Published on October 21st, 20152
Prepping for Cuba: Part I
Each country is unique. Thus planning a trip to most any land requires unique research. And Cuba is no exception. Indeed, given that – as a U.S. born brat – technically I’m not even supposed to be going there independently (read: sans being herded around via a pricey, licensed “people-to-people” tour). So when it comes to the need for diligent pre-trip research, opting to head to “The Forbidden Land” surpasses even such off-grid places as Mongolia or Myanmar.
Which explains why my eyes have been glued to this laptop screen nearly constantly for the past month (a chore, I might add – that I find almost as much fun as actually *going on the trip*!) And as I head towards the final stretch here (less than 5 days til blast off!) I thought it might be helpful to share a wrap-up of the results of my research, for those who likewise might be dreaming of a future trip to to Cuba.
But before we get into the travel prep nitty-gritty here, let me say this:
|Know from the get-go that I/you will NEVER be able to prepare for every possible situation. Nor would I/you want to. No matter how many hours of bleary-eyed research into the most minute details of your trip, there will always be things that you can’t control – unknowns that can only be known once you’re on the ground. TripAdvisor reviews and blogs and even up-to-the-minute reports from respected forums like Lonely Planet are just that – personal opinions of folks with widely (and wildly) diverse druthers.
Nonetheless, a bit of pre-trip research can mean the difference between a great trip – and a disaster.
Dare I enter “The Forbidden Land”?
For starters, as a lass with a Navy Blue U.S. passport – there’s the not so small matter of confirming just how “naughty” entering Cuba is (or is not). Will (or will not) my passport be stamped by some long-suffering Cuba immigration drone? And if stamped – will (or will not) such a stain in my passport prove a sticky entry (with hefty or non-hefty) fine (or worse, OMG *jail-time*!) should I decide to pay a visit to my native land in the near future?
For those citizens of other lands heading to Cuba of course, this is no problem whatsoever. And in my case – stamp or no stamp, makes little difference ‘cuz A. My current passport expires in little more than a year, and B. I have permanent residency in Ecuador now, and have no intention of visiting my native land anytime soon.
But still… for my fellow Yanks out there, this is where up-to the minute due diligence research becomes critical. No way to know for sure of course (as countries in general, not just Cuba) are notorious for changing their bureaucratic druthers according to seemingly whim. So hanging out in forums like Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree is essential for gleaning up-to-the-minute reports from veteran frequent Cuba travelers who have recently been up against the ropes.
My conclusions on all such “naughty” matters?
Apparently, for years Cuba was kindly stamping a separate scrap of paper for Yanks (i.e. not in their passport). But it seems nowadays, they’ve ceased to differentiate (I mean, can you blame them?) and will likely slap that Cuba entry stamp right there on a page in your Navy Blue. You can of course (oh so por favor, politely) ask them not to, but there’s no guarantees.
So the bad news is that likely I WILL get the “naughty stamp” in my passport next week. But the good news is that – for years now, U.S. immigration couldn’t care less who’s got a Cuba stamp and who doesn’t. Not surprising, as we’re talking no less than 400 THOUSAND Americans that headed to Cuba last year. And U.S. immigration has no way of knowing who visited Cuba on a bona fide “licensed” tour and who did not.
Thus bottom-line? Chill. If your dream is to visit Cuba, no need to hand over a breathtaking gob of dollars for some organized “licensed” tour. Just grab a flight to Cuba, and DIY independently.
What? You say ATMs aren’t an option?
Then there’s the (likewise not unimportant) matter of Cuba prohibiting my usual reliance on ATMs to cough up funds as I go along. In short, Cuba doesn’t recognize U$D, and my (U.S. bank issued) credit/debit cards will be but useless hunks of plastic there. There’s also a significant penalty for changing USD to Cuba CUC – a flat 10% penalty on top of the usual 3% exchange fee. Ironically, I live in Ecuador (which is cozy with Cuba unlike the U.S.), but wouldn’t you know it – the national currency here is – yup, you guessed it, the almighty USD.
Suffice this whole money dilemma has been (and still is) more daunting to me than daring to enter “The Forbidden Land” nonsense. I could of course, change my Ecuador USD into Euros or some such before heading into Cuba (to avoid the 10% penalty), but… suffice the vets in the Cuba travel forums assure me that your everyday Cuban actually LOVES USD, and I should be able to get a very nice rate by changing currencies on the street.
Still… the bottom line for those of us without a credit/debit card issued from a non-U.S. bank is this: I’m destined to carry around ALL of the funds that I’ll need for the ENTIRE 16 days that I’ll be skipping ’round Cuba. That’s C.A.S.H. people (be it in USD or Cuban CUC). Indeed, no little boatload of CASH – necessarily tucked hither ‘n yon in my baggage and on my person as I roam around the island. As normally I wouldn’t DREAM of carrying around more than a day or two’s worth of spending money in cash, needless to say, this little Cuba wrinkle looms as a most disturbing prospect.
I estimate that I’ll need about $75/day x 16 days = min. $1,200 spending money for the entire trip. Thus my usual security measures for stashing my passport, credit cards plus a small chunk of cash won’t work for this trip. In addition to my ever trusty money belt (strung ’round my waist, or around my neck and tucked under my arm) I’ll be splitting up my cash in a 2nd small money belt, along with stashing a few bills in my rollie (tucked into a dirty sock works well) and my rucksack. Indeed, for such a large stash of cash, I may even try the “chap stick” and/or “dental floss container” ploy. In any case, all must be necessarily hidden here and there, and trust that I’ll breathe a whole lot easier as my cash dwindles down towards the end of my trip.
Soooo doing a Happy Dance here today! I just confirmed that my Banco del Austro debit card here in Ecuador – will work in CUBA!
So no more fretting about how best to tuck an entire boatload of C.A.S.H. in various ‘n sundry places on my person and in my backpack whilst I skip around Cuba. Now I at least have a backup in a an emergency. I’ll still need to pack a good bit of cash into Cuba of course (for only an idiot would travel with but a single means of funding), but now only about half what I’d planned (i.e. the minimum I expect to need), knowing that I at least have a bank card should push come to fiscal shove. Yipppeee!
Th-th-that’s enough blather here for now. Stay tuned for Prepping for Cuba: Part II – for tips on grabbing a cheapo air ticket, itinerary planning (anybody up for snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs?), accommodations (in “casa particulars”), on-the-ground transport, technos, packing and more…