We visited Cuba for a week in March 2016 to celebrate Sharon’s “ends with a 0” birthday year. Based on what we were able to learn before our trip, we were ready to be on a full internet blackout. It seemed to be that there might be internet in Cuba but we had no idea how to access it.
Here’s what our experience was when we tried to get access to the internet and how that has changed (or stayed the same) since our trip.
To be honest, we didn’t even try to get access to the internet when were in our first city, Havana. We booked the trip with a concierge who set up all our activities while we were in the city. We stayed at a casa particular and had a wonderful time meeting the locals and finding about what everyday life in Cuba was like. We also found that everyone seemed to love baseball, specifically the New York Yankees and SPECIFICALLY specifically, Derek Jeter (and we had to say no, we didn’t know him personally – a couple of people really did ask us that!). We didn’t take any time to try to find a Wifi network, as we were actually enjoying not being plugged in at all times and having to check in at every location we went to.
We did find out by talking to our guides that Cubans are able to access the internet and read most of sites they want, if they can pay for it. There’s no free internet access in Cuba, so you always have to pay, by the minute, for access. While speaking with one of our guides (who was previously a university teacher), we found that when he bought Wifi access, he regularly looked at articles from the Washington Post and New York Times and was very proud of that fact. This was very surprising to us as we thought access to much information would be limited by the government. And it was – but instead of blocking sites, they simply made the internet too expensive for most Cuban people to access for any significant amount of time.
After our third day in Havana, we left for the city of Trinidad. Although we had some “alone time” while in Havana, we had a personal guide and driver for the rest of our trip around Cuba, so we asked them how we might get Wifi access. They said we could go to the ETECSA office in town the next day and buy a Wifi card. ETECSA is the government-run telecommunication provider that holds the key to all internet access in Cuba. Starting in 2015, they started to open up a number of Wifi hotspots in Havana and have spread access across the country ever since.
The next day, as promised, we were taken to an street in downtown Trinidad and left on a line of about 10 tourists. The “Wifi card line,” if you will. As we waited, our guide pointed to a person who was sitting across the street with a sign saying “No más tarjetas” (no more cards). Apparently someone like this is outside every Wifi office in Cuba and they will sell the one hour access cards that normally cost 2 CUC for 3 CUC (Note that 1 CUC is approximately $1 USD). You have to pay the markup but you also don’t have to stand out in the heat (and it was HOT!) while waiting to get a card.
We would have gladly paid that extra dollar but ended standing outside for what felt like forever (but was actually only a little under an hour) until it was time for us to go inside. They only allowed one group inside at a time to speak with the one worker who was selling the cards. Finally, it was our turn! I had read that ETECSA sold the one-hour cards for 2 CUC but we were only offered a five-hour card for 10 CUC. When we stepped up to the counter we asked for two cards, thinking we’d get the one-hour ones but we ended up with two five-hour cards for 20 CUC and that was way, WAY more than we needed. We thought about selling one of the cards to someone standing outside but didn’t know if we were allowed and didn’t want to get into trouble. As it turned out, I brought one of the cards home and gave it to a co-worker who has family in Cuba.
After dinner that evening, we asked where we needed to go to find a Wifi access point. Most of the cities have placed the Wifi in a central square or park (you’ll know when you find one as there will be people all around huddled around laptop computers or looking at their phones). Our guide took us to Plaza Carillo, but instead of telling us to sit in the park, we were told to go inside the Iberostar Gran Hotel Trinidad and grab a seat in the lobby, and they would come back to pick us up in about 30 minutes. It turned out that the hotel had Wifi that connected to the ETECSA network with the same access cards. This way we could be seated in a comfortable chair with fans to circulate the air, instead of on the ground outside, in the heat. While Cuban locals would not be allowed to enter to surf the internet, as a tourist we were told it would be no problem and no one blinked an eye as we walked into the lobby and made ourselves comfortable.
Since our access was timed, we went with the “old school” method to read emails:
- Log into network
- Open email program
- Download all email content
- Log out of network
- Look at emails and write replies if necessary
- Log back into network and send replies
- Log back out
By using this method, we were able to only use about 10 minutes of access time while looking at 4 days’ worth of messages. Towards the end of our time we logged back onto the Wifi and opened Facebook for a quick post to let everyone know we were OK and then logged back out.
Note that the LOGGING OUT is crucial. If you do not go back to your web browser and sign off, your minutes will continue to click away even if you are no longer connected to the Wifi network and trust me, you don’t want to stand in that line to get a card twice.
While we had planned to use the internet once or twice more on our trip, we never were able to get back to a Wifi spot, as we were staying at casas in smaller towns.
So that was our personal experience with using the Wifi in Cuba. Our trip was back in March of 2016, and it seems that there has been progress with increased Wifi access but still charging the same prices to log on.
I did find some pages that I’ve linked to below with more up-to-date information about where to find the Wifi access points across the country and step-by-step instructions on how to log onto the ETECSA network:
So should you find yourself in Cuba one of these days, yep, you can go on the internet and read whatever you want!
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