Cuba Alternative Travel guide

Welcome to the alternative travel guide to Cuba.

If you want to know which church to visit in Havana or how to get from Havana to Camaguey by bus, we refer you to the Lonely Planet. This guide is an alternative travel guide that will show you the ropes of life as a tourist in Cuba on a deeper level.

CubaConga starts where regular travel guides end… Just like Cuba starts where logic ends.

The first time we went to Cuba, we didn’t have a clue how different this country is to other tropical destinations. As seasoned travelers, we understand cultural differences, and we are aware that different does not mean “not as good as at home.” But nothing can prepare you for Cuba. Over 60 years of tropical communism has etched itself into the Cuban mentality, and we wish we had read this book before our first trip.

Difficult to understand Cuba

It takes some time to understand Cuba and this alternative travel guide offers you a shortcut. Now, 14 years later, we start to understand the Cuban mentality, but it is only a start. To quote a good friend of ours, who lives on the island since the early 90’s: ‘If you think you understand Cuba, you don’t have a clue.’

And he is right; Cuba stays a mystery. But we do claim we understand what’s going on a lot better than off that enter the country for the first or second time. We wrote this travel guide because it annoyed us to see people being ripped of by the Cuban system, making their holidays expensive and frustrating.

Cuba Conga is an alternative travel guide.

We will show you how to handle the double money standard to save money and to make your Cuban experience much more authentic. We show you the pitfalls, scams, and annoyances that are easy to avoid once you know them. We even show you how to get to know the real Cubans and how to avoid the leeches.

CubaConga-voorkant

This Cuba alternative travel guide comes with a straightforward guarantee: You don’t like it for whatever reason, we give you a full refund. We can’t imagine you don’t like it…

Apart from the tips and tricks to get more out of your stay in Cuba, we will give you a lot of ‘nice to know’ information.

As you can see I’m not a native English speaker but don’t worry, our book has been professionally edited for your reading comfort.

Our alternative travel guide will greatly enhance your Cuban experience. Cuba is an exceptional country and about half of the visitors leave very disappointedly. Let us help you to become part of the other group, which falls in love with Cuba, its people, music, lifestyle and culture!

We’ll give you a time-saving tip HERE. Just to make up for the time you’ve spent on our blog.

Recommended reading:

How to book a Casa Particular

How to buy a fridge

Cuba Customs

cuba customsCuba customs

Passing Cuban customs

Your first introduction to Cuba is the long waiting line at customs.  A whole battery of austere looking custom officials checks every passenger thoroughly.  Until he or she is satisfied the gray door to Cuba remains locked.  You have to take your glasses off, put them back on and take them off again whilst your passport picture is being studied carefully.  Take your glasses off again and take a step back to have your picture taken and get ready for the interview.  This can be an entertaining process or it might get on your nerves.  This is your first indication about your future opinion about Cuba.

havana airport
Prepare to stand in line… or get our book

My advice: See the funny side of it all.

Click here for the Cuba Aduana official site in English (if it opens). Here your fun should start: You can bring one video camera and one photo camera, both with two rolls of film. And this is the new website! When did you last use a roll of film?

The customs officer might ask you: ’Hotel in Cuba?’ Since there was an unwritten law that states that you should stay in a state run hotel for at least 1 to 3 nights (opinions on unwritten laws might vary).  The following are all correct answers: Dauville, Parque Central, Presidentes, Melia Cohiba or Inglaterra, since they are all hotels in Cuba and that was the question wasn’t it? This law was abolished in 2011 but not all customs clercks got that info.

Customs in Cuba don’t forget anything!

Returning visitors are asked how often they were in Cuba before.  Please give the correct answer, they have your whole file on the screen and being one trip off might not speed up the process… In Cuba customs are very meticulous…

After the customs officer is satisfied with your answers, checks your passport once again and is convinced that your health insurance is valid the door gets unlocked with a sharp ‘click’.  You are free to enter the country… Almost that is.

100 % luggage scans

Your hand luggage is scanned, all of it…

Your suitcases are getting the same treatment behind the scenes.  You are not allowed to import Toasters, waffle irons and all other electricity intensive appliances due to Cuba’s frail energy net.  The same restrictions apply to GPS (don’t worry your Smartphone is no problem), more than one laptop or satellite equipment.  If you were planning to take any kind of drugs with you… don’t.  The same goes for porn (and yes, a Playboy is considered porn. Cubans don’t care for the interviews, they don’t read English).

Tip for frequent visitors

If there is anything suspicious in your luggage, customs makes a mark on your label. Save the ‘clean’ label from your last trip, go to the toilet (no cameras there) and change the labels. As you know the customs officers look at the labels and now you have a clean bill of health on your suitcase.

If I were you I would leave your weapons and bulletproof vest at home too.  The general rule here is that importing strange goods, can lead to strange questions by customs, which in turn generate strange effects which might not be pleasant and in extreme cases even could lead to an alternative holiday accommodations called ‘jail’. And believe us, you will not like the buffet there. So be nice to the Cuba customs!

Prescription medecine is no problem. As a rule of thumb: Normal tourist luggage is never a problem.

Fun Fact

The skirts of the female custom officers are short… very short… They are not designed that way, they have them shortned by a tailor!

No Trade passes Cuban Customs

Everything that could be considered as ‘trading goods’ is forbidden and you risk confiscation or a hefty fine.  Customs are very flexible with tourists, but do not go looking for the limits of this flexibility.  I never take more than 5 mobile phones, carefully distributed over my pocket, hand luggage and suitcases.  As soon as you’ve got more than 40 pieces of something it is considered commercial. And you do not want to be a considered a merchant! Even if you don’t plan to sell anything but just want to give stuff away to poor Cubans… In that case read this: Think before you gift.

Like this information? Check out our book! There is lots more! On the ‘get the eBook page‘ we’ll give you a tip that will save you about 2 hours at the airport after you’ve passed customs.

We even give you the mailadress (and the how to) of Havana VIP reception. They speed you through customs in no time!

Recomended reading:

Getting more Cuba out of your money

Don’t avoid the Jineteros

Rent a bike to discover Cuba

Last update July 2019

Black market

The best market in Cuba is black

About 90% of the Cuban economy is unofficial. Official channels have a very limited offer on their shelves, the black market provides almost everything. This leads to an interesting error of judgment most tourists make. We think when we hear that the average salary is about 20 $ and something costs 10 $ that the average Cuban will have to work 15 days to buy it. Sounds logical, doesn’t it?

Well, thanks to the black market (la bolsa negra), things do not add up that way.

How to survive in Cuba

Our logic dictates that we go to work to earn money. That’s not the case in Cuba.

To live, Cubans in Havana need about 150-200 $ a month (outside Havana half that amount). If your salary is 15 and you need 200… you have to make some money on the side… The money you make “on the side” is your main income.

Black eggs
Black eggs

Every Cuban is forced to be active on the black market somehow. And they all are. This renders the “official salary” a useless way of measuring prices and spendable income. Real incomes are higher than you are told, and real prices are lower than you think.

Thanks to the black market in Cuba, people can survive, make money, buy goods and since this is not in the official statistics, we make a very wrong estimation of the real situation.

Not poor

Too manny people believe that the Cubans are poor and helpless… They are not! Rich Cubans exist. Poor Cubans too. Another myth is that all Cubans live of foreigners. Not true either, Cuban has it’s hidden economy and market.

Find the black market

For a tourist, this black market is sometimes hard to find. Yes, taking an illegal taxi is easy, but finding an iPad or a fish tank will be very hard for you… Cubans are always on the lookout for contacts that can supply them stuff or that can become customers for the stuff they happen to sell. Their networks are very efficient, and that makes for a very effective black market. To complicate things, not everything on the ‘informal’ market is black :-).

Read more about the stunning paradoxes that rule Cuba in our book… On this page we’ll give you a tip that will save you a few hours in Cuba.

Last updated July 2018

Recommended Reading:

Everybody operating la bolsa negra is a jinetero

Better not rent a Car

Casa Particular Cuba

Casa Particular in Cuba

A casa particular is the official Bed and Breakfast in Cuba. They are often referred to as ‘sleeping in the houses of real Cubans’. This is a euphemism. Most owners of the Casas are social upper-class, party members and relatively rich. The real Cuban cleans and cooks at your Casa Particular for 2 or 3 CUC a day.

Things change quickly in Cuba… there is a newer post about how to book a Casa Particular here

The word “casa particular” means ‘private or lonely house’… that’s why most of them are in buildings and crowded areas… :-). Bring ear plugs, Cuba has a wall of back ground noice.

The real Cuban houses

If you want to know how real Cubans live, get yourself invited to a meal at the home of the cleaning lady at your casa. Be discreet; Casa owners do not like their personnel to mingle with tourists. So that you know, the owner of your Casa Particular is NOT a typical Cuban.
Still the Casas are by far the best way to get to know the country. I would prefer a Casa Particular above a hotel anytime. Better service, better food, better beds (most of the time), friendlier people and more freedom.
You can recognise an official Casa by this sign.

Casa-Particular-Divisa

It has to be blue. The red signs indicate that’s a Casa Particular for Cubans only, mostly rented by the hour.

Pitfalls

Staying in a Casa Particular has some pitfalls too. That’s why you should read our book. We help you travel Cuba the smart way and will not only save you a lot of money, we will give you insights about the country, and it’s people that are off the record and (sometimes) politically incorrect but true.
You can either pre-book your Casa over the internet or find yourself one on the spot. Here is a site with many Casa’s. Finding a Casa Particular is no problem. I never pre-book and always get a good deal because I understand the game… You might too if you go through the trouble of reading our book.

Best option

Still, the Casa particular is by far the best way to get to know the Cuba. We help you understand the way this works and explain what you can negotiate and what not.
You must understand that the Casas are heavily taxed and thus seem very expensive if you compare their prices to the monthly pay a Cuban receives. But they are only taxed on the rooms they rent, not on the food they serve you.
We have a whole chapter of tips and advice how to handle the pitfalls you can encounter in your Casa. Please read it to prepare your stay. You can start by reading part of our book on this site.
To download the whole book, you must compensate our troubles with a few Euros  :-).

On the ‘order the book’ page we’ll give you a tip that will save you a few hours…

Cuba Cheap

How to make Cuba Cheap

Here are a few tricks to make Cuba cheap, although it will never become as cheap as Asia.

Buy food at the market and preparing your meals will bring down prices of feeding yourself by 80%.

Cuba cheap
Buy your food at the market

Eat in MN restaurants and cafeterias. A meal for 1.50!

Buy big 5 litre bottles of water and fill up your little bottle. Or just get your water from the tap. Filter first.

Be a student and take your student card with you. Age does not matter

Buy, rent or borrow a bike, walk or take the bus/fixed route taxi.

Negotiate a lot and about everything. That does not make you cheap; they will respect you for it.

Spent a few days at a Campismo, they are very cheap

Never arrive somewhere with a Cuban by your side.

Ignore everybody that starts talking to you on the street.

Don’t make (too manny)  Cuban friends.

Speak Spanish. Nothing drives up prices more than the inability to communicate.

Know what you owe and count your change.

Eat 5 pesos pizza (once).CubanPizza

Book your Casa beforehand, using the Internet. Or read this.

Stay away from the tourist areas.

Don’t believe anything anybody tells you.

Use MN whenever you can.

It can be fun to be cheap

Not all of these tips will enhance the fun you have, but they all bring your budget down.  Other ways make Cuba cheap and preserve the quality of your holiday: For those tips we refer to our book, which is cheap too, compared to the savings it will bring.

Your Spanish is better than you think!

Nothing raises prices more than the inability to communicate. Learn some Spanish!

You know more Spanish than you think.   Almost all words that have more than three syllables in English are derived from Latin and have the same meaning in Spanish.   Just pronounce: reservation, communication, vocabulary, direction, investigation or permission with a Spanish accent and you will be understood.

An exception would be ‘introduction’ (‘exception’ itself is no exception by the way), if you ask to be introduced to someone, you are asking if you could put part of yourself into the other person.    In Spanish, you present yourself

You see, your Spanish is already a lot better than you think.

During the next part, I will put the Spanish word between brackets just to show you how good your Spanish already is. (to read that part.. you have to buy the book 🙂 though… Sorry…)

Save money, buy our book

No matter how hard you try, Cuba will never become cheap as long as you are not a Cuban. So the best tip to make Cuba cheap… become a Cuban… :-)… the second best tip is to read our book. We’ll give you a time-saving tip on this page

You might want to understand the double currency system too. (spoiler alert: there is non)

Trinidad

Must see Trinidad

Last update May 2018
Trinidad Cuba
Trinidad

Although it’s one of the most touristic towns in Cuba, Trinidad is a must see!

Every day the tour buses arrive to spit out the tourist from the all-inclusive resorts.

Trinidad after 5

They walk around all day and are off again to their hotels around 5. That’s where the town gets interesting. With the hordes of white legs & sandals gone, it becomes once again the lively colonial town it once was with a hand full of travelers added to it. Music fills the square, and soon people begin to dance. The locals mingle with the remaining tourists, and everybody has fun in a relaxed atmosphere.

Trinidad is not Cuba

Trinidad is without question one of the most beautiful places in Cuba. I would recommend staying for a few days, spent the days away from the town (loads of things to see and to do in the environment) or at the beach. Make sure your back after the buses leave, and you will have a very good time. However, it has not much to do with Cuba. It’s a showcase; it’s a museum and a tourist trap. (Depending on your perspective.)

Jineteros

Because Trinidad is full of tourists… it’s full of Jineteros. The CubaConga way of dealing with Jineteros is very efficient here!

Trinidad at night
Trinidad at night

A warning for the ladies: The good-looking black man with the white hat falls in love every night… It is not you; it is his ‘job’…

Night life continues in La Cueva, a discotheque in a cave.  I love it!

Book yourself a Casa Particular ahead. Most of them are lovely colonial houses in their original state. They are all professional B&Bs with good food and excellent service.

Insider Tip

Go and eat at Julia’s in La Boca if you want a real Cuban experience… Just hop in a taxi and tell him ‘Julia’s La Boca. Por Favor.’

Prepare your trip to Cuba, please. Get our eBook! There is a time-saving tip on the order page… it’s for free 🙂 (the tip, not the book).

Recommended reading:

Drink water (and this is how in case of shortage)

How to make a budget

 

Cuba Cheaper

Cuba is not cheap, but you can make it cheaper.

Updated July 2018

To discover Cuba cheaply is quite impossible… You can go to Cuba cheap, but then you do not discover it. The cheap way to go to Cuba, without actually getting to know it, is to take an all-inclusive holiday package, which will get you to the working man’s paradise but you will be in a hotel where only the bad quality and lousy service will give you an impression of the real Cuba.

Cheap to Cuba
Cheap but not Cuba

Real Cuba

We can, however, help you to discover the real Cuba cheap(ish) by helping you to avoid al the scams, show you the ropes of the Cuban way of negotiation and give you an overall impression about how cheap things can get if you know more about the mechanisms of the market.

Moneda Nacional

You can, and must, use the two currencies. The more you use Moneda Nacional, the cheaper Cuba becomes. The two different currencies are only different in name. Here we explain why there is no double currency in Cuba.

No Clue Tax

In Cuba, nothing is what it seems… You should wrap your mind around that statement to get a clue. It’s expensive not to understand how things work. The no-clue tax in Cuba can be very high. Please get a clue!

Our whole book is about how to manage this complicated country. The less you know, the more expensive Cuba is. Although it will never become really cheap, we can cut your budget in half. It will cost you a tenner, but the rewards will be great!

Not only will Cuba become quiet cheap if you know where to look for what and what to avoid, but it will also become a lot more fun and a lot less frustrating.

So if you plan to discover Cuba cheap… read our book, please! On the get a clue page we’ll give you a tip that will save you a few hours…

Like Francisco said: “This book is like walking the street with a knowledgeable friend that shows you the ropes, how to discover Cuba cheaper and find the interesting stuff!

Recommended reading:

How to handle Jineteros.

What about money?