Dollars to Cuba?

Do you take US Dollars to Cuba or exchange them before you go into another currency?

Well, conventional wisdom states that, since there is a 10% penalty on the exchange Dollar/CUC you should win a few percentage points by exchanging your dollars to Canadian or Euros before you go.

This way you save a little bit (about 2 percent, depending on the rates you get at your bank. I will not go into the details here but the official rate is 0.87 CUC for a Dollar.

But… (in Cuba there is always a but)

The Cubans are opening hard currency stores were you can only buy products in foreign hard currency and the products are priced in USD. Demand for Dollars is high at the moment and this morning I was offered 1.15 in the street!

Euro

The Euro has a ‘hard currency bonus too but it is smaller. 1,08 in the Cadeca, 1,12 in the street.

So in stead of 87 CUC for a 100 I got 115! So at the moment the debate about currency is more about courage. Do you dare to exchange in the street with the ‘illegal’ currency traders? Then do take US Dollars! (And know the difference between CUC and CUP before you make a deal!)

Update Nov 19: And suddenly the Dollar madness was over. US$ back to 1,02 in the streets. (that’s still a whopping 15% higher than the official exchange rate!)

Before you go to Cuba, get your money straight!

And please do READ OUR BOOK

Why is Cuba so hard to understand?

To prove my point this post is written in Cuban Logic. If you get it you might want to try to get Cuba. 

We westerners draw the wrong conclusions about Cuba for several reasons:

1 Observation

We tend to believe what we see. All travel guides describe in amazement how the Cuban disposable lighter repair man fills lighters with insecticide and it works!

That is what they see so it must be true. They see a guy filling lighters with a can with dead insects on it. And it does work indeed. How inventive of the Cubans! Let’s make an item about it…

Not insecticide

The reality is that the cans of insecticide contain regular gas. The repairmen use them because they are sturdy and easy to refill. Insecticide is flammable indeed but you need a lighter to light it, not a flint. Filling a lighter with insecticide kind of defies the purpose. On top of that it is very unhealthy to inhale burning insecticide, Cuban health authorities would intervene immediately. and the stuff is a lot more expensive than gas. So the reality is not what you see.

2 Convictions

 Everybody is just repeating what everybody else is saying. Opinions on Cuba are based on incorrect observations and myths of old that keep being repeated and are never researched by the writers. ‘Cubans have a salary between 10 and 20 CUC is one of those convictions. Nobody ever askes a teacher how much he makes and if they do, the Cubans give the wrong answer which they know will help them get some stuff of money from the tourist. The reality today is that a Cuban teacher earns between 41 and 53 CUC/month depending on age and experience. Still not a lot of money but way more that you think but still not enough to live on.

Not MacDonnald’s

Salary means nothing in Cuba. Everybody makes money on the side, and most of the time they make more money on the side than their salary. The myth of Cubans as poor and helpless people is total B*llS**t. (which does not mean that there are no poor and helpless Cubans by the way)

All those convictions are shared and thus reinforced. The worst are travel blogs. They come to Cuba, make all the rooky mistakes there are and then explain to other people how to make the same mistakes. Being harsh now, there are some exemptions like WhyNotCuba and ASocialNomad.com are rather good with beginners info but they are the exceptions that confirm the rule.

3 Interpretations

Since we believe what we see, our interpretation of what we see is what we believe. Sounds philosophical so let me give you some examples.

We see a woman with a box with a ventilator on it walking through the shopping street. Our conclusion is that this woman just bought a 50 CUC ventilator. But that is not what you see… You see a woman with a box with a ventilator on it. In Cuba there is no reason to believe neither that there is a ventilator in the box nor that she just bought one. If you look closely you will see that the box has been opened at least once.  It’s just her high status shopping bag. 

I walk past a gas station with a friend. There is a sign that states ‘No Hay Petrolio’ and another one that says ‘Aire’. So my friend concludes that they don’t have petrol but they do have air. But I can se a car filling up at the petrol pump so I point to the car and say that they do have petrol and they do have a sign saying that they have air and that does not mean they have air. It’s all a matter of interpretation! 

This happens on different levels. If a sign on the gift shop says ‘CLOSE’ that does not mean that the shop is not far away or that it is not open! Pushing the door proves that it is close indeed (you can’t push a door that is far away) and if the door opens it is not closed either. 

This gift shop is Not Far Away

4 The truth

Cubans tend to tell tourists what they think will benefit them the most. They think we foreigners are gullible and stupid. If a Cubans tells you that he earns 20 CUC per month but he’s wearing new Nike’s, Brand jeans, an Armani (fake) shirt, Rayban sun glasses, a golden chain and a big watch and owns a Samsun S9. The value of his whole outfit is about 30 times his monthly income… How??? 

I can prove that about 50% of what the Cubans tell us is not true and I’m just not sure about the other half. 

Conclusion

Most things being told about Cuba is nonsense. That’s why we wrote CubaConga. If you believe the nonsense you will never understand the reality. 

The double currency myth is just that… a myth

Here you cannot only order our book but you will also find a practical tip that will save you a few hours (and bucks) upon arrival.

Finding a fixer in Cuba

Everybody is a fixer in Cuba

This blog is about finding a fixer in Cuba. Sometimes a fixer is worth his weight in gold; others just cost their weight in gold. You have to make the difference.

Offers of fixers:

Cuban streets are full of people more than willing to help you out. In the tourist areas, they are all (yes, all) just after one thing: Becoming your fixer for an hour, day or week and getting as much money out of your pocket as possible. So streets are off limits if you want to find a fixer in Cuba.

How fixers work

Fixers have all kind of ways to earn money. The most used method is the commission system. A fixer will get commission where ever he takes you (and that commission is added to your bill). The more money you spent, the better for him… Guess what his primary objective will be? The Cuban commission system is everywhere and all Cubans respect it. You will not notice a thing but the fixer will collect 10 to 20% of your payments and that will be added to your bill.

You don’t need a fixer

But why would you need a fixer? You can fix everything yourself. Read our book to get up to speed on how to handle Cuba, and you will probably be a better fixer than anybody you will meet on the street!

Enjoy Cuba and fix it yourself!!! With our help it’s easy!  Let us be your fixer from a distance! Fixing stuff in Cuba is a piece of cake. Order our book HERE, and we’ll give you a tip that will save about two hours one in Cuba… We fixed a waiting line problem.

Because Cuba is very safe, you can fix your own stay. Only if you really want a fixer and want to pay top dollars you can send us a mail at [email protected] We will fix it. Or this guy can be your fixer app on your phone, in Havana.

Or you could read our book. It’s faster, cheaper and has more clues than the average fixer. 🙂

Don’t take a jinetero as your fixer. You will not buy his loyalty no matter what you pay.

How to buy a fridge in Cuba?

I need a fridge.

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  😀

What happened?

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!

The whole of Cuba is full of Jineteros and this is how to handle that fact.

Cuban absurdities

Just a few short stories to show that Cuba does not fit our reference frame:

Rum on an AA terrace.

Driving around with a friend we spot a beautiful terrace and decide we want to have a rum there. That’s just something we do. We stop and sit down. 4 waitresses are chatting with two barmen but none of them comes out. That’s just something they do…

So I walk in and ask for two rum. There is no rum for sale in this place they tell me. Normally that would be the end of the story but not in Cuba!

I ask for two glasses with some ice. They give it to me, I think they must be aware that we intend to drink rum. I walk out with the glasses and my friend fetches a bottle of rum from the car and we pour ourselves a glass. Content!
10 seconds later the four waitresses storm out and explain to us that we can’t drink alcohol on their terrace because it is a youth club that does not serve alcohol and therefore alcohol is forbidden…

But if we want we can drink our rum on the terrace upstairs. We get up to and walk towards the stairs. But we get stopped, we can’t take our glasses upstairs because they belong to the bar downstairs. Even my guarantee that I will return the glasses does not change that.

So now we have a problem. The rum can go upstairs but the glasses cannot, and we can’t drink rum downstairs. My friend proposes to hide the bottle and puts a napkin around his glass. The waitresses are in awe about so much inventively! That is the solution! Now we can drink our rum on their terrace! We drink our rum, chatting with our four new friends.
We decide to have another one, this time upstairs. However, that terrace is closed, and the bar inside is cleaning up after a private party. We ask for two glasses and ice again and get two plastic cups… No ice available upstairs… We sit ourselves down on the ‘closed’ terrace and one of the downstairs waitresses walks by to sign off on her shift. We call her over and ask her to fetch a glass for herself and some ice for us. Instead of fetching a glass with ice, she insists on taking our cups downstairs and comes back within minutes with a glass for herself and our cups filled to the brim with ice. (We always ask for just ONE bloque de llelo!). Suddenly glasses are permitted…
The 3 of us drink our rum in contentment on a closed terrace two plastic cups and one glass!

Now picture this story in any western country. You walk in an AA bar, ask for two glasses, pour your own rum… End of story… Here is another one you might like… The Internet is a difficult story in Cuba… but I found Free WiFi!!!

If you think this is funny… you should read our book… It’s full of things that are just different in Cuba!

Empty Hotels

Things that will not happen to you…

Now if you think that mastering the game of CubaConga reduces the frustration let me tell you the following story:

In Nicaro, a little town between Holguin and Moa on the north coast, they have abandoned a nickel factory. 4000 people used to work there and closing the plant was a local drama. The economy is down and out.

When the factory was still operational the high brass slept in ‘Casa de Visita’ a lovely 50s hotel with eight rooms and a suite.

It’s been empty ever since they closed the factory. But the staff is still fully present (can’t use the word operational here). Together with some friends, I’m having dinner in the restaurant of Casa de Visita, and I love the place. Furniture from the 50s in pristine condition, a view over the bay that takes your breath away and the food is not all that bad.
Planning on coming back (my kid lives around the corner) I ask if I can book a room. ‘No way! You are a foreigner!’
I show them my ‘Carnet’ (I have a residency, which gives me the same rights as a Cuban) and that proofs to be magic (as it has proofed before). Off course, I can sleep there!
A few weeks later I sent my girlfriend to the Casa de Visita to book a room and to verify that indeed we can rent a room. ‘No way! He’s a foreigner!’ She explains that I have a residency and magic happens again… But she can’t make a reservation… Booking and paying go hand in hand.

So two weeks later I arrive with a simple plan in mind. We’re going to have dinner and sleep in the lovely ‘Casa de Visita’.
The plot thickens as a woman storms out to tell me that I cannot stay there and by the looks of the dark dining room there is no food either. The lady, somewhere in her 40’s told me that the kitchen is closed because of a short circuit and that foreigners are not allowed to rent a room. I show her my carnet but no magic this time… I cannot stay. And since the kitchen is closed, we can’t eat of course.
But she offers to call Miramar, a hotel nearby that offers ‘the same services’ as Casa de Visita. I think to myself that I hope they offer more service than no food and no bed… She returns from the public phone and assures me that we can eat at Miramar. About sleeping I will have to convince the reception desk myself.

So I change plans. I call a friend that we will call ‘Taxi’ from now on. I call my girlfriend and explain the change of plans. Taxi and girlfriend need some time to prepare so I prepare myself for a long wait while the sun slowly sets over the bay… I ask the manager for a drink but there is nothing to drink. So I ask for a glass (when in Cuba, always carry some rum). But she has no glass as the kitchen is closed… So I sit and wait.

Shift change. One lady of undefined age leaves and another appears. All Cuban hotels seem to be managed by slightly overweight 40 something ladies with cone-shaped legs in net stockings that are tired of years of doing nothing. This one is no exception. She’s surprised to find me in the lobby so I explain my story. ‘Show me your carnet’ she says and since that sounds more like an order than a question I comply. Her conclusion is that there is no problem. I can stay at de Casa de Visita. But there is no food since the kitchen is closed…

I change plans: I love the Casa de Visita and have seen their suite (which is nothing more than a bigger room, but it is nice and was very modern half a century ago. So we are going to eat in Miramar and sleep in Casa de Visita. I call Taxi and girlfriend to inform them of the change in plans. When I hang up my new friend arrives with a sad face. She called her boss and I have to leave… I cannot spend the night in Casa de Visita.

Taxi arrives and I call girlfriend that we are on our way to pick her up (she lives 3 miles away). She’s not ready so Taxi and I decide we go to Miramar to see if we can sleep there (girlfriend and I that means).

We arrive at Miramar what ‘see the sea’ means and it’s located at a magnificent location. About 20 above the sea on a cliff with a view that matches or even surpasses the view from Casa de Visita! That is, as long as you stay outside the hotel. The architect didn’t think it necessary to put windows on the seaside. This is a post-revolution hotel and views are not important to socialists. Life is stern.

We are welcomed by a 40something lady and I had to look carefully otherwise I would think this was the woman that sent me away the first time from the Casa de Visita. She was not but starts right away telling me that ‘yes you can eat’, pointing at a set table but ‘no you cannot stay here.’ I show my carnet and say that I’m a resident. Nope, that changes nothing…

I’m tired, hungry and frustrated by this food and bed hunt and lose my cool. Words like xenophobia, bureaucracy, fear and discrimination are mixed into my tirade. The last one attracts the attention of a big black guy in a corner, that has been listening in. He simply nods to the receptionist and everything changes. We are welcome to sleep!

So I ask Taxi to fetch my girlfriend while the receptionist and I plow through the administration. They arrive 15 minutes later and we are still filling out forms. She takes us to our room. It has a romantic Fluorescent tube, the bed is terrible and the tiles on the bathroom floor are slippery, very slippery because they are not floor tiles. There’s no water except for a bucket in the shower, no soap and of course no toilet paper. Only one worn towel and a hole in the sheets.

We have dinner in an otherwise empty hotel while the staff (3 undefined women and the cook) watches a soap in the lobby. Asking for another beer sparks a fight about who’s going to fetch it. Working ethic is different in Cuba.

We ask for a bucket of water to be heated in the kitchen and retire to our room…

The surprising end of this story is in our book ☺.

Don’t worry, this will not happen to you… Here are some things that will happen to you!

Sitting on a terrace, I ask for water.

‘Still or bubling?’ asks the waiter.

‘Still please.’

‘No hay’… (the definition of ‘No Hay’ is more subtle than we’re out of it. For explanation get our book plz.

Cuba is surrealistic. Here’s how to buy a fridge…

10 things about Cuba

Here are 10 things about Cuba your travel agent hides but you should know

1 Moneda Nacional.

Everybody, including you as a tourist, is allowed to pay for stuff in Pesos. CUC is not tourist money, it is the Cuban equivalent of hard currency. You can buy Moneda Nacional at the Cadeca where you go to change your own currency into CUC. Travel agents want you to spend your money in their controlled environment and thus often misinform their customers. Moneda Nacional can be used to buy stuff at the market, food on the streets or cafeterias and might reduce your cost for a coffee by 97%! So get some and enjoy the benefits.

2 Commission.

Everything in Cuba revolves around an informal commission system. In short: everybody that introduces a customer (you) at any place will reap a commission for that service. The friendly old man that invites you for a coffee (and then orders a Mojito) and lets you pay will receive a commission on that. The women that takes you to a restaurant… commission… the boy that shows you a casa particular… commission. The milk powder you buy for that sweet baby… Commission… By the way, milk is supplied for free until the age of 7…

Good service and advice are worth some money, but the commission system has incentives to refer you to the most expensive places, of which some have bad service and bad food/lodging/drinks etc.

The problem about this system is that not only you don’t get a very good price/quality ratio, the commission is added to your tab and you thus pay for the high prices you pay… Read up on Jineteros plz.

3 Personnel

The Cubans that work in hotels, restaurants and bars are among the richest in the country. Every hotel maid has a shop in town where she sells the soaps, shampoos and other stuff she gets from the guests. Tour operators tell you that it is customary to leave a one CUC tip per day on top of that. If you want to tip and thus help people, tip the ones not involved in the tourist industry. By the way, beggars are part of the tourism sector! (see number 6 of 10 things about Cuba your travel agent does not want you to know)

4 Wealth

Cubans don’t have a meager life and are not suppressed by the regime (the fact that we call it a regime has a negative connotation about it… we have a government don’t we?). The average Cuban has the same literacy and life expectancy as we do. A lot of basic life necessities are (almost) for free. Cubans don’t have it as bad as you are led to believe.

5 Crime

Cuba is one of the safest countries I have been (and I’ve traveled extensively)… Just watch your belongings, petty theft occurs, but relax… You are safe in Cuba. Overall Cubans are honest people but some of them need a bit of help to stay honest.

6 Beggars

Most Cubans are grateful if you give them something they otherwise cannot get. But beware, most Cubans you will meet as a novice tourist made a job out of being grateful! As said before, beggars work in the tourism sector and thus are rich… You will have a very hard time to find a beggar outside of the tourist areas!

The lovely old lady with her big cigar that let’s you take her picture for a CUC has, even to our western standards, an excellent income.

7 Salary

You are led to believe that a doctor earns 25 CUC a month and in fact that is true… But 90% of the Cuban economy is unofficial. This fact gives a total different perspective on work and salary. You and I go to work to earn money… and we think that is normal. In Cuba the perspective is the opposite. While at work you can’t make money so actually going to work is a waste of time… The average Cuban in Havana spends about 100-200 CUC a month and earns 15-20… So salary in Cuba has no effect on the standard of living! (Wrap your mind around that for a while, it will make you understand Cuba a lot better.)

8 Prices

You’ve been told that prices in Cuba are about the same as prices in Western countries. That is simply false. Basic goods (f.e. food, electricity, clothes (basic), bus fare) are a lot cheaper while luxury goods (f.e. mobile phones, air conditioning, laptops, cars) are a lot more expensive. It is very hard to compare the cost of living in Cuba to our own. Don’t try, just accept the difference and realise that our way of doing ‘economy’ is much more efficient, Cuba’s way is way more egalitarian.

9 All Cubans are friendly

NOT true. Just as in the ‘real’ world where the ‘real’ people live some people are friendly, others are not. Cuba is not a sanctuary for nice and friendly people! Most people that are nice to you by the way have a hidden agenda (see point 2 of 10 things about Cuba your travel agent does not want you to know)

10 Nothing is what it seems

Our reference frame just does not fit Cuba. Nothing is what it seems and your assessment of a situation is almost always wrong. Therefore we developed the game CubaConga. We help you getting a better insight into the real Cuban life. We are told it is funny and informative and you should read it! (we’ve been told).

Get it now and get more out of your Cuban experience! In your inbox within two minutes. It’s not just a collection of blog posts; we go one or two levels deeper in the book… On the ‘order the book page’ we have a tip for you that will save you a few hours…

Or you could read the ten most fun things you can do in Cuba

Enjoy Cuba!

Read up about renting a car before you even think about doing so!

Cuba Travel Site

We are getting famous :-). This was an actual interview!

Can you tell us about your Cuba travel site? When and why did you start it?

I wrote the basis of CubaConga 7 years ago as an alternative travel guide for friends and family that wanted to go to Cuba. I found that everything that they knew or found about Cuba was inaccurate. Ok, it is an Island…

So I wrote the book to help them enhance their Cuban experience. They were happy with it, so I decided to sell it over the internet and started www.bestcubatravelguide.com about five years ago to make it publicly available.

Why do you prefer to remain anonymous?

Everybody (except me I believe) has a political, commercial or personal agenda on the Internet when it comes to Cuba. Because I tell the truth as I see it, this might offend the Cubans although my book clearly shows my love for Cuba. I don’t want that truth to be (auto) censored just to avoid getting kicked off my favourite Island. If some colonel does not like my opinion that is a real risk.

Tell us about CubaConga. What will readers find in your ebook?

It’s a no-nonsense reality guide about life as a foreigner in Cuba. The book describes it as a game in which you can play at different levels. Hence the name CubaConga which is inspired by Donkey Kong. A game with obstacles and levels.

The book takes you by the hand and shows you Cuba under the surface.

Your tagline is “valuable tips about travelling the real Cuba” … what is the “real Cuba” and how can we find it?

The “real Cuba” is all around you all the time. The problem is that most people don’t have the eyes to see it. The trick is simply opening your eyes, and that’s the primary goal of CubaConga. If you understand what you see, you see more!

What makes Cuba a great travel destination?

Everything is entirely different from our western civilisation. Nothing is what it seems to our reference frame. That makes the whole of Cuba one big surprise. At least if you go there to really travel it, not if you want to see the Disneyfied sites that all tourists are hoarded through.

What should visitors be wary of while visiting Cuba? What’s your best
 advice on avoiding trouble?

The best advice to avoid trouble in Cuba is “Don’t go there”. You will always run into some trouble because Cuba is so different it just does not fit our brain. But be reassured, most trouble is quite harmless. Cuba is a very safe country!

How easy is it for tourists to get ripped off when visiting? How can you avoid scams?

In Cuba, the price of ignorance is rather high. I call it the ‘no clue’ tax. Avoiding scams is easy: Don’t interact with any Cuban. Lock yourself up in your room. But that’s no fun, is it? The second best way is to read my book. If you know what is coming, it is easy to anticipate. You will still get scammed a few times, but at least you know it. I recommend laughing about the few dollars they will take from you. It is the price of learning the game.

Where are some of your favourite destinations within Cuba?

I live in Havana and Holguin. Travelled the whole Island a few years ago but now just live here. I’m not a tourist anymore. But I would recommend Vinales and Trinidad for the novice Cuba traveller, and I would recommend just spending some time in any park, chatting with the locals.

Where do you like to stay when visiting?

I have my own house in Havana and a son in Holguin. I would recommend anyone to stay at a Casa Particular (that’s the Cuban B&B)

What’s been the most interesting or unique experience you’ve had visiting Cuba? A story that you find yourself telling over and over again…

I’ve got loads of stories, but two that can be put in a few sentences are:

– Talking to two students that just got out of a philosophy class I asked them which philosophers they talked about.  ‘Marx and Lenin’ they replied. Being some of an amateur philosopher myself, I can see some philosophy in Marx but ‘what kind of philosopher was Lenin?’ I asked.

‘A very practical one’ was their reply.

– The waiter asks us if we want sparkling or natural water. Sparkling replies my friend. ‘We don’t have that’ says the waiter. ‘OK, natural then.’ They did not have that either!

If you see the absurdness you will love CubaConga!

Recomended reading

Another absurd story about how to buy a fridge.