Travel guide to Cuba
Having done no research what-so-ever, I very much fumbled my way through my very first visit to Cuba. I rocked up without so much as an idea as to what the currency was, very late at night with nowhere to stay. Talk about ignorance! In retrospect here are all the things I wish I knew before heading over to Cuba. My next visit will be much more organized safe to say.
There are two currencies in Cuba and if you wish to obtain best value for money, you should acquire both.
- CUP – Cuban pesos is the official currency of the country and what the citizens use in their daily trading. Anything a local will require such as cheap food & drink, market foods, local buses and collectivo taxis will be sold in pesos
- CUC – Cuban ‘cook’ is the tourist currency. It has a value of 1:1 with the American dollar. Tourist restaurants, hotels & accommodation and intercity buses will all be sold in CUC
During my visit in late April the conversion rate stood at 24 pesos per 1 CUC. Given that the average cost of items in pesos is around 10-20 you do not require large amounts of pesos. I suggest changing over a small amount such as 10 CUC (equivalent to 10USD) to begin with. Any leftover pesos cannot be changed back into CUC or USD. You will be stuck with them – so change over wisely!
If you are an American citizen, your financial institution may not yet be recognized with Cuban banks and thus you may not be able to withdraw money at this stage. This is correct as of my visit in late April, however this stands to change in the future.
It is therefore in your best interest to bring in as much cash as you will require for stay. I suggest bringing in currency other than the USD (such as euros or pounds) if you wish to get best value for money. Money exchange or cambio will charge 10% of your exchange value if you choose to exchange USD. This does not apply for other currencies.
If you have a non-American bank card and wish to use ATM’s in Cuba, be warned they can come with large conversion fees attached. You can also go into the banks themselves and withdraw cash from your ATM card directly through a teller for only a 2% fee. This was the most economical way to obtain cash aside from brining in non-American currency and exchanging it.
*Please note there is a 25 CUC (equivalent 25 USD) departure tax that must be paid at the airport in cash only before you depart.
Within the city limits, the easiest way to get around is with a collectivo taxi. These are essentially shared taxis with a set rate of 10 pesos for any journey within the city. Simply hail one of the many cars down and ask if he is heading in your direction. More often than not they will be.
For a more rustic experience you can also use the local buses. At 1 peso they are an absolute steal. You can also take a local bus to and from the airport for this price.
To navigate between cities, head to the bus terminal and purchase your intercity tickets. Best to do this one day in advance to ensure you get the bus you desire. These buses will set you back between 5-10 CUK
You essentially have two options for accommodation during your visit to Cuba. They are either a hotel or a casa (homestay)
While hotels can be very easily booked online in advance, due to the lack of internet availability in Cuba it is much harder to organize a homestay in advance in this manner. To organize a homestay you will need to find an area you like within Havana or wander the streets of the smaller cities if outside Havana and look for a little blue anchor sign/plaque above the front door. This indicates that this is a homestay casa available to tourists. The red anchor indicates it is for Cubans visitors only.
The general price for a homestay is 30 CUC per night which will include a room with 3 beds. The price is per room, so if you find other tourists to share with the price can be dropped to as little as 10 CUC per person for an occupied 3 bed room. There are also a handful of ‘hostels’ available which essentially operate in the same manner as a homestay on a slightly larger scale with rooms full of bunks.
It is also worth noting that the people of Cuba are poor and you help to support them financially by choosing a more authentic stay such as a homestay rather than opting for a hotel. They are taxed 80-90% of their earnings from your stay and actually take home very small amounts from the cost of your accommodation. By paying for meals or drinks from your casa you can better support their income as it is my understanding that this money goes straight into their pocket. The Cuban people are extremely friendly and welcoming and you will not regret choosing to stay with a local family.
*Please note you will need some basic Spanish as they do not generally speak any English
There is very little internet available in Cuba.
Should you need internet your best bet is to head to one of the larger hotels such as the Habana Libre and buy a one hour session for the indulgent cost of 10 CUC (equivalent to 10USD). You can also purchase from other hotels a pre-paid internet card similar to those old school phone cards and connect to internet at a range of hotels by using the login details provided on the card. The cost per hour is generally around the 8-10 CUC/hour. My best advice is to forget internet during your stay and really disconnect from the world. If you choose to stay at a hotel, of course you will have internet as part of your stay.
Cuban food leaves a lot to be desired. It is certainly not an up and coming culinary culture. There are no large supermarkets and obtaining treats like chocolate and beverages is near impossible. I would suggest brining in some snacks and extras with you. The dietary staple here is beans, rice and fish. If you stick to touristy areas you will be able to pay more and acquire somewhat more western influenced foods however I encourage you not to do so. Though I felt I very much overdid beans & rice, there is far more pleasure in supporting a local business than a tourist establishment. And to their credit they do make a mean beans, rice and fish!
You might be reading this information and feeling that maybe Cuba falls into the ‘too hard’ basket. After all this is your holiday right? But for a cultural experience like no other I really do recommend visiting Cuba now, especially before the Western influences come flooding in. Cuba stands to change in the very near future – so don’t put off your trip too long! You won’t regret it.