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Where I've Been and How You Can Go There
Living in Havana could be both a beautiful and maddening experience. Things didn’t always work fast or right, the heat could be oppressive and all the men staring and shouting things at me in Spanish in the street was making me crazy. But whenever I would walk along the Malecon esplanade of Havana, I would be reminded of how gorgeous the city really was- with its crumbling sea side palaces and troubadours walking around serenading people with live music along the waterfront. So when our one month visas were about to expire, we realized we really wanted to stay in this magical city longer.
Cuban Immigration Office in Havana
Having attended the Havana Carnivale the night before (which also happened to be Fidel Castro's 90th Birthday), we had to drag ourselves, hung over and exhausted out of bed to go to the Immigration office in Vedado to do the visa renewal. My heart actually broke for my boyfriend when he groggily requested we go on Monday (it was Friday then) and I explained to him that our visas would expire on the weekend so we had no choice but to go now. He just blinked his eyes tiredly and said “this is the worst news I have ever heard” and then buried his head under a pillow.
So looking like hell we arrived at this sweaty office, which had the most Cuban address ever: simply Number 17 between J and K in Vedado (many addresses referenced cross streets as their marker). We stumbled in, and began our wait in purgatory.
There was no sense of what to do. There were a bunch of people sitting around, no one at the main counter, a smattering of confused looking foreigners and a bad smell in the air (I presume from the toilet block that was wedged towards the back of the courtyard there). Did I mention that this whole waiting area for this visa office was outdoors? There was a covering- of sorts- to provide shade… but 35 degrees in the shade ain’t super cool either. And of course, the Cuban locals who were waiting in this outside courtyard did so elegantly and calmly. I’m not trying to suggest they were loving the situation either- but the women were clever enough to bring their little hand fans to keep themselves cool during the inevitable wait.
A helpful Italian traveller told us that essentially we just had to wait for a lady to come collect our passports and that would mark our place in line. He had already been waiting for 3 hours at that point, and he said he was leaving to try his luck in the next town. I gulped and my boyfriend just wobbled on the spot looking faint. Finally after another hour of waiting, during which we sat on the floor and tried not to die, a lady from the office came out and took my partner’s Australian passport. Meanwhile she informed me that as a Canadian I had an automatic 90 day ‘visa’ upon entry.
This was confusing on several levels. Firstly, when we were first coming to Cuba, we were told that Cuba doesn’t require visas for Canada and Australia. But then upon further research it became clear that every foreigner has to purchase a $25 USD ‘travel card’… (which, to my mind, essentially amounts to close enough to a visa to enter the country- it actually has ‘visa’ written on it)! Anyway, we bought those in Mexico at the airport before flying to Havana, and were told that we would both have to renew them in 30 days. My card looked identical to my Aussie’s partners and said in fine print that it would expire in 30 days.
So back at the immigration office I tried to show this fine print on my visa/travel card to the woman at the desk, and she just waved me away saying it didn’t matter what it said. Canadians have 90 days off the bat and then an option to renew another 90 days after that. Sweet!
But I still definitely took a video of her saying that on my phone as some kind of back up in case this could became an issue later on. Thankfully, it never did. But at the time my paranoia was informed by the fact that I had read on a forum that despite the fact that Canadian passport holders get a 90 day visa (note: nowhere had I read that this was on arrival), if one was born outside of Canada (as is the case with me) they did have the right to discriminate/not give you this 90 day visa. Which is bizarre in my opinion.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when we had arrived at the airport in Havana, I was asked to hang back at Immigration and there was a small conference called with three agents puzzling over my passport and looking me up and down muttering “La India, la India” over and over again. But they let me through and all was well!
To Summarise How to Extend Your Visa in Cuba:
Canadians get 90 days in Cuba from the day they enter, and can choose to apply for another 90 day extension after that (all you need is the $25 travel card to enter)
Other nationalities get 30 days and must apply for an extension for another 30 days. After 2 months if they want to extend again, they must leave Cuba for 3 days and can come back again for 30 days
What you need to take to Cuban Immigration With You:
25 CUC worth of sellos- these special stamps that you must get from a bank (along with its receipt of purchase)
Your original travel card
A receipt of payment from the place you have been staying in Cuba
Note well: men must wear pants longer then the knees, shirts (no singlets allowed) and woman should be conservatively dressed to visit the Immigration office. We could have never guessed this and it was never written on any of the (limited as they were) websites we visited. But this is a mandatory rule for a visit to the Immigration office, or they can turn you away. I also found this to be a rule when I showed up with flip flips and shorts at a library and got scolded for not being dressed formally enough!
After 5 hours, we finally had my partner’s new visa in hand and gratefully left the steaming office in search for cool drinks and a taxi back to Havana Vieja. It was a big effort- but it was definitely worth it to stay on in Cuba longer, and in the end we ended up living in Havana for 3 unforgettable months in total.
Like many things in Cuba, getting signed up for courses can be both a straight forward process and also a very overwhelming one. You may find courses advertised online before you arrive on the island (as getting online can be its own challenge once you've arrived), but then when you actually arrive in Cuba it can be tempting to check out other local courses that maybe didn't get the chance to get their business online and are actually cheaper and are still teaching the same things.
For example, Spanish classes can be taken at private schools across the city, and if you wish to take them at one of the institutions like Estudio Sampere or Sprachcaffe, definitely arrange it online before arriving in Cuba (because as I said it will be difficult trying to get online and arrange it once in the country). But the courses taught in established schools are way more expensive then doing them privately at home- which is what I opted to do.
From what I could gather during my time in Cuba, doing things a la ‘particular’ was always an alternative option and always cheaper. You could take dance or Spanish classes at a school, or do 'particular' classes at home, where the teacher negotiates different rates to come to your place a few times a week. You could take a regular taxi, which is pricey, or a taxi 'particular'- share with a bunch of other people and bring down the price. You could choose to eat in a restaurant or eat at someone's 'house restaurant'. You could choose to stay in a hotel, or stay in a 'casa particular'- a share house with a family, and it’s cheaper, etc. etc. I found it awesome that you always have those options in Cuba as people are thrifty and entrepreneurial, and as a traveler on a tight budget I didn't feel pressured to take on options I couldn't afford.
Benefits of Spanish Classes in Cuba
I definitely think having a bit of Spanish knowledge is not just useful when you arrive in Cuba, but kind of necessary if you want to have any kind of meaningful interaction with locals. Sure, there were people who speak bits of English… but Cuba is a Spanish speaking country, and without the local language, you only end up getting a particular kind of experience. I noticed that a lot of jineteros (street hustlers) had stock standard icebreakers they use to draw you into a conversation (in English of course)- and then sell you something. The basic question they ask is where you’re from and when, for example, my partner said Australia, they launch into little anecdotes about Australian wrestlers they know or inexplicably this Australian children’s TV show that is really popular in Cuba called ‘Skippy’- about an a kangaroo who goes around helping to solve mysteries.
Cultural Cosmopolitan (Even Outside the Classroom)
When asked where I was from I chose to say India for several reasons. For one, I thought that if I said Canada they would wonder about my ethnic background- which is an assumption that was confirmed the moment I landed at the airport here. At immigration a little conference suddenly formed at the desk, with officials muttering something about ‘New Delhi’ under their breath and squinting at my Canadian passport and then back up at me in confusion. Second, I thought if they heard India and not an industrialized Western country, it may help to establish some kind of connection. What kind of connection I can not say exactly. As a cultural cosmopolitan, I find myself constantly negotiating identity frameworks depending on my surroundings, so it’s nothing new for me here. I also thought, if they hadn’t really heard much about India, they perhaps wouldn’t hustle me as much as they would a Western foreigner. Well, while they might not have been hustling me quite as much as they were my gringo boyfriend, they also had a stock standard responses for Indians- ‘we love Indian movies’! Ahh so wide is the reach of Bollywood movies that they even play them Cuban theatres regularly!
With some hard work at my Spanish 'particular' classes which I opted to take in a lovely former middle school teacher's house in Old Havana, I was actually able to watch Bollywood movies that were dubbed in Spanish- a trippy experience, but cool nonetheless. I also learned some basic Cuban salsa from a neighbour who was a dance teacher and taught lessons with her brother out of their apartment. And finally, for the days were I was homesick and missing my mama's cooking, I discovered a local 'home kitchen' where the good old Cuban rice and beans were served up with chicken or pork for pennies! I was definitely a fan of supporting these little home businesses, what do you think? Is this the kind of thing you would like to support in your Cuban travels? Let me know by leaving me a comment below!