Vibrant colours, friendly people, classic cars rattling down potholed streets, interesting geology, amazing beaches. Rum. Cigars. Music. Cuba is spectacular.
The country’s turbulent history has left it stranded in time in some regards: there are only 21 cars per thousand residents, pay phones are still a major form of communication, the Internet is almost completely absent. A visit to Cuba means cutting yourself off from the world a little (or a lot) — it’s a full immersion experience.
Tourists are a major source of income for the country in general and for local people in particular; sometimes we felt like walking wallets as everyone wanted a share of our money. We were constantly saying no to offers of taxis, meals in restaurants, drinks in bars, erotic services. It’s understandable though: while the socialist government makes sure everyone has the bare minimum to survive, locals don’t have a lot of luxury. The tourist dollar is a way to supplement the average salary of less than US$20 a month.
Despite this, we found Cuba to be very reasonably priced: we stayed in casas particulares (local houses that rent out rooms) rather than hotels, and picked up snacks from street vendors rather than always eating out. Transport was the big expense, but didn’t break the bank, tours weren’t too expensive either, and a mojito in a bar could cost as little as US$2.
Where is Cuba?
Cuba an island nation in the Caribbean Sea. The main island is the largest in the Caribbean, and the country also includes thousands of smaller islands as well. The US and the Bahamas are to the north, Mexico is to the west (Cancun is a 45-minute flight from Cuba’s capital, Havana) and Jamaica is to the south. A chain of Caribbean islands stretches off to the east, starting with Hispaniola, the island which houses both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
A tiny bit of Cuban history
Cuba was inhabited by various mesoamerican tribes until 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed and claimed it for Spain. After 400 years of Spanish rule, it was briefly ruled by the US after the American-Spanish war, and gained independence in 1902. The twentieth century was a turbulent one, most notable for the Mafia invasion during American Prohibition followed by the 1959 revolution which overthrew a dictator and brought in Fidel Castro as leader of a now-communist society.
This revolution saw all land holdings over 400 hectares appropriated by the government, with no compensation given to the landowners. Since a huge proportion of the land seized belonged to US citizens, the USA was understandably angry and not only stopped all trade with Cuba, but also prohibited its citizens from visiting the country. President Obama has recently overturned the embargo, so Americans will be able to legally visit very soon. This, along with the loosening of restrictions for Cubans to start small businesses means that change is on its way to Cuba — visit now if you want to see a society on the brink of change.
Get to Cuba
Some cruise ships stop at Cuba, but there aren’t any ferries at present to other countries. This will be changing soon when US Americans have free movement to Cuba; we found several websites advertising ferry services from Florida, which will start operations as soon as it’s permitted.
This means that you’ll almost certainly arrive by air, and probably into Havana. The easiest way to get into the city is by taxi, which costs 20-25 CUC. Until recently, passenger flying out of Cuba were charged a 25 CUC departure tax: this was abolished on May 1, 2015.
A word about money in Cuba
We read a lot about Cuba before heading there, and most of the articles dwelt heavily on the country’s dual currency system. It’s nowhere near as hard to grasp as these articles will make you think — don’t worry about it!
The currency you’ll be using the most is the convertible peso, or the CUC. It’s pegged 1:1 to the US dollar, so one CUC is the same as a US dollar — easy, right?
The other currency is the moneda nacional (MN or CUP). One CUC is worth 24 MN, and it’s definitely worth carrying some of these, in a separate wallet if possible. You can use them to buy street food like pizza, pastries and sandwiches, as well as drinks and ice cream from vendors or fruit from street carts. If you don’t have any MN on you, many vendors will accept CUC and give change in MN — just make sure to give the smallest denomination possible as they won’t have change for 20 CUC.
Many government-run shops will now accept both currencies and display prices in both CUC and MN. Apparently, the dual-currency system is on its way out, but this might take some time!
Getting money in Cuba
It can be a challenge to get your hands on Cuban cash. It’s not transferable outside of the country, so you’ll have to wait until you’re there to get it, and that often means standing in ridiculously long lines. The information below was correct as of mid-December 2015.
We decided to rely on plastic and had no problems withdrawing cash from the ATM at the airport using a Visa debit card. There are ATMs on the departures floor and at the exchange office outside Arrivals. (Turn right out of the door, and — if no-one is using the ATM — talk to the security guard to skip the queue.)
Our Visa Debit worked everywhere, however, most regular debit or MasterCard debit cards don’t work at all, and US cards won’t work either. You can also withdraw from a Visa credit card, but you’ll get charged interest immediately on the amount you take out so it’s not an economical option.
There’s a 3% fee on all ATM withdrawals and currency exchanges, so when we withdrew 800 CUC at the airport, it cost us US$824 plus our normal bank charges.
The other way is to bring cash and change it at a bank or cadeca exchange office. Don’t bring US dollars as there’s an extra 10% tax on them: pounds, euros and Canadian dollars are your best bet. Be prepared to wait in line, usually outside the office: a security guard allows one person to enter at a time.
Where to go in Cuba
Havana seemed to be crumbling around us, with many buildings in a bad state of repair and piles of rubbish decorating the streets. It’s an interesting place to wander around; though — we used an app to explore the main sights but didn’t go into any of the museums. Make sure to see the Capitol building, the pleasantly asymmetrical cathedral, the Castillo de Real Fuerza fortress, and the Partagas tobacco factory. Walk along the malecón (seawall) and buy snacks from the peso shops of street vendors using moneda nacional. We did a tour of one of the tobacco factories, which was very interesting, though quite short. Tickets cost 10 CUC and you have to buy them from any one of the big hotels in the city centre, not from the factory itself.
Viñales has boomed in recent years to become a tourist hub. Almost all of the houses are casas particulares and budget street food is hard to come by. It’s worth a visit though: do a tour of the national park on foot or by horse to see tobacco and coffee plantations, visit a cave and swim in a small lake. It’s also a good base for heading to one of the beaches on the northern coast: Cayo Levisa and Cayo Jutias are both around 60km and 90 minutes drive away. Going to Cayo Levisa means hopping on a day tour as going independently is a lot more expensive; we chose Cayo Jutias as it was a little cheaper to get there and seemed less commercial and more laid back.
Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara
Just an hour or two away from each other, these three colonial cities are all worth a visit. We spent two days each in Trinidad and Cienfuegos, and just visited Santa Clara for the Che Guevara memorial. Trinidad was great for the nightly outdoor concerts at the Casa de la Musica, and Cienfuegos charmed us with its beautiful colonial buildings and seaside location.
Other destinations in Cuba
Twelve days isn’t enough to scratch Cuba’s surface. We limited ourselves to the western side of the island due to time constraints, but there’s plenty to see on the other side as well. We’ve heard that Santiago de Cuba and Guardadlavaca are interesting cities, and there are snorkelling, scuba diving and hiking opportunities all over the place. There’s no overnight hiking possible: everything we found out about required a guide, and a park fee and only comprised 4-15km loops (1-4 hours, maximum hiking time).
Eating in Cuba
Rumours of terrible food in Cuba didn’t match our experience there. Perhaps because new private restaurants have a financial incentive to ensure customers enjoy their food and come back for more, we found the food to be pretty good, on the whole. There was certainly a lot of rice and beans, but in almost every restaurant we could choose from chicken, pork, beef, shrimp or lobster, and side dishes of vegetables were also available. For variety, we had the occasional hamburger or pasta dish, and bought snacks from street stalls in moneda nacional.
As well as eating in restaurants, we also had dinner in our casa particular at least once during each stay. We found the food to be excellent in each case, and the price (7 or 8CUC per person) to be fair. If you’re travelling solo, prices may be a little higher to offset the labour-to-income ratio.
Drink and smoke
Cuba is famous for rum, and for good reason — it’s fantastic. We stuck to Havana Club, the best quality of the brands available, and also the brand you’re most likely to find in bars. Choose from white rum (3-year-old) or barrel-aged darker varieties, such as our favourite, the Añejo 7 años. Our cocktail of choice was the mojito, but the daiquiri was also created in Cuba if you want to try it out.
We don’t smoke as a rule, but a few puffs on a Cuban cigar is an experience worth having. Buy your cigars from a temperature-controlled store if at all possible, and never buy on the street. You can tour the cigar factory that produces Partagas, Romeo y Juliet and Cohiba in Havana and see the more casual way cigars are rolled in the tobacco plantations near Viñales.
The Viazul buses provide a comfortable journey between Cuba’s main cities, but places are limited in high season and you’ll need to buy your tickets (in person) a day or two in advance. Your other option is to hire a car and driver, which we found to be the most convenient way to travel as we were a group of four. Prices are similar to what you’ll pay for the bus, though you might be able to negotiate a small discount if you’re lucky.
Solo travellers can book a seat in a car travelling in the direction they’re heading, though drivers might try to cram four people in the backseat to earn more money. You can ask for advice at the Infotur office in each city, or your casa particular host might have a contact for you.
Most Cubans earn less than US$20 per month, which isn’t really enough to live on. Tourists represent a chance to earn more, and while many people have legitimate businesses, others make a living through scams. Jineteros (touts) are a constant issue: they get a commission if they take you to a casa particular or restaurant, so you’ll end up paying more than you should if you show up somewhere with one in tow. Some restaurants seemed to charge different prices depending on the day, and Craig was once charged three times as much as he should have been for lemonade by a waitress who wanted to line her pockets. It’s hard to avoid all the scams all the time, even for experienced travellers, so be prepared to be ripped off at least once during your trip.
Cuba is a fascinating country that’s slowly incorporating capitalist values into its socialist system. You’ll undoubtedly be frustrated by its contradictions, but it’s definitely worth a visit.