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Cuba has been making headlines lately. Since the US government relaxed some of the restrictions on its citizens visiting the country late last year, the island nation has been on traveler’s radar — and rightly so.
It’s somewhere that appears to have hit the snooze button in the 1950s, and managed to keep its looks intact. Beautiful beaches, enchanted little towns, and a culture that manages to be thrillingly alive and idiosyncratically unique all at once, Cuba has it all.
Except working, reliable Internet.
Cuba is one of the last countries in the world where Wi-fi isn’t widely available, and where comparing offers from different providers is just not an option. It’s like stepping back in time to the early days of the Internet.
Many times I had weirdly vivid flashbacks to the mid-90s, except this time I was trying to check in with work and not look up pictures of the Backstreet Boys.
Getting connected in Cuba is as frustrating as it is unsatisfactory, and you’d better come prepared. Here’s what you need to know.
The Beginning… Which Was 2013
One of the last countries in the world to get online, Cuba didn’t have proper Internet connectivity until 2013. Yes, that’s barely three years ago. The island connected for the first time in 1996, but back then it was limited to institutions and government offices.
Cubans were not allowed to even own a personal computer until 2008, when Raúl Castro took office from his brother and started opening up the country’s communications ever so slightly.
Cuba now receives service through a submarine cable from Jamaica, which brings Wi-fi to some specific locations, mostly hotels and official buildings. The government still holds a tight grip on the service, with state-owned Etecsa being the only provider of both cell service and Internet on the island.
Private broadband subscriptions are virtually unheard of, since permits are very hard to come by. In any case, the service is too expensive for most Cubans (who receive an average salary of $20/month) to afford.
The Present: Availability & Cost
Building on that last remark, the first thing you need to know: do not expect Wi-fi to be offered in your guesthouse. Unless you are planning to stay in one of the high-end hotel chains, you won’t be able to log in from your accommodation.
What to do then? Go the old-fashioned way: buy a prepaid card, and go to an Internet hotspot.
The hotspots will be easy to see, because bunches of people, tourists and locals alike, will be gathered around them looking at their phones. Hotels are the best bet, such as Ambos Mundos or Inglaterra in Old Havana. Some of them will let you sit down in their lobby or garden.
If that’s the case, do go in, because these hotels are in beautiful colonial buildings with gorgeous indoor gardens well worth lingering in for as long as the connection allows.
You then need a Nauta (the government’s Internet service) prepaid card, which will come with a code to enter when logging in. Now, for the shocker: the prepaid cards come with the whopping price tag of 4.50 CUC (peso convertible, the currency used by tourists and expats), or $4.50, for one hour. Trust me, one does think twice about cat videos at that price.
An important thing to remember: log out of your session when you’re done. If you don’t, the time on the card will keep running even though you’re not actively using it. Believe me, it’s not fun to find your time, which you paid good money for, has expired even though you only browsed for a few minutes.
Prepaid cards will be available at these hotel receptions, and sometimes in small mom-and-pop stores next to them. Just as with everything else in Cuba, businesses only have a limited number of cards to sell, and they run out from time to time.
You will also see touts next to hotel doors selling prepaid cards. It might be tempting to buy one off them when you’ve been walking around for two hours in search of the Internet (been there), but they usually charge 1 or 2 CUC extra, with no guarantee the card hasn’t been used beforehand. Not worth it.
There is one way around it, but it depends on luck as much as determination. From time to time, self-made Internet providers will pop up around popular tourist spots in Havana. A guy with an Internet connection (snatched from an official institution or through substantial investment) will turn their laptop into a mini hotspot, and offer an hour for 1 CUC. Believe me, they are loved.
However, there is a risk in this activity, since it’s completely illegal. Should the guy be caught, he or she would be in deep trouble and might even end up in prison. Not the safest profession around, that’s for sure.
High-end hotels do offer Internet connections, but within the severe limitations of the country. Even if you are splurging on an all-included stay in Varadero or the super nice Iberostar Parque Central in Havana, forget about tweeting from bed. The Internet will be available only in the hotel’s lobby, and at the exact same, official price.
Cell service in Cuba is just a little better than the Internet, meaning it’s expensive and slow, but generally reliable. There is one big caveat, though: foreigners are not allowed to purchase SIM cards in Cuba. To obtain one, you would have to ask a Cuban friend to register for you under their name, if they are able at all. By law, every Cuban can own up to three mobile lines.
Therefore, mobile internet will be mostly out of reach. The only way you could obtain data (however slow) is through roaming. Some international providers started offering the service, including US-based Sprint and Verizon.
If you don’t know if your provider at home offers roaming services in Cuba, you might just be surprised. One day, my boyfriend, who I was traveling with, woke up to a slew of WhatsApp messages and e-mails on his iPhone screen, which had remained mute since arrival. Mine was, sadly, not as compliant.
As it turns out, he had absentmindedly left his phone in a corner of the room that snatched reception, and the provider (Mexico’s Telcel) happens to offer roaming in Cuba. It didn’t last long, but it sure was pleasant to, on that one day, respond to messages from bed.
Making the Most of It
Be Quick: Try to Work Offline
While I would warn to anybody going to Cuba to not expect to get anything done online, if you absolutely must file, check or upload something the connection might support it… for a short time.
My advice: do the bulk of your work offline, and be quick when you log in. The network gets saturated and, though not as often as a couple of decades ago, there are power outages. Try to have everything ready to go up when you get online, in order to make the most of the time you do have. You can also try caching your e-mail to be able to reply offline.
Connect in the Morning and Evening
If you have the opportunity to schedule your visits to the hotspot, try going early in the morning, at some point in the evening, or during meal times. With less people online, you have a higher chance of actually connecting.
Going in the middle of the night, however, is tricky, since some places turn off their Internet after a certain hour.
Skip Images and Video
It bears mentioning, just in case: the more basic the content you’re browsing, the higher the chance of a successful Internet exploration. Stick to HTML, and leave YouTube for when you get back home.
What About Censorship?
Cuba is still one of the most restrictive countries in terms of access to information, and you will see constant evidence of censorship. There are no international newspapers, no news channels on TV, and even certain music is barely played.
Is the Internet equally crippled? In short, yes: the government controls access to all online content, and filters a high percentage of it. Freedom House gave Cuba a 29 in limits to content (35 being the worst score).
In my particular experience, though, I didn’t find major roadblocks: unlike other countries, Facebook is fully operational, as is Twitter.
The Future: Better Conditions Ahead?
With the rekindling of US-Cuba relationships and the US lifting international bans on foreign investment, there are high hopes for service to improve in the next few years.
Sprint, which was the first US provider to offer roaming on the island, has expressed interest in building an Internet infrastructure in the country. Chinese giant Huawei already announced substantial investment in Cuba’s telecom industry last year.
However, significant changes in the state of the Internet connection are still years away, waiting for the necessary technology to get up and running, and legislation to ease up a bit.
Who knows, one day Cuba might just become the next hub for digital nomads. For the time being, though, my advice would be to take your Cuba trip as the perfect excuse to unwind and get offline for a few days. You might even enjoy it – I know I did.
Images via Marcelo Dondo (Hotel Inglaterra)