As much as Cuban travel has become a Canadian winter past-time, in many ways the country is still an enigma.
Every winter there are questions about health insurance, currency conversion, power supply, the advisability of bringing gifts, departure taxes, and offering tips at the all-inclusives, plus a series of other concerns.
Two or three years ago, Cuba introduced a new policy that required travellers to present proof they have sufficient health coverage in order to be allowed entry.
At the outset, this caused a tremendous amount of confusion. Cuba did not do a very good job of outlining what it meant by sufficient, and what was the nature of burden of proof the traveller would need to demonstrate.
When it finally got cleared up it for Canadians is that all we had to do was produce a provincial health card.
THAT HAS ALL CHANGED.
Just this month Cuba has come back and said that all future travelers must show proof of supplementary coverage. If you show up and don’t have that coverage you will be forced to purchase insurance upon arrival from a Cuban insurance company.
This is a changed policy but quite frankly no-one should ever leave home without supplementary travel coverage. It is important when travelling to Cuba now, but is important when travelling to any other destination as well.
Provincial health coverage does have its limitations. As an example, if it is deemed better to fly a patient home instead of accepting treatment there, only private plans will provide that service.
Most provincial plans will not cover costs upfront, and that may be what is expected by the hospital to which you are transported. This could be the same requirement with some private insurers as well, so it is best to check the fine print before you depart. On www.voyage.gc.ca it is clearly pointed out Cuban authorities will not allow anyone with outstanding medical bills to leave the country.
When purchasing your insurance, be advised that because of the decades-long embargo against Cuba by the United States, Cuba will not recognize a policy issued by a U.S. insurance company.
THE OTHER LESS RECENT CHANGE.
In previous articles I have said that you have to save dollars to pay your departure tax at the airport before you leave.
Last year the policy change. While you are still paying departure tax the government has convinced or forced tour operators to include the departure fees in the cost of your package or airfare. So that little time consuming annoyance has disappeared.
SO HERE ARE A FEW MORE TIPS ABOUT CUBA.
From a currency standpoint, I advise the use of Canadian dollars, which you will have to exchange into Cuba’s specially created Convertible Cuban Peso. It is usually pegged at the rate of a U.S. Dollar.
Be sure to cash all your Convertible Pesos before returning home, because they cannot be exchanged anywhere outside the country.
In taking cash, smaller denomination bills are likely preferable so you don’t have to cash more than you have to at any given time.
You can use credit cards, and there are a few debit machines around. But make sure your credit cards are not cleared through American banks or you will have the same problem I identified with insurance.
Traveller’s cheques are not likely an option for many since, to my knowledge, most travelers cheques are cleared through U.S. banks, even those from local credit unions and Canadian banks.
Power supply will depend upon the resort you are staying at since Cuba uses both 220v and 110v power at their resorts. There is no easy way of knowing which without asking your travel agent, or contacting the property if you booked online.
If it is a 220v based property you will need a converter and an adapter if you are going to use electrical appliances like hairdryers. Only an adapter may be required for camera chargers and computers since most of them have built in dual voltage ability.
To better explain the difference, the 220v power means that not only is the power output different from ours, but they use a different style plug in configuration than ours. As a result the adapter will allow you to plug into the wall but it does not change the power.
There has always been a question of tipping at all-inclusive resorts, and while the tour operators suggest all gratuities are included, Cuban hotels and resorts there, and in most of the countries we travel to during the sun season, do not really pay all that well.
As this awareness has grown, I see more and more people offering tips to bartenders and serving staffs, and many also leave a few dollars for the people who take care of the rooms.
If you do tip use the convertible Cuban Peso as it is easier for them to use as well, although I have had mixed reports on that.
There was a time when the Cuban government was discouraging gifts of any kind to their nationals. That seems to have stopped, so leaving or giving gifts to people in a country whose imports are scarce is a charitable gesture.
Internet in Cuba is not what it is in North America even at the best resorts, but it is available. At times it can be a frustrating experience.
While the chefs at the major resorts do their best to give guest the best food experience they can, the single complaint I occasionally receive is that the meals are often bland. I enjoyed the quality of cuisine there, but I
realize that the same import restrictions that have affected them for decades likely also extend to the kitchen as well.
Chicken and pork are your best choices, while having beef cooked in the style and size we are accustomed is not easily found.
Since Spanish is the language of the country, while the basics of food and beverage are well managed at most resorts, take along a translation booklet. Learn some of the terms that you may want to ask about, particularly at places off the resorts.
While Cuba may be one of the safest and least crime riddled countries in the region, it is likely a good idea to leave expensive jewelry at home. In Havana, in particular, there is more crime today than there was a decade ago.
As a final note, I was surprised to find a caution on the website relating to renting automobiles in Cuba. The advisory suggests Canadians should avoid driving in Cuba completely.
Traffic accidents are one of the highest causes of arrest and detention of Canadians. That is because any accident that results in injury or death is automatically treated as a crime from the outset. The onus is on you, the driver, to prove your innocence. This is not easy to do when you don’t speak Spanish.
It can take many months for a case to go to trial. In the meantime, your home is in Cuban detention.
Unlike Canada, rentals are all government-controlled. You will not be leaving the country until all outstanding real and perceived debts are satisfied, and from reports, the charges for damage can reach into the thousands of dollars.