For those considering a trip to North America over the next few months it may be worthwhile popping down to visit Cuba. With the price of flights ex several US and Canadian gateways about half of what they were twelve months ago it’s a great time to go. Best keep in mind that it is now coming up to their summer, and you need to also be prepared for hurricane season (August to October).

Mind you, NOW is the time to visit this culturally rich and diverse country before it gets swamped by American gaga tourists. Thanks to the relaxing of the restrictions by President Barack Obama when he was in office, Americans are now free to travel to Cuba. There are currently flights available ex Miami at about US$200 – 300 return.

Cuba is now welcoming of GLBT tourists and there are many tour operators that offer packaged tours with a gay guide and the all-important ‘local know how’. However if you are travelling as in independent traveller here are some useful hints:

– You will need to have a pre issued visa or a tourist card which can be purchased from your departure airport for US $100. Make sure that you have six month validity, and have a copy of your return air ticket, as well as, travel insurance and medical coverage.

– There are two currencies: it is best to use the convertible pesos (CUS); the local currency, (CUP) is reserved for Cubans, and is slowly being phased out. You will need to obtain your local currency upon entry as credit cards are not widely accepted. For Australians it is best to have an Australian bank issued debit card… There are a reasonable number of ATMs in the major cities and tourist centres. As all of the major tourist agencies and offices are government operated, they seem not to want to accept cards that are affiliated with the US. Eg: AMEX , Citibank…

– Cash is ‘king’ and you are expected to tip… usually small amounts. Keep in mind that the average monthly wage in Cuba is $28 per month, which works out to 11 cents per hour for an eight-hour work day. Even the specialist doctors at the best hospitals earn less that $90 per month – so even small tips are very much appreciated.

– Spanish is the local language and you will find that English is understood in the major tourist centres and shops. It is interesting to note, that up to recently, Russian was taught in the schools, but now English is the more common choice.

– Accommodation in major hotels costs between $80 – 200 per night (p/n). It is highly recommended to book a private apartment or room (casas) that are about $25 – 40 p/n in Havana. Breakfast is extra at $5… so cheap as. Airbnb is the best way to book although keep in mind that due to poor internet reception you might have to wait some time for a reply or confirmation. Other tourists looking for the best deal just go door knocking that have the omnipresent blue-and-white casa signs.

– Internet access is very poor and you will see many locals congregating in public hot spots (usually in parks) or in hotel foyers. You can purchase a sim card and coupons for connecting time from the state telecom company ETECSA in Havana’s main plaza. However you will have to find a WI-FI spot to connect @$1.50 CUC per hour. They also can sell you a Cuban cell phone with minutes for about $66

Gay life in Cuba

Cuba has come a long way since the repression under the government of Fidel Castro. Today there is an open-minded attitude to the GLBT community. Mariela Castro the daughter of the current President Raul Castro has been a driving force in supporting GLBT rights, and Havana now has an annual Pride Parade. The penal code for same-sex activities was repealed in 1997.

There are some popular gay bars and clubs in Havana and some of the regional cities. It is best to Google the latest hot spots. Most of the clubs operate from 11pm to 4am, and attendees seem to be quite up with the latest fashions and hairstyles. Drink prices are reasonable – usually $2 – 3.00 for beer and spirits – with Cuban rum being a drink of choice. At the time of writing, Cabaret Las Vegas in Havana was the hottest and trendiest club in town.

Havana is like a retro Sydney of 40 years ago with quite a number of cruise areas. One gay reviewer wrote “Havana is gay life before Grindr” – be careful though, as most hotels will require you to register any guests, and you may find your new found companion, light fingered. The government control all telecommunications, and although Grindr have tried to establish a presence in Cuba, it is not widely used due to the high cost of WI-FI and limited access.

Most evenings, young people, many gay, tend to hang around the Malecon, probably the most famous and iconic seaside promenade in Cuba. There are also some popular gay beaches with the most popular being Mi Cayito east of Havana. It is also unofficially clothing optional. Best to use Google to get directions and transport options.

It is important to remember that Cuba is a communist country, fiercely proud of their revolutionary history… and still quite anti-American due to the hardships they had to endure over the 50 years of the US imposed embargo. The people are well educated with a free education system including universities. Doctors and professionals are highly sought after because of their high standards and qualifications. The roads and transport are not good, but the people are happy and hospitable.

GALTA Director Rod Stringer recently travelled to Cuba after attending the IGLTA annual convention in St Petersburg, Florida. If you would like and further information regarding travelling in Cuba email: rod@visitgayaustralia.com.au and he will be happy to assist.

Rod Stringer
GALTA Director

Image: Mariela Castro (second from the right) at one of Cuba’s Pride Parades – Author supplied