Cuba is not a backpacker mecca like Mexico and where I had been used to hostels at every corner, cheap tacos and easy bus links, Cuba was the exact opposite.
First thing when you arrive is getting from the airport to the city, the fair price for a Taxi is USD 30 (USD 25 if you are being dropped off) but of course they will charge you five times this when you land, but knowing what the fair rate is you should be able to bargain it down to around this much. This is of course for the official Taxis you can get much cheaper paying a local to drive you, and it’s surprisingly easy. Then there is the mythical bus, this is literally only a few cents, but is very old very crowded and very impossible to get information on. It does however exist and if you are confident in navigation and Spanish then by all means save yourself the cost of a TAXI. I split a cab with two other people so went with that option. You can pay the driver in USD but don’t worry about getting ripped off at the exchange offices they are set by the government and are all going to be the same.
Image by Kayugee
Next thing to wrap your head around is the money situation. In Cuba they have two currencies CUC (convertible peso also called dollar) and CUP (Cuban peso) the CUC is the tourist currency and is 25 times as much as the CUP. 1 CUC is always equal to USD 1 so at least that part is easy to remember. Cubans are paid in and spend CUP yet prices are sometimes quoted in CUC, you might pay in CUC and get CUP in change…. Confused yet?
So first things first. Think of both currencies as equally valid and make sure to look closely at the notes and coins so you can differentiate them from each other, as you will be given change in both. Another thing is look closely at the prices, make sure you are not paying CUC 1 when it’s actually CUP 1 which is 25 times less! I did not experience a lot of cheating but I had reports from others who said they were ripped off this way. I did noticed on the streets of Havana that in a touristic square a coffee would cost CUC 1 equal to CUP 25 when right around the corner it would cost CUP 1, basically 25 times cheaper but most tourists would not notice the difference…. But being a budget traveler I made it my business to navigate the slippery slope of the currencies.
Image by Pedro
Now when it comes to how to access money in Cuba, well that’s a whole other story, please check out this link “A story about strangers” to see just what can happen if you come to Cuba without sorting out your money situation. Please please please check with your bank if you plan on using your card, debit cards seemed to be ok, but if it is an american card you might as well throw it away for all the use it will do you. Cards cannot be used in shops you will have to take out money at a bank or cadeca (local currency exchange) In Havana city centre there are many Cadecas and Banks so it won’t be a problem exchanging money but if you go into the countryside make sure you bring cash.
As for exchanging money if possible use Euros not USD dollars. USD incur an additional 10% exchange fee at a bank or Cadeca so you will lose value. I did however see people on the street who were very happy to take USD at the market rate so there must be a black market for them where they are worth more than at the exchange offices.
Accommodation in Cuba is limited to either hotels or B&Bs which are called Casa Particulars. On my first few nights in Havana I stayed in a cheap casa particular it was an apartment which had two bunk beds in one small room, I paid CUC 10 (USD 10) a night and although cheap it was pretty far from the centre. After that I stayed in more central locations where I rented a room for CUC 25 (25 USD) but I was splitting it three ways so it came out very good. It is hard to book things online because the internet situation in Cuba is so bad. Internet only became publicly accessible a year ago and even now it is only in certain areas of the city that people can log on. Because of this at the time of my travel it was very hard to communicate by email. However once you are in Cuba and have booked accommodation (which is very easy to find just by walking around), you will find that your hosts will put you in touch with their network of friends and you will have no problem with booking cheap accommodation. Casas particulares can be recognised by a small sign on the door, with two blue triangles (“roofs”) against a white background, which the owners obtain after paying a fixed per-room annual tax. Have a look at the photo below for an example of the sign.
Image by Laurent
Everything in Havana seemed ridiculously overpriced (other than the USD 3 bottles of Rum), and coming from Mexico I was contemplating the real possibility of starvation on my 10 dollar a day food budget. But then I discovered that the locals don’t eat in the centre, for a staggering difference in price you could eat at small restaurants tucked away down back alleys but they are not easy to find especially being a blonde like me that just screams privileged white girl. I was however lucky enough to make the acquaintance of a equally starving Mexican tourist who initiated me in the wonders of street pizza, a 1 dollar miracle bought straight from a window in the wall which was just about heavenly. We also discovered three course meals at a down-the-alley restaurant for three dollars. So don’t dispair! It’s not all 10 dollar plates of food out there!
Supermarkets are non existent (I only saw one small overpriced tourist convenience store) and you will not find bread, cheese and meat in the same place, generally these are all sold at separate stores or vendors.
If you go into the more residential areas, you will find people pushing around carts with fresh fruit or homemade cake, they will shout out their wares and people will pop out of their house to buy some, I got some amazing deals on food this way.
Image by Gerry
One other thing I discovered is like in most places in developing countries when there is no price stated you are gonna be ripped off. I counteracted this by hanging around street vendors selling delicious ice cream or grilled corn and waiting for a local to come by and see what they paid, they I would plop myself in the line and with a big smile hand them the correct amount of bills and watch as they begrudgingly accepted that this white girl had managed to get away without being overcharged.
So be savvy and enjoy everything this crazy island has to offer!