Jośe Martí International Airport is the largest and busiest airport, serving several million passengers each year. It is located around 25 km from Habana, Cuba’s capital city, near to the town of Boyeros. It is named in the memory of national hero, poet and Cuban patriot Jośe Martí. I have written a chapter about him, which appears later in this book.
Depending on where you’re travelling from or the time of year it is, you’re going to be warm, hot or even cold! Yes, for half a week in January 2015 I was cold - it was 9°C or 48.2°F. It’s highly likely that it is going to be hot, very hot, so if you’re going to change into more suitable clothing for the environment I suggest taking them in your hand luggage and getting changed about an hour before landing. Why? You’ll see further down the line…
When exiting the aircraft take your time, you are now on an island where “you have to take the time, to take the time.”
The reason for my advice on dressing for the weather before you arrive is because at times, but not always, there can big long queues at immigration. In 2014, I left London with my winter coat as it was getting cold and arrived in 25°C/77°F Habana. I was one of the first off the aircraft and then stood for 2 hours in my coat in the queue for immigration as my pockets were full of items I could not fit into my luggage. I then had to collect my other belongings, which included 3 large suitcases and a bike in a box. It’s fair to say it got a little warm for me!
At the time of writing, when presenting your passport and visa at immigration, you will be asked if you have visited any African counties in the last 30 days. This is due to the Ebola outbreak and the risks posed by yellow fever.
Citizens of the United States still cannot visit Cuba as tourists as this is currently prohibited under US law. Announcements concerning “easing the restrictions” and “new rules” reverberated around the media stratosphere last year and earlier this year. Words or phrases then bounced from our social media walls and then out of our mouths. If you repeat them often enough it becomes the truth, no wait, it becomes politics, or is that religion?
Since January 2015 it no longer necessary for US Citizens to obtain “people-to-people special licenses” as long as their visit is within the scope of 12 categories. Until this time, any US visitors to Cuba were required to apply for a license. But now anyone can go providing they operate within the “rules” and return without any issues. Please find below a link to the US Department of the Treasury, frequently asked questions related to Cuba. http://ow.ly/ROV0O
At the moment they may need to fly through a third country, such as Canada, Mexico or one of the Caribbean islands. Charter flights from the US to Cuba only operate via people-to-people tours. It is best to fly via Cancun in Mexico as the flights are cheap and quick.
Still want to go?
If you want to escape from the US and visit Cuba, which thousands of US citizens do, then you can do this via Canada or Mexico. Simply purchase tickets via Mexican or Canadian travel agents. OK, purchasing a flight to Cuba from the US can be a little confusing. Online sites such as Orbitz or Kayak do not yet have flights listed to Habana. Presently, due to the US Blockade of Cuba, it may not be possible to book flights to Cuba online with US based travel agents or companies. However, there are other non-US airlines, such as Cubana de Aviación AeroMexico, SunWing, SkyScanner and CubaJet. With Skyscanner (and maybe with other sites) you may need to change the location to display flights to Cuba. Again, this is due to the laws of the US Blockade. For Skyscanner just change the location in the top right corner on the website.
Cubana Airlines http://ow.ly/ROV7H
Don’t forget your visa for Cuba. Visas can be purchased at the airports of connecting countries (such as Mexico City, Cancun, Toronto or Montreal) for around $25. I also understand that they can be purchased in the US via http://ow.ly/ROVtG
Although “times are a changing” in relation to credit and debit cards from US international banks, cash is king in Cuba. US bank cards will not work in Cuba. Change your US dollars to euros or Canadian dollars before arriving there; this will save you money as there is a surcharge on changing US dollars.
US Travellers can bring back $400 worth of souvenirs, but unfortunately that includes just $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol. (The best rum is the Legendario Elixir de Cuba.)
It’s difficult to gauge how long these policies will remain as there might even be changes tomorrow, but don’t count on it. Depending on who becomes the next US president there maybe less freedom to visit Cuba for US citizens, so you’d better get a move on!
It you are still worried about encountering questions from US immigration officers upon your return then apply for Global Entry. Global Entry works by simply scanning your passport by computer and then moving you through immigration. Nobody is looking at the stamps and no talking is required. Thousands of people travel to Cuba every year, legally and illegally, and have no issues.
US Passport Holders
Depending on the ever-changing rules within Cuban Immigration, your passport, visa or both will be stamped upon entering the Republic of Cuba. My mother witnessed a US passport holder attempting to stop an immigration officer from doing so by saying, “no no, not my passport” and waving his arms around. The calm and professional female immigration officer replied, “new rule, have a nice day”. Don’t worry, it is highly unlikely that anything will happen to you upon your return but this could change depending on who wins the future US presidency.
After immigration relax as it can take a little while for luggage to arrive on the carousels. Big items such as bikes and pushchairs will be found at the end of each carousel. There are some VIP lounge services that collect your luggage for you, but I have never experienced these and don't plan to!
After exiting the carousel area you will pass through customs. You should present your completed customs declaration form, which you will have received on the aircraft. You may also be asked to provide your luggage or bag receipt, which should have been stuck to the back of your passport by the check in staff at your departure point.
The Cuban Customs or the AGR (Aduana General de la Republica) declaration form is easy to complete and, in most if not all of cases, requires hardly any information. Simply fill in your name, nationality, departure point and the names of your family members travelling with you. It is all standard stuff like most other countries in the world. You also have to declare any amount of cash greater than US $5,000.
The following items are not allowed without prior arrangement:
Weapons and ammunition, including knives. Narcotics, live animals, satellite communication equipment, walkie-talkies, vegetables, fruits, and pornography.
I have not experienced any issues with the following: my laptop, professional sound recording equipment, 5 professional microphones, professional HD Camera and video recording equipment devices.
There are some unfounded allegations on the internet regarding restrictions on HD Camera devices and devices with GPS ability, such as phones and cameras. I have taken all these items of equipment into Cuba without any issues.
I would advise practicing caution around taking devices for the solo purpose of triangulating position via GPS (which you may use for going hiking for instance) I’m unaware of the policy, but based on personal experience I suspect these devices might not be allowed. For more information visit the AGR http://ow.ly/ROVGK
Entering The Arrivals Hall
Upon entering the arrivals hall take your time. It will be very busy and you may find it a little intimidating. Remember to relax because “you have the time, to take the time” and you are safe, you are in Cuba!
In the middle of the hall is a bar serving beer, coffee, rum and soft drinks. The toilets are located upstairs. You have time on your hands, you can have a beer and you can people watch. What are you rushing to get to? Also, if there is a queue at the bar or it is closed, there is a snack bar across the road opposite the exit that serves the same items but better coffee.
Top Tip - Before You Leave The Airport
Change your money. I cannot stress too much the importance of changing your money at the airport. There are money exchange offices known as Cadeca (Casa de Cambio) outside on either side of the arrivals hall exits.
Since March 1 2015, the departure tax of $25 CUC, previously paid by the passenger, has been included in the price of the airline ticket. So now use your $25CUC to buy a bottle of Legendario Elixir de Cuba Rum!
Pope Francis in Cuba Vatican