Cuba has a closed currency so you are only able to exchange money when you arrive. There are in fact two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is the tourist currency and is valued at 24 times the local Cuban Peso (CUP).
You will need to take hard currency to convert when you get there, preferably Pound Sterling or Euros. It is possible to use Cuban ATM machines to withdraw more money (unless you use an American card) however the ATM’s convert via US Dollars and so there is a double commission fee. Only a handful of the top hotels in Havana and Varadero will accept payment by card, so expect to pay for everything in cash.
Cuba can be quite an expensive country to travel in as there can be lots of charges you aren’t expecting; for example 1 CUC to use the bathroom. There are some things you can do to reduce your outlay. You can however barter with products from home such as shampoo or feminine hygiene products as these are hard to get hold of for Cubans. As a tourist you can use CUP’s but will need to exchange your CUC’s for CUP’s in a bank. This will allow you to shop in the local markets, buy local produce and pay for taxi’s and casas in the local, cheaper, currency. This one tip will save you a lot of money!
Getting into Cuba
Nearly everyone coming into Cuba will need a visa, and whilst you can get thm on arrival it takes a lot of time which could be better spent sat on a beach or sipping on a Mojito. In the UK I found it much easier and cheaper to apply via an online company than go to the embassy directly. I used Cubavisas and they were really helpful and quick. The visa should be with you within a week but best to apply a little in advance in case there are any issues.
You will also need to show the following on arrival; passport, visa, hotel details for first night, and a copy of your travel insurance. If you do not have travel insurance, or cannot provide proof that you have it then you will need to buy the Cuban government’s insurance for the duration of your stay. Of course this price is inflated compared to the cost of getting it at home.
Everything here works on Cubano Time, which makes for a relaxed holiday when you get there. However if you are not organised in advance and want to arrange transport between cities or arrange tours you will likely lose the relaxed vibe and start getting stressed. You cannot book transport online in advance, and a lot of casas can only be booked on arrival (although since Airbnb was launched in 2016 this has made booking accommodation in advance much easier).
Frustratingly the Government run Viazul tourist busses which connect all of Cuba’s main cities are so popular they need to be booked two or three days ahead of travel, added to that the terminals are often a taxi ride out of town and this adds a lot of preparation time needed just to get around. The Viazul busses are also renowned for being poor quality, with some journeys being plagued by a bus full of cockroaches. Recently however a new company; Transtur, is providing an alternative to Viazul. Although slightly more expensive than Viazul, Transtur usually depart from central locations and of the Transtur busses I took they were all high quality, air conditioned coaches. I also only had to book a day in advance in a local hotel!
Once you have arrived hotels are also the best place to book local tours, for example to local tobacco factories or attractions. Be aware that nothing is guaranteed here, as one morning all trips to the local tobacco factory were cancelled due to a fire caused by a worker smoking (you could not make it up!).
Do Your Research
Find out a bit about Cuba’s fascinating history before you go, it will help you appreciate why Cuba is how it is and will provide an understanding of the differences in culture, architecture, monuments and Cuban lifestyle. Although many Cubans are reluctant to talk too much about the revolution as there are pro-revolution informants on almost every block, they will happily talk about their culture, food and of course rum and cigars.
The best way to immerse yourself in Cuba is to speak Spanish. Whilst English and other European languages are starting to be taught in the tourist based areas there are few people that are totally fluent.
Learning even a little Spanish to let them know you aren’t fluent, to say hello, thank you and even how to order a beer, will make a huge difference. If you make the effort then the locals become the most friendly welcoming people who will give you great tips and help you. By speaking Spanish I was able to see one of the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club play in a local bar where we were the only tourists – very cool!
Eat Local, Stay Local
The Government still takes large profits from many of the big hotels and restaurants, but the these places often lack the soul that the small local places have in bounds.
The local restaurants; paladars, range from a table in someone’s front room to a small restaurant. The food here is often genuine local fare, home cooked with love. The prices are significantly cheaper in paladars but I did not find that this was a sacrifice for flavour or quality as nearly all food in Cuba is made with fresh ingredients.
This is a cheese and ham sandwich bought from a street trader for 20p. It doesn’t look like much, but it was delicious.
There are relatively few budget hotels in Cuba, but this shortfall in the market is met by the introduction of the casa particular. These are traditionally home stays that are normally in a similar format to European B&B’s, although you can get small apartments as well. Airbnb has a great selection of casas and there are more being added every day. Each registered casa should have a blue symbol outside it like the picture below.
Ignore the Guide Books
Cuba is developing at an astonishing rate, particularly in the capital; Havana. There are buildings being renovated everywhere and new paladars and casas opening almost every day. With all this change there is no way that the guidebooks can keep up and as soon as they are published, they are out of date.
This is also true for the information that they provide for the cost of transport between cities and whether that transport is still running. On several occasions the guidebook had stated that there were trains or busses running that no longer existed when I got there so make sure you ask the locals before you head off to the bus station.
It is not safe to drink water from the tap in Cuba. Water can be found in most supermarkets but it is expensive (I paid 8 CUC for 6 litres of water – about £7.00!), however often many of the casas have bottles of water for sale at a lower price as they are able to pick up the water in CUP’s or in local markets.
The internet is almost non-existent in Cuba. The only way to get online is to buy expensive access cards and go to dedicated wi-fi zones, or go to internet cafe’s in the top hotels. Even then, internet speeds are often painfully slow and this is exacerbated by the crowds of people huddled around these zones.
If at all possible, prepare not to use the internet at all during your stay.
One helpful app to prepare you for the lack of internet is maps.me as you can download a map of Cuba which shows you where local restaurants/paladars, hotel/casas, ATM/banks and points of interest. You can bookmark each of these items, and set out directions between points. You are even able to bookmark points of interest that you find that are not already on the map. This app was literally a lifesaver on days where I walked over 20km around Havana’s back streets.
The main items that people take home with them from Cuba are rum and cigars. The sale of both items are regulated by the government and can only legally be bought from government run shops. For this reason the prices stay static no matter where you buy them.
Of course this does not stop the locals from trying to illegally sell cigars on the street, but they are rarely stored properly in humidors; resulting in a poor quality product.
The easiest way to buy rum and cigars to take home with you is at the airport. That way you know that you are getting premium quality product, which is packaged to get through customs, and you do not have to find extra room in your checked luggage.
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