Havana, Cuba Without the Instagram Filter

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As many of you know, I accomplished one of my top travel dreams last November when I went to Havana. Before I go into the details of every plantain I ate, I wanted to break down a few of the things I see in nearly every Cuba travel post, many of which I believed, and what I came to learn during my time there.

1. “There’s no internet”

I was there for a week, and I didn’t use the internet once. Is there no internet? No. Is there very few places with internet, yes. There are a few places with wifi, not free, that you use via a pre-paid internet card, similar to a calling card. Think places like the two fancy hotels that exist, (and by fancy I mean 3 star), and toursity beat poet bars.

2. “Because there’s no internet, the people have no idea what’s going on.”

I believe something like less than 10% of the population has access to the internet. Much of the population has a smart phone, android models predominately, but they don’t use the internet on them. Cubans have an arsenal of offline apps they use, I even used a no internet needed Yelp on a servers phone at a restaurant to find a club.

So we’ve got less than 10% of people with the internet, and every car on the street blasting Bieber, Adele, and Drake. Rooftop bars playing music videos by Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato. Screens installed in the front seat of taxis playing brand new reggeton music videos. Clearly, these people are more up to date than I am. “Hello” by Adele was released the second I left the US and it was being hummed along to by my bartender.

Long story short. Think about all your subscriptions, Hulu, Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Apple Music. Then think about where you consume online, Tumblr, Youtube, then imagine someone pulled together the best of the week’s content for you, on a USB, and you could buy it for $2 (consider those working for the gov make $20 a month, while independent contractors can make $100 a day in the tourism industries). You probably would be racing to buy these when you have no internet access and a TV with two channels, especially if you were on the latter end of the financial scale. And even if you weren’t, once your friend pays their weekly fee, who is to stop her from uploading all of that on your laptop, or any other device.

Enter the paquete semenal (weekly packet). I took a look at one of these when my bartender/DJ let me download his in exchange for uploading all the Drake and Future we (me and Drew) had onto his laptop. It had everything from random Tumblr looking PG-13 rated sexy pics, to the latest Empire and Game of Thrones, and beyond. The thing was massive. And it didn’t only have pop culture, it had downloaded news articles and videos, and while that can get trickier, it gives many Cubans access to alternative points of view about the embargo.

3. “The food is amazing”

Okay, no one really told me this, but I assumed it was. I absolutely love Cuban food and seek it out whenever I can. I even try really hard to cook it. For what I realized is obvious reasons (access to resources, money), even the best food in Cuba, and by that I mean the most hole in the wall paladars (home restaurants) that only took the local CUP currency, to the nicest restaurants written up in the New York Times, would stand a chance in any other city. After eating probably 20 meals in Havana, I could definitely tell what was good, and what was decent. And none of it was great.

4. “Because of the embargo loosening, Americans are flocking to Cuba”

Statistically, this is true, but when I was there, I met 0 other Americans. I did meet two Canadian couples, but that’s as close as we got. Both Cubans and other tourists were still a bit shocked to meet two Americans even though the loosening of the embargo to allow visitors (“not tourists”) under 12 specified categories to enter the country almost 10 months prior to our arrival. That being said, get in while you can, there are still no chain restaurants or cruise ship ports in sight. Everyone was convinced Drew was from Mexico, but finally we got a random guy on the street giving us a high five and shouting, OBAMA!

5. “It’s so cheap!” 

This is a tricky one. Something many people don’t know about Cuba is there are two currencies coexisting. The CUC, Cuban Convertible Peso, and the CUP, the Cuban Peso. The CUC is 1 to 1 with the US dollar, and the CUP is about 22 to 1 US dollar. The CUP is what the local Cuban people are paid with, you cannot get it from a tourist money exchange center, and practically any establishment you can read about or look up online deals exclusively in CUC, for tourists. To use one currency and get exchange in the other is a huge hassle and inconvenient for both parties, so you can only imagine how this divides people, classes, races, and businesses.

When I told my Air BnB hosts I wanted to find access to the CUP so I could buy a water bottle and a street pizza (I told you the food was whack) from a local vendor down the street from our casa particular (Cuban homes rented to visitors, now on Air BnB but popular for decades), they LAUGHED at me, a LOT. Then they coughed over a few CUP, like reluctant parents giving me my allowance. When I tried to pay them back with CUC, they said it wasn’t even worth it, they essentially had given me $1.50.

Another wild thing about this currency, is that the locals working for the government (70% of the population or so) is paid in CUP, making around $20 a month, while those working in private restaurants, operating casas, operating private cabs, or any other private business are taking the CUC. Some cabs if the retro car is nice enough charge $20-30 CUC an HOUR, legit money even somewhere like LA or NY. This is a story in itself, but just think about how those currencies and economies coexist. More on this later.

Bottom line, we took plenty of cabs that cost $5 CUC, and while that is cheap, plenty of Ubers in LA are the same price. We went to some “nice” meals that were $25 CUC per person, and we even finessed our way into a tiny paladar that was $15 CUP (less than a dollar or so) per person. It varies, but unless you really look, it isn’t as cheap as many people think, since you’re dealing with a currency converted to the American dollar. An average lunch was $8 CUC, an average cocktail $4 CUC. Cheap, but not insanely cheap or shocking.

6. “You can’t fly from the US” or, “it’s so easy to get there from the US now”

There are now flights from the US from Miami and NY I believe, but there are no direct flights from LAX or anywhere in California. While this is probably changing by the second, when we went, I opted for a pretty roundabout route. I tried everything from VPNs to having friends in other countries log on and try to purchase our tickets. We ended up using a really janky website that I was terrified was a sham and called a bunch of times to confirm. The site looked like it was from the ’90s. We bought tickets from Mexico City to Havana (round trip) as one transaction on the sketchy site, and LAX to Mexico City as another transaction on a legit site like Kayak. While some people on the east coast may have an easy time booking a flight, all I saw were layovers, long flights, and expensive trips. It was only when I found a weird site and a la carte ordered that I found a good price (I think around $400 per person RT Mexico City to Havana) so do your research. The entire thing including both RT flights was about $750 per person.

7. “You just tell them not to stamp your passport!”

Of all of the things, this is the one that I was the most confused about. I felt confident that I qualified (and after all, all you have to do is self qualify) for the journalism category of the new embargo rules for visitors, but when I arrived, these 12 categories buzzing on every American travel blog were basically unknown to Cubans, including airport security. Of COURSE I was stopped coming and going.

So I am at the Mexico City airport ready to go to Cuba. All passengers on the flight are told to go to a desk in the airport to get a tourist form. I get one and fill it out, ready to present it in Cuba. When I get to Cuba, as we get off the plane and get ready to go through customs/security at the airport on our way out, I’m asked for my visa, and asked if I’m a tourist. Of course my first reaction is NO!!! because… according to the 12 categories, tourism from the US is strictly prohibited, which is why I qualified as a journalist and other people claim religious, family, or humanitarian focused trips. The TSA agent tells me, if I’m not a tourist, that I have the wrong visa. Because of course… I came from Mexico. Mexicans are allowed to be tourists in Cuba, the lady in Mexico was just handing out the usual form. He doesn’t know WHAT I am talking about with the categories and when we say we’re journalists, we dig ourselves into an even deeper hole. Once we say we’re journalists, we’re told we have the wrong visa and are just asked to go into town and swap it at the consulate and re-register (which OBVIOUSLY we didn’t waste our time doing) and were warned that if we are seen interviewing or filming people without the correct visa we can be arrested, ouch. We were also asked a bunch of personal questions about where we live and work, as the TSA wrote down these details in broken English on a post it note. Very official.

To think you can go to Cuba via flight with no paper trail is insane to me. The real thing to question is if the paper trail matters. You cannot book a flight without selecting one of the 12 categories. You cannot book an Air BnB without selecting one. You fill out the Mexican paperwork. You fill out paper work on the plane there and back. You fill out customs forms at the Cuban airport. You fill out a form as you enter the US mentioning all countries you’ve been in. Even without a passport stamp, you still have too many exit stamps and not enough entering stamps and if someone wanted to look, they can tell you’ve left the country and not marked where you arrived, so I just decided to be honest and confident. And it worked…. hardly… kinda.

On my way back, (an exhausting day where we flew Havana to Mexico City to LAX back to back using my janky flight bookings,) the US TSA agent asked what I was doing in Cuba. Casually, I replied I was there under the journalist category and he LAUGHED at me. My exhausted irritated self was terrified. He laughed again and said “did you get any stories better than the one you just told me?” And that was that.

  • http://www.wiselaws.com mike ahuja

    dude you should go back to lax and tell that …jerk…bitch lina love it!! dot com.

    • Lina Abascal

      hahah stop!

  • nikilips

    Wow. We did not get stopped coming in or going out and we did it through a Press Visa as well.

    • Lina Abascal

      Did you do an official press visa? or qualify under the category of journalism in the 12 new categories? i of course was stopped but i know its at random/fluke.

      • nikilips

        Yeah, we went under the Press Visa. Now that I think of it, we happened to be there around the Pope visit, so that could be why. I also think flying in and out from Miami helped.

  • http://annaeverywhere.com/ Anna

    Funnily enough I just returned to Cuba and before was told that food is hard to find and it suck… we loved the food!

    • Lina Abascal

      Dang! I’m glad you enjoyed. I was not a huge fan, and I LOVE Cuban food in Miami and whatnot. I just found a lot of it bland and there was no fresh fish and even like, hardly any decent meat or flavorful sauces. But again, its an infrastructure problem not that they dont know how.

  • Lisa Newman

    Hey Lina! Great article, thank you for the tips! I’m actually going to Havana next month and I’m just wondering, traveling from the US, should we get visas online before going, or will it be easy enough to get them in our connecting airport (Panama). Thanks!

    • Lina Abascal

      Hey Lisa, thanks for reading and commenting. So the funky thing is, there IS no visa requirement persay, its just a self-declaration of one of the 12 categories. And i’m sure you had to mention which you were going under when you booked hotel/flight into cuba as US citizen, I sure did. You will get them in your connecting airport because even citizens of panama have to get them, you just pay a small fee and it’s a piece of paper that goes in your passport.Have fun!

      • Lisa Newman

        Awesome, thanks so much, that’s super helpful! And the self-declaration, did you just hang on to it in case anyone asked for it or did you have to submit it anywhere?

        • Lina Abascal

          so when i bought my flight from mexico to havana, not even from US to havana, it popped up online and made me select because it could tell i was on the internet in the US. Air bnb made me do the same. thats all, i printed it all just in case but no one asked. these are all rules set in place by the US, not cuba, so cuba doesnt care or even really know about them, no locals or even TSA will know wtf the 12 categories are hahaha.

          • Lisa Newman

            Haha Awesome! Thank you for the helpful information! I’m going next month, and I’m so excited! :)

  • Martie Martinez

    Yo! I’m heading to Cuba in just a couple weeks. Any cool spots I should for sure hit up!?