Whenever we visit a new country, we always have some preconceived ideas of what it will be like, whether that be from practical research we’ve carried out, blog posts we’ve read or images we’ve lingered over on Instagram or Pinterest. However the reality rarely compares to our predetermined expectations or assumptions – at least not in a way that we can wholly predict.
I envisaged Cuba as a country of crumbling colonial buildings, classic American cars, and quiet country roads flanked by tall palm trees; a country with an infectious energy fuelled by music, dance, and a healthy dose of rum.
And to be fair, Cuba was all that. But it was a whole lot more, too.
Understanding the dual currency system
Although many countries use two currencies (US dollars are widely accepted in a number of different countries, in addition to their own currency), Cuba has two ‘official’ currencies – Cuban Pesos (CUP, usually referred to as pesos) and Cuban Convertible Pesos (or CUC, pronounced ‘kook’).
Photo via Flickr
Originally the official currency in Cuba was the Cuban Peso, however the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) was introduced by the financial authorities in 1994, with the intention of removing all foreign currencies from circulation. Cuban Convertible Pesos are now known as the ‘tourist’ currency, with 1 CUC being equivalent to 1 American dollar.
So, generally speaking Cuban Pesos are the currency used by local people (their wages are paid to them every month in Cuban Pesos; an average of 400 per month (around £12 or $17)) and Cuban Convertible Pesos are the currency used by tourists. But, it’s not quite as simple as that.
Often when you make a purchase in Cuba from a local person in a non-tourist-centric establishment (for example, you buy fruit from a local market or street vendor), you will be given change in Cuban Pesos (24 Cuban Pesos are equivalent to 1 CUC). Now, this isn’t a problem if you then want to spend this money at a local market or street stall, grocery store or Panaderia (bakery), but it is a problem if you want to spend it pretty much anywhere else; Cuban Pesos are simply not accepted.
I spoke to a German couple who’d managed to buy a ticket for a local bus (whether tourists are actually ‘allowed’ to travel by local bus is a bit hazy; they’re a helluva lot cheaper and therefore generally reserved for residents only) with a 10 CUC note, but were then given change in Cuban Pesos – all 219 of them – which they were struggling to use practically anywhere. You could probably buy a whole year’s supply of bananas for 219 Cuban Pesos!
I guess the trick is to try to ensure that you always have a stash of small coins with you. You’ll also need them to pay the bathroom charges (more on that in a minute).
Accessing your money in Cuba
Firstly, Cuban currency is not traded internationally, so you will not be able to buy any in advance. You will also not be able to exchange any that you bring home with you, so make sure you visit a money-changing kiosk at the airport before the departure of your return flight.
Secondly Cuba’s economy operates almost entirely on cash only transactions. Credit and debit cards are rarely accepted, other than in tourist-exclusive places like Varadero. There are ATMs in all major towns and cities, but they’re not always in working order and not every ATM accepts all card types. Basically it’s a bit hit and miss, so shouldn’t be relied upon as the sole method to access your money in Cuba.
Your best bet is to take as much cash with you as you feel comfortable carrying. Money can be changed at the airport when you arrive (and you’ll need to change at least a little here so that you can afford a taxi to the location of your first night’s accommodation), or you can choose to visit a bank or a cadeca. Don’t forget to bring your passport with you, as it will be required for proof of identity.
The most commonly accepted currencies are Euros, Pound Sterling, Swiss Francs, and Canadian Dollars. But bear in mind that as a result of the US-Cuba trade embargo, changing US dollars into CUC incurs a hefty tax.
Being prepared for the Toilet Tax
Whenever you visit a baño in Cuba, whether that be at a museum or gallery or in a restaurant or cafe, there will usually be a lady (and yes it was always ladies; I didn’t encounter a single man) sitting outside with a tray of coins by her side, and a few sheets of carefully folded toilet paper in her hands.
She gives you some toilet paper and you tip her 0.25 CUC for the privilege. Even if you don’t take the toilet paper (but bear in mind that unless you already have some with you, you’ll need to; you won’t find any in a Cuban toilet outside of those found in hotels), you’ll more than likely be guilt-tripped into depositing a coin or two.
Going to the toilet can be a very expensive pastime in Cuba!
Wifi does exist in Cuba but is incredibly limited. It’s generally only found in upscale hotels and in one or two outdoor locations in any given major town or city (usually the Plaza Mayor or similar).
To get online you’ll need to buy an internet card (one card costs 2 CUC (£1.41) and will give you access for 60 minutes), which you can only purchase from a limited number of places – namely upscale hotels (again).
Our guide advised us to buy as many as we needed from the hotel at which we spent our first night in Havana, as he wasn’t sure whether we’d be able to purchase them from anywhere else on our trip. But even obtaining any from this hotel was a bit hit and miss – three of us asked for them at reception within minutes of each other, but each of us was met with a different response from the staff.
One of us was advised that they didn’t have any, one of us was told to come back at 8pm, and the other was sold some. It reminded me of the frustrations I experienced when travelling through Bolivia a couple of years beforehand.
The best way to identify places where wifi is available is to look for locals sitting around in clusters with their heads hung low and their phones in their hands. I first managed to get online in the Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, again in a hotel just outside Santa Clara, and also on the rooftop restaurant of another hotel in Havana. However bear in mind that connection speeds are unreliable and generally fairly slow, so it may take a while to upload that photo of yours to Instagram.
Accommodation in Cuba
All hotels in Cuba are government run (and expensive), and budget hostels simply do not exist. However there is a third option in Cuba – Casas Particulares. These are private homes where the government allow the owners to rent out their spare rooms (up to three) to travellers. These are a lot cheaper than hotels and provide a more authentic and personal experience, and – if your Spanish is good enough – an opportunity to really get to know your hosts and to learn about and experience a bit of the Cuban lifestyle.
Most casa owners will charge you an amount per room (anything between 15 and 30 CUC – £10.50-£21), and these rooms can often accommodate up to four people (we had two double beds in our first room in Viñales and a double and a single in our room in Trinidad).
Your hosts will also offer breakfast and dinner for an additional cost, as well as laundry services and drinks. Generally you will be given a key to the house so you can come and go as you please, without disturbing the owners.
Eating and drinking in Cuba
I was actually pleasantly surprised by the quality of food in Cuba, which was much more than the rice and beans and plantain that I was expecting. Due to the country’s tropical climate (more on that in a minute), you’ll find a plentiful supply of fresh, exotic fruits available.
Fruit stalls are scattered along the sides of the roads (where you can buy bananas, mangos, coconuts, pineapples, chirimoyas (also known as custard apples), passion fruits, guavas, guanabanas (also known as soursop), and mamocillos (a kind of sweet lime)) and there are a few juice and smoothie bars around.
You’ll need to keep your eyes peeled though – one of the best and cheapest (smoothies cost between 3 and 5 CUP (9p-15p)) we found was hidden away in the middle of a residential area in Havana.
As I mentioned previously, if you’re staying at a casa particulares, your hosts will offer to provide breakfast for a small additional cost (normally between 3 and 5 CUC (£2.11-£3.52)). My advice would be to take it; you’ll be presented with a veritable feast of fresh fruit juice, coffee, bread, cheese, ham, eggs, fruit, and cake. Most days it was enough to fill us up until the evening.
Dinner is also plentiful but generally more expensive in comparison (between 10 and 12 CUC (£7-£8.45) so consider trying a local cafe or paladares (privately-run restaurant) instead.
Depending on how much you want to pay (you can enjoy a lobster feast for 12 CUC), you’ll normally be presented with a choice of meat (although rarely beef; more on that in a minute) and fish/seafood that is served with soup, salad, rice and beans, and a variety of vegetables and potatoes/plantain.
If you order dessert (or choose a set meal that includes dessert), you’ll normally get flan (creme caramel) – which was absolutely fine with me; I love the stuff! It’s usually possible to feed yourself at dinner for anywhere between 5 and 12 CUC (£3.52-£8.45).
If you do get peckish around lunchtime, you can pick up a pizza from a ‘hole in the wall’ joint for around 20 CUP (60 pence). I have been reliably informed that this is the tastiest (and cheapest!) lunch option around.
With regards to drinking, you’ll need to remember to guzzle huge quantities of water (refer to the following section as to why), and you’ll need to get used to the fact that locals will offer you rum the way that people offer you a cuppa here in the UK. Regardless of the time of day, it’s always time for rum.
Whilst locals like to drink it neat (I’m sure our Cuban guide, Raymondo was having a crafty swig every time he met someone he knew, which believe me was a lot!), you can choose a rum cocktail like a Mojito, Pina Colada, or Canchanchara. Or if you visit the beach, try a Coco Loco (crazy coconut). Be warned though, the Cubans are by no means stingy with their measures of rum – if you catch my drift!
Coping with the Cuban weather
The Cuban weather remains a bit of a mystery to me. I chose to visit in March as –although the temperature doesn’t fluctuate that much throughout the year – it’s statistically the driest month. Average minimum temperatures for March were recorded as 19 degrees and 27 degrees was the average maximum, which sounded ideal for cycling in.
However, when we first arrived in Cuba (not counting our first full day in Havana), it rained non-stop for over 24 hours (proper heavy, monsoon-style rain that floods everything) and it was so cold we all admitted to having to grab an extra blanket from our rooms on the night we spent in Soroa.
Once the rain storm passed, the temperature got hotter, and hotter, and hotter, and remained around 37 degrees for the entire last week of our trip. One of the members of our group recorded a high of 42 degrees on his smart watch.
I assume that the temperatures we experienced were unusually high, but I understand that – regardless of the temperature – Cuba is always humid. Humidity levels are usually between 60% and 70% during the daytime and between 80% and 90% during the night. So it’s important to ensure that you drink plenty of water (more than you think your body needs) and that you grab some shade (whether that be sheltering inside a museum, climbing a tower, or resting beneath some trees) whenever it becomes available.
It’s also advisable to make sure that your accommodation has air conditioning, or at best a ceiling fan or wall-mounted one that oscillates. One couple in our group ended up with just a single table-top fan in their room in Trinidad (statistically one of the hottest places in Cuba), which did absolutely nothing whatsoever to circulate the already stifling hot, stagnant air. After a night of severe discomfort and next to no sleep, they managed to move to a different casa.
Travelling around Cuba
Whilst we didn’t use public transportation due to being part of an organised cycling tour, I understand there there is one main method of public transport that travellers use to get around the island – the tourist bus. Viazul and Transtur offer air-conditioned buses with reclinable seats that take direct journeys to and from all the major cities and smaller towns that tourists may want to visit.
A good friend of mine who was in Cuba at the same time as us (although we missed meeting up with each other by a day. Gutted) used Viazul and describes them as “efficient by Cuban standards.” If you can get online, the timetables and prices are listed in English on their website, but she advises purchasing the tickets in advance from the bus station and arriving at least 30 minutes before the bus is due to depart.
There is also the option of the local bus, but as I said earlier it’s a bit of a grey area as to whether tourists are actually ‘allowed’ to ride on them. Although the German couple I met had managed to board one, I didn’t speak to anyone else who’d been as fortunate (or not – people are crammed into them like cattle; no wonder they’re cheap!).
Learning why there are plenty of cows in Cuba but no beef on the menu
Cattle are sacred in Cuba. You will serve more time in jail for killing a cow than you will for murdering another human being.
Up until the 1959 revolution Cuba was said to have as many cattle as people (around 5 million) but Castro’s government nationalised all private cattle ranches, and subsequently slaughtered many of the cattle to compensate for falling food production in other areas.
This (unsurprisingly) lead to a severe cattle shortage so Cuba has made it mandatory for its citizens to procure a permit to kill cattle. As these licenses are ridiculously expensive and almost impossible to obtain, it’s generally only the government who are permitted to slaughter cows. It’s also only state-run restaurants that are allowed to serve beef.
Whilst Cuba is slowly moving away from its Communist past, and certain bans are being lifted (or at the very least, relaxed), it is still not a free society. When I asked our guide what he disliked most about living in Cuba, he answered without hesitation,
“our lack of freedom.”
That said, the Cuban government subsidises food, housing and utilities for its residents. Education, including university level, is free, and the country has a 99.8% literacy rate and classroom size of 12-1 (pupil-teacher ratio). There is also free medical care, with a total of 70,000 qualified doctors available.
However wages are incredibly low and much of what people earn in their privately-run businesses must be paid to the government for the privilege of allowing them to trade privately.
Tobacco farmers, for example, must sell 90% of the cigars they manufacture to the government for a fraction of the price that they would be able to get for them otherwise. In fact the government pay them so little for that 90% that one farmer says he makes more money from selling the 10% privately than he does selling 90% to the government.
However, in spite of the hardship they suffer and the lack of freedom they face, the Cuban people amazed me with their resilience and ability to make do with so very little. How men can restore and maintain a fleet of pre-1959 American cars in the face of a 50-year-long blockade that denies them replacement parts is truly incredible.
And although many of the cars are covered in rust, are missing door handles, and have dubious paint jobs and windscreens stuck together with sellotape, they still continue to run like a dream.
Part of Cuba’s appeal is that – due to its relative isolation from US culture and commerce – it still manages to retain a certain old world charm. Narrow city streets are flanked by crumbling colonial buildings with peeling paintwork, offering a glimpse of the grandeur they once embodied. Rusting American cars share space on the cramped streets with rickshaw taxis, bicycles, and stray dogs.
There are few shops, and those that exist are hidden behind innocuous doorways, their shelves distinctly lacking in branded products, and in many cases, distinctly lacking many goods at all.
Horse-drawn carts are still used as a major form of transport in rural areas, three generations of families live together in houses barely big enough for one, and electricity is often a fairly recent addition to their day-to-day lives.
Cuba’s future is definitely set to change, and whilst in some respects it needs to, I still feel glad to have visited before the results of Obama’s recent visit (we left Havana one day before he arrived!) really come into play. As the US-Cuba trade embargo is relaxed, more and more American businesses will become interested in developing the country – in building large-scale hotels and fancy restaurants to accommodate the increasing influx of tourists.
Whilst this will also mean that the infrastructure is improved – internet services will be upgraded and working ATMs will become more widely available – it will permanently change aspects of Cuba that at the moment make it so unique.
Currently you won’t see any advertising in the country, there are no restaurant or hotel chains, and you will not find brand named products for sale in any of the shops. The rusting American cars and crumbling colonial architecture give it a distinct character that may soon be nothing more than a memory lost in time.
Have you visited Cuba? Is it somewhere you’d like to go?
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