Getting from Costa Rica (and the US) to Cuba

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Cuba Ready! My Passport, Boarding Pass, and Cuba Visa.

First a Bit on Travelling from the United States to Cuba

Getting into Cuba isn’t the most straight forward, especially for Americans. Under Barack Obama during his time in office as US President, travel to Cuba got much easier, although still technically not allowed. Prior to the loosening of restrictions, to get a visa you had to apply to qualify under one of 12 categories for permitted travel to Cuba, examples being Humanitarian, Educational, Support for the Cuban people, Journalism, etc. Nowadays you still have to claim you’re going for one of these categories once you’re at your departing airport in the USA, but it’s no longer enforced and no application process takes place ahead of time- more or less a nod from the US government to “go for it”.

The Department of State website it the best place to go for the lasted information. The website currently makes it sound harder to go than it really is. I personally went from Costa Rica but from my discussions from fellow Americans in Cuba who flew from the United States, I found they had no issues whatsoever. Those I befriended I know made it back safely to the USA as well. By far, “Support for the Cuban People” seems to be the most vague and ambiguous of all the categories and thus the most difficult for immigration authorities to argue against  (which they wouldn’t under normal situations). This category was the choice of all Americans I met and I would encourage using this one. Although not always checked, you are supposed of having non-US health insurance during your time in Cuba as well.

I myself flew from Havana, Cuba to Tampa, Florida on Southwest Airlines to exit the country. Upon entry into the US and going through immigration, none of the officials thought twice about this planeful of cigar and rum loaded Americans coming back from Cuba and most, if not all of these passengers were obviously there for more tourist reasons than anything else. I didn’t even have questions asked. That little of a deal. Hope that puts you at ease.

*Under the new president, Donald Trump, things may change as he plans to take a different stance on Cuban-American relations. Any changes made may greatly affect travel from the USA to Cuba in the future. Again, see the Dept. of State site for more information.

Now from Costa Rica

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The Plane I Flew On from San José to Havana.

Booking

Flying from other countries, such as Costa Rica, Canada, and Mexico has long been the “loophole” to get to Cuba for Americans. I just so happened to be in Costa Rica with friends before I would set out to Cuba on my own there-on. So regardless of most nationalities, Costa Rica can be a great jumping point from one beautiful place to the next.

There’s a limited few airlines that service this route. Copa, Interjet, Cubana, Avianca, Aeromexico, United, and American some of these. Cubana and Aeromexico must be searched on their sites as they aren’t included on those travel search engine sites. I personally found Cubana to be the best deal for a mere $137 one-way, but they have few flights- one a day if not at all on a particular day.

It’s Not a Trip Without Something Getting Changed Around On You

The flight from San José, Costa Rica to Havana, Cuba on Cubana Airlines (in Spanish: Cubana de Aviación) wasn’t the smoothest experience right off the bat. I got an email in Spanish about 36 hours before the flight that my 3:30pm flight was rescheduled to the morning and I must report to the desk by 7:30am. I had no idea when my actual flight was rescheduled to! I was lucky because not only did I have internet access, the email didn’t end up in my spam folder, and I was able to get there early. I was fortunately only in Tamarindo, a several hours shuttle ride to San José that was booked to arrive the night before anyways. So I was fine, but I couldn’t say the same to much of the other passengers since the plane turned out to be mostly vacant, presumably from this schedule bump.

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Above the Caribbean Sea.

Exit Tax

To leave the country, an exit tax must be paid. Many airlines will include this in the cost of your ticket, so no need to worry about it if that’s the case. However, if you fly Cubana like myself, it is not included. If you are unsure if it is included, the exit tax desk has a list of the airlines. The tax is US$29 payable in US dollars, which is widely accepted in Costa Rica to begin with. If you don’t have enough cash, there is an ATM back out the nearest terminal doors and to the left at the departures passengers drop off area. You can practically see it out of the windows behind the exit tax desk.

Visa

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My Cuba Passport Stamps. Oh, and My Old India One.

After you have your exit tax ticket, you may proceed to the ticket counter. Here an employee asked if I had the exit tax paid. After my confirmation that I had, he asked, “Do you have your visa?” I wish he had followed that question with the word yet, as I got instantly nervous that I was supposed to already possess one. Like I mentioned, travel to the country is technically still not allowed for Americans, so I’ve been crossing my fingers during this entire transition from Costa Rica to Cuba.

Note that there are only tourist visas issued here, regardless of if you are American or otherwise. The whole category visa system doesn’t apply for travel initiating from Costa Rica.

Fortunately, I didn’t have any reason to be nervous as we then went to the counter where he pulled out a box full of empty visas. I paid the US$30 for the Tourist Visa (more cash you’ll need!) and he handed me one to fill out. From there, I got my boarding pass and I was off through the gates! Of which there was no line through security which was a welcomed surprise. By the way, don’t forget a Red Bull in your bag as you pass through the x-rays as they WILL find it and you’ll feel like an idiot.

From there on out it was normal boarding procedure and was soon enough off to Cuba!

 

 

Cuba- A Place Unlike All Others

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An Elusive Island

Cuba is undoubtedly a place that most of Americans, let alone most of the world, has never been. Europeans, Canadians, and Latin Americans, among others, have been fortunate enough to visit this elusive land for all these years, while Americans, though only a mere 90 miles away, haven’t had a straight forward opportunity to go in many decades.

Fortunately for travelers looking to go there from the United States, former President Obama loosened travel restrictions to the island nation. So what did that mean to mean to me? Well, I said to myself, “I gotta get to Cuba!”

Getting from Costa Rica (and the US) to Cuba

Throughout my travels thus far, I’ve experienced over a couple dozen countries spread over nearly all of the continents. Many of those places share similarities and differences with other countries far and wide. However, Cuba had erred on the side of differences much more. It was a country truly unlike any other I have personally explored. The main reason? It is truly stuck in time!

Life in the 1950’s

It’s stuck in time: You may have heard that phrase used to describe Cuba before. Well, whoever you heard this from is spot on. Granted few of us ever experienced actual 1950’s Cuban life, but it’s close to what I would picture it as. Imagine a place where most of the cars rolling by down the streets are 50’s American classics, your old Plymouth’s, Ford’s, Chevy’s, Oldsmobile’s- cars that would be a collector’s dream, but are instead used for everyday commuting and as taxis. Some of these cars are in such great condition, you’d swear they just came off the assembly line last year and boast shiny, colorful paint jobs with glistening chrome bumper, rims, and trim. Some, on the other hand, show their age but have character from having spent over half a century on the road.

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The cars are just a piece of the puzzle. Just look around. They’re constantly driving through the streets of Havana, which are lined with Spanish colonial era architecture buildings. Though the poverty has taken a toll on these buildings through the lack of upkeep, these as well add to the charm and character of the island, and when you find the more meticulously maintained structures, you appreciate their beauty all the more.

In our day of age, consumer electronics are all the rage and can be found nearly everywhere but that’s not the case in Cuba. Through with the passing of Fidel Castro, some electronics have recently hit the island under his brother Raul’s rule but they are far from common. Even internet is hard to find! Someone having internet in their home? No way. When you go to Cuba get ready to put away all your electronics except your camera. I found it to be surprisingly liberating anyways! People around the world weren’t on their phones or playing video games all of the time decades ago and that case stands true today there.

Beautiful Landscapes

The beaches, the beaches, the beaches. Pale white sand, aquamarine water, and a beaming sun radiating, the beaches are tough to get outside the Caribbean. Varadero is a great spot to be if you’re looking for this kind of beach alongside tourist-oriented amenities such as bars, clubs, shopping, and dining. Especially after a few days walking up and down the streets of Old Havana, this is a great place to unwind.

Unbeknownst to many, Cuba actually has mountains and caves. These provide fantastic views, particularly in the Pinar del Rio area surrounding the many plantations. Of course, the plantations that visitors are most interested in are tobacco, heart of the cigar industry.

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Rum and Cigars

As I’m sure you know, Cuban cigars are renowned as the best in the world and I have to say, I believe they are. The micro climates of the Pinar del Rio region and other parts of the country are prime for tobacco production. Go ahead, smoke one or two or 10 fresh Cubans. Even go to a plantation and smoke them at the source! Oh and don’t forget to bring enough cash to bring some home as you family, friends, and your future self will thank you. Who doesn’t like the best in the world, especially if it’s so hard to come by?

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The rum, my goodness, the rum. Caribbean rum is a favorite amongst businessmen and pirates alike. Cuba’s famous Havana Club rum is top-notch and usually in the vicinity of US$6 for a 750 mL bottle… you can’t go wrong! You just might have to find room in your baggage to bring some home as well (you know I did).

In Conclusion

Being that Cuba is full of culture, architecture, natural beauty, and timelessness I highly recommend it to an experienced traveler. Resulting from the lack of technology and capitalism, the country is challenging to navigate and get accustomed to. However, if you’re willing to take on the inconveniences, the rewards will be spectacular. You’ll fly back home with memories of a life time. Take plenty of pictures and indulge on the nation’s specialties. Leave behind your daily routines and come with an open mind, and if you do so, you’ll enjoy Cuba to the fullest.