Changes in Cuba signal welcome for LGBTQ visitors

  • by Ed Walsh, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday February 28, 2024
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The Christ of Havana statue overlooks the Cuban city. Photo: Ed Walsh
The Christ of Havana statue overlooks the Cuban city. Photo: Ed Walsh

If you haven't been to Cuba recently you haven't been there. The country is quietly tiptoeing away from the socialism that has impoverished the island since Fidel Castro confiscated private property and businesses in 1960, prompting the U.S. trade embargo in 1962. The Cuban government says the embargo is to blame for most of its economic troubles but critics, while acknowledging that the embargo has a significant economic detriment, say it is too often used as a catch-all excuse for the government's failings.

In 2011, then-president Raul Castro gave the green light for the establishment of small businesses. That program was expanded in 2021 to allow businesses to operate with up to 100 employees. The CIA estimated in 2021 that 27.7% of Cubans were employed in the non-state sector. Since 2021, more than 8,000 new private sector businesses have been created, according to the University of Miami. Now some estimates put non-state sector employment to as high as 35%.

Years before Cuba began its shift away from socialism, the country turned away from homophobia. That change was made clear less than two years ago when nearly two-thirds of the Cuban population voted in support of same-sex marriage and the right for same-sex couples to adopt children. That was a huge change for a country that once imprisoned homosexuals.

Confusion about visiting Cuba

There is a lot of confusion about visiting Cuba. Most of what you read on the internet is outdated. Americans are allowed to visit Cuba as long as they check off one of 13 boxes stating that they are going to the country for a number of mostly humanitarian reasons. Most people check off the box that says they're going in support of the Cuban people, a rule that is loosely interpreted and rarely verified or enforced.

I visited Cuba last month with copious advice from Charles Kimball, a Healdsburg resident and hotel maître who runs the LGBTQ-focused website Out in Cuba. He said that none of his clients have ever been questioned when they check off that box. He noted that he only puts travelers in small privately-owned bed and breakfast inns known as casa particulares. By staying there, his clients can directly support LGBTQ-friendly local Cubans instead of the repressive Cuban government, which has at least a majority ownership of almost all large hotels and resorts. Kimball works with a couple of great guides in tune with Cuba's gay community, Andrés Gómez Quevedo and Dayron Ortiz.

Forty-eight hours before your flight departs, you should fill out this form online so you don't have to deal with it when you arrive. It is in Spanish, but you can select English using the icon in the upper right corner that has the letter A in a square. After you complete the form, you will be given a QR code, which you can download on your phone or print out. You will need to show that code when arriving in Cuba.

But wait, there's more. You will also need to buy a visa, which you can purchase at the gate if you connect in Miami. You can also buy it online but it usually costs more to do so. All the airlines charge different prices for the visa. JetBlue, for example, charges half of the $100 American Airlines does.

Casa Vitrales owner Osmani Hernandez, left, and manager Alejandro del Pino can fill visitors in on the gay scene. Photo: Ed Walsh  

I stayed at the Casa Cuarteles on my trip on a referral from Out in Cuba. It is a beautifully restored building in the heart of old Havana and in easy walking distance of the city's main attractions. The property is staffed 24 hours a day, so there always is someone around to help. That is a huge advantage in a country that can be quite confusing.

I was able to tour a couple of nearby gay-owned places that would be great choices as well. If you search for Baywinds in Havana Airbnb listings, you will find a one-bedroom apartment rental from Cuban native Amaury Pascual. Like Cuarteles, it is perfectly situated in Old Havana, within walking distance of the most popular attractions in the city.

Another good gay-owned option is the seven-unit Casa Vitrales that includes two suites and five standard rooms. It is owned by Osmani Hernandez, who can clue you in on Havana's gay scene.

For the noise-sensitive, the gay-owned Casa Flamboyan is a great option a little farther away from the main tourist attractions in the city. It is just a 15-minute taxi ride from the heart of historic, but noisy, Old Havana.

There are two gay hotels in Cuba and both are banned for U.S. travelers, though that prohibition is apparently very loosely enforced. Bans aside, you may want to avoid either hotel because by staying there, you are effectively providing support for the Cuban military, which profits from the hotels through its tourism company, Gaviota. According to the U.S. State Department, more than 700 people were arrested for protesting against the Cuban government in 2021. Some were charged with sedition, facing prison sentences of up to 26 years.

The Telegrafo Hotel, in the heart of Havana, is the oldest hotel in Cuba but it reopened in 2022 under the Spanish-based LGBTQ Axel Hotel brand. Like the other hotels in the Axel brand, it promotes itself as "hetero-friendly." Despite the State Department's ban, on a recent tour of the 63-room property, I was told that the hotel is popular with Americans.

The other gay hotel, Hotel Gran Muthu Rainbow, was opened by Cayo Guillermo in 2019 but it is also on the banned list because of its partnership with the Cuban military. The hotel is in a resort area, a seven-hour drive from Havana or about a 35-minute cab ride from the Aeropuerto de Jardines del Rey.

Cuba once used a tourist currency and a currency for residents. Now, it's all the same currency. Inflation has been astronomical in Cuba. As of January 2024, a 500-peso note was worth just two U.S. dollars. Most private businesses accept U.S. dollars, but it is usually a good idea to convert your money to pesos rather than trust a store or restaurant to give you a good exchange rate. Don't exchange money at a bank, or at the airport. You are better off exchanging money at your casa particulares or at a private business.

You will need to bring cash to Cuba. Out in Cuba advises visitors to bring about $100 per day. Be sure to bring crisp bills. Cubans think old bills are more likely to be counterfeit.

Getting around
Cuba doesn't have Uber or Lyft but has a similar ride-share app called La Nave. It works the same as those ride sharing services but you pay cash directly to the driver rather than through a credit card. The price is in Cuban pesos, but the driver will probably take U.S. dollars as well and at the black market rate.

Gay beach
Cuba has an official gay beach called Mi Cayito that is marked by a rainbow flag placed at the top of a bluff over the beach. It has a snack bar and concession stand where you can rent chairs, kayaks, and other beach stuff. The beach is beautiful but remote. You can take a cab there for $25-$30 for the 25-minute ride from Havana, but be sure to arrange a ride back ahead of time. It is sometimes difficult to get a taxi or La Nave to pick up from there. If you hire a guide, they can arrange trusted transportation for you.

One of two fulltime gay bars in Havana is the Las Vegas. Photo: Ed Walsh  

There are two fulltime permanent gay bars in Havana. Both are close to the National Hotel, which is across the street from what used to be the gayest part of the Malecon. One is called Las Vegas. The other is called XY and is across from the Malecon but still within walking distance of the National Hotel. The biggest regular gay gathering is called Divino. It moves around to different locations on different nights. Check out the Facebook page for more information.

As a tourist, you can order a SIM card online for $35 through this link: I found it well worth the cost. Just after I claimed my luggage, I presented my receipt at a kiosk, and the clerk replaced my SIM card and assigned me a Cuban telephone number.

If you hire a guide through Out in Cuba or another service, a must-do is a walking tour of Havana. That will include a walk through the city's famous plaza with a history lesson at every turn. The Museum of the Revolution is a must-see attraction where you will hear about the Cuban revolution from the Cuban government's perspective.

Be sure to take the Ferry Casablanca from the heart of the tourist-popular old town Havana. The landmark statue Christ of Havana is a 10-minute walk from the other side of the ferry landing. Just behind the statue is the former home of communist revolutionary Che Guevara.

Revolution Plaza is another must-see attraction in Havana. It is the place where Fidel Castro routinely spoke to thousands for hours at a time. The government buildings on the opposite side of the plaza from where the dictator spoke have huge black metal outlines of the faces of revolutionaries Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

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