Cuba has come a long way in recent years, though there still remains some mystique about visiting and everything still does seem like it’s stuck in the 1950s. Because of this, it would be prudent for any visitors to be adequately prepared for a stay with the follow by tips that we worked out after a recent visit. Here they are:
1. The Money
This is a big one that everyone will talk to you about and that you may perhaps panic about before you get to Cuba. Here is the low-down on what you should do for money:
– There are 2 currencies. Yes that’s right, there is what is known as a tourist money (CUC or “cook” as the locals pronounce it), and a national money that most locals use (CUP, Cuban peso, or moneda national). 1CUC (tourist money) is worth 1USD, whilst 25CUP (national money) is worth 1CUC – so there is a big difference between them!
– To tell the difference between the notes (and to not get ripped off by receiving change in national money), use this easy guide:
All CUC notes have “convertible pesos” written on the note with quite a lot of colour, and will have a monument on them. All CUP notes only have “peso” written on them, are not as colourful, and have people’s faces on them. For coins, CUC coins are silver and have an octagonal shape to them, whilst CUP coins are mainly bronze/gold.
– YES, you DO want to get both currencies. Most (if not all) tourist activities are paid for in CUC, though if you want to be able to save money on things like food and the occasional souvenir then it is advisable to have both currencies with you. For example, a pizza in national money at a cafeteria (CUP) may cost 20CUP (or 0.80CUC), whereas at a tourist restaurant it may cost around 5-6CUC- a major difference!
– To get CUC, withdraw from an ATM at a bank, or make your way to a cadeca (casa de cambio or “change house”) and wait in line to change your money over.
NOTE 1: Cards from banks in the USA or even affiliated with an American company will most likely not work in the ATM’s. For example, for Australians, Westpac cards DO NOT work anywhere in Cuba. For us, we were able to withdraw from an ATM using our Commonwealth Travel Money Cards which are the equivalent of prepaid Mastercards. We could also withdraw by going into a bank with our passports and travel money cards and getting the actual teller to give us money.
NOTE 2: At a Cadeca (change house) DON’T exchange USD for CUC. This will incur a 10% change fee on top of the already slightly fluctuated rate giving you around 87CUC for 100USD. If you can get GBP, EUR, CAD, or even MXN (depending on the current rate), you will most likely get a better rate compared to USD. Check the only reliable exchange rate website for Cuba HERE, and then do the conversion math to work out which currency is better for you.
– To get CUP, you need to go to a Cadeca and change your CUC to CUP. This is an easy process (except for a probable long wait in line), and you will get 24CUP for 1CUC (the Cadeca takes 1CUP per 1CUC as a small commission it seems). For a 2 week trip as backpackers we would recommend getting around 30CUC worth of CUP. If you don’t plan on eating much street food then get a smaller amount (you can always get more)
– CUC cannot be exchanged outside of Cuba, so try and budget well to not end up with too much CUC at the end of your trip. It’s quite difficult to exchange large amounts of Cuban money back to USD (the 10% fee doesn’t get charged when converting back), and even more difficult to another currency, even at the airport. Some Cadecas will allow you to exchange back especially later in the day when they have some foreign notes built up from previous customers.
2. The Lines
To put it bluntly, everyone seems to line up for everything in Cuba. The bank, cadecas, purchasing wifi cards, even shops are not immune from lining up.
The important tip here is that whilst the line may seem orderly, this is often not the case and people standing around the line are probably also in it. To find your place in the line, ask who is last (“ultimo”) and make sure you enter behind them.
3. Take a Guide Book With You
The internet may have taken over a lot from the paper guide books of old, but for Cuba there is a lot of information that can still only be found hidden within these pages.
One of the biggest reasons also for taking a guide book is that internet is not easily accessible (explained below), so it’s not as easy to look up travel tips whilst on the road or even in your hotel whilst in Cuba.
We would recommend grabbing a copy before you travel, or even downloading an e-book for your phone if you’re worried about the weight.
4. Offline Apps are Your Friend
Once again because of the lack of internet in Cuba, apps that work offline are very helpful in giving directions and for ideas on what to do in each place. A couple we recommend include:
– Triposo: this app can be used for destinations around the world, and for such a commercial app (run by Turkish airlines), it actually does a great job at supplying information and maps for Cuba. Make sure you download the content (for each city you are visiting) before you head to Cuba so that it works whilst you are there
– Maps.me: this app is amazing for all maps especially if you are renting a car whilst in Cuba. Google Maps offline function doesn’t hold up well in Cuba (at least it didn’t for us), but maps.me did very well and also contained many landmarks worth visiting. Once again make sure you download the maps for Cuba before you leave.
5. The WiFi
As mentioned, the WiFi in Cuba is not as easily accessible as you would expect. It is only available in public spaces (such as parks and squares), and you also need to purchase an access card before you can login.
To purchase a card, find the local ETECSA office (who run the telecommunications in Cuba) and wait in line (yep, another one). The cards are 2CUC per hour, and can be purchased as a 1 or 5 hour card. NOTE that a passport may be required to purchase (we found this was hit or miss depending on who you were served by).
Yes you can always stay in hotels whilst in Cuba, but they are overpriced and not really for the budget conscious!
The better option is to stay in “Casa Particulares”, or home stays with the locals. These are setup in a similar way to AirBnB stays (and some savvy Casas are already on AirBnB), providing a cheap option for accommodation where you can also meet locals! Casas also offer the option (for an additional cost) of breakfast and dinner (sometimes lunch) which is usually amazing and always too much food!
You can book Casas before you come, though with a little difficulty. Try websites such as TripToVinales and CubaJunky which allow you to email hosts to see if they have availability. The other option is to wait until you get to Cuba where often many hosts will try and get you to go to their Casa (many wait for buses to come in to try and “sell you” on their place), or you can search the streets for the little blue anchor which signifies that they are a Casa.
In addition to this, often Casa hosts will have a network of contacts for other cities so you will be able to easily find accommodation for any other places you wish to see in Cuba.
7. Bring Your Own Snacks
It’s hard in Cuba to find good, healthy snacks such as muesli or granola bars.
It is easy enough to find things such as potato chips (crisps) or ice cream, but for those who enjoy a healthy treat we recommend stocking up before you travel.
8. Haggle for Everything
Cubans seem to enjoy haggling, and even if you don’t feel like you are in a situation to do so (such as in a shop), give it a try and see what happens- the worst that can happen is they say no!
We were able to reduce the cost of many tours and souvenirs by haggling, especially with tours where they intentionally start the price high. For example, in Havana we were able to get a ride in a classic car for 4 people for just over an hour for 30CUC. The original starting price was 60CUC.
9. Traveling Between Cities
There are a few options for traveling between cities, and it is definitely more economical to travel in a group of 4 if possible (just the right size for a taxi!). The best options include:
– The Bus: there are 2 main companies which include Viazul, and the lesser known Conectando. Viazul allows you to book tickets prior to your arrival online, whilst Conectando can be booked at any Cubanatur office whilst staying in Cuba. Both are great options and charge the same price.
– Private Taxis: if travelling in a group of 4 then this option is definitely worth looking into. Generally you will be able to travel for the same price (maybe even less if you haggle) than the cost of the bus, all in your own private vehicle.
– Rent a Car: it is possible to rent cars whilst in Cuba, and we saw many groups take up this option. It also allows you to travel at your own pace which is nice if you don’t want to be rushed.
10. Hidden Bargains
The majority of “bargains” in Cuba relate to food and drink (or maybe that’s my stomach speaking). There are many cafes and windows offering food and drink to be paid for in CUP, which locals frequent.
Whether it be a $2 plate of chicken and rice, a $1 pizza, or even a $1 bottle of home brew rum (seriously), there are some great cheap options to be found so that your budget isn’t blown out. All you have to do is search around town and you should quickly come across some.
11. The Way the Locals Talk
This was interesting to us as we weren’t aware previously- Cuban people don’t pronounce the “s” in many words of Español (Spanish), making for some confusing moments on our travels.
For example, “maso menos” becomes “mao meno”, and “gracias” becomes “gracia”. Definitely something to listen out for, especially if you are still learning Spanish.
So there are some tips to look out for before you travel to Cuba. You will most likely come across your own also, and we would love to hear any others that you might have. Please leave a comment below and let us know!