An American in Cuba, 2016
I recently returned from a trip to Cuba. As an American, I’m not allowed to travel solely for tourism purposes, but as a writer I am allowed to go for “journalistic” purposes, one of the sanctioned twelve reasons Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba. As an author of an Airbnb book, I was curious to see what the burgeoning Airbnb trade looks like in Cuba. A place of “casa particulars” — homes with rooms for rent — the concept of letting rooms for a reasonable fee has been a staple of Cuban tourism, long before Airbnb. However, Airbnb now facilitates the casas exposure to an impressive worldwide audience and streamlines the process of attracting tourists. A change that has grown the Cuban “casa” business in spades. According to our host Silvano in Cienfuegos, Cuba, 90 percent of his business now comes from Airbnb — particularly if the “Instant Book” feature is turned on.
Prior to my trip and since my return, so many Americans have asked me for tips and stories about my Cuban experience. The timing of my trip coincided with Fidel Castro’s death. My first days in the country were the final three days of a forced nine-day mourning period for the former dictator whose coffin was being escorted from Havana through the streets of Cuban towns on its way to his final resting place in Santiago. Flags were at half-mast. Many normally open businesses were shuttered. At night, we could not drink hard alcohol or wine, dance, or listen to live music. Locals warned us not to exhibit signs of merriment and cautioned that the police were to be avoided at all costs. It was surreal, to say the least.
In a series of posts, I’ll detail what I learned and what we saw, as well as share tips for Americans and other travelers curious to visit Cuba.
The most important tip, and one that Lonely Planet was not clear on in the most recent version of their guidebook on Cuba: US CREDIT CARDS AND DEBIT CARDS DO NOT WORK AT ALL IN CUBA! Heed this warning and do not attempt to use a Mastercard or Visa, even though some sites will make you think that this was lifted in the wake of Barack Obama’s meeting with Raul Castro in 2014.
Though Lonely Planet cautioned that ATMs were limited and few places took Visa as Cuba is still very much a cash economy, the guidebook, many online sites, an our own banks never EXPLICITLY stated that US cards did not work AT ALL. It almost ruined our trip to discover midway through that the $600 and $700 respectively that my friend and I brought with us for our ten-day trip was ALL THE MONEY WE HAD in a cash economy with five days remaining in our trip. Because really, two women traveling alone want to carry wads of cash on their person, right?
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide did a much better job of stating this in their Cuban guidebook (2015), which we read while holed up in a great little casa particular in Havana. Oh, and another thing: Airbnb doesn’t work for Americans who want to book lodging WHILE in Cuba, either. We discovered this when we landed at a hotel business center to use a computer (Wifi is extremely limited in the country) and attempted to book rooms online since we were running out of funds to pay for casa particulars in cash. Imagine our shock as travelers of other nationalities sat at computers around us and booked rooms, but we were locked out of securing lodging. So it wasn’t a “Cuban” thing for IP addresses in Cuba, it was an “American in Cuba” thing. Another morsel gleaned later that day, while scrambling to figure out how we’d survive the remaining days of our trip: Western Union won’t allow Americans to pick up funds. You have to be a Cuban National to receive Western Union funds in Cuba. So, sorry Americans, no dice there, either.
How did we make it? The kindness of strangers.
More stories and tips to come in the days ahead. This is just a start as I’m suffering from a mosquito-borne illness I picked up as an unwanted souvenir from Cuba as well, so my writing is a little on the anemic side. I look forward to sharing highs and lows from our trip and helping you determine if now is a good time to visit Cuba, or not…