Having done no research what-so-ever, I very much fumbled my way through my very first visit to Cuba. I rocked up without so much as an idea as to what the currency was; very late at night with nowhere to stay.
Talk about stupidity! In retrospect, here are all the things I wish I’d known about traveling to Cuba.
Traveling to Cuba: Currency
There are two types of currency in Cuba and if you wish to obtain the best value for money, you should acquire both.
- CUP – Cuban pesos is the official currency of the country and what the citizens use in their daily trading. Anything a local will require such as cheap food & drink, market foods, local buses, and collectivo taxis will be sold in pesos.
- CUC – Cuban ‘cook’ is the tourist currency. It has a value of 1:1 with the American dollar. Tourist restaurants, hotels & accommodation, and intercity buses will all be sold in CUC.
During my visit in late April, the conversion rate stood at 24 pesos per 1 CUC. Given that the average cost of items in pesos is around 10-20 you do not require large amounts of money. I suggest that you change over a small amount of about 10 CUC (equivalent to 10USD) to begin with. Any leftover pesos cannot be changed back into CUC or USD. You will be stuck with them – so change over wisely!
Tips for American Citizens
If you are an American citizen, your financial institution may not yet be recognized with Cuban banks and thus you may not be able to withdraw money at this stage. This is correct as of my visit in late April. However, this stands to change in the future.
It is in your best interest to bring in as much cash as you will require for a stay. I suggest that you bring in currency other than the USD (such as euros or pounds) if you wish to get the best value for money. Money exchange or Cambio will charge 10% of your exchange value if you choose to exchange USD. This does not apply for other currencies.
Tips for non-American Citizens
If you have a non-American bank card and wish to use ATM’s in Cuba, be warned. The transactions may come with large conversion fees attached. I suggest that you go into the banks themselves and withdraw cash from your ATM card directly through a teller for only a 2% fee. This is the most economical way to obtain cash aside from bringing in non-American currency and exchanging it.
*Please note there is a 25 CUC (equivalent 25 USD) departure tax that must be paid at the airport in cash only before you depart.
Traveling to Cuba: Transport
Within the city limits, the easiest way to get around is with a collectivo taxi. These are essentially shared taxis with a set rate of 10 pesos for any journey within the city. Simply hail one of the many cars down and ask if the driver is heading in your direction.
For a more rustic experience, you can use the local buses. At 1 peso they are an absolute steal. You can also take a local bus to and from the airport for this price.
To navigate between cities, head to the bus terminal and purchase your intercity tickets. Best to do this one day in advance to ensure you get the bus you desire. These buses will set you back between 5-10 CUK.
Traveling to Cuba: Accommodation
You essentially have two options for accommodation during your visit to Cuba. The first option is a hotel and the second one is a casa (homestay). While hotels can be very easily booked online in advance, due to the lack of internet availability in Cuba, it is much harder to organize a homestay in advance in this manner. To organize a homestay you will need to find an area you like within Havana and look for a little blue anchor sign/plaque above the front door. The sign indicates that the house is a homestay casa available to tourists. The red anchor indicates that the place is for Cuban visitors only.
The general price for a homestay is 30 CUC per night which will include a room with 3 beds. The price is per room, so if you find other tourists to share accommodations with you, the price won’t change. There are also a handful of ‘hostels’ available that essentially operate in the same manner as a homestay on a slightly larger scale with rooms full of bunks.
It is worth noting that the people of Cuba are poor and you help to support them financially by choosing a more authentic stay such as a homestay rather than opting for a hotel. They are taxed 80-90% of their earnings from your stay and actually take home very small amounts of the cost of your accommodation. By paying for meals or drinks from your casa you can better support poor Cubans’ income as this specific money goes straight into their pocket. The Cuban people are extremely friendly and welcoming and you will not regret choosing to stay with some local family.
* Please note you will need some basic Spanish as Cubans do not generally speak any English at all.
Traveling to Cuba: The Internet
There is very little Internet available in Cuba. Should you need the Internet your best bet is to head to one of the larger hotels such as the Habana Libre and buy a one-hour session for the indulgent cost of 10 CUC (equivalent to 10USD). You can also obtain a pre-paid Internet card similar to those old school phone cards. The card will help you connect to the Internet at a lower range (price depends on a hotel). The cost per hour is generally around 8-10 CUC/hour. My best advice is to forget the Internet during your stay in Cuba and just enjoy the vacation. If you choose to stay at a hotel, of course, you will have the Internet as part of your stay. Other than that, just forget about the Internet!
Traveling to Cuba: Food
Cuban food leaves a lot to be desired. It is certainly not an up and coming culinary culture. There are no large supermarkets with amazing treats like chocolate and sodas. I would suggest that you bring in some snacks with you. The dietary staple in Cuba is beans, rice, and fish. If you stick to touristy areas you will be able to get something other than those three foods. However, you will have to pay extra. I encourage that you don’t do so. There is far more pleasure in supporting local businesses than tourist establishments.
You might be reading this post and feeling that maybe Cuba falls into the ‘too hard’ basket. After all, this is your holiday, right? Don’t rush to conclusions, though! For a cultural experience like no other, I really do recommend visiting Cuba now, before the Western influences come flooding in. Cuba stands to change in the very near future – so don’t put off your trip too long! You won’t regret it!