According to the official channels racism does not exist in Cuba, but in daily life race is important. Looking at the number of expressions a language has to describe the subject can reveal the importance. Eskimos have 20 words for snow, and Cubans have twenty for race . Is that rasicm?
In ascending pigmentation Cubans distinguish the following shades of race. (If that order upsets you, you are not a Cuban (they don’t care) and you can also read it from the bottom to the top.)
Albino’s are pigment free. Also in Cuba
So white that he has blond hair and blue eyes. Mostly descendants of the Russians that spent some time in Cuba
A white guy but he might have dark eyes and dark hair.
One shade darker than Blanco. Mediterranean look.
Mulato adelantado//Mulata adelantada
Very light but mixed race.
Mulato blanconasso/Mulata blanconassa.
Same colour as adelantado but with black curls.
Blond, but not white
Clearly of mixed race. Considered the best contribution of the Spanish to the Cuban people.
Mixed blood with some Indian traits.
This is about the form of the eyes. Theoriginal inhabitants of Cuba had slit eyes. Colour does not matter.
A little bit darker than a Mulato.
Another dose of pigment on top of the Mulatico
Black with good hair (which means straight hair)
Black with afro hair (bad hair)
Black as a phone
Very black. Azul means blue and that is indeed very black!
Cubans are refreshingly political incorrect. They call each other by their race or other distinctive characteristics. A fat guy is called Fat, a skinny one Skinny. Someone with big ears is called Ears, and the guy with the big mouth is called Mouth. A black guy is called a Negro and a white one… etc etc…
In daily life
Now how does this whole thing play out in daily life? I’ll give you an example.
I’m a white man, used to be blond, with blue eyes. I’m sitting on a crowded terrace with a good friend called Titanic. His real name is José but since he’s huge everybody calls him Titanic. He’s 130 kilos of muscle (and a pot belly). He’s a black man (Negro) and has a reputation for his sharp witt.
Just a beer
He gets up to go to the toilet and since he’ll be passing the bar I ask him to fetch another beer.
‘As always’ he says, a bit too loud, ‘the white man ordering the Negro to do the work.’
‘Hey’ I reply. ‘It’s a simple task. You are a smart Negro, you are able to do it.’ (He’s a very smart man by the way.)
All the guests, that were listening in, burst out laughing. Titanic goes to the toilet, fetches two beers and says: ’To Blanco’s’. I return the compliment and say ‘to Negros.’ Racism in action in Cuba.
Race is very apparent in Cuba but not something to worry about. It’s just something you see right away (like big ears) and you can say what you see.
There is a lot of confusion about currency and money in Cuba.
A lot of people think, and a lot of websites claim that Tourists have to use CUC (Convertible Currency) and Cubans use MN Moneda Nacional). This is utter nonsense on a lot of levels!
Some misinformation about currency
First of all: You can use MN as a tourist, and I recommend you do so, just to show that you understand money! Cubans use CUC all the time. You can exchange your CUC for MN in all Cadecas.
Secondly: The Convertible Currency is only Convertible in Cuba. Take it home, and it is worthless. Like Monopoly money is only money within the game. So it is only convertible in name.
Thirdly: People often ask me ‘how to spend their money without supporting the regime. Impossible! When you arrive you exchange your hard currency to Game Money. The hard currency is already in the government bank. You only spend Game Money (does not matter if you call it CUC or MN). If you do not want to support the ‘regime’, you should go elsewhere.
Fourthly: There is no double currency in Cuba! (I’ll explain below). Cubans pay 25 MN with a CUC and 3 CUC with 75 MN or with 2 CUC and 25 MN. Both are used simultaneously and are mixed up.
Cuba is poor, and thus Cuba should be cheap. Both are untrue.
You might think that Cuba must be cheap because you’ve heard that a doctor earns 40 CUC a month.
Well, it’s not… (And a physician does not live on 40 CUC). Cuba is expensive. Nobody can live in Havana on 40 CUC a month. If you don’t want to go hungry, you need about a hundred. And if you want to buy clothes and wear shoes you need a hundred more and if you want to keep your house in a reasonable state that’s another hundred…
I believe that a Cuban needs about 200-300 CUC a month to live a decent life…
Because jobs don’t pay those salaries everybody is making money on the side. Or even worse, the salary people get is the pocket money you make on the side.
The average salary of 20 dollars is just a myth (we explain that in our book). So if somebody charges you 10 for half a day’s work, he’s not getting half a month’s salary, he’s just getting a decent pay.
They say that Cuba has a double currency… Moneda Nacional and CUC. (both are called Pesos by the way).
That’s an artificial debate. The MN is pegged to the CUC and always has the same value 25/1 or (24/1 when you are buying). So if something costs 25 pesos, it costs 1 CUC. If something costs 100 Pesos, it costs 4 CUC and the other way around. (small print… not taking into considerations Cuban companies.)
Calculus for the ‘double currency.’
A simple trick to convert Pesos to CUC:
Take off two zeros and multiply by 4.
CUC to Pesos:
Add two zeros and divide by 4.
The idea of a double currency just makes things more complicated, but in reality, it’s just the same currency, expressed in different terms. You can pay something that costs 10 CUC with 250 MN or with 6 CUC and 100MN or 50 MN and 8 CUC. The conversion is always the same.
I think the debate is artificial because the US has a double currency too. Dollars and Dimes… There are always 10 Dimes to a Dollar so you can price stuff in Dollars and Dimes. If something costs 10 Dimes, you can pay a dollar!!! Really!!!
Back to the virtual double currency in Cuba: We recommend you use both because it shows the Cubans you understand the system. They are very surprised if a foreigner understands their money and it will bring down your budget and earn you respect.
We explain more about the so-called double currency system in our book… Even the Cubans believe there are two currencies!
We do have an entirely different view on Cuba than the main stream Travel guides and websites. We live here and did not understand it all after the two or three weeks most travel writers spend researching Cuba.
Until recently people that wanted to rent a motorcycle could only rent 50cc scooters that were not fit to discover the whole island. And those are no real bikes!
Cuba is relaxing its laws slowly, and now you can rent a motorcycle! With some restrictions that is… It’s still Cuba!
You cannot just rent one (or two) hop on and discover the island. (Well, there is a way: find a foreigner that has temporary residency and a motor and is willing to rent it to you… I’ve done that a few times, and it is great although the motorcycle had some problems.) In practice this is just not possible as a tourist.
Brand new BMWs
To avoid those problems you can now rent a brand new BMW Enduro. That’s the perfect bike for the Cuban road conditions.
Profile organises motor tours all over Cuba with those BMW F700 GS.
The advantage is that you and your group (individual subscriptions are welcome) always will have a guide and troubleshooter with you. Cuba is bound to give you some trouble at some time. The guide speaks English and is a motor fanatic, so you are in good company.
9-day motor tours
They organise three different tours, all nine days. See their website for details. They take care of everything (lodging, food and motorcycle) so you can concentrate on cruising.
The good thing about Profile is that they are very flexible. You can negotiate an individual motorcycle tour with them! (only company doing so).
I did a tour with them; it was a great adventure! Great company too. All bike enthusiasts like me. We had a ball, and the bikes were perfect. (One broke down and got replaced within 4 hours!) That’s a miracle in Cuba!
Many people in Havana depend on the old American cars that drive around as fixed route taxi. It’s simple. You stick out your arm horizontally and shout or signal your destination at the driver. He stops, you get in and get out, paying 10 or 20 MN depending on the distance. Worked fine!
But now there is a war going on.
In December the government raised the price of illegal diesel by 300%. HuH?
Yes, all those beautiful American cars have modern diesel motors that run on diesel, and you will never see one of those Almendrones at the gas station. They all run on stolen diesel.
So how does de government raise the price of stolen goods? It’s simple. They doubled fines and the number of inspectors. The risk for the merchants went up, supply down, and prices exploded on the black market.
Drivers had to raise their prices.
The government forbids that right away.
Drivers started to make short rounds instead of the usual long hauls. I had to change taxi three times to get home (paying three times 10 Pesos) were before I just took one car, paying 20. So the drivers raised their prices by 50% without raising them. 10 pesos just went less distance.
The government counteracted by issuing an official price table. A very detailed description of rates for each trajectory. This, in fact, was lowering the prices people were paying.
Taxis on strike
Taxi drivers were responding by driving around empty, stating to the customers they were ‘taxi privado’ now and would only take the customers straight to their homes (at ten times the price they would normally have to pay.)
Taxi mess in Havana
This has been going on for a few weeks now (March 17) and a solution does not seem at hand. Some drivers make their normal routes, others the short rounds, others drive around empty, and most of them simply stay at home. Some charge the new official prices, others just keep charging the old prices and some stick to the ‘taxi privado’ principle.
Public transport in Havana is a mess at the moment and getting home sometimes a chore… The government is bothered with this situation and is deploying extra buses.
Streets are full of people looking for transport and empty cars looking to make an extra buck.
As soon as the situation settles down, I will tell you the outcome of this conflict.
Update May 2017
Everything sort of back to normal. (normal is NOT a Cuban concept). Taxis are working again at the prices they used to ask before the whole conflict. The price of illegal diesel back down to about 20 cents per litre. So it’s safe to recommend them again.
Just a simple fridge. But I’m in Cuba, and nothing is simple here.
How do you buy a fridge in Cuba?
Fist you go to the store. Seems the obvious thing to do no? Then you get a heart attack when you see the prices. Here is a picture of the ‘soon to be mine’ fridge in the store. 793,95 CUC!!! That’s 800 US dollars! (and it is one of the cheaper ones).
In a country where the average salary is 20 CUC a month that means a Cuban has to work 40 months to buy a fridge. Still, everybody has one.
I’m not willing to spend 800 on a fridge and explain my need to a good friend. She takes me to the store and asks me which one I want. I point at my soon to be mine fridge. ‘400?’ She asks. That seems a good price, so I nod.
3 Weeks later she arrives with a bici-taxi with my fridge on it, and I pay 400 to my friend.
Here’s proof 😀
My friend has a few foreign lovers. Yep, she is active! One of them, in this case, a Canadian, came over for a two weeks holiday. She moved her fridge to the neighbour’s house and took him home. Big problem! She had to sell her fridge to feed the children, but now the milk got stale!
The Canadian is a good man and the next day he takes her shopping. ‘Which one do you want dear?’ She’s in tears… Her boyfriend is going to buy her a fridge! What a hero! She’s going to make sure that he will never forget these two weeks with her.
He did not read our book, sometimes ignorance is bliss!
After two weeks the Canadian goes home with the warm feeling he saved a poor Cuban family from food poisoning. She moves her fridge back into her house and delivers mine. Everybody is happy. Her Canadian lover decided that this will not happen again and sends her some money every month. He has a great Cuban woman that is so grateful for his help, and he just saved the world. He’s a real hero.
My friend is happy because she just made 400 extra bucks, got an allowance and I’m happy because I’ve got a fridge at half price with a 3-year guarantee.
If I need an iPhone, Invicta watch, Tablet, TV or anything else, she has another Canadian, a German, a Swede and as of last week even an Italian and is happy to provide. She can’t wait until the Yanks arrive to bring the good stuff.
This is one of the many ways to buy a fridge in Cuba. I’ve been told that there are 23. Nobody buys a refrigerator in the store!
Punishment for drug offenders is severe if you are caught with drugs. You will spend a dozen years in a minus 5 star all-inclusive. And it’s not even in Varadero! You do not want these new friends.
On the bright side
The only drug that is allowed in Cuba is alcohol (yup that’s a hard drug too.) It’s even pushed by the government and for sale on every street corner, gas station, grocery store or supermarket. Sometimes I wonder why they don’t sell it at schools. Sometimes it’s the only thing for sale in the whole venue! A shot is sold for as little as 3 Moneda Nacional…, which is 12 cents.
While being drunk is a national hobby, every other form of drug use, even smoking a joint, is strictly forbidden!
So don’t. It’s not worth it.
If you can’t survive for two weeks without drugs, don’t go to Cuba, see a doctor.
You could go to the embassy or consulate in your country. This trip makes for an interesting excursion and will be your first impression of Cuban bureaucracy. (So don’t go there if you are in a hurry!)
A problem with this approach is that everybody in your party will have to be present, ticket and passport in hand. You can buy a visa for other people, but this costs 25 $ per person extra! Yes, that’s right, visas go for 20-25 dollars (depending on country) and buying one for your absent hubby costs 25 extra.
Unprepared and in a hurry
Probably somebody or some company sells Cuban visas at your airport of departure. This is your penultimate solution. Too expensive and not very sure.
If you manage to board your plane without a visa, you still need one to enter Cuba. Before customs, there is a table that sells visas. The problems here are: The person responsible might be on a break that break might take a few hours. You have to pay in CUC, which you don’t have yet and can not obtain before customs. So, in reality, this option is symbolic! Don’t leave home without a visa!
The problems here are: The person responsible might be on a break that break might take a few hours. You have to pay in CUC, which you don’t have yet and can not obtain before customs.
So, in reality, this option is symbolic! Don’t leave home without a visa!
Practical, fast and safe.
Just order it over the Internet. CubaVisa is reliable, fast and they even offer a ‘filled in visa’ service.
Don’t make any mistakes filling in your visa… One letter missing, striking out something or any other error makes it invalid.
Check their shipping destination list to make sure they ship to your country.
An extra advantage of CubaVisa is that they sell the best Cuba roadmap and since rental cars don’t have a navigation system that might come in handy. They have a list of countries they ship to.
They even have the pink visas that you need if you are travelling via the USofA! A non-US resident also needs to comply with the US travel restrictions!
After you’ve got the visa problem out of the way, you might want to read our book to prepare for your trip. Cuba is a whole different ballgame, and you need to understand that! To compensate for your time, we’ll give you a tip on the ‘get the ebook’ page that will save you a few hours on the airport!
Don’t want to buy the book yet? Find out how the WiFi works in Cuba. It sounds simple but has some pitfalls (like everything in Cuba).
You will run into jineteros by the way (and if you don’t know what they are, you are not ready to go to Cuba yet… Here’s how you handle them!
The capital of Cuba is the biggest city in the Caribbean. ‘Havana es Havana’ say the Cubans, and it is hip and happening. The Old Lady is bent and bruised but just got a new hip and dances through life!
Havana has about 3 million inhabitants. (Officially it’s 2.1, but a lot of Cubans migrate to Havana illegally because in Cuba you can’t just move to another town.) They all come looking for work and fortune, and you just might be it! (See ‘how to handle jineteros.)
Do spend more time in Havana than you initially planned. The city is much bigger and more interesting than just the Old Town and Vedado. If you want to get to know the town and look behind the mask, it puts up for tourists. My friends and I at TripUniq can give you a hand. We know the city like the back of our hands and will not only show you what most tourists miss, we’ll tell you where to eat well and cheap, reveal some secrets and be your virtual friend.
Some facts about Havana
On average one building comes down per day.
The sewage systems date from 1911 and the much-needed renovation is sponsored by Kuwait.
Its nick is ‘city of Columns’ and was founded in 1519.
The whole of the Old town and the 9 kilometres of Malecon are Unesco World Heritage.
Fine beaches at 15 minutes drive by beach bus.
Havana is a metropolis, and you cannot ‘do’ it in two days. Don’t go to Havana to shop!
It’s is also the scam capital of the world. Everywhere in the world tourists are being scammed. Usually, lower class bums do that. In Havana however, the university professor and the dentist join the game because they too have to make a buck or two to get through the day. This makes life as a tourist just a bit more challenging… If you know how to handle them, jineteros are fun. If you don’t, you will get scammed a few times and from then on just ignore all Cubans. Which is a pity because Cubans are interesting, cultivated and fun!
Do prepare, please.
Prepare yourself for a different mentality, and you will have a better time in Cuba.
Talking about time: On the ‘get the eBook’ page we’ll give you a tip that will save you a few hours on the airport… You don’t have to buy the book, just get the tip.
You should be drinking water when in Cuba. It’s hot, and you probably are walking a lot more than usual.
Cuba has a planned economy and as that term already implies the supply chains don’t cope well with things that are not in the scheme. Those plans are five years old and don’t account for the recent surge in tourism.
What does that have to do with water???
Well, tourists are convinced that they should drink bottled water for their health. And since there are more tourists and the water plan does not account for that there is a lack of bottled water… Simple. So it’s hard to find water and people go thirsty.
Where did you buy that water?
This is a question I get a lot in the streets. And my answer ‘from the tap’ is almost shocking.
Safe drinking water.
Most water in Cuba is safe to drink. It tastes a bit like a swimming pool (and that makes it safe) but is perfectly OK. So if you find yourself wandering the streets looking for water, just drink from the tap… It’s safe.
Get the taste out.
To get the bad taste out of the water is a simple trick which is in our book. Not reading it leaves a bitter aftertaste in more than one way :-). Your casa particular is most happy to do this for you.
A lot of Casas have a water filter. This eliminates the bad taste, but as replacing the filter costs money, most houses have been using the same filter since they bought the machine… This still takes the taste out but probably puts in some bacteria. So have it cooked after you have it filtered!
You might think this is a silly advice but believe me; you’ll feel different after searching for water for 3 hours on a hot afternoon!
Water from the plane.
Take a bottle of water (or two) from the aircraft. It will be a while before you can buy some… You have to stand in the different customs lines and change money. (For both lines we have a solution in our book by the way.)
You can spend all the money you want in Cuba; it is not a cheap destination. It’s not Asia, and you definitely can’t live on 5 $ per day. We’ll explore a reasonable budget here.
First of all, you have to get there. We have no clue about from where you will be arriving or where you want to go so we’ll omit the flight. From Europe, you could take the boat in Rotterdam if you want to travel slowly (about three weeks, via Venezuela). It’s a very relaxed and slow, but you don’t have a jet lag upon arrival!
What should be in your budget?
We’ll explore each of those below.
We would not recommend hotels. They are expensive, not so good as you would hope and always should have a star or 2 less than they boast next to their names. (Fun to know, Hotel Parque central literary lost two stars recently… Nobody got hurt!)
Still, want to stay in a hotel? Budget between 25 for a dump up to 600 for the five stars in Havana.
Most travel websites and guides recommend staying in a Casa Particular, and I would mildly agree with them. It’s the Cuban version of a BnB and in general, offer a much higher price/quality ratio than the official hotels. You can find a Casa particular from 20CUC and up. 20 CUC is very hard to find and impossible in Havana Veilla, Viñales or Trinidad. Prices are usually per room and without breakfast. Here’s how to book a casa particular.
Most travel advice stops here. So let’s look deeper to bring a standard budget down a bit
The Campismos are all located off the beaten track. They are some sorts of holiday parks with little cabins. Most are in the middle of beautiful nature. I would recommend everybody to spend a night or two in a Campismo. Prices range from 2 to 8 CUC per night per cabin. You need a car, bike or creative transport to get there. Reservations are difficult, to say the least… Just show up and talk to the receptionist (if there is one). Every major town has a Campismo Popular office. The Campismos are hard to find and not easy to reach. You probably need a rental car to get there. But they are cheap, fun and this is the real Cuban adventure.
Hostels are a new formula in Cuba. Especially in Havana. Based on a Casa Particular permit, hostels put up to six beds in a room and rent them for 5 to 8 CUC per night. These are great budget places, especially for backpackers and single travellers.
Some Cubans are willing to rent you a room for a night or two for a tenner in an unlicensed house (all Casas particular need an official licence, are very much state controlled and pay rather hefty taxes). Risks are not so high as you might think. The police might kick you out at 3 o’clock in the morning, and then you have to find another house. Chances of this happening are very low. Cubans, however, take bigger risks. If the police kick you out, they will get a huge fine (in CUC) and risk losing their house altogether. It’s not possible for you as a foreigner to estimate how high the probability of this happening is, so leave that to the Cuban offering you a room. He is well aware of the risk he is taking and probably took his precautions or has his connections that minimise the potential problem. So if someone offers you an illegal house, bargain the price, and I have no objection you stay there.
All prices (except hotels and Campismo’s) are negotiable. Put some effort in negotiating, and you will save about 20%.
Summary sleeping budget:
It’s impossible to find a place to sleep below 8 CUC. The absolute minimum budget would be ten on average… You will be sleeping in Hostels and Campismos at least 2/3 of the time to get to this budget. Hostels being not very comfortable and lacking privacy and Campismo are not very practical or easy to reach. More of a realistic budget for sleeping would be 25-30 per night per room. If you want to spend a lot of time in Old Havana, Viñales or Trinidad your budget goes up with about 5 CUC/night since those places are more expensive.
How do you want to eat? On the low-end, you can survive on 4 CUC a day or even less if you are willing to eat Cuban Pizza every night. (Believe me, pizza sounds good, but you are not prepared to eat more than one a week.) Breakfast in your Casa typically costs 4-5 (pp) and negotiating will bring that down to 3-4. Breakfast in the cafeteria down the street (there is always one): Coffee, a cheese sandwich, and a fresh juice cost about 80 cents. To be paid in Moneda Nacional (Read this to get a clue about the double currency system). Lunch and dinner are the same stories.
In a cafeteria, you can get a full meal for about 2 CUC and a pizza for 10 – 20 MN.
Dinner in your Casa Particular should cost between 8 for pork and chicken up to 12 for lobster and crocodile (the last being illegal but tasty!). You can spend between 7 and 100 CUC per meal in the paladars and restaurants. Spending a lot of money on food in Cuba does not mean it’s good by definition. Some restaurants offer great price/quality ratios others minor ones. Home cooking sounds good, but you will not have a kitchen with the equipment nor the ingredients. Herbs, pepper, fresh pasta… Forget it if you don’t stay long term.
You can save a lot of money eating cheap. You could eat (rather well) for about 3-4 CUC per day. But that’s hard work. I recommend you use a budget of 15 and if you want to eat well every meal to about 30. Sometimes you will spend more, sometimes less. On average you can eat on 15 per day.
Your budget for transportation depends on how many kilometres you want to travel and how comfortable you want to do that. A rental car doubles your budget. (Read more about rental cars here).
Different forms of transportation
In the town, the bus costs 40 Centavos (MN), and if it’s not too crowded, you can perfectly take it. Avoid very crowded buses, as your pockets, will probably be picked. Between towns, you have to take the Viazul. Often these are full (they are not, and a solution to this problem is in our book). On the Viazul site, you can find prices and departure times. The Viazul is the only thing that sticks to a timetable in Cuba!
Taxis, both legal and illegal
Shared taxis should be slightly more expensive than a Viazul ticket. See ‘rental cars’ for more information about the illegal taxis. Legal taxis that put on the meter are costly and don’t add very much to comfort or speed. So why take them?
These are freight trucks that have been modified to carry passengers. They are getting better every year! Commercial buses cannot be used by a private enterprise, so private transport is done with a truck. The price (for you) should be around 1/3 of the Viazul price for the same trajectory. In Havana, they leave from the central train station. They don’t have timetables and stick to that principle very well.
Don’t. Period… Just don’t.
Same advice… Don’t
Summary Transport budget.
Make a rough estimate of the number of kilometres you are going to travel and divide that number by 18 if you’re taking buses 15 for illegal taxis (this is pp). Double that if you rent a car.
In town, you take fixed route taxis or buses they do not affect your budget.
Please prepare and take everything you need. There is nothing you can buy in Cuba that is better or cheaper than at home. Just don’t go shopping.
A beer costs 1 or 1,50 in a club. Cola (the Cuban version) 55 cents and a mojito between 1 and 7. I spent about 5 per day for drinks, but some people don’t get to noon with that. I’ll leave this to your personal needs or perception of them. Put 10 CUC in your budget if you are not a sponge and you will be all right. A bottle of rum always comes in handy and costs about 7 for a good rum.
For most places, you pay 10 to get in. Live music in Old Havana and the Malecon is free. So are open air concerts and street parties. Buy a bottle of rum and some cups, sit on the Malecon, share the rum and you will have a party!
Museums are between 4 and 8 CUC. Ballet and opera 25 (which is worth it… I’ve seen Rigoletto with about 80 singers on stage!) The cinema is 80 cents and looking at prime classic cars on Saturdays (at the Piraqua) is free.
You are a tourist, and the bad news is that you are not going to make real friends in a few days. Company has a price in Cuba. For a friend put 5 CUC per day per friend in your budget and for the more exotic company (male or female or both, whatever makes you tick) about 50 to 80 per day. I’m not going to elaborate on this as I believe consenting adults should do what they consent to do… But before you read this please.
You can survive for 40-50 CUC pp per day. With a bit of clue, you can bring that down to 30. Without any clue, you are going to spend 70-100 CUC per day. With ‘company’ and without a clue you will pay about 200 a day. Good luck!
Knowing how to handle the jineteros will cut your budget by at least 20%. Here’s how!