Cuba is pretty cool. It’s a place that’s still riding the high of a socialist revolution won over 50 years ago. Largely untouched by the resorts so commonplace to such a tropical paradise, it’s easily a Caribbean gem. If you want to go (and you absolutely should!) there’s a few things you should know:
Cuba has two currencies.
Cuban Peso (CUP)
The Cuban Peso is the currency that Cubans use. They get paid in CUP and they pay in CUP.
Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC)
The Cuban Convertible Peso is the currency used by tourists. It is worth 24 Cuban Pesos and has the same exact exchange rate as the US dollar to Cuban Pesos.
At first glance, it looked like a very unjust system for the Cubans. Why should they have to use devalued currency when visitors could use cash that was worth much more? However, after some quick lessons from our hostel’s very own bartender/biology teacher (seriously), it quickly became clear that this was a benefit to the Cuban people. Here’s how:
Cubans make an average of 700 CUP per month. Their education and health care is free, and basic entertainment, such as going to the movies, costs about 4 CUP for Cuban citizens. Not bad, eh?
On the other hand, tourists pay about 5 CUC (120 CUP) for a taxi ride across town. Cheap for us and a massive pay bump to the average Cuban citizen’s monthly income, no? Of course, this doesn’t take into account the massive amount of taxes the communist government takes from its citizens. But that’s another story…
Side note: most Cubans we spoke to referred to their economic system as socialist, not communist. And, Cuba had been making great strides in moving more towards socialism, such as allowing citizens to own their own businesses.
How to find the cheapest food.
Usually when you want to find cheap food in another country, you seek the street food. In Cuba, this is no different. But, if you don’t want to eat pizza and pasta all the time (yes, this is actually the street food in Cuba!) then your best option is to find a restaurant that only offers their prices in CUP.
I’m not recommending that you convert all your money to CUP, because that’s a quick way to get ripped off. However, if you find a restaurant that only lists their prices in CUP, than you’re in for a real deal.
After a tip from a fellow hostel-dweller, my boyfriend, a Canadian traveler, and myself went in search of a CUP-only menu. Since we only had CUC on us, we asked the owner how much the meal would cost in CUC. The end result was three amazing and enormous bowls of rice, meat, and veggies, and three cans of soda for 9 CUC total (or $3 US for each of us).
Compare this to a similar meal at our CUC-priced hostel restaurant. An average meal plus drink would cost about 6 CUC. Still cheap, but twice as much!
Spend all your money!
You can’t exchange Cuban currency anywhere else in the world, so if you can, plan on bringing just enough to get you through your trip and spend it all.
Rum is easy to find, but water is not.
Rum is one of the cheapest things in Cuba, and there is no lack of it. You can find it in almost any corner store for about 2 CUC for a bottle.
But, one of the strangest thing about Cuba is the lack of water. On one particular occasion, it took my boyfriend and I about 15 inquiries at different shops and markets to find a small bottle of water. And wandering around Havana in the unrelenting heat without water is not something you want to do.
When we did finally find water, it was like conducting a drug deal. (Hey, we got the money, you got the water??) A man heard our inquiry at a market and sent a kid on a short trek down the street to produce one miniature bottle of water.
The best thing to do is get water at the place you’re staying. We were fortunate enough to stay at a hostel in Havana that normally had enough water to go around. On that particular day we were out of luck, and many other travelers told us their stories about water scarcity.
Basically, get your water when and where you can and make sure you have plenty of water while walking around humid Havana.
Cuba basically has their own version of AirBnb. With internet being far and few between, the Cubans created their own home stay network. Basically, any hostel owner, any taxi driver, and any home owner knows someone who rents out rooms to tourists. If you ask, they’ll give that person a ring, and viola! You have your very own authentic Cuban home stay experience.
We stayed at a Casa Particulare in Valle de Vinales, and the experience was unforgettable to say the least. Think: a companionable elderly couple who make the most amazing mojitos, and a night spent watching the sun set over the green mountains from the casa’s rooftop.
The one thing about Casas is that they’re generally more pricey than hostels. Ours was 20 CUC per night. But it came with broken Spanish conversations, a familial concern over a rather painful canker sore I had, astrological advice, and home remedies. And that, friends, is priceless. Oh, and air conditioning. Did I mention that Cuba has air conditioning?
Nowadays, you would be hard-pressed to find a place in the world that does not have basic internet access… unless of course you go to Cuba.
But do not fear! It does exist. A new innovation in Cuba is internet parks… literally. You can find parks in Cuba where someone will sell you an internet card. You can buy a card for 3 CUC that will buy you an hour of catching up with friends and family, perusing world news, and posting your jealousy-inducing Cuba photos.