My first visit to Cuba was in 2009 and the last one was a few months ago. Cuba has changed a lot since my last visit, but I have to point out a few things that every budget traveller should be aware in advance. Here is a summary of the 11 critical things to know in advance before and while traveling in Cuba. I hope these suggestions will be of help to you.
Number 1: Dual currency system
Cuba currently operates two currencies, the first one is the Peso (CUP), which largely circulates in the domestic economy for residents, and the second one is the Convertible Peso (CUC). Both tourists and residents can purchase CUCs and CUPs at the government exchange offices. The rate of one CUC is 25 CUP. As a foreigner, you will most likely use CUC except for public transportation and local eateries. It is a good idea to have around 20 Euros worth of CUP.
Only exchange money at the government designated exchange places. When changing money, try to change as much as possible, since the wait can be more than 30 minutes on busy days.
Number 2: Getting from Havana Airport to central Havana
I have already discussed this in my previous blog, Havana Airport to City Center.
Number 3: Take Euros or Canadian Dollars
These two hard currencies gets the most favorable rates. When you change US dollars in Cuba, the Cuban government levies a penalty of 10%, while the other currencies do not. The exchange places do take other currencies such as Japanese Yen, Swiss Francs, Mexican Pesos, and more.
Cash is obviously king and it is a good idea to have enough for the trip. There are ATMs in Cuba, but I am not sure if American cards work, since I did not withdraw any money. Some high-end places take credit cards, but I believe there may be a hefty 3% surcharge for the transaction.
Number 4: Stay at a Casa Particular (private house)
Cuba has all types of accommodation now from fancy hotels, mid-sized hotels, a few hostels and the bulk being Casa Particular (Spanish for “private house”). It is a private accommodation, very similar to the bed and breakfast concept. You will stay in a private family establishment that provides your own room or a full apartment on your own or rooms with a separate entrance.
By staying at a Casa Particular, you will have a better understanding of the Cuban lifestyle & culture, build relationship with the family, try the home-cooked meals, and enjoy the local atmosphere.
Most Casas will charge anywhere from 20 to 35 CUC depending on the demand. There is no need to reserve Casas in advance. There are hundreds of Casas in all the cities and they are rarely full. If it is full, they Casa owner will always call a friend and you will find a place to stay. Therefore, I recommend visiting the Casa directly when you arrive in the city or ask your current Casa owner to call ahead for you.
If you want breakfast, they will ask 5 CUC per person/per day. Lunch and dinner are never included, but you can ask the Casa owner to cook something for a reasonable price between 5 to 10 CUC per person/per day.
Number 5: Transportation costs (know the price and negotiate in advance)
- Bicycle taxi – it depends on the distance, but locals pay 1 CUP per ride.
- Public bus – it should be 1 CUP per ride. I have heard that it is 1/2 CUP in some cities.
- Horse carriages – it depends on the distance, but locals pay 1 CUP per ride.
- Taxi rides in town – for short distances less than 2km, it should be 1 CUC. Assume 1 CUC for every additional kilometer.
- Shared taxis from city to city – this also depends, but the driver will normally quote the price for one person. Sometimes, these shared taxis will be more economical and faster compared to the Viazul buses.
Number 6: Viazul bus
This is the bus service for foreigners from one city to the other. There is a similar long distance bus that caters to local Cubans, which is substantially cheaper, slower, less reliable and leaves from the same terminal as the Viazul bus. I don’t think foreigners are allowed to go on this bus, but it may be worth a try if you look Cuban and speak Spanish perfectly.
I recommend buying your tickets in advance, since the buses get full even in the low season. There were times when I was stuck in a city for two days, since all the buses were full. To avoid this, buy your ticket in advance. If you need to change the ticket date or destination, Viazul only refunds 70% of the fare. Once you get on board, it is free seating. Nobody observes the seat numbers on the ticket.
If you have a backpack or a suitcase, the price is included in your ticket. At some stations, the porter will ask 1 CUC per bag. Don’t fall for this scam and don’t pay them. There was a porter in Santa Clara who was asking every single foreigner. Of course, I did not pay. 🙂
There is a toilet on the bus, but it is usually disgusting and number twos are not allowed. The conductor will inform the rules of the toilet, but on one occasion, a Cuban lady did the good old number two and we had to make an emergency stop to fix the toilet. That was gross!
The bus makes several stops on the way, but if you are desperate, you can always ask the driver to stop in the middle of the road.
The toilets in the terminal are usually disgusting (not as bad as the ones in Kyrgyzstan), smelling like the public toilets in NYC or any parks. They normally charge a few CUPs, so have small change handy. Some may even ask 0.25 CUC. My advice is to bring your own toilet paper.
If it is a proper pit stop, there may be a government run restaurant. Expect to pay anything from 7 to 10 CUC for a simple lunch/dinner.
Bring with you…
- a jacket or sweatshirt – the bus can be very cold or very hot!
- food and water – bring snacks, since some places have no access to food.
Number 7: Do not purchase cigars on the streets
At some point during your stay, someone will approach you saying, “We are working for a collective and get a discounted price” or “my cousin/father/sister works at the cigar factory.” Don’t ever buy cigars from street vendors, since they are fake. They might look well rolled, carefully placed in the box, but these are bad quality tobaccos and are not Cohibas, Montecristos, Partagas, Romeo Julietas…
Purchase your cigars at the official government run outlet, which is the Casa del Habano shops. They are all over Cuba and the cigar prices are the same in all the Casa del Habano shops.
Number 8: Internet and Wifi
If you have your own device, you can purchase the wifi card at ETECSA. There usually will be a long line to buy your card and costs 2 CUC for 1 hour. You will need to bring your passport or identification card and can purchase 3 cards maximum. I recommend purchasing 3 cards, if you are planning to stay in Cuba for more than a week. The wait at ETECSA can be 30 minutes in the heat (outside of the building!).
If you don’t have a device, there are computer terminals inside ETECSA. You will need to purchase your wifi card first and then proceed to the computer terminal.
Number 9: Water
Water is an expensive commodity in Cuba. A 1.5L bottle of mineral water will set you around 0.70 to 0.80 CUC at the government store. At the street level, it may cost you around 1.5 CUC. The best option is to buy the 5L bottle, which is around 2 CUC at the government store.
Number 10: Always check your bill
Believe it or not, they always add on random things to your bill. I felt like I was in Italy… (the waiters in Naples and Venice were the worst!)
At the local bars, cocktails like mojito and rum and coke should only be 1 CUC, but the waiter will ask 2.5 to 3 CUC for a drink. Insist on paying the Cuban price and it may just work.
Number 11: Read up on the different scams
- fake cigars
- restaurant bills
- being short changed – always check your change to see if it is the right amount
- counterfeit money – don’t ever change money on the streets. Ever!
- jinteros – read up on their tricks!
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. Comments are welcome too!