Taking a trip to Cuba before it gets completely devoured by tourism? After a little stint in bustling Havana, this is what I found out…
You won’t get the Cuban exchange rate the web tells you
The Cuban currency is a closed one, meaning you can’t buy it outside of Cuba, and you need to get rid f it before you leave. This gives the Cubans a lot more power over what rate you get. The web told me I’d get 1.24 CUC to the pound. The airport gave me 1.19. There was nothing I could do but accept it to get my transport into the city. I was also told exchanging money would be a breeze, with most casas helping you to do so. I didn’t find this to be the case. The big hotels will change for only their guest, and changing in the city means a lot of queuing at banks or exchange points with everyone else doing the same thing.
Havana and veganism hasn’t happened yet
I’m veggie/vegan for animal ethical reasons. Cuba is still sorting it’s people ethics. Chickens are not high on their agenda. Vegetarianism was manageable to some degree, healthy vegan eating was tough.
Eating out of a new Havana hole in the wall is your cheapest option
Despite its poverty, Cuba is not cheap (unless you know how). If you’re on a tight budget, head to the edge of Old Havana (where it meets New Havana). Lots of Cuban families run small ‘hole in the wall’ (literally) ventures, specialising in a few foods (pizzas, sandwiches, cakes etc). They’ll charge you in CUP (the local currency), and you’ll get food for peanuts.
Tourist breakfast sucks
Even high touristy looking restaurants in the main tourist street will present you with a couple of ropey slices of bread, some sweaty margarine and a couple of bits of tomato with coffee (on ordering the ‘continental breakfast’). You’ll pay around 3.5 CUC’s for the pleasure. Your 5 CUC Casa breakfast might sound expensive, but it’ll more likely be much more robust. Alternatively, there’s a wonderful patisserie on the main road next to Hotel Park Central, serving coffees, croissants and fresh breeds for around 1 CUC.
In Cuba, you are a walking atm
You’ve flown in on your big aeroplane and made a big deal about hunting for wifi. It doesn’t matter how tight a budget you’re on, you’re still doing ok for yourself. Expect to pay more than the Havana locals (despite your efforts to immerse yourself ref: hole in the wall). Keep an eye on them giving you your change. I met a few people who’d been handed back local CUP instead of CUC; in the hopes that they wouldn’t notice.
Internet in Cuba is not a thing
I was off the grid for four days.. and here I am….ALIVE! I had been told Internet was sparse, but sparse doesn’t really cover it. Havana casas don’t have it, restaurants don’t have it, big public buildings don’t have it. You get the idea. The only way (it seemed) to get internet in Cuba, was to purchase a wifi card (you can get them at the airport). You can use these at certain points in the city (the big hostels carry the signal, and you’ll see the locals in certain parks). My suggestion… have a detox.
Book your Casa in advance
Ref: no internet. These private homes are maybe picking up booking request once or twice a week, and everyone is contacting the top rated ones on trip advisor. We tried almost 20 different casas before one accepted our booking, even when using accommodation websites like booking.com
You’ll feel safe, even alone at night
I flew in from Cuba from Mexico City, leaving my jewellery and valuables in Mexico on the pretence that they’d be safer there. My thinking was that, if the country is poor, I’m more likely to be robbed. My theory was wrong. Cuba is actually deemed relatively safe for solo tourists (I definitely felt safer walking alone at night there than Mexico!). We even sat down late one night, in the pitch black, to play dominoes with a group of men!! My jewellery, it seems, would have been just fine.
Travel writer, marketing adviser and blogger based in Edinburgh, with a focus on budget and vegan travel. 39 countries to date, with extensive knowledge of travel within Asia, particularly within Thailand.
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