Dear Convention Delegates,
As you are departing in the coming days, we want to share with you some basic orientation and travel tips in preparation for a more rewarding journey.
Before you leave — don’t forget
Electrical equipment and time zone
Cuban tourist card (Cuban visitor’s visa)
Tipping rules in Cuba
Safety and health
What to expect while in Cuba
Race, sex and gender issues in Cuba
1. Before you leave — don’t forget
Your passport, airline ticket, Cuban tourist card, money and personal effects! This is all you need. However issues discussed below will make your trip more successful and stress-free.
2. Restricted items incoming to Cuba
You can take video cameras, photo cameras, personal DVD and CD devices, cell phones (avoid them as they are costly to use), blackberries, laptops, IPods, MP3 players, video games, hair dryers, electric shavers, binoculars, one portable radio receiver, music instrument and a sound recording device. Note Prescription medicines should be in their original containers.
Banned items Narcotics, explosives, pornography, anti-Cuba literature, GPS, walkie-talkies, and items that might be considered weapons.
Cubans welcome donations however small. Please consider focusing your donation efforts towards schools, teaching aids, student supplies, and toys for kids! These could include pens, pencils, erasers, note pads, and anything else that are lightweight. Hand me down clothes in good shape will be excellent too.
While in Cuba you will make friends with many individuals. Think of small lightweight special gifts such as aspirin, multiple vitamins, chocolate, inexpensive watches and other lightweight things that you yourself would like to receive.
Please do not tip your chambermaid, guide or bus driver with leftovers in place of money. It is better to give your left over toiletries and clothes to your new friends. You can certainly leave these things with your chambermaid, guide or bus driver but not in place of cash. See “Tipping rules in Cuba” below.
Do not distribute donations on the street.
Important: when entering Cuba, if asked, do not declare any of the items you intend to give away as gifts or donations. If your luggage is searched and you are questioned as to why you bring 100 pencils (for example), say, “they are for friends” and leave it at that. The words donation and gift raise concerns because in the past bad people from Miami have used this method to bring harmful things into Cuba. In the remote event that your donations and gifts are confiscated, don’t argue and just let them go. Items will be distributed to Cubans most in need eventually. We respect this situation, as it is an important security measure. Don’t get overly concerned because confiscations rarely happen unless your luggage is over weight.
Here is the website for Cuban Customs http://www.aduana.co.cu/
There are no public laundry facilities in Cuba. If you need laundry services, ask your chambermaid or the front desk. They will give you specific instructions.
5. Electrical equipment and time zone
Cuba’s electricity is 110 volts, 60Hz (same as Canada and the U.S.), but many hotels and resorts also have 220 volts.
All of Cuba is on the same time zone as Toronto, Montreal and New York. Cuba is one hour ahead of Manitoba, Chicago and Mexico City. Two hours ahead of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Colorado and New Mexico, and three hours ahead of British Columbia and California.
6. Cuban tourist card (Cuban visitors visa)
Cuban tourist cards are included in the cost of the flight tickets with Air Canada. They will be distributed in the airplane on the way to Cuba.
7. Money matters
A detailed explanation of money matters in Cuba (including today’s exchange rate) is available at http://www.cubavolunteer.com/esl/123cuban_currency.php
We encourage you to study this webpage. In the meantime here is a summary:
* All participants should take Canadian dollars or Euros to Cuba to exchange for the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). This is the currency that foreign guests use while on the island.
* Canadian participants can use their credit cards in Cuba for cash advances (your passport is required for this transaction). Warning Cash advance fees on your credit card while in Cuba can run as high as 15%. Debit or ATM cards from Canada or the U.S. do not work in Cuba.
You should check with your bank or credit union in advance of travel to ensure your credit card will work in Cuba. Not all do.
8. Tipping rules in Cuba
How to be a memorable guest? Follow these gratuities guidelines while visiting the island. Feel good about tipping and don’t cheap out! When you give a tip to a Cuban the whole island benefits. Cuban tourist staff share tips with their co-workers and family who don’t have access to them, and they all donate a portion of their tips to the national health and education systems. We recommend the following amounts in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC).
Hint Don’t leave toothpaste and other used items, or foreign coins or currency in place of tips. Give tips in CUC (the money Cubans can spend on the things they need). If you make a special friend, then a nice gift is appropriate, together with personal things you don’t need to take home.
* Tour Guide: 2.00 CUC per day per person * Tour Bus Driver: 1.50.00 CUC per day per person * Porters: 2.00 CUC per person or more if you have lots of bags * Restaurant staff: 10% of cost of meal or 1.50 CUC whichever is greater, per meal per person * Chambermaids: 1.50 CUC per day per room (can be split with your roommate) * Taxi Drivers: 10% of total fare in CUC
9. Safety and Health
Cuba is considered among the safest countries in the world with a very low crime rate. Normal precautions with personal belongings are necessary — do not leave them unattended. Don’t wear expensive jewelry. Keep cameras and handbags close to your person. Pickpockets are a growing problem. Use a lockbox at the hotel for valuables, travel documents and cash.
While most foreign guests and Cubans have no problems with the water, we recommend you drink bottled water at all times for peace of mind.
Always carry some cash in small amounts each day, we suggest between 40.00 and 80.00 CUC.
No vaccinations are required or recommended to visit Cuba.
10. What to expect while in Cuba
Everything is very different: language, climate, customs and demeanor. Cubans are ultra courteous, effusive, candid and have a great sense of humor. All of the small material conveniences and services we take for granted are absent at every level (except at your hotel). While Cubans are exceptionally punctual delays are common because of transportation and communications problems. Yet the latter is not typical for our programs. Extreme shortages of everything require great innovation. Cubans have risen to the task. Practical problem solving skills are an asset especially when combined with patience and understanding. We advise going with the flow and eyes wide open until you get a lay of the land. Words from experience: If you go to Cuba looking for problems you will be all consumed, as they exist in abundance. On the other hand if you go in the spirit of learning about a wonderful people and unique culture, and prepared to fully engage and contribute — your rewards will be unequalled. The Cubans are as excited to have you as their guests as you are about getting to know them.
The U.S. blockade of Cuba can be blamed for most of these problems. Your empathy is appreciated.
11. Race, sex and gender issues in Cuba
Race and sex and gay issues are up side down compared to North American standards. Color is nebulous. Only a minority is completely white or black. Everyone seems to fall in between. There are dozens of shades of color in Cuba. Most Cubans are happy with this condition. Don’t assume jokes about color in this context are necessarily racist.
Cuba is not like other Latin countries where women get pinched and squeezed on their private parts. Cuban men are above this. However Cuba men are not beyond issuing very complimentary and flirtatious comments to women. Women travelers can answer back to them as they please. Suffice it to say Cuba is the safest country in the world for female travelers. “Just say no,” reigns supreme in Cuba.
Homophobia like racism cannot be compared to the North American extreme of life threatening hostility. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people are more safe, respected and cared for than anywhere else in the hemisphere. Straight people in Cuba are refreshingly open-minded.
12. Leaving Cuba
Please set aside 25.00 CUC for your Cuban airport tax. Canadians can return home with up to 2 liters of rum, 50 cigars purchased at official outlets with a holographic seal, 200 cigarettes, and all of the gifts and souvenirs you can buy — go for it! Original works of contemporary art must be stamped and accompanied by an official letter from the artist’s union.
13. Convention Expenses
Flights to and from Cuba, hotel, meals etc. and shuttle to and from the hotel while in Cuba are covered by CULE. As discussed at the fall Executive meeting, members are responsible for all expenses while in Canada – transportation to and from the airport and parking, meals and incidentals. Members are encouraged to use the free shuttle service to and from the airport to the hotels if you’re overnighting. CULE will not be paying a per diem.
CULE will cover child/family care, as per the CULE child/family care policy:
Members are entitled to claim expenses related to the care of the following family members who reside on a full or part-time basis with the member, for the duration of the convention as well as the travel days (ie Friday Jan 15th through Monday Jan 18):
1. A child under 18 years of age; 2. A person with a disability; 3. An adult, who is a dependant, requiring care.
a) the actual amount up to a maximum of $50 per day for the first family member, b) the actual amount up to a maximum of $25 per day for each additional family member, c) the actual amount up to a maximum of $30 per night, per family member, for overnight care.
Note: receipts must be provided.