If you are from the U.S., traveling to Cuba differs from other destinations you have visited. It is not as easy as booking a flight and a hotel. Your travel purpose must fall within one of the categories of travel approved by the Department of Treasury.
People-to-people educational programs offered by travel providers are one of the more popular approved ways Americans travel to Cuba. As an example, I joined a photo tour that came under the requirements of the general license for people-to-people travel. I understand that the recent easing of restrictions allows Americans to travel independently under a “people-to-people” license, provided appropriate paperwork has been completed. People-to-people programs are educational in nature and include personal encounters with the people of Cuba.
At the time I am writing this blog, no regularly scheduled airlines have begun flying from the U.S. to Havana. You have to take a charter flight. I have been told this may be changing in the near future. We had lots of paperwork for our charter flight. Our travel provider asked us to fill it out ahead of time and so checking-in at the airport went smoothly. Be mindful of all weight restrictions on your flight, including restrictions for carry-on luggage.
Once you get to Cuba you are required to have a tourist visa and Cuban travel medical insurance. Travel insurance purchased in the U.S. will probably not cover medical costs in Cuba. The charter flight operator I flew with secured the Cuban medical insurance and the visa. (I still think buying travel insurance for the trip is a good idea.) I also was required to fill out a health form, given to me as I boarded the flight. I handed in the form on my way to baggage claim.
Currently, U.S. credit and debit cards cannot be used in Cuba. (This too may change in the near future.) U.S. currency can be easily converted to the local tourist currency, commonly known as CUC’s, at your hotel or at change bureaus. There is usually a charge for the conversion that can be as high as 13% for U.S. dollars. Many visitors traveling from the U.S. bring Euros or Canadian currency.
The logistics of traveling in Cuba can be very challenging at times. If you are traveling with a tour, a tour leader with considerable experience leading groups in Cuba is important. If you have particular photographic interests while on tour, get assurances that the tour will include your particular interests.
If your focus is street photography or photographing people, find a tour leader who has or is good at developing personal relationships with locals. For example, I went to Cuba with Jim Cline Photo Tours. Jim was comfortable speaking with people we met on the street. He had relationships with locals in most of our destinations, some very long term. He literally opened doors for all of us, into people’s homes. I was much more comfortable talking to people and taking their photographs, following his lead. Jim also had local photographers join our group to provide support, which added greater depth to our experiences.
If you like to photograph landscapes or architecture, and prefer using a tripod, find a group leader who knows where to go for sunrises and sunsets and who provides time for you to set up a tripod and wait for the right light.
Certain locations in Cuba do have Wi-Fi, including hotels. To access Wi-Fi it is necessary to buy a Wi-Fi card. The card gives one hour of internet time. The access code on the card can be used throughout the country. You should be able to purchase a card at your hotel. If you plan on using the internet for more than an hour over the course of your trip, I recommend buying more than one card when you first arrive or as soon as cards are available. Most of the time I was in Cuba, which was for 12 days, cards were not available. Also ask how to properly log out of the internet once you finish your online session. Otherwise your card may not work the next time you use it. (Logout instructions did not come with the card. Jim provided me the information I needed, but only after I lost all remaining minutes on one card as I did not log out properly.)
Travel very light to Cuba. You may have to carry your suitcase and your camera equipment at the same time, up stairs, on uneven cobblestones, and over construction ditches. My tour encountered a number of nonfunctioning elevators.
I also recommend bringing a travel power strip. Hotel rooms tend to have insufficient electrical outlets. I used a Simran SM-60 Universal Power Strip. (I purchased it from Amazon. It is smaller and lighter weight than the usual strips I have at home.) I also travel with two chargers for my camera batteries. I bought smaller, lighter ones from Amazon, that take up less suitcase space than the one that comes with the camera. If you have any three prong plugs, you should bring a three-prong to two-prong adapter, in case your hotel room only has 2-prong plugs.
Remember to check with your cell phone company to see if you will be able to use your phone in Cuba. My Verizon phone did work, but I only used it for texting as roaming charges were high.
One last insight—I used more batteries and memory cards than I normally do on a trip. So did other photographers in the group I was traveling with. You have probably heard it before but, as a reminder, bring more cards and batteries than you think you will need.
Last but not least, before leaving on your trip, check the internet regularly for updates on travel to Cuba. Changes are happening quickly, even as I write this blog.
Have an amazing trip!!