Traveling in Cuba
We chose to visit Cuba in 2016 shortly after the travel ban for Americans had been lifted. We flew directly out of Florida into Havana where we spent a couple of days before going to Mantanza and then Veradero. We spent 4 days in Veradero and then returned to Havana for several more days. We only spent two weeks in Cuba,but we will remember it for a lifetime. Despite decades of economic isolation, the country seems to be getting along just as well as anywhere else in Caribbean I have been. We visited at interesting time too. It was two weeks after Fidel Castro had passed away, and therefore the entire country was still in mourning. There is so much to do in Cuba, we hardly had time for everything we wanted. Havana is a fantastic city to spend time in. You can stay entertained just walking up and down the colorful streets all day long. Cuba also has some of the nicest and most pristine beaches in the world. Locals are sincere and welcoming to foreigners and will help you with just about anything you need. It is also a very affordable place to travel and is a very quick trip over from the U.S.
The Cost of Travel in Cuba
- Currency: The Cuban Peso (CUP) is the local currency and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is in place for foreigners to use
- Exchange Rate
- Local currency = $1 US Dollar = $26 CUP
- Tourist currency = $1 US Dollar = $1 CUC
- The CUC is based off of the US Dollar’s value. That means it fluctuates less than the local currency and is therefor stronger. It seems like the plan kind of backfired when they decided that foreigners would get their own currency. Now, the CUC is being used more and more by locals and may soon replace the CUP altogether.
- More on MoneyThere is a 10% charge in addition to whatever the bank or cambio charges for exchanging US Dollars for Cuban Pesos. We went to Chase Bank before we left the states and got Euros out to avoid this. When we arrived at the airport it was way too late for any banks to be open, so we had to exchange some money at the airport cambio, which has the absolute worst rate in the country and a line that took 1hr to get through 8 people. We exchanged just enough money to take a cab to the Airbnb and then went to a bank to exchange the rest in the morning. If you arrive in Cuba during bank hours 10-4, go ahead and skip the cambio line at the airport and just ask your taxi driver to stop at a bank on the route to your final destination. They will be happy to wait for you while you exchange money and they will probably know of a bank that is less busy than the ones in the center of town. The “Casas de Cambios” in central Havana have lines that wrap around the block and waits that last over 2 hrs. It is better to go to an actual bank than the cambios. Keep in mind that you will not be able to exchange any of your Cuban Pesos back over to any other currency, so only exchange what you think you will use. We started with exchanging only half of what we brought, and then exchanged more later. We still had to have a pretty lavish last day in order to spend the rest of the money we had exchanged. (FYI, “lavish” in our book means us each getting a plate of chicken for lunch instead of sharing one, and then buying a 6-pack of beer.)There are two different currencies in Cuba. One for locals (CUP) and one for tourists (CUC.) The local currency is valued at 26 CUP to 1 USD. The tourist currency is equal to the U.S. dollar, so 1 CUC=1 USD. The whole country is slowly moving towards using the tourist currency because it is based off of the US dollar value and doesn’t fluctuate. If something is in the national currency and you pay with the tourist currency, they will just give you your change in the national currency. I was lead to believe the two currencies would be a lot bigger of an issue than it turned out to be. Be familiar with the exchange rate so you know if people are trying to rip you off by giving you the wrong change when switching between currencies.ATM’s will not work with U.S. credit cards and only the nicest hotels and restaurants will take credit cards at all. I also witnessed several Germans and Canadians who were unable to use credit cards at ATMs. It has been rumored that cards are starting to work more places, but as of now it is probably best just to assume you wont be able to use your credit card.
- $20-$30 for Casa Particulares or AirBnb. We stayed in a few of each and the prices were basically the same no matter what the quality of the room was.
- Airbnb is exploding on the all over Cuba, giving locals a chance to benefit from some of the increased tourism and allowing for a little money to go into the pockets of the people who earned it instead of it being redistributed as is the socialist way. There are a lot of articles written about how Airbnb is huge in Cuba now, what they neglect to tell you is that Airbnb detects your location on your device and does not allow reservation to be made while in Cuba. This has to do with some of the sanctions in place forbidding U.S. companies to do business in Cuba. We had made a few reservations on the site back in the U.S. for the start and end of our trip, but when we were there and attempted to make one, a large warning pops up on the Aribnb app, saying that they don’t allow booking to be done from within Cuba… Luckily there is another option.
This is the symbol for the “casas particulares” in Cuba. What it means is that the house it is in front of has a room for rent, just like a hostal or an Airbnb. There are more of these casas in Cuba than there are travelers, so finding a place to stay will never be an issue. Most of the ones we stayed in were actually better than the Airbnb’s we had booked and even rivaled some hotels I’ve stayed at in the Caribbean. They averaged about $30/night and always had a private bathroom, TV, and an air conditioner.
- Food & Drink
- There are two ways to eat food in Cuba: Paladares or street food. Paladares are restuarants serving good authentic Cuban cuisine, such as ropa vieja, pollo frito, and bistek cerdo. There are both government owned and citizen owned paladares. The government owned ones are what you will see on Trip Advisor and stuff, but the citizen owned ones allow your money to go directly to the people running it. The other dining option is street food. Same deal there. You have government owned establishments selling pizza and food you would find at a county fair, and then you have people with little stalls around, selling espresso and small snacks. Eating $1 pizzas is obviously inevitable while traveling on a budget. While it seems like a comfort food just for tourists, the pizza places are actually a great place to hangout with locals, because they all eat there. They are put there by the government so that everybody can afford to go to a restaurant. Even if it’s just cheap pizza.
- Less than $1 for government junk food (personal pizza, chicken burgers, sandwiches, etc.)
- $3-$8 for a restaurant meal (chicken, pork, or beef, with rice, beans and salad)
- Sandwiches-Not the Cubanos from Miami. More like a cafeteria bologna sandwich. They are super cheap though. About $0.65 usd.
- Beer: $1-$2
- Mojitos: $1.50-$2
- Rum: Havanna club is $3 for a small bottle or $5 for a 750ml
Tips for Traveling in Cuba
- Exchange US dollars to Euros before coming to Cuba. They will convert US dollars, but they charge 10% on top of the existing exchange rate.
- American credit/debit cards do not work in Cuba. There were rumors that some cards would work some places, but I tried and failed to withdrawal money from ATM’s using several different cards in several different places. It’s best to just to assume that you still can’t at this point.
- Bring enough cash for your stay, but don’t convert it all at once in case you have left-overs. Cuba will not exchange their currency back to another currency and Cuban pesos are not easily exchanged outside of the country.
- Get a wifi card and fill it with more than you think you will use so you don’t have to wait in line again
- Be wary of people selling cigars on the street. They may be old, defective, or faked name brands.
- Don’t pay to get driven around in a classic car. You can stand by the road and pick one out of your own choosing just as a normal taxi. Just ask to go down the Malecón and back and you will save yourself $60 bucks. Most classic cars are taxis and most taxis are classic cars. Just stand there looking for one you like and if one you don’t like honks or stops just shake your head and they keep moving. If you are into cars like me, this is a great way to get to ride in a variety of classic cars without having to splurge on some kind of tourist trap to drive you around.
- WifiCuba is finally getting on the grid. However, it is not a simple as it seems. The grid in Cuba is controlled by the government. So the only hot spots are official government approved hot spots. You know them when you see them. They are typically in public parks or plazas and identified by the hordes of people on smart phones and tablets. At night these parks look like a christmas parade because of all of the lit up screens. The wifi isn’t free though. You will notice the long lines of people outside buildings that usually bare the word ETECSA somewhere on it. That is where you buy a card with a code that is loaded with minutes of wifi access that you pre-pay for. Just like how cell phones used to be. The cards are cheap, but the line is long. Do yourself a favor and buy all of the minutes you could ever need at once, so that you don’t have to wait in the line again.
Things to do in Cuba
- Classic cars in Havana
- Cigar Shops
- Bay of Pigs
Havana is often described as the Rome of the Caribbean, and rightfully so. It took us all of a week just to be able to focus on anything besides classic cars and colorful houses. The city is so compact and has so much going on. The plazas are a great place to have lunch and a cigar and catch some live music. The malecón area is a great walk down the coast at night, but doesn’t really have anything going on besides being a good place to watch cars and people. Big cruise ships doc in Havana, so the town floods with tourists during the day, but they dissipate late at night. There are several good museums in Havana to learn about it’s important history that is still being made.
Mantanzas is a nice town with good people, but there isn’t really much going on there. It looks close to the beach on a map, but it’s a $25 dollar cab ride to the closest beach access. Our taxi driver’s name was Hans Solo….Playa Coral is a nice reef that used to be open to the public, but now of course it’s operated by a travel agency, and they wouldn’t let us go snorkeling on the reef without a guide. This apparently wasn’t the case just a year ago but now the resorts take groups there and of course it is now under control of the government. Back in Mantanza there is a nice plaza to hangout in and a good street that fills up with food vendor stalls with all kinds of art and goods. There are some tasty deep friend cornmeal balls that a bunch of vendors make.
Everything we had read lead us to believe that Varadero was a super touristy area. That is true if you stay at the resorts, but otherwise the resorts keep their guests pretty isolated from the rest of the town. There are gift shops all around, but aside from that, the town is very authentic. There are lots of great restaurants serving fresh seafood as well as classic cuban cuisine. Locals like to hangout and play cards and dominos at the walk up espresso bars scattered around the town. The stretch of pristine beach is seemingly endless and the water is crystal clear. There are shops on the road right next to the beach where you can buy ice cold beers for $1 each. The double decker buss looks lame, but $5 gets you a ticket that allows you to hop on and off all day and you can try out different beach spots and see the whole town. Ask to get off the buss at the cuevas and see some crazy bat caves.