Travel to Cuba, and arriving in Havana, was like no other country we traveled to before. When checking in at the ticket counter in San Jose, Costa Rica, we kept thinking the airline employee would tell us we could not board the plane because we were American and not allowed to travel to Cuba. But, she presented us our Tourist Cards, provided us comfy exit row seating, smiled, and sent us on our way.
There were no other Americans on our flight. We felt a little alone.
We kept trying to remind ourselves that the Costa Ricans and the Cubans do not care whether we are American. It is only our government that continues to levy restrictions on travel to Cuba, with certain exceptions, for which we of course qualified (wink wink). But, the nervousness existed nonetheless.
Problems With Immigration and Travel to Cuba
As we deplaned and walked straight to immigration, I felt a pang of nervousness in my belly – something that does not normally happen when we enter a new country. I approached the immigration counter first, with Eric waiting behind. I handed my passport, almost expecting to be rejected. The immigration official asked some typical questions – purpose of my travel to Cuba, how long I would be in Cuba, was I traveling alone? She stamped my Tourist Card for travel to Cuba (they do not stamp the passport itself), and I walked through the locked door to the other side. I had made it into Cuba.
When the door shut and locked behind me, I realized I could no longer see Eric and his progress through immigration. I waited for a bit and when the door opened again, a woman emerged and Eric was no where in sight. I became nervous, remembering quickly that Eric does not really speak Spanish. I continued to wait, thinking there was a problem with one of his forms, until I realized she did not even look at my customs or health forms. What could be the hold up? The minutes ticked by and another woman emerged from the locked door. I peeked into the hall once again, and did not see Eric anywhere in the line.
An immigration officer on the other side told me I could not wait there any more. I explained to him the situation, in Spanish. My husband was behind me in line, but he had not come through. I was waiting for him because I think there may be a problem and he does not speak Spanish. I was assured “no hay problema” and they speak English. After a few more minutes, he became more adamant that I could not wait by the door. I explained my predicament once again, both to him and another officer that joined the conversation. Again I was told “no hay problema”. Please move on.
I reluctantly made my way through a security line, more similar to one you enter before boarding an airplane than after immigration. I waited, not too patiently, on the other side. More people exited through the locked door marked with a bright red number 8. I am not sure how long I waited – it seemed like an eternity. All I kept thinking was that I was alone in Cuba and Eric was in some sort of immigration limbo, a middle-earth, decidedly not allowed into Cuba.
FINALLY, Eric appeared through door number 8, quite nonchalantly, as I pleaded with him through our version of ESP “what the heck happened?”. When he made it through the emergency line, he informed me that he did not know what the problem was. The immigration officer took his passport and papers, handed it to a woman, and asked him to step aside. The second woman asked all sorts of questions to Eric, including where he was staying, what does he do for a living, etc. Ultimately, they let him through. We grabbed our luggage and made our way for the customs line marked “Nothing to Declare.”
Problems with Customs in Cuba
Then, we were stopped one more time. As we tried to escape customs and emerge into the airport lobby, someone stopped us as and asked us to step aside for a conversation. A customs officer proceeded to ask first Eric, and then me, a series of questions, in Spanish. What was interesting is that the form had the questions in English and Spanish, and I could have filled out the form by myself in about 60 seconds, but instead we struggled with my lack of Spanish skills along with our inability to answer all the questions.
When asked for the name and address of every place we would be staying I had to explain that we were joining a tour for a few days and that they did not tell us ahead of time what the address was for our home stays. He did not seem to like that answer. I also did not say I was a writer, or a former lawyer. Instead, I said I was a “consultant.” Sure, that works. He asked what kind and I said travel consultant.
At least twice he walked over to a woman supervisor, the same one who asked Eric many of the same questions at the immigration counter. They talked and looked back at us, waiting by the luggage belt.
Finally, after who knows how long, this experience was over. We were allowed to walk under the coveted “Nothing to Declare” customs sign and emerge into the airport, where more chaos awaited.
After stressing out about exchanging a little money, we tried to find a taxi. As we turned around, there was someone holding a sign that read “Eric Hoffman.” Not remembering whether we ordered a driver or not, we followed the guy with the sign. What were the chances that there were two Eric Hoffmans arriving in Havana at the same time.
Still a little discombobulated, we got into the aging Russian or European automobile, to vey slowly make our way into town. I asked how long it took and our driver, Joan, told us about 30 minutes. I was not sure whether it would normally take 15, but the age of Joan’s car make the drive take twice as long. As I unhappily breathed in the exhaust fumes through the open window I started to take in Cuba for the first time – overcast, aging, grey, and crumbling. We were ready for an entirely new experience. But, at least we were there.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.