Planning travel to Cuba? I thought I’d share a few crucial tips that we picked up before and during our adventure to this culturally rich island. Here's what I'll cover:
- Currency (CUC vs Pesos Nationales)
- Lodging (casa particulares)
- Cigars and rum
- Giving back
As a visitor to Cuba, one of the first things you will have to tackle is converting your money to the local peso and knowing how far your money will go. Unlike most countries, Cuba has two separate currencies and it’s important to know how much they are worth relative to each other and how much you should keep handy. Credit cards are sometimes to rarely accepted so “cash is king” here in Cuba.
The primary currency that visitors use in Cuba are called Convertible Pesos which are more commonly referred to as CUC (pronounced kuuk). At the time of this writing they are worth just barely more than a US dollar with 1 CUC being worth 0.97 USD. NOTE: if you have US dollars to exchange then we heard that there might be an additional 10% charge to convert your money so the effective exchange rate is actually 1 CUC to 0.87 USD). CUC is accepted almost everywhere throughout Cuba and in many places this is the only currency they accept. A personal note from the above pictured 5 CUC bill is that we should follow their lead and hold all important meetings in hammocks.
The other currency that price conscious tourists should be aware of is Pesos Nationales. This is the older, local currency which has an exchange rate of 25 Pesos Nationales for one CUC. Nationales are typically accepted at small local shops, farmers markets, and other local vendors. It’s not uncommon to pay 3 pesos for a coffee, 10 for a small pizza, and 18 for a beer. All that would total up to roughly 1.3 CUC which is not too shabby for a full meal with with drinks.
Ask anyone who has visited Cuba what their largest cost was and you will almost certainly get the same response: Transportation. Most goods and services are relatively cheap here but if you want the freedom to explore the island in your own vehicle, you’re going to have to pay. The island is over 700 miles long which makes it over 40 miles wider than Texas. We personally ended up renting a car but in retrospect we would have done it differently. Here are your options sorted by increasing cost:
If you have more time than money on your hands, you speak a little Spanish, and you want to get to know the local culture then this is really the best way to see the country. Hitchhiking is not only accepted in Cuba, it is highly encouraged. As an example of the efficiency of socialism, we heard rumor that government vehicles were actually required to pick up hitchhikers if they had empty seats. With three of us in our rental car, we would often pick up one or two hitchhikers along our route and they were always very courteous and were often especially helpful if we were lost. Note that if you’re the hitchhiker rather than the driver then be ready to offer a small tip of 1CUC (or ~25 Pesos Nationales) even though many may decline the offer.
For getting between major cities, there are a number of both local and tour buses that are quite reasonably priced. Although we didn’t personally use the bus system, we met a number of other travelers who used them regularly. Costs vary but we heard from one couple that they paid around 15 CUC for a 7 hour bus ride from Holguin to Baracoa and others mentioned a bus from Holguin to Havana taking 16 hours costing around 65 CUC. Pro tip: bring a jacket as they apparently keep the AC up so high that you might find a new travel companion for warmth if you don’t have one already.
If you want a little more freedom to explore then another way to get around is to hire a taxi. These range from horse drawn carriages (~20 pesos a mile) to restored American classic cars (~40 pesos a mile). You can hire them either for a single ride or even for the whole day. Getting a driver for the whole day ran around 40 CUC according to some fellow travelers we met along the way.
If you have more money than time then a rental car can help you check out not only the major cities but also the unexplored mountains and smaller towns. We rented a car in Guadalavaca which was 90 CUC a day (~100 US). Prices are likely higher there because it is primarily a tourist town and we heard later that we could have rented in Holguin for close to 65 CUC/day. Gas is about 1.30 CUC/liter which is roughly $4.00 a gallon. Note that it’s expected that you pay someone in each town 2 CUC/night to watch the car for you aka a “watchyman”. We never felt that we were at risk but we felt it was a small price to pay for the peace of mind. All in all a rental car was by far our largest expense and in retrospect I'd recommend sticking to busses, taxis, and hired cars.
Lodging (aka Casa Particulares)
Although typical backpacking hostels don’t exist in Cuba, it was very easy to find affordable rooms in every city we visited. The primary form of lodging for travelers in Cuba besides a typical hotel is what is called a “casa particular”. These are individuals or families that have one or many spare bedrooms that they rent out to visitors. Since your host is a local Cuban, travelers are provided with a unique opportunity to engage with natives and gain a better understanding of their country. The owners of the casa particulares were more like family than business owners and gave us numerous recommendations on how to properly explore and experience their city.
Blue Anchor vs Red Anchor
When searching for a casa particular in Cuba, you’ll quickly notice that they are everywhere in the larger cities. It's important to note, however, that not all of them are open to foreigners. Because of the wealth gap between locals and tourists, the republic has designated specific casa particulares where foreigners are allowed to stay and separate locations for locals. Any building or door that has a blue upside-down anchor symbol indicates that they provide accommodations for tourists while a red upside-down anchor indicates that they’re only for locals. Once you arrive in a particular city (har har) you can often stop at the first inviting blue anchor'ed building and ask if they have available rooms. If they are full then they will often either call a nearby casa or walk you there personally.
The cost for every casa particular we stayed in during our 10 days was 30 CUC per night. Although this may sound expensive to some traveling on backpacker budgets, it’s important to note that this was being split three ways as all of our rooms had one queen and one twin bed. We also never reserved our spots ahead of time and were often doing short stays of only one, two or three nights at an address. We were told by both owners and by travelers that you could get prices down to 15 or 20 CUC if you booked ahead, booked more days, or even just had fewer people. We had less bargaining power as were looking exclusively for spots that had two beds in a room so we could fit all three of us.
Every casa particular that we encountered contained not only welcoming hosts but also tasty coffee and food for any meal of the day as long as you provided them with enough heads up. This does cost extra (most were 3 CUC) which is certainly more expensive than street food but you can’t beat the convenience and quality of a homemade meal with some Cuban coffee to start the day. Dinner where we stayed was 7 CUC and these were always incredible meals that often included the local fish, cheese, milk or other specialty of the town or region. I highly recommend eating at least one meal in your casa as we were never disappointed.
Misc Tips about Casa Particulares
- Bring your passport – The casa particulares in Cuba are strictly regulated by the government and they are required to copy down your passport number into a log book when you check in. Note that photos or copies of passports are not sufficient as they must see the original. We initially left ours on the boat but had to run back and pick them up.
- Casa particulares website – Internet is very hard to come by in all of Cuba but if you book ahead or happen to track down an internet café on the island then there is a site called casaparticular.org which has most of the casa particulares in Cuba listed with prices and reviews.
Cost of Goods and Services
Cigars and Rum
To the outside world, Cuba is most famous for the quality of their cigars, followed closely by their passion for rum. Most visitors will waste little time tracking down both of these tasty treats when in the country. For cigars, the sale of these prized smokables are heavily regulated both by price and by location. This means that you can only buy guaranteed Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo and Juliet or other major cigars from approved shops. I use the word "guaranteed" because once inside the country you will find that every street vendor, tour guide and old woman has a "friend who works in the factory" and that they can get you them for cheap.
Cheap here meant about 25 CUC for a box of 24 large Cohibas which was mighty tempting given that the real Cohibas 6 CUC per cigar in the approved stores. Although the street cigars are still technically "Cuban" cigars, they likely use lower quality tobacco and they are almost certainly machine made instead of being hand selected and rolled like those sold from approved shops.
How far will your Pesos and CUC get you? Here are a few prices we noted down for those who are working on a budget.
- 1 PN for 2 scoops of ice cream
- 10 PN for Ham & cheese sandwich
- 8 PN for Chorizo & cheese sandwich
- 20 PN for 3 pork sliders
- 10-15 CUC for a nice meal at a sit-down restaurant
- 3 CUC for breakfast at a casa particular
- 7 CUC for dinner at a casa particular
- 1 PN for coffee at a local stand
- 18 PN for Mayabee (beer was same price at bars and markets..)
- 22 PN for bucanero
- 1 CUC for Cristal
- 3 CUC for any mixed drinks such as Cuba libres or Mojitos
- 5 CUC for a bottle of Havana Club Blanco
- 8 CUC for a bottle of Havana Club 7 ano
- 57 CUC - Guided 2 day hike to the highest point on the island, Pico Turquino, with meals included
- 4.50 CUC per hour for internet
It’s no secret that the US embargo on Cuba has had a significant effect on the country. If you or others are looking for a way to give back to the friendly locals that they meet during your visit, there are a number of goods that you either have lying around the house or are easily acquired that you could bring along. We were either directly asked for these items or we had other sailors/travelers who had these requested by locals:
- Spare clothes – Clothes are very expensive for locals in Cuba. For example, shirts ran at least 10 CUC in every city we visited while the average monthly salary for most citizens was around 15 CUC per month and thus it’s not surprising that we were asked numerous times for the clothes off our backs. We met a group of Canadians who visit Cuba every year and they packed every inch of extra luggage space with old clothes from themselves, friends, and family members to give to locals when they arrived.
- USB keys, DVDs/CDs, and other remote storage – Cable television and movies are prohibitively expensive for many Cubans and thus we met a number of locals who asked if we had any spare USB keys that they could use for grabbing the latest shows and movies. In the more remote towns, the infrastructure for television doesn’t exist and so one person brings a hard drive loaded with content and all the families come and download them and bring them home.
- Shampoo – Basic goods such as shampoo are also very expensive here. A simple gesture of kindness is to bring more shampoo than you need to your casa particular and leave it when you check out.
- Old technology – What may seem outdated to us will often still be quite useful here. Bring any old cellphones, cameras, or computers that still function and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you find them a home.
- Old toys – From talking to other visitors and the owners of our casa particulares it sounds like these are relatively expensive compared to the states. If you have any old toys then they would gladly take them and find them a good home.