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!
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. To avoid being sued I recommend boiling it however.
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!
Don’t avoid the Jineteros and Jineteras: they are fun, and you can’t avoid them anyway.
The whole Internet and all travel guides are full of warnings: Avoid the Jineteros and Jineteras because they are trouble! Beware! Warning! Run away!
As you might have noticed, my opinions differ from the mainstream point of view. That’s because I’m a resident in Cuba and have more experience with Cuba than the average blogger/journalist/travel guide writer/tourist that spends three weeks here.
What is a Jinetera?
Short history of Jineterismo
First came the Jinetera (feminine). It all started with Fidel proclaiming in a speech that Cubans did not need to earn extra money by getting involved with tourists. The state took care of everything, so the women that were getting involved with foreign men did so for their pleasure. They rode the foreigner just for fun. Hence the term Jinetera which translates in jockey in English. In the same speech, he proclaimed that Cuba has no prostitution, but if there were prostitutes in Cuba it would be the best-educated prostitutes in the world!
He was right and wrong at the same time. Yes, prostitution does exist in Cuba and yes they are well educated for the most. The Jinetera was born.
Soon after that followed her male companion:
You can spot jineteros by their golden chains!
This couple evolved. The definition of a Jinetera was ‘a prostitute’. Now a Jinetera is somebody that somehow makes money with tourists. And since making money in Cuba is almost always illegal… And we believe that people that do illegal stuff are bad, Jineteros are bad. On top of that, we think that our way of doing things is good. Most people now define a Jinetero as a street hustler. But he is much more than that! The ones on the street annoying tourists are just the top of the iceberg.
Let me put this in perspective by comparing the things that are blamed on Jineteros with our Western world:
‘Jineteros make money taking you to a Casa Particular or restaurant.’
Those bastards! Well, do you think booking.com does not earn money? Airbnb is a super Jinetero! They not only charge a 15% commission but in Cuba also employ Jineteros that find the houses for them (and get a fee for that). On top of that, that 15 % never make it to Cuba. It disappears into the pockets of a multinational.
‘Jineteros act friendly but just want to make money.’
Did you ever meet an unfriendly car salesman? Did a waitress ever show her real feelings to you? Isn’t it standard practice in the West to act friendly to make money?
‘Jineteros covertly make their money. They don’t tell you it’s about the money!’
Well, what’s your job? How do you make money? Does a nurse tell a patient that she’s only helping him because of the money? (She is… If the hospital stopped paying her, she would find another job.) Does the friendly car salesman tell you about his commission? Our book is also for sale at Amazon, do they tell you they pocket 50%? We consider making money as normal, but when a Cuban does it, it’s suddenly wrong.
‘They mislead you lie and are manipulative.’
Will not even go there… We have whole industries devoted to that.
‘They drive up prices.’
So do your supermarket, real estate broker and even the nurse. Everything would be cheaper without them. Everybody with a paycheck drives up the price.
‘They just want to marry you to get out of the country.’
Yep, gold diggers only exist in Cuba. Getting married to somebody just to better your life does not happen elsewhere… Talking about love, we would recommend reading Romance in Cuba before you fall into it…
The United States department of state defines them as “Street “jockeys,” who specialize in swindling tourists. Most jineteros speak English and go out of their way to appear friendly, by offering to serve as tour guides or to facilitate the purchase of cheap cigars, for example. However many are in fact professional criminals who will not hesitate to use violence in their efforts to acquire tourists’ money and other valuables.”
I would use the word propaganda here if that were not a communist monopoly. What a Bullsh**. Yes, sometimes street hustlers can become aggressive (verbally) but almost never (as in very, very rarely) violent. Very rarely! Cuba is incredibly safe!
The Internet and travel guides also offer advice on how to handle them:
‘Don’t let a Jinetero find you a place to stay, ask the owner of your casa particular to book in the next town.’ As if he does not get a commission for that. He’s just a Jinetero with a Casa Particular. They now pay each other by topping up their phones after a reservation.
‘Tell them to go away. Avoid them!’ It’s simple: You can’t. Everybody is making money on the side of his real salary (why and how in our book). So you would have to avoid everybody.
‘Don’t dress as a tourist so they will leave you alone.’ Cubans can spot a tourist from a mile away. It does not matter how you dress; they will spot you!
‘Don’t go to the tourist areas.’ ??? HUH? Better not go to Cuba if you don’t want to see it.
Forget about all that crap.
Jineteros are no criminals! They are people like you and me, trying to make ends meet. Often they are intelligent and I have my best friends among them. We are jineteros too… We lure you in with a website full of usefull information and then want to sell you a book with even more usefull information! Aren’t we bad!
How to handle Jineteros and Jineteras CubaConga style?
Relax & respond.
Feel at home and behave like you’ve been in town for a few weeks. Learn some answers that will convince them right away that you are not a stupid tourist. It’s easy. You will notice right away that their attitude changes. They will tell you that ‘you are a Cuban now.’ Respect you and suddenly it’s about the fun, not the money.
‘Hi my frien, where you from?’ Some good answers: Marianao or La Lisa (both respected rough neighborhoods in Havana.) La luna (the moon)… indicating that you know the game and want no part of it.
‘How are you my frien?’ The answer to that and some other opening lines used in the street are in our book. (We are jineteros also… we sell a book to keep this blog alive and inform you on a deeper level.)
So relax! You’ve read our book you know the tricks; nobody can ‘get’ you… Relax and enjoy!
Feel and act as if at home
Acting as if you belong means that you don’t do things you would not do at home either. If you walk to your local shopping mall and somebody whispers: ‘he man… Want to buy a car?’ or ‘Need some dope?’ or ‘Buy me a drink friend.’ What do you do? I suggest you do the same in Cuba.
Know the game, understand the tricks…
You can even relax more if you’ve read our book… You know the tricks and master the game… so enjoy!
A local one, that’s true, but I am a Hero 🙂 (just a local one).
TripUniq a website that specialises in unique trips (the name gives it away) is expanding to Havana, and they asked me to be one of their Local Heros… Their website is very user-friendly. You go there, fill in what you like (f.e. shopping… in that case don’t go to Havana). Good Food (yes! In Havana), culture, music or art (all plentiful in Havana). Type a short text about your wishes and pay up (in my case 7 Euro per day).
In the background, they have a convenient system, which I (your local hero) will use to put your individual trip advice in an app that will guide you.
An offline digital friend
The app works fine offline. You will get your tailor made trip advice and just follow the steps it outlines to get a unique Havana experience. I’ll throw in a few facts and absurdities to make it more fun.
I, as a local hero, specialise in the real Havana. So I (local hero) will show you the must-sees in the old town, but we will soon go underground to make your experience unique and local.
No more hours of planning, no more doubts about what to do and you will not miss out on the good stuff!
In 2015 Cuba started rolling out Wi-Fi zones. They are still at it, and every city has at least one.
Simple Wi-Fi access
The principle is simple. You find yourself a Wi-Fi zone by looking at the people. If they are browsing or talking with their device, they are online and thus in a Wi-Fi zone.
You connect your device by logging in using a scratch card from Etecsa (Cuban telecom monopolist).
And that’s it… You would think… Nope, think again.
Wi-Fi in real life
Wi-Fi scratch cards
So you need a scratch card, to begin with. They sell them at the Etecsa shop, and waiting lines are impressive. Once inside (make sure you stand in the right cue) you will find the cards sold our 80% of the time, due to the Cuban Black market principle. (More about that in our book.) Officially Etecsa sells the cards for 1,50 CUC, and that gives you 1 hour of Wi-Fi Internet. In reality, they sell the cards for 2 to the street dealers, who in their turn sell them on the streets for 3.
Update Nov 2017: Etecsa lowered the price of the internet to $1 per hour. Prices of cards on the street went down imediatly to $2.
So don’t wait in line and just buy them on the street. The vendors hang around in the Wi-Fi zones and will approach you… Pay 2 CUC, that’s the price. Everybody has to make a living.
Jan 2020 Etecsa lowered the price to 0.7 per hour. This has no effect on the street value of the cards just on the margin of the dealers.
Scratch the card
You will see two large numbers. One for the user name and the other one is the password. (In that order). Connect your device with the Wi-Fi-Etecsa network and the login screen will appear. (More about the other networks that appear later in this article). Fill in the user and password, and you are online! Well eh…
Your device will refuse to connect because you are trying to access an insecure network. (And it is insecure! You are being monitored.) If you select ‘connect anyway’ things get interesting. You should switch off all security settings and accept and ignore all warnings. Your device will help you to do so… Switch them all off! Probably that still is not enough!
This is because the time on your device does not match the network time. Switch automatic time setting off and put the right time manually. Now you are online! Enjoy.
If you observe the people in the Wi-Fi zones, you will see guys (and sometimes a girl) sitting there with laptops equipped with a little Wi-Fi antenna. Those are the Internet dealers. They will connect you for half the price. 0,5 CUC per hour. They just create a network and you are connected to their account.
The best thing about these dealers is that they will set up your device so that it can connect to their private network. Don’t worry they all are IT professionals, probably better than the IT guys at your work. You don’t have to buy a card; you don’t have to break all kinds of security settings. Great!
You don’t have to find a scratch card; you don’t have to enter long numbers (in which you always make a mistake) or play with your settings.
The drawback is that the dealers share their connection with as many people as possible. That’s their business. Connect at 1 CUC/hour and sell 6 connections at 0,50… make 2 :-).
Video chatting, watching Facebook clips or going on YouTube is a problem due to the band with. Mail will do fine!
Some Samsung phones just don’t want to connect with their original operating system. They just can’t find the WiFi. Update your phone before you go and you should have no problem.
Want even slower but cheaper Internet? There’s even a FREE Wi-Fi zone in Havana! (It’s not for you)…
Try ‘No Wi-Fi’
Cuba is one of the last places on earth that is not Internet dominated. Go off line for a while. People back home will understand that when you’re in Cuba, the Internet is a difficult thing. They will forgive you for not liking their new profile picture within an hour!
Go cold turkey for a few weeks! You will find it relaxing after a while!
Onthis page, we’ll try to sell you our book (you should read it, by the way, it will add a dimension to your stay in Cuba) and give you a relaxing tip that will save you a few hours on the airport…
You will run into the jineteros (and if you don’t know what that are you’re not ready to go to Cuba yet.) We don’t agree with most main stream sources and we think you should handle them this way: How to deal with jineteros?
Cuba is very, very safe. Incredible safety! We can be very short about that. If you don’t do idiotic things, you will be safe.
In Cuba, the police are very respected and not always visible (a lot of undercover agents keeping you safe.) Nobody will attack you, stick a knife up your tummy or wield a gun (there are no guns on the island other than police and army. That’s one of the advantages of a police state) Cars are too slow for drive-by shootings anyway.
Harassing or robbing a tourist is considered a significant crime and very severely punished. The Cuban police have a reputation of always getting her man and cameras are everywhere and are believed to see everything. Don’t worry… Cuba is very very safe!
Real dangers in Cuba.
The only real danger is being scammed for a few bucks. It dents your ego and if you don’t learn fast it might even be dangerous for your wallet in the long run. But these are soft scams compared to the rest of the world. And they are more intelligent because in Cuba the social elite like a surgeon or a college professor scam tourists too… That makes the dangers in Cuba actually funny!
In the last ten years, only one (ONE!) tourist got killed by violence, and this Mexican was involved in a drug deal… Steer away from drugs, and you will be safe.
A few safety tips for the really stupid
Don’t walk at 3 o’clock in the morning alone in a bad neighbourhood with a 3000$ camera, bulging wallet and gold chains on your neck. Leave your Rolex at home (time is of no importance in Cuba). Don’t carry weapons and don’t do drugs.
Don’t kill anybody (Cuban or tourist) or get into physical fights.
Don’t get (too) drunk.
Don’t do anything sexual with underaged (18) boys or girls… Cuba takes her youth seriously and is fierce in protecting it. I agree with that policy.
That’s all there is to keep yourself safe in Cuba!
The biggest danger for normal people are the holes in the pavement! No really… watch out where you put your feet! I see a lot of tourists that have done an unexpected excursion to the hospital because they broke a wrist or twisted an ankle… Watch your step. Don’t step in the holes or the dog shit… Dogs roam free in Cuba.
The currency in Cuba is called Peso. Both of them are called Peso. So if people say Peso, then they are talking about CUC or Moneda Nacional (MN). Up to you to figure it out.
The CUC is the Cuban ‘hard currency’, pegged roughly 1-1, to the US dollar. ‘Hard’ has a very relative meaning here since the CUC is only valid in Cuba itself like Monopoly money only serves on the board. Try buying a real house or a candy bar with it, and you will see. Most tourists think that the CUC is the only money they can use. Not true. The CUC is also called Dollar.
You can also use the Peso (MN)! This Peso is pegged to the CUC at 1-24/25. You buy 24 MN with one CUC, and 25 MN will buy you 1 CUC.
If your coffee costs one CUC, that would be 24 MN. Not knowing the difference and paying in the wrong currency ups the price 24 fold! Don’t worry it will not be the other way around since the Cubans know the difference very well…
They say that Cuba has a double currency… Moneda Nacional and CUC.
That’s an artificial debate. The MN is pegged to the CUC and always has the same value 25/1. So if something costs 25 pesos, it costs 1 CUC. If something costs 100 Pesos, it costs 4 CUC. A simple trick to convert Pesos to CUC: take off 2 zeros and multiply by 4. The idea of a double currency just makes things more complicated, but in reality, it’s just the same money, expressed in different terms.
I think the debate is artificial because the US has a double currency too. Dollars and dimes… There are always ten dimes to a dollar so you can price stuff in dollars and dimes. If something costs ten dimes, you can pay a dollar!!! Really!!!
We explain more about the so-called double currency system in our book… Even the Cubans believe there are two currencies!
Know the difference
Since both currencies are called the Peso, the Cuban government figured out a smart way to make the distinction. The Peso CUC is indicated with a dollar sign with one vertical bar, and the Peso MN is indicated with a dollar sign with two vertical bars. Smart!
The problem is that about half of the Cubans know this, about a quarter of the vertical bars is correctly put.
Money in Cuba: quite complicated
Thanks to this dual currency system the economy is opaque at least. To complicate matters, some state companies are allowed a different exchange rate varying from 1-24 via 1-12 to 1-1. But that’s just nice to know; it does not concern the foreign traveller.
To get money.
Let’s start with the basis. Where do you get CUC and MN? You cannot exchange CUC outside of Cuba.
CUC can be changed at any (almost any) bank, the CADECA (official exchange office) and if you are fortunate enough that your credit card works at the teller machines, they will spit out CUC for you. (Only for non-US bank related Visa Cards…)
Don’t buy them on the street! There is no loophole to get better rates on the street like there were in the former communist countries… Just don’t buy in the street.
The CUC thus acquired can be changed in any CADECA (except the airport and hotels) into MN. Change 20 CUC into MN, and you will be good for a week at least.
When to pay with CUC and when with MN?
As a rule of thumb: If it seems cheap it’s CUC, and if it seems rather expensive it’s MN.
– A Pineapple for 10 is… MN
– A taxi for 4 is… CUC,
– Coffee for 1 depends… You can have a coffee for 1 MN or 1 CUC…
– A pizza for 10 is… MN unless you are in a restaurant.
We have a whole list in our book on what you pay with MN and when to pay in CUC. The price of our book is not in MN nor CUC; it’s in Euro by the way☺. Seems expensive but it’s cheap! Knowledge is priceless in a country like Cuba where the “no clue tax” is very hefty! Get wise here!
In practice, the MN and CUC are coupled in a fixed rate. So a 10 MN bill is just a 40 cents CUC coin. To be able to ‘talk’ MN (which makes a great impact on how Cubans perceive you) a simple trick does it:
Conversion MN->CUC: Take off two zeros and multiply by 4 (hence 100 MN becomes 4 CUC).
Conversion CUC-> MN: add two zeros and divide by 4 (hence 200 MN becomes 8 CUC.
The end of the CUC?
In July 2015, July 2016 and May 2017 the government announced they were going to abolish the CUC… A lot of shops are accepting MN to pay for imported goods (including ‘local import’). The CUC still exists today… The explanation of ‘local import’ is in our book 🙂
The best way to discover Cuba is book a Casa Particular. Sometimes this is confused with ‘staying at the home of real Cubans’ but you have to realize that most Casa owners are the elite Cubans because they have access to hard currency. The ‘real’ Cubans would be the people that work in your Casa and you would not want to sleep in their houses if you want a toilet that flushes and a shower.
There are different ways to book a Casa particular:
Safe and sure
Go safe and surf the web.
Or just google: ‘Book a casa particular’ and you will find loads of booking sites. Don’t be surprised that the Casa you’ve booked is full and they take you to another one. That’s just Cuban business… They make a commission on that… Most Casa’s you will find on the internet, however, are professional B&Bs. The fun is gone as soon as they start calling their guests ‘clients’. It’s still closer to the real Cuba than any hotel but mostly it’s strictly business.
The websites that group loads of casas are called agencies in Cuba… They collect a commission (which is added to the price you pay). It’s easy to spot the ‘internet Agencies’… The base price seems to be 30CUC/night. This means they pocket 5/10 CUC… If the base price is around 35 you’re dealing with a ‘Casa shark’. If on top of that there is a booking fee… (this price range is for houses that are not in Old Town Havana or Vedado. There prices are a bit higher)
When AirBnB came to Cuba in 2015 You could find Cuban houses on AirBnB but you couldn’t book them. It was just a PR stunt. AirBnB couldn’t transfer funds to Cuba so they couldn’t pay the Cuban owners… Some of the house owners weren’t even aware that they were on AirBnB!
Update March 2016. Obama brought a present… from now on everybody can book via Airbnb and Airbnb is allowed to pay the homeowners their fees. This evokes an ethical/practical question. We explain in our book how the commission system works. Jineteros pocket 5 CUC per night and thus raise the price of your house. That’s too bad but the money at least stays in (or comes to) Cuba and helps the local economy.
Now Airbnb is the super jinetero peddling housing. The problem is that the 5 CUC now becomes 15% and the money never gets to Cuba. It’s being skimmed by an American multinational. So the Cuban economy is less stimulated if you book through Airbnb… We are not very happy with this because we think Cuban Jineteros are nicer that American multinationals and we prefer that they make a few dollar. The choice is yours.
Bad for Cuba
Another update 2017. AirBnB is about 2 months behind with payments. Blablabla about the US embargo…Homeowners refuse bookings… It’s a mess… Forget about AirBnB… On top of that they drive prices down with their logaritms. Good news for you, very bad for the Cubans who already have to struggle to make ends meet and pay the hefty taxes. I met a guy who was very proud he rented a room for 7,85 per night… That is simply abusing the home owner who is forced to rent his room to pay taxes.
Booking.com suspended it’s Cuban platform in December ’19. So I don’t have to rant about them anymore :-)… Or do we? You can’t book a Casa Particular via Booking but you can book a hotel. (Which you should not do… Price/quality is going to disappoint you…)
If you still want to book via AirBnB you have to fill in a form to declare you are abiding to US regulations. If you are not an US citizen you can fill in whatever you want, the form does not apply to you.
You could download the Casa-app from Cuba-Junky… loads of Casas! Cuba-Junky does not charge a commission to the casa’s they promote. The downside is that you will have to comunicate yourself and that is mostly done in Spanish. (Google translate is your friend!)
Less sure is just go with the flow and find a Casa wherever you are. This might cost you a few dollars in commission and you have no clue as to where you end up. It might be a villa or a dump… Every Cuban you meet on the street is willing to help you find a Casa Particular. Just wander the streets and you or a helpful Cuban will find you one… This always will get you a bed… Mange, sometimes, is optional!
You could also send me a mail at email@example.com and if I’m not in Havana “my” house (as in the Casa particular I always stay) is available. You can not find this house over the internet, nor will you stroll by it, it’s outside the tourist zones…
It is a luxury house (even with a hot water Balloon) and the people are my friends… (that means I consider them very nice!). This is my way of helping them out a bit… Don’t worry about the commission… They serve me a good meal once in a while, however! :-).
Have to be a bit of a bitch here… This offer is only valid for people that bought the book… I’m not a ‘for free’ travel agency. Sorry that I have to say this here.
Do book a Casa Particular!
Anyways, the way to go is booking a casa particular! You can’t get closer to the real Cuba.
If you want to take some gifts for Cubans with you to thank them or just to make them happy, you should consider a few things:
Who do you want to make happy?
The owners of you casa particular is not a needy person. They have access to hard currency (via you) and can buy most of the stuff they need. The same goes for the barkeeper in your hotel and all other Cubans that come into direct contact with tourists. They are the rich people in Cuba.
The average Cuban does not have access to hard currency and has different needs.
What to give Cubans?
The first group mentioned above often sell the gifts you give them to the second. Thus giving a gift to the owner of your casa particular makes the divide between the haves and have-nots in Cuba bigger. They ‘need’ an iPhone, iPad, Nina Ricci perfume or a laptop. So if your goal is to make them happy, be prepared to bring big gifts to Cuba.
The second group, the ‘regular’ Cubans have entirely different needs. You make them happy with clothes (not the worn ones with holes and stains, Cubans have their pride too!), sewing machine needles, fishing gear and all kinds of things people need for daily survival.
Soap and shampoo… NO!
Some websites advocate bringing things like soap and shampoo. It is a shame to load up your luggage with those products as they are for sale at the local stores. So if you want to give a bar of soap to somebody, just buy one! (And soap is cheaper in Cuba.)
You should bring stuff that they can use, and that is not for sale in Cuba. Bring a bundle of pens and walk into a school to donate them. This makes for an excellent excursion, and the teachers will gladly show you the school. Bring medicine and donate it to a local clinic. This too will make for a great excursion where you can see behind the scenes of Cuba’s famous health care system.
Now prepare for some introspection. What does it mean that you want to give stuff away? You might consider yourself a good Samaritan but it implies that you feel that the Cubans are poor and helpless. They are not! (Which does not mean that there are no poor and helpless Cubans, but you have the same poor and helpless people in your home town. Better to be poor in Cuba! )
Do you hand out soap to the homes in your country?
And please don’t give to begging children. They should be in school!!! We should not learn the young Cubans that tourists are the easy way to get stuff. There is a lot of talk about de Jineteros that are pestering people. We the tourists are to blame for their behavior! We taught them that we are the easy prey that provides everything and more…