Stay Safe on that Dream Trip to Cuba
Cuba is slowly opening up to Americans. Keep these tips in mind if you get a chance to go
Some of my favorite memories are from my travels to that little forbidden island just 90 miles off of Florida's coast: long nights spent dancing to live salsa music on Havana's sultry streets. Cruising the popular Malecón (sea wall) in 1950s-era jalopies that pre-dated the Cuban Revolution. Chancing upon an American-style bowling alley where we drank rum, bowled and ran back and forth setting up our own pins for hours. Riding horses through the lush Valle de Viñales Valley where oxen are used to plow the tobacco fields.
I was able to travel to Cuba as a journalist in the 1990s and early 2000s, making me one of the lucky ones. Most U.S. citizens have long been prohibited from visiting the island under a U.S. trade embargo issued soon after Fidel Castro came to power.
But President Obama's recent efforts to normalize relations with the Communist island mark a sea change in our relationship with the island. This has already ramped up U.S. tourist interest in Cuba. AirBnb has announced plans to operate on the island, and several travel agencies that operate educational trips to Cuba report being flooded with calls.
It's still not legal for all U.S. citizens to visit Cuba for tourism, but the reforms allow Americans to apply for one of 12 tourist licenses that allow U.S. citizens to visit for reasons including family visits, professional or education purposes or religious activities. And many people are itching to visit Cuba — one of the last countries in the world without a Starbucks, McDonalds or Burger King — before it changes too much.
Having fun in the tropics while staying safe
The truth is that Cuba is an amazing country to visit. It's so close to the U.S. and yet so very different. Although it's steeped in its own culture of incredible music, intellectualism and self-sufficiency, there's a fascination there with many things American: old Chevys, baseball, even rap music. Cubans will have no shortage of questions for you, and you'll probably have just as many for them. If you get to go to the island, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Colonial city of Trinidad, Cuba (Photo: Richard Cavalleri/Shutterstock)
Take the normal precautions against crime. As you would traveling anywhere abroad, carry your documents under your clothing or leave them (and your valuables) locked up in your hotel’s safe. The Cuban government rarely issues crime statistics, but most sources agree that most crime is limited to petty theft. You’re probably safer strolling the streets of Havana than you would be in most major U.S. cities.
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"Most Cubans are eager to see Americans, to talk to them, to spend time with them; not rob them," says Tracey Eaton, a former Dallas Morning News correspondent who was based in Havana for several years. “My impression is that Cuba is much safer than most of the other [Latin American] countries where I’ve been,” says Eaton, who still visits Cuba often as a freelance journalist.
My one and only brush with crime in Cuba came when I was wearing one of those passport bags (outside my clothing) and walking down an alley in Havana with a Cuban friend. Two teenage boys rode by on a bike and tried unsuccessfully to swipe the bag, knocking me down in the process. My advice: Don’t carry your passport, wads of money, or flashy jewelry when you’re out and about. Foreign travelers are rich by Cuban standards.
Carry a copy of your passport. Just remember to keep it separate from the actual passport. If you do have your passport stolen or are a victim of any crime in Cuba, the U.S. Department of State recommends that you report it to both the local police and the U.S. Interests Section immediately. You’ll need their help to get out of the country without a passport.
Change money only at official state-run offices. You will likely be approached by eager Cubans who want to change your money for you (at a better rate) or get you cheap cigars, but it’s safer to avoid such transactions.
Use your sun smarts. Cuba is a hot country. One American friend became so dehydrated on the beach that she had to go to the hospital. (She was taking several prescription drugs, which may have contributed to the problem.) The Cuban sun is strong and average humidity is about 80 percent, so be sure to use sunscreen and keep hydrated. Bottled or boiled water is recommended; you may get sick otherwise. Most tourist beaches have lifeguards, but many beaches are very crowded. If you’re traveling with children, you may want to bring your own life jackets for swimming in the ocean, as hotels and resorts are not guaranteed to have them. And while that Cuban rum is tasty, don’t drink and swim.
Don’t drive at night. While Havana is amazing, most travelers will want to get out to the beaches or countryside as well. If you’re driving, be aware that many roads are ill-maintained and lack lighting. I’d recommend against driving at night. Traffic is generally light, but large potholes, horse carts, bicycles, hitchhikers (a common form of transportation for Cubans) and old vehicles can create hazards.
Make sure you’re covered by health insurance. Cubans enjoy free healthcare, but foreigners will be charged if they need to see a doctor. The U.S. State Department strongly urges that U.S. travelers to Cuba check with their insurer to make sure they’re covered on the island. Buy special traveler’s insurance if necessary.
But most of all, relax and have a wonderful time. Cuba is still one of the safest countries I've ever seen, full of some of the friendliest people I've ever met. And they'll be glad to help out if you need it.
"I've come across incredibly honest people in Cuba," Eaton says. "I once left a cell phone in a taxi. The driver drove maybe 10 miles to come back and return the phone to me. And he wouldn't accept a tip."
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