I am excited for you to experience the Havana that I (Luke) have come to know so well. Here are some tips that will hopefully make your trip more enjoyable.
A little caveat: Things in Cuba are just the way they are. Often times, the explanation is complicated. Some things can be blamed on international politics; some on national politics; some on bureaucracy; some on culture; and others on well…
In short, if you ask me “Why is it like that?”, my answer will be “Because that’s just the way it is”.
Trip Advisor has a comprehensive series of articles about travelling to Cuba that is worth reviewing (http://bit.ly/1kdhhC3).
A good 2012 BBC documentary of modern Cuba is here: http://bit.ly/2ng5irR
Havana is generally a safe city. The people are friendly, helpful, and willing to engage with foreigners. Most have relatives living in the US and Canada and will be happy to tell you all about them.
Usually, trouble will only find you if you go looking for it. That being said, you should exercise all the normal precautions that you would take on any trip. A camera left alone will disappear and money left sticking out of the back of your pocket will be spent by someone else. Be a smart traveller and you will pass the trip without incident. Don’t make yourself, your belongings or your pockets an easy target.
Spanish is the official language of Cuba (although it’s spoken soooo fast and they tend to leave out letters, parts of words or have their own local slang). If you speak Spanish, you will have no problem in Havana and you will probably learn some new phrases. English is spoken at hotels, most restaurants, by most taxi drivers and in most of the main tourist areas.
Some conference participants will be Cuban nationals. This will be an excellent opportunity for all of us to interact and learn – not only about Napoleonic themes, but about each other. As I said above, Cubans are friendly, open and eager for the opportunity to develop friendships.
MONEY and CREDIT CARDS
Cuba is, for all intents and purposes, a cash society. My advice to you is to bring enough cash to see you through your visit and exchange it as needed. The local currency is called the CUC and CUC$1.00 is equivalent to US$1.00 There are money exchange offices located at the airport, all major hotels and they all charge more-or-less the same rate. Assume that there are no ATM’s in the country that you can use (I haven’t found any that worked for me). You can withdraw money from your credit card into CUCs at a money change office as long as it is a non-US bank credit card. European and Canadian credit cards work just fine.
Assume that American bank credit/debit cards will NOT work – you can confirm this with your credit card company/bank (to be certain) but it is my understanding that American government legislation/policy is the sticking point. And even though your bank may say that your card will work in Cuba, it doesn’t mean that it will actually work in Cuba.
Every day there are a few more places that accept credit cards and those that do will charge you a roughly 1.5-3% premium to cover the transaction fees. Ask before you pay for details. The phone lines don’t always work and transactions that don’t always go through.
The front desk of your hotel will change money for you but you could pay a higher rate. Use the official government exchange office at the hotel (ask the front desk where it is). Never exchange money on the street
The bills that you do bring should be untorn and undamaged, otherwise it is likely that they won’t be accepted for exchange. They won’t accept coins so leave your Euro coins, loonies, toonies and Susan B Anthonys at home. Always review your change – it’s quite common for someone to slip international coins into your change. Also don’t let anyone sell you a “Special Che Guevera Commemorative Coin”. That’s a normal Cuban coin worth about 5 cents.
Cuban currency is not accepted by banks outside of Cuba, so there’s no point bringing any back with you at the end of the trip. There is a money exchange office at the airport where you can convert any unused Cuban currency back into your local currency.
THE OLD CITY
The conference is being held in the heart of the Old City of Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/204), the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the Americas and lovingly restored by one of our sponsors – the Office of the Historiador of the City of Havana. It is not a tourist trap – regular Habaneros live and work here alongside, above and below many of the touristy attractions. Much of the Old City is pedestrian only.
We are centered on the Plaza des Armas, which has easy access to the harbor, taxis and is generally the center of things.
The Cuban government has made it a requirement that you have health insurance to cover the duration your stay.
You can safely bring a laptop, a tablet and a cell phone into the country all in one carry-on bag. You CAN bring all the same kind of things to Cuba that you might bring with you on any trip. (In case you were thinking of bringing a 7ft freezer, deep fryer or a car chassis to Cuba … you can’t. That’s specifically prohibited.) Here is the Cuban Government website explaining the rules (http://bit.ly/1kXGnUo)
Jose Marti Airport is located about 30 minutes from the Old City (depending on traffic of course). It should cost about CUC$25-$30 to take a taxi to your hotel. The drivers will all try to scam you for a lot more so, if you’re feeling bold, bargain with them.
There is a money exchange office as you exit the airport. It is outside the doors to the right. You can change some money here to take care of the taxi and get you to the hotel. If you don’t want to change money here, a little bargaining should convince the taxi driver to accept your US/Canadian/Euro bucks.
For our American friends, you will be landing at a different terminal if you are flying in from an American airport. I haven’t been in that terminal so I can’t offer any advice as to where anything is. Don’t worry, everyone will speak English so just ask around.
There is NO early check in or pre-check in at the Havana airport so don’t bother going online and pre-checking-in hoping to save time. That doesn’t work in Cuba. Show up and stand in a slow moving line and experience life like a Cuban national :-). Don’t worry, the plane won’t leave without you.
The main terminal of the José Marti Airport has a decent duty free where you can buy booze, smokes, cigars, perfume, jewelry and, other things you don’t really need.
The best landmark to orient yourself is the Plaza des Armas. Most rides from the plaza to nearby restaurants should not cost more than $5-$10 and the driver will not charge a premium if you fill the car with people. The ride from the airport should not cost more than $30. The general rule is: If you negotiate a price before you leave, that’s the price you pay (including tip). If the taxi driver uses the meter, then a tip is extra).
There are an increasing number of EXCELLENT restaurants in Havana – 95% of which are operated out of private homes. These are called Paladars. It’s a funky experience eating in someone’s carport, front porch, living room or backyard but the cuisine is great and varied. Don’t worry – embrace the experience, it’s all cool.
Check the menu or ask your server if tips are included in the price of the meal. “Servicio Incluido” means yes it is. If it’s not included, use your judgment and tip based on the quality of service and food. 10-15% on a good meal with good service is generous.
As you walk the streets of Havana, someone will inevitably get your attention by saying “Sssst. Senor. Cohiba, Cigars. Good price.” NEVER buy cigars on the street. It doesn’t matter how genuine they are because they are fake.
There are genuine cigar shops in most hotels and elsewhere. Buy your cigars there! There is a good cigar shop at the corner of Mercaderos and Lamparilla (5 minute walk from Plaza des Armas).
If you plan on bringing more than 50 cigars with you out of the country, ask the cigar vendor to give you an export permit. They won’t ask for it at the airport if you have one. They will ask for one if you don’t.
If you plan on smoking cigars, I suggest bring your own lighter/matches. It is surprisingly difficult to buy matches or a lighter in Havana.
WIFI / MOBILE PHONES
Internet access is improving in Cuba but it is nowhere near US/Canadian standards. Hotels have Wi-Fi. You will need to buy access by the hour from the business center (about $1.50 ish/hour). The card comes with an access number/password. Don’t expect to be able to watch videos or download movies while you are there. But you can certainly read the news, check your Facebook and get your mail.
There is limited Wi-Fi outside the hotel with a few Internet hotspots being established in Havana. If you see a large group of Cubans hanging around on a street all looking at their phones/tablets/laptops, then you’re near a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Skype, MSN, iMessage don’t work. Chatting/messaging/video chatting from within Facebook does work.
Cell phone coverage is good and phones work. Check with your carrier about availability and roaming costs in Cuba. For our American friends, I suspect your phones will NOT work, but check with your carrier. You could just unplug and enjoy the peace and quiet for a week….
Cuban air conditioners have 2 settings: ARCTIC and OFF. It’s not a bad idea to bring a light sweater if you get chilled because some restaurants can be a little uncomfortable especially if you are sitting below a polar vortex.
Most hotels are air-conditioned. The museum is not. Most restaurants have air conditioning. Most taxis have windows.
WEATHER and WATER
Cuba will be hot. Afternoon temperatures will be in the low-mid 30Cs and evening temperatures will be in the low 20s. If you are walking about, bring a bottle of water, sunscreen and/or hat. The water in Cuba is good and you’re okay to brush your teeth etc. But it’s generally not a good idea to drink from the tap, as there have been problems with water quality. No point spending your holiday on the toilet. Buy bottled water. It’s generally a $1 for 500ml to 1 liter bottle.
Outside of the hotel, there are bathrooms with toilet seats. There are bathrooms with toilet paper. There are bathrooms where everything works. I have NEVER found one with all three. Most publically accessible bathrooms have an attendant handing out individual squares of toilet paper. When you are touring about Havana, bring toilet paper with you; bring a little change (10 centavos) to give the bathroom attendant; bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer/wipes.
You’re welcome, in advance.