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Booking a trip to Cuba? What you really need to know.

In the last 3 years Fly Water has been excited to help a vast amount of anglers, couples and families make successful trips to Cuba. It’s clear that Cuba has some incredibly exciting opportunities for the saltwater fly angler with some truly pristine fisheries combined with fascinating cultural experiences. As always, with a huge number of Fly Water clients choosing Cuba as a destination these days, we want to be sure that everyone is as well-informed as possible. Here are some answers to many of the key questions that need to be answered when we receive inquiries about Cuba from interested anglers.

We hope you find this frank and honest discussion about what trips to Cuba entail valuable and we feel strongly that Fly Water’s vast experience traveling and booking these destinations will be a valuable tool as you look to make the most of your time and maximize your experience in Cuba.

by Dylan Rose

Are there special permits needed? How much are they?
Aside from a valid U.S. passport that does not expire within one year of your arrival date back to the U.S., there are two additional documents that all Americans must prepare in order to legally travel to Cuba. The first is a Cuban Tourist Card/Visa. These cards can be purchased online (approximately $110) before your trip or at the departing airport (approximately $85) prior to your arrival in Cuba. The second is a signed affidavit that we will mail you in your final confirmation packet. This document simply states that your reason for travel to Cuba falls under a People-to-People license for educational purposes. All that is required is for you simply state that this is the case. There are no fees, applications, or extraneous processes to do this. The affidavit just puts the right words in your mouth when entering back in the U.S. after your trip. “Educational purposes” are one of 12 legal reasons that U.S. citizens may travel to Cuba and all that is required is for you to declare that you are traveling for educational purposes.

How do I get there?
Currently, most anglers at the time of booking with Fly Water Travel will decide to visit Havana on the front end of their trip. Flights from the states to Havana remain the most readily available and bookable online. In some cases anglers can fly in to airports closer to their fishing destinations and bypass Havana.

What is the conservation fee?
All anglers, regardless of nationality, must pay a $100 conservation fee per person that is added to your package price.

Who is the ideal Cuba traveler?
The ideal Cuban travelers are those that are aware of the many challenges that accompany visiting a county mired in a totalitarian communist government. Those visiting Cuba should be aware that the potential is high for lengthy delays, lost reservations, early wake up times, imperfect travel itineraries and high costs. In short, you’ve got to be willing to roll with the travel-related punches and be ready to go-with-the-flow when traveling in Cuba. If you are not that traveler, then there are other destinations that are less expensive, with fewer variables and a more controlled experience.

On the other hand, if you appreciate traveling to countries to experience cultural differences and want to visit a place undergoing immense change (the likes of which we may never see again), and also appreciate pristine fisheries and remote environments, you might just fall in love with Cuba.

How do I deal with the money exchange?
There are two forms of currency in Cuba. One for the locals and one for the tourists. The locals pay in Cuban Pesos which is only academic since as a tourist you will never deal in this currency. As a tourist, you will pay in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), which are nicknamed Cuc’s (kooks). The CUC is pegged at roughly the same value as an American dollar. Since most Cuban establishments will not accept U.S. dollars (or charge a 10% fee), our advice is to travel to the country with Euros. Once you arrive at your hotel you may exchange Euros into CUC’s at the hotel front desk, a local bank or a money exchange window. Changing money at the hotels is convenient and safe.

What happens when I arrive in Cuba?
Anglers typically arrive in Havana and are met by a lodge representative after clearing customs and collecting their bags. Guests are then helped into a local government licensed taxi and driven to their hotel. In the event that no one is there to meet you, our paperwork will detail your hotel  reservation so you can simply hop in a taxi on your own. Many cab drivers speak English well enough to get you to your hotel, and I have not found one yet that couldn’t figure out where I was going, even if they didn’t immediately recognize the hotel name.

Taxis to/from the airport are not included in your fishing package and since you likely do not posses CUC’s when you arrive yet, it’s common to pay the cab driver in Euros (or Canadian dollars). The typical cost from the airport to downtown Havana hotels is about €25 Euros.

What is Havana like?
Old Havana is full of rustic beauty from a by-gone era. It’s a lively, loud, hot, bustling, smoggy (no emissions control for vehicles) and intensely charming place full of wonder and immense change! For the most part the locals are incredibly warm, friendly and are yearning for daily life to improve through better relations with the U.S. Are there destitute populations of people begging for money? Yes. It’s important to realize that as an American tourist, you look like a walking sack of money roaming down the street looking for a place to call home. Yes, in old Havana this means that poor and desperate people will try and pry money out of you (not forcibly, as in a begging sense).

In all other parts of the city and country, this is very rarely the case. My advice is to leave your massively expensive looking Canon digital camera at the hotel if you go into old Havana, throw on a black t-shirt and jeans (in a lame attempt to blend in) and wander around like you own the place. If you look like you are there to hand out money to the poor, are sporting expensive clothes, wearing expensive jewelry and flashing wads cash (or a wallet) then you should expect to draw some potentially unwanted attention.

It’s also important to add that while some poor Cubans may persist with asking you for money, petty crime is relatively low in the city. I have wandered the streets of old Havana at all hours of the day and night and felt safer then in most big cities in the U.S.

How do I get the most out of my time there?
Our strong advice when in Cuba is to slow down, take a deep breath, drink a cold Mojito and realize that everything will work out. You will get where you need to be one way or the other. Sure, the process may be slow and fraught with error, but everything will work out. This is Cuba after all!

How are the hotels in Havana?
Hotels in Havana are like anywhere else. Some of them are great and some of them are pretty rough.  For new 2017 booking and for the 2018 season hotels, are no longer included in the packages from the fishing outfitter. To address this we have partnered with a great travel agency that makes it easy to book rooms. We will provide a list of two or three favorite hotels that we use and recommend.  The main thing to note is that tourism in Cuba has dramatically increased and availability has become scarce.  For this reason we recommend booking your room early right away. 

Cuba is new for Americans. Are the fishing destinations new as well?
There are a lot of myths out there about Cuba and it’s important to understand fact from fiction before you go. Anglers from Canada, Europe, Central and South America have been fishing these waters for decades. It’s just the Americans that have been left out of the party all these years! Many anglers call me and allude to the fact that they want to go to Cuba because the fisheries have “just opened up”. This is not the case. The vast majority of these fisheries have been fished over the last 20 years plus.

What is remarkable, however, is that the regime for the most part has done an incredible job of preserving and protecting their natural resources, thus creating some truly incredible fishing opportunities.  There is not another country in the Caribbean that has done a better job of preserving and protecting their fisheries than Cuba. Part of this may stem from the fact that one would have to be foolish to poach or fish illegally in the face of Castro’s regime.

One of the other pervasive myths out there is that the fishing is a Shangri-La full of massive bonefish, permit and tarpon as far as the eye can see, and that they ALL will bite your fly with reckless abandon. Like many places, sometimes the fishing can be truly amazing, but more often then not, saltwater fly fishing is still saltwater fly fishing and it can be extremely difficult. Those with the most skill, experience and preparation will do the best every time when it comes to catching fish. Saltwater fly fishing is the most difficult form of fly fishing there is and just because you are in Cuba and have spent two or three times as much money to go there, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your rod will be bent all day long.

Another myth about Cuba is that tourism is only just getting going there. This is totally untrue. Europeans, Canadians and Central and South Americans have been visiting the country for decades. In fact, some 2 million tourists visit the country every year, even before the American onslaught.

How many destinations are there?
There are many destinations across Cuba as the island is actually larger than the state of Florida. We’ve identified six amazing destinations and focus on the Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), Cayo Largo, Isla de Juventud (Island of Youth), Cayo Cruz, the Zapata Peninsula and Cayo Santa Maria (aka Gardens of the King).

Who are the outfitters?
Cuba’s main fly fishing outfitter is Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers. Avalon is a large organization with a plethora of destinations including both mother ship and land based destinations. Avalon has the infrastructure, experience, in-country relationships and people on the ground to offer a wide ranging and diverse selection of destinations. Like dealing with any large company or organization, working with Avalon can have it’s pluses and minuses. We are experts at helping you interface with Cuban outfitters and look after your best interests when booking a Cuban adventure. Your time is valuable. Let us help you.

Fly Fishing the Run is another outfitter that works closely with Avalon and is supported with Avalon trained guides, boats and personnel. Fly Fishing the Run offers well run, slightly less expensive options at Cayo Santa Maria (Gardens of the King) and the Zapata Peninsula.

Why are Cuba trips so much more expensive then elsewhere in the Caribbean?
In many cases anglers can visit destinations in Belize or Mexico twice for the cost of a single trip to Cuba. It’s easy to make the assumption that because the trip costs twice as much, the service, lodging, guiding and the fishing must be twice as good.  This is just not the case. The lodging, service and guiding are pretty much on par with what you would expect in Belize or Mexico.  As for the fishing, the bonefish are larger in Cuba for sure and at time they are numerous but permit and tarpon fishing varies widely throughout the Caribbean and Cuba is no exception. One factor that makes these trips relatively expensive is that Cuban outfitters have to pay a lot to keep their fishing grounds exclusive and pristine.  This means that it is rare to see other anglers when you are fishing.  Lastly it should be known that Cuba is currently in high demand and that this fact is not lost on the outfitters and shows clearly in their rates.