Author Topic: 5 Days in Havana, Cuba  (Read 469 times)

Offline milechazzer

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5 Days in Havana, Cuba
« on: March 03, 2019, 09:40:20 PM »
My wife and I were looking for a relatively close, but interesting destination to visit in the summer, and we took a 5-day trip to Cuba, with most of our time spent in Havana. It's an incredibly fascinating place, so close to home, and I would encourage everyone to visit if they can, and see / experience it, before things change significantly there. (Full disclosure… this trip took place in July ’17, and this trip report was languishing on my computer for some time. But fortunately, I don’t think things have changed much in Cuba since then.)

We flew there direct with Delta and the flight there was pretty uneventful. Before we checked in, the airline attendants asked us to complete affidavits regarding the purpose of our travel. They also sold us the Cuban Visas (which are needed to enter the country).

When we arrived in Havana, we first waited on a long line for passport control. They took pictures of us for their records, and then we passed through a metal detector and had our carry-ons x-rayed, to see if there was anything inside that they would be concerned about us bringing in. Then we waited some time for all of our luggage to come out.

We were traveling with six suitcases. Of course, we brought a lot of food and a few cooking appliances, but most of our bags were filled with items such as medications, books and toys that we were donating to the Jewish community in Havana. Needless to say, we were a bit concerned about having our bags scrutinized by customs.  In the course our arrival, we learned that before any checked baggage reaches the baggage claim area, every bag is x-rayed and the tags are marked with a letter or code indicating whether the x-ray showed some contraband items inside. As we were exiting customs with our bags, we were sent back for our bags to be inspected by a customs official.  At first, they just checked a couple of our bags, and we realized that the tag on one bag had been marked with an a series of letters indicating that there were drugs or medications inside. When they opened the bag, we kept showing them different food items that we had brought, until they just accepted that the x-ray had really shown food and not medicines. But then when we attempted to exit again, the customs official noticed that a couple more of our bags had been marked as well, but were not yet hand-checked and stamped as approved. So they sent us back yet again, and this time they had us wait in a long line of people off to the side. It seemed that this area was designated for those whose bags needed to be checked more thoroughly for items that were illegal to import, as well to collect import taxes on certain items. Eventually, we found one customs official to assist us, and after looking more closely at the tags on our luggage he determined that one of the bags was marked as having had an illegal appliance in it.  Thinking this was just a misunderstanding, we opened our bag and showed them a hot plate that we had brought in our suitcase. It turned out that this was big “no-no”.  So the agent took the hot plate and put it aside and instructed us to continue waiting in line. After waiting another hour or two, we finally got a customs officer to take us ahead of some of the locals who were waiting to pay import taxes. (Americans do not get any VIP treatment in this country, and if you’re not proactive, you can sit and wait for hours, for the bureaucratic process.)

When they were finally ready to process our contraband, out came the voluminous paperwork and a huddle of about 5 or 6 officers, along with cameras to take pictures of the hot plate that they were confiscating. There was some old-fashioned carbon paper to make multiple copies of each form, our IDs and passports being passed around, and finally a special burlap bag for securing the contraband in customs. (They expected us to wait in line again to retrieve the hot plate upon our departure from the country, but of course that was not going to happen.)

The gentleman next to us in the Customs processing area was a Cuban-American visiting his friends and family, and they were taking away a couple of wi-fi extenders from him, which apparently were also a big “no-no”.  I asked him if he could explain why they were not allowing the hot plate to be brought in, and he seemed to think it was because there is a transistor inside, which theoretically could be used to create a communications device. Strange.  Either way, I was happy to hear from him that we could easily buy a new hot plate in some of the local stores in Havana. Welcome to Cuba …

Once you exit the arrivals area, your next stop will need to be the money changing booth. You are always better off arriving with Canadian Dollars or Euros, because they add a special tax when you change US Dollars. There was a long line of people waiting for the exchange booth outside the arrivals area, so I went up to the Departures area where there were a couple of booths with far shorter lines.
A couple of things about the lines in Cuba. There will not be many lines that you will need to wait on, although for locals, waiting on long lines seems to be a way of life. But when you do need to wait on line, and especially a line that includes locals you need to strike a balance between slightly aggressive and polite, because it seems like the local custom is to let their friends cut the lines ahead of any other people who are waiting.

Back on the subject of exchanging money, there are two types of currency in Cuba (though there may be a plan in the works to phase that system out). There is the convertible currency which is supposed to be used to pay for all things that tourists pay for. The convertible currency is always on par with the with the US dollar. And there is the local currency which exchanged at a rate of 25 for $1 or a 4-1 convertible peso. When they change money for a foreigner, they will always give you the convertible pesos. Although you may not find any need for the local currency, you're probably better off using it when buying from any street vendors or anyone else that locals tend to buy from. But it seems that the only way to exchange money for the local currency, is to go to one of the money exchange stores located throughout the city and country, but not at the airport. Hotels also change money, but will only give you the convertible currency.

Like everything else intended for tourists, taxis are paid for it in convertible currency. A taxi from the airport to Havana cost 25 CUC (which seems like an astronomical sum for Cuba, but like most tourist revenue, that money is probably shared with the government).

We stayed in a nice hotel bordering Old Havana. There are obviously very good reasons to look for accommodations on Airbnb. You can certainly save a lot of money that way, and you’ll find some relatively nice places to stay. In addition your money will go to locals, rather than to the government which seems to own every single hotel. There are some new expensive hotels that have opened recently as well as some other ones being built now and I saw some prices as high as $500 to $600 a night. The hotel we stayed at was ranked around number five on TripAdvisor and it was pretty nice, though not as expensive as some of the newest hotels. What was really nice and about our hotel was that there was unlimited WiFi included in the rate, while in most hotels, you will need to buy an hourly WiFi card (which only lasts one hour) and type in a new code to activate every new card. If you stay in a private residence through Airbnb, you will not have any WiFi, unless you go to a nearby park with Wi-Fi, or to a hotel and buy one of their passes to use within the hotel.

My cell phone service is with Verizon, and if I would have used it in Cuba it would cost $3 a minute for phone calls and some exorbitant rate for data usage. Receiving text messages was not that expensive – I think Verizon charged around $0.05 or $0.10 each. But sending text messages would cost $0.50 each, so we tried to avoid that. The best way to communicate is to connect to WiFi, and then use WhatsApp or some other app to make phone calls or send messages and emails.

As far as kosher food is concerned, there is really very little that you can buy in Cuba. In terms of drinks, there were some places where we found Coke, Light Coke, and Sprite which were manufactured in Mexico, but somehow they were always hard to find when we were looking for them. There were also a number of stores selling Pepsi that came from Ecuador but we weren’t sure about the kashrus on those. I saw some Pringles from US with OU in a couple of stores, as well as some grocery stores which had pasta, some canned or jarred vegetables and some other odds and ends with a hechsher on them either from the US, South America, or elsewhere. But you really can't count on finding anything kosher there other than some fruits and vegetables, which you won't find much variety of either. So, bring your own food.

While we were in Cuba, we visited all of the synagogues in Havana and met with a number of members of the local Jewish communities. (We were also there for Shabbos.) There is a lot of help that you can provide to different community centers and synagogues as well as to individuals there.  I'm not going to cover that topic here, but if you are planning a trip, please feel free to reach out and I can try to assist you with contacts, information and resources.

I'm not going to go into depth either about things to see and do in Cuba (because there are plenty of other resources for that information), but there are plenty of things to do on a short trip to Havana, as well as other places worth visiting throughout the country if you have more time.  But keep in mind that it can be a six to eight-hour drive to some of the other large cities and destinations within Cuba.
Regarding banking in Cuba, there are no US credit cards accepted in Cuba so everything must be paid for with cash (or other foreign credit card). I noticed that there were quite a few websites that I was unable to access while there, in particular any American bank or financial website, or even QuickBooks online. There were also a variety of other websites that I wasn't able to access. I'm not sure if this is a result of restrictions from the US side, or whether Cuba is blocking access to these web sites. Either way, don't expect to access just any website while in Cuba. Regarding electricity, many of the hotels have 220-volt European style outlets (and may or may not have voltage converters available guests’ use). But it seems that the newer hotels generally have both 110- and 220-volt outlets in the rooms, to cater to visitors from the North America and Europe.

Leaving Cuba is relatively painless. Of course, they will x-ray all your bags and look for items that you may not be able to take out of the country, but there really isn't much that you'd want to take with you anyway. They don't seem to limit how much rum or cigars you can leave with, although you need to be mindful of the import restrictions on the US side or elsewhere. However, they are concerned about visitors purchasing individual cigars on the street without the government's sealed boxes (because the the government doesn't make their money on those sales), so there are strict limitations on how many loose cigars you're allowed to leave with. But as far as boxed and sealed cigars are concerned, you really just need to have a special receipt from the store where you purchased them from showing how much you paid for them.

After you pass through security at airport there will be a place to change back any local currency that you have, as well as a number of small gift shops and cigar or duty-free shops. Some people suggest that you save your cigar shopping for the airport, but there is probably a far more limited selection in the airport than at some of the stores in Havana. There does seem to be a lot of rum variety available in the airport though, at the duty-free shop.

I've glossed over number of topics in this review, and tried to focus on information that I thought would be most useful and harder to find on your own without having been there. I would also recommend reading the info/posts on this website (www.bestcubatravelguide.com) about Cuba, which I found very informative and fascinating, relating to a lot of the things in Cuba that are hard to make sense of. If you like it enough, you may even want to buy his book (I didn't).

I would be happy to try to provide more information, for anyone who is planning a trip. Please feel free to post questions here or PM me, and will do my best to respond.

Offline davidrotts63

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Re: 5 Days in Havana, Cuba
« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2019, 06:26:52 AM »
POIDH
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Offline milechazzer

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Re: 5 Days in Havana, Cuba
« Reply #2 on: March 07, 2019, 01:18:27 AM »
My wife and I were looking for a relatively close, but interesting destination to visit in the summer, and we took a 5-day trip to Cuba, with most of our time spent in Havana. It's an incredibly fascinating place, so close to home, and I would encourage everyone to visit if they can, and see / experience it, before things change significantly there. (Full disclosure… this trip took place in July ’17, and this trip report was languishing on my computer for some time. But fortunately, I don’t think things have changed much in Cuba since then.)

We flew there direct with Delta and the flight there was pretty uneventful. Before we checked in, the airline attendants asked us to complete affidavits regarding the purpose of our travel. They also sold us the Cuban Visas (which are needed to enter the country).

When we arrived in Havana, we first waited on a long line for passport control. They took pictures of us for their records, and then we passed through a metal detector and had our carry-ons x-rayed, to see if there was anything inside that they would be concerned about us bringing in. Then we waited some time for all of our luggage to come out.

We were traveling with six suitcases. Of course, we brought a lot of food and a few cooking appliances, but most of our bags were filled with items such as medications, books and toys that we were donating to the Jewish community in Havana. Needless to say, we were a bit concerned about having our bags scrutinized by customs.  In the course our arrival, we learned that before any checked baggage reaches the baggage claim area, every bag is x-rayed and the tags are marked with a letter or code indicating whether the x-ray showed some contraband items inside. As we were exiting customs with our bags, we were sent back for our bags to be inspected by a customs official.  At first, they just checked a couple of our bags, and we realized that the tag on one bag had been marked with an a series of letters indicating that there were drugs or medications inside. When they opened the bag, we kept showing them different food items that we had brought, until they just accepted that the x-ray had really shown food and not medicines. But then when we attempted to exit again, the customs official noticed that a couple more of our bags had been marked as well, but were not yet hand-checked and stamped as approved. So they sent us back yet again, and this time they had us wait in a long line of people off to the side. It seemed that this area was designated for those whose bags needed to be checked more thoroughly for items that were illegal to import, as well to collect import taxes on certain items. Eventually, we found one customs official to assist us, and after looking more closely at the tags on our luggage he determined that one of the bags was marked as having had an illegal appliance in it.  Thinking this was just a misunderstanding, we opened our bag and showed them a hot plate that we had brought in our suitcase. It turned out that this was big “no-no”.  So the agent took the hot plate and put it aside and instructed us to continue waiting in line. After waiting another hour or two, we finally got a customs officer to take us ahead of some of the locals who were waiting to pay import taxes. (Americans do not get any VIP treatment in this country, and if you’re not proactive, you can sit and wait for hours, for the bureaucratic process.)



THE CONTRABAND

When they were finally ready to process our contraband, out came the voluminous paperwork and a huddle of about 5 or 6 officers, along with cameras to take pictures of the hot plate that they were confiscating. There was some old-fashioned carbon paper to make multiple copies of each form, our IDs and passports being passed around, and finally a special burlap bag for securing the contraband in customs. (They expected us to wait in line again to retrieve the hot plate upon our departure from the country, but of course that was not going to happen.)



ENTERING THE CONTRABAND INTO EVIDENCE  ;D

The gentleman next to us in the Customs processing area was a Cuban-American visiting his friends and family, and they were taking away a couple of wi-fi extenders from him, which apparently were also a big “no-no”.  I asked him if he could explain why they were not allowing the hot plate to be brought in, and he seemed to think it was because there is a transistor inside, which theoretically could be used to create a communications device. Strange.  Either way, I was happy to hear from him that we could easily buy a new hot plate in some of the local stores in Havana. Welcome to Cuba …



PURCHASING A NEW HOT PLATE IN HAVANA

Once you exit the arrivals area, your next stop will need to be the money changing booth. You are always better off arriving with Canadian Dollars or Euros, because they add a special tax when you change US Dollars. There was a long line of people waiting for the exchange booth outside the arrivals area, so I went up to the Departures area where there were a couple of booths with far shorter lines.
A couple of things about the lines in Cuba. There will not be many lines that you will need to wait on, although for locals, waiting on long lines seems to be a way of life. But when you do need to wait on line, and especially a line that includes locals you need to strike a balance between slightly aggressive and polite, because it seems like the local custom is to let their friends cut the lines ahead of any other people who are waiting.

Back on the subject of exchanging money, there are two types of currency in Cuba (though there may be a plan in the works to phase that system out). There is the convertible currency which is supposed to be used to pay for all things that tourists pay for. The convertible currency is always on par with the with the US dollar. And there is the local currency which exchanged at a rate of 25 for $1 or a 4-1 convertible peso. When they change money for a foreigner, they will always give you the convertible pesos. Although you may not find any need for the local currency, you're probably better off using it when buying from any street vendors or anyone else that locals tend to buy from. But it seems that the only way to exchange money for the local currency, is to go to one of the money exchange stores located throughout the city and country, but not at the airport. Hotels also change money, but will only give you the convertible currency.

Like everything else intended for tourists, taxis are paid for it in convertible currency. A taxi from the airport to Havana cost 25 CUC (which seems like an astronomical sum for Cuba, but like most tourist revenue, that money is probably shared with the government).




We stayed in a nice hotel bordering Old Havana. There are obviously very good reasons to look for accommodations on Airbnb. You can certainly save a lot of money that way, and you’ll find some relatively nice places to stay. In addition your money will go to locals, rather than to the government which seems to own every single hotel. There are some new expensive hotels that have opened recently as well as some other ones being built now and I saw some prices as high as $500 to $600 a night. The hotel we stayed at was ranked around number five on TripAdvisor and it was pretty nice, though not as expensive as some of the newest hotels. What was really nice and about our hotel was that there was unlimited WiFi included in the rate, while in most hotels, you will need to buy an hourly WiFi card (which only lasts one hour) and type in a new code to activate every new card. If you stay in a private residence through Airbnb, you will not have any WiFi, unless you go to a nearby park with Wi-Fi, or to a hotel and buy one of their passes to use within the hotel.

My cell phone service is with Verizon, and if I would have used it in Cuba it would cost $3 a minute for phone calls and some exorbitant rate for data usage. Receiving text messages was not that expensive – I think Verizon charged around $0.05 or $0.10 each. But sending text messages would cost $0.50 each, so we tried to avoid that. The best way to communicate is to connect to WiFi, and then use WhatsApp or some other app to make phone calls or send messages and emails.

As far as kosher food is concerned, there is really very little that you can buy in Cuba. In terms of drinks, there were some places where we found Coke, Light Coke, and Sprite which were manufactured in Mexico, but somehow they were always hard to find when we were looking for them. There were also a number of stores selling Pepsi that came from Ecuador but we weren’t sure about the kashrus on those. I saw some Pringles from US with OU in a couple of stores, as well as some grocery stores which had pasta, some canned or jarred vegetables and some other odds and ends with a hechsher on them either from the US, South America, or elsewhere. But you really can't count on finding anything kosher there other than some fruits and vegetables, which you won't find much variety of either. So, bring your own food.





KOSHER FOOD WE FOUND IN SOME STORES


NOT KOSHER  :(




FOOD WE BROUGHT ALONG


LOCAL BUTCHER SHOP

While we were in Cuba, we visited all of the synagogues in Havana and met with a number of members of the local Jewish communities. (We were also there for Shabbos.) There is a lot of help that you can provide to different community centers and synagogues as well as to individuals there.  I'm not going to cover that topic here, but if you are planning a trip, please feel free to reach out and I can try to assist you with contacts, information and resources.




SINAGOGA ORTODOXA ADATH ISRAEL (IN OLD HAVANA)




CENTRO HEBRAO SEFARADI & HOLOCAUST EXHIBIT




SOME OF SEFORIM, MEDICINES AND TOYS THAT WE BROUGHT FOR JEWISH COMMUNITY/LOCALS

I'm not going to go into depth either about things to see and do in Cuba (because there are plenty of other resources for that information), but there are plenty of things to do on a short trip to Havana, as well as other places worth visiting throughout the country if you have more time.  But keep in mind that it can be a six to eight-hour drive to some of the other large cities and destinations within Cuba.






CIGAR FACTORY TOUR






MUSEUM OF THE REVOLUTION


OLD/NEW ARCHITECTURE IN OLD HAVANA


UNIVERSITY OF HAVANA


HOTEL NACIONAL



OLD MANSIONS IN VEDADO, HAVANA


US EMBASSY


LOCALS FISHING ON THE MALECON

Regarding banking in Cuba, there are no US credit cards accepted in Cuba so everything must be paid for with cash (or other foreign credit card). I noticed that there were quite a few websites that I was unable to access while there, in particular any American bank or financial website, or even QuickBooks online. There were also a variety of other websites that I wasn't able to access. I'm not sure if this is a result of restrictions from the US side, or whether Cuba is blocking access to these web sites. Either way, don't expect to access just any website while in Cuba. Regarding electricity, many of the hotels have 220-volt European style outlets (and may or may not have voltage converters available guests’ use). But it seems that the newer hotels generally have both 110- and 220-volt outlets in the rooms, to cater to visitors from the North America and Europe.



COOKING WITH VINTAGE TRANSFORMER IN HOTEL ROOM

Leaving Cuba is relatively painless. Of course, they will x-ray all your bags and look for items that you may not be able to take out of the country, but there really isn't much that you'd want to take with you anyway. They don't seem to limit how much rum or cigars you can leave with, although you need to be mindful of the import restrictions on the US side or elsewhere. However, they are concerned about visitors purchasing individual cigars on the street without the government's sealed boxes (because the the government doesn't make their money on those sales), so there are strict limitations on how many loose cigars you're allowed to leave with. But as far as boxed and sealed cigars are concerned, you really just need to have a special receipt from the store where you purchased them from showing how much you paid for them.

After you pass through security at airport there will be a place to change back any local currency that you have, as well as a number of small gift shops and cigar or duty-free shops. Some people suggest that you save your cigar shopping for the airport, but there is probably a far more limited selection in the airport than at some of the stores in Havana. There does seem to be a lot of rum variety available in the airport though, at the duty-free shop.

I've glossed over number of topics in this review, and tried to focus on information that I thought would be most useful and harder to find on your own without having been there. I would also recommend reading the info/posts on this website (www.bestcubatravelguide.com) about Cuba, which I found very informative and fascinating, relating to a lot of the things in Cuba that are hard to make sense of. If you like it enough, you may even want to buy his book (I didn't).

I would be happy to try to provide more information, for anyone who is planning a trip. Please feel free to post questions here or PM me, and will do my best to respond.