832-1576
Reservations are required. They serve Creole Cuban cuisine with a menu that includes Ropa Vieja del Chorro, the house specialty.
Address: Callejon del Chorro No. 60c, Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana. Phone: 53-5-270-6433
Reservations are required. Seafood with views of the sea. Items on the menu include the octopus carpaccio.
Address: Calle M #257 penthouse c/21 y19, 1200 in the Vedado neighborhood. Phone: 53-7-831-2090
The restaurant is in a 20th-century mansion. Cuban dishes include the Solomillo de Cerdo a la Campesina
Address: 469 San Rafael. Phone: 53-7-860-1705
The restaurant is under an imposing brick chimney and requires going up three flights of circular stairs to an outdoor terrace. Tapas are their specialty. Some of them include the Croquetas de Pescado, Chorizos Parrilleros and the Empanadillas.
Address: Calle 26, between 11 and 13 between the Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods. Phone:53-7-832-2355
La Cocina de Lilliam:
The restaurant’s menu includes seafood, lamb, pork, chicken and veal options.
Address: Calle 48, 1311, between 13 and 15, in Playa. Phone: 53-7-209-6514
Corte Del Principe:
A casual restaurant serves Italian food. The menu doesn’t include pizza.
Address: At Pjea between Libertad and Victoria. Phone: 53-5-255-9091
Main Attractions in Havana
Havana has three hubs. The original is Habana Vieja – Old Havana – the colonial core. Top attractions include El Capitolio Nacional, famous for its similarity to the Unites States’ Capitol in Washington D.C. This building houses the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural and the headquarters of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Other renowned attractions are El MalecÃ³n Habanero, El Museo de la Revolucion, Castillo San Salvador de la Punta, and the Gran Teatro de la Havana. The main shopping streets of Old Havana are Calle Obispo and Calle Mercaderes, which meet at the Ambos Mundos.
La Floridita Bar claims to have invented the daiquiri and it was a famous hangout for Ernest Hemingway back in the 1960’s. They have a statue of him seated at his favorite spot at the bar, right next to a bust of Vladimir Lenin. The daiquiri’s are decent and made with Havana Club rum but are pricey at 6 CUC. Another famous Hemingway’s hangout is the Bodeguita Del Medio, which is famous for their mojitos.
Restaurants (5-10% of bill)
Many restaurants (state and private) now add 10% service to the bill. In some state restaurants they may claim this is a tax, which is not true. If service has not been added then 5-10% is reasonable.
Staff in an All-Inclusive Resort (CUC 20-30 per week)
As a general rule if someone seems to be making a special effort with you (a gardener giving you a flower, a waiter getting you champagne after happy hour has finished etc. etc.) then they would appreciate a tip. A dollar here and there goes a long way. Change CUC 20 at the start of a week to spend in tips.
Toilet Assistants (10-25C per pop)
Yes it would be nice if toilets had running water, toilet paper and some semblance of hygiene but lets face it sitting outside a toilet collecting cash is not the best job either. So get some change, grin and bear it.
Musicians (CUC 1 per group)
If you like a musician who is playing in a bar or a cafe, especially if he plays a few songs especially for you, then there is an expectation that you should pay something. There is no need to pay more than a dollar and especially in tourist ghettoes many musicians make a reasonable living. But nonetheless music is the life of Cuba and a dollar here or there is appreciated.
Tour Guides (CUC 2 per person per day)
Certain guide-books suggest CUC 2 per person per day for a tour guide. Be careful of falling for a sob story especially if the person telling it is young and pretty/handsome since you are probably being played!