I traveled to Cuba by plane in July 2018. So observations, policies, etc are from that time.
A Tale Of Two Currencies
There are two classes of people in Cuba. Those with access to hard currencies and those without. There are two currencies in Cuba the CUC and the CUP. The CUC is convertible. You can buy CUC with dollars and a 10% penalty and 3% exchange fee. Other hard currencies can be exchange at a rate where it is pegged to the dollar with only the 3% exchange fee. Tourists must use CUC people with access to the tourists can use CUC. Everyone else is paid in CUP.
Example: This space ship building is a state owned ice cream parlor. The ice cream inside is priced in CUP it is cheap. However there are 4 lines each wrapping around the block. People must wait hours to pay for the CUP priced ice cream. As a foreigner it is illegal for me to pay in CUP even if I buy them off of someone. Security immediately pointed us towards an area with no line and lots of ice cream priced in CUC. Cones were 50 cents 3 scoop Sundaes served at the table 1.80ish. There were not tourists here but Cubans with access to CUC not wanting to wait all day, not having to wait all day. They can afford this privilege because their interaction with foreigners means they make a lot more money.
My understanding is a doctor or teacher make around 800 CUP a month which is, if it were convertible $30 USD. So they would have to spend more than 5% of a month’s wages to buy a CUC sundae! A street cleaner $20USD a month. Yet a taxi driver with access to foreigners can make 50 times that! A housekeeper in a tourist hotel, guides, anyone with access to tourists can make much more than the professors, scientists, police, etc, a lot more. It seems to be creating a huge divide. For instance you could never buy a plane ticket on a non tourist industry salary. I can’t think through how lifting the embargo can help all the people not in the tourist industry and what the end result of this division will be. Even with trade how can this divide close? Is the CUP currency essentially ration coupons? Too complex for me. I have never encountered anything like this.
Cuba is different than anyplace I have been. I have been told by many it is similar to visiting the Soviet Union back when there was a Soviet Union. You cannot just go to a store or kiosk and buy a cold water, or a snack. There are very few stores. The produce markets are just a couple of counters with rotting fruit as it is so hot. Small CUP places will carry small portions of rice and have a crowd if something is in stock. There are some new flashy stores that seem like what we are used to. Some are as big as a Rite Aid, bright, clean. Nothing fresh or frozen is available, only shelf items. Each store sells only a few things so there are many of the same things filling the shelves. Prices are in CUP and CUC with most things expensive. $4 USD for a small off brand pack of sandwich cookies? The stores do not all have the same things and are light on snack foods mostly having shelf ingredients. Notable values:
Booze/Rum, local booze is reasonably priced by foreign standards. Alcohol by the bottle is the same price everywhere in Cuba even at the airports. Nescafe brand instant coffee is very cheap, and vanilla, I have recently learned of Vanilla shortage in the rest of the world. Not here!
Tips And Links
Stay In A “Casa Particulares”
Houses are turned into small hotels or homestays. These are especially prevalent in Vinales. Casas have only a few rooms, often just two, and are connected to a family’s house. The rooms are private with private baths. The ones I stayed in had air conditioning. Staying in a Casa is a great way to support and interact with Cuban people.
I recommend eating at least one night at your homestay/Casa We paid $12 for this lobster dinner (sides and additional courses, included, not pictured) at our Casa in Vinales. Served with a view.
Unfortunately people with CUC also have access to all the food where those earning CUP have little. It is unfortunate, but we had to eat and wanted to support local, private restaurants. Here are two we visited more than once that had good food, prices, and atmosphere.
This was a multilevel casual eatery with the tag line “Hemmingway was never here”. The portions are large and reasonably priced and the music, atmosphere and drinks are great.
This is an open grill style restaurant with meats, seafood, and traditional dishes. Located in Vedado.
United States ATM cards will not work in Cuba. Cuba has ATMs but because of the embargo a US card will not work. You will have to change money, something I have not done in a decade!
Bring non US dollars to change if possible.
This is confusing. If you go to Cuba it is better not to change dollars. The government of Cuba charges an extra 10% (above the 3% exchange fee) to change dollars. No other currency has this 10% penalty.
My top tip for US citizens would be to bring home some extra Euros, or Canadian Dollars next time you are in those countries if you are preparing for Cuba. I did not have quite enough Euros for my last minute trip to Cuba. I looked at some banks in the US and the cheapest I could get Canadian Dollars or Euros was a 9% surcharge over the ATM exchange rate in those countries. I was faced with the choice to pay the Cuban government 10% or the US bank 9%. There was a minimum amount required to buy currency in the US $350-$500. This was a lot more than I needed so I just changed dollars in Cuba.
To avoid currency issues I prepaid my accommodation through the booking websites. This option is available for most home stays on sites like booking.com, hotels.com.
Make Bus Reservations Online and Early
The bus is the cheapest way to travel between cities in Cuba. Buses that tourist can take are few, they sell out quickly. Some blogs report issues, but I had no problem buying a bus ticket online here. It worked just like every other transportation website. You bring the receipt to the counter one hour before the bus and are given the ticket you need to board the bus. I noted at the office that Vinales to Havana was sold out for the next two days. I would recommend buying as far ahead as possible.
The bus was an air conditioned, normal coach. My bus from Vinales to Havana did make detours to pick up sausages, and bread sticks which made the ride a couple hours longer than stated. The drivers would also stop regularly and toss their drink cans and snack wrappers onto the side of the road which was sad to see.
Avoid Heavy Cruise Ship Days If Possible
There are thousands of people on guided ship tours in downtown Havana daily. If you can plan your time in Havana, or at least Old Havana, around the days with the least ships in port you will have a more relaxing time. Some days only have one boat whereas some days have three. Check the schedule here.
Reasonable guided day tours: Approx $25 per person a day for full day, guided private tour in English. 2018 prices.