Is Cuba on your bucket list? 7 things to know if you want to go now

American Airlines CEO talks about commitment to Cuba flights

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker talks about the carrier's plans to fly to Cuba, pending government approval. American applied Wednesday for permission to fly nonstop from Charlotte to Havana.
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American Airlines CEO Doug Parker talks about the carrier's plans to fly to Cuba, pending government approval. American applied Wednesday for permission to fly nonstop from Charlotte to Havana.

Cuba won’t be a time capsule for long. The American tourist tsunami is coming, and it’s coming soon.

The U.S. flag now flies over the American embassy in Havana, Americans can book rooms through Airbnb and Starwood, and Marriott is readying hotels for American visitors. Cuba is on almost every travel site’s top list of places to see in 2016, alluring for its picturesque cityscapes, mojitos, cigars and pristine beaches. And Charlotte is one of 10 cities just chosen for nonstop service to Havana.

I made the journey this spring to visit family members (one of 12 categories of travel currently allowed by the U.S. government), and found an enchanted island full of mind-blowing beauty – but also headaches and heartaches.

Yes, American law still restricts U.S. tourist travel to Cuba, but regulations have been eased under President Barack Obama so much that the first commercial cruise ship sailed in May from Miami to Havana. (Such trips are allowed because they are billed as “cultural excursions,” not simply sun-and-rum-soaking opportunities.)

Arranging travel to Cuba outside of an organized tour group is still an arduous task, since simply booking seats on charter flights and securing hotel rooms can take herculean efforts – U.S. credit cards are no good there. And traveling within the country is no picnic either. Tourists who don’t deal well with sub-par air conditioning, poor water pressure, long lines for tasks like changing money or the lack of seat belts in cars should wait to go until the country becomes more Americanized.

But if you’re the adventurous sort who wants to see what life was like 60 years ago and is eager to embrace one of Latin America’s cultural treasures, go now while you can say, “I saw it when.”

And keep these consejos, or tips, in mind:

See the country through a 50-year filter

Few places can take you back in time as specifically as Cuba, where the most modern architecture is mid-century modern vintage cars appear at every intersection (more on that later), and the selfie is practically unheard of.

But in most areas outside the touristy “Habana Vieja,” or “Old Havana,” it’s a crumbling mess. Facades are decades overdue for stucco and paint work. Potholes make some roads impassable, and we saw bridges with “under construction” signs that looked years, if not decades, old. We saw no sign of active construction anywhere – only aging construction cones blocking lanes of traffic.

On the street where my Cuban-born mother and aunt (my traveling companions, along with a cousin) grew up, in the once-tony neighborhood of Miramar, chain link fences now circle the homes, weeds grow tall and (harmless, although hungry-looking) dogs roam. So do what I did: Try to visualize what the buildings looked like in their heyday, with fresh paint, gleaming windows and newly poured concrete. It’s a tricky exercise, but not impossible.

Your safety risks aren’t what you’d expect

When it comes to crime, Cuba is known to be one of the safest Caribbean destinations.

Traffic accidents, not robberies or homicides, are a greater personal safety concern. Begging isn’t allowed on Cuban streets, there’s no homeless population (remember, this is a communist country), and the drug market is small.

Being aware of surroundings and securing belongings is always wise when traveling anywhere, but in Cuba, your bigger worries are finding a taxi whose fumes won’t make you sick and keeping a healthy gut. Drinking bottled water is advised (although we brushed our teeth with tap water and had no trouble), and take care with where you eat. You’ll see people selling raw pig parts on the roadside; Cubans’ intestines may be accustomed to unrefrigerated meat, but many Americans’ guts are not.

Bring cash, and only cash

Money is one of the biggest travel headaches for Americans, because nowhere in Cuba can you use an American credit or ATM card.

Cash, or efectivo, is the only way to pay – in hotels, restaurants and stores. No U.S. bank carries Cuban currency, so you’ll have to bring American or Canadian dollars with you to change into Cuban currency once in Cuba. (When changing money, there’s a 10 percent penalty on changing American dollars, so many Americans bring Canadian bills to change instead.)

Oddly, Cuba has a two-currency system: the convertible peso, or CUC, used by tourists, and the Cuban peso, or CUP, used by nationals.

In busy Havana neighborhoods, prepare for lengthy lines at the cadecas, or government-owned currency exchange houses.

One morning, we mistook people standing outside a Havana cadeca for a line for a bus and sauntered right past them, only to be scolded with screams of “la cola!” (“the line!”) In typical Cuban fashion, once we apologized and exchanged pleasantries, waiting together grew quite friendly.

Consider it a vacation for your smartphone

To say that internet access is limited is an understatement. Even the fanciest hotels charge a premium (we paid $5 for an hour) for extremely slow and spotty service that usually only works in a portion of the lobby. (Forget about internet access in the room.)

Verizon is the only U.S. cellphone carrier that has roaming in Cuba, so Verizon customers can make calls for $2.99 per minute.

Young people will tell you they are hungry for news and connection with the outside world, but for now it is an enormous challenge for most: Media in Cuba are run by the government.

Admire those cars – and learn their history

It’s impossible to not be enchanted by the thousands of 1950s Chevys and Fords that rumble across Cuba.

The story behind them is not as quaint. When Castro assumed power in 1959, he made it illegal to import cars without government permission. The government sharply restricted who could own a car, putting them out of reach for ordinary citizens. Unbelievably, no new American car parts have been shipped to Cuba since the early 1960s, so these vintage American cars run solely thanks to the ingenuity of the Cuban people, who engineer their own parts from household materials, or repurpose Soviet car parts to keep them moving.

Taking a taxi ride in a vintage American car is a must-do while in Cuba – just don’t expect a seat belt, and try not to lean on the sometimes latch-loose doors. If your Spanish is good enough, ask your taxista, or taxi driver, to tell you how many parts from different cars are under the hood.

Be generous

The typical Cuban wage is between $25 and $40 per month (highly skilled workers like doctors and architects included), and Cubans lack access to quality goods.

So if you find yourself with extra unopened toiletries from hotel rooms or back home, or find yourself leaving the country with over-the-counter medications you didn’t need (Pepto Bismol or Tums, for example), offer them to a service worker. You’ll get a big thank you in return. Along the same lines, tipping is encouraged in Cuba, and we tipped generously. That $5 (or roughtly 5 CUCs) goes very far in a Cuban pocket.

Get on ‘Cuban time’

‘Go with the flow’ is perhaps the best mindset to travel with in Cuba, where punctuality and strict adherence to schedule aren’t of great concern to most locals.

Hotel room nowhere near ready at check-in time? Treat yourself to a daiquiri at the bar. Can’t find your taxi driver at the appointed pickup spot and time? Just wait a bit – he’ll circle by eventually.

Yes, traveling in Cuba can be fraught with delays and frustrations, but write those off as cultural experiences and use the time you spend waiting to engage with the locals, many of whom will be the friendliest people you could hope to meet.

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