Cell service in Cuba, 2016 edition
August 1, 2016 7:43 PM   Subscribe

(previously, 2005). Looks like a trip to Cuba will in fact go down in September. Cursory research indicates that the cell network there is GSM and that there is no US roaming in place (not a shock). Any pointers, tips, useful links?

Snowflake stats: We currently have two unlocked Japanese-model iPhone 5 handsets. We have access to an ATT iPhone 3 and two factory-unlocked iPhone 4 handsets. Each of these phones uses a different-size sim. the 4 and 5 models have been used respectively with ATT, in London on a provider whose name I forget, and on Straight Talk. I believe ATT and subcontractors as well as the UK are all GSM and so is Cuba, so presumably we could just get sims.

We are accompanying my older parents to a professional conference and probably I will need to wrangle their phones too.

We will be in Havana, Cardenas, and Varadero, possibly coming in either by the airport that serves Varadero or into Havana. JetBlue just announced the first non-charter direct US flights for later this month so we are weighing options.

We are open to the idea of just buying burners on the ground, probably without data. The primary reason to attempt to use the iPhones would be maps, but the typical scenarios for this involve Yelp and gMaps and it seems likely those sources will remain underpopulated until after we return.

Lastly, what is our best bet for finances? Presumably none of our US plastic will work yet. Traveler's checks as in the olden days?
posted by mwhybark to Travel & Transportation around Cuba (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
With finances, likely cash in a currency other than USD will be the best option. There is a 10% surcharge on USD conversions, so you might be better off exchanging your USD cash for CAD or EUR for conversion to CUC on arrival in Cuba.
posted by ryanbryan at 7:50 PM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

oh, and here's a piggyback question: what's the electric plug format?
posted by mwhybark at 8:04 PM on August 1, 2016

Okay, just did this trip in May.

The good news: the GPS on your iPhone will work just fine, even without internet access. (Caveat: we spent most of our trip in Havana.) If you use Google Maps, you can download the maps before you get there.

You can also buy wifi access in various areas. I think it's 3 pesos for 30 minutes. You will definitely be able to find these areas because there will be dozens of Cubans standing around, using their phones. Some guy will sell you a slip of paper with a code on it and you use that code to access the internet.

Yelp is useless, but there's an app called AlaMesa that provided information on restaurants and bars and was pretty handy. But in Cuba, you have to be willing to go with the flow– sometimes that bar that's supposed to be open won't be, and everyone just shrugs because that's Cuba.

Electric plug format is the same as US.

If you want to be a gracious guest, bring in a few thumb drives to give as tips. It's the basis of the Cuban internet. We did this for our housekeeper and she was thrilled.

Enjoy the country. I loved it.
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:14 PM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thumb drives, great tip. I was casting about for what to bring (old cameras? old hard drives?) and that's perfect. Cheap, reliable and contemporary. Figure 250gb ok?
posted by mwhybark at 10:46 PM on August 1, 2016

Quick update.

We picked up sims, seven days activation at $3 CUC /day and 19 minutes of service at $1/min at the Varadero Cubacel office just before their 4pm closing time. The rolled up cost for each sim/minutes combo was $40, $21 in daily activation fees and $19 in minutes (CUCs are dollar-tied and valued at 1:1). There is no data availability, see below.

There was no difficulty getting the right size of sim, they had a clipping tool.

We had to wait until a couple of other folks ahead of us had gotten what they needed. It was not terribly time consuming and there was no long Cuban queue. The phones were verified as functional in office by testing SMS functionality. BUT.

When we tried calling each other a day later it was apparent that something was awry. Neither number could accept any incoming call at the number assigned to the phone. Instead, a Cuban male voice answered whenever either number was called. Our Spanish wasn't up figuring out whose number was actually ringing.

The numbers DID work for text, SMS only, no MMS.

We decided trying to fix the voice problem was too much hassle and did not go back to the office to try to get it fixed. The SMS worked everywhere we were that had cell coverage, primarily Varadero, Matanzas, and Cardenas in Matanzas province and Havana. The sims had expired by the time we took a day trip to Pinar del Rio and Viñales so I can't vouch for cell service out east.

In sum: cell service was expensive and too flaky to bother with, but the basic provisioning and access to services in in place and it was not complicated to obtain. We did have to show our passports at the Cubacel office.

We (weirdly) ended up with near-constant internet access due to our travels being associated with a large international academic conference and staying in one of the conference's recommended hotels in Havana, the Hotel Nacional. We did not have internet access at the large resort hotel we stayed at for a couple of days at Varadero, but wifi was available in the hotel either via hotel paid access or via Cadeca internet access cards (see below).

The conference itself was hosted at this interesting, kinda beat-up 1979 building in the eastern Havana suburb of Miramar, the Palacio des Convenciones. It was initially built for a 1979 meeting of the Organization of Non-Aligned States and does not appear to have had much maintenance since (with the exception of the climate-control systems in the meeting rooms proper).

At the hotel, internet services were pre-provisioned on a time-metered basis equivalent to the total duration of a guest's stay, measured in hours (so if you were staying for five days, your metered wifi access was for 120 hours, decremented by actual usage). When we checked out, despite my normal evening and morning usage of internet to do stuff like email and Facebook, my account had over 120 hours of access left on it.

This access was NOT a basic feature of guest services but appeared to be associated with guest services in a specific floor of the hotel, the sixth, called "The executive floor," which also had a private dining room and included buffet breakfast. I do not know what the fees would have been for guest access to the service otherwise. I found the connection reasonably stable on iOS devices. The connection was valid for only a single device at a time but was nit tied to a single device's MAC address. It was easy to save the pre-assigned numeric UID/PW combo on the iOS devices by enabling "Auto-Login" but disabling "Auto-Join."

Other users operating both Windows and Mac OS devices reported the connection to be unacceptably unstable, possibly due to timeout settings on the connection. The user experience appeared to be that they would login and connect, login to email, begin composing a response and continue composing for several minutes possibly without outbound data events, and on attempting to send discover that the connection had been dropped. This pattern held for the convention center access as well.

(continued in next post)
posted by mwhybark at 10:08 AM on September 12, 2016

INTERNET, continued.

At the convention center, registrants received a packet of materials which included a Cuban-standard internet access card issued by ETESCA, the Cuban national internet service provider. These cards are generally sold as timed-access usage-metered cards in increments of 1 hour for $2 CUC (pronounced "kook"). The cards in the conference packets were preloaded with five hours of metered service and were, as at the hotel, single concurrent user but device independent.

The ETESCA cards worked on every ETESCA-labeled wifi point that I noted and tried but DID NOT function with the wifi service nodes visible at Jose Marti International on our way out of the country. I just left the card sitting in the terminal assuming a Cuban local would see it and test it for remaining time.

At the Hotel Nacional, the wifi relays were visible in the hallways and installed roughly every 15 meters, giving the hotel better coverage than in many US hotels. Service on the grounds of the hotel (such as on the beautiful and inviting rear porch, the "Bar Galeria" on the north side of the building) was spotty, however.

Cubans who were outside of the *extreme* tourist bubble we found ourselves in did not have easy access to either computers or smart phones, due in part to the dual economy and in part to Cuban mechanisms to minimize internet access to the general population. Cell phones appeared relatively common but the phones were ones that in the US would appear to be about a decade out of date. Camera, yes, but low-quality, and presumably the equivalent pre-smartphone data capabilities, but operating on a non-MMS and limited-data cell network.
posted by mwhybark at 10:21 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Cuba took USD out of day-to-day circulation about five years ago and replaced them with a new currency intended initially to be restricted to foreigners in Cuba, Cuban Convertible Currency, or CUC, pronounced "kook". Sometime after this, Cuban citizens were granted access to the currency and it is now highly desirable and in my opinion looks to be a possible candidate to replace the standard currency used at the moment for the local Cuban economy, referred to as MN for "Moneda Nacional." MN and CUC are tied directly to the USD for valuation, with 1CUC set at 1USD and 1MN set at 25 to the CUC.

Cubans earn wages in MN and have access to consumer goods including groceries priced in MN. Foreigners entering establishments where MN goods are sold are often able to purchase the same goods but the goods are more likely to be priced at an equivalent conversion rate of 1MN to 1CUC, in my experience. In practice that may mean a drink at a non-tourist bar is priced at 5MN for a Cuban but 5CUC for a foreigner, instead of .2 CUC.

Cuban wages are INCREDIBLY low, far too low for day-to-day living, and this is driving the adoption and need for CUCs. I was told that $15 US is the monthly salary for a professor within the Cuban academic system and additionally that within the tourist economy the provider's books are kept in CUC but the expenses convert back to MN, such that a tourist's unpaid forgetful use of a given resource budgeted for $15 unit of income may generate a deficit against operating budget of $375MN.

Within the tourist economy, goods and services are priced in CUC at costs that are mostly reasonable and comparable to similar goods and services outside of Cuba, so $5 for a mixed drink, $2.50 for a 2-liter bottle of water, $45 for a guyabera shirt, and so on. I found the cost of meals and food at the Hotel Nacional to range from $6 for a sandwich at the inexpensive basement cafe to $30 or so for an entree at the fancy-dress restaurant on the main floor, and that similar food items had slightly variable pricing depending on the delivery channel. For example, a sandwich ordered from the lower-level 24h cafe (which is also the room service kitchen) cost $8 when ordered in the Galeria, $6 when ordered in the cafe, and $6 when ordered via room service.

Tipping was incredibly confusing. At the hotel, the pricing was noted to be tip included, but it was not clear what the mechanism was to get that compensation to the server or even if tips were delivered in cash or CUC per shift individually or if the tips were pooled and divided by shift.

Additionally, it was quite rare to receive a $1CUC, $2CUC, or $3CUC bill back in change. Instead we received many $1 coins which we initially mistook for MN coins and thought were unacceptable as tips. This was not accurate and all change was happily accepted.

Standard retail pricing practices do not include rounded prices (such as $3.79 or $2.99), and this further exacerbated the difficulty of tipping as we would have preferred to, because nearly always the smallest unit of currency we had with us was a $5CUC bill.

You can't use ANY US-nexus financial institution's plastic to access your US-based funds. That means, for all intents and purposes, if you are a US traveler, you must bring your entire trip budget into the country IN CASH, and if possible you should do so in EUROS, not USD. USD are subject to a ten-percent exchange tax in addition to the standard exchange fee of 3%, so the effective in-country rate for USD to CUC is 87 cents to one CUC. Euros are not subject to this tax.

That means getting it changed before you travel in order to get an exchange rate that is in your best interest. We found that at the Miami airport the day we left the current USD-EUR rate was 1.27 but the standard rate at the airport was 1.12 before fees.

This restricted availability of cash to US travelers was unsettling and uncomfortable and caused us to constantly run a tally of cash remaining as well as creating psychological discomfort due to carrying thousands of dollars and euros in cash at the start of the trip. That said, even when we walked into a cigar-sales scam (we didn't even want any cigars, but more on this later) we never felt the least bit unsafe or physically endangered.

We also noticed a young woman, presumably a US citizen based on her accent, at Havana airport the day we arrived, who did not appear to have brought any cash and who did not appear to have been aware that her plastic would not work in Cuba. We left before I could talk to her and determine if she needed some money or not, something I regret. We could have simply given her a hundred bucks without it affecting our trip budget one way or another, but that is something I could only know in hindsight.

We had understood that there was a $25CUC exit tax as well as potential overweight freightage charges as there had been inbound in Miami, but that turned out not to be the case. We did not need any CUC at the airport proper. There were CUC shops inside security and after customs including shops labeled DUTY FREE but the goods pricing was exactly the same as the goods pricing in other shops within the tourist economy.

Lining up to check in was confusing because there was no indication that our flight was available to check in and there was no evidence of a dedicated counter for our service provider, Havana Air. That was because all the checkin counters serviced all the departung flights regardless of destination, service provider, or flight operator. Our flights in and out were booked as scheduled charters from Miami into Jose Marti on Havana Air. The actual flight crew and jet were (confusingly to me) provided by a new airline called Eastern, which uses the logo, colors, and livery of the long-defunct airline of the same name once led by astronaut Frank Borman.

We were not subjected to any sort of detailed customs examination by either Cuban or US Customs. Current regs on import of Cuban goods (rum and cigars) limit the US traveler to a total of $400 with a cap of $100 on cigars, which is frankly pretty tight for cigars.

Jose Marti's international arrivals and departures terminal, T-2, was small and chaotic. On arrival, it took our flight as well as several others much more than an hour to obtain our baggage. The baggage claim was very underlit and the space around the conveyor belt was very crowded with hot, grumpy, mostly patient and well-behaved people, all of whom were unhappy with the delay but none of whom flipped out.
posted by mwhybark at 11:12 AM on September 12, 2016

We took a day away from the conference to walk around Havana without a specific destination in mind. I am glad we did do and wish we had taken more time to do this. I had preloaded the excellent Galileo Pro with a map of Cuba and were able to use it for walking navigation in Havana as well as travel navigation in Cardenas and elsewhere on the island.


As we left the Hotel Nacional, a friendly guy wearing a wild San Francisco Giants cap struck up a conversation with us, asked us where we were staying, and gave us a flyer to a music event before peeling off. He casually mentioned that that day was also the one day a month that cigar-factory employees are given permission to sell cigars out of their homes for about half off the official price. He called it the "Festival des Cigars Cooperativo" and we didn't really think about it because we don't have any interest in cigars and did not intend to buy any in any case. He vaguely waved a hand in the direction we were walking and we continued on our way.

We crossed the street to head to our nominal destination (a museum devoted to a collection of Napoleon memorabilia housed in a staggering old building built to resemble an Italian palace) and another friendly guy came up and started talking to us, telling us that he worked at the Hotel and had seen us there and just thought he'd say hi.

We talked about his school and what he was studying and stuff as we walked and then he brought up the cigar festival thing. We didn't really have the opportunity to say we didn't want any cigars or anything and had not developed a plan to say no before heading out, so when my wife asked me if I wanted to go look at the cigars I understood her to be telling me she wanted to go do this, which I found confusing but did not feel like I should shut her down on, as she is Cuban by heritage and I did not want to deny her an experience.

The guy led us to a little apartment in one of the area's old buildings, which was pretty interesting itself, actually. Marble stairs led up to a tiny airshaft couryard with laundry drying and a tiny, calm, chihuahua. A guy who been waiting for our guide at the foot of the stairs (wearing his Coppelia ice-cream stand nametag and shirt!) ducked into the very small kitchen and laid out an assortment of full cigar boxes including top-shelf Cohibas. None of the boxes were tax-stamp sealed and several had stamps loose and unadhered inside the box.

They started quoting full-retail and half-retail sales prices in the hundreds of dollars, more money than we were even carrying and WAY more than we were remotely interested in spending on something we didn't actually have any interest in. However, it wasn't really like we were opposed to handing cash out on the streets to random Cuban people, and in fact we had found it difficult to tip appropriately, so we just randomly said we'd be able to go $25 CUC.

The ice-cream kid went and dug up a box of three Romeo y Julieta wide Churchills and offered that. I tried to get him to go to twenty but he was reluctant so we went with that.

We all went on our way.

I never saw that exact box of cigars for sale at official cigar counters in Cuba but looking it up online from international retailers, normally these cigars come in tubes and appear to retail at about $43. The range of prices cited for the other more high end cigars appears to have been about right, too. So even though the cigars certainly fell off the back of a truck in the manufacturing process, the prices they were offering were pretty good. We had an interesting hour of conversation and a quick visit to a typical Havana apartment. All in all, not an experience that I regret having.
posted by mwhybark at 11:47 AM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

In looking into our trip, the existing travel writing all agreed: don't stay in big hotels, stay in casas particulares, private hostels usually in private homes, something akin to AirBnB. The food will be better, things will cost less, and you will be able to have more interesting and intimate conversations with your hosts and other locals.

This proved to be difficult for us to accomplish along several axes. First, my wife continually expressed shifting levels of anxiety about contact with Cuban citizens in Cuba, a reflection of her family's negative experiences leaving the island after the revolution and more concretely of her father's mounting and extremely intense anxiety about our trip to his hometown of Cardenas. After trying to determine what her anxiety-free opinion of the various lodging options were and after reviewing the lodging options that were presented as integrated with the conference for services and transportation, we ended up taking the path of least resistance and staying in these large facilities, which meant access to all the services and pricing models cited above.

It came at the cost of having rich social interactins with non-hospitality industry Cubans and of having the full state-sponsored tourism experience, including a day-long bus trip back and forth to Viñales, a half-day bus and walking tour of Havana city and Havana Viejo, and an intimate evening with all 500 conference attendees at the Tropicana nightclub including dinner and a show.

I gathered from other attendees that all these bus-tour events were vaguely reminiscent of Eastern European state-sponsored tourist events (especially with regard to some of the food). Despite this, some of the tour stuff was actually just great, in particular the walking tour of the old city.

On the day that we ran into the cigar scam crew, we also decided to cross the campus of the University of Havana in part because my mother in law graduated from the University in the 1950s. Just as we started to step off campus a kid started talking to us about Cuba and the US. He was asking all kinds of questions when he was hailed by another kid who he invited to join us. As soon as this other kid joined us they dragged us to this revolutionary history location and that revolutionary history location on the campus grounds (the Cuban Socialist Party was founded there in the 1870s; there's an armored car that was captured by students in the Revolution in Santa Clara but which is now a landmark at the campus in Havana; this balcony was where Fidel first delivered revolutionary addresses).

They ended up taking us to a nearby house which has a bar on the bottom floor and dorm apartments reserved for high-achieving students in the upper stories. They told us that the bar is called "Los Barrieles" (I think, "The Barrels"). It's so named (and displays the namesake) after the barrels that Fidel and Che smuggled to the house before the revolution, as it was where Fidel lived while he was student at the University of Havana, under the protection of a student militia that he led.

The kids also told us that the bar has a signature drink, supposedly created by (you guessed it) Fidel and Che while they lived there, in commemoration of the abolishment of the University's whites-only rule, called the Negron. The drink consists of rum, cola (not Coca-Cola! they laughed), lemon juice, and basil (I think). The kids had a complicated metaphorical map for the ingredients that I didn't completely follow.

Both kids were interested and curious as to why we did not stay in casas particulares, and had the very firm opinion that we definitely should have. They were concerned by their school's lack of computers and interested when I started talking about how powerful smartphones are now. They were interested to hear about the PNW but didn't know much about it at all - one kid had the impression that Alaska was an island.

They had to run off to a class but did take the time to ask for some cash; we gave them a $5 CUC note and as we left they were high-fiving each other excitedly.

That hour was actually a real highlight. The kids, like every other person we met, were happy and well-fed and well-clothed, and overall, that aspect - of happiness - seemed to be pretty consistent, even though people are clearly struggling and strongly incented to seek those CUCs.


I've gone way past cell service info here. These are rough drafts for a more structured piece I will be posting on ye olde blogge. Hope they help those to whom this topic will be of interest.
posted by mwhybark at 12:21 PM on September 12, 2016

A bit more info from our trip here.
posted by mwhybark at 8:36 AM on September 13, 2016

er, I mean here.
posted by mwhybark at 5:46 AM on September 16, 2016

(The story the kids told about the bar was pretty muddled. Probably the house they were referring to was one that Fidel and his first group of radicals used in training and to stage weapons for their doomed attack on the Moncada Barracks in the early fifties, well before Che was on the scene. I haven't found any writing in English about the house and bar they took us to, but see no particular reason to think it wasn't the house used to prepare for the Moncada assault, which was apparently owned by Fidel's sister.)
posted by mwhybark at 11:38 PM on September 28, 2016

Seeing a couple favorites around xmas.


Photo book project blog entry.

Includes links to a PDF of the 80-odd page book and a 600-pic Apple Photos gallery.

Regarding the bar story:

At Thanksgiving, I brought DVDs for relatives including my inlaws, and when we reached a shot taken looking down the grand stairs of the University of Havana campus toward a roadway, my father-in-law jumped up and insisted we pause the DVD. Gesturing toward the road in the direction the kids had taken us, he said, more or less, "Just down that road is where Castro's house was!"

My wife and I looked at each other and asked him to go on. We had not told him the story of the bar or of the students.

He then proceeded to tell us of his memories of life in Havana the week of the Moncada barracks attack, specifying in particular that his barber, whom both he and Castro apparently patronized, passed along word that it would be best to lay low the week that the attack occurred.

He mentioned that the house that Castro lived in was a place it was best to avoid, due to the bar on the lower level where hotheads with guns hung out. He thought the name of the place was "Los Barolos", which is a perfect and equivalent synonym for "Los Barriles."

In essence, without prompting, my father in-law confirmed the facts the kids had shared with us. Somewhat mind-blowing.
posted by mwhybark at 11:56 PM on December 28, 2016

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