Everybody is talking about Cuba. Not only backpackers anymore but normal tourists and families come to see the biggest Caribbean island with their own eyes. And more and more people talk about going to Cuba sometime; the country has a good reputation. This trend has been continuing for some years, boosted by the fame of the Cuban music and the nostalgic pictures of old cars in front of colourful houses. The Cuban Revolution has held the international attention since the 50s almost continuously and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became almost figures of myth, especially the latter also a role model for many people.
As the country of cigars, of the Rumba and the Mambo, the white beaches and cheery attitude towards life à la Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Cuba has become a top destination for backpackers.
All this even though it is known that Cuba is not really cheap, especially compared to South East Asia. That this is not because of high fixed prices but because of the Cubans trying to rip off the tourists where they can, is not very well known. This can be really stressing sometimes. Also it’s hard to communicate with the locals naturally if they see a walking dollar sign in you.
Here we have some tips for you how to best get around Cuba and what to see, and how to get away a little cheaper. Further read all the important stuff about transportation, accommodation, safety, food and internet.
The rumour that there is a special currency for tourists is true. It is called CUC (Peso Convertible), with an exchange rate of 1 : 25 to the CUP (Cuban Peso, but mostly called Moneda Nacional, abbreviated MN), the currency the Cubans mainly use. 1 CUC equals about 1 US $.
As a tourist you get CUC at the cash machines of course, but you can exchange these in the exchange offices into CUP (bring your passport). In the touristic shops and restaurants it doesn’t matter which currency you have (you will just pay the price in CUP), but in the local cafe’s and restaurants and at the street vendors you can pay the cheap local prices with the CUP, often without getting ripped off too. An example: In the tourist cafe one coffee costs 2 CUC on average, in a Cuban cafe about 3-5 CUP, which are not even 12-20 cents.
1 CUC – 1 US-$ (a little less than 1 Euro)
1 CUC – 25 CUP (Moneda Nacional)
1 CUP – 4 Cent
In the minds of many travelers Cuba is not really a bargaining country, as for example South East Asia. You hear up front that it is going to be quite expensive, the prices in the Lonely Planet confirm it and so you often accept ridiculous prices the first days. For those with enough money bargaining won’t be as important of course as for those with a small budget. For those: You can bargain almost everywhere, for the accommodation, for the food as well as the transportation.
For this it’s very useful to at least know the basics of the Spanish language. If you don’t have them you could easily learn them in a short time; the basics of Spanish are quite simple. To know the local language at least roughly helps you in many situations, not only for the ripping off part but even more importantly you will be able to talk to the Cubans, who often speak only little English.
The classic and also the best type of accommodation in Cuba are the Casas Particulares: ‘Host families’ offer one or more rooms to tourists. There are also hotels, but only few and they are more expensive than the Casas.
Because of a liberalization of the laws countless new Casas popped into existence in the last years, which also means higher competition. So bargaining is often fruitful. On average you pay about 20-25 CUC for a night in a double bed room, in which the breakfast, which almost all the Casas offer, is not included, but costs 5 CUC extra. If you want to bargain you can at least get the breakfast included, which saves the two of you 10 CUC. Of course you can bargain more if you like and go looking around different Casas for the cheapest.
The concept of the friendly host family with whom you sit on the terrace in the evening and have a nice chat sadly doesn’t exist so often any more. But they are still out there, the friendly host family who can teach you about how Cuba really is.
We were lucky to have a host family like this in Cienfuegos, where we stayed with a doctor and his wife, who was a writer. On two evenings we talked about the life in Cuba, the revolution, politics and much more over some glasses of rum on their small terrace. Thankfully they spoke very clearly and slowly so I could actually understand them.
Their attitude towards the conditions in Cuba was resigned to angry. The propaganda has promised them an improvement of the economic, financial and social conditions in Cuba for years. But it still hasn’t come.
There are three main means of transportation in Cuba: bus, taxi and train, although the trains have a rather bad reputation because of their unreliability. Other than the trains the buses are the cheapest means of transportation. You can buy tickets for the air-contitioned Viazul buses at the bus station or online at viazul.com. There you can buy tickets only one week before, but you can still check the schedule and prices. The much cheaper national buses won’t take on tourists. But the Viazul buses go regularly and are reliable.
While walking through the main tourist spots you get the feeling every second Cuban has his own taxi, which they eagerly offer you every two meters. “Taxi? Taxi? Amigo, Taxi?” So it is really easy to get a cab. If you use them only by yourself it is quite expensive though. It’s better to ask after taxis collectivos, where you share the taxi with other travelers. Taxis are substantially faster than buses.
Bargaining is essential when taking taxis, and stay adamant: There are many many other taxis out there. The taxi drivers often rip you off good.
An exemplary route: From Havana to Cienfuegos you pay, depending on your bargaining, 20-30 CUC per person (3 hours drive), the bus costs 20 CUC (4-5 hours, fixed prices).
The internet situation in Cuba has improved essentially since 2015. Before that there were only expensive internet cafes, now there are public WiFi spots. The speed was also noticeably improved.
To use the public WiFi you have to buy WiFi cards from the state-owned provider ETECSA (this is also the name of the networks). On the cards you find username and password, with which you log into the network inside the browser. Officially the cards contain 1 hour of internet, but it happens that they last only 40 minutes. You don’t have to use the time all at once, but keep it using up to a month.
It’s easy to get the cards. At most of the WiFi spots, which mostly are on squares or in parks, there will be Cubans offering you the cards for 3-4 CUC. In the official ETECSA shops you can buy them for only 1,50 CUC. They want to see your passport.
Cuba is a very safe travel country. Robberies of tourists are extremely seldom and also the number of smaller crimes like pickpocketing is relatively low. This is most probably also a result of the incorruptible police taking their job seriously.
But of course open wealth can be tempting in a poor country. Take care of your things.
Your stuff is safe in the Casa Particulares most of the time although you also hear stories that some things got stolen. A little bit care won’t hurt.
Similar to South America the most common Cuban food (in the cities) is a plate with meat/fish, rice and vegetables, which varies only unsubstantially. Which can become a little bit monotonous over time. In the better restaurants you also get better food of course, but for them you’ll have to reach a little bit deeper into your pockets. In the local restaurants you should be able to a meal for 2-3 CUC, in the tourist shops for about 5 CUC. Havana and Trinidad are a little bit more expensive. Even in restaurants it can be worth it to bargain.
In Cuba there is also fast food on every corner, mostly sandwiches and hot dogs, cheap and often also good. Simple food though, basic hamburger with bread, meat and ketchup, basic sandwiches with cheese and ham.
Furthermore there strangely is Italian food everywhere. Whereby the “pizzas” you can buy on every corner would scare an Italian. In the restaurants you can often also get pasta, which varies in quality depending on the city and restaurants.
Some cities are famous for their special kind of food. In Baracoa for example, where a lot of Cacao is farmed, you can get chocolate sauce to your meat or fish in most restaurants (really good).
There are no international fast food chains like McDonalds in Cuba, for political and economical reasons. The local fast food chain El Rápido, even though it is incredibly cheap, or maybe because of that, really is not to be recommended. It is rumoured that the cheese consists mostly of plastic. Disgusting stuff.
Getting ripped off / cigars:
To say it up front: You won’t meet many local people in Cuba not trying to get money from you in some kind of way.
A short story:
One evening in Santiago de Cuba a Cuban approached us, that is me, my girlfriend and a German we met the day before, as we where buying beer in the street shop at the waterfront. He could speak German extremely well and introduced himself as Eugen Lazaro. He spoke very softly and was highly sympathetic. He told us of his stay in Germany and that he planned to go back soon. Somehow the talk turned to cigars and he told us that he brought many cigars with him when he came to Germany, where he sold them for a lot of profit. All very charismatic. I had already been aware of the price differences and had thought of something like this, so I was interested immediately. He further told us that his cousin worked in the cigar factory and that the workers get paid their overtime with cigars which they can sell privately. Quite plausible story. He told us he could take us to his cousin if we wanted. Made a date for the next day, goodbye, and smiling he said he would invite us for a coffee the next day.
We met him again in the midday heat in front of the cathedral. Short greeting, then directly into the cigar shop where he demonstrated us with one of the exhibition pieces that they are not even that good, and how expensive. Very politely he asked us if we wanted to go to his cousin. Still unassuming we said yes.
After a short walk in the relentless sun of Santiago Eugen knocked on a door in the living quarter and a Cuban opens it with a smile on his face. He leads us inwards; boxes are stacked on the table, only the best brands, mostly Cohiba. I don’t know why we didn’t check things first online. But there we sat very naively in the dark living room and bargained for the prices of the cigars, which they assured us were of the best quality. What the fuck did I know about cigars? The smile of the cousin became ever bigger. We agreed on 5 boxes for 230 CUC, which you usually pay for one box of Cohibas, as we learned later.
We said we had to go to a cash machine first. Still very casual our Eugen lead us to the machine. “You know, just as you want. Is a good price”, smiling, “but you don’t have to buy anything, just like you want” and raised his arms defensively, still smiling.
The German remarked that we only trusted Eugen because he spoke so flawlessly good German. We started to get a bad feeling in our guts, took the money and told our Cuban friend that we needed a couple of minutes to go online. Just to be sure, nothing personal. He said he had to go then, he had sacrificed his time for us, but he had important stuff to do. We could return to his cousin without him. Of course only if we wanted to buy them.
Short research: The cigars had been fake, pretty bad ones as well. Moreover fake cigars are not only not so good cigars but they are rolled out of waste materials.
Astounded by our naivety we so much more rejoiced that we hadn’t bought anything. We strolled through the city then and stood at the Terraza de Velásquez for some time, watching over the city. Suddenly a voice called up from the street under the terrace: “Beautiful view, right?” Eugen shortly raised his hand and quickly disappeared into the next side alley.
This incident taught us to be a little bit more suspicious, not only concerning cigars. After traveling for three weeks, where you have been told the same story of the friend/relative who works in a cigar factory over and over again and after some research in the internet I recommend: Don’t ever buy cigars in the streets, only in the official shops. Almost all the cigars you can get on the street are fake, often deceptively real. Pay some more for the real deal instead of only little for garbage.