I had the privilege of traveling to Cuba to spend New Year’s Eve 2016-2017 in Havana, followed by 5 days in Viñales for rock climbing and to help the Cuban climbing community. It was an amazing experience which I had the joy of sharing with my two daughters. The climbing is fantastic, but what really impressed me was the cultural experience.
NOTE: The Trump Administration, in its commitment to unravel every initiative the previous administration accomplished, will be imposing strict travel rules to Cuba again, so some of what my blog post discusses will no longer be valid. Here’s an article from Rolling Stone that discusses the changes to the policy.
And now, back to my original blog post…
Despite our initial anxiety about going to a communist dictatorship, we found ourselves in a land full of history, culture, music, art and very friendly people. I highly recommend checking out this amazing country and not just go to climb and leave. There is so much more here and things are changing so quickly in Cuba as well as with US-Cuban relations that Americans should take advantage of this window of opportunity.
Logistics to travel to Cuba are more complicated than other countries. I thought I’d summarize what I spent many nights researching and what we experienced, to help others who are planning trips to Cuba. We traveled in a group of 4 from Newark, NJ, and met up with my friend Kay from Colorado, who knew a huge group of other climbers traveling to Cuba from Los Angeles.
What you’ll need to figure out ahead of time before you get there:
- Your authorized reason for travel to Cuba
- Lack of Internet: Prepping your phone for roaming data & offline apps
- International medical insurance that includes a rider for dangerous activities like rock climbing
- Flights to Cuba and the Cuban tourist visa card
- Reserving accommodations
- Currency exchange hassles
- Transportation within Cuba
- Beta for Rock Climbing in Cuba
12 Categories of Authorized Travel
Starting in February 2016, Americans were allowed to travel to Cuba if they fit at least one of 12 categories of travel authorized by general license. Unless you have family there, are a professional journalist (not just a blogger), or have official government business or professional research going on, you’re likely to fall into two possible categories:
- Educational Activities, Including People-to-People Travel.
- There are very specific things considered educational activities, so unless you’re involved with or sponsoring some kind of course or educational exchange, this probably won’t work for you.
- People-to-People travel is for educational exchanges that aren’t involving academic study. “Such travel must be for the purpose of engaging in a full-time schedule of activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities. The educational activities are to result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba and the predominant portion of the activities may not be with a prohibited official of the government of Cuba or the Cuban Communist Party.” Sounds somewhat political, but I know some people who used that as their reason and made it a point to interact as much as they could with Cubans while they were there.
- Humanitarian Projects
- This reason included “community-based grassroots projects; projects suitable to the development of small-scale private enterprise; projects that are related to agricultural and rural development that promote independent activity”… Many of us used this reason, as we were collecting climbing gear to donate to the climbing community and help them establish guiding businesses or to help promote climbing as an athletic activity for the Cuban people.
- If you are bringing gear to donate, mix it in with your personal stuff. We had 2 women in our party who bought boxes of new climbing shoes donated by Evolv. They were confiscated by Cuban customs agents. Perhaps because they were new and in manufacturer’s boxes, they looked like they were being brought for sale. The other donated goods in the group that were mixed in with personal luggage were not.
Review the official document with the list of all allowable reasons and choose the project that best suits your reason for travel: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL31139.pdf
Figure this out first, as when you book your flight, you will need to declare your official reason for traveling to Cuba. Whenever you call about your reservation, you have to declare your reason. When you get your tourist card (online or at the airport), you need to declare your reason. Note that this is to satisfy the American government, not Cuba. So figure this out before you book your tickets. Note that no one challenged our reason or asked for proof. But we did take photos with our gear and the people we left it with, just in case.
Preparing for Lack of Internet
Internet is hard to come by in Cuba, or at a minimum, a pain in the ass. Therefore prepare yourself for surviving without it. Here are some things to do ahead of time:
- Download Cuba tourism apps on your phone, especially offline maps
- Download Google Translate. Not only can you translate phrases, but you can point your phone’s camera to Spanish text and it will try to replace it with English text, augmented-reality style. It’s not super accurate but good enough to help out when trying to read a menu, or information about a work at a museum. It works offline as well.
- If you are traveling in a group, you may consider using WhatsApp for messaging if people may be able to get Wi-Fi Internet access, but won’t be able to get cellular text messages.
- Check your mobile carrier if they have any coverage in Cuba and if there are international plans available. Here’s what we found out:
- Verizon has an international plan that covers many countries for a reasonable monthly fee, but the list of countries does not include Cuba. Instead you can get a pay-as-you-go international plan which costs nothing to enroll, but charges $2.50/MB of data (that’s MEGA-byte, not GB), and $.50/text message. Uploading 1 photo on Instagram will cost you big time. But it’s nice to have just in case, or to correspond with the people you’re staying with to let them know when you’re arriving.
- AT&T says it will just work with roaming charges in Cuba. However, everyone in our party with an iPhone couldn’t get a connection to work.
- If you plan to use data on your phone, make sure you disable background data for every app. Turn off notifications, and any apps that push data to the phone. I created a new gmail email account just for correspondence with our accommodations (airbnb, homestays, individual proprietors). This way when we had data or wi-fi, I could open gmail and it would only download trip-related emails, not a flood of spam and other stuff. I made the mistake of accidentally opening Facebook while on roaming data. I had to pay dearly for the MBs of text and images that loaded in those few minutes until I realized what I did and closed Facebook.
- To get wi-fi while in Cuba, you have to find ETECSA telecom places that sell wi-fi cards. It’s usually easy to find them, there are long lines at the door and lots of people sitting around in parks or plazas on their smart phones. They are around $3-4 for an hour for slow wi-fi that drops frequently. The card contains login and password information to allow you to access the wi-fi that’s broadcast in that immediate area. So you’ll be sitting outside in some plaza to get wi-fi. The card is usable again and again until you use up the 1 hour allocated to that login. Note that you are unlikely to find anyone who has wi-fi in their home. It’s pretty much unheard of.
Organizing a Group
Not being able to communicate with each other via cell phone presents challenges when you’re in a big group.
There were around 21 people in our extended group. In order to be able to find each other, we created a Google Map, gave all of us access, and had each of us place pins on the places we were staying in Havana and in Viñales. Then we could print out the maps and bring them with us. We also planned a place to meet the first night at a specific time so we could figure out any further logistics.
We also added each other to WhatsApp so we could message each other.
But basically we had our own core group of 5 people and planned our own activities and accommodations, which intersected with the larger group when logistics allowed, but we were never dependent on the rest of the extended group.
International Health Insurance
Cuba has universal health care for their citizens. However, foreigners are not entitled to this benefit. You have to purchase short-term Cuban health insurance when you arrive, or get international medical insurance ahead of time that is accepted in Cuba. Some airlines will include the cost of international medical insurance in their ticket, like United, however it was impossible for us to find anything out from United about coverage for injuries from rock climbing. Most international plans you will find are sound fine, until you read the fine print. All of them did not include injuries from “dangerous activities” which could range from athletic sports competitions, to scuba diving and rock climbing. Sometimes the term “climbing” was based on how many feet up you would travel, or if it required any equipment like ropes. But if you have any intention of doing just about ANYTHING adventurous, even snorkeling, spelunking, trekking, windsurfing, zip lines, mountain biking, inline skating, rappelling… the list goes on and on, you will need a rider for dangerous activities, or your injuries won’t be covered.
We ended up with Patriot Travel Medical Insurance with the optional Adventure Sports Rider. We purchased it through IMG online, and it was pretty easy. The cost of coverage for our 13 day trip varied from about $10 total for my daughters’ ages (ages 19-22), and around $34 a person for those of us in our 50s. You will receive a declaration of health insurance to show at the airport, and an insurance card to use when you need services.
Turns out no one at the airport asked us about health insurance, and luckily, no one got hurt.
Most of the rest of the group didn’t bother to buy any travel medical insurance. They figured they’d buy it at the airport if they were required, but no one asked them either, so they took their chances. Having been hurt once while in Mexico and having my daughters traveling with me, I chose to be cautious and get insurance with the Adventure Sports Rider. It’s not much money for that peace of mind.
Flights to Cuba
In late 2016, direct flights from USA to Cuba were allowed. In the past, Americans would fly to another country, like Mexico, and then fly from there to Cuba. The Cuban government was sensitive to this, as they would stamp a tourist visa card instead of the US Passport so there was no evidence that the American had gone to Cuba. Now Americans can directly go to Cuba, but can’t just go as a tourist, they have to have an official reason.
We flew United direct from Newark, NJ to Havana for only $271 in December 2016. There are plenty of additional fees and taxes added onto the ticket, which resulted in a final ticket cost around $380. Then add the cost of the tourist card, which varied in our extended group from zero to $100.
In Newark Airport, there was a separate desk for people traveling to Cuba. We located the other desk way on the far side of the terminal and waited in a line to get processed for our Cuban tourist visa cards. United charges $75 for this service which results in a piece of paper split down the middle. Cuba takes one half when you arrive, you hold onto the other half to hand in when you leave Cuba. Do not lose your half! Some airlines included it in their airfare, others charged $100. Some people were able to purchase the card ahead of time online. Check with your airlines on their policy.
When you arrive in Cuba, be prepared to wait a long time to get your luggage. It’s not unheard of to wait 1-2 hours. In our group of 4, 2 of us got luggage right away. One got luggage a little later. But Matt’s luggage didn’t show up after everyone from our flight had left. After about 2 hours, he started to fill out the lost luggage form. We weren’t sure we’d ever see it again. As we left the lost luggage department, his bag just appeared on a different carousel from a different flight. Don’t know why, but we were just happy to see that the bag arrived. Make sure you have the minimum that you need or can’t replace (like climbing shoes) in your carry-on luggage.
When you leave Cuba, you’ll have to go through immigration again, and hand in the other half of the tourist visa card. When we arrived back in the U.S.A., there were no questions about our purpose in Cuba, just cheerful immigration officers asking if we had a good time.
There used to be limits to how much Cuban rum and cigars you could bring back to the USA, but that was just lifted in October of 2016. You must carry the products back yourself and they must be for personal consumption and may not be resold. “Normal limits on duty and tax exemptions will apply.” But watch out if you have connecting flights: one of our friends had a connecting flight through another country and carried his duty free bottle of rum off the plane. It was confiscated on the next flight to the US because a bottle of alcohol cannot be in carry-on bags.
Accommodations in Cuba
Most travelers stay in a Casa Particular (“private house”), which are usually extra bedrooms in people’s homes. Depending on location, a room with one double bed + 1 twin bed and a private bath will run anywhere from $25 to $50 on average. They’re much cheaper than a hotel, and you get to engage with the locals. Most provide additional services, like home cooked meals and laundry, and setting up taxis and tours for you. You can find accommodations on popular sites airbnb.com and homestay.com. But in most cases, the hosts don’t have easy access to the internet, so you put in a request for a reservation, then wait a day or two for a response. So best not to put down any money until you find out if the room is actually available. Homestay.com has a features that queries other locations for vacancies and they will send you messages if they have rooms available.
Some things to look out for when booking a reservation – find out where it is on the map. Cuban addresses often don’t work on Google Maps. How much farther is it from the center of town, or to the crags? Is it up many stairs? Do the rooms have any windows (we stayed at one apartment that was totally embedded within a building – without any windows whatsoever. We had no idea if it was daytime or nighttime!). Cuba is a hot place, make sure you have air conditioning. Be sure your bathroom has hot water. See if the hosts speak any English. It does make things easier if you have complicated logistics to sort out. Is breakfast included? How much more for a full breakfast?
In Havana, we had wonderful experiences at Las Terrazas de Águila – our host Roberto spoke English, which made corresponding easy and he was extremely helpful with all of our questions and needs. The staff working there 24/7 were always available to help. It was tricky getting our bulky heavy luggage up the multiple narrow and steep sets of stairs, but the location was walking distance to many attractions and our rooms were comfortable.
In Viñales, I can’t recommend Casa Mayrita enough.When you look at a map, she is a couple of blocks on the farther east side of town, but it really wasn’t far at all. She spoke decent English and was super nice and enjoyed chatting with us. She set up all the taxis and tours we needed, and fed us incredible breakfasts and dinners every day. One night we tried a restaurant instead and were so disappointed, so we went back to eating our meals with Mayrita.
Wherever you stay will also likely sell bottled water which you’re going to need every day, and other drinks like beer, juice and soda. We loved returning from a hot day of climbing to have Mayrita serve us cold mojitos the minute we put down our gear.
Currency for Cuba
Cuba tacks on a hefty surcharge for exchanging US dollars, so best to exchange your US cash for another currency before you go to Cuba. Most people use Euros or Canadian dollars. How much you spend in Cuba really depends on if you’ve paid up front for accommodations, require lots of taxi rides, and eat at restaurants vs. at the casa you’re staying at. Lots of attractions, museums, and tours will add on additional costs. Around $50-75 USD / day is a reasonable baseline for 3-4 museums in Havana, a horseback riding tour & taxi for a day to the beach in Viñales, with inexpensive meals, 1 mojito and bottled water every day, and eating our own snack bars at the crag that we brought from home. Consider bringing more cash if you like to drink a lot, buy lots of souvenirs, or plan more city activities than climbing activities. The travel website cubarocks.co.uk includes a page discussing the sort of costs you can expect in Cuba, and is a good guide. Expect to have to do a lot of tipping as well.
Since American credit cards and ATM cards do not work in Cuba, it’s very important to figure out your budget because the cash you arrive with is all you’re likely going to have for your entire trip.
Most meals seemed to be no more than $12 an entree, $3 for a mojito or cuba libre, $1 for small 500 mL bottled water, and $2 for a 2 liter bottle. Breakfasts at the casa were $5 each with a huge amount of fruit, toast, eggs, ham and fresh juice. Museums in Havana were around $5-8 each. Also, keep your small change whenever you can get it. You’ll need it often, especially women, to tip bathroom attendants who will give you your tiny ration of toilet paper if you tip them. Don’t expect to find any toilet paper or paper towels in the bathrooms, and quite often, no soap or toilet seats either. If you’re concerned about cleanliness, bring tissues/toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you everywhere.
There are 2 currencies in Cuba – the CUP (pronounced like chicken “coop”), and the CUC (rhymes with “duke). The CUP is for locals and is around 25 CUPs to 1 CUC. The CUCs are for foreigners to use and are basically equivalent to $1 USD. You can tell a CUC from a CUP in that CUCs have monuments on their currency, while CUPs have people honored. If you pay in CUCs, make sure you get change in CUCs. If you’re not sure of a price, be sure to ask if it’s in CUCs.
Currency Exchange Thief
When you arrive at the airport, there are currency exchange booths. I don’t know if these people are associated with a bank or not, but they are not to be trusted. Make sure you have your money counted ahead of time and never take your eyes off of your money after you hand it to the cashier. When I arrived in Terminal 2 at the airport in Havana, I handed the cashier a wad of Euros which included 4 50 euro bills. I dropped something, bent down to pick it up, and when I looked back up, there were only 3 50 euro bills. The woman behind the counter said confidently and matter-of-factly that there never were 4 50 euro bills. I knew there were 4, I put them on the counter, and she must have slipped one off the counter when I turned away. However, my lack of Spanish speaking skills left me feeling powerless to dispute her theft, and I ended up having to suck it up and let her steal my money. A local later told me that in most cases, her supervisor is also in on the scam and it would be of no use to complain. In the grand scheme of things, I could survive my trip without those 50 euros. For her, it was probably more than a month’s salary. Yes, it was not right for her to steal, but fighting it just didn’t seem worth it. The most I can do is warn others. In hindsight, I wish I had taken her photo.
After that experience, I didn’t want any more people in our group to exchange their money with the thief at the airport booth, so the following day we went to an official bank where there are cameras everywhere and only one person at a time can go up to the teller. The money exchanges at the bank went smoothly.
Cuba is a very safe country to visit. Violent crime is very unusual. What is striking is that some of the most beat-up neighborhoods in Havana felt completely safe to walk through at night. Many people are poor, but friendly. They cannot afford to fix up their homes, or get the supplies needed to make repairs. Except for my experience having 50 Euros stolen by the currency exchange clerk, the rest of my trip was stress free.
You are more likely to be subject to a “gracious scam” than theft. Basically if you look lost or looking for something, a friendly person will offer to give you directions, perhaps even walk you to your destination. I enjoyed chatting with these locals, in my limited Spanish and their limited English. But then they either insist on sending you to a restaurant they recommend (where they receive a commission), or ask for a tip for their services. These restaurants are often way overpriced compared to all the other restaurants in the area. We took the bait our first night in Havana, letting a friendly guy lead us to a restaurant, not realizing how overpriced the lousy food we received was. In one of the fort museums in Havana, an over-enthusiastic worker in one of the rooms insisted on showing us every detail of a model ship, following us around. Just as we were trying to break free, she asked for a tip because she had children at home to support. We figured it out soon enough that anyone super friendly who wants to follow us around was looking for a tip. Tour books say to not encourage them. But all of the people who glommed onto us to ask for tips really were very friendly and polite.
Don’t expect to just rent a car and drive everywhere. Car rentals are expensive and often it’s hard to find a car. Also, I’ve read that it may not be safe to park your rental car on the street. Unless you can put it behind a gate or in a garage, it’s subject to have parts stolen. Instead, take taxis. They are everywhere, and you’ll be hounded by offers of rides whenever you are in a tourist town. A taxi cross-town in downtown Havana might cost you $5, while one from the airport may be closer to $25. You can get a driver all to yourself for a day. While in Viñales, we had a driver from 9am to 5pm for $25 each (for 5 of us). He drove us the bumpy 1:45 to Cayo Jutia for a nice day at a gorgeous beach, then drove us back through Los Palenques to check out the bar in the cave.
Because we had a large group, to save money, we reserved tickets for a bus ride from Havana to Viñales which never materialized because the bus had mechanical trouble. After we sat on the curb with our luggage for 5 long hours, the tour company who booked our missing bus sent 3 taxis to take the 12 of us to Viñales . We were squished into cars which clearly could not accommodate all of us and our luggage for the 2 hour ride to Viñales, which cost $130 per car. The tour company refunded our bus tickets on our credit cards.
Roads in Cuba can be horrible. Driving from Viñales to Cayo Jutia was a non-stop zig zag of avoiding giant pot holes. When planning your itinerary, don’t expect the distance to translate to 60 miles per hour.
A few things to keep in mind when packing:
- If you’re going to enjoy the nightlife in Cuba, and plan to wear high heels, one word for you: Cobblestones.
- Bring essentials or irreplaceable gear in your carry-on. It’s not uncommon for luggage to be lost.
- Assume most things are not available to buy easily in Cuba. They have a shortage on many goods. Bring over the counter medicines you may need (immodium is a good idea), batteries, extra memory cards for your camera, snack bars for lunch, ziploc bags, bug repellent, sunscreen, soap, spare toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other toiletries.
- The weather is hot. Even in December/January. However, there can be cool, windy evenings, especially along the coast, so a fleece jacket is a good idea. A sun hat will provide some relief from the strong sun. Expect some rain, it is tropical, so bring a rain jacket.
- Trails in Viñales are muddy and have lots of horseshit. Don’t plan to do approaches in sandals, and it’s a good opportunity to use a pair of older, decrepid approach shoes.
- Cuba is a noisy place. Whether it’s noisy old cars or people hawking what’s for sale in their carts in Havana, or buses and roosters crowing in Viñales, the neighbors blasting music or just a really noisy air conditioning unit, if you’re a light sleeper, best to bring earplugs.
- Walkie Talkies and GPS units are supposed to be illegal to bring into the country. We found somewhat conflicting information, but we decided to skip the family walkie talkies. The GPS restriction is kind of stupid since we all have GPS on our phone, but I didn’t bother to bring my hand-held Garmin for geocaching.
- If you plan on bringing cigars home, make sure you have multiple layers of bags to put them in. They will make everything in your luggage stink.
- Consider bringing things to donate to the climbing community, or even just to give away. We’ve had people ask us for soap, request our shoes, our jackets (going a little too far). We noticed our new climbing friend, Yunior, carried his gear around in a pile. When we found out it was his birthday on our last climbing day there, we gave him a spare day pack, a book on training for climbing and all of our leftover snack bars, and he was so happy! If you see Yunior hanging out looking for climbing partners, let him join you for the day, he’s terrific company and a strong climber.
Rock Climbing in Cuba
Viñales is the climbing mecca of Cuba. Vast numbers of limestone cliffs rise up out of a flat valley of organic red soil tobacco farms within a National Park. The opportunity for development is huge, and the locals are very friendly and there doesn’t seem to be any issues with access so far. Officially climbing is considered illegal in Cuba, but no one enforces it or seems to care.
The book you’ll need is Cuba Climbing by Anibal Fernandez and Armando Menocal. Armando is one of the founders of the Access Fund and lives in the states. There isn’t much other beta online, the Mountain Project site has very little of the routes on there. Most of the beta you’ll need is on the website www.cubaclimbing.com. They’ll explain what gear donations the climbing community could really use – especially bolts and anchors. We spoke with Yaroby, a key figure in the climbing community, and he said it’s not just a matter of money, it’s the availability of supplies. There aren’t places in Cuba where they can buy chain for anchors! Another way you can help is donating to Bolts 4 Cuba via the Fundly site.
Being Gunks climbers, we found the grades to be soft. A 6a (YDS 5.10b) felt no harder than a Gunks 5.9. This was good news, because as moderate climbers, there aren’t many climbs in Cuba easier than 6a. Ensenada de Raul is a good crag to start with, easy approach, and short easier climbs, mostly in the shade.
The climbing is sport, so you don’t need trad gear. The area near the crags can be very muddy and loaded with horse and livestock poop, so don’t wear your newest shiny approach shoes. You will definitely want mosquito repellent and watch out for wasp nests as well as the dreaded guao plant. It’s Cuba’s version of poison ivy, and the rash is very nasty. Matt got a case of it on his arm.
So that’s my summary of what you need to know before you go to Cuba. I hope to have time to write more blog posts with a trip report of our time there.