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All about Cuba

Cuba is home to exceptionally friendly people, exotic flora, tropical climate and a vibrant nightlife.

Cuba is a Caribbean destination like no other. It is both pristine and exotic, hiding many unpredictable secrets. It also boasts magnificent white sand beaches with clean, sparkling turquoise waters. Cuba is home to exceptionally friendly people, exotic flora, tropical climate and a vibrant nightlife. If you like the Latin beat, then this is the place to visit, where hot salsa music can be heard everywhere. All this, plus the warm welcome from the Cuban people, make this island – the largest in the Caribbean – very attractive to millions of tourists every year.

Communications

If you wish to make an international call, it is much quicker and more convenient to do so from your hotel. Provide all the details to the operator and your call will be put through to the front desk or in your room if possible. The charge for calls to European countries is about $7 to $9 a minute and $3 to $5 to America, from hotels. As billing is per minute, keep it brief unless you are in for a steep bill. Remember to omit the first 0 of the STD code when calling.

Should you be dialing yourself, the code is: 119 + country code + area code.


Country Code
Havana 7
Cayo Largo 45
Isla de la Juventud 46
Ciego de Ávila 33
Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo 33
Camagüey 32
Guardalavaca 24

Customs

Visitors who are well prepared and adhere to a few simple rules should have smooth passage through customs, both when entering and leaving Cuba. Here’s some key information to remember: Cuban customs laws prohibit any imports of pornographic material, narcotics, live animals and firearms, although the latter can be authorized by the organization in charge of this tourist modality when used for hunting purposes. Any possession, consumption of and traffic in narcotics and other substances is penalized, except for that of personal use if accompanied by the relevant letter with the doctor’s prescription.

Inbound travelers

In addition to their personal jewelry, cameras and other valuables, visitors are allowed to bring into Cuba, duty free, two bottles of liquor, one carton of cigarettes and up to 10 kilograms of medicine. Gifts up to a value of $250 can also be brought in. Of that, $50 is duty-free; the rest is 100% taxable.

Narcotics and firearms, except for authorized hunting weapons, are not allowed into the country. No restrictions exist on the amount of money a visitor can bring into the country, but amounts over $5,000 should be declared.

(New) VCR and DVD players are now allowed into the island: Cuban customs offices have lifted the restrictions on the import of VCR and DVD players into the national territory. Starting 1 May 2007, travelers can bring them into the country regardless of type, brand or model, including the built-in ones in other equipment. Tourists are allowed to take their personal effects, which include the articles (new or used) that they reasonably need for their holidays (according to the length and purpose of the trip), plus: sports equipment, jewelry, photographic cameras, camcorders, cellular phones, Blackberries, laptops, iPods, mp3 players, video games, hair dryers, electric shavers, binoculars, one portable radio receiver, tape recorders, one portable music instrument and a sound recording device. It is prohibited to bring into the country such items as narcotics, explosives, pornography, any items (including literature) intended to be used against national security, animals and plants regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), GPS devices, cordless phones (for household use) that operate in bands different from 40-49 MHz and 2.4 and 5 GHz.

(New) Effective 20 December 2007, walkie-talkies are now allowed into Cuba for tourists. They must be registered at customs when entering and you must take them back with you.

Outbound travelers

Make sure you save CUC 25 (Cuban Convertible pesos) in cash for your departure tax at the airport. Visitors leaving Cuba can take away 50 cigars, and 1.14 liters of liquor (two regular-sized bottles of 750 ml.). In order to export other items, such as art and antiques, you must procure a permit from the National Registry of Cultural Objects. Most legitimate vendors have such permits and can officially stamp your receipt.

Strict rules apply to taking plants and animals out of Cuba. The Convention on International Trading in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) prohibits taking the following out of the country: indigenous flora and fauna; live or preserved specimens and articles made from parts of endangered species. However, articles made from species approved by the CITES Administrative Authority in Cuba may be taken out.




Money

All goods and services in Cuba are priced in Cuban Convertible Pesos only (including transportation and the departure tax from Cuba, priced and payable in CUC).

Convertible pesos (CUC)

The Convertible Peso is now valued at US$ 1.03. Currency exchange from US dollars into convertible pesos will be subject to a 10% surcharge, while transactions from Canadian dollars, euros, pounds sterling and Swiss francs will not be taxed when exchanged into convertible pesos; of course, the amount of CUC you will receive for your Canadian dollars will reflect its new, stronger value (US$ 1.08).

Credit cards

All credit card transactions, regardless of the card holder’s nationality, are charged at 11.24%. Credit cards are accepted in most hotels, restaurants and shops, although they must not be drawn from a US bank. When paying by credit card, it is advisable to keep your passport ready and, please, be prepared to sometimes wait a while for the assistant to get clearance. Credit cards such MBNA, Abbey National, Capital One, AMEX and Diners are not accepted in Cuba, since these are affiliated to US banks. Despite the new monetary policy recently established, credit cards will continue to be accepted as a form of payment for any service contracted or goods purchased, as well as for money withdrawn from ATM machines, which are only available at the banks. While there are limited numbers of ATMs in Cuba, you cannot use your bank card to withdraw cash. You can use your credit card to withdraw CUC from ATMs; however, you will be charged the standard 11.24%, plus your credit card interest from the day of the withdrawal. Visa, Thomas Cook & American Express Travelers’ Checks and Visa & MasterCard credit cards are accepted in Cuba.

Cuban pesos (CUP)

Based on the monetary legislation, all the prices you will see are in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). It is virtually impossible for a visitor in Cuba to spend local Cuban pesos, which can only be utilized by locals. So, basically, you don’t need them and it is pointless getting any unless you want a souvenir, which, by the way, can also be procured in CUC.

Tipping

Since tipping became legal, it is now the norm to tip in Cuba. It is up to you to decide how much you tip, but 10% would be a good benchmark and one convertible peso for small service. Many Cuban workers rely on tips to supplement their basic income and they all work really hard. Tips help them get a better lifestyle. So if you receive good service, it is very good etiquette to tip accordingly.

Banking Hours

Mon-Fri 08:30-12:00 and 13:30-15:00, Sat 08:30-10:30. Hours may vary and banks may be open all day in larger cities.




Moving Around

Unfortunately, getting about using public transport can be a major undertaking; and the same holds true for the other cities on the island. On the other hand, there are plenty of taxis around, as well as cocotaxis (may be found in Havana), which offer a safe, fast way of getting around and across town.

Taxis

Certainly, the safest, most comfortable way of getting about in Havana is by taxi. There are many cars bearing the word “taxi”, but not all of them are cleared to pick up tourists. Official taxis can be easily recognized because they are new and well-kept, comfortable and almost always air-conditioned. They all have blue license or number plates. Avoid illegal taxis. Taxis can be engaged by phone or flagged down on the street.


Cocotaxis

An original means of transport for tourists is the cocotaxi, an egg-shaped yellow scooter that can carry two passengers, as well as the driver. It costs more or less the same as a taxi, but has no meter. It is very useful for short rides.


Horse-drawn vehicle

In Old Havana, it is possible to go on an enjoyable sightseeing tour in horse-drawn carriages (perfectly restored old carts or colonial-style carriages), quite unlike those used by Cubans outside town. These horse-drawn vehicles are not exactly cheap, but can be a picturesque way of moving around in the city.


Rickshaws

A more environmentally friendly but slower alternative to taxis is the rickshaw, or bicitaxi, as they are known in Cuba. These are used by Cubans and tourists alike for short rides downtown. They circulate mostly in Old Havana, or can be found outside hotel entrances.


Hop On & Hop Off "Tour Bus"

These are mostly red double-decker, open top coaches which can be seen around some cities. Tickets can be used all day long and for different lines, from 9:00 am until 9:00 pm.


VIAZUL coaches

The company provides transportation to Cuba’s main cities, towns and tourist resorts.


There is a variety of taxis, car rental offices and buses to choose from. There are 17 airports, supplemented by an extensive highway and freeway network linking almost all of the country’s regions. There are also other services, such as charters and air-taxis, as well as railroad and bus services.




Language

The official language is Spanish, although many Cubans have studied either English, French, German or Russian.


Electricity

110/230 volts AC, 60Hz. American-style flat two-pin plugs are generally used, except in certain large hotels where the European round two-pin plug is standard.


Food and Drink

Cuba caters well for the international visitors. Cuban cuisine have many foreign influences: Spanish, African and Chinese way of cooking. The Spaniards introduced root vegetables, rice, beef and some of their own regional dishes. West Africans introduced yams and tropical vegetables and the Chinese taught the locals how to use the products and prepare unusual meals.

¨Creole¨ cooking is very popular throughout the country, although at times it can be very difficult to get all of the spices. It uses pork steaks with yams, rice and beans (either kidney or black), and is flavored with a variety of spices.

As nation is surrounded by the sea, there is a wide selection of fish and shellfish available in most of restaurants.

National specialties:

  • Soup made of chicken or black beans.
  • Black beans & rice (known locally as Moors and Christians).
  • Chicken or pork with rice, or occasionally French fries.
  • Plantains baked or fried.
  • Omelettes , often stuffed with meat and/or cheese.


National drinks:

  • Cuban coffee (very strong).
  • Cuban beer (tasty, yet weak).
  • Rum cocktails: apparently there are some 69 cocktails that can be made using Havana Club Rum (especially the daiquiri, mojito and cuba libre).

Legal drinking age: must be at least 16 years old to purchase alcohol.




Nightlife

Havana is renowned for its after-dark entertainment scene, and only the tip of the iceberg is visible to tourists on a short stay. Even medium-sized bars usually have a house band playing Cuban classics.

The Casa de la Musica in Havana attracts tourists and locals alike, the latter distinguished by their accomplished salsa dance moves and ability to consume whole bottles of rum. The famous Tropicana nightclub (code of dressing Smart Casual, Smart Shoes) is nightly open-air cabaret which is a throwback to the decadent days before the Revolution.

The Parisien Cabaret at the Nacional Hotel is similar (code of dressing Smart Casual, Smart Shoes), and both attract tour groups on ‘day and night' packages from the coastal beach resorts.

Theatre, opera and ballet are staged all year round in Havana and seats are very cheap. Cinemas show films in Spanish, but some have subtitles. Santiago de Cuba is the spiritual home of the Son - the music that gave birth to salsa, and regular live sessions are on offer at the Casa de la Trova. In beach resorts, nightlife tends to mimic what is on offer in Havana, with varying degrees of success. Varadero has a thriving scene, but in the smaller resorts (many of which are all-inclusive) most entertainment is planned and formulaic.


Shopping

Those hoping to spend, spend, spend will be disappointed in Cuba. There are a few luxury shops in Old Havana and in large hotels like the Habana Libre. Some offer tax-free purchases, but stock is generally uninspiring. Cigars: Cuba makes the world's finest cigars. Buy the real thing at factories such as Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás in Old Havana, which also sells fabulously ornate cigar boxes. Cigars from street vendors will probably be fakes or factory rejects, and may be confiscated at the airport. Castro's favourite brand (before he gave up) was Cohiba, Ché Guevara favored Montecristos, and before he put the blockade in place, JFK stocked up on Upmans. Rum: Santiago de Cuba was once home to the Bacardi family distillery, but Havana Club is now the most famous Cuban rum. Good though it is, connoisseurs prefer Varadero. The rich seven-year old variety is sipped like fine malt, while younger and lighter blends are used for cocktails. Souvenirs and other gifts: Ché Guevara merchandise is everywhere. In the capital, perfumes in fine ceramic and glass bottles can be found at Havana 1791.

Shopping hours: Mon-Sat 09:00-17:00, Sun 09:00-12:00.


Required Clothing

Lightweight clothes most of the year; the high humidity makes it unwise to wear synthetics close to the skin.

Light waterproofs are advisable all year round.


Medicine supply

Many medicines are unavailable in Cuba so you should bring any prescription drugs you regularly take. A copy of the prescription and a letter from your doctor explaining your condition will be helpful at customs. All visitors to Cuba should have adequate travel and medical insurance; hospitals sometimes ask to seek proof of ability to pay before treatment.


General

There is a 25 CUC ( Cuban Convertible Pesos) departure tax per person to be paid on departure from Cuba. Travelers’ checks and/or credit cards drawn on US banks are NOT accepted in Cuba.

This includes: American Express credit cards and American Express ¨Golden Gift¨ travel checks. However, regular American Express traveler’s checks can be cashed normally. There virtually no cash points for drawing cash against Cirrus or Switch cards. Keep a copy of the photo page of your passport in case your documents are stolen.




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